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Only 9% of leaders can rely on their peers

Only 9% of leaders can rely on their peers

Bill Belichick, Tom Brady of the Patriots would never have won Superbowl 51 if the rest of the team wasn’t onboard with their plays. Can you imagine if each player had their own plan on how to win? Chaos would ensue. And the Falcons would have been champion.

In sports, just like in business, each player must agree on the strategy to win.

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3 practical tips on maintaining team trust

3 practical tips on maintaining team trust

Maintaining trust with the team is in my opinion the foundation of leadership. So today, I’m going to share three tips on how to maintain trust day-to-day.

1. Don’t rush meetings

I get it. Everyone’s busy and there are fires to fight.

Most of us wished the meeting ended 5 minutes ago, so we can all get back to work.

However, rushing conversations creates a culture where nothing but the most urgent matters are discussed. Team members will avoid raising up concerns that are just starting to cause harm. Personal issues and frustrations are also skipped, since most wouldn’t want to bother their busy manager with it (until they’re ready to quit).

In other words, rushing conversations fails to allow people to raise emerging thoughts and problems. There is thus no opportunity to catch and resolve issues before they become big fires.

So next time there’s a meeting or a 1-on-1 chat, let’s not rush it. Let’s instead allocate a generous time slot for questions and concerns.

2. Listen

Managers much more famous and capable than I have said this before, so I’ll save my words on this point: Avoid speaking over people, interrupting them, or talking without listening.

In my experience, actively listening is much more powerful at effecting change than speaking at team members. If I wish to make a point, I ask questions to help the other party think through an issue together, and keep my mouth shut.

It still surprises me how powerful listening is.

3. Make time to observe

On countless occasions, I’ve heard team members complain about how leaders don’t understand their problems (I work hard to be a venting channel for people). That leaders seem clueless to their daily challenges.

In those situations, I empathize with both team members and managers. Fact is, managers are a level removed from daily challenges of their subordinates, so have a hard time understanding their problems. They lack context.

Yet it’s the manager’s job to understand their team’s problems. To represent and advocate for their needs.

In my opinion, the best way to keep tap on the team’s daily challenges without throwing ourselves back onto the front line (although that can’t hurt either, if one can afford it), is to make time everyday to observe the team’s work. Observe interactions between team members, with other teams, with customers, and ask about their challenges over lunch.

The danger in not observing the team is not becoming ignorant. It’s that our perception of the team’s challenges will bias toward the most vocal (or whiny) team members. A tiny snapshot of the team’s actual situation.

So to avoid sounding out of touch, let’s make the time to observe the team regularly.

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These 3 roles will boost happiness at your growing startup

These 3 roles will boost happiness at your growing startup

Much has been said about a startup only needing engineers to kick start.

Yet as growth spurs, a startup team is bound to need people other than techies. People who can manage, sell, build relations with customers, market, strategize… All necessary to build a successful company, adopt a winning strategy. Not just build a product.

While most companies will create roles to meet customer needs, not many will consider creating roles for employee needs. Yet they are just as important, if not more. Especially if your company values include “putting employees first.”

Today, I’m advocating for three roles to boost employee happiness.

1. Head of Happiness

When people feel frustrated, emotionally unstable, or just need to vent, they go to the Head of Happiness. A trained psychologist or therapist, the Head of Happiness is responsible to listen to people impartially and helps them process emotions. They also offer advice on interpersonal communication to help people avoid and resolve conflicts. Having a deep understanding of how team members feel at the company, the Head of Happiness is also tasked with team building and communication initiatives.

What is success for this person?

Team members are comfortable voicing their thoughts and feelings to each other, leaving nothing unaddressed.

Why is this important?

With a growing team, politics often silently infiltrate the workplace, while culture turns from open and transparent to toxic. This person can help avoid this.

When is this role needed?

When we increasingly see people venting to each other, but failing to resolve conflicts.

2. Management Coach

The Management Coach teaches first-time people managers core management principles. They organize working sessions to discuss ongoing challenges and share best-practices. The management coach also acts as a mentor and advisor to all people managers, helping to objectively diagnose situations from a second perspective. Ideally, the management coach is someone with many years of people management experience (it could certainly be an existing manager).

What is success for this person?

Team members don’t doubt their manager’s intention to help them grow and maximize their individual potential.

Why is this important?

Many startups promote young and inexperienced technical workers into management positions. Taking on such responsibilities without experience or training can lead to many trial and error mistakes, frustrating subordinates and wasting time. An experienced management coach can both prevent mistakes from being made, and help managers diagnose challenges to speed up their trial and error learning process.

When is this role needed?

When one or more managers on the team have no experience leading people.

