A CEO that I worked for a few years ago was a total asshole.
Not uncommon in the startup world.
He yelled at people, often. He threatened the life of the company founder on a conference call once. With me (the CFO), the COO, and the Head of Commercial Ops on the phone.
Another time, we were talking to a potential strategic partner. A relationship with this company could have transformed our company. We had met the company twice before, but in a non-confidental, getting-to-know-you way. Then we signed a confidentiality agreement with them. And we all met as an Executive Team and discussed our strategy at length. What we would do and say to take the conversation to the next level.
When we got on the phone with the potential partner, the CEO took over the conversation. He began to berate the other company. For not giving us what we asked for. For not acting in good faith. When we hadn’t even asked for anything yet.
I didn’t want him to be crazy.
I loved the company’s business model. I thought this company had a real chance of becoming something great. If we could get out of our own way.
So, I kept working there. And wishing that the CEO would stop being crazy. Because if we could get him to change his behavior, the company could go somewhere.
You can imagine how it turned out. That company no longer exists.
I think about that experience often. When I am in a situation that I don’t love. One that isn’t exactly how I’d hoped. Here are the things that I learned.
You Can’t Change Other People or Bad Circumstances
This is a hard idea to accept. We want things to be better. Or different. I really, really wished that CEO was not a behavioral firecracker. We talked about it as a team all the time. We tried to solve his crazy. See if we could change him. Talk to him. Reason with him.
There are terrible circumstances that we can’t change either. Health issues. Pets or family members that die. Horrible things that we wish never happened.
My friend Trevor recently had major knee surgery. He will be in a brace for 6 weeks. It could be months before he can exercise with his legs. But he is a life-long athlete. He played on a Division 1 soccer team in college. He competed in several Iron Man races.
He has talked a lot about his concerns that he won’t be able to run again. That he has no idea what to do with himself if he can’t exercise.
But I can’t change or control the behavior of another person. And Trevor can’t change his medical situation. Those are circumstances that simply exist.
Wishing a person will be different. Or, that your health will be different. Is a major waste of mental capacity.
We all have the tendency to focus on the negative circumstances in our life. The bad things that happen. The things that are out of our control.
Focusing on how to change these things feels like you are doing something productive. Because you spend a lot of time talking about the issue, thinking about it. But what are you actually producing?
Bad Circumstances Don’t Mean Something Bad About You
Here’s the other thing that I have noticed. People think that a bad cirumstance means something bad about them.
Sometimes I thought that CEO would act crazy or say outrageous things because I didn’t handle him the right way. Or I said something that triggered him. That he would be less volatile and unpredictable if I could speak the right combination of words. So I thought it was my fault when he mismanaged a conference call or belittled the good work of a junior team member.
But it wasn’t my fault. It had nothing to do with me at all.
I think Trevor is struggling with his identity. In his mind, if he’s not an athlete, if he’s not training for a race, then he’s not a worthy human being. I understand this thought process. But from where I sit it makes no sense to me at all. He’s a great guy. I never even see him workout. Whether he does or not has no baring on how much I respect him.
Bad things happen. But we don’t have control over what goes on outside of our own minds. And when your circumstances change, it doesn’t make you weak, or wrong, or different from who you want to be. You get to be whomever you want to be, no matter what happens around you.
Once You Understand The Problem You Actually Have, You Can Think About A Creative Solution
We spent so much time trying to fix/change/manage the volatile CEO.
There was no “fixing” him.
The problem was not our ability to manage him. The problem was that he was not a positive contribution to the team.
If we had all accepted that he was going to be unpredictable, we could have figured out a better solution. Maybe that would have involved talking to the Founder. Or the Board. Or one of the investors. Perhaps we could have realigned our organizational structure. There were a lot of options. We were so focused on changing what we wished didn’t exist. That we didn’t think of options that did.
Not before it was too late, anyway.
For my friend Trevor. He is very focused on what he can’t do. He can’t run. He can’t workout with his lower body. But if he accepts that as his current circumstance, he can start to come up with real solutions.
Are there exercises you can do that only involve upper body? Cardio machines that only involve arms? Even more important. Are there things he wants to do with his life that he only has time to do now? He spent up to two hours per day working out. He now has so much more time in his day. What would he like to do with it, now that he has the chance?
Once we stop thinking about the problem like a circumstance that shouldn’t exist. We can focus on the solution. The best case scenario to pull out of a lousy situation.
I’ll be honest. I struggle with maintaining this mindset as much as anyone else. Every day I come up against something that “shouldn’t” exist. A negative circumstance that threatens to pull me into its vortex. But I work hard to stop talking about the problem and to focus on the solution. Because you can’t change what is around you. Or when something bad happens to you. But you can focus on finding a workable option. It might not be perfect. But life never is. No matter how much we wish it would be.
With the right framework plus the right mindset, anything is possible.
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