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Daniel Koffler of ‘New Frontiers Executive Functioning Coaching’: “Mistaking experience for ability (and fit)”

Think Small To Get Big. In the early days of my journey through entrepreneurship, I was surrounded by people who — with best intentions — wanted to see me grow as fast as possible. To me, their recommendations sounded like a formula that would lead to disregard for firm foundations, or worse, cutting corners that I’d live to regret. […]

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Think Small To Get Big. In the early days of my journey through entrepreneurship, I was surrounded by people who — with best intentions — wanted to see me grow as fast as possible. To me, their recommendations sounded like a formula that would lead to disregard for firm foundations, or worse, cutting corners that I’d live to regret. The way it was presented to me, though, was that because I was concerned about letting my (and others’) ambition get ahead of our ability, I was, in fact, being fearful of change, or accountability, or pressure, or (insert related concept).

So I throttled back on the back-to-back-to-back-to-back biz dev work that was my particular value add to the organization, and began to research different opportunities and consider different approaches — both to appease those who had ideas (whom I wanted to feel heard) and to genuinely explore what might be an untapped approach (justified in my own head by reminding myself just because it’s not my idea doesn’t mean it’s not a good idea) — even though I was pretty confident (we didn’t do a terrific job of tracking KPI’s back then) that the grinding work I was doing was our best-case opportunity for spreading the gospel and developing meaningful relationships (which, in our industry, is how you get your foot in the door).


As part of our series called “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Began Leading My Company”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Daniel Koffler.

As President of New Frontiers, (www.nfil.net), Daniel provides the overall strategic direction and short/long term planning agenda, while overseeing the financial, marketing and business development aspects of the business. NF is an executive functioning coaching organization. NF provides academic, social, transitional and career supports to clients with a range of abilities and interests, allowing them to maximize their potential and become the most successful, independent, self-advocating members of society they can be! After the sale of a majority of the assets of his family’s education business, Daniel’s focus moved to the special education practice within the remaining portfolio.

This ultimately led to the founding of NF, in response to a recurring pattern of students (with or without learning differences) transitioning to college (and/or other post High School life experiences) without being fully prepared for the new expectations assigned to them at the next stage of life. Since the humble beginnings, this approach has expanded both in breadth and depth, as clients range from elementary-school aged through seasoned adults looking to push themselves to be the most optimized version of themselves. NF’s individualized coaching model works on the HOW to address the initial challenges of establishing strategies for success, while ultimately reducing our presence in the equation (as self-advocacy skills improve) so that there isn’t a continuous reliance on the coach — rather, that responsibility is shifted to the individual receiving support.

Daniel is a member of Young Presidents Organization (http://www.ypo.org/) and holds a BS in Business Administration with a concentration in Marketing from George Washington University (www.gwu.edu). Personally, he is married with 3 children, including a set of twins.


Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Before we dive in, our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your ‘backstory’ and how you got started?

While my career has revolved around education since I entered the workforce, my exposure to the industry started almost at birth!

My mother (a speech therapist) and father (an insurance salesman with an entrepreneurial bent!) started a school in the mid-80’s in Queens, NY (where they grew up and where I lived until Kindergarten). The program focuses on supporting 3–5 year olds with a range of developmental disabilities. They had limited expertise with this sort of an endeavor, and they started small (by choice and necessity). Over the decades it has grown into one of the largest and highly regarded programs of it’s kind in New York State.

During those years, my father (who developed a confidence that comes with successful problem solving) decided that it would be worthwhile to test the private pay market (the aforementioned program is a state-funded model), and figured the best place to do that would be Manhattan.

That decision led to a 20+ year run of building and operating private schools in/around NYC, focused on populations ranging from early childhood to K12, servicing both mainstream and neuro-diverse populations. I joined the effort in 2005, when there were already a few small but established programs in our portfolio, but a number of larger ones were in development. It’s certainly a niche-y business, and it’s been quite a ride!

(Note: many of these schools still exist today, though they operate under different management)

What was the “Aha Moment” that led to the idea for your current company? Can you share that story with us?

One of the schools was established to support students with a range of learning differences (both in terms of specific diagnosis (or, in some cases, lack thereof) and severity of (mild to significant). The school provides (amongst other accommodations) a higher teacher-student ratio than is found in most/any mainstream environment and related service providers (speech/occupational/mental health support) both pulling out and pushing into the classroom. The program started off focused on elementary-aged populations, but due to popular demand from the community, expanded through middle and high school. The main reason for the expansion was to help families avoid having to make an additional ‘transition’ to another program when they aged out of ours, which can be a complicated and stressful experience for any child, but is amplified (for student as well as parents) when there are learning differences involved.

As our families began to approach the high school years, another transition beckoned — post-secondary life. The overarching concern shared by the parents was that all of the supports these students have come to expect and rely on — and which are at least in part a critical component of the success they had achieved to date — do not transfer/translate to post-secondary (or beyond) life.