3. Head of Strategy

The Head of Strategy is responsible to formulate a business strategy, keep it relevant, and enforce it across the organization. This translates into spending time researching industry trends and competitor intentions, leading cross-team strategic planning at the organization, and set key metrics to maintain strategic focus. Leaders can consult the Head of Strategy on whether a decision or action is aligned with the company’s strategy, and also have them facilitate and manage cross-team collaboration projects.

What is success for this person?

An explicit business strategy exists and all teams are collaborating on it, rather than acting in silo.

Why is this important?

Lack of strategy or lack of strategic alignment between teams means the company is doing everything, going in all directions, unsustainably.

When is this role needed?

As soon as people no longer fit in the same room and walls divide teams.

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3 tips on staying creative day in, day out

3 tips on staying creative day in, day out

I often find myself unable to dream or think outside the box during business hours. Day in, day out, I’m stuck in a ritual of fighting fires and managing chaos.

Yet the startup relies on everyone, including myself, to innovate.

So what to do?

I’ve experimented with many different strategies to this effect: From watching a TED talk every morning to working at a coworking space once a week. Here are three tactics I’ve had success with:

1. Work somewhere else

Once a week, I schedule an afternoon to work at a location other than my office. I make sure no meetings are scheduled and block time off on my calendar.

Sometimes, I wander to a coffee shop. Other times, I find a coworking space. I’ve even managed to work at client offices and friends’ workplaces. Once I phone interviewed a candidate at a shopping mall.

Working in different environments stimulates different parts of my brain. No longer in my comfort zone, I pay attention to elements I usually don’t at my desk. I compare how similar activities get accomplished at different places, by different people.

In one case, when I found myself working at a busy coffee shop, I noticed how a new barista found himself overwhelmed and receiving little help from peers. He failed to find paper towels after spilling some milk, and struggled to operate their payment system. The line grew longer while no peers offered to help the young man. I couldn’t help but think whether the manager even gave him a tour of the shop, and why nobody mentored him. It was probably a very demoralizing day for the new barista.

That’s when I thought of my own team’s onboarding process and realized many new team members may also feel overwhelmed. This gave rise to a formal team member onboarding process including scheduled trainings, mentor assignment, and even the creation of best-practices for other managers.

2. Chat with someone unlike you

I’ve had my most creative ideas by chatting with people from other teams and different walks of life.

People I don’t interact with daily, who have differing priorities, help me see my own problems from a different angle. I find this particularly valuable when trying to grasp a new problem, and when brainstorming solutions.

A chat with our marketing data scientist is how we created a cross-team data analysis meetup. I realized we were facing similar challenges after chatting with the individual about data acquisition and quality issues. My team faced these issues with client projects, while he faced similar issues working with our own company’s data. Very early into our chat, we knew we could share best-practices and learn from each other. In the end, the internal analysis meetup was attended by data scientists from three groups: Our client facing group, our marketing team, and our finance team. Together, they found a venue to help each other and share learnings.

3. Keep a daily journal

After reading the “7 Habits of Highly Effective People,” I struggled to keep tap on my progress. I had no idea whether I was improving. I thus decided to start a journal to record highlights of my day and reflect. I now spend the last 15 minutes of my day journaling.

This exercise has allowed me to compare reality versus ideal. Reality is what happened, what I did. Ideal is what I wanted to happen.

For instance, I always compare what I managed to get done in a day versus what I planned to get done. This helps me diagnose why I failed to get to certain tasks, or how I was able to find free time. Over time, I got really good at knowing what is a reasonable to-do list.

Another element I record in my journal is my reaction to emergencies and fires that arise throughout the day. I often find my reaction to bad surprises less than ideal, driven by emotions rather than my rational mind. Journaling allows me to reflect on how I should have reacted to the event. And if this were to happen again, how I can make sure I stay in control. I give my conscious mind an opportunity to recognize mistakes and correct itself.

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A little bit of success is dangerous for startups

A little bit of success is dangerous for startups

It can be dangerous to think we’ve made it.

Over my startup career, I’ve witnessed many instances where a little bit of success masked important problems and triggered precocious scaling. Resulting in costly mistakes.

The following are three scenarios I’ve learned to watch out for.

1. Positive feedback ≠ Guaranteed sale

Most startup founders have talked to at least one prospective client before building a product. If not a prospective client, then maybe an investor or industry expert. Insight from these individuals helps to gauge the likelihood of an idea becoming a business success. Call it market research. A critical step.

Yet market research can be misleading when the wrong questions are asked and when people are too nice.

