Lessons From Kindergarten For the First Time CEO

I’ve worked with more than my share of first time CEOs. All of them strikingly intelligent, charismatic, and each with a deep level of experience in product development, sales, or marketing. Generally nice guys. Their profiles have varied from the bombastic top sales guy who can sell ice to residents of Antarctica, the former uber-cool CMO, and the brilliant engineer able to turn the simplest question into a discovery process for boiling the ocean.

Their differences were pronounced, their similarities striking. Each one unwavering in his ability to stand tall (literally, chest thrust outward and upward), position himself as alpha, and convince a board he’d seen enough to know how to lead. Their seemingly well-hidden discomfort in new skin, with so much at stake, often appeared as aloofness, inability to stop and ask questions or listen to answers, and random fury at unforeseen events. Each one had an astounding ability to create distractions, always coming up with the next “big idea” that must get executed immediately throwing well-crafted plans by the wayside to chase after the promise of a quick return. None seemed capable of staying the course long enough to test the waters of practicality. For every “big idea” came a new budget-draining guru that might somehow save the day and help make the quick profits promised to the board. And all were capable of squeezing more and more energy out of the organization they’d worked so hard to build, forcing engineers to work ungodly hours recoding products, insisting that marketing must do everything the competition was doing and more, screaming down the phone at sales reps. Not one ever showed any concern for the environment, community, or programs that might actually do some good. There was no time. Good could be done after the company made it big, or they got their bonus, whichever came first. One actually said to me after killing a “give back” program crucial to the business model, “let’s get rich, then we’ll figure out how to give back.”

I’m not surprised to report that today, 4 out of 5 of these guys is heading up a rapidly sinking ship or looking for a job, any job. Call it hubris, naïveté, or just plain ignorance but there seems to be something that happens to some people when they’re held accountable for an entire business. It’s as if the world suddenly changes, the rules of civility can be rewritten, and an organization forced to their will whatever that happens to be at random moments throughout the day. It’s as if they forget that success is 20% inspiration and 80% execution. That thoughtful, consistent, daily attention to the small steps must be taken to achieve big goals.

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I’d like to propose that it’s not that hard for a first time CEO to actually succeed. In fact, as the author Robert Fulghum pointed out over 15 years ago, all they really need to know they learned in Kindergarten. Here are the rules again, paraphrased just a tiny bit by me.

  • Share everything. (The pain, the rewards, the limelight.)
  • Play fair. (It’s not all about you.)
  • Don’t hit people. (Not even with you words.)
  • Put things back where you found them. (Give your partners, your employees, and your customers credit for ideas.)
  • Clean up your own mess. (Take responsibility for your actions and decisions.)
  • Don’t take things that aren’t yours.
  • Say you’re sorry when you hurt somebody.
  • Wash your hands before you eat. (Just another way to stop, think, and avoid disaster.)
  • Flush.
  • Warm cookies and cold milk are good for you.
  • Live a balanced life – learn some and think some and draw and paint and sing and dance and play and work every day some. (The business will still be here tomorrow if you take care of the important things.)
  • Take a nap every afternoon. (And encourage others to do the same.)
  • When you go out in the world, watch out for traffic, hold hands and stick together. (Your team is all you’ve got.)
  • Be aware of wonder. Remember the little seed in the Styrofoam cup: the roots go down and the plant goes up and nobody really knows how or why, but we are all like that.
  • Goldfish and hamsters and white mice and even the little seed in the Styrofoam cup – they all die. So do we.
  • And then remember the Dick-and-Jane books and the first word you learned – the biggest word of all – LOOK.

Everything you really need to know is in there. The Golden Rule, love, and basic sanitation. Ecology, equality, politics, and sane living. Perhaps these basics really do just boil down to humility, patience, love, courage, and belief. So come on, embrace your inner 5 year old and let’s see what happens next.

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