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2 posts from June 2006

June 17, 2006

The Welch Way, Tough Bosses and VCs

To my wife's chagrin, I'm an avid reader of many magazines.  The Economist, Business Week, Newsweek, Sports Illustrated (did you see Big Papi on this week's cover?  I'm praying there's no jinx!) and many others are regulars in my weekly diet.  I also have an affection for management books (Patrick Lencioni is one of my absolute favorites).  So it has been with great delight that I've been reading Jack Welch's weekly series of columns in Business Week, called "The Welch Way".  The one that caught my eye recently was the April 25th column (yes, I am a few weeks behind in the pile...) called, "Tough Guys Finish First".  I thought it had great (probably unintended) lessons for VCs as well as managers.

Welch writes in answer to the question, "Do tough bosses really get more out of their people?", a simple answer:  "yes".  He argues that the right boss is tough as in tough-minded:  "They set clear, challenging goals. They connect those goals with specific expectations. They conduct frequent, rigorous performance reviews. They reward results accordingly, with the most praise and the highest bonuses going to the most effective contributors and commensurate compensation levels distributed down the line, ending with nothing for nonstarters. They are relentlessly candid, letting everyone know where they stand and how the business is doing. Every single day, good tough bosses stretch people. They ask for a lot, and they expect to get it...Weak performers usually wish these bosses would go away. People who want to win seek them out."

Early in my management career, I was eager to please.  I'd avoid confronting people directly with negative feedback because I was nervous that they wouldn't like me and if they didn't like me, they wouldn't follow me.  Then I got a piece of tough feedback from my seasoned boss:  "leadership is not a popularity contest".  His point - good managers give tough feedback and confront issues directly.  Good managers don't worry about being popular or liked - they worry about results and treating people fairly.

Do VCs, in their role as board members, operate like good managers - tough-minded as Welch puts it?  My experience from both sides of the table suggest it's all over the map.  Some VCs view their role as the "invited guest" at the entrepreneur's party and are therefore loathe to rock the boat.  Others think of themselves as the entrepreneur's boss and therefore dictatorial in providing feedback and direction (one of my VC friends reported to me recently that he thinks of "his CEOs" as divisional presidents that report to him).  Others are conflict avoiders - they seethe with annoyance over company and management performance and talk behind the entrepreneur's back, but grin to their face and claim they love them - up until the day they fire them.

I'd like to think the most effective technique is to strike that right balance between being a service provider (where, like the lawyer, accountant and recruiter, the VC is there to provide a range of services to the entrepreneur to add value and be helpful) and a board fiduciary who provides tough, direct feedback where appropriate (e.g., I've been surprised that VC-backed boards often don't systematically provide formal, written performance reviews to their CEOs).  Either way, it's not a popularity contest - that's certainly not what the LPs pay us for.

June 05, 2006

Upromise sale to Sallie Mae

I would be remiss if I didn't make note of last week's announcement that Sallie Mae is acquiring Upromise, a great outcome for the company I was privileged to co-found alongside Michael Bronner 6.5 years ago and serve as president and COO.  One of my early investors called me and pointed out that for a height-of-the-bubble-era investment (we closed a $34 million series A in March 2000 with a very lofty pre-money valuation, despite being a handful of folks and some fancy Power Point slides), it is miraculous that he was able to make some money on the transaction.

I learned many lessons during my three years there and even beyond as I stayed close to the company's evolution after I left to join IDG Ventures.  One important lesson is that no one person "makes" a company - it takes a village.  My high school football coach had a favorite line:  "Victory has a thousand fathers, but defeat is an orphan".  Similarly in any successful entrepreneurial venture, there are a thousand people that "make" the company, and I got to see this in spades at Upromise.

Another important lesson is that every entrepreneurial venture is a winding journey with many ups and downs and many phases of life.  There were times when we thought Upromise was going to be a world-changing company and there were times when we thought we would need to shut out the lights after burning through a hundred million dollars.  In the end, the passion of the employees, partners and customers and the perserverance of the investors saw it through to a happy outcome for all.  Congratulations to everyone involved.