The Case Against Overnight Success

Photo by Jacob Kiesow on Unsplash

Realized I was not the smartest guy in the room, but I could outwork most of my peers.

In my 20’s… I could not book a second interview with any of the premiere (or even second tier) consulting firms or investment banks, so I fell into marketing research (“data science”); turned out to be an amazing toolbox for a recent college grad. I still consider it foundational to how I approach business. Worked for some amazing women; my father would remark around that time that “women are the best bosses,” and he was right. Realized I was not the smartest guy in the room, but I could outwork most of my peers. Said “yes” to every opportunity and built a reputation for taking on challenging projects. Learned that the leaders I admired most came up through “the field,” worked in tough markets, merchandised stores on weekends, built authentic relationships with customers, earned the respect and loyalty of their teams — and never missed a “last call” or a 6 am sales meeting. I wanted to be just like them. So that’s what I did.

Moved overseas; it’s the career decision I rank highest in overall impact.

In my 30’s… I discovered that I loved building (departments, teams, strategies, processes…), and was shocked that most people did not, so I decided to develop it into a superpower. Realized the importance of mentors — and that leadership and effective communication are learned skills, so I watched, studied, practiced, and improved. Moved overseas; it’s the career decision I rank the highest in overall impact. Even if I did not feel or look particularly “American” I learned that in an international community your identity is closely associated with your home country; being a good ambassador is important. I had a front row seat to 5 major acquisitions in less than a decade at AB-InBev and while that experience was thrilling it was also a very important lesson in change management. It also became clear that cultural alignment was critical, often more important than the “the work;” faking it was impossible. Was on the cutting edge of applying data science, analytics, and technology to sales management. Became schooled in the power of gross margin as a leading indicator of strong businesses. Learned to appreciate deeply the importance of a killer partner (in my case, my wife Jamie) who is always game for “what’s next?” and that work/life balance with a full-on career and three kids is important but different for everyone.

I learned that most people who say they have “managed a P&L” are usually lying and that cash flow is the most important financial metric.

In my 40’s… I yearned for more entrepreneurial experiences — more risk, less guardrails. Realized I needed to change industries to get the job that I wanted; I recommend exploring different industries (I’ve switched 4 times) as long as you can continue to apply your superpowers. Moved abroad again; built a multinational business and a multicultural team; the diversity of our team was a key driver of our success. Learned the importance of developing a framework for decision making in the face of crisis, ambiguity, market pressures, and competitive activity. The ability course correct is critical. Realized that acquiring a business is the easiest part; integration and sustaining growth post acquisition is not. Allowing an acquired business latitude to operate autonomously and maintain their entrepreneurial DNA (but with more tools and investment) always leads to better outcomes. Also, spend the extra time and money on diligence and learn to walk away. Running a high performing global business remotely is possible (I’ve done it for 10 years), but it requires being in the markets where the action is. Traveling 200+ days a year was my target (=80% travel). I learned PowerPoint and email are necessary evils but to be brief — and that “pre-reads” are unfortunately rarely read but should always be sent — and read. Take a shot at Private Equity if given the opportunity but be prepared to have skin in the game (your own cash); make sure your Board is aligned and can add value. Founder-led businesses can be tricky, so learn how to blend the past with your vision of the future. Prepare to raise capital; raise 2x what your model says you need. I learned that most people who say they have “managed a P&L” are usually lying and that cash flow is the most important financial metric.

A “pivot” is just another name for fixing a part of your business that probably needed work eventually anyway.

Today… Leading through a once-in-a-generation crisis like COVID has been a true test in reliance and grit but to focus on what you can control; keep your team and your customers close. A “pivot” is just another name for fixing a part of your business that probably needed work eventually anyway. I love working with entrepreneurs, but that can happen in any sized company. Admit (somewhat begrudgingly) that many high performers read, journal, and mediate, but there are many different approaches to each. If you join a Board or volunteer (really anything outside of work or family) do it because you are aligned with the mission. Always stay curious and keep learning but develop principles for deciding how to spend your most valuable resource…your time. Kick ass. Repeat.

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