In essence, the position we (as a broader society) have taken is that once you graduate from high school, you are not only legally (assuming you are 18 or older) responsible for your behaviors/actions/outcomes, but you are expected to negotiate the (at times, vague) nuances of simply being an adult.

This came into more clear focus when I was introduced to my now long-time partner in (fighting!) crime, who brought an extensive background in both direct classroom instruction and administration at the post-secondary level (with a particular focus on Student Support Services).

With her experience guiding our conversations, she was able to help me understand that while the exposure I had gained supporting individuals in the K12 arena was valid and needed to continue, there’s this meaningful slice of the population who, for a wide range of potential reasons (legitimate learning/mental health challenges, poor training, indifference, “failure to launch”, confusion in a new environment, lack of clear communication by superiors/instructors, traumatic experiences, etc…), simply aren’t imbued with the tools necessary to navigate this murky world of expectations, relationships and achievement (and other critical factors of being a successful and independent member of society) we inhabit. The indicators flash brightly when the realities of college (and the significant differences between their former and current environments) present themselves.

It’s this “tip of the iceberg” situation; with all the (relevant and appropriate) focus on K12, the entire rest of the lifespan is ignored (from a support POV) on the strength of the argument that adulthood is all about trial and error and learning (and ostensibly, growing) from mistakes.

The reality, as always, is a bit more nuanced.

The transition to adulthood is for many people the most significant shift in expectations, required skills and self-advocacy up to that point in time — and from that moment on, the reality of that shift (that life is a constant stream of new (and potentially confusing/usually not well explained) experiences and challenges) becomes THE reality. SOCIETY AT LARGE DOESN’T DO MUCH TO PREPARE US FOR WHAT’S TO COME (and leaves particular groups of people in a significantly disadvantaged position as a result).

Today, our work revolves around helping individuals develop foundational and specific-to-the-individual skills and strategies necessary to navigate the vagaries of life (be they focused on academic, career, or day-to-day success — as they define success), and is delivered via a coaching model (essentially teaching folks HOW to fish, with a hearty dose of accountability), through the lens of executive functioning development. The work is applied to all shapes and sizes of unconventional learners, be they individuals, families, organizations or otherwise. We deliver our supports in-person and virtually, as preferred by our clients.

Can you tell us a story about the hard times that you faced when you first started your journey? Did you ever consider giving up? Where did you get the drive to continue even though things were so hard?

Relatively early in my career (shortly before founding New Frontiers, I had the opportunity to experience a collaboration with a private equity sponsor. I was too junior to opine on the effort to explore/enter into the arrangement, but senior enough to have a seat at the table when it came to developing and participating in the ongoing/working relationship.

On the whole, it was not a positive experience.

In the broadest possible terms, I learned the value of due diligence in terms of choosing partners and understanding how control works (in particular, minority isn’t always light weight — an example we see repeatedly in government these days). We were on the wrong side of these concepts, and while we ultimately survived, the experience never fully (or even partially) left me, and has probably been one of the key drivers of how I approach my role today (and even how I view/interact with the world outside of the office).

That’s not to say it was ALL negative. I will stress again that, in the moment, it pretty much was. That said, I learned a few very important things about planning, presentation, crafting/improving one’s argument (if the point isn’t getting across, maybe it’s not the listener who’s dense, but the presenter who’s not communicating clearly…spoiler alert, I was the presenter ☺).

That’s probably the most important lesson, and it’s had an effect on me in various situations. I recently read a quote by Bishop Desmond Tutu that (in my mind) perfectly encapsulates this theme: “Don’t raise your voice, improve your argument”.

Sometimes, these lessons we learn (particularly through negative experiences) take time to take hold (however, they tend to stick ☺). At least in my case, I first had to go through the 5 stages of grief (yes, all 5 of them — though some took longer than others), then work to simply stabilize the ship, then begin to find examples (both intentionally and by accident, i.e. the quote above) that re-emphasize the true leadership skill hidden beneath layers of pain and disillusionment — all while realizing the reason I was on the losing end of the arrangement was because I (frankly) wasn’t smart/experienced/open-minded/prepared enough.

And to make sure to NOT let that happen again.

It brings to mind two other favorite quotes/concepts that are relevant to the underlying question:

“Every time we repeat the same mistake, the price goes up.” (by Paulo Coelho, the Brazilian novelist most widely known for his seminal work, The Alchemist).

And…

‘’Principle of the Five P’s — Prior Preparation Prevents Poor Performance.’’ (foundational approach to work and life taken by former Treasury Secretary and Secretary of State James A. Baker III, as taught to him by his father).

So, how are things going today? How did your grit and resilience lead to your eventual success?

Pretty good (I think)! As with everyone and everything these days, there’s a COVID component to things. I’m proud that we have been able to successfully (and relatively painlessly) transition from an in-person (both in terms of team collaboration and service delivery) model to a fully virtual one (which has afforded us a great opportunity in terms of who we work with and how we work with them).

Two main drivers of our current success derive from the implementation of a technology solution (mainly through adapting Microsoft Teams) and an overarching management approach (EOS) which collectively have shifted my perspective on HOW to lead and grow a business in the 21st century. It’s very exciting — and for a LONG time I didn’t necessarily feel that way about waking up every day and going to work.

