Fog Banks: Managing Your Way Through Existential Uncertainty
This post originally appeared on Matt’s Medium in July, 2013. You can read the original post here.
CEOs are expected to be in control of their companies. To employees and other observers, they generally appear to know what they’re doing, and for the most part, they actually do.
But almost every CEO I know has felt just the opposite: he shows up to work, and he realizes that he has no idea what he’s supposed to be doing. Until this point, he’d known exactly what to spend his time on. Rather suddenly, he’s terrified.
I think I first experienced this trauma after we’d agreed to a set of initial designs for our product and had begun building them. I wasn’t sure what to do with my time. I thought I was failing.
Looking back, I now realize I’d hit my first “fog bank”. The analogy is simple: you’re driving along in the dark, headlights on, and following the clear white lines. Getting payroll set up. Getting the product in line with your vision or standards. Hiring engineers. And then, out of nowhere, you lose sight of the lines. You aren’t sure where to steer, or what’s ahead. And you get that horrible, sick feeling in your stomach: I can’t see where I’m going.
In my first few years running Inkling, these fog banks arrived with regularity. The first few times, they were scary. But once I’d entered this state a few times, I began to see the pattern. I’ve found that they most often arrive after you’ve completed some big project with a climax, and which quickly eliminates something that had previously been your focus.
I’ve had these moments induced by:
- Successfully ramping a new executive, who took an entire function off my plate.
- Closing a round of financing.
- Getting a major product launched.
- Closing a major partnership or deal.
Fog banks are the necessary, sometimes difficult realignment of a CEO’s priorities that he must traverse on the journey from inexperienced founder, to startup CEO, to growth company CEO. They often also begin to push the boundaries of what you know how to do: to clear a fog bank, you might find yourself learning a new skill, such as user acquisition strategy, reading a P&L, or establishing quarterly planning in your growing company.
While I still can’t always predict the arrival of a fog bank, I now recognize them quickly. Rather than threatening my confidence, they’re welcomed times to pause and actively consider where I ought to be spending my time. What does the business need from me now?
Interestingly, now that we’re over 100 people, I’ve seen this phenomenon begin with my senior management team. They, too, have begun to deal with broader, bigger and longer-term issues that are pulling them out of their comfort zones. Just as they find their groove in a job, the business grows up a bit, and they have to adjust. They’ve found themselves questioning whether they’re cut out for the job (they are!), but the signs are telltale: they’re driving through their own fog banks. For them, I act as a guard rail, and the journey may be a little easier. But the problem of professional confusion in a fast-paced startup isn’t limited to the CEO. It just happens to the CEO first.
When you identify a fog bank, there are some simple questions to ask yourself.
- Am I feeling this because I have too many things to do, or not enough?
If it’s the former, you’re not in a fog bank. You probably need to hire, delegate and/or better manage your time to focus on things that are important, rather than urgent.
- Do I have free time because (i) I’ve successfully delegated my previous responsibilities, (ii) key things I was doing no longer need doing, or (iii) my business is slowing and everyone, not just me, is wondering what’s next?
If a demand on your time has fallen away by itself, evaluate whether what you’ve been doing was useful but inherently short-duration (e.g., fundraising), or just a distraction. You’ll know the latter when you see it, and when you do, you should question how you’ve prioritized your time. If you’ve successfully delegated your way into a fog bank, you’re in a good place, and you should read the tea leaves. (I’m not going to deal with [iii] here.)
If it’s time to read the tea leaves, then ask:
- What single “big outcome” will most boost the odds that my company will succeed? (Said another way, what’s the most important business driver I can improve?)
Once you’re in a fog bank, focus your attention on this question. Reverse engineer that outcome, and find the immediate next step you can take to bring about that change. Is it that your business needs to find scalable user growth? If so, your immediate next step might be to seek recommendations on executive recruiters to hire a new marketing leader. Is it that you need to secure a Series A financing six months from now? Then maybe you should ask other CEOs for introductions to reputable investors with whom you might want to build a relationship. Tie your immediate next step to something hugely important.
When you’re a CEO in a fog bank, your emotions can threaten your confidence. Put one foot in front of the other by chipping away at a big goal. Keep your external composure, no matter what your emotional state. Without fail, a meaty challenge will present itself while you take concrete steps toward changing a meaningful variable in the business.
Once you’ve run a company for a few years, you develop a profound understanding of the never-ending supply of challenges that will appear, one after another. They will get harder, not easier, as you go. Between the big challenges, these states of anxious ambiguity—these fog banks—are opportunities to take a deep breath and spend time on things that are important but not yet urgent. Don’t let it shake your confidence. Over time, you’ll learn to spot the fog bank at a distance and use it to your advantage.
- A good board member or advisor helps a lot here. High trust with the right person allows you to disclose your discomfort in confidence and seek advice; sometimes, simple reassurance is all that’s needed. If you don’t immediately know who that board member or advisor is, it’s a gap you ought to fill.
- The immediate next step, acting as a CEO. Don’t succumb to the temptation to start writing code or designing things unless that’s what the CEO ought to be doing. If it’s not, then your immediate next step is more likely related to hiring or planning than coding or designing. Just sayin’.
- This is not to say that the process of finding the new focus is passive. On the contrary, while one should have confidence that the right answer will become clear, those tactical steps you take in the meantime should be building toward a known “big outcome” or the improvement of a key business driver.