Les Trachtman | Crain's Washington D.C.

In this ongoing series, we ask executives, entrepreneurs and business leaders about mistakes that have shaped their business philosophy.

Les Trachtman

Background:  

Les Trachtman is the chief executive officer of The Trachtman Group, a consulting firm focused on helping companies grow and scale. He also serves as the managing director and majority investor of Purview, an early stage company focused on disrupting the medical imaging business. Over the past two decades he’s served as CEO at six growing companies, including Force 3, a Maryland-based government contractor sold to Serious; and Transcentive, a leader in the employee stock plan administration business that was sold to Computershare.

The Mistake:

As the new CEO of a technology company, I assumed I’d get a free pass from my board because of world-changing events that negatively affected sales.

In 2001 I’d recently become the CEO of a technology company, and had taken over that role from the founder. Some time after I took over, I traveled to Europe to negotiate a deal to potentially buy another company. This occurred at an inauspicious time for the United States. I flew from Zurich, Switzerland to London, England on Sept. 11, 2001. I found out about the infamous terrorist attacks in a meeting, and ended up getting stuck in London for nearly a week.

My company had a board meeting on Oct. 10, where I reported on the company’s first three quarters of performance. As 9/11 had just occurred at the beginning of a big month in our third quarter, we didn’t make our numbers.

Not making your numbers is not a good thing. Especially in a venture-backed environment when you’re a relatively new CEO and you’ve taken over for a founder, and you’re supposed to be doing the magic that occurs next in handling the company. I went into the meeting knowing full well we hadn’t made the numbers, and I made the assumption that because of what had just occurred in the world that I’d get a free pass. During that time business basically stood still.

Assuming I’d get a pass, I presented my numbers. The board was very quiet. They looked at me and said, “OK, we understand, how are you going to make that up?” I was flabbergasted. I thought to myself, “What do you mean? Of course I didn’t make my numbers, and everybody knows that the whole world has changed.”

I realized at that moment that when you are the CEO of a company that has outside investors, the buck stops with you. There are no excuses, no matter how big the macro occurrence in the economy or what’s going on in the world around you. Your investors have invested in your company with the anticipation that they’d make a return on that investment. The fact that other extrinsic events impacted your ability to make them money, or to give them a return on their investment, was not relevant to them.

The buck stops with you was never more clear to me than that moment.

The Lesson:

I realized the role of a CEO is to cause performance to occur. If there are things going on around you, it’s your responsibility to figure out how to adjust to those and move forward.

It’s a great lesson for everybody, not just CEOs. You own your results—you’re committed to a set of results, and if you’re not able to do that because of reasons that are beyond your control, you have to figure out how to adjust.

It’s very becoming if you’re reticent to blame others. I’ve seen it many times in my career, where even CEOs say, “Well, I didn’t make my numbers because…” or a salesperson says, “I didn’t make my quota because…” I worked with a guy who was the head of sales, and he used to come to me and say, “I’m going to make my numbers despite…” and use that approach to life, which was way more ingratiating than doing it the other way.

Excuses are interesting, but they’re really not useful. If you can figure out how to get excuses out of the way and try to compensate for what’s going on around you, you can usually figure out a way. Or at least you can get a lot closer. And it’s certainly much more fun going about it that way than wallowing in your own despair.

Les Trachtman is on Twitter at @ltrachtman.

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