With respect to grit and resilience, I have a team (and they have families), and it’s not hyperbole to suggest that their future (as well as mine) rests in the hands of OUR collective success! So sure, I get tired, frustrated, upset, dejected, want to run away to an abandoned island somewhere — but they put their faith and a TON of hard work into my vision, and I owe it to them to do everything possible to (at least attempt) to make forward progress every day towards achieving the goals we set to make that vision a reality.

In short, this is bigger than me, and it’s my responsibility to do right by them (and let’s not forget our clients, for whom we wake up every day and try to make a difference, and without whom we don’t exist!)!

My family also plays a big role in that success, with respect to taking a back seat to business realities, or in helping me think through ideas/ways to communicate or enact them. As they say, it takes a village!

What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?

Many of the prospective clients who approach us to work together are contending with some form of limiting circumstance — in other words, they either have no goals, or they have goals and lack a plan and/or accountability to achieve those goals, or they need to re-visit those goals and are unsure where/how to do so. It’s usually somewhere in that mix. It’s REALLY hard, being the person who is seeking support, to actually acknowledge that you need help. It can be just as hard to accept the help you are seeking/that’s being offered.

So, what do we do that’s different? We focus on the individual. We actually take the time to do the work that others are seemingly unable or unwilling to do. It seems so simple — and it is — but don’t mistake simple for easy.

I remember one time a client was in our office, and came looking for me — although he didn’t know who exactly I was, he simply knew me by reputation. So he starts telling the person (who he thinks is me) how he started off working with us after he had a very tumultuous high school experience (from both an academic and social POV), and was off to a rough (i.e. failing) start in college — and wasn’t sure he would continue on this path considering how negative it had been, despite understanding how that might create real limitations for him in the future. That was 4 years earlier, and he was now approaching graduation, supremely confident in his ability to be successful and develop strategies that would allow him to continue to be, and looking forward to testing his repertoire of tools out in the ‘real world’. His exact words were “working with New Frontiers has literally changed my life”.

This story was repeated to me later, with a combination of laughter (due to the name/face mix-up) and awe (due to the substance of the message). It made MY WHOLE MONTH to think something I had helped give life to was having this type of effect on even one person’s quality of life, not to mention outcomes. When you think about it, it’s not just the individual we work with who benefits from this — it’s their family, their significant other, their co-workers…their whole universe. When you include the 2nd/3rd/4th order consequences of this butterfly effect, it starts to really add up.

There’s an intrinsic value that can’t be quantified in the work we do. Everyone on our team has the talent, the intelligence, the drive and the desire to get better every day that would make them a prized member of any organization. They choose to do this work, in this way, because they want to, and can, help make a real difference. Without them, we are nothing. Our people are what makes us stand out.

Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lessons or ‘takeaways’ you learned from that?

(apologies in advance, this is a bit long winded but the context is necessary to tie it all together)

For a bunch of years, we ran a program called Summer in the City (it’s currently on pause due to pandemic). It’s a hybrid model — part experiential, part “classroom”, but all of it focused on executive functioning skills development. The population was generally high school and college students who were looking to either establish, or further develop academic/social/life skills. AM’s were spent using NYC (our base of operations) as a living experiment to test/refine critical EF skills (i.e. time management, organizational skills, sequencing, processing, budgeting, etc…). So a typical activity might be visiting the Statue of Liberty. The planning that goes into that activity are intended to test the groups’ EF capabilities in a real-world manner, without it feeling like direct instruction:

  • Where are we leaving from?
  • What time are we meeting?
  • How long does it take to get there?
  • How much will it cost?
  • Are we going to eat before, during or after? In any of those cases, what are we going to eat??

*These aren’t the specific/exact things we’d focus on, but a representative cross-section.

The PM component generally comprised of the group coming back (usually with lunch) and spending time in our conference room, cooling down (for the uninitiated, NYC in the summer is deceptively and oppressively hot) and doing a combination of what the military refers to as an ‘After Action Report’ on the day’s events (and using that feedback to further inform future programming decisions), discussing current events, and working on collaborative social skills development (i.e. giving everyone a turn to discuss a particular political event, and not disparaging views that differ from yours/learning how to actively listen and internalize). The collective result of the experience can be profound, and in many cases the nuances that don’t show up in pictures or even progress reports were where the real benefits occur.

One day, I see the group come back from a morning activity. They are wearing shorts and t-shirts, sweating, smiling/laughing, getting ready to eat lunch. I was coming off something less immediately gratifying (an annoying call of one form or another). I made an offhand comment to one of my colleagues (also in shorts/t-shirt) to the effect of “you have all the fun, I want to wear shorts and tour landmarks”!

I did NOT mean to come off as unimpressed with what goes into their work, or suggest it was easier than mine — but in hindsight, that’s probably how it came off.

They responded by happily inviting me to join them on an upcoming outing. I was so excited — my poor man’s ‘Undercover Boss’ experiment was underway!

