There comes a point when your team takes over your day to day responsibilities. It begins with the decisions they make without asking. And it ends with a full scale management team that reports back in weekly meetings. But in between these two points is a mess of personal conflict for any founder.
Early in a company’s existence, the founder is responsible for nearly everything, or at least they think so. Constrained by a lack of cash, founders develop raw survival instincts. Their ability to conserve, out work their peers, make quick decisions, and inspire are all critical traits to turn an idea into success. Being praised as a tenacious hustler is a compliment that any founder would be proud of.
With success comes confidence. Emboldened by the results, the founder continues to do more of what has worked…obsessing about the company, pushing everyone to work harder, and tackling every important decision by themselves.
It is a process that works until it doesn’t. And when it no longer works, the result is hitting a concrete wall at a culture destroying pace.
The truth is, this pattern is nearly impossible to change once it has become the personal culture of the founder and the collective crutch of the company. Although a Board thinks they can fix the problem with a management consultant, you really can’t. Not without dismantling the founder centered culture that built the very company they invested in. It’s like trying to train a lion that lives in the heart of the jungle. You first have to catch it before you can tame it.
The only way to escape this pattern is for the founder to create a company that is so off the charts valuable that they can do whatever the hell they want. Insert Steve Jobs and Jeff Bezos.
The alternative is for the founder to avoid this path altogether by building team, empowerment and decision making into the early fabric of the company. To the point that these traits become so engrained into the culture that the team knows no other way.
But in order to do this the founder has to wrestle with two truths.
- This journey is not about them.
- The team is going to fuck it up.
Tactically these are easy to accept. It’s the mental and emotional struggle that is so challenging.
The realization that this journey is not about the founder won’t become clear until the end. Living without the very company they poured their existence into, is the only way to really appreciate what they had.
The team fucking it up is merely an illusion that the founder has to personally reconcile. Just because the team would do the work differently doesn’t actually mean they are going to fuck it up. It’s just going to end up different than the founder’s “inner control freak” wants.
But getting these two truths right isn’t about doing the work for the team or telling them how you want it done. It’s actually about creating a system of play that empowers the collective group to punch above its weight.
One of the best, modern examples is Pete Carroll. He has spent his lifetime creating a system of play that enables his players, coaches, and general mangers to deliver their best work.
- He made over 200 roster changes, until he found players that believed in his system. Sometimes removing star players to make room for the yet to be discovered.
- He trains his staff to become future head coaches. Graduating the next in line when top coordinators move on, he is expecting to spend as much time developing his coaches as his players.
- His general manager believes in the same system and together they continue to find talent that everyone else ignores.
What inspires me the most about Pete Carroll is he’s not afraid. Even on national TV, while still hurting from an emotional Super Bowl loss, he stood up for what he believes in. Not even presidents will do that.
What you have to realize about Pete is the work you see today has taken his entire professional lifetime to create. This is not an accident, but instead a culmination, anchored in his commitment as a leader to create a system that he believes in. One that even got him fired along the way.
When I built Contour I didn’t understand any of this. I bootstrapped the company out of a cold warehouse, running it the same way in the end as I had started in the beginning…like a bulldozer that would run over anyone that didn’t go the direction I was running. Our system of play never advanced beyond “survive.”
This time around it’s very different. Moment is now 8 people that represent a group tighter than anything I have experienced. We have a printed playbook that is our system of play. We spend days together every quarter outside of the office exploring, talking, and building deeper relationships. We have no vacation policy, no hr department and no bullshit. What bonds us together is a shared commitment in our purpose.
In learning how to build a team the wrong way and now in pushing myself everyday to do it the right way, here are a few practical lessons I have learned.
1. Define A System Of Play
A good friend of mine introduced me to a framework he calls promise (our purpose), offering (what we make), and delivery (how we win in the market). It’s a system of play I have adopted as my own, building upon the foundation he provided. This has to be visibly clear to your team within the first year of the company’s existence. Our version is a printed book that we update every six months.
2. Don’t Compromise On Passion
The first 10 people you hire will cement everything about the culture which means all of them have to be personally passionate about the problem, lifestyle, and opportunity you are solving. This can not be faked and it can not be added down the road. Everyone at Moment is passionate about mobile photography.
3. Inexperience Is OK
It takes a while for a team to learn how to play together. Like seasons in sports they have to go through cycles together (product launches, announcements, new features, etc) to learn how to win. It takes a soul testing amount of patience to let this happen over time. And despite what everyone says you can take a collection of young, less experienced people, and develop them into champions. There is a lot of talent already on your team if you enable, push, and challenge them to be great.
4. Teach A Team How To Make Decisions
Decision making is second nature to a founder. They make so many decisions early in a company’s history that they have a distinct experience advantage over the rest of the team. Therefore it’s the founders job to teach everyone how to make better decisions based on the information they have on hand. Enabling people to make decisions, learning from them, and making better ones next time is critical to building a culture that scales.
5. Don’t Pick Up The Pencil
Hardest of all is NOT doing the work for the team. Make it clear who owns what decisions and when goals are made make sure there is a different owner for each. It’s critical that everyone on the team learns how to deliver a goal to completion. This will be important down the road when the current team needs to lead the next team members.
6. Build Real Relationships
This doesn’t happen at the office or at happy hour or in half day fun-park outings. It takes days together, outside of work, overcoming challenges while sharing personal feelings. Every quarter we go exploring together, which forces us to overcome basic human challenges such as navigating our route, making meals together, and setting up camp. We combine these experiences with team sessions where we talk about what’s working, what isn’t working, and what we want to improve upon.
7. Find A Group of CEOs You Trust
Most important of all is that in order for the team to deliver the founder has to learn how to become a better leader. They can hire a personal coach, but one of the best ways is to meet with a collection of fellow CEO’s on a regular basis. If the group is small and confidential everyone will begin to share very personal and real struggles.
Personally, I struggle everyday with becoming a better leader. Unraveling all the instincts I developed as a first time founder it has taken a lot of anguish to arrive at the point where I finally understand the type of leader I want to become and the system of play I want to run.
At the end of the day your team will win and they will lose but all that really matters is how you prepare them for the battle.
*Image Credit: Rob Carr and Getty Image via Creative Commons.