This past Wednesday was not my favorite day ever — England crashed out of the World Cup with a subpar performance against a gutsy Croatia; I had to watch the game on a cramped United flight (which was delayed and the wifi was down); and at 8pm I found myself in Cleveland, Ohio. Joy.
This newsletter piece isn’t a reflection on another poor experience flying United, nor is it about trying to find a decent place to eat on the outskirts of Cleveland (whilst trying to keep a toddler who hasn’t napped all day amused). This is partially about the reincarnation of Gareth Southgate and what we can learn from him, and partially about an excellent article I read on the plane about not buying into one’s own founder bullshit.
Let’s begin. Most England football (sorry, “soccer”) fans went into this World Cup tournament with extremely low expectations. Recent (and not-so-recent) history has taught us that our national team — despite often being chock full of incredible talent — has a somewhat singular ability to make 2 + 2 = 3. Tournament after tournament we get our hopes up, only to have them dashed at the hands of enemies old (ah, Germany) and new (Iceland, really?!), and frankly most people were expecting more of the same in Russia this summer.
Gareth Southgate — before his rebirth as a dapper waistcoat-wearing football mastermind — was perhaps best known as the slightly awkward defender who missed a key penalty in the semi-final of the Euro 96 tournament and — bizarrely — decided that starring in an advert for Pizza Hut a year or so later (with a bag masking his face) would provide sufficient atonement for causing England to exit yet another tournament.
He’d had an acceptable post-player managerial run (not spectacular, but not horrible) so it was somewhat surprising when he was called upon to fill the role for England after Sam Allardyce was sacked after just one game. His squad selection for the World Cup raised a few eyebrows given a few prominent players had been left out but, as always, with such low hopes the nation pretty much (barring a few pre-tournament jabs from the national tabloids) let him have at it.
And the rest is history. Southgate’s inexperienced squad — the second youngest in the tournament — exceeded all expectations, making it to the last four for the first time in 28 years. They played as a team, stayed out of the news, and captured the hears of a nation. You genuinely felt that they cared about each other and had very effectively put any club rivalries aside for the summer.
Much of this has been attributed to Southgate’s leadership style — he is collaborative, intelligent, quite charming (in a dorky way), and extremely quick to deflect praise onto others. According to him all this success is due to the players, the coaching team, the fans. Really anyone but himself.
Let me bring this back to startups… On the plane I read an excellent essay by my friend and fellow Englishman Pete Flint, founder of Trulia and now an investor at NFX. The piece discussed founders’ super powers and how they can be an incredible force in the early days but how — if left unchecked — they can become incredibly destructive as the company grows. Pete refers to several lessons he learnt during his founder career which in retrospect could have led to a complete implosion of his business.
One of the key lessons (which seems obvious but is easily forgotten during the craziness of growth) is that you, Mrs. or Mr. CEO, cannot do everything. You cannot become the what Pete calls the “Founder-Dictator”:
I oversaw the roadmap for each of these [new products], I oversaw the massive re-design, and I directed the go-to-market plan (see an “I” pattern here?). The day the new products launched, I poured champagne for the whole crew while we gathered around laptops expecting an uptick in metrics. But nothing happened. All day, all night, all week I watched as our growth trajectory came to a sudden, heartbreaking halt. It wasn’t a problem with the metrics, nor with my team. It was a problem with me. Though painful, I listened as my team and board shared their perspectives: I was way too involved directing every show and leading none. I had become the dreaded Founder-Dictator.
Another lesson talks about not conflating company press and founder press. One is good (at the right time), whilst the other can potentially be incredibly harmful:
The press attention will validate the same outsized view of yourself that brought you to launch your company. But as an early-stage Founder fighting the odds, you have more important things to do with your time than press. Before you know it, several interviews later, you’re caught up in your own bullshit. And that’s when your team starts resenting you — whether they tell you or not. “Why is she getting all this personal press while I’m slaving away on the actual company?”, they’ll think.
Running a company is a team effort. You can’t do it all yourself and it is imperative you remember that everyone deserves recognition for their hard work. As Pete points out at the end of the article, two skills are mandatory in order to act in the best interest of the startup you’re working so hard to build: cultivating strong self-awareness, and rising above the ego.
Read the essay, think about what’s going on in your company, and perhaps consider WWGD (What Would Gareth Do).
p.s. — It’s #cominghome in 2022 :)
(This was originally published in Uncork Capital’s Tasting Notes portoflio newsletter on July 13th 2018)