Sometimes successful entrepreneurs must be skillful actors. But when they pull a Daniel Day-Lewis and start playing a role off the set, trouble almost inevitably follows.
It’s true that great company builders’ business personas are grounded in who they really are. But almost all leaders occasionally have to put on a brave face or pretend to not be intensely disappointed when they're dying inside. Given all the eyes on them, their being the driving force of a growing business is very much a performance art -- with sales to make, people to recruit and inspiration to dispense.
But any CEO who can’t turn off that entrepreneurial role for the nonwork parts of his or her life is going to have a bountiful set of serious problems. The crackerjack chief financial officer was recruited because the CEO is incredibly good at playing a leadership role. And his or her spouse married the private person, not some abstraction of a company builder. The 10-year-old child at home sees Mom or Dad and definitely not “the founder.”
If the front side of entrepreneurship involves everything a founder needs to do to grow a dynamic and valuable business, the back side is everything outside the company: family, community, health and self. They’re not the same, and failing to separate them can create serious problems.
Recognize the dichotomy. Doing what it takes to be a great entrepreneur is not just living life normally as most people do. A founder or CEO has to avoid favoritism and sentimentality, must overcommunicate, stick a nose into other people’s business constantly and compartmentalize information flows. He or she must be judgmental about other people’s work and even shape or stretch the truth sometimes.
But a lot of that isn’t going to play well outside the walls of the business. Try boiling down a marriage into a set of key performance indicators (or KPIs): asking how much time it took to mow the lawn. It's not advisable to withhold the results of a biopsy because it's not a spouse's department.
Be mindful of this: Who a CEO is at the company must be separated from who he or she is in the rest of life. And yet I see the “home CEO syndrome” in my professional and social circles every day, as I’m sure far too many entrepreneurs’ spouses would attest.
What does this produce? Divorces, maladjusted kids, resentment, broken finances, overcommittment -- or damage.
Solving the problem. “Breaking the fourth wall” in theatrical and film parlance means making a gesture that acknowledges that a play or a movie is going on and that the characters on stage know. The awareness of all parties theoretically allows the creation of a richer, more contextual experience for everyone.
A good first step in creating the necessary separation between the front and back sides of entrepreneurship involves acknowledging this dual reality and letting each audience see the reality of the other side: CEOs should give their family members more visibility into their business life and bring a clearer view of their roles and responsibilities as a family member into their companies’ inner circles.
A key second step is to build a plan for the “back side” of life -- just as entrepreneurs do for their companies. That plan should cover, at a minimum, their ambitions for their roles in their personal, family and community lives.
I have entrepreneur friends who do this annually. Some even carry this plan with them to remind them of their "back side" goals, just as they do with business dashboards and periodic scorecard reviews.
Entrepreneurs should not pretend there’s nothing they will not do for their companies. They should not be willing to give up their families for their business -- not unless they’re certifiably insane. And they should not try to convince their families that they’re not stressed, or worried or preoccupied from time to time. When they are, they should say so, deal with the immediate issue, close it back up in the mental Tupperware and get back to their “back side.”
Pretending they’re one-dimensional will only make their performance seem flat to observers on either side. There are tools that can help them navigate this dichotomy and develop skills to manage it.
This goes against a recent trend of viewing entrepreneurs as the hyperconnected, always working, 24/7 fearless John Waynes of the business world.
Authenticity is critical, which of course is why Day-Lewis stayed in character the whole time he was shooting Lincoln with Steven Spielberg. But remember: That role came and went in 60 days. But the dual roles of entrepreneurs, as founder-CEO and as spouse, parent and community member, will endure far longer. They can’t lose sight of the fact that they’ve got to play both roles extremely well to achieve all they plan to.