Like NFL Coaches, CEO’s Must Make Tough Decisions. Period.

I recently had a conversation with a fellow CEO dealing with a personnel issue on his team.  The issue at hand is not as important as the fact that the CEO had been putting off the decision for some time.  He seemed to be second-guessing himself and not trusting his gut.  He felt the specific individual in question, who had been with the young company for about a year, was “just not a good fit” and the CEO was having some challenges with the individual, saying things like  “there’s always some issue with him every time we meet…”

My feedback oriented around the fact that being CEO meant being a leader.  And in being leaders we have to be strong enough to make tough decisions, to do what is in the best interest for the long-term health of the company first, and only secondly what is best for any one individual on the team.

This is not an easy thing to do.

A CEO must protect their organization, especially from itself.  It is up to the CEO – and all executive management as the organization grows larger – to place and remove individuals as they see fit.  Most importantly a leader must be able to determine if an individual is adding more value to the organization than it is taking away.  If not, that person must be removed or placed in a more appropriate role immediately.  This includes the CEO himself when he is skirting from his responsibilities.

In this specific instance, the CEO felt the individual in question was a net negative on the team and was a growing concern, even starting to split the team during meetings, discussions, etc…  He was obviously very concerned.

Most decisions a CEO will face won’t feel good or be easy to make.  It gets even more difficult when we involve highly talented individuals.  Sometimes it might seem counterintuitive to actually remove a highly talented individual from a team, yet if the value they bring to the table is being overshadowed by the value they are taking away (or could potentially take away) with their detrimental behavior, something must be done.  That or the entire team will fall as a result.

It’s the leader’s responsibility to make these decisions before its too late.  This is why I argue it is never too early for a startup to have a CEO/Leader in place.

I dovetailed the conversation a bit to illustrate my point.  Just last week the Seattle Seahawks (I live in Seattle and I’m finally proud to be a fan again) played the Washington Redskins in the NFC wild card playoff game.

RG3If you were watching the game you know exactly what happened. And a crystal clear lesson in leadership played out in front of the entire country on national television.   I sure hope others took note.

Robert Griffin III (or RG3 as many know him) won the Heisman trophy last year with Baylor and was drafted 2nd overall by the Washington Redskins and is believed to be their franchise quarterback for many years to come.  They signed him to a 4-year, $21 million salary with the entire deal guaranteed, meaning he gets ALL $21 million no matter if he plays or not.  Obviously, this is a huge investment for the Redskins.  You would think they would have treated him as such during his first season with the club.

RG3 strained a ligament in his knee on Dec 9th and sat out a few games but came back early to play the last game of the season and the playoff game against the Seahawks.   During the playoff game, it was quite obvious RG3 was not 100% and his leg was definitely in pain.  He was “playing hurt, not injured” as they say.

What happened next was all things fascinating (from a leadership perspective), lucky (for us Seahawks fans) and excruciating (as I feel bad for Griffin) to watch.

Early in the game Sunday RG3 tweaked his right hurt knee again, to the point of limping, wincing and running with an impaired gait.  It was obvious he was injured and should not have continued playing.  Even the announcers were wondering when the Redskins will pull him out for the betterment of his health.  Numerous times, the television cameras showed RG with assistance from trainers and medical personnel, walking into a “small room” for who knows what, but my guess is examination and possibly a cortisone shot (pain reliever) so he could drag himself back onto the playing field to continue playing.

And that he did.  According to sources, it was his decision and he absolutely wanted to play the rest of the game even though he was a shell of his previous self.

OF COURSE THE YOUNG STAR WANTED TO PLAY. Anyone high performance individual is going to want to continue, especially when we are down or struggling.  We all want to prove we can overcome obstacles and be champions in the face of adversity.

So what happened next?

As the game continued, the Seahawks eventually took the lead. It was then, as the Redskins were doing all they could to win, RG3 awkwardly bent down to grab a bad snap only to fatally injure his knee; looking as to have seriously torn some ligaments in the process.  Injuring a previously weakened knee on a play where no one touches you, referred to as non-contact, is an obvious sign you shouldn’t have been playing.

RG3 went down, and the future of the franchise lay on the ground to the disappointment of the silent stadium full of Redskins fans.  Although the injury is not career threatening at this point, it’s arguable if RG3 will actually be able to play at the level he was before the injury.

So whose fault is it?

Not RG3’s.  The problem is the person involved is not thinking clearly or wisely at the moment.  They are focused on themselves, considering only the moment and the short term, not the long term.  They do not understand the long-term ramifications of their actions.  Even though RG3 said he could still play the responsibility to make the right decision ultimately falls on the coach, the leader of the team.  He should be realistic enough to make the right decision.

In the case of RG3, his head coach and somewhat the CEO of the organization, Mike Shanahan, is the person who should have been thinking about the long-term consequences of what was transpiring in front of him.  But for some reason he wasn’t thinking clearly either, perhaps wanting to roll the dice and gamble to win the game. His prize procession, the guy they gave up so much to draft and the one they touted as the future of the organization – their $21 million investment – placed himself directly in front of a Mack truck and no one did anything to stop him.

