Show up, work hard, and listen


One of my clients (first time CEO, first startup) went bust recently and I've been doing a private post-mortem on the reasons why. When I first met (name redacted), he was the very model of potential success, but things slowly devolved to the point where I could see he was going nowhere.

In our meetings, he took copious notes, and I was fascinated by how painfully detailed he was with these notes, which unfortunately interrupted the flow of our meetings. Although I suggested several times that he could simply record the audio of our meetings and take notes later if he wanted, and that it would give him more value for our time together, he ignored that advice and slowly, painfully, kept with the detailed notes on paper. I let it go, deciding to focus more on his results rather than the process. I should have seen it as a sign of things to come.

The results were never there. It was truly frustrating to watch him take no action on the items we discussed, but even worse was his penchant for taking action on major shifts in his strategy without ever discussing these things with his advisor. 

The results were predictable. He spent way more money than he should have, and he spent it on the wrong things. This put him into cash crunch mode all too often, taking focus away from executing. He never developed his story, value proposition, or product/market fit, didn't expand his fundraising efforts beyond one source who eventually, as predicted, dried up when there was no progress. He lost focus on his main product and spent valuable time developing a only slightly related business line that was completely undifferentiated, pivoted his main product into something much less unique in the urgent search for sales, and completely missed what the market was saying to his sales efforts (crickets: not a compelling business model), then pivoted again into a business model that would take much, much more capital to execute at a time when he had no capital left. All of this without discussing these moves with his advisor. These are just a few of his mis-steps. Too many to list here. Seriously, WTF? 

I took pains to repeat key suggestions, but it was if he was completely deaf. 

I kept holding out hope that he would turn it around. Eventually, he decided to make the ultimate pivot: pull the plug.

The bottom line is that he just didn't take action on the basics of what he needed to do. Success happens in the startup world only by taking action, quickly. If the action proves to be wrong, then take action again, fast.

"Fear is the disease, Action is the antidote."  His problem was that his actions were the wrong ones, and he didn't take action on the most basic of recommendations. He built no foundation for success.

This morning's email from James Clear seemed to speak to the issue. He discusses a famous coach's essential elements of success, albeit for athletes rather than CEOs, but the concept is the same. See if you agree:

Tim Grover was the athletic trainer used by Michael Jordan (and many elite NBA players). Here he is describing the three things he asks of every player:

"I don't care how much you can lift, how fast you can run, how many pull-ups you can do, or whether you can hit a three while blindfolded. There are only three things I ask of every client... Show up, work hard, and listen. That's it. It requires no talent, no special genetics, or any skill whatsoever to show up, work hard, and listen."

He adds:

"When I train my athletes, it's a dictatorship with three rules: show up, work hard, and listen. If you can do those three things, I can help you. If you can't we have no use for each other. I will bust my ass for you every way possible, but I expect you to do the same for yourself. I'm not going to work harder than you do for your benefit. Show me you want it, and I'll give it to you.”   Source: Relentless by Tim Grover


My ex-client continues in his delusions while he is going through the pain of dealing with the devolution of his startup. We all learn in different ways. Some can learn from the experience of others (advisors), and some have to learn the hard way, from their own experiences. 

I'm reminded of that old saying "There are none so blind as those who will not see. The most deluded people are those who choose to ignore what they already know."  This is the dreaded "Knowing - Doing Gap" that has been discussed. Hopefully, he will learn how to learn in his next adventure. That is the only silver lining in this dark cloud.   

What could I have done differently? I should have given him fair warning, earlier, that he was going to fail, and that he would be fired as a client if he continued on his path of inaction on key points, and for making major strategy shifts without discussion and planning. My learning experience here is that I was too optimistic and supportive. I hate to give up and fire a client. It won't happen again. I must realize that if I can not inspire taking the right actions, then they should find another advisor whose advice they will follow. Life is too short to spend on those who do not "Show up, work hard, and listen."

The good news is that now there's a spot in my calendar for a client who will show up, sincerely wants to learn, and is absolutely dedicated to taking action.