Silicon Valley Success: 3 Traits of the Most Effective Founders, CEOs, and Entrepreneurs

12 min read

No one in Silicon Valley “lucks” into lasting success.

I’d know: I’ve interviewed, worked with, and coached a number of successful founders, CEOs, and Entrepreneurs; and I’ve seen first-hand what it takes to be a Silicon Valley Operator.

Operators are those who consistently push the limits of peak efficiency, drive innovation, and generate valuable opportunities for themselves and their network. The title is a badge of honor, and a huge compliment between two successful people.

And that title can be yours.

Because here’s the thing: Operators aren’t lucky, and they don’t just work harder than everyone else; they also work smarter. They invest their energy into relationships and opportunities with the highest possible ROI.

In working with numerous Operators over many years, I’ve discovered there are a set of scalable, repeatable habits they all share. Master these and you, too, can become an Operator.

Trait #1: Become a relationship powerhouse

As an Operator, your success is directly tied to your relationships.

To succeed, you need the opportunities your network has access to. But to get them, you need to deliver meaningful, valuable interactions.

Let’s take a closer look at this process, starting from the top.

Generating high-value opportunities

Operators understand they’re only as successful as the opportunities they have access to. They also realize that 80% of those opportunities are generated from their network; those who know, trust, and respect them. And most often, these opportunities come in the form of referrals.

At any point in time, there are endless opportunities in your network. The problem is, you’re only hearing about a small fraction of them.

Before you can increase your referrals, you need to understand how they work. Most people think they just happen; that they’re the result of luck and timing. But the truth is, referrals are a process. The better you understand that process, the better you can utilize it.

Referrals are driven by two factors: Timing and mindshare.

  • Timing is when someone discovers an opportunity that would be valuable to you. You have practically no control over this factor.
  • Mindshare is how top-of-mind you are, and directly influences someone’s ability to think of you when they discover an opportunity. You have almost full control over this factor.

Mindshare is absolutely crucial because it doesn’t matter how many opportunities are in your network if your contacts can’t think of you when they arise.

Here’s how it works: You are top-of-mind with a contact immediately following an interaction with them. But as time passes, mindshare decays.

Left to its own, it will eventually decay below a certain threshold and the other person will be physically incapable of thinking of you. From a scientific perspective, their neurons have been rewired to something more relevant and recent. As a result, their brain loses the ability to think of you. For example, imagine this:

You have lunch with one of your contacts. Immediately following the meeting, you enjoy full mindshare. But you let months pass without any interaction.

You wake up one day, eight months later, and realize you never followed up; so you send them a quick ping.

A few hours later they respond with this: “I wish you would’ve reached out a few weeks earlier! I had the perfect opportunity for you.”

It should be pretty clear what happened: Your mindshare decayed to the point that you were no longer relevant.

Here’s a graph illustrating the process of mindshare decay:


It’s easy to be frustrated with your contact, but the only person you can really be angry with is yourself. Your mindshare is your responsibility, and you let it decay to the point that they were unable to think of you.

That’s the bad news. The good news is it doesn’t have to be that way. You can stay top-of-mind by consistently providing high-value interactions, such as meetings, value payloads, or introductions.

If you’d done that in the story above, your graph would have looked a little more like this:



Even with full mindshare, there’s no guarantee you’ll hear about every opportunity; but the likelihood of generating referrals goes through the roof if you take the time to nurture your network; something Operators are diligent about.

Delivering high-impact interactions

Want high-value opportunities? Provide high-value interactions.

Like opportunities, interactions are driven by two distinct factors: Frequency and experience impact.

  • Frequency is how often you interact with a contact. This can be increased by simply reaching out more often.
  • Experience impact measures how much of an impression an interaction leaves with your contact. This can be increased by upping the value you provide.

Experience impact is important because we’re now living in the experience economy. If you work in a commoditized industry (and most of us do), you can’t differentiate on price because people aren’t buying products or services anymore; they’re buying experiences.

Just take a look at Starbucks. Despite the fact that coffee is the very definition of a commodity, they’ve built a hugely successful business charging $5 for something our grandparents would have paid $0.25 for. The reason they can do this is because they’ve combined a commoditized product with an experience that people crave.

Operators know that the key to staying top-of-mind isn’t just increasing the frequency of interactions. If all you do is reach out more often, you’re just going to look spammy. Instead, they make sure every interaction they have is perceived as a relevant, meaningful, and valuable experience.

Action Step: Manage your mindshare

Send one email a day to someone you wouldn’t otherwise have contacted. Just make sure the content is relevant and valuable for the recipient.

By the end of a year, you’ll have sent out 260+ more emails, and I can practically guarantee at least one of those emails will generate an opportunity you wouldn’t otherwise have had.

Trait #2: Save and invest time wisely

We all have the same 24-hour days. What sets Operators apart isn’t that they work longer hours, it’s that the hours they do work are leveraged to the extreme. In many cases, Silicon Valley Operators get more done in an hour than others get done in a day. [Tweet this!]

How? By eliminating reactive tendencies and investing in proactive activities. This is a two-step process that starts by freeing up time and ends by using that time wisely.

Freeing up time

When most people need more time, they work longer hours. When an Operator needs more time, they look for leverage. And the first place they look is to their executive assistant, chief of staff, or a combination of both; a role we call the engagement manager.

At the end of the day, working longer hours only gets you so far. Eventually you just can’t work more; you’ll either run out of hours or burn yourself out. Hiring an assistant is the only scalable way to create more time.

