Startups Are Teenagers

Yesterday, my wife shared with me an incredible way of looking at what it means to raise teenagers. In case you didn’t know, we’ve got two.

She said that their conscience is developing but isn’t fully baked yet, and so as parents it’s our job to be their external conscience. To help them to make the right decisions for themselves, when clearly they haven’t developed the ability to do that on their own yet. Looking at it that way made me feel so much better about the sometimes hard job of disciplining my sons.

That all got me thinking about the similarities between raising kids and leading a startup. Startups are like kids, they can’t do much for themselves without you. If you are someone who likes to feel needed, then this is right up your alley. For me, I like to be needed to a point, then I get annoyed when things don’t behave appropriately. But just like parenting, the need to be the conscience of the startup is unrelenting, you can’t take a break with it.

If there is any one area where a growing startup starts to really feel this need for conscience, it’s in how the team resolves conflict. Few things will cause a startup to be more dysfunctional than an inability to resolve conflict. And yet, the odds are that most startups will become dysfunctional with regards to conflict resolution. The dynamics are the same as they are for teenagers.

Teenager’s lives become exponentially more complex as they grow up, not linearly. They have hormones busting out of everywhere, they are approaching a point where they will be fully responsible for their actions in the eyes of the law, they are thinking about leaving home and attending college (or not attending college) and their relationships are all infinitely more complex than they were before.

When a teenager has to make a decision about how to manage their time, they often can’t see the forest for the trees and they just make decisions from the hip. This is where parents have to come in and guide (sometimes forcefully) the teenage child to the healthy decision.

Startups have a weirdly similar phenomena. As they grow, people’s roles change, competition stiffens, more people join the team, goals are set higher and all these things lead to the inevitable conflicts that test culture. What I have recently learned is that even though you want the culture to be resilient in the face of these conflicts, you must be involved and engaged as they happen. It’s the leader’s job to model the right way to handle conflict, not get upset and whine about the organization when conflict isn’t being properly managed.

Growth brings conflict. Immature things, be they people or organizations, struggle through conflict. We who lead must step up and be the external conscience over and over until maturity sets in for that which we are responsible for. In organizations, that could go so far as requiring you to remove people from the organization who don’t develop a maturity in how they resolve conflict. That is the extreme, but it’s your job to do for the organization what it can’t do for itself. That’s leadership.

By the way, parenting is harder than leading a company in my opinion. It teaches new tough lessons everyday. For those of us lucky enough to be parents, we’d do well to find life lessons we can apply to our careers in parenthood. I’m gonna keep an eye out for them.

To being the external conscience… On the Grind,

Marcus

Originally published in Sunday’s volume of The Grind. Subscribe: Unlikely.co