Why worrying is good for business

Entrepreneurs might wish anxiety didn't keep them up at night, but use worry right and it can be healthy for the bottom line, says Faisal Butt.

by Faisal Butt
Last Updated: 15 Sep 2016

I worry. I worry a heck of a lot. In fact, I start my day with a healthy dose of worrying. But I don’t let my worrying break me down. While it’s typically associated with weakness and has a negative connotation in the world of business, what most people haven’t pondered is how wonderfully effective worrying can actually be. If channelled correctly it can turn into the positive energy and laser focus needed to execute your business objectives.

Only the Paranoid Survive

Andy Grove, the iconic late CEO of Intel, was a famous worrier and eloquently divulged his worrisome mantra in his bestseller, Only the Paranoid Survive.  He was known for never letting Intel rest on its laurels and pushed the company to keep on breaking boundaries in microchip innovation. 

Andy’s management style started with a core of worry and scepticism.  He believed that business success contains the seeds of its own destruction, and that in order for an organisation to have longevity, it needs to continue to worry about the future. 

This principle was immortalised in his statement ‘success breeds complacency.  Complacency breeds failure.  Only the paranoid survive.’  All this worry shaped the culture of one of the most successful and continuously innovative company in the nineties and noughties, a culture summarised in Grove’s statement, ‘A corporation is a living organism; it has to continue to shed its skin. Methods have to change. Focus has to change. Values have to change. The sum total of those changes is transformation.’ 

At Intel, worrying about the future created a culture of achievement that drove change and innovation, propelling the company forward from its humble beginnings in 1968 to its market dominant position today. 

Worry Looks Around

The American poet and essayist, Ralph Waldo Emerson, wisely said, ‘Sorrow looks back, Worry looks around, Faith looks up.’

The problem with founders and CEO’s is that all too often, they look at their own businesses with ‘beer goggles’ on. They see the good and ignore the bad. It is important to heed Emerson’s centuries-old wisdom: worry, ‘look around’, and have multiple perspectives on your business.

When an entrepreneur is assessing a new or existing business initiative, it is essential that he looks at it from a 360-degree view.  He must look back at what has happened in the past to recognise the patterns the future may hold.  He must look at the upside scenario if all goes as planned (which it rarely does). 

And perhaps most importantly, he must ‘look around’ and worry about the downside scenario and the potential risks involved. He should get comfortable with Murphy’s Law, ‘that whatever can go wrong, will go wrong’. Not to do so would be irresponsible and would leave him utterly unprepared for the treacherous and unpredictable path his business is likely to face in the journey ahead. 

Effective Worrying

Worry (and the cortisol it releases into our bloodstream) on its own cannot possibly do us any good. Worry must be matched by anticipation, strategy, and action. Most effective business leaders worry about and anticipate troubles and act before they happen.

Carl D. Thoma, the great American Chicago-based private equity investor, is a self-professed ‘world class worrier’, and openly claims that ‘effective worrying’ is responsible for his success.  According to Thoma, anticipation is a mission-critical business skill, and that ‘anticipation starts with worrying, and then leads to thinking about and preparing for taking action to mitigate business risk.’ 

As a private equity investor myself, I cannot help but worry about how my portfolio companies are performing, what the morale is at each of the companies I’ve invested in, what strategic threats their core markets are facing, and what is keeping each of the CEO’s I’ve backed up at night.

All of their individual worries get collated into one big, fat, hairy, cortisol-induced ball of worry and becomes my own.  But over the years, I’ve managed to break down this hairy ball into risk-mitigating processes and actions that are the key to the success of my investment portfolio.

Final Thoughts

As with all things in life, the secret to successful worrying is in striking the right balance.  Boundless, unbreakable optimism has always been and will continue to be at the core of what makes the entrepreneur successful. It is this ethereal quality that differentiates the entrepreneur leader from the manager.

Leaders see the light even when surrounded by seemingly impenetrable darkness. Their optimism inspires the team to keep marching even when the world around them appears to be dissipating before their eyes. But worrying is what induces leaders to stop, look around, evaluate the options, and map out a course of action, channeling their enthusiasm into careful execution.

Those who learn to balance the right dose of worry and caution with just enough irrational exuberance will be the ones who rise to the top in the ever-changing, technology-infused world of tomorrow. But most importantly, remember, life is short, so pick your battles when it comes to worrying.  Winston Churchill certainly picked his when he definitively stated, ‘I never worry about action, but only about inaction.’

Image credit: Alon/Flickr


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