What I learned in one sentence from a grumpy, wise old man.

When Mentors Die

We had just unveiled our new corporate brand.   We had hired a professional marketing firm, done customer studies, acquired a domain, designed a logo and registered a trademark.   We thought it was the most important decision we had made.

We unveiled the name to our board.    “Tada”.

Silence.

One of our independent board members looked at me and simply said:

“Well, as long as it doesn’t mean f**king a goat in Portuguese, then I’m OK”.

Sam K in a board meeting

The facts are, the name we chose at that point in our company, was pretty much irrelevant.   What mattered was execution, something we were struggling with. He in a very powerful way slapped us back into reality.

Earlier in the venture, he had observed me running around our offices, often carrying a little notebook, taking notes, being busy, busy busy.    I was busy “helping” our team. I was busy “creating our plan”, our “vision”, keeping investors in-check, validating that what we were building was right.  Come on, I was IMPORTANT and being IMPORTANT means being BUSY.

He looked at me and simply said:

“Charlie, you will be more effective the less you do”.   

Sam K Smith speaking to Charlie Alsmiller in 2002

I was speechless.   I was an ex-consultant in a big firm.  My whole value was measured by how hard I worked, how much “value” I created TODAY.    This is counter-intuitive to me. “Do less”? What? How does that work? I didn’t get it.  

“Work on your business, not In your business”

A quote from just about every business book out there

We hear the words, “Work ON your business, not IN your business” all the time.  But, I’m here to tell you, truer words have never been spoken. See, we all have super-powers.  Mine was clearly articulated to me recently by a dear friend. He said, “You have the ability to create something from nothing, and energy shows up around it.   I’m in awe.”. And this from a guy who is a VERY senior and well known tech executive in Silicon Valley. I’ve always been in awe of HIM. But, what he admitted to me is he CAN’T create something from scratch.  I can, it’s my superpower. The facts are, I should ONLY spend time on MY superpower, not his or anyone else’s for that matter. I’ll be more effective the LESS I do. Boom.

Sam K was a fine man.   In Dallas, he was a legend. He ran Texas Instruments for many years.   For some reason he liked me. He was retired, but respect followed him everywhere he went.  He counseled countless young entrepreneurs like me, reminding us through his wisdom and that what we are doing is often way less important than we thought.  And his occasional “F-bomb” in the boardroom NEVER went unnoticed.

Sam died a few years ago.   I was unable to attend his funeral, but it hit me hard.  Not only because I missed him, but because I realized how linear our lives can be.    Looking around, I see the senior figures in my life retiring. Dying. I know it’s the natural order, and I realized that for every person like me that was helped by someone like Sam there’s someone I can help.  

This last year, I faced down cancer and won.  I was the lucky one.  

Many aren’t so lucky.  I have been given years now to give back.  Suddenly the fancy car, the ski-chalet the boat don’t seem so important.    What’s important is helping the next generation.   

And yes, I’m still looking, waiting patiently to repeat Sam’s words about that goat in a board meeting.   

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