Read and React has always been a modality taught by leaders and celebrated by entrepreneurs. The best leader and companies were able to read and react to their market or environment and make the necessary changes in order to continue to grow and sustainable business. I always thought reading and reacting was the hallmark of a brilliant strategist, able to ready the tea leaves and then make crucial decisions that shape companies and their teams. Today I want to talk about the next level of this strategic approach, one that was taught o me by an old mentor and brilliant hockey player now turned coach.
Reid Cashman was a mentor of mine early in my career. Even before I ever thought about being an entrepreneur and starting my own business, I was a young and hopefully NCAA hockey coach, cutting my teeth as a video coach and analytics guru for the Quinnipiac hockey program. Cash, as we called him, was one of the team's two assistant coaches, and was in charge of the team's penalty kill and defensemen. Reid himself being a Hobey Baker finalist defensemen himself as a player for QU (Quinnipiac) in his playing days, for those of you that don’t follow college hockey, the Hobey Baker is awarded to the top college hockey player in the country each year, Cash was that good as a player and as a coach.
I wanted to learn as much as I could from him, always asking questions about defensive zone coverage, neutral zone formations, and how to structure what at the time was the nation's top penalty-killing unit. In the 2013 season as a team, we had a 92.2% penalty kill, only allowing 8 goals on 103 power plays all season long. One day Cash and I were in his office going over the film of that penalty kill and he mentioned something to me that has stuck with me to this day and will probably be one of the guiding principles in business for the rest of my life. He said that he wanted our team not to be “reading and reacting” to other players on the ice, he wanted our guys to “initiate and dictate”.
Just like that, I realized that the mantra of reading and reacting was always good if you wanted to be chasing the curve, not leading it. Initiate and dictate sounds simple but it requires you as a leader to have prepared more than anyone else in your field. Take our defensemen and penalty kill that year. We had two freshmen on the roster, Connor Clifton and Devon Toews, who today are starting defensemen for the NHL's Boston Bruins and Colorado Avalanche respectively. They are two of the smartest players I have ever had the pleasure of working with and getting to know and they too picked up everything they could from Cash. What they set out to master with him, both as part of their normal defensive structure and as part of the penalty kill, was how as a defenseman, even though they often didn’t have the puck, they could still initiate and dictate the play.
If you watch the film from that year of the defense corp, you will see a master class in knowing what the other team is trying to do. Connor, Devon and the rest of the d-corp that year (which included Zach Tolkinen, Dan Federico, and a few others who went on to have pro careers as well) would use their knowledge of what the other team wanted to do, and they put themselves and their stick in such a position on the ice that it forced they to try something else or go another way altogether. The entire d-corp was so well-coached and studied that they knew exactly what our opponents were trying to do and put themselves in a place where they could impact and even change it. Some might say that is still reading (studying the film) and reacting (coming up with a solid game plan) but that is only half the battle, abstracting what we had learned and practice in the week leading up to a Friday night game lead to a product on the ice where it seemed like our guys knew what the opponent was going to do even before they did it (initiate) and they put ourselves in a position where they were forced to not follow through with their original game plan (dictate).
It’s a powerful way to coach a hockey team and an even more powerful way to build a startup. Being so well prepared, so well researched, and then having your team too well-coached up that your execution causes everyone else to react to you instead of you reading and reacting to them. The biggest thing people misunderstand when I share the initiate and dictate mentality is that they think it involved being quick and moving fast, the word initiate seems to carry an urgency. The truth is this way of approaching how you lead and build companies required the exact opposite, patience. The ability to slow everything around you down and study it to the point where you know where a market is headed before it even moves and what your customers will want before they even do.
Case and point, if you read this newsletter often you know that I am quietly working on launching a new startup. What you don’t know is that we have Benn doing customer research and discovery on this since January of this year and only incorporated about two weeks ago now. It wasn’t sexy, there wasn’t a ton of attention, splashy funding rounds, no tweets, or TechCrunch articles. Just work, spending probably what is now hundreds of hours talking with stakeholders in the space we are trying to innovate in. Then iterating, testing, and iterating again. By the time we incorporated, we had such strong conviction from the stakeholders we had been talking to that we knew exactly what we need to go execute on. It’s funny, I never thought of it this way till I had my first startup get aqui-hired into another one and the two founders of that company told me that they had been talking to prospective customers for roughly a year before getting started.
It’s not the sexy or splashy way to start a company, often today when you look to social media, people are building in public, raising capital on an interesting idea with zero market feedback on whether or not anyone actually wants the product. Those groups are often reading and reacting, they have to, they don’t have any primary research done and are relying on feedback from their community to react to and then build or iterate. Meanwhile, the companies that take the approach I outlined above have already built/iterated because they knew what was coming. I know that some may argue that building a company isn’t this clean and that sometimes you need to just get your idea out there and know that it is messy and you will need to stay on top of your customer feedback. Yes, of course, that is true, but too often I see that lead to a perpetual cycle of reading and reacting and for most founders, this puts you at a disadvantage compared to your peers who have taken the time and are able to initiate and dictate.
Cash went on to coach in the NHL for a few seasons and is now the head coach at Dartmouth College with their hockey program. Everywhere he has gone, the teams have had record lows in goals allowed and record-high penalty kill percentages. Safe to say, the Initiate and Dictate mentality is working.