Bend, Don’t Break
I remember interviewing with a startup in 2012.
Side note: This was my first interview with a startup. I was so nervous that I was sweating through my dress shirt and suit jacket (btw, who the fuck wears a dress shirt and suit jacket to a startup interview? … smh).
I digress — I was interviewing with this startup and asked the Founder (s/o Jordan Michaels!) what his biggest learning was as an entrepreneur. He shared something that has stuck with me over the years:
“Starting a company is like a roller coaster. The highs are really high. The lows are really low. You have to remain level-headed and stay the course.”
These past two weeks have reminded me how this statement couldn’t be anymore true. The highs have been incredible — milestones like finalizing our advisory team, closing our fundraising round, finalizing our product formulations, placing our first PO. These are memories that will last my lifetime.
Equally, the lows have been really low. In particular, I remember the moment when we thought we had finalized our first product (SPF Lotion) and celebrating that moment (incredible high).
Only to receive a sobering email a few hours later and learn that the product needed to be re-formulated (incredible low), delaying our launch date for the second time. The ups and downs of a roller coaster couldn’t be a more fitting analogy.
On top of this, I feel a heightened responsibility as the CEO to remain steadfast for my co-founders and other partners. This has been a challenge for me because I’m a high-energy, wear-my-emotions-on-my-sleeve type.
When things take a turn for the worst, that’s when I need to lock in and be strong for my team because I set the tone for us. We’re all navigating this startup journey for the first time as founders. Yet in certain ways I need to act like I’ve been there before, so I can anticipate the upcoming highs/lows and remain the constant in the room.
As we’re learning to navigate the ups and downs more effectively, there are three key principles that we rely on (specifically to overcome the challenges):
When teams encounter adversity, the first thing to go is effective communication. This is especially true if a team doesn’t have a clear communication framework to facilitate shared consciousness throughout the team. When bad things happen, there’s a tendency to:
- Confuse (false) assumptions for truth instead of relying on facts.
- Allow emotions to cloud judgement instead of removing them from the thought process.
- Make short-sighted decisions that benefit the individual instead of making the right decisions that benefit the team in the long run.
In reality, the opposite must happen.
We need to rely on effective communication to overcome the challenge. Our approach is based on General McChrystal’s leadership philosophy:
- Create shared consciousness.
- Decentralize decision-making.
- Empower execution.
As a founding team, we have a daily meeting to review agenda topics that are top of mind in our respective areas to create shared consciousness. We believe in the ethos that:
“The person closest to the decision-making is best equipped to make that decision.”
It’s important to note that decentralized decision-making still requires effective checks and balances.
We solve for this by ensuring that the founder who is responsible for a certain decision is prepared with evidence to support his recommendation.
It’s the role of the other two founders to ask the right questions, poke, and prod to help the decision-maker arrive at the best decision — whether it’s going with his recommendation or a different course of action.
Once a decision is made, we empower execution and allow that person to move forward with speed and conviction.
This communication and decision-making framework proves its true worth in the midst of adversity.
When teams encounter adversity, the second thing to go is trust. This is especially true if a team hasn’t taken the proper steps to build strong relationships between team members, especially manager-employee relationships. When bad things happen, there’s a tendency to:
- Assume the worst instead of giving others the benefit of the doubt.
- Because the worst is assumed, a “Me-First” mentality replaces the “Team-First” mentality.
- When people are optimizing for the “Me-First” mentality, then the team is infected with systemic lack of trust and suffers irreparable damage.
In reality, the opposite must happen — we need to rely on unwavering trust in each other and collectively as a team to overcome the challenge.
Our approach is to cultivate strong relationships, starting with us as founders. There’s many things we do to cultivate a strong relationship — consistent 360 sessions.
We operate under a culture of transparency and being upfront with each other, coaching sessions with an executive coach, personality tests to better understand how each of us thinks and acts, and spending quality time together to build trust.
All of the above is necessary to build a foundation of trust.
The quickest way to trust is to point out that shit happens…
We get mad, pissed off, and frustrated with each other. But we consistently allow cooler heads to prevail. Give each other the benefit of the doubt.
Rely on past track record instead of extrapolating from a single outlier (i.e. Terry didn’t follow up on X, therefore he isn’t reliable). Communicate proactively, and apologize and take responsibility for our actions to find resolution.
Integrity is one of my favorite words, and to me, it means remaining consistent in your values system. In other words:
“Integrity is who you are when no one is looking.”
When teams encounter adversity, the third thing to go is integrity. This is especially true if a team hasn’t taken the proper steps to outline clear operating principles (or core values although I think this is a buzz phrase among startups). When bad things happen, there’s a tendency to:
- Believe (whether true or not) that you’re the only one acting with integrity.
- Contemplate breaking from your values system because you believe the situation calls for it or everyone else is acting without integrity.
- Act in a manner that lacks integrity and is inconsistent with your values system.
In reality, the opposite must happen — we need to maintain high integrity and rely on our values to overcome the challenge.
Our approach is to outline clear operating principles to guide our decision-making. These guidelines are especially valuable tough situations arise and difficult decisions need to be made.
These operating principles hold us accountable so we bend, but don’t break.
It goes without saying there have been times (and will be more times in the future) where we’re tempted to violate our values. Our goal is to resist that temptation (bend), but not give in (break).