What’s the point of having leaders if they are not looking out for their team?

It’s easy to understand why Shanahan chose to leave RG3 in the game, he’s a good player when healthy.  It was reported he repeatedly told his coach he could play.  He said “I’m hurt, not injured”.  RG3, being a rookie, could be passed for naïve and maybe didn’t fully understand his actions had such drastic consequences.

But Shanahan, a veteran coach and the leader of the organization, should have known this and put his fist down.  It is his responsibility to make the tough decisions and do what is right for the entire team.  The truth is his lack of judgment in the heat of competition has not only cost the Washington Redskins a playoff win, it jeopardized the future of the organization since the resulting knee injury will lead to months of recovery time and RG3’s promising future now looks a bit more unclear.

Like it or not, the fault always goes to the leader.

To win one playoff game (short term) Shanahan could possibly have just given up the entire next season (long term) with his gamble.  But more importantly, Shanahan’s lack of leadership has now altered the life of one of the most promising young athletes to enter the NFL in a long time.  There is a strong possibility RG3 will never be able to perform at the level he was previously, in the end maybe even costing him millions of dollars and lost opportunities.

All because he did not have the courage to grab Robert Griffin III by the shoulder pads and say, “Robert, you are finished for the season.  I want to protect you for the long term so rest the knee and start preparing for next year and going back to the playoffs.”

Leaders must have the courage to do what is right not only for the organization but each individual within it, even if it’s the most difficult thing they have ever done.

I asked my fellow CEO if he thought Coach Shanahan would like to have that game back and possibly make a different decision?  We both agreed and believe he would.

As for his situation, I told him he needs to let the individual go, as soon as possible if he wants the rest of his team to stay intact.  I told him the responsibility of his organization rests on his shoulders and he should strongly consider what happens if he doesn’t make this tough decision.  “Everyone else on the team is watching how you handle this situation”, I told him.  I also suggested he owes it to the individual to be upfront and honest so they know what is happening as well as to free them up to go pursue their goals as soon as possible.

CEO’s must protect their organizations, the people within them as well as themselves by making tough decisions.   Problems are solved by tackling them head on, not by running away from them.

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It’s Not If (But When) Your Startup Slides Sideways You’ll Find Your True Potential

Boy has it been a challenging couple of months.  The title of the post might be a bit misleading, suggesting my company is indeed going nowhere fast.  This is a wrong assumption.  It’s definitely going somewhere, we are growing 50% month over month and just posted record numbers again, but just as a car can slip and slide when it hits a patch of black ice so can a young startup.

It’s not if (but when) the sliding occurs the true leader will emerge.  Let me just tell you what happens in a typical startup.

A. People sit around and think about cool new ideas

B. Those people start prototyping and building a product

C. Once they realize they want to jump into this more intently, they find a few more people and form a team

D. At some point the group formally incorporates and makes the company official

E.  The people associated are listed as founders and as such, receive incentive to stick around via stock

F.  (Most founders) think they are the next Facebook and think their product will magically spread virally to millions of people

G. Then it doesn’t

H.  Then shit hits the fan and everyone finds out it’s actually tough to grow a business

I.  Only then will you finally find out what people are made of.

J.  Only then, when it’s actually work and things don’t come as easy, the pretenders will leave

K.  And only at this time the leader will emerge and help the company find it’s true path

Look, life is tough.  Things don’t always work out as planned.  But does that mean you just up and quit, to simply move on to the next thing that you think might magically make your dreams come true?

I don’t believe so.  I believe it takes Blood, Sweat, and Tears for anything materially positive and truly great to be created.  This has always been true but it’s even more so today.  Why?  Because it’s too damn easy to build a product and start a company today.   There has to be a distinction between the minor leagues and the major leagues; jumping straight to the majors just doesn’t happen often enough to be a believable story for your life.

What’s the minor leagues?  Hacking, dinking around and building crazy products.

What’s the major leagues?  Building a business and an organization around the product which adds value to our world.

If you ever wonder who’s the leader in a group, just light a bomb (figuratively) and throw it directly into the center of the team. Watch someone run and they are the weak link.  They are not the leader.  Whoever stays has leadership qualities within them.  And whoever stands up, starts taking hold of the situation and determines the path forward – well they are the true leader.

It’s funny, when everything is great and everyone’s slapping backs and high-fiving there’s almost no need for leaders.  Everything seems to move forward with little direction or effort.  But just wait till something happens.  Leaders find their calling and establish their potential when things start going sideways.

I think it’s amazing that leaders emerge during crisis.  I also think it’s fitting and believe it’s how the world should work.

But please do yourselves and your co-founders a favor next time you want to start a company.  Look each other in the eye and ask yourselves what kind of player you are?  Minor or major?  Weak link or leader type?  It will save quite a bit of time and grief on the others.

@jnickhughes