Think you can’t afford one? I’d argue you can’t not afford one, and Harvard agrees: “A spectacular executive assistant can defy the laws of the physical world,” and “… Companies can boost productivity by arming more managers with assistants.”

Put plainly, a good assistant can save you an upwards of 12+ hours each week. Imagine what you could do with that kind of time.

In fact, you don’t have to. We’re going to talk about that next.

Investing time

You know that feeling of accomplishment when you finally reach inbox zero? The moment when, after 87 emails, you’re finally caught up? It’s a trap. It might feel productive, but ask yourself: “Was this really the best use of my time?”

In most cases, the answer is no; spending two hours writing emails is not the best use of your time, even if it feels productive. Because the simple truth is, no one ever values you for writing an email. They only value for sending an email.

It’s easy to get caught up in reactive, day-to-day tasks that feel urgent, but aren’t necessarily important. With the power of an assistant, Operators delegate tasks like inbox management in favor of more proactive, productive tasks.

They make time for these tasks by scheduling and prioritizing whitespace time, or blocks of time dedicated to strategic initiatives that really move the needle for their business. Some examples of proactive tasks might be:

  • Learning a new skill,
  • Nurturing your network for future opportunities, or
  • Developing a marketing strategy for the coming year

The trick to getting the most out of whitespace is ensuring it is only used for productive activities or creative thinking; tasks that might otherwise be put off in favor of more urgent matters.

Action Step: Invest in proactivity

Although I recommend scheduling a minimum of four hours of whitespace each week, start small.

In the next seven days, schedule a one-hour block of whitespace time dedicated to a proactive task of your choosing. Even better, set it up as a recurring weekly event on your calendar.

Operator Trait #3: Leverage your network for growth and support

Operators are the best at what they do, but they didn’t get to that level on their own. Like all successful people, they recognize the importance of mentorship, guidance, and community.

To get to (and stay at) the top, Operators do two things: They surround themselves with the right people and they work with a coach. Let’s take a closer look at each.

Surround yourself with the right people

This isn’t the first time we’ve said it, and it won’t be the last: You are the average of the people you spend the most time with.

But it’s not just us. Extensive research has proven that the groups you associate with determine the type of person you become.

If you want to be more successful, surround yourself with successful people. Want to be more motivated? Find motivated people. Disciplined? Find disciplined people. Want to be an Operator? Then surround yourself with Operators.

To at least some degree, we are all products of our environment. You can’t control every aspect of that environment, but you can control who you spend your time with.

Work with a coach

Eric Schmidt of Google says the most valuable advice he ever received was to get a coach.

Former Intuit CEO Steve Bennett says, “People who are high achievers—who want to continue to learn and grow and be effective—need coaching.”

And it’s not just them. High performers in every field, from politicians to entrepreneurs to celebrities, use coaches.

If testimonies aren’t enough, both Harvard and Stanford have run independent studies and surveys verifying the value generated by high-quality executive coaches.

All of that to say: If you want to be an Operator, you need a coach. Period.

Here are a few examples of what you can expect from an effective executive coach:

  • Actionable insights. A coach will help you develop pragmatic solutions to overcome challenges.
  • Accountability. A coach will hold you to your commitments and ensure you follow through on goals.
  • Encouragement. A coach will offer encouragement to keep you going when things don’t go as planned.

Most people are turned off to coaching because of the price. They see it as an expense rather than an investment, and their business sense tells them expenses need to be cut.

But if you want to be an Operator, coaching isn’t a superfluous expense; it’s a priceless investment with an exceptionally high ROI.

Action Step: Audit your network

To fast track your journey to success, surround yourself with people who have already done (or are actively doing) what you want to accomplish. Here are three steps to connect with the kind of people who will elevate you to Operator status:

  1. Create a list of five Operators you want to emulate. Although these can be men and women who are already a part of your network, they don’t have to be. The only requirement is that they’re someone you can reach.
  2. Next to each name, write down one way you can be valuable to them. Not sure how? Ask them about their challenges, then tap your resources for potential introductions or value payloads; then execute on that strategy immediately.
  3. Now that you have an in, stay relevant by using the skills from trait #1 to consistently deliver high-impact interactions.

Keep this up and you’ll eventually become a vital part of their network.

Start becoming an Operator today

Okay, you’ve spent the last five minutes learning that Operators:

  • Generate opportunities by creating valuable, experience-driven interactions,
  • Invest their time in productive, proactive tasks, and
  • Leverage their network for growth and support.

But none of that information is particularly “new.”

In fact, you probably already knew you should be doing it. But the difference between good and great is the distance between knowledge and action. [Tweet this!]

So here’s the question: Are you ready to stop reading about Operators and start becoming one? It has to start now. If you put it off, it won’t happen.

If you’re serious about your success, here’s the next step: Learn more about our Coaching services and Book a free 30-minute call with one of our experienced, results-driven coaches.

(Which you might recognize as one of the foundational habits of Operators)

We’ve helped countless founders, CEOs, and VCs on their journey to success, and we’d love to be part of yours. During our call, we’ll:

  • Take an in-depth look at your unique challenges,
  • Clearly define your goals, and
  • Create an actionable plan to overcome those challenges, reach those goals, and become an Operator.

And if, at the end, it looks like we’re a good fit for each other, we’ll develop a plan and move forward towards success from there.

Sound good? Great. Let’s get started. I’ll look forward to meeting you soon.

Book your free 30-minute coaching session now!

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