All of us get to make a daily decision about how we will approach our tasks for the day. There has been much written recently about beginning each day with a sense of gratitude; that’s certainly great wisdom for enjoying life more fully. However, one quality I’ve observed time and again in successful entrepreneurs is the raw energy they bring to every duty and every personal interaction. That’s often the major differentiator between the achievers and the laggards.
Among the many privileges I’ve had in Texas has been working with Bob Metcalfe (inventor of Ethernet and current Professor of Innovation at UT Austin’s Cockrell School of Engineering). His role is to foster startups among students and faculty and the city’s ecosystem at large. We’ve seen many thousands of ideas and deals here, and I’ve always marveled that he will focus on even the dumbest concepts that have already been floated over and over and do his best to give the entrepreneur in front of him some genuinely valuable advice. Some of those tidbits have changed careers and made companies viable; one never knows what effect a different and more experienced viewpoint will have on an impressionable founder. Bob is not doing this just out of courtesy or just because it’s his job; he has a natural abundance of intellectual curiosity and always brings it to the occasion.
At the time of this writing I have just attended a Georgia Tech Foundation board meeting in Atlanta and am always there surrounded by achievers who exhibit similar energy. Even the emeritus members like myself pay attention and ask the important questions. They know how to “lean in” to a topic and exert influence on it. It’s noticeable even in their body language. Sure, everybody is occasionally sneaking a look at a phone, but they’re not letting that pull them out of the flow of the meeting. High energy seems to make one better even at multitasking.
I’m talking about focused intellectual energy. Think of setting a paper on fire by pinpointing the sun’s energy through a magnifying glass. I’m not talking about hyperactive behavior, which is more of an out-of-control burn. You know and can recognize the difference. Everyone has worked with jumping bean personalities that are all over the place and have difficulty staying on path from point A to point B. Having the energy to party all night and show up appearing coherent for a business meeting early the next morning is not always a good thing to feature on your resume. All of us have a finite amount of physical stamina, some blessed with more than others, and some are smarter than others about taking care of their health. No matter what your genes gave you in that respect, you can make the decision to reserve some of that stamina to deploy as what I’m calling here intellectual energy.
Your tone, expressions and mannerisms reveal your energy in every setting, whether you intend that or not. Make the choice to be the one who lights up the room, not the person who seems interested in being elsewhere. In my CD-ROM company in the early 90’s we developed a golf instruction product with Jack Nicklaus’ production company, which was then based in Santa Monica. I had one occasion to go to the Nicklaus home office in West Palm Beach to meet with some of his people. I remember when Jack himself popped in the door. It was quite evident that he had zero interest in what must have looked like the deal of the hour that was probably his norm in that era, and its was darn clear he had opened the wrong door. No disrespect meant, but that’s one situation where I was on the receiving end of the complete absence of energy around anything I might have to say or show. May I suggest that until you have won 18 Majors in professional golf, it might be best to assume the person you are meeting is a peer and not a peon. A little personal energy might pay you a dividend, and peons can easily become peers or superiors in the future. There’s nothing but upside for you in always exhibiting your A game in the way you comport yourself in a business setting.
You win customers with energy. Nobody wants to buy even a car from someone who is obviously dragging through a sales pitch. Think of the cashiers where you buy groceries and how much more effervescent some are than others. They may not have highly skilled jobs, but your experience is far more pleasant when you have the luck of drawing one who is focused on taking care of you efficiently and shows something more than just a cursory interest in how your day is going. When you’re in the tech industry selling complex products, the features and tech stack discussions can be wearying, but you have it within your power to keep the discussion lively. If you have the gift of humor, use it. Employ imagery, sound, and all the elements of a theatrical experience. Put extraordinary energy into your presentation. You know better than to produce death by PowerPoint, so put things on screens that convey information with intensity, and deliver them with verbal intensity that matches. I’m amazed at the preponderance of decks that have too many pages of tiny hard-to-read fonts and too few pages that trigger an emotional “sign me up” response. I read recently that Jeff Bezos starts meetings with 30 minutes of silence while everyone around the table reads all the details of the discussion points, and the conversation that follows is entirely actionable. The energy is unleashed where it accomplishes something and not diminished by an overdose of factoids. That’s not a bad model to follow.
You also win employees with energy. If you’re the founder and/or CEO, my recommendation is that you never admit you’re tired. If you just ran a marathon before you meet with employees, get cleaned up and show that you are entirely focused on driving the business forward with your team. People don’t follow someone who is leading from the couch. They get hired by and enjoy working for a founder who is the first on scene when opportunities or problems arise and who shows genuine enthusiasm in helping them get their work done. That doesn’t mean your energy overpowers your trust in them and leads to micromanaging. I’ve often asked key personnel to go fix something and not tell me how they did so. If phrased properly in the framework of high energy leadership, that can be smart delegation and not a sign of disinterest. It shows that I have entrusted a task to someone and am not going to second guess afterwards. (This train of thought does not apply to crime bosses.) Energy is infectious. You as a founder are patient 0, and you need to spread that infection throughout your organization.
And you earn vendor trust with that same energy. Your vendors depend on your promises. They count on what you’ve projected when they plan their hours, production, or quotas. They like to get paid on time. They want the comfort that you are working hard to be successful and that they’ll get to ride along. They want to know that you’ll deal vigorously with them on any problems that arise and that you’ll enthusiastically treat them as a partner when opportunities knock. They want to know that you’ll be easy to find when needed. I had someone approach me about a potential project the week I wrote this essay. The communication quickly became asynchronous. He would email a request for a phone call; I’d respond with my open times and my unavailable times, and he’d let those hours pass with no response. He’d then suggest a call during a time I had already ruled out, which made me wonder if he had the attention span to even read the second line of an email. I quickly decided that if he couldn’t get his act together for a simple introduction, I had no interest in further exploring his work habits. His energy was fully dissipated on things unknown to me, and that was the end of that thread.
Energy in the context of this essay means that you exude that you want to be where you are and doing what you want to do at any moment of your business life. Not that you’ll always be dealing with pleasantries, but, when you are present in body, you must also be present in mind. I cannot overstate how much that will reap rewards for you and your colleagues as your startup evolves.
Of course, I have the energy to write another 1000 words on this topic, but I’m going to spare you and conserve your attention for next week’s installment.