Heather McGough Origin Story
Fourteen years ago, at the age of 24, I’d finished college and some nonprofit work in the southeast United States. Afterward, I headed back into my parents’ house in the midwest, as I considered my next move. Should I go to law school? Nah. Become a pharmaceutical rep? Nope. I had an idea to move out west to California to further my nonprofit career, but I was told I definitely shouldn’t move to San Francisco. Too expensive.
It was curiosity, independence, and being a confident explorer that brought me here. I was fortunate enough to borrow $1500 from one of my favorite people – Grandpa. I told him I’d pay him back. A year later I still called him every week, and every week I didn’t have the money to pay him back. Yes, San Francisco was expensive and he could sense I felt guilty.
I was working tirelessly at my dream job – a nonprofit – spending every day trying to win over the hearts and minds of parents and their children. My work spanned five public housing communities in southeast San Francisco, where the leading cause of death was homicide. I wanted to prove to the community that the program we were building wasn’t a flash in the pan. I chose a job of service that didn’t pay much. I lived each day within a tight budget on an Excel spreadsheet, counting every penny. One day as Grandpa and I were talking about the usual topics – politics, current events and my job, he said, “You know, Heather, you are doing really important work. You do know that you don’t have to pay me back, okay?”
Grandpa died many years ago, but I still plan on paying him back. I’d like to find a curious girl from the midwest who has a desire to come to San Francisco to do nonprofit work, and give her a “loan.” I want to tell her she is capable, and she can do anything she sets her mind to.
Heather, you are the Co-Founder & CEO of Lean Startup Co. Tell us about your role?
Beyond the typical CEO duties related to people and culture, strategy and growth, cash and profitability, I probably spend more time than most CEOs triaging opportunities. Because the Lean Startup has been so popular as a movement over the past decade thanks to Co-Founder and Board member Eric Ries’ best-selling book The Lean Startup, I find it necessary to manage and prioritize the opportunities that come our way so my team can focus on making the most impact in our community. As Co-Founder and CEO of Lean Startup Co., I’ve spent as much time defining and exploring who we are and how we can achieve impact, as what we could be and should be. Those explorations also include coming to terms with what we shouldn’t be.
This is an essential task for any business leader who wants their company to grow, change, and adapt to the needs of society, institutions, corporations, and individuals in real-time. Doing so keeps us focused on our True North. At our core, Lean Startup Co. is about empowering people and companies with their own internal muscles and know-how to reinvent the future of their business. We are the world leader in Continuous Transformation. Our work is rooted in the Lean Startup process, which revolutionized how companies innovate in a more scientific, and therefore, repeatable way.
I spend time asking myself questions like: What can make a meaningful impact? How do we measure it? What is important? What does important mean? Do we have the right team makeup to achieve our own and our clients’ desired outcomes? How do we test for skills?
Every day we wake up to a host of large-scale societal issues that demand our attention – be it politics, journalism, education, healthcare or the environment.
My entire team shares the feeling that we can’t shy away from taking on these challenges, nor can we accept the old way of doing things as the only way. We believe entrepreneurial thinking will be instrumental in finding solutions to the world’s toughest stumbling blocks, just as it has for countless companies and individuals. I believe that most people have good intentions and that we all want to leave a world full of resources and opportunities for those who are about to inherit it. What’s more, we can work together to move in the right direction.
For an entrepreneur, it’s very important to be curious. Curiosity means to constantly explore. What is your stance on this?
I didn’t follow a traditional path to entrepreneurship, i.e. I don’t come from a family of entrepreneurs, I didn’t attend a top-tier college, and I don’t have an MBA. Curiosity, a desire to create positive change, and hard work all helped to drive me to where I am today. I tend to see possibilities where others see dead ends.
I never stop asking questions, which is one of the reasons why I’m able to elicit the very best work from my team. I am curious about what makes my team members tick. I am curious about their skill sets and how to unlock and leverage the potential of our network so we can learn and grow together, rather than isolate ourselves inside the silos of our own experiences. I see our varied backgrounds and patterns of thought as a tremendous resource and something to celebrate.
In the same way, the Lean Startup Co. could not exist without curiosity. We are curious about solving problems for our community and customers. One of our core values is empowering entrepreneurial behavior, and a key component of this involves staying hungry and curious. We are mentally tough, professionally adaptable, eager to navigate ambiguity, have a bias for action and love to search for both problems and answers.
How can we explore even deeper in order to achieve mastery in what we are doing?
Company leaders must devote a great deal of thought and dedicated creative work to stay competitive over the next 10 months, the next 10 years, and, ideally, the next 100 years. The rate of accelerating reinvention means life is changing faster now than at any other point in history, but it’s also slower now than it will ever be.
Markets used to be OK with one major product or organizational change per decade, but now the shelf life of any competitive advantage can be measured in years, if not months.
Organizations of all kinds must cultivate an internal bias toward continuous reinvention. This is not about creating a singular breakthrough innovation, but developing a process for repeatedly reimagining your future, no matter how the world changes around you. To do this effectively requires more than just efficient product development and launch strategies. You must instill a passion for entrepreneurship into the fabric of your organization and spark a culture of continuous transformation.
