Cut the crap & jargon: lessons from the start-up trenches
‘Excellence is an art won by training and habituation. We do not act rightly because we have virtue or excellence, but we rather have those because we have acted rightly. We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act but a habit.’
ne of us started his or her career at a large steel company where at one point I worked as an executive assistant to one of the vice presidents (VPs). The executive team met every fortnight to discuss important issues. For one of the meetings, the executive assistant of the CEO wasn’t present and I was asked to substitute. The meetings were held in the boardroom where the CEO would be seated at the head of the long table and the VPs (six of them) would be seated on either side. The two most senior VPs, as always, were seated to the left and the right of the CEO. There was never any confusion on who sat where! The pecking order was unambiguous. I had to sit in the second row of chairs, behind the main row, and take notes. At one point when the discussion was about the sale ofa division, one of the VPs differed with the CEO and there was some argument (but arguments with the CEO never got heated). What he (the VP) was saying made a lot of sense to me, but there was no support forthcoming from anyone else. During the biobreak, I overheard one of the other VPs telling this VP, ‘What you were saying was right. I wish the boss had understood.’ My thought was, if this was so obvious to you (as it was to me), why didn’t you speak up in the meeting? Maybe if you had spoken up, someone else would also have done the same and maybe the decision would have been different. It was proved some years later that the decision taken that day was wrong.
From this large company, which moved with the speed of an oil tanker, where I was accustomed to listening to the boss rather than having a two-way conversation, I moved to a start-up with the agility of a fighter jet. In my first one-on-one with the CEO, I was in my standard mode—a notepad and pen in hand, listening. In less than two minutes, the CEO asked me curtly, ‘Will this monologue continue or will we have a dialogue?’
The first habit for being successful in a start-up is assertiveness. In his book Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell assigns the blame for some plane