The Passion Paradox

“He’s very passionate ”

That’s usually a euphemism for a mood disorder or at least someone who is mildly insane or incredibly emotional. It’s also a prerequisite to being an entrepreneur.

Great entrepreneurs breathe a kind of crazy passion that grabs you by the balls and doesn’t let go. The constant stream of new ideas, the unerring confidence in every utterance, the unfailing belief that they alone know the path to the promised land are what inspire people to follow a leader with their careers and check books.

But it also makes them dreaded as managers.

Turns out all that erratic, intense, charismatic passion and emotional energy is exactly not what you want from someone who is managing you day to day. Most people like to work for someone who is a consistent, calm and emotionally balanced.

New entrepreneurs almost always run up against this limitation, and the ones who don’t figure out how to handle it usually find their companies in very stormy waters.

So what to do?

Short of taking Ativan or smoking weed every day (which isn’t to dismiss the potential value of psychotropic drugs), you have a few choices. This is a list, in no particular order, of stuff I’ve seen work.

1. Learn to Calm Down, Sometimes

If you’re going to manage people, you have to figure out how to calm down and get centered. Usually that’s some combination of exercise, healthy eating, meditation and a lot of self discipline. It’s knowing when to turn on the passion and when to turn it off.

Calming down, centering yourself and being able to engage, listen deeply, and adapt to the people you’re working with are skills that take time, practice, coaching, and consistent effort to develop. But the results are tremendous. Having the ability to both inspire and managing people is a powerful combination.

2. Get a People Gateway

Sometimes the best solution is to hire a person who can sit between you and the staff, or at least provide your team with another outlet to communicate with you. This could be a COO who you trust, knows how to work with you, and is a great manager. Unfortunately, most investors don’t want to pay for this layer of management until a firm is north of $30M in revenue.

Another option is a strategic HR executive. The right HR executive can be a vent for stress and frustration and a great coach who gives you insight into how you’re team is doing and more importantly, how you are doing with your team.

Going nuclear, bringing in a new CEO and moving into another position (chairman, CTO, Chief Strategy Officer, etc.) is sometimes the only option. Avoid this until the last minute. The best companies have a passionate founder at the helm for a long time.

3. Hire an Insanely Strong Exec Team

A strong executive team can balance out your weaknesses. Experienced is different than strong. A highly experienced executive who gets micro-managed erratically will quickly become de-motivated, frustrated, and on the road to quitting. A strong executive who is confident and will push back when you go too far is the kind of partner you want.

Put experienced, confident, and strong together and that should be enough to get you to back off so people can do their jobs. Often times, these kinds of executives are actually drawn to entrepreneurs with great leadership. They want inspiration, and they’re less worried about getting coaching, mentoring, and support from their manager.

4. Learn to Adapt

One of the biggest mistakes passionate, inexperienced or mediocre managers make is failing to adapt to the people they are working with. You can talk to that trusted VP of Marketing you’ve worked with for years in a completely different way than you talk to the new junior analyst in finance. Adapting is a powerful tool for preventing conflict and making people feel like crap.

5. Get a Coach

Having a coach who can help you think through people issues and can give you perspective on how you’re dealing people is a great asset. You can tap a professional coach, great HR leader, trusted board members, or other entrepreneurs. Sometimes it also helps to find a therapist, especially if you’re too emotional, over reacting or getting angry.

6. Have a Virtuous Friend

One of my best mentors liked to say that you need two people in your life to grow: a virtuous friend who can tell you when you’re screwing up and a mentor who can help you fix it. Hiring real friends on your team is always risky, but having someone on the executive team who you trust to call you out, in private, is a great asset. Often entrepreneurial CEOs don’t hear anything from their team, especially when they’re frustrated. Having a confidant who will relay that information is very helpful.

7. Pay Attention

Just being aware of the fact that your passion is both your greatest asset and your greatest weakness is a good place to start. An awareness of when to dial it up and dial it down will make it much easier to traverse the complex dynamics of interpersonal relationships on your team and help you to recruit, retain, and get the most out of the people that make your company great.

Being better at who you are is very different than changing into someone you’re not. Your crazy passion, confidence and vision is the engine that is driving your start-up. It can’t falter. But you have to figure out how to hook that engine to a drive train so the car can race. If you can’t sort that out you’ll end up on the side of the track spinning with no motion, or worse you’ll wreck, and everyone will watch as the car lights on fire and breaks apart.


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