Last week I consulted to a young tech startup near Boston. To my surprise, I walked into a party. The team of five employees were having a blast playing video-games, tossing popcorn around and drawing graffiti-like images on the huge whiteboard. I was there for four hours. I noticed relatively short breaks from the festivities when the team dispersed to their offices. After periods of about 30 minutes the party started up again.
I asked Ted, the founder in his mid 30’s, “Was this a celebration day for a project well done, a goal achieved? “No,” Ted reported, “This is what goes on in between their work periods. They work best in concentrated chunks of time with long breaks in between.” The founder’s concern was that these breaks seemed to be getting longer and work time shorter. The team generally knew what they were expected to produce each month, but oversight was lax. Ted was traveling often to drum up business, and progress reporting was spotty. Two of the investors noted dips in the bottom line and started asking about the team’s accountability.
Ted was stuck as to how to keep the work culture lively and hold the team responsible for meeting the expected results. “I want my team to enjoy working here – they are a brilliant, but distractible bunch. But I don’t know how to rein them in and keep the enthusiasm. There’s some pretty tedious, but essential work amidst the creative work that’s not getting done. It’s stressing me out the more I ignore it.”
To console Ted, I shared a study mentioned in the book Fixit: Getting Accountability Right by Roger Collins and Tom Smith, in which the researchers asked respondents to select one reason why they find holding people accountable difficult. These results accurately reflect the problems I notice in many small companies, and it could explain Ted’s reluctance to hold his team responsible for the outcome:
1) 12% I don’t like confrontation.
2) 14% I don’t want to lose rapport and make people not like me.
3) 16% No one else does it, so it makes me look like the bad guy.
4) 50% I’m not sure how to do it in a way that yields good results.
5) 8% Other.
Ted was torn between responses 1, 2 and 4.
I assured Ted that there are creative and effective ways to infuse “friendly accountability” in the group without risking morale:
- The first step is to acknowledge the problem in terms of reaching “the numbers” and sharing this data with the staff. The reactions to how the company is falling short may reveal who is committed to the project and who’s there for a good time.
- Clarifying targets and asking for ways to meet those targets enhances communication and fosters buy-in. Get employees’ input on whether it means stretching out the work day or flipping the duration of time spent relaxing versus working.
- Assigning a peer as a team leader could keep the team on track when Ted is on the road.
- I also suggested that when energy dips (around 3:00p.m) to schedule a brisk 20 minute walk to discuss progress or any problems affecting their ability to meet the targets. Some exercise and personal connection could ignite another couple hours of focus and productivity.
Ted agreed to have this conversation with his team and follow up with me next week.
Are you afraid of the “A” word? Let me help you and your team become more comfortable with accountability. [email protected]
As a founder you need to depend on your team to get their jobs done, done well and on time. But in any young startup, pressures mount, and personalities clash. You may be uncomfortable with any kind of conflict – the healthy and the destructive kind. Healthy conflict is marked by openness and passionate debate that can yield positive changes. It requires a strong sense of trust between team players, and trust may still be a work in progress. Destructive conflict, on the other hand, is mean-spirited and personal. Its source is often a grudge, an intent to find fault or weakness or a miscommunication. It can ignite a drama that spreads like wild fire throughout an organization wasting valuable time and money. It’s essential to know the difference.
The “sparks” I address in this post are the unhealthy, destructive kind. Those sparks, if ignored, can combust into bonfires. Some sparks fizzle out on their own. But if tempers flare, if your star players get snarky, or when people start calling in sick, a fire has begun because you’ve let things go too long. You can’t play parent to your team members, but it’s your job to be alert to these six sparks of conflict. Snuff them out before they affect your bottom line:
1) If you work remotely, make as many random, in-person appearances as possible. Meet face-to face with your team and watch them carefully as they tell you how things are going. Probe ambiguous comments or non-verbal behaviors that make you uncomfortable, by asking,
Nancy, I noticed you were rather quiet today. Is anything going on we need to discuss?
Len, I need clarification on that last statement, can you help me understand what you meant?
2) Conference calls can be revealing too. Notice: Who is not participating like before? Who is interrupting or taking over the discussion? Do you notice anything unusual in the tone or energy of their voices? These behaviors may suggest a not-so-positive change in the group dynamic in the form of bullying, stonewalling or anger. Mention your observations to the team or the team leader and explore what may be going on.
3) Emails you or your team leaders receive may expose sparks of conflict. Look for unusual brevity, a change in tone, screaming CAPS, desperate run-on sentences with no punctuation, abrupt or disrespectful language. Approach the sender with your concerns and encourage team members to bring any disgruntled office communication, including tweets and Facebook posts, to your attention.
4) Teasing can be in fun, and if in jest, teasing can be a way to connect with the team and show a sense of humor. It can also be a subtle form of bullying. If you notice teasing, inquire privately whether the person being teased is 100% okay with it. If not, the teaser needs to cool down a bit – or a lot.
