It was sometime in December of 2008 and I was sitting at the bar having a beer with one of the very first employees at Contour. Experiencing the only economic collapse of my lifetime, we were talking about the struggle. I had recently cut the company from 19 to 12, retail sales had nearly halted, and there was no guarantee that we would make it out the other side alive.
Being several years my elder, most of our discussions resulted in him talking and me listening. Always over a cold MGD, he was brutally honest about his interpretation of our challenges. It was hard to argue with his opinion, especially when you consider that he had been a part of several mega startup success stories.
What you have to understand about David (I changed his name for this post), is that he’s a thinker. An analyst by trade he would spend his entire day looking at numbers. Balancing the optimism of the sales team against the pessimism of his experience, his sole purpose was to create a set of numbers that we could rely on to make our most important business decisions.
Of everything we talked about that day there was one thing that I’ll never forget. It hit me straight in the gut like bad news on a bad day. He said, “You need to be more consistent.”
Covering up how hard he hit me, I took a sip of my cold beer. Here I was thinking that I was becoming a great leader and yet I was being told that I was anything but that. Even six years later it’s hard to come up with words to respond to his statement. All I can really say now is that he was right.
Being a first time founder I was all over the place. Without much leadership guidance I didn’t know who to listen to, what to filter, or how to consistently communicate. Worst of all I didn’t realize that my actions left my team wanting a stronger hand on the rudder.
Fast forward several years and I finally understand what he was trying to say. Even though a startup’s path is totally undefined it doesn’t mean that my leadership has to be the same way.
Understand When To Create
One of the most disruptive characteristics of an entrepreneurs, is their need to generate ideas. Their desire for change, fresh, and new is how they created an opportunity that no one else saw coming. Although this energy is critical for getting the company off the ground, it’s important for a founder to know where and when it’s appropriate.
Early in a company’s life cycle, the opportunity to create can run uncontrolled. Defining the company’s purpose, values, culture, and first products requires re-imagining the world around us. The mental stimulation involved with this process is like a magical well that never runs out of water. And as entrepreneurs we thrive off this opportunity.
But if you are successful, this time period will come to an end. The process of tinkering and re-tinkering doesn’t scale past a handful of people. While your early creative strength quickly becomes a weakness as new hires began to think that the company is run on chaos.
The quest to discover a market winning formula is incredibly hard. It requires a lot of trying, a little bit of creative genius, and often a lot of luck until you find a recipe that enables you to build a really big business. Once you crack the code, a founder’s time to create goes away. Instead it is replaced with strategy, process, and efficiency. Most difficult of all you have to replace the unrelenting urge to do the work yourself with a passion for enabling others.
Even then, the desire to create never really subsides, which is why I’m a big believer in spending time helping other startups. Mentoring, writing, and teaching are great outlets for you to re-imagine without driving your company crazy.
Understanding The Result Of Your Actions
Many entrepreneurs take life for face value. Because they choose to live in a world where nothing is guaranteed, very little comes as a surprise. This translates into being oblivious to the deeper meaning of their own actions. To a founder the open culture they enjoyed with five people in a garage shouldn’t change just because the company grows. Except it does.
As you shift from a product to a company, the role of a founder changes. Whether you hire people or bring on professional capital, everything you do is now analyzed. Including how you communicate, the time you enter/leave the office, the attire you wear, and the results you deliver. Whether directly or indirectly stated, people take your queues to represent the state of the company and your ability to lead it.
The reason that being consistent in your approach is so important is that with each new person you add to the group, the number of interconnected relationships multiplies. The result is that deviation can have a compounding affect amongst a group of people. If we use [Combinations]((http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Combination), which looks at the number of ways you can choose two items, we can see how this compounding affect works amongst a team of people.
- 5 people = 10 relationships
- 10 people = 45 relationships
- 15 people = 105 relationships
- 20 people = 190 relationships
- 25 people = 300 relationships
The larger your company becomes the more consistent it requires you to be. Although this is obvious at face value, it is anything but easy to deliver on. With the speed at which you are driving the business it’s easy to create a chaotic environment. A few examples of innocent actions that can be interpreted differently than you expected.
- Hallway brainstorm conversations with the CEO are interpreted as the company’s new strategic plan.
- If you consistently praise one person’s opinion, people assume you have favorites.
- Meetings that always start late demonstrate your company is disorganized.
- Picking up the pencil, no matter how small the task, means you don’t trust your team to deliver.
- Ignoring goals that fall short or the expectations that get missed is interpreted that you don’t hold people accountable.
- If someone is surprised at being fired, it’s your fault, not theirs.
Using Your Change Capital Wisely
A good friend once told me, “You are limited in the amount of change capital you are allowed.” Every time you tweak, turn, miss, pivot, or add, you subtract the level of trust the group has in your ability to lead. Each decision to change might be the right decision at the time, but collectively they drain the momentum from your organization.
It took a long time to realize this, but the trick to this process is not to make the decisions for your team. As the leader, your job is to focus solely on the strategic direction of the company and then enable your team to come up with a plan about how to get there. By providing the resources required and clearly defining success, your team can then make dozens of daily decisions on how to achieve these objectives.
This is easier said than done, but it enables you to save your change capital for when you really have to pivot company. If the team sees you in the weeds everyday making lots of small decisions they will lose sight of which decisions are part of the daily routine and which can impact the livelihood of the company.
*Image Credit: Bishnu Sarangivia Creative Commons