In 1958, the storied Green Bay Packers went 1-10-1. The worst season in the history of the franchise, the entire organization was reeling. Despite having previously won six NFL championships, the team had lost its way. Until they hired a coach no one had heard of; Vince Lombardi.
Prior to Green Bay, Vince had never been a head coach in the NFL. Having been an assistant for the New York Giants and West Point Military Academy, his only head coaching experience was at St. Cecilia High School, which on paper makes him less qualified than the losing coach he just replaced.
In Vince’s first year the team went 7-5. In year two they were 8-4 and a goal line stance away from winning the NFL Championship. In year three they were 11-3 and NFL champions. They went on to win five championships and six conference titles in nine years.
So what changed from being the worst to the best team in the league?
It wasn’t the field. New in 1957, Lambeau Field was one of the nicest stadiums ever built.
It wasn’t the equipment. Wearing the same gear and using the same footballs, there was no technology advantage between losing and winning.
It wasn’t the players. Between 1961 (11-3) and 1958 (1-10-1) 14 of the starting 22 players were on both teams. Between the two seasons, three of the six best offensive players and 7 of the 10 best defensive players were the same. With five future hall of famers on the team in 1958, they didn’t lose because of a lack of talent.
It was their confidence.
First Vince redesigned the uniforms, giving the team a new look from the one that lost 10 games. Second, he simplified their system of play to a few plays that they practiced until perfection. Third he changed their preparation to be the hardest working team in the league. His hard working approach instilled preparation, giving the team confidence over every opponent they faced.
On his first day, Vince told his team, “I have never been on a losing team, gentlemen, and I do not intend to start now.”
Confidence is as important in an entrepreneur as it is in a star athlete. It’s one of the most genuine emotions you will encounter and yet it is incredibly difficult to maintain throughout the journey. Different than sports, the season doesn’t start over at the end of the year. Your company will be a continuous journey until you leave, sell it, or go bankrupt.
So as an entrepreneur how do you build and maintain confidence?
Recognize The Feeling
To understand how to manage your confidence it’s first important to recognize when you have it and when you don’t.
When you are confident there is no better feeling. It’s an energy that makes everything seem possible. Your decisions feel smarter, your response times are snappier, and your culture is filled with smiling faces. Starting in your chest and spreading to your head, confidence is the feeling you get on Friday night when you realize that you don’t have to worry this weekend.
When you lose it, you feel heavy. Hiding from the news you don’t want to hear, everything takes a lot more energy. In addition you feel the weight of worry as you second guess nearly every decision. It reminds you just how close failure is and how hard it is to build a successful company.
Take Tiger Woods for example. Once expected to smash every record in the history of golf, many wonder if he will ever win another major championship. Age does slow many golfers down, but not at the rate Tiger dropped. Butch Harmon, his former swing coach, recently said, “I think his nerves are bad, and he’s lost his confidence.”
What makes it so difficult to maintain your confidence, is that the feeling doesn’t gradually change. Because of the volatile nature of a startup, confidence can shift wildly in a matter of minutes. From feeling unstoppable to facing company peril, it becomes hard to remain consistent.
How Do You Gain It?
Successful experiences. Although learning from losing is important, a life without accomplishment doesn’t instill confidence.
Paul Graham talks about being a formidable founder. In his definition, a “formidable person is one who seems like they’ll get what they want, regardless of whatever obstacles are in the way. Formidable is close to confident, except that someone could be confident and mistaken. Formidable is roughly justifiably confident.”
Becoming formidable isn’t easy.
First it takes knowing what you want. As a first time founder I didn’t really know what I wanted until I was no longer at the company. I realized after the fact that I started the company without a clear purpose and therefore struggled to have a clear perspective about what I wanted. It lead to a disjointed culture that at times suffered from multiple personality disorder.
Developing your own perspective is no different than how your food palette develops over time. As a child you try whatever your parents throw on your tray, while as an adult you have a much clearer perspective about what foods you want at exact moments in time. The more you experience food (cooking, tasting, learning, etc) the more you appreciate the finer details of what you are eating.
Second it takes lots of practice. Once you know what you want, you can gain the experience that is required to go get it. Learning about markets, distribution paths, customer acquisition methods, capital raising, and organizational building to name a few, can be done if you’re willing not to give up along the way.
Gaining the depth you need won’t always come just from winning. Losing can be an equally important phase in developing your confidence. Lots of entrepreneurs, coaches, and players faced setback along the way. Bill Belichick was fired by the Cleveland Browns before coaching the Patriots. Pete Carroll was fired twice before turning the USC Trojans and Seattle Seahawks into championship teams. Michael Jordan became the star of his JV high-school team because he was too short for the varsity team. Mark Cuban, Steve Jobs, Walt Disney, Michael Bloomberg, and Oprah were all either fired or passed up along the way. Clearly everyone on this list gained something from an experience that would pushed a lot of people to quit.
Third, you need people who can teach you. The more talented your teachers are, the more confident you will become. Which is evident by the number of great leaders that have been spawned by other great leaders.
