The War Room

Jan 2018

 

“The key is not to prioritize what’s on your schedule, but to schedule your priorities.”

– Stephen Covey

 

“Nothing focuses your mind quite like flying a jet. That’s one reason NASA requires that astronauts fly T-38s: it forces us to concentrate and prioritize in some of the same ways we need to in a rocket ship.”

– Chris Hadfield, Astronaut

 

I once had a meeting that changed the way I worked and by extension, my life.

It was in the offices of one of the world’s best private equity firms, Lazard. They wanted to invest in my tiny software company. I remember the meeting clearly because it was the first time I had ever been completely blown away by how professional someone was.

The meeting started at 11am sharp and I walked into one of the flashiest offices I had ever seen, where I was greeted by 3 people wearing suits. One was the Partner and the other 2 were “technology experts” with PHD’s in Computer Science. We walked into an office and immediately the partner took out a folder with screenshots of all of our competitors and proceeded to ask me questions about them for the next couple of hours.

The market and insight questions would come from the partner (what I thought of competitors, how this particular market worked, what the margins of companies were etc). And the technical questions would come from the PHDs (how our technology worked, why I built things in this way, how the math functioned etc). Because I was simultaneously the main engineer and the main founder, I was the one who was supposed to know everything.

The meeting ended and the partner took me on a tour of their offices. Everything looked amazing, but one room stood out to me in particular. It was a makeshift conference room that had an entire wall filled with nothing but business cards. There would have been nearly a thousand stuck to that wall in the room. I asked the partner what it was and he said it was their war room.

On the business cards, there was everything from party planners to journalists, software engineers to corporate executives to speakers, experts to singers to removalists, interior decorators to painters. Almost every profession I could think of, there was someone on that wall who could do it. Even specialists like box printers and steel manufacturers; suit tailors, carpenters, plumbers, shoe repairs; locksmiths and private plane hire.

But they weren’t just people who could do it. These were people the firm believed were the best in their fields. Here they were, all together in one place, pre-vetted by the firm.

I asked what the point of a room like that was. He said that every time an entrepreneur faces a problem, the executives of Lazard take them into the room and talk through it with them and make a plan.

They then find someone from the wall who is an expert at fixing their problem and make an introduction. There wasn’t a problem an entrepreneur could face that they didn’t already know someone who could solve it for them. And was the best at solving it.

They didn’t just make sure they invested in the best entrepreneurs. They made sure those entrepreneurs were always surrounded by the best people. And they believed there was such a thing as the best officer cleaner and best carpenter as well as best executive and best software engineers.

I then asked why they did that and I never forgot what he said. When I think about it now, it reminds me of an episode of Ray Donovan.

He said that the easiest way for a company not to live up to its full potential is when the entrepreneur can’t focus on growing their company to its full potential. That entrepreneurs are the lifeblood of their businesses, but they are generalists and problem solvers which is their biggest strength but also their biggest weakness.

Because entrepreneurs try to do everything, they often focus on the wrong things and end up getting distracted. The most common mistake is the entrepreneur tries to do much and ends up conflating the amount of work being done with the quality of work being done.

By having a room full of business cards of people who can fix any problem, the entrepreneur can always focus on the most important thing happening at their company. They never get distracted or micromanage because there is always someone better than them who can be called upon to solve their problem.

The way to get more done isn’t to do more, it’s to do less but to focus on more important things. It’s to give up control and let other people who are better than you do as much for you as they can, so you can do the best for your company as you can. It allows the entrepreneur to become the best entrepreneur they can be.

And that was the lesson I took away from that meeting, that day, many years ago. To do your best at something, you have to only focus on the things that matter most.

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