Why passion is sometimes overrated

Fred Wilson wrote a great post recently on Turning Your Team which resonated with me. I made reference to it in a recent post I wrote on the PeoplePerHour Blog

The reason it resonated is because it happened to us in the past 12 months. Most of the early team has departed (including my co-founder) and been replaced by people who came much later or elevated to take on a new role.

It’s one of the hardest things for a founder to do, watch some of the most loyal and passionate people of their team depart. These people are like family to you.

But the reality is that it’s necessary for a team to scale. Comparing the then to the now I find that the differences can be summarised as follows: less passion, more execution.

I never thought I’d say this, as a person who obviously (being a founder) is very passionate about not only the company you create but also the purpose you serve. But the reality is that too much passion can be like the bird that strangles its new-born in its effort to keep it warm.

Creativity and passion (which often go hand in hand) are more important early on when you are hacking something together to get it off the ground.  Finding product-market fit. Once it’s up and running  you enter the second phase of the business – scaling. Be it the next iteration of the product to achieve deeper market penetration, building a sales & marketing  function and investing more in marketing, international expansion or addressing other verticals. Whatever your strategy for scaling is. In this second phase what matters the most is executing, disciplined and focussed. And for that the skillsets that are needed are different.

Execution at its best  is a military or surgical  operation. Imagine being operated on by a passionate surgeon who lets his / her emotions runs wild during the operation. You may be in trouble.

The best surgeons (I imagine) are cold, emotionless while on duty, calm, composed and focussed.  Like a sniper on the kill. Very few founders start off fitting that profile.  And even fewer evolve to become that. Those that do are the ones that scale.

For a start-up what that means in a nutshell is growing up. It means going from a group of people with loosely defined division of responsibilities, where everyone chips in, where decisions are made collectively and democratically, where  everything from the next feature you are building  to what colour furniture you will order is debated one hundred times over, to a situation of authoritarian discipline, where teams are organised under people who manage them for the most optimal and efficient result.  They don’t necessarily lead them.. leadership is seldom the problem in that second phase of the organisation. Its management that’s lacking. In other words, helping the founder(s) accomplish their vision by aligning and managing resources in the most efficient way possible to get there.

And finding those people is really very hard. That’s problem no 1. Then  if you are lucky enough to do so, problem no2 is implementing team-turn. That’s even harder – it’s like breaking up with a childhood friend. In some ways you grew up with these folks. But you know it’s necessary. And past that, you have problem no3. Which is stepping the hell out of their way to let them execute.

No3 sounds easy. But most founders are perfectionists, they are obsessive about their product, they spent so many years building up and have so much emotion vested in it that they obsesses that someone will destroy it, they are very hunch driven, think and operate at 1000 miles an hour, think visually and change their mind a lot. They struggle to keep their mouth shut, they are impatient and often paranoid. In other words for a surgeon it’s like having a fly in the room: they want to put a needle right through it and pin it to the wall.

What I found helps to in order get the hell out is first to define very robust, very measurable goals and let people go achieve them. Second, be clear about what detail matters to you so you can be included. Most people have a different appreciation of what details matters than you do. Define it.  Thirdly,  don’t over-delegate, stay in touch with the detail that matters to you.  If you over-delegate so as to prove that you are not a micro-manager that will backfire because sooner or later you will stumble upon something you ‘missed’  and it will drag you back in deeper than you were beforehand.

So  beware of the dangerous seduction of passion.  Passion is instrumental in getting something off the ground, creating something from nothing.  Surgical execution doesn’t do well in that area. That’s why the early stages are so hard – it’s more of an art and a science. Otherwise investing would be a no brainer.

But equally don’t grow up prematurely. The above is only applicable when a company enters that second stage of its evolution which is scaling. The first is figuring out the product and fit with the market.  Without that you have nothing. And in that critical first stage passion, dedication, perseverance and  almost religious belief in your values and mission are the most critical things that make or break you and get you to  stage 2. They are the things that define your core , your early team culture and values and all of those are baked in your product.

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