“Sometimes, no matter how hard you try to do the right thing, there’s always someone who thinks you’re an asshole.”
That’s the exact content of one of my most liked and retweeted tweets from last year. Unfortunately, you won’t find it if you search my feed because someone ‘suggested’ I take it down. I regret that decision deeply now. But at the time, I was pressured into being a good corporate player. But I shouldn’t have, because the resonance it kicked up among friends was significant. It echoed a deep emotion that stabs at the heart of most CEOs I know. And it was truly how I felt. So this is a good excuse for me to repost that emotion.
If you’re here to make friends, you’re in the wrong business. If you need the affirmation of all your employees — for everyone to love you and think you’re a great person — you’re in the wrong business.
That’s the dichotomy. As a leader, even though you may work as hard as you can to be a good person and support everyone as best you can, ultimately, you’re not there to make friends. You’re there to run and grow a business. And as long as you are focused on making the right decisions for the business, there will usually be someone who is pissed off or angry. And unfortunately, sometimes they can be people you truly care about.
That can lead to some very difficult emotions. It can make you feel separate from the organization. The feeling of being alone can become overwhelming. But that separation is actually critical in providing perspective about what decisions need to be made when about whom. When you’re too close, and you need everyone to be your friend, you can lose that perspective.
This is not intended in any way to justify some of the shitty leadership that destroys people and culture we’ve seen lately. This is not an excuse to be an asshole. Not by a long shot. But it does create a clear delineation in a CEOs mind between being friendly and being friends. A murky line in most situations at best. But as the organization changes, so will the people you need to move it forward. Over time, the same employees aren’t always the ones that drive a business forward. Understanding which employees matter when, keeping the right employees happy at the right time, and helping the others transition when necessary is the critical decision process of the CEO. Your decisions through that company evolution will always make some people unhappy.
I know that sounds cold, but if you’re making the right decisions for the business, it always means difficult decisions about people — sometimes people that have been with you for a long time. That’s why having a good framework to manage tough conversations and expectations is critical.
In my last CEO gig, as much as a deep part of me felt the need to be everyone’s friend — I know that’s not the case with everyone, but it is/was with me — I didn’t start a business to make friends. Investors didn’t back me because of my ability to make friends. And my business wasn’t going to be measured by how many friends I made along the way. The reason I was there was to build a financially successful business. And along the way to doing that, there were always times when I would have to make decisions that affected the lives and livelihood of different people along the way. My decisions needed to be grounded solidly in what was right for the business, not what was right for the people. And making those decisions about your friends is really, really difficult.
In a leadership role, the critical context for me is understanding the difference between respect, support and friendship. Having motivated employees that feel respected, understand what their objectives are, are clear about were they stand against those objectives and strive to exceed them whenever possible is what grows a business. As a leader it was my job to create an environment where that was the norm. Treating people well and creating a supportive environment was one of the things I could actually control. And I found that if I did that well, then the right employees were happy. It wasn’t about whether or not they liked hanging out with me as a friend.
It’s also why I never much cared for the, ‘would you want to have a beer with him/her,’ test for culture fit.
Enjoying yourself over a beer isn’t what creates a great company. Great people with diverse perspectives, insight and capabilities are what create an exceptional company. And great players on diverse teams often have very different perspectives, and socialize and engage outside of work very differently across the organization. Their goals aren’t always to be everyone’s friend.
And as a good CEO and leader, that shouldn’t be your goal either. Leave that job to the sales people, while you focus on how to create an environment where the right people, at the right time, can continue to succeed. And go build a fantastic business.