Since I don’t want anyone to get the wrong idea, I think it’s important to say upfront that I’m happy to be an executive. It’s one of the most fulfilling and rewarding experiences I can imagine having. Is it stressful? Without a doubt. But it also puts me in touch with myself and gives me joy through interacting with and serving so many people.
That said, there are some aspects of my job that are more difficult than I would have guessed, some that are easier, and still others that continue to surprise me — all things that, had I known them earlier, might have saved me some serious headaches and sleepless nights.
If I could go back and share these six things with myself, I would — but since I can’t, maybe they can at least help someone else along the way. Here are six things all aspiring executives should know in advance:
1. People are less helpful than they think they are
About 90% of the people who offer to help you either can’t or won’t, when it actually comes down to it. Fundamentally, people want to be helpful, and that leads them to be overly optimistic about their skills, their time, or their interest.
I’ve even spoken with a major celebrity who wanted to discuss endorsing my company — something that seemed incredible on the surface, but ended up being more or less a waste of time. I’ve found that when people say they want to help, you can take them at their word. But when they say they’re going to help, you learn to smile, nod, and believe it when you see it.
2. Fundraising isn’t a phase, it’s a lifestyle
It’s amazing how much of a CEO’s job comes down to securing investments, especially considering how little space it takes up in the actual job description. I used to think that once you found your investors, you moved on to scaling the business. And you have to—but don’t expect to walk away from capital raises.
At the end of the day, it’s the regular people who will save you. They are very forgiving─but you must do your very best for them, and be completely responsive. They can tell!
The ordinary investor built our company. When we had terrible dilution, I found a way for them to get their stock repriced. But since that required additional investment, we still needed their trust.
Once OriginClear fulfills its promise as what I call The Next Great Water Company, I want to keep working with the everyday investor. These are the very best people.
3. You will be inherently disliked
Maybe it’s because people envy the success that tends to be connotated by those letters after your name, but once you become an executive (especially of a publicly owned company) people seem to start hating you for no reason. The vitriol is somehow most disturbing when it comes from people who you’ve literally never met and never done business with.
The only thing you can do is be honest and do your very best. And not worry too much about what people think.
4. Letting people go is absolutely crucial to success
I never relished the idea of firing anyone, and before I ever had to, I knew it would be difficult. That wasn’t the surprising part. What I now know that would have made it so much easier, however, is how vital it is to not just have the right people, but also not have the wrong people.
If someone in your organization isn’t properly challenged, trusted, or matched with their job, it has a ripple effect on the morale of everyone they touch. That knowledge doesn’t make handing out pink slips fun, by any means. But it helps.
5. Willingness is everything
When hiring new employees became part of my job description, I automatically gravitated toward the resumes that listed more skills and better skills. I wanted things done right, and done right the first time.
But I’ve learned that a person’s abilities on paper matter less when it comes to getting things done (and done right) than does their willingness. In other words, having a world-class engineer or developer on your team doesn’t matter if that person has one foot out the door. And looking at the other side of it, I have had a longtime employee who joined us in the early days as an assistant. He’ll be the first person to admit that he knew almost nothing! But, he was willing to be endlessly corrected. He’s one of our most trusted people today.
6. You need to be an athlete
Possibly because so many CEOs don’t appear athletic, I was always in the dark about this one. The reality, though, is that the life of an executive is physically and mentally tough.
Riggs Eckelberry doing “chair” at The Bar Method. Ideal for skiing!
I’ve been a lifelong skier and sailor. These activities extrovert me and frankly, I live for them. And when I turned 40, I actually ski-bummed for a season. But you can’t ski bum all the time, so I participated in competitive rowing for a decade in Los Angeles. And for the past six years I’ve been doing The Bar Method─that’s a ballet workout. It’s kept me young and when the tension has been too great, that hour in the day has saved me.
Taking care of yourself is a priority — otherwise handling the everyday pressure of the job becomes suicidal. You might not feel like there’s time to exercise when things get busy, but there’s no overstating the importance of making healthy choices when stress and the stakes are so high.
Never stop learning
The bottom line is that being an executive is a continuing education kind of job. Undoubtedly in my continued business adventures, I will encounter more of these fundamental truths, and wish I’d been able to include them here — but maybe I’ll just write a new article instead.