Company #1, Company #2, and The Chief Reminding Officer

Paul Stansik
7 min readApr 6, 2021
Georgie’s eyes kind of follow you around the room, don’t they?

You Are Running Two Businesses

Running a company is hard. But trying to grow one can be an exhausting, absolutely overwhelming experience.

Why is that?

I’ll offer a simple explanation. A growing company is actually two companies.

Company #1 is what you’ve got. It’s the people, processes, and technology that run your business today. Even without big growth plans, companies at this stage are like ducks on a pond: calm on the surface, but paddling like hell underneath. To quote the U2 classic, this is the point where you’re “Running to Stand Still.” Attention, upkeep, guidance, coaching, and maintenance are all required to keep pace. But you’re not content to tread water. You’ve got hopes (and maybe even actual plans) to do more. You want to grow.

Company #2 is where you’re going. It’s the organization you’re growing up to be, but haven’t quite become yet. Company #2 is defined by the new ways of doing things you’re only starting to adopt, the next few hires you’re working to recruit, and the process of generally raising the bar on everything you do. That bar-raising part isn’t easy. It first requires an acknowledgment that “what got you here won’t get you there:” That while Company #1 has served us well to this point, Company #2 is what we want to become. Who we want to be.

During my time at Bain & Co., we helped executive teams clarify their “Company #2” by running what we called an Ambition Workshop. Using a low-tech combination of flipcharts, post-its, and a lot of discussion, we lead our clients through a series of questions designed to:

  • Align on a compelling vision of the future + how they need to change
  • Clarify the risks they will encounter
  • Start planning the work required to start making progress

These workshops were powerful, not only because of the misalignment they surfaced and resolved, but also because of the vivid imagery of the future they created. Sometimes we even invited illustrators to join us in the room to draw what the team’s ambition would look like. To set up the day, we often used the example of getting your family excited for a vacation — do you show them the travel itinerary (the plan) or a picture of the beach (the destination)? Unsurprisingly, we focused our work on creating each team’s version of the beach: a compelling, clear, and attractive vision of the future.

A vision of Company #2.

Though we sometimes spent weeks or even months planning and delivering these workshops, clarifying what Company #2 looks like is the easy part. Getting your people to move towards that vision is much tougher.

Why is that?

Moving on from the past means leaving things behind. This kind of change can be painful and, in some cases, highly emotional, especially for longer-tenured employees. Managers focused on changing things for the better often find their fresh ideas drowned out with stories of “the way we used to do things.” This can be extremely frustrating. The past tense has a way of testing your patience when it’s used too often in the present. It’d be nice if we could just issue an edict (a la Edna Mode from The Incredibles) for people to focus on the future, but that never really works. People need reminding.

This is where we’re headed.

This is why.

This is what it’s going to take.

Formal vs. Informal Communication

When I talk to leaders in our portfolio about how to be great “Chief Reminding Officers”, I start by asking them how and when they communicate with their teams. The answer is usually the same. Executives consistently focus only on formal communication channels. These town halls, all-hands meetings, update emails, and other structured, scheduled opportunities to broadcast their strategy, priorities, and other indications of direction dominate their storytelling strategy. I think this is a mistake. Here’s why.

While formal communication channels are important, they’re actually pretty rare. You only get have so many town halls to script and all-company emails to copy-edit. Informal communication — impromptu discussions during meetings, 1:1s, and hallway conversations (remember those?)— happen much more often. But most leaders don’t take advantage of these opportunities. They’re anxious that they might say the wrong thing, or they’re afraid to create an uncomfortable conversation, or they aren’t sure if they have permission to reinforce what the CEO is saying. Rather than take the opportunity to remind people of where the company is headed and what they need from the team, they play it safe. They keep quiet. And in doing so, they lose the opportunity to sprinkle reminders into their everyday interactions about “what matters most.” No wonder most employees can’t name their company’s top priorities. They almost never hear about them. When they do, the message is broadcast through a formal channel, which is less impactful than a 1:1 conversation.