I was going to be out of the office for a few hours, enjoying the weather and the culture that NYC has to offer. At this phase of my professional development, I was in a full suit every day, regardless of what was on my calendar or what the temperature was. I felt I had to in order to demonstrate I was a ‘professional’ (worth noting I have what has been colloquially referred to as “Benjamin Button Syndrome”, which is to say I have a rather youthful appearance for someone my age). On this occasion, however, I was going to dress like a civilian.

On the appointed day, I show up at Grand Central Station (our normal meeting place), in civilian attire, blending in quite well with our students (at least a few of whom were amused to learn I was one of the ‘adults in the room’). The usual group leader shows up on crutches, explaining that he injured his leg over the weekend. To his credit, he was ready to go despite the setback. Which was a very good thing, as he knew all the personalities, knew the agenda, and generally knew what he was doing (as compared to me, who knew none of these things). However, we usually employ a 4–1 participant to staff ratio, and on this day our 2nd person was for some reason unavailable. So it was a very good thing I was there to fill that role (We had a group of 7 total participants, not including staff, that day).

I stand by as he facilitates the conversation around which train are we going to take, what might we want to do once we get there (we were heading to the Museum of NYC, on 103rd St). So far, so good. We get on the train (not quite the straightforward exercise I was hoping for but we got it done) without losing anyone, and off we went!

We get to the museum and we’re waiting for one more member of the group to join us. As we’re waiting, my colleague looks at me and tells me that his doctor just got back to him and has availability to see him RIGHT THEN; would it be ok to step out and take the appointment? Thinking if it were me I’d want to get diagnosed and begin to recover ASAP, I said of course.

He leaves, and I’m now left with 7 members of this group, all with disparate interests, communication styles and tolerance levels for my learning curve (ranging from neutral to low). I spend the next 90 or so minutes putting my inexperience on full display, while my phone continues to ding with reminders of whatever I am supposed to be doing that day. Meanwhile, I’m trying to ‘coach’ whichever members of the group I was speaking with at any given time on how to best spend the time there (and with each instance, reminding myself why I play one role at the company, and our incredibly dedicated and talented coaches play another). During that time, I probably had I had a full eye on an average of 2 kids at a time, with the rest spread out between other exhibits or sitting in the lobby or in the bathroom — basically exactly what is NOT supposed to happen, and me just praying that nothing bad happens on my watch

Finally, THANKFULLY, it was time to head back to the office. I had all the whole team present and accounted for. On the short walk back to the subway, I again attempt to ‘coach’ the group to help me and each other find the particular subway entrance we were looking for. One of the members of the group turns to me and goes, “Where did you grow up?”. I told him, and asked why that was on his mind. He says “well, it’s pretty clear you didn’t grow up in the city”. I tried to keep a straight face, but while I still had to make sure everyone got on (and off) the train and into the office, in my head I essentially threw my hands up and accepted that if I passed the day’s test, it was by a razor-thin margin, and likely with the benefit of a curve.

We get back to the office, I’m mentally and physically exhausted, and my leadership team is eagerly awaiting my arrival to hear how it went. I recapped for them the run of show, and then crawled back into my office, unusually eager to hop on another annoying call. They had a good laugh at my expense, and rightly so.

It’s less what I learned from this whole experience than what was re-affirmed to me (and which is probably important to reaffirm every so often…luckily I offer my team frequent opportunities to help in that regard!): the fact that we all have a role to play in the organization, and our ability to play our part to the best of our ability is key to the overall machine being well-oiled and moving in the correct (up and to the right!) direction.

It’s very easy to dismiss (intentionally or otherwise) the work that people do when you aren’t in the middle of it — particularly as a leader, with all the pressures and challenges that are often unrelated to the mission of the organization (i.e. establishing a credit facility with a bank, while in support of the business’ ability to grow, is NOT working directly with our clients, which is what our mission revolves around). While at times uncomfortable, I think it’s really important to get into the weeds with some frequency and make sure that you really understand what is happening in/around your organization, whether it gives you the ability to dispassionately provide feedback, or simply to recognize how big the small things really are.

Often leaders are asked to share the best advice they received. But let’s reverse the question. Can you share a story about advice you’ve received that you now wish you never followed?

Mistaking experience for ability (and fit). That’s not to say that experience isn’t a valuable asset — it is, and I look for it in every candidate we consider bringing on to the team.

What I’ve found is that experience can cut both ways — it can of course lend itself to informing decisions, but it can also serve as justification for inflexibility/falling back on bad habits because ‘that’s the way things are done’.

When I look around at some of the most innovative companies in the world today, many of them were launched/are led by people a lot younger than me (I’m a few years away from 40), and in almost every one of those cases, these folks came up and ran with a better idea (and better way to communicate it) than the more established operator who they are about to displace.

I see the same thing in how we have generally made our hiring decisions — we look for people who have what I’ve always referred to as “it”. “It” is a curiosity, a patience, a certain bedside manner that translates to a more transparent and clearly defined relationship between our clients and our coaches. It doesn’t show up on a resume (though it certainly can and should come through in an interview if the right questions are asked). Someone can have all the credentials and technical capability in the world but be missing these traits and not be a fit for us.

