Best Advice I Ever Got: Be Maniacal About Just One Thing…The Outcome

As a CEO, I have both given and received enormous amounts of advice over the years. I’d like to think I’ve gotten better at both. Whenever I’m pressed to put a finger on the BEST piece of advice I’ve ever gotten, I never hesitate. It’s as clear to me as what I had for breakfast this morning. For this Medium article, I thought I would share it here in hopes that it resonates with others. I loved building my mentor network, and now hope to pay it forward.

The best piece of advice I ever got is simple: start with the outcome you want and work backwards.

Just like vacation, choose your destination

Have you ever tried to plan a vacation without knowing where you wanted to go? Perhaps, but it’s far from ideal. Having a clear vision of the destination makes travel planning easy and productive.

It applies to career planning too:

In 1985, I was 2 years into my career. I was on a flight to Dallas, reading Lee Iacocca’s autobiography. A paragraph early in the first chapter struck me. It was a Lee’s first day of his job at Ford Motor Company. He saw a bunch of executives in 3 piece suits walk by. He asked his colleague “Who are these folks?”. His colleague replied, “Oh they are Vice Presidents of Ford Motor Company”. Lee immediately set his goal to become Vice President of Ford by Age 35 (by the way, he achieved that goal). I realized at that moment that I had no goal, no outcome I was trying to achieve, so I shamelessly stole his goal. I too became Vice President of a publicly traded company by 35. That outcome helped me in every career choice.

Having a clear goal helped me work a reverse timeline and ensured I made good choices to build the skills it required. More importantly, it helped me navigate when I felt stuck, always asking myself if the next move was taking me towards my goal, or away from it. The concept is simple: if you don’t know where you want to go, then how can you set a course to get there? You will wander aimlessly, and while the path might be interesting, it will be harder to measure success. So, start with the end in mind and constantly assess if what you’re doing moves you closer to the goal-line.

The same applies to corporate strategy: be maniacally focused on the outcome

I started Mercatus nine years ago as an energy-focused investment bank working with large investors and asset owners to source and acquire renewable energy assets. We quickly became frustrated by the labor-intensive process of “wrangling” data out of core systems and spreadsheets to deliver the insights we needed to help make critical investment business decisions. We realized early on that the outcome (the “Investment Memorandum”) had to appeal to our customer: the Investor. It’s the first blog I wrote.

We built the software to scale our operations with the lofty goal of becoming the best investment banking firm. The software we built, unexpectedly, attracted the attention of our customer and they convinced us to sell the software to scale their internal operations and accuracy in decision making. Here we were 3 years into our company history — an accidental software company with little to no software background — selling software. We were struggling with how to write the specification to architect our v1.0 software into a true, sellable product offering.

So, I went back to the best advice I ever got. What is the outcome our customers want? The answer is: A simple one-page dashboard to make investment decisions on their assets and portfolios. We started asking our customers “what EXACTLY do you want to know to make a quick accurate investment decision?” This forced us to analyze it in excruciating detail, and challenged our team to validate it with a broader audience, from rating agencies, to the largest banks and institutional investors.

That started my journey down this path of being maniacally focused on the outcome. We spent 6 months trying to boil down a 12+ page investment memo thesis into a single-page resume focused on only the most critical information needed to make the most important investment decisions. That resume became our executive dashboard — the outcome we had painstakingly agonized over. And that is how Mercatus shifted from an investment bank to a software company, slowly and consistently obsessing over the outcome and then building the technology to enable that outcome.

The Maybes Will Kill You

Our goal was to create a dashboard for energy executives that would take months of uncertainty out of the equation and deliver a clear yes or no answer, because the maybes will kill you, and kill your business

We recognized that it doesn’t matter which technology, which asset class, or which region, etc. — every project or portfolio looks the same at its core. We focused solely on discovering and defining those core elements and the insights required. This dashboard continues to be the core of our platform foundation today, almost half a decade later.

Help Customers by teasing out their desired outcomes and creating Reverse Timelines

This same advice applies to helping our customers. Customers often come to us with a symptom or problem they are trying to solve, but they may not understand — or be focused on — the real root cause of the problem. Most quite frankly are chasing the buzzwords like digitalization, big data, artificial intelligence, blockchain, etc.

We designed our entire customer acquisition process as a trusted advisor to help our customers C-Suite team better define the outcome they want to achieve so we can map if software and our technology platform helps to deliver against it. We will never talk about our software capabilities without first having a solid understanding of the customer’s goal(s) and the root cause of what’s preventing them from achieving their desired outcome. It’s a futile activity.

Start with the outcome and work backwards. It works every time!

Being maniacally focused on the outcome and not getting bogged down in the minutia of the requirements is the best advice I ever received. It takes practice and discipline to stay on track. But it will ensure that every decision you make is aligned with an end goal and every action is getting you closer to that goal.

I’d love to know if this advice resonates with anyone else, and what other tactics or advice readers would share on this topic. It’s a never-ending quest to be better and to develop new skills and insights. I welcome all comments and feedback.