The Undervalued Witness to History

PerryMason_witnessDuring my 20 years as an operating executive, when I would interview a job candidate I would often think:

“Is he/she a ‘maker of history’ or a ‘witness to history?’”

Candidates would tell great stories where they play the hero:

“I created a cross-function marketing allocation process around quarterly initiatives, which included members of each marketing sub function, channel, direct, OEM, international, etc..we met quarterly to vet initiatives and allocate capital to initiatives.”

“We were short on tech support personnel, and the hardware failed in the field, so I coordinated a multi-location hardware replacement program, where I bought tools for, trained, and then dispatched administrative and sales personnel to do the replacement.  We centralized support by phone, and walked them through any difficulties in the field – completed it in 24 hrs., customer happy!”

Wow…but really? Was it your idea? Did you single-handedly spearhead the execution? Or were you in a supporting role? Was it a team initiative? Did you observe from close by?

Either way, the story was told as though the candidate was the maker. How the hell could I know if that was really the case!


As an investor, I find myself asking the same question. What is the entrepreneur’s role in his stories?

Maker or Witness?

Makers make, witnesses observe. I love hiring and investing in makers – we all do. They add observable, measurable value. But I know from experience that witnesses are additive to a business too, even if it is harder to quantify.

I started my first technology business out of college. It had a seven-year run. The business ultimately didn’t succeed. My regret was not so much that it failed, but that it took seven years to fail. I wish it had taken three years instead.

During those seven years, I had no exposure to the higher level of complexity, decision making, leadership, or challenges that make a successful business. I didn’t have the benefit of being…..well, even a witness to successful decision-making, execution, and leadership!

A number of years later, my partners and I sold a software business to what was at the time a rocket-ship growth company called Cheyenne Software. Over three years the company went from $40M in revenue with 130 people to an annualized $300M in revenue and over 1300 people. We grew product lines, sales channels, and selling regions. We had a winning culture. Many of us, myself included, were put in positions we had no prior experience in. In my areas of responsibility, I was probably 1/3rd maker, 2/3rds witness – best case half and half.

It was the 2/3rds of my role as a witness at Cheyenne which provided exposure to an environment I could not have created and ultimately shaped me as an executive. I grew up there. I learned from the culture, from watching my peers, and from seeing what didn’t work and what did.

What would have happened if my first business did succeed, I had an “ok” exit, and I was a 100% “maker”? Would I have been better off?

As an Angel Investor (and a startup coach), I’ve come to realize that while it rocks to invest in a maker, witnesses are also valuable – and more often than not undervalued. When I evaluate an entrepreneur, I think about where they were a witness and what they witnessed. I can worry a little bit less about whether they were makers.


When you think about your own career defining moments, were you a maker or a witness? In the cases where you were both, what was the percentage breakdown?

What advice would you give your younger self on the significance of being a witness?

  • Steve Poppe

    Great piece Jeff!

  • Vidar Brekke

    Very insightful and thoughtful. I just witnessed a great blog posts!

  • Alan

    A thoughtful piece. I really enjoyed this.

  • Victoria Hanson

    The trouble is we have all been trained to think that we need chiefs and not indians. However, as you point out Jeffrey, you need a mixture. Businesses succeed when you have the right mix and that isn’t just a room full of makers. I wonder if society will ever remember this?

    • Jeff

      Yes Victoria, and witnesses, if they observe thoughtfully, can become makers next time around.

  • Steve Keltz

    Great first Fink, Jeff! My re-Fink is that we are probably all a bit of both but it’s OK to be a witness as long as you learn from the experience and make something of what you witnessed. Passive Witness vs Active Witness (maker)?

    • Jeff

      Indeed, but I do worry less about the ratio.

  • Himakara Pieris

    I would argue that people are hardwired to be either makers, or witnesses, and will switch roles only when the limitations enforced by their environment do not permit them to play their hardwired role. For makers, limitations may include: knowledge, red-tape, budgets, etc. For witnesses, it could be the sheer necessity for survival.

    Personally, anytime I have been forced to be a witness – I have: a) Always found some niche that I could be a maker, b) Spent nights and weekends figuring out how to switch the roles – this includes learning & mastering new skill(s), or c) Turned miserable and left for a position that would allow me to be a maker at some level, even if that means a significant haircut.

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