CEO Job One: Own Your Story

I recently tried to recruit a few engineers to my (at-the-time-not-even-incorporated) stealth startup. They had unexpectedly become available, and I was scrambling to make a case for them to come on board during the short window of opportunity. But despite my best hand-waving attempts at painting a picture of what could be, I couldn’t convince them. They needed structure and we were a gelatinous blob of ideas, the primordial ooze of entrepreneurship. They rejected us.

It’s hard not to take rejection personally. Like dating, you start building the rejection into your personal narrative that something is inherently wrong. In this case, it would be easy to go to the “you don’t have what it takes anymore” place. But I caught myself. I wanted a different story.

The theory of Narrative Identity and field of Narrative Psychology describe how we absorb information by using it to weave a story for our life. Plots, characters, themes and meaning tell us who we are in the moment and who we can become. It can serve our happiness – or it can be the cause of our downfall.

When my high school basketball coach told me I wasn’t good enough to shoot the ball (“just pass it … quickly!”), I began to believe the story that I was not a coordinated individual, that I was just a rebounder and defensive thug. Later in college, when playing with people I liked in a relaxed atmosphere, I could hit two-thirds of my 3-pointers. It was then that I first realized we have a lot more control over situations than I had understood. And that thug life wasn’t my destiny.

Some of the most successful entrepreneurs are master storytellers. Think of the founding mythology (aka “the creation myth”), the near-death encounters, the fundraising pitches and the recruiting and on-boarding vision. We’re often more dramatic than the 60’s Batman show in our delusional yarns, but good storytelling is how we pull in employees, investors, partners and customers. It’s gas in the company tank.


That said, we rarely take time to step back and consider the story we’re telling about ourselves, and how much it may be holding us back.

At Jive, we used to do an annual ski trip to Mt. Hood from Portland. The first time we did it, everyone could squeeze onto one bus for the hour-long drive. On the way back, that bus became a debauchery bell curve – the tee-totalers in the front, people enjoying themselves lightheartedly in the middle, and a whiskey-soaked wrestling match in the back. And I naturally gravitated to the hard-core revelers. Hell, I was leading the drinking games. Just too much fun to miss.

The next year we had two buses. Just like before, I settled in on the vice-side of one of the buses, cracking jokes and preparing to get the festivities going. Then I saw a sidewise glance from one of the front-of-the-bussers. In a moment of clarity, I realized this character I was living out wasn’t going to work anymore. I had to step it up and be the leader they could all look up to. I moved to the middle.

By the time the third annual trip rolled around, we had three buses. And my story needed to change yet again. This time I would work the aisles, making sure everyone was doing well, enjoying themselves, foregoing my own pleasure for the sake of the team. I would make sure people didn’t get out of control, that we weren’t going to lose our insurance (we did anyway), and that people were bonding with each other. It was time to be at the front lines, taking the bullets.

The better I got at understanding and owning my story, the sooner I was able to get out of my own way and be what the company needed. The world was giving me the raw materials. My job was to spin it into an inspiring tale that I would follow, and that could be used to make better decisions. More Atticus Finch than Ignatious J. Reilly.

Getting rejected by the engineers was not a bad thing ultimately – it was part of the conflict that makes the story interesting. In this case, rejection pushed us in the right direction – to recognize that our thinking was too early for those recruits, that we need to be patient, and that whomever we bring on this early must do it for the people (and must dig the ooze).

People often refer to “a new chapter” in their lives. I prefer a book of short stories – there’s more room for change and growth, while not losing your core. This time around, owning the story is key to enjoying the ride….and succeeding.

Will the patience wear thin? Will the whole thing fall apart? Will Batman reallymarry the Queen of Diamonds? Tune in next week.


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