Let the fires burn

In our personal and professional lives, we are accustomed to challenges, problems, to raging fires. Much of our time is devoted to solving those problems, to putting out those fires. Sometimes, writes Mr Karl Gostner, we need to just let them burn.

We are all facing multiple challenges in this moment. For that reason I’ve returned to this 2017 Masters of Scale podcast entitled, ‘Let Fires Burn’. It is a conversation between entrepreneur and venture capitalist Mr Reid Hoffman and Ms Selina Tobaccowala, who amongst other roles, co-founded Evite and was president of Survey Monkey.

Hoffman starts the podcast saying, “I believe if you try to put out every fire, you’ll only burn yourself out. The best entrepreneurs? They let fires burn.” He describes how in the early days of PayPal they didn’t have a customer service department of any import. The time arrived where frustrated customers called every available PayPal extension they could find. Their response? Turn the phones’ ringers off. Their view was that they needed to focus attention and resources on customer acquisition not on customer service, so they let that fire burn.

I believe if you try to put out every fire, you’ll only burn yourself out. The best entrepreneurs? They let fires burn.

Mr Reid Hoffman

It was a counter-intuitive move in a world that emphasises customer service. The late Mr Clayton Christensen observed that a customer-service orientation can result in escalating costs (and prices) as you scale to meet the demands of large, invariably more sophisticated, customers. Sometimes, it is worth ignoring the ‘fire’ of a large customer’s demands.

Tobaccowala describes how after she’d joined Survey Monkey that she was consistently confronted with criticism of the site’s design. Her response was, “what I was more focused on was the fact that people loved the product, and it was performing. And so, I was going to let it be ugly for the sake of being able to actually build a great business.”

Hoffman and Tobaccowala’s conversation has the powerful understanding of people who’ve built businesses. Hoffman says, “You might be wondering, what’s the deal with these entrepreneurs? Hasn’t anyone in Silicon Valley heard of a contingency plan? I assure you we have, and I can only reply, who has time for a contingency plan?”

Invariably not having a contingency plan can mean some wastage, but it means you build momentum which is often more valuable than the perfect plan. Importantly though, you do need to communicate. Hoffman puts it well, “When you’re letting a fire burn, it’s not simply up to you to wage a lonely battle with your own nerves. Your team may start to get the sense that, like the band on the Titanic, you’re fiddling while the ship sinks. You have to show them that yes, you see the problem, and yes, your neglect is deliberate.”

Invariably not having a contingency plan can mean some wastage, but it means you build momentum which is often more valuable than the perfect plan.

This is, of course, not an encouragement to ignore all problems. However, if you’re clear on your strategy and you know what actions are key, then some fires can and must be ignored (but keep communicating!). Choosing where to put one’s attention is tough. If you roll out of bed into frantic activity, you’re going to be charging from one puff of smoke to the next. You need clarity to be able to let fires burn.

I often get asked, “what is the best morning routine?” My view, as so often, is it depends on who you are and what life is like at that moment. The more powerful question is, ‘what do you want to achieve with a morning routine?’ A good morning routine should set a foundation to enter your day hydrated, energised, with clarity of thought, connected to yourself and others, with the capacity to act in congruence with intention. With that in place, you can be an effective firefighter. There are obvious, time-tested ways to do this.

Meditation is primarily a practice of strengthening your attentional and intentional capacity. If you can keep returning your focus to the act of meditation, you’re strengthening your ability to say, ‘not that fire, not today’. Journaling helps you connect to and clarify your thoughts and emotions. Again, when you’ve got the firebrand salesperson who works on your largest client pushing for off-strategy solutions, you’re going to want to be sufficiently connected to your intentions to say, ‘not that fire, not today’.

My morning always starts with a glass of water. I am not a nutritionist, but it makes intuitive sense to me. It gives me a small victory as I start the day. I intend to have a glass of water. I have a glass of water. I congratulate myself. I enter my day with a smidgeon of momentum. Of course, movement adds energy, so throw some of that in the mix in a way that makes sense for you. The Five Tibetans is useful to try. It is something that you can easily do in most contexts.

Meditation is primarily a practice of strengthening your attentional and intentional capacity. If you can keep returning your focus to the act of meditation, you’re strengthening your ability to say, ‘not that fire, not today’.

Experiment. Get a feel for what works for you. Then write it out and stick with it for a while. It’s easier to adopt a morning practice when you don’t have to reinvent it each morning. If it all feels like too much, do just this: don’t check email, WhatsApp, social media etc. for the first 15 minutes of your day. Sometimes, the most powerful thing you can do, is to stop doing something.

Tobaccowalla says that in ignoring some fires, “the most important thing is ensuring that there’s fantastic communication.” Communicating effectively means caring. I find that taking time in the morning to contemplate that which I am grateful for and to consciously connect to the world around me, helps me be more gracious in the tough conversations.

An easy way to do this is to be observant as you drive to work. What do you see that makes you smile? Who looks happy or sad? Pay attention, it’ll build your capacity for connection, caring and discernment – all that you need to choose is which fire to fight. Of course, for those of you that pray, prayer is a generations-honoured way to achieve that connection beyond yourself and build the intention to approach the world with compassion.

Mr Karl Gostner is a business and executive coach, working with professionals, entrepreneurs and creatives to bring out their optimal selves. He can be reached on gostner.k@gmail.com.

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