For a couple of years in the mid-1980s I tried my hand at being a stockbroker. The job didn’t line up with my background as an English major, but the bull market at the time attracted me with its promise of fat commission checks. To build my book of business, I sometimes joined one of my coworkers for Saturday cold-calling marathons at the office. The two of us would dial away all day long. At the end of the day, my friend inevitably appeared at my office door with a huge grin and a handful of exciting prospects. Inexplicably, he had boundless energy for calling strangers and talking about their money. I, on the other hand, hated prospecting. I approached every call with dread, typically finishing my day with half the prospects my buddy did. Black Monday in 1987 brought a swift end to my stockbroker days; I found my way into a marketing communications career, which was better suited to my talents. Over the years, though, I came to see those cold-call extravaganzas as instructive on the subject of entrepreneurial success. Every time my smiling friend beat me at prospecting, I came away wondering why that was so when I made the same number of dials. The answer came over the course of many years, though it’s probably obvious to anyone reading this post.
In the latter part of my career, I’ve done a lot of corporate development work, specifically scouting digital marcomm businesses for acquisition. During that time, I’ve met and interviewed dozens of entrepreneurs who were either selling businesses or exploring their options for liquidity. In addition to looking for deals, I helped integrate several businesses we acquired, which let me see entrepreneurs in action and how they managed their teams during times of intense transition, even upheaval. All those observations turned into an unintended research project on the nature of successful entrepreneurship. Specifically, I was interested in what distinguishes a so-so business owner and leader from a successful one. What is the magic ingredient for leading one’s business to greatness?
For years, my guru on such matters has been Jim Collins, who introduced the concept of Level 5 leaders in his book Good to Great. Though Collins generally writes about Fortune 500 leaders, his observations are relevant to any size business. Best-of-breed leaders, he writes,
…never wanted to become larger-than-life heroes. They never aspired to be put on a pedestals or become unreachable icons. They were seemingly ordinary people quietly producing extraordinary results. …It is very important to grasp that Level 5 leadership is not just about humility and modesty. It is equally about ferocious resolve, an almost stoic determination to do whatever needs to be done to make the company great.
The first time I read this passage, I focused on Collins’ emphasis on humility and modesty—perhaps because those qualities came naturally to me. I appreciated that he identified value in my particular style and didn’t focus on high-profile legends like Steve Jobs or Mark Cuban. My later experiences in M & A, however, led me to revisit Collins’ description. The entrepreneurs I met over the years had incredibly varied personalities—sometimes modest, sometimes egoistic. Some were technically brilliant practitioners, while others were Barnum-like promoters with little technical skill. Whatever their individual personality traits, though, the most successful among them always exhibited an astonishing, almost unstoppable energy when it came to their businesses. They ate, drank, and slept their work. They talked about their businesses with a pride most people reserve for their children. Their eyes lit up when they shared their aspirations for innovation or expansion. These individuals might weary of other things in life, but they seldom waned in their near-obsessive commitment to their businesses.
This quality became so clear to me as a factor of success, I used it as a key criterion for scouting deals. Which brings me back to the Collins quote. Though he begins by emphasizing the importance of humility, he goes on to elaborate that Level 5 leadership also requires “ferocious resolve, an almost stoic determination to do whatever needs to be done to make the company great.” Collins’ observation largely matches my own, but I make this subtle distinction: Determination is the outcome, the effect of hard-burning entrepreneurial energy. Without that wellspring of energy, sparked by a true and rich engagement with one’s chosen business, there can be no “fierce resolve,” no Level 5 leadership. That sustaining energy comes from an essential and irreplaceable fit between entrepreneur and the business he’s in.
Entrepreneurial Energy You Can Feel
My cold-calling buddy back in the 1980s went on to found his own asset management company and experience tremendous career success. Whenever we spoke on the phone, he would talk endlessly about his new software upgrade or client account. The guy was incredibly fired up by his business—and his business was benefitting from his passion. Thinking about those 1980s prospecting marathons, I came to realize that my friend brought enormous energy and engagement to his work. He loved it and invested everything he did with a kind of palpable enthusiasm that clients warmed to. This fellow was, in essence, building his fledgling business with the tirelessness of a startup founder. While I made the same number of calls he did, my prospects sensed my lack of energy. They could tell I was phoning it in.
When asked whether you can learn to be a great business leader, Collins notes that some people are born with the seeds of Level 5 leadership and some are not. Those with the right ingredients might, under auspicious circumstances—“self-reflection, conscious personal development, a mentor, a great teacher, loving parents, a significant life experience, a Level 5 boss”—develop into greatness. I would refine his point by saying that, for an entrepreneur to succeed against overwhelming odds, she must locate herself in a business she finds absolutely engrossing and which excites in her an extraordinary, sustained, and impassioned energy. Without that bright-eyed obsession, that delight in the business of business, one’s effort is likely to stall out, just like my ill-fated cold calling marathons.