Certainly in various roles, experience IS the asset — and there are plenty of folks out there (on my team and on others) who have both sets of qualities in spades. Those instances aside, when I’ve gone against my own gut and cultural-focused premise to prioritize background/experience over the intangibles, I’ve regretted it almost every time.

You are a successful business leader. Which three character traits do you think were most instrumental to your success? Can you please share a story or example for each?

Being very intentional with time. Time is the most finite of resources, and there were two specific inflection points that made the biggest impact on my understanding and appreciation for that — and the results have manifested in some interesting ways.

The first was the recession of 2008–2009. At the time, I was not married, had no kids, and basically just worked. Which was fine. When the recession hit, though, we lost quite a bit — of momentum, of actual dollars, of opportunities, of time. To be sure, it did not motivate me to roll over and die. However, right or wrong, it made me look around and think “if I can work this hard to collect status/money/tangible things and then in an instant lose it all due to circumstances outside of my control, that’s pretty scary and pretty unfulfilling.

The 2nd was a presentation I attended by/about a guy who built/sold a business and looked around and thought “now what?”. His response was to spend 2 years traveling around the country (and beyond) to look every person who had helped him along the way in the eyes and say something to the effect of “thank you, I appreciate you”. It wasn’t so much the act (which was incredible and beautiful) that captured my imagination; rather, it was the reflection of his own life and how at the end of the day, only a few things really matter — and how you spend your time accomplishing those things will be your legacy.

In essence, there are things we need to do, and things we want to do. Make sure to handle the needs as efficiently and completely as possible, every day, so that you have time to focus on the things that really matter — the wants.

Commitment to lifelong learning. The way I see it, there are three primary ways to learn — read, listen, and travel. Ever since college (where I learned A LOT about myself, my foundations and got my first lessons in how complicated the road ahead would be), I have been a diehard reader (almost exclusively nonfiction). I tend to lean towards multi-hundred page tomes, real deep dives with tons of nuance and anecdotes. That translated into a habit I’ve developed of waking up early and putting a dent in a book, and it’s sort of become my own meditative activity — while also providing remarkably relevant context for the daily challenges I work through at home and at the office. History, human interest, science, true crime, business strategy, biographies — there’s something to be gained from all of it. (Fun fact about me: in certain cases, I’ll review all my underlined passages and notes in the margins and create essentially a ‘study guide’, which I review for reference from time to time).

Travel is so interesting on a number of levels. At it’s core, it’s both a way to get some reprieve from the daily grind of life (and help you appreciate that while it can definitely be a grind, it’s YOUR life and something worth coming back to), and more importantly, a way to gain understanding of new cultures/perspectives/styles/flavors that can add a richness to one’s life in a way that other experiences simply can’t. I caught the bug when I was studying abroad during college, and really ramped it up when I got married. The people I’ve met, the scenes I’ve witnesses, the food I’ve tasted, the experiences I’ve had, the things I’ve learned — it’s completely changed my perspective and trajectory in ways that are irreversible, and (I think) for the better. I’ve committed (to myself) to visit every country on the map. I’m making ok progress (62 and counting!), but COVID has definitely put a crimp on that.

Listening is probably the easiest and the hardest at the same time — which is why I saved it for last. People love to hear themselves talk, to get credit for good ideas, to “feel” heard. I’m no different. However, I’ve had the “pleasure” of learning over and over that I, in fact, and NOT the smartest person in the room, and that my life experience has not prepared me for every twist and turn that the world might throw at me. That doesn’t mean everything I hear is to be acted on — I accept bad ideas/advice, and I disregard good ones, all the time. At least being willing to listen (and reflect, which in my opinion is the other side of the same coin) can have a cumulative effect of reducing the unforced errors that my ego might love in the moment, but will almost certainly regret in long run.

Follow the Golden Rule. Ever since I was a child, my father has drilled into me the value of doing the right thing — not because anyone is looking, not because you might otherwise get in trouble — because it’s THE RIGHT THING. In life, having a set of core values is incredibly important to defining who you are, how you will navigate various challenges that you will face, and the impression you will leave on others. At the end of the day, the single most effective technique I’ve come back to over and over is to do unto others as you would have others do unto you. All the hyperbole aside, it almost always come down to that.

Which tips would you recommend to your colleagues in your industry to help them to thrive and not “burn out”?

It almost always comes down to work-life balance. It’s an on-going conversation internally amongst my team, and I think a fairly common struggle across industries and roles within organizations.

These days, between COVID and the WFH ‘revolution’, combined with the previously ascendant nature of technology in our lives, it’s very easy to literally be available 24/7. Many leaders keep strange hours, and many subordinates feel that if they want to advance they need to be immediately responsive at all hours in order to demonstrate that they are working hard.

