January 9, 2020

Because I Can’t

I wrote a post years ago called Management by Chameleon that’s been rattling around in my brain the last few weeks. The operative quote from it is:

When I first became a manager, back in the MovieFone days, I had the good fortune to have an extreme case of “first time manager”– I went from managing nobody to managing 1 person to managing something like 20 people inside 6 months.  As a result, I feel like I learned a couple lessons more quickly than I might otherwise have learned them. 

The past couple weeks over the holidays, I decided to attack the incredibly large “to read” pile that I’d accumulated over my first few months at LRN. It was a mix of company reports, corporate and legal documents, published white papers, articles written by various employees over the years and of course many by LRN founder and chairman Dov Seidman, and industry background and research. I’d guess it was about 3,000 pages of material. We produce a LOT of content here.

I dutifully took notes on a lot of the material as I consumed it, and I learned a lot of new things as well as having several things I’d learned the first few months on the job reinforced. But then it struck me that I was having a parallel experience to the one I quoted above from my MovieFone days. Instead of having the extreme case of going from managing 1 person to managing 20, I was having an extreme case of absorbing new information. And then it struck me that I was learning a lesson more quickly than I otherwise would have.

That lesson is that one of the big differences between being a founder CEO and a hired CEO (especially of an older and larger and more mature company like LRN) is that I will never master 100% of the history and content associated with the new company the same way I did at my prior company. No way, no how. Just can’t.

So I shouldn’t try, and I shouldn’t pretend that I can. That doesn’t mean that I won’t continue to be a sponge, reading and learning wherever I can. But it does mean that I will be far less likely here than I was at my last job to be the master of all the details and to know the answers to all the questions, or at least to more of the questions than most other colleagues.

That is a positive thing for me, and I believe for the business, for two main reasons. First, it will force a high level of dependency on and delegation to others in the organization – founders can run a bit of a hub-and-spoke culture when it comes to decision making and information flow (even if they don’t intend to), but I doubt that will be possible as a non-founder in the same way. Second, it will consistently push me to place of inquiry and a place where I am providing a fresh view on things, unfettered by historical baggage. While that carries some risk that I’ll have to mitigate by understanding and appreciating the history, it means I should be able to make faster decisions that are optimized for the needs of the business, emotions aside.

All these things are probably true of most companies that are older, larger, and have undergone changes in leadership. But they’re new to me, and quite liberating!