On the personal front, mastery begins when you make a conscious decision about the kind of life you want to lead. I have been very lucky in that I grew up with two caring parents in an upper middle-class neighborhood. I’m white, a tall blond, speak English, and was fortunate enough to attend college. I have had many privileges that often pave the way to success. But what is success? Is it money? A big house? A nice car?
Success to me is none of those things. It’s having the freedom to spend time with family and friends, and feeling fulfilled by experiences not objects. Success means seeing the impact of what you create, working with colleagues and clients who you can think of as family and friends, and being truly excited to go to work each day. Every morning, I wake up and ask myself, “What good will I do today?” It’s a reminder that I have the power to do something meaningful that day, be it big or small.
Mastery is built on certain qualities, like perspective, empathy, and a positive mindset. It starts with seeing how big the world is, paying attention to the similarities, and appreciating the differences.
Mastery involves more than talking about problems. It means taking action to remedy them. It means helping people when they ask, but more so knowing when it’s appropriate to offer help when they don’t ask.
The world is a fantastic, messy, beautiful place full of lessons for those who aren’t afraid to fail and learn. Every time you try something entirely new, either you win or you learn, and in both cases you grow.
Mastery comes from understanding the Western way of living isn’t the only way, and only by appreciating the power of difference can you question the assumptions that are holding you back. I was fortunate enough to have the chance to spend time with a group of Maasai women in a little village in Kenya. I could see the joy and contentment in their eyes as they went about their daily routines. They thought my life was hilarious because I didn’t have cows or children. They didn’t need objects or technology to be fulfilled. It opened my eyes to a different kind of mastery of life.
I’ve chosen to live my life without judgment. My parents taught me to live life on my own terms with a positive outlook, a welcoming nature, and not to speak negatively about the choices of others. I know that everyone is fighting a battle I know nothing about.
I believe in the theory you become the average of the five people you spend the most time with. I proactively seek people who are positive, hard-working, see possibilities instead of obstacles, feel a sense of power over their future, and most importantly have a sense of humor along the way. You can achieve mastery in what you set out to do, if you know yourself first.
There is a saying: A good leader must be a brave explorer. True or false?
Absolutely true. But how do we define bravery? I believe it’s different for every person. Many people deal with trauma, health issues, loss of loved ones, or other challenges. Bravery includes things like asking for help when you need it, holding yourself accountable when you mess up, and saying no with confidence when you have to prioritize your own needs. Bravery is leading by example, but also understanding your own areas for growth. It is asking for feedback and not getting defensive when you receive it. It’s listening, even when you think you know all the answers. At its core, bravery is having faith in yourself and a willingness to venture into unknown territory – whether it’s swimming in the ocean or starting a company.
On the business front, one must admit when something is a lucky invention, e.g. a one-hit wonder that creates fireworks, but can’t be reliably repeated. Being brave means embarking upon a journey of continuous, sustainable innovation. The difference is the underlying process that reduces risk in the creative phase and exponentially increases the probability that every effort will land on the dartboard, if not in the bullseye.
In your opinion, what is the next phase after exploring, regarding the business?
Businesses must move beyond creating that first disruptive innovation. As your organization grows and becomes more institutional, a sustainable culture of innovation must be scaled in tandem. It must become a part of your organizational DNA.
To create a culture of continuous entrepreneurship, most companies need coaches to help them hone in on on practices such as Lean Startup, Design Thinking, and Agile. They need a roadmap for their innovation management and continuous transformation. This is our passion and sweet spot. For our clients, the mandate is: Innovate or Die.
In coaching, the coach navigates and helps the coachee to explore every opportunity that exists. How can coaching be helpful when it comes to execution?
Coaching is mission critical to successful execution. Changes in behavior don’t come easy, and doesn’t happen after a few days of training. Innovation is constantly evolving, and without ongoing support to practice your new learnings and experimentation, it’s highly likely participants will fall back into old ways.
Early in my career I oversaw a literacy program in the US. I recruited and trained volunteers to work with individuals struggling to find jobs and support themselves because they could not read. At another job, I supported adults who needed skills and jobs, because they were on their last leg of welfare and at risk of becoming homeless.
What really made a difference then still holds true today, whether I’m coaching teammates on their performance or others on an entrepreneurial mindset – people need encouragement to take a risk, validate their learning, and see how far they have come. Over time, coaching changes lives and resets what people believe about their own potential. It helps to create new pathways and consistency while practicing something new.
On the cover of this edition, you are holding a compass, a symbol of exploration. What is your final message to our readers?
The compass is a reminder to never lose sight of your True North. I encourage you to ask more questions and seek out new challenges every day. These challenges are yours alone and if you don’t paint your masterpiece, no one ever will. Do your due diligence and make sure you are tackling the right problems at the right time in the right way. We are living in a crucial moment in history, on the verge of a new world of our own creation. It is vital that the work we do each day moves us closer to the world we want to live in and leave behind.
The future of work is already here and it looks like the end of jobs, and the beginning of an open marketplace of skills. You may work for many different companies, but you will always do your best work in pursuing what you love. In this new role as a life entrepreneur, you must push yourself to work smarter. You will see possibilities that others just can’t, you will offer proof that there are viable alternatives, and by doing so, you will find yourself standing on the right side of history.