I’ve found the whole cycle is a textbook example of missing the signal for the noise — or to state more directly, people ought to focus on working smarter rather than harder. Using my own experience as a guide, I have numerous passions outside of work — I’m involved with a non-profit, I have a large and young family, I am a self-described lifelong learner and ‘experience junkie’ which inspires frequent travel, I am a dedicated fitness adherent — all of these things are critical to defining who I am as a person, in addition what I do for a living.

I’m a big proponent of work to live, not live to work.

We encourage our people to be the best version of themselves, and we celebrate those unique features they bring to the table. I mean it when I say I don’t care if you work under a bridge from 4am-7am if that’s your preferred method — as long as the work gets done, and you prioritize accountability to the project at hand/seat you sit in, PLEASE live your life to the fullest (and bring that positive energy back to the team)!

What are the most common mistakes you have seen CEOs & founders make when they start a business? What can be done to avoid those errors?

Letting one’s ambition get ahead of their teams’ ability. Let me be clear — it takes a certain kind of person to start and/or lead an organization, usually one who is able to work through the never-ending stream of potentially existential challenges in the pursuit of their goals. That’s important — those inconvenient obstacles will repeatedly appear, and they can get the best of even the most single-minded leader.

However, based on my own experiences as well as those of many others I’ve studied/observed over the years, I think it’s important to be careful to balance idealism with realism. You can’t push/pull your team along any faster than they can actually move, and trying to do creates an opportunity for them to experience reluctance, resistance, burnout or worse. While there comes a point when you need to take your shot or miss the opportunity, I think it’s really important to have a finger on the pulse of the people you rely on (and will come to rely on even more heavily as you grow).

In your experience, which aspect of running a company tends to be most underestimated? Can you explain or give an example?

The pressure — the loneliness at the top, as they say. It comes in many shapes and sizes. The reality that decisions I make don’t simply check a box, they can impact all the people who work with me (not to mention their families, our clients, our vendors…). The trust that everyone in our ecosystem puts in me — directly or indirectly — is a major responsibility that I take deadly seriously. I have friends who are very successful — way more so (in terms of dollars/recognition) than me — who do not, or have not, run a business. They have a job to do, and they do it well, but they can’t fully appreciate the feeling when payroll is due and you have to max out a credit card (at cash advance rates!) just to close that gap. Bear in mind, it’s that same pressure that motivates me to wake up before the next guy, make that extra call, do that extra research, kick over that extra rock or solve that problem that might clear the path to the next big thing. It’s incredibly exhilarating and motivating to even have an opportunity to put in the work and see the results — but not everyone is built for that range of highs/lows.

Ok super. Here is the main question of our interview. What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Began Leading My Company”? Please share a story or an example for each.

1)Confirm and Communicate Your Core Values

The idea of core values, and everything they represent, was not something that hit my radar when I was starting out in business, nor when I started my own business (I’ve been working for roughly 17 years, and running my own business for almost 9 years and this didn’t come into focus until a year ago). It’s not something I was trained on, it’s not how my previous business (a family-run business, of which I was one of the family members) was organized. Frankly, my impression was that this was a touchy-feely concept that had very little (if anything!) to do with THE BUSINSES OF RUNNING A BUSINESS.

Never mind that it’s a concept repeated by leaders, employees and customers of some of the most successful businesses in history. I am a textbook example of the sort of individual who loves to learn constantly — as long as it is on MY terms. In a moment of what my less seasoned self would consider “weakness” (what the rest of the educated world calls “open-mindedness”, I read a book about the EOS® Process (Traction, by Gino Wickman), of which we are now enthusiastic adherents, and began to (at least conceptually) understand that CORE VALUES are the foundation of nearly all successful businesses. Through deeper exploration, I’ve come to learn that core values are not only a calling card for those who might be candidates to work with us (either on our team, or receiving supports we offer), but a North Star for us to reflect on when we find ourselves at any number of forks in the road (be they decisions about who to partner with, or new lines of business, and most importantly (in my opinion), who (and why) to hire).

As a result, and with input from our leadership team, these have been committed to paper (video as well, where they are used as part of our on-boarding material for new staff), and have helped us avoid making some optically convenient but culturally damaging decisions, not to mention guiding a number of important adjustments to our model, and our internal structure. As much as I appreciate having found and implemented this cornerstone concept, I definitely have regrets in numerous areas that would have been avoided had this been something I was coached on before we began to scale our team up. There are legacy challenges related to this that I still struggle with.

Confirm and communicate your core values!

2)Tell Your Story, Relentlessly

When I first started out in business, I intuitively understood that you needed to have some type of ‘hook’, or story, that would help potential customers differentiate you from the masses — if only for the simple reason that I needed some copy for my website and something to talk about!

One of the things about entrepreneurship, especially if you have no partners and limited experience (aka my circumstances), is that you have to do everything yourself (as my father (my role model for entrepreneurship) used to refer to the mantle as, “Chief Cook and Bottle Washer”). On the plus side, you have full control over what happens when, and how. On the other hand, when you have limited bandwidth, certain activities may feel as if the “box has been checked”, and you can focus energies on the next thing.

