I remember getting a call from a recruiter about a sales and marketing job for a high-tech start-up. I was working at a Fortune 500 company. After several promotions, I had a nice position with a sizable responsibility. I had good reasons not to take the recruiter’s call. I had a great job working for a big organization, a well-respected technology leader. But my company had recently missed a couple of large opportunities. They should have been first to market in what became a billion-dollar industry, but bureaucracy and inertia got in the way.
I took the call. What the recruiter described was a unicorn opportunity. The start-up was working in an interesting space. They had a unique approach, one which I found very innovative. I thought about the missed opportunities. I wanted to join a company that had the potential of being first to market. I liked the incentive of a lucrative IPO. So, I decided to take the position. I became Senior Vice President, Sales and Marketing, reporting to the President.
The first couple of weeks, as one would say when you're not telling the truth, were very interesting. I moved from a corner office with a beautiful view to an office the size of a broom closet and no windows.
As with all startups, Chase, the President reminded me several times, “we’re lean and focused on one mission…..first to market.” The honeymoon ended, and I had few resources at my disposal. I had to figure things out if I was to survive this transition. In fact, I am proud to say I became very adept at my own tech support. One of those unspoken things left out of my job description. Welcome to the start-up world. It got more interesting as time went on. Soon after I got settled, the President would stop by my office each morning and ask me, “so, what’s happening?” No, “good morning” or “ how was your weekend.” It was simply, “what’s happening?” I would share my priorities, what we were working on, prospects in the pipeline, proposals written, demonstrations scheduled, and the group’s progress. Chase would abruptly say, “well, I guess nothing’s happening,” and walk away.
Vic was our VP of Product Development. We worked together in planning out the initial launch of our product. He was very talented, but he had a habit of dropping by my office and saying, “I was thinking about this last night, and I have an idea.” I would stop him in the middle of his sentence and reply, “Vic, we’ve got to freeze the product spec!” Vic’s “idea du jour” was making it impossible for me to commit to our prospects what the final product would look like. Not to mention the possibility that the “idea du jour” would likely change again tomorrow. I loved his enthusiasm and ideas. There was strong reasoning behind them. But Chase needed me to make something “happen,” and let’s say I was feeling a little stressed.
Our CFO, Reese, was a classic numbers person. She would come into my office with a new report every day. Sometimes I wondered if she admired the report more than what the report showed. She was a data junkie with an intense focus on the details. Her daily update could be exhausting. “ I haven’t seen your updated forecast,” she would say. “Because it hadn’t changed from the previous day,” mumbling to myself. This daily reminder was her way of saying, "I want a daily update." I knew that she was trying to keep us all informed of our cash position. Her numbers indicated we were going to need a mezzanine round of financing. Fair enough. But a daily reminder, really? I’ve got Chase asking me “what’s happening,” Vic with a new idea every day, and Reese reminding me, daily, of the role I played in the life and death of this start-up.
Was I working in a loony bin? No. This was a very talented group of people that thought about things differently. In many ways, it was a typical team. Chase focused on revenue and meeting milestones. He focused on what our investors focused on. Vic was a big thinker, and what felt like “feature creep” was his way of saying, “this is how we stay ahead of the market.” Reese, whom I thought was in the weeds, was responsible for managing the investors’ capital. She wanted to make sure I focused on the only thing that matters in a startup…..cash flow.
I was struggling with the lack of resources within our department. We needed to make a key hire in the marketing group. Otherwise we were at risk for the launch. I made commitments to our prospects and that kept me up all night worried we may not keep them. And trying to figure out what the heck Chase was asking for occupied a lot of my time.
It was clear we were thinking about things differently.
When brought together, these thoughts made sense. Vic had a vision, a direction. He could see where the market was moving. Chase had the courage to start this new venture and focused on the end goal, “first to market.” Reese’s reality was cash was finite. How to manage the cash flow was her priority. For me, it was an ethical question. Could we deliver the product as promised, at the price and time frame we committed too?
The names have been changed to protect the innocent. The details of this story have been altered slightly. But it’s mostly true. You will probably recognize yourself as one of the characters in this story. Perhaps you drive towards a goal, like Chase. Maybe you think about vision and direction, like Vic. You might deal in reality and hard facts, like Reese. Or, you might be like me, concerned about commitments and meeting expectations.
This is where the story is altered. None of us are so black and white. None of us are so easily stereotyped. We’re human. We’re more complex, more nuanced. But — we all lean in a direction, particularly when it comes to how we think.
All good thinking is a reflection of Chase, Vic, Reese, and Elliot. Each of us is capable of this, and each of us has a Thinking Pattern.
Each Thinking Pattern is composed of four elements: Courage, Vision, Reality, and Ethics. In different sequences, these elements can be arranged in 12 different patterns. Think of a Thinking Pattern as short-hand. A way to understand how you think, without having to do a graduate degree in psychology or spend years in self-reflection at a monastery.
Chase initiated his thinking in Courage. He was a take-charge person and willing to make bold moves. Courage is about action. It’s the ‘will be’ of thinking. Where you take risks and assume responsibility. You set the ‘when’ and do what’s difficult. You make trade-offs and determined choices.
Vic initiated his thinking in Vision. He was always thinking big and new. Vision is about possibility. It’s the ‘could be’ of thinking. Where you explore options and set direction. You describe the ‘what.’ You define what’s important. You are reasoned and systemic.
Reese initiated her thinking in Reality. She was focused on evidence and today. Reality is about data. It’s the ‘is’ of thinking. Where you face facts and explore evidence. You describe the ‘how’ and define the plan. You are grounded and sure.
I (Elliot, aka your author) initiated my thinking in Ethics. I valued people, and earning their trust was very important. Ethics is about people. It’s the ‘should be’ of thinking. Where you explore commitments and seek to understand why. You value what’s right. You are fair and principled.
When our conversations got stuck, it was because each of us focused on solving our own problem. Said another way, we were ‘fixed’ in our thinking. Looking back, we were under stress. Everything was a problem that needed solving. Sometimes that’s necessary, but over time it became very limiting.
It’s exhausting when problem-solving is your primary focus. Most importantly, you lose sight of the end game and limit your opportunity to create better outcomes.
When we are ‘fixed’ in our thinking, we overly rely on the first two elements of our Thinking Pattern. That is, depending on our pattern, we overly focus on Ethics and Reality, or Vision and Courage, etc.
We get stuck. We dig in; we become entrenched. The more stuck we get, the more destructive we become.
It’s difficult to get unstuck. Sometimes, it’s difficult to realize we are stuck in the first place. When you have that pit in your stomach, you avoid that conversation, you become frustrated — you are probably fixed in your thinking. The answer is expansive thinking.
Fixed thinking or reacting to problems can be very stressful. Expansive thinking or having a growth mindset puts us in a state of flow, which creates better outcomes.
We’re ‘expansive’ in our thinking when we use our entire Thinking Pattern. We focus on outcomes. We get better at exploring new ideas, collaborating with one another, and building plans that we can execute against.
The start-up formed a joint venture with a larger company. They needed our technology to replace their own. We were later acquired. It wasn’t quite the unicorn opportunity that we were hoping for. But, we didn’t land in the graveyard as many start-ups do. And while we didn’t get the big payout that we expected, we did learn from each other. Through our interactions, and different ways of thinking, we better understood how each individually thought. In the end we became more expansive in our thinking.
Chase and I moved on to start new ventures of our own. Vic remained with the acquiring company joining their product development group. Reese went back to being an accountant in a much larger company.