For instance, before embarking on my first startup project, I asked for feedback from hospitality and tourism executives about whether forecasting travelers’ intentions (when and where a person would go and do) would be valuable. Almost all parties gave positive feedback and were interested in helping us design the tool. We therefore spent 6 months developing a prototype. As we went back to the same group of prospective customers, asking for a partnership to test and develop the platform, nobody signed up. Nobody wanted to put their job on the line by investing time and money into an unproven tool.

Beyond assessing the viability of a new product, companies also perform market research continuously evolve their product. The risk of being misled by customer feedback is therefore a constant threat.

At the latest startup I worked, we regularly asked customers how to make their lives easier, what features they’d like to see, what frustrated them. Yet even after developing features they had asked for, some customers still canceled their contracts with us.

Why? In my experience, some people are too nice and want to avoid conflict. If a client knows that they’re moving away from our platform eventually, because they fundamentally don’t need what we offer, or want to bring it in-house, it can be difficult for them to be honest and express that intention during a call. It has the potential of making the existing relationship awkward. So they say nice things to keep us at bay.

In my opinion, a much more accurate way to gather market intelligence is to observe customers, rather than asking questions.

Examples of startups that were misled by feedback abound. Here are two high profile ones:

  • Quirky: The community led invention / engineering business wanted to develop and sell novel products its users voted for. Yet votes didn’t turn into sales. It blew $185M.
  • Boo.com: The company burned thru $185M dollars in 18 months. They gained positive feedback and support from top fashion houses, newspapers, and even investors before even launching, but failed to actually build something of value to customers.

2. Getting funding ≠ ready for growth

I’ve often witnessed a tendency for startups to scale up operations right after a successful funding round.

As soon as the money hits the bank, dozens of new positions open up, the list of product features to develop swells, and the marketing budget grows exponentially.

In the best case scenario, this growth is proportional to growth in demand and the company scales effectively. Yet in reality, many startups outstrip demand. They end up cutting costs and laying off people as fast as they hired them.

Why? Let’s start at the source of the money. Rational investors invest in a company based on its growth potential. How investors assess “growth potential” varies, but is likely based on a company’s historical performance. So some founders interpret a VC investment as a vote of confidence for their business strategy, their business model, their product.

Yet investors are not customers. Getting funding does not mean that we have a successful business. Otherwise 9 out of 10 VC funded startups wouldn’t have failed.

We need to be careful.

So what do we do after getting funding? In my opinion, it’s best to continue testing market demand. Observe what product features and changes resonate with users. Experiment with small scale marketing campaigns to see what’s most effective at converting customers. Hire people only when we absolutely need to. Essentially, work as if we didn’t have funding. Be cheap.

Only scale up when there’s proven demand.

So what do we do with the extra cash? As we operate on a shoestring budget, we’re bound to break the limit of what we can support. The extra cash allows us to scale up supply when demand outstrips it. The latter part is key: Only scale up when there’s proven demand.

While this sounds easy, it is not. Investors look for a fast return on their money. Many will pressure companies to scale and grow asap. They want to see 100% growth month-to-month. It can be difficult to resist this urge.

A couple high profile cases of startups that scaled up too quickly and flopped include:

  • Fab.com: The flash-sale design retailer raised millions within months of launching. It then missed its aggressive sales target within a year. It thus had the option of scaling growth back and get the business model right in the U.S., or keep expanding globally with a target of 100% YoY growth. All board members except one pushed for the latter. The rest is history: It blew $336M in 3.5 years.
  • Color.com: The photo/video sharing app raised over $40M before even launching. They likely felt like a success from day 0. Yet they failed to acquire users, managed to spend $15M in a matter of months, and finally got acquired by Apple for a paltry sum of $7M.

3. Having early adopters ≠ everyone wants it

Some founders may still be careful about scaling up after receiving funding, but not many will refrain from it with a fast growing user base.

Startups solving a painful problem can experience fast customer growth very early on. These early adopters often overlook the immaturity of the solution and are willing to invest time and energy to make it work for them. The old solution is simply too painful.

Seeing this demand, the startup then scales up its operations and plans for hyper growth.

Yet I now know having early adopters doesn’t mean the rest world is ready for us. The number of early adopters, people willing to pay for an immature product, is limited. It plateaus and peaks. To scale up operations when the product only appeals to early adopters will inevitably outstrip demand. A better plan is to build a product that appeals to the masses before scaling.

Another threat to startups with disruptive solutions is the launch of competing products after they’ve proven a business case. These late entrants have the potential to create a mature product in less time by learning from the pioneer’s mistakes. They can offer a better product for cheaper. Strategy Professor Michael Porter explores in detail the benefits and risks of first-mover advantage in Competitive Advantage.

Nebula.com is an example of a startup that found early success, yet failed to find customers beyond early adopters. It blew $38M.


Recommended exercise

Ask yourself: Is capacity outstripping demand?


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