The 7 habits of highly effective VCs
Chances are, you’ve read or at least heard about the book “The 7 habits of highly effective people“. First published in 1989 and with over 40 million copies sold, It’s one of the bestselling non-fiction books in history. For the 30 year anniversary, the publishers kindly sent me a copy of the new edition with fresh insights from Stephen R. Covey’s son, Sean Covey.
Last year I published on VC Cafe a post titled the 7 habits of highly effective people… in startups, and this time I will apply the book’s principles to the world of Venture Capital.
First and foremost, Covey rejects the advice of most business books on sales, influence or persuasion, because they promote fake behaviour, intended to manipulate the other’s behaviour. I.e. he rejects the notion of ‘pretending’ to care, fake smiling, etc, to get others to like you. He claims that the 7 habits are natural principles, and advocates for an abundance mindset vs. a scarcity mindset. Meaning, a belief that relationships (personal and professional) are not a zero-sum-game — one person’s success doesn’t reduce the other’s.
Let’s dive into the 7 habits of highly effective people and how they can be reflected in the world of venture capital.
Habit #1 — Be proactive
“Focus your responses and initiatives on the center of your influence and constantly work to expand it.”
Proactivity can take several forms in venture capital. William McMillan from Frontline Ventures recently shared the importance of speed in venture capital. There are logical business reasons for it. A 2018 study by Creandum ventures found that speed is the third most important factor for entrepreneurs when dealing with VC, but it’s only the 10th on the list for VCs.
But being proactive goes beyond just speed. To be an effective VC, proactivity is part of the job description:
- Proactively learn about new companies trends and markets
- Proactively network (deal flow, peers, industry partners)
- Proactively seek opportunities to help
Habit #2 — Begin with the end in mind
“Envision what you want in the future so you can work and plan towards it.”
My interpretation for VC has to do with portfolio construction. This is not merely a decision on the number of deals a fund should do or the percentage reserved for follow-on investments, but rather visualising where you want your fund want to be in X years time and what we have to do to get there. Visualising is an essential part of planning — Mike Maples Jr calls it ‘Backcasting’.
Starting with the end in mind also comes to play in investment committees. At the time of making an investment VCs often think about what could be the potential outcome for a company and what needs to get accomplished before the next round.
This principle is about not acting immediately, but thinking first. VC funding favours rapid growth, but “accelerating” without thinking where it would take the startup can often mean not ending up where you intended. Starting with an end in mind is also very good advice for working with portfolio companies.
Habit #3 — First things first
“Organise and execute around priorities”
My interpretation for the world of VC is learning effective time management. This habit is about separating what’s important, from what’s URGENT. The right thing would be to prioritise what is both urgent AND important.
We spend too much time on quadrant III and IV: calls, interruptions, busy work, networking events… For something to be deemed ‘important’ it needs to create results — contribute to your mission, or high priority goals. The book recommends delegating what you can (hire well and work with professionals) and don’t wait for important things like planning, relationship building, etc to become a crisis.
Apart from time management, habit #3 is about personal management. Putting first things first also means allocating time to be with family, take care of our health or exercise. Don’t wait until it becomes a crisis. In a recent interview to the Observer Effect, Marc Andreessen shared how he schedules every minute of his day, including ‘critical’ free time. To do just that, my partner at Remagine Ventures uses and recommends Clockwise.
Habit #4 — Think win win
“Think Win-Win isn’t about being nice, nor is it a quick-fix technique. It is a character-based code for human interaction and collaboration. Win-win is a frame of mind and heart that constantly seeks mutual benefit in all human interactions”
If you have a scarcity mentality, you believe that the majority of the retruns are concentrated in a small number of deals, and so to be a successful VC you must adopt a win/lose mentality. Meaning, you need to win, and the others need to lose. After all, most people have been deeply scripted in the win/lose mentality. There can be fierce competition between venture capital funds, especially in dense VC concentrated areas like Silicon Valley, but it’s not always the case. Collaboration is key.
Having a win-win mindset means constantly looking for opportunities to collaborate, and acting with integrity and maturity. This can take many manifestations in VC — from sharing interesting deal flow opportunities between peers to being a reference for a new fund or making introductions to potential investors when you know a GP is raising. The results of this could yield much stronger relationships in the long run. Don’t be a short term optimiser. On this topic, I highly recommend the book “Give and Take” by Adam Grant.
Habit #5 — Seek first to understand, then to be understood
“Use empathetic listening to genuinely understand a person, which compels them to reciprocate the listening and take an open mind to be influenced by you”
To achieve habit #4 (thinking win-win) we need to adopt habit #5. Seek to understand by really considering the other side (wether it’s a founder, a VC or board member). We all suffer from cognitive biases, and while awareness is the first step for overcoming these biases, they tend to only get worse with time, as VCs believe they have sharpened their pattern recognition.
This principle is not just about our ability to really listen, but to seek to understand the other side, or what Covey called “Emphatic listening”. I was particularly taken by one example:
A startup was negotiating a contract with a large national institution. The institution flew over their lawyers, negotiator and two presidents of their large banks to create an eight person negotiating team. The startup decided, it’s either a win-win, or no deal. The CEO of the startup sat across the table from the bank’s negotiation team and said: “we would like for you to write the contract the way you want it soo we can understand your needs and concerns. Then we can talk about pricing”
VCs that do this effectively with founders, can make even a pass decision become a positive interaction. Avoid can replies if you can and be thoughtful when giving feedback.
Habit #6 — Synergise!
Combine the strengths of people through positive teamwork, so as to achieve goals that no one could have done alone.
In the book, Covey refers to synergy as effective team work. To me, “Synergy” sounds a bit like MBA jargon.
Venture capital funds (especially the smaller ones) often have small teams, so my VC takeaway here is on the work of VCs with their portfolio companies and LPs.
When a true synergetic relationship exists between the VC partner and the startup founder, it’s often a story of 1+1=3. This is where a lot of the ‘added value’ that VCs bring (or claim to bring) comes into account. For me it’s about obsessing myself with the company and its market. Reading and sharing relevant news with the founder, digging deep on the product and thinking what introductions I can make this week to help the founder progress across talent acquisition, commercial deals, partnerships or follow on funding. It’s also possible to develop strong synergies with your LPs. It’s a magical moment if and when there’s a willing recipient on the other side.
Habit #7 — Sharpen the Saw; balanced self renewal
“The Upward Spiral model consists of three parts: learn, commit, do.”
When I was at Google, I took a course called “Search inside yourself” (you can also read the book by Chade Meng Tan). This principle, very much reminded me of that course. We have a number of sources of energy:
- Mental — reading, writing, planning
- Physical — exercise, nutrition, sleep, stress management
- Spiritual — prayer, meditation
- Emotional/ Social — service, empathy, intrinsic security
These sources of energy can be filled and depleted. To stay in balance, we need to engage in some personal TLC. This means working on your phone addiction, but for me it also means keeping the curiosity and passion that drove you to enter VC fresh.
It was great to re-read the book with my VC hat on, and a good reminder to never stop learning.