That may be true in certain cases — but when it comes to telling your story (and more broadly, “defending the brand”), that work is never over.

Just like a good politician is able to stay on message, repeating the same talking points over and over again; he/she may have repeated them 6 times that day, but the particular audience you are speaking to may not have previously been exposed — and this could be the only chance you get to make an impression that will lead to a vote (or in the case of business, a potential sale or even just an opportunity to plant a seed).

I recently read an op-ed authored by former Secretary of State George P. Shultz, who just recently passed, where he shared a relevant anecdote on the subject:

One day, as secretary of state in the Reagan administration, I brought a draft foreign policy speech to the Oval Office for Reagan to review. He read the speech and said, “That’s fine,” but then began marking it up. In the margin on one page, he wrote “story.” I asked what he meant.

“That’s the most important point,” he said. Adding a relevant story will “engage your readers. That way, you’ll appeal not only to their minds but to their emotions.” … A story builds an emotional bond, and emotional bonds build trust.

With the benefit of stories like these, and plenty of hindsight, I’ve come to realize how critical continuous story telling is — and how it’s a responsibility that can really never leave the founder’s portfolio. That’s not to say others can assist/support/promote the message to ensure it is amplified as widely as possible — they definitely should. At the end of the day, though, I can’t tell someone else’s story BECAUSE IT’S NOT MINE. Same goes for the business’s story — it’s UNIQUELY mine, and I hold the responsibility and privilege of telling it as a sacred one.

Tell your story, relentlessly!

3)Ask For Help

We live in a world where, all things being equal, the message sent to citizens tends to be a version of it’s better to not HAVE to ask someone for clarification, or worse, help. It used to be the recurring joke/them in movies, where the husband would not bring himself to ask for directions, while the wife betrays a look somewhere between confusion and disgust as they get lost beyond recognition — all because hubris won’t allow you to take a very simple step to correct the problem!

I remember sitting in meetings where people would use abbreviations and/or words I simply didn’t understand. Instead of asking them to pause and clarify — I assumed that doing so would betray my ignorance and send me even lower down the totem pole — I would just nod my head. For the rest of the meeting, whatever premise was being discussed and build on the foundation of understanding that term/concept would go straight over my head. The effect was that what started with me being slightly uninformed/inexperienced at the beginning of the meeting ended with me completely ignorant to what just happened, absolutely ashamed of myself — and now I had to actually do something in response to a conversation which I participated in and had basically no idea what just happened!

Going back even further, I vaguely remember being in 4th grade, and missing a few days of school. This absence coincided with our introduction to long division. I missed it, and for whatever reason, I just couldn’t bring myself to ask for help (are we sensing a pattern??). Fast forward almost 30 years, and I still can’t do long division (for the most part). I came to realize at some point that this was the root of a long struggle with math (which I am actually good at!), and potentially altered my life path (my father studied accounting and is a math wiz — which I always admired, but felt incapable of replicating).

Today, my work revolves around coaching. We work across the lifespan, in-person (pre/post COVID) and virtually, on matters personal and professional, and everything in between. The central inflection point with coaching is not so much ACCEPTING the help (though that is absolutely critical), but first ASKING FOR help. There are numerous reasons why many people end up making breakthroughs as a result of coaching, but in many cases it’s that an issue or pattern of behavior that they struggled with for a long time has ultimately been vanquished. Often it’s not necessarily that the obstacle was insurmountable, but really they just weren’t ready to admit they don’t have the tools to rectify it on their own (in a world where you are expected to be able to power through!) — and when they finally “acquiesced” to that painful but unavoidable reality and seek/receive the help they plainly need, it’s like pulling a rotted tooth, the pressure just releases, and clarity fills in the void.

Furthermore, successful people are surprisingly willing to tell you what they know, and are usually flattered to be asked

Ask for help!

4)Choose Your Partners Wisely

It’s been said that the most important decision you’ll ever make in your life is determining who you will spend the rest of your life with. Ostensibly, that applies to your spouse — and it’s a fact that I’m not even willing to debate because it’s so objectively true in my case. The same can (and probably should) be said for your business partner(s). When you think about how much time, and money, and effort is invested into those relationships, it’s almost irresponsible to not go into that sort of a relationship with eyes WIDE open, with clear boundaries and accountabilities set in advance (and in writing if possible).

In business, there are internal partners, and there are external partners. Internally they hold titles such as co-founders or colleagues in the C-suite. Externally, they can be the brands you collaborate with, and more often than not they represent investors or alternative funding sources. While I’ve had the benefit of being blessed with superb colleagues in my organization who complement my weaknesses, I was not so lucky my first go-around with external capital sources.

Coming in as a junior member of a family business, I simply didn’t understand control via board seats, quarterly results, KPI’s, and other ‘adult’ business concepts attached to outside capital (or, frankly, well-run businesses of all stripes). Our operating thesis was simply to do the best we could every day, and dealt with each fire as it popped up (which CAN work well, too). However, now we were BEHOLDEN to others. The structure, the reporting, my (low) opinion of the value that these folks offered — it was suffocating. We were doomed from the moment we signed the papers, and it’s very likely that they knew it at that moment. We plodded along for a few years, and ended badly for us (but great for them!).

