My phone rings. It’s 11 PM at night.
“Ben, I need your help.” I hear on the other end of the line after sneaking into the study to begrudgingly answer the phone.
It would be the third time this year that I’d received such a call. A founder at wit’s end. A team in disarray. Executives fighting. Investors becoming nervous. A promising company with great potential plummeting towards a certain death.
It seems to be almost inevitable for startups to go through nearly catastrophic growing pains right around the time they begin to finally achieve that coveted product-market fit. Teams are growing rapidly from 10 to 20 employees and beyond, there’s usually a Series A fundraise effort underway, and early investors are beginning to dream of that exponential growth that was promised to them. And it’s all precariously close to evaporating before everyone’s eyes.
So, I spring into action and start diving deep. I ask questions, I listen, and get an understanding of what is happening from the many perspectives on the inside. The founders take a step back. The team is grateful for the intervention. There’s suddenly hope, and things go into some sort of suspended state. The opportunity the team sees in the business has kept them around, but their skepticism that current leadership will be able to capture said opportunity has them heading towards the door. Founders are frustrated and oblivious. The team is tired and impatient. Every. Time.
This critical time period also happens to be the point at which a founder must evolve from the Spark Starter to the Keeper of Fire. From creator to leader. The unbridled enthusiasm, unrelenting optimism, and healthy dose of egoism that got you here needs to begin to take a back seat to the more mature characteristics of an effective leader. I’ve broken it down to three things: communication, empathy, and trust.
Take every opportunity you can to bring your team into the conversation. Empower them. Let them be heard. Build consensus and allow them to participate in the decision making process, and get everyone rowing in the same direction. The dictatorship that many are prone to gravitating towards suits no team.
Understand that what incentivizes your team may be vastly different than what drives you, and it can be vastly different from person to person. This is your baby, and nothing is a stronger driver than that. For those that you hire, some may adopt it as such, but more often than not, they’re looking at this as part of their career trajectory, they’re looking to grow professionally, or to make a good living with benefits, and you need to learn exactly what it is and strive to provide it. Communicate, listen, set expectations, and check-in.
George Patton once said, “Don’t tell people how to do things, tell them what to do and let them surprise you with their results.” Be proud of your ability to grow a great team around you. To see talent and sell them on your vision. If you’ve hired great people for the right reasons, you need to begin to delegate and trust them to do their job. Take a step back, stop micro-managing, and become a great coach. Try giving them an opportunity to lead
Focus on these three things, read books by other great leaders, and simply be the boss you wish you had when you decided it was time to be your own boss. Oh, and stop being an asshole. If you are lucky, you possess the intellect, hustle, and charisma to bring your company to life, and you’ll fight to grow your team, your customer base, and even elbow your way into a bit of market share. But as you begin to grow your company beyond one tier of management, you need to evolve and understand that what got you here won’t get you there.