Bill Parcels coached Tom Coughlin (NY Giants), Sean Payton (Saints) , Bill Belichick (Patriots), Mike Zimmer (Vikings), and Eric Mangini (formerly at the Jets) to name a few. Legendary coach Red Holzman was the inspiration for Phil Jackson. Johan Cruyff, one of the 100 greatest soccer player of all time, was a philosopher about the game helping to spawn some of the worlds best coaches in Frank Rijkaard (Ajax + Barcelona), Josep Guardiola (Bayern Munich + Barcelona), and Arsène Wenger (Arsenal). Bill Campbell has helped many a CEO in Silicon Valley including Steve Jobs and Ben Horowitz.
Fourth, and most challenging of all, you have to make forward progress. Startups are expected to grow, especially if they raise investor capital. Gained by one small victory at a time, confidence only increases if you are achieving the results you set out to accomplish. Constantly being told no, not being chosen, and/or not accomplishing goals leads to a shrinking level of confidence. When you are losing it can become very hard to turn your fortunes around.
As Lombardi liked to say, “Confidence is contagious. So is lack of confidence.”
How Do Maintain It?
By making progress against a clear definition of success.
Vince Lombardi was clear in his definition of success, “There is no room for second place. There is only one place in my game and that is first place.”
This is your biggest challenge as a leader. If you raise capital and set out to build a company that returns capital, you have to win. Coming in second can be a nice company, but a very different result than what you first set out to accomplish. Unfortunately for entrepreneurs, the market doesn’t reset next season. The place you sit and the trajectory you are on, can be very, very difficult to change. Shifting expectations from winning to justifying your place in the market, rarely re-instills confidence.
Keep in mind, winning doesn’t have to be your only definition of success. Setting this definition with your founding team is a critical decision to ultimately become the company you want to be.
How Do You Get It Back?
Inevitably your confidence will be shaken along the way and rightfully so. It often takes setbacks to find the right path forward.
Some ways to regain your footing:
Take A Break
Vacation and weekends should be a normal part of your routine and if it’s not please start. Taking a break will help you step back and reconnect with your purpose, values, and bigger vision. You clearly started the company because of a few strong beliefs so reviewing those can help you get out of the rut you sit in. Thinking about the bigger picture never works when you are inches from the crisis.
Vince Lombardi believed that every play they ran should result in a touchdown. If it didn’t then something went wrong. The only way to make every play a touchdown was to dramatically reduce the number of plays available until the team could execute each of them to near perfection. Vince was legendary about practicing the same plays over and over until exhaustion. Taking objectives off the board to focus on one at a time can help a team regain its confidence in executing.
Find A Niche
Without changing your purpose or values, finding a niche market you can lead can do wonders for your team’s confidence. Classic examples are Apple to Microsoft, Nike to Reebok, Pepsi to Coke, Avis to Hertz. Long term there is only one market leader, but constantly being second every place you turn can be a serious drain on confidence.
You Always Have A Move
It can’t be said better than Ben Horowitz puts it, “Startup CEOs should not play the odds. When you are building a company, you must believe there is an answer and you cannot pay attention to your odds of finding it. You just have to find it. It matters not whether your chances are nine in ten or one in a thousand; your task is the same.” Keep going until you find an answer.
How Do You Share It?
Being the leader of a team, your confidence isn’t held in a vacuum. Instead it permeates every corner of the company. Even if you are melting down inside, the external consistency you show goes a long way in how the rest of your organization will respond. Enabling confidence is one of your most important jobs as a leader.
There are few ways I have found to help replicate confidence.
Maintain Your Own Confidence
As the leader your team will analyze the actions you take, the words you share, and the demeanor you express. Especially during challenging times, people will over emphasize the moves you make to reflect the status of the organization. Being confident doesn’t mean you have to be cold. Showing your vulnerability will give your team more confidence in the sincerity of the messages you are delivering.
Build Trust Among The Team
Although you may be hesitant to waste working hours, real trust building doesn’t happen in the office. It happens when you put down your laptop and genuinely get to know people. Team cooked meals, off-site adventures, and sharing stories is how connections are built. Sharing life experiences together makes the relationships within a group significantly stronger.
George Washington almost got fired as commander in chief. In his military time he lost more battles to the British than he won. Despite his record, his greatest strength was maintaing trust within the ranks. An unamed French officer pointed out, “I cannot insist too strongly how I was surprised by the American Army. It is truly incredible that troops almost naked, poorly paid, and composed of old men and children and Negroes should behave so well on the march and under fire.”
Empower People To Make Decisions
By enabling your individual team members to gain confidence in their own abilities, you make the collective group stronger. As Ben Horowitz points out, “In good organizations, people can focus on their work and have confidence that if they get their work done, good things will happen for both the company and them personally.”
Enabling this is very hard for most entrepreneurs because early on they are used to controlling everything. The secret to this problem, is recognizing that you don’t have to have all the answers. You may think people are judging you based on the decisions you make, but really they are just looking for your confidence in the decisions they are making. Transitioning from doing to leading is critical if you want to move from being a founder to a CEO.
Constantly Provide Feedback
This isn’t just a top down function or an annual review process. Direct and timely feedback is a cultural necessity and something you should instill early in the company’s life cycle. This level of feedback is easy if you have built trust among the team because people will hear the feedback and not look for a hidden message behind it.
“Good teams become great ones when members trust each other enough to surrender the “me” for the “we”. ~ Phil Jackson