The typical response when I bring this up is, “Well, we’ve already told the team what we’re focused on — we spent half of our all-hands meeting on it last month.” Sure, you said it. But who heard you? Who is actually using that information to make decisions?

This is when I bring up my favorite quote on the art of communication, from author George Bernard Shaw:

“The single biggest problem with communication is the illusion that it’s taken place.”

Leaders are doomed to repeat this common mistake when they rely on formal communication channels and ignore more frequent, more intimate everyday moments of connection with their teams. The fact is, people have to hear things multiple times for them to stick. My favorite proof point for this basic human truth isn’t from organizational psychology or the business best-seller list. It’s from a blockbuster movie. The Christopher Nolan film Inception is about implanting ideas into people’s heads. The movie’s characters begin with the belief that true inception — transplanting an idea so seamlessly that the recipient believes the idea is their own — is impossible. But as the movie goes on, we learn this isn’t actually true. Inception isn’t impossible; it’s just very difficult. Real life is no different. Making an idea stick inside an organization — so that people understand it, internalize it, and can use it to make decisions — is possible. It’s just very difficult. It takes real work.

Sam Altman, founder of Y Combinator, touches on this theme in his interview for Elad Gil’s High Growth handbook:

Sam: The hard part is that most people want to just do the first part, which is figure out what the company should do. In practice, time-wise, I think the job is 5% that and 95% making sure that it happens. And the annoying thing to many CEOs is that the way you make it happen is incredibly repetitive. It’s a lot of the same conversation again and again with employees or press or customers. You just have to relentlessly say, “This is what we’re doing, this is why, and this is how we’re going to do it.” And that part — the communication and the evangelizing of the company vision and goals — is time-wise by far the biggest part of the job.

Relentless. That’s the operative word here. You make things stick by creating a constant, un-ignorable drip of reminders. This is the entire leadership team’s job — not just the CEO’s. However, teams can adopt the mindset of the Chief Reminding Officer faster when the CEO gives formal permission to the team to own and share the story of Company #2. Even the most senior executives need support and encouragement to remind their team, imperfectly, informally, again and again, where they’re going and how they’ll get there. Without that explicit permission, leaders tend to second-guess the clarity of their message, which causes them to shy away from informal communication opportunities. Less informal reminding leads to less clarity of direction, which leads to higher levels of confusion amongst the team. Confused teams aren’t productive.

Confused teams don’t win.

The Two-Foot Putt

If all of this seems obvious, you’re not wrong. Our friends at the Table Group sometimes refer to this Chief Reminding Officer work as the “two-foot putt”: It’s so easy, but we miss it all the time. One reason leaders miss their chance is the fundamental and all-too-common misunderstanding about how, when, and why they should be reminding and reinforcing what the future (their version of “Company #2”) looks like. So keep up the formal stuff — the town hall, the all-hands, the sales kickoffs. But don’t forget about the informal opportunities to sprinkle in these reminders and tell (and re-tell) the story. Your 1:1s. Your weekly team meeting. “The in the moment” conversations with your direct reports. As Dan Coyle, author of The Culture Code puts it:

“We tend to use the word story casually, as if stories and narratives were ephemeral decorations for some unchanging underlying reality. The deeper neurological truth is that stories do not cloak reality but create it, triggering cascades of perception and motivation. The proof is in brain scans: When we hear a fact, a few isolated areas of our brain light up, translating words and meanings. When we hear a story, however, our brain lights up like Las Vegas, tracing the chains of cause, effect, and meaning. Stories are not just stories; they are the best invention ever created for delivering mental models that drive behavior.”

The little informal opportunities to remind people where you’re going and how you’ll get there are all around you.

So, please.

Use them.

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Paul Stansik

Partner at ParkerGale Capital. Lives in Chicago. Writes about sales, marketing, growth, and how to be a better leader. Views my own. Not investment advice.