I remember venting to one of my best friends, a smart and stable guy who worked in the PE world, about my views on the matter (while we were still in this arrangement). His simple answer, “You Took The Money”, was so infuriatingly dismissive that I almost didn’t want to be friends with him anymore! I quickly rebounded and realized that he didn’t cause these issues, he was just offering some very clear — and very correct — perspective. “Taking the money” is synonymous with getting into bed with someone. In their defense, they have LP’s who they made representations to, and frankly they were smart enough to go into a business where they can be (at times ruthlessly) dispassionate and efficient in their decision making, with a singular goal of maximizing shareholder value.

It was one of those seminal lessons in life. It’s not an exaggeration to say it changed the entire course of my life, on a few levels. While I lived to tell the tale, I could have avoided untold pain and suffering had I understood what to look for and how to assign value to the short and long term sensitivities inherent in such a relationship.

Choose your partners wisely!

5)Think Small To Get Big

In the early days of my journey through entrepreneurship, I was surrounded by people who — with best intentions — wanted to see me grow as fast as possible. To me, their recommendations sounded like a formula that would lead to disregard for firm foundations, or worse, cutting corners that I’d live to regret. The way it was presented to me, though, was that because I was concerned about letting my (and others’) ambition get ahead of our ability, I was, in fact, being fearful of change, or accountability, or pressure, or (insert related concept).

So I throttled back on the back-to-back-to-back-to-back biz dev work that was my particular value add to the organization, and began to research different opportunities and consider different approaches — both to appease those who had ideas (whom I wanted to feel heard) and to genuinely explore what might be an untapped approach (justified in my own head by reminding myself just because it’s not my idea doesn’t mean it’s not a good idea) — even though I was pretty confident (we didn’t do a terrific job of tracking KPI’s back then) that the grinding work I was doing was our best-case opportunity for spreading the gospel and developing meaningful relationships (which, in our industry, is how you get your foot in the door).

What ended up happening, though, is that by taking our eye off the ball, we lost focus on what was working. It ended up taking years — years full of rotating staff, stagnant growth, and no shortage of recriminations — to identify, isolate and remedy the misstep. With a lot of hard work and a hearty portion of luck, we’ve been able to “walk and chew gum”, or in our case, explore experimental opportunities (detailed refinement of digital marketing efforts that put us directly in front of potential customers, as well as potential referral sources) without taking our foot off the gas of what had been our bread and butter (old fashion biz dev, or as we refer to it, “outreach”).

The lesson, for me at least, is reflected in the time-tested adage “Crawl Before You Walk”. Especially these days, it’s very easy to get caught up in the race to “Unicorn” status, and it’s rather difficult to drown out all the noise even if you want to, what with social media and re-targeting and all the very impressive and clever techniques that people use to stay in front of potential customers and competitors alike (full disclosure, I employ these strategies, amongst others, and think they are brilliant!), tugging on our ego by reminding us how well everyone else is doing, and setting the trap to make sure they continue to succeed by motivating their competition (YOU!) to try to catch up or surpass them, without appreciating what went into their overnight star turn.

Allow me to elaborate with a sports metaphor (one of my favorite modes of communication ). Steph Curry didn’t get where he is by picking up a basketball and taking off-balance shots from half court. He worked on his craft, from dozens of angles, for thousands of hours, and perfected the fundamentals, before he moved on to taking more risks and more dazzling ways to demonstrate his talent — and in doing so, he still never got away from the fundamentals! Same thing applies here. It’s great to expand your horizons and stretch your potential, but if you try to skip steps or cut corners, the foundation will eventually crumble. Think of it as a 21st Century entrepreneurship equivalent of The Tortoise and the Hare!

Think small to get big!

You are a person of great influence. If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂

The value of nuance (along with the sister concepts, evidence and reason). It seems to have gotten lost in the recent movement towards emotionally-driven and/or binary ways of looking at problems we face as society. It’s ok to disagree with someone on a certain issue and still find tons to agree on, and even learn from others. Nobody has a monopoly on good ideas, but you need to be willing to appreciate the nuances in perspective and experience (be it generational, professional or otherwise). I think better/proper application of nuance (supported by evidence and reason) in these types of matters could provide an almost unquantifiable benefit to not only our overall productivity (the standard and unavoidable QUANTITATIVE measure of our success), but our happiness (in my view, an even more important QUALITIATIVE measure).

How can our readers further follow you online?

Website: www.nfil.net

Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/NewFrontiersNYC

Instagram: https://www.instagram.com/_newfrontiers/

You Tube: https://www.youtube.com/user/NewFrontiersNYC

Linked In: https://www.linkedin.com/company/new-frontiers-efc/

Twitter: https://twitter.com/NewFrontiersNYC

(more coming soon ☺)

This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for the time you spent with this!

Thank YOU for the opportunity!

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