Oct. 16 is National Boss Day, a Hallmark holiday if there ever was one. It’s a funny holiday, because almost all employees hate their bosses or at a minimum think they can do the job better. CEOs are especially reviled—slightly above cable installers and just below lawyers on the Rodney Dangerfield “no respect” totem pole.
Popular opinion insists that chief executives are greedy: CBS’s Les Moonves paid himself $69 million each of the last few years to air “NCIS” reruns. Or heartless: Amazon’s Jeff Bezos paid meager wages until a tight labor market forced him to raise them. Or scheming: Mark Zuckerberg and Facebook know our wants and desires. Or truth-challenged: Investors in Elizabeth Holmes’s Theranos learned that the hard way. Or plain clueless, like Lehman’s Dick Fuld and just about every other CEO.
But where would we be without them? Despite an industry of business schools, management books and seminars, nobody can teach you how to be an effective boss, leader or entrepreneur. They’re all self-taught. I’m always impressed when one is actually successful.
Most of investing is analyzing management. When I ran an investment fund, my partner and I would visit a dozen-plus CEOs a week in their offices. One rule of thumb was that if they closed their door, it was because they didn’t want their staff to catch them lying to us. Silly, I know, but it worked more often than you’d think. We’d grill them on their organization—how many people report to them directly, how soon after the quarter closes do they get accounting numbers, who signs off on contracts? The answers didn’t mean much; we were more interested in how the CEOs answered—confused, confident or hubristic—and seeing how good a handle they had on their teams.
We learned that running a company is like driving a tank down the middle of the road, except there are no windows so you can’t see the road. There are dozens of levers and knobs to adjust the tank’s direction. Your team works together to drive this machine as efficiently as possible with the fuel (capital) on hand. You’re doing fine until you sense a giant tree right in your path, and you make a million small decisions in short succession as your team scrambles to adjust the levers and knobs to get around it safely. Oh, and unknown to you, a few members are plotting a mutiny to oust you.
It’s not easy.