Silicon Valley has cultivated a specious narrative around the archetype of the endlessly self-sacrificing CEO. Such narratives can be intoxicating — whether it’s the energy of accelerating sales or the anxiety of nearing a cash-out date, it’s easy to get caught up with the adrenaline of the positive or negative momentum of your business.
In truth, however, subscribing to these ideas is more a sign of inexperience than of strength, and this narrative can make it easier for founders to rationalize and ignore important signals from their body or their community telling them to slow down.
After all, a company’s early trajectory is largely determined by the first 10,000 decisions of the founding team, and by how well the team executes on those decisions. A healthy and balanced CEO will make better decisions across key areas, including hiring, sales, product, and fundraising, each of which can have a material effect on the success of the business.
In other words, maintaining adequate levels of sleep, exercise, nutrition, and healthy relationships is vital to the long-term health of your company. This is something I’ve seen as an investor and board member, particularly when founders don’t have safeguards to protect their health — they start to get sick all the time, and while the coughs and runny noses might not seem like a big deal at first, they’re usually followed by noticeably poor decision-making.
That’s why I check-in on the founding team’s health and wellness during board meetings when possible. These check-ins are distinct from discussion about work-life balance among employees, because a CEO’s health has such a big effect on the health of their company, and because they generally work such long hours (fourteen or eighteen hours a day, six-seven days a week ) that traditional ideas of balance no longer apply.
To be clear, it’s not realistic to expect CEOs to work a traditional nine-to-five schedule. Instead, I encourage them to see themselves as professional athletes, and to prioritize their health accordingly — because if their company is going to succeed, they need to be at peak mental and physical condition.
To make the discussion more concrete, I ask CEOs and other founders to track and grade themselves on seven health metrics: Physical Health, Professional Stress, Personal Stress, Personal Relationships, Sleep, Time Off, and Exercise. If they’re neglecting any of these areas, I encourage them to take basic steps, such as ensuring they take at least one day off each week.
Running a startup is a massive prioritization game, involving decisions around where to invest and where debt can be incurred. No one can adequately and simultaneously balance each of these seven factors while running a company. Thus, the difficult decision on where to take on wellness debt must be made — spouse, body, wellbeing, etc. It is vital to be aware of the accumulating debt and not allow changing norms to lead you onto an unsustainable path. Neglecting this debt is ultimately a huge liability for the company, in addition to the founders personally.
It’s also difficult to be self-aware when it comes to self-maintenance. When there is a problem, the founder is often unaware or blinded by rationalization. So if a team has multiple founders, it’s best for co-founders to grade each other in addition to themselves.
When I raise these issues, different founders will respond in different ways. Generally, however, I’ve found that in addition to shining a light on otherwise neglected metrics, the discussion sets a positive and collegial tone for the meeting. Founders understand that I’m not trying to micromanage their health, but instead to engage with them as human beings, and to inspire them to focus on what’s important to their success.
There are so many aspects of any business that are beyond a founder’s control — from competitive dynamics to sales cycles. Founders should be eager to take on the self-maintenance that is both critical to success and generally within their control. If they do, they’ll discover the age-old saying that “it’s a marathon, not a sprint” absolutely holds true for their journey as a founder and CEO.
This advice is aimed to help founders navigate the challenges of building an early-stage company. If you are a founder or investor that has any additional advice or feedback, please leave it in the comments below or share with us on Twitter: @timy0ung @eniacvc.