5) Listen for employees who are blaming others or not taking responsibility for something going wrong that was within their own control. Get the blamer and the “blamee” into the same room and hear both sides.
6) Are any employees taking frequent or suspicious sick days, arriving late to work or leaving early? This could be due to trouble with the team or personal problems that can affect the team. Take them aside, point out the irregular attendance, let them know their presence at work is valuable, and listen. You may discover the underlying cause(s).
Are you uncomfortable with conflict? Let me help you manage conflict painlessly. Contact me at [email protected]
I’m coaching a founder (I’ll refer to her as Pam) who is on the fence. Pam hired an able team of designers and artists to create “thinking games” for children. But, she is toying with the idea of managing her business by blending in and serving her team versus leading them in the traditional sense. Pam wants to provide “Servant Leadership,” a popular 21st century management model. In this model the founder assigns roles and tasks to subordinates, and then offers support, such as researching, stocking supplies and running their errands. Mmm…sounds like she wants her subordinates to run the show? Pam is seeking coaching because investors are getting antsy. Abiding by the servant model, she’s having a hard time motivating her team to move forward and meet crucial deadlines. Her startup is in stuck mode and here’s why:
When a founder is taken up with ground level activities, the role of the leader is diminished. A founder needs to have some level of detachment from his subordinates to pursue opportunities for the business, brainstorm ideas and make the tough decisions. This bit of healthy distance from employees allows the founder to articulate the vision and provide direction to employees.
When employees see their founder catering to their needs in an extreme manner, they are less likely to view him or her as an authoritative figure. If problems arise and the servant manager needs to switch to a more authoritative leadership role, entitled employees have a hard time meeting the new expectations independently.
Servant leadership de-motivates employees. It’s is like a parent bailing out his child by constantly stepping into to fix things or to do the homework for the child. When employees think their founder will unconditionally and non-judgmentally resolve issues that arise, it’s easy to take it easy and let quality and performance slip.
A happy ending: After several months of a frustrating, but well-meaning stint of Servant Leadership, I encouraged Pam to take a vote and see how her team wanted her to lead. Not surprising, they voted to have Pam resume her role as leader. They voted to exchange the freedom and nurturing for increased productivity and direction that would give them a sense of fulfillment at the end of a week. Most of them missed the “good stress” associated meeting a deadline and taking responsibility. Her team declared that returning to “real leadership” was better for them and for the future of the company.
Need help leading in a way that maximizes cooperation and teamwork without becoming a servant to your team? Contact me at [email protected]
You may have your new product or service up and running, or you’re in the process of getting your new business off the ground. It’s frustrating to lack new ways to be competitive and for solving day-to-day problems. We typically rely on our experience, knowledge, self-help books and the wisdom of industry leaders for solutions, but sometimes we have to get out of our closed circle of reference and seek “a refresh” from unexpected sources.
As a coach, it’s up to me to offer fresh eyes and new perspectives for my clients to explore. When I feel even close to getting bored with my usual strategies and tactics, I’m curiously drawn to books like The Men Who Changed the Course of American History, Tripping Over the Truth, Stories From Shakespeare, The Alchemist, or collections of mystery stories. Movies like Midnight in Paris or The Darkest Hour remind me, in contrasting ways, that it’s okay to listen to my gut, change my mind and inspire others to do the same. Any books or movies that have to do with discovery or attempts to solve difficult problems of all sorts should be on your list. Perhaps these books and movies won’t give you any direct answers or solutions, but they will add enlightening bits and pieces to what you already know and re-kindle your creative spark.
Need some fresh eyes to help solve a problem in your company? Get COREageous and contact me at [email protected]
Q: I’m an intrapreneur in my company. I come up with and execute revenue-producing ideas with little risk to me personally. But when a great idea goes bust, I have a hard time shirking it and moving on. I think this tendency will come to bite me when I’m my own boss someday. Transitioning is hard, what to do? Dan R. Toronto, Canada
“Transitioning” has a broad definition. For those who have the gift of hyperfocus, breaking away from one activity to move on to something else is challenging. You know you need to stop, but you need a team of wild horses to drag you to the next activity. Others need lots of time to stop thinking about one task so as to start thinking about the next task. For example, you may find yourself in a meeting with your accountant, and as he points out the numbers, your “guy in the basement” (see blog from 5-8-18) is still stuck on the design of your packaging.
Dan’s transitioning concern is about moving on emotionally from a failed project to a new idea. Even though he experienced no personal financial loss, the time spent grieving, blaming and shaming wastes time and energy. Lots of hands go up when you ask founders if they know what Dan is going through. One solution is to step back and examine the situation like a scientist peering into a microscope − what went wrong and how you can avoid these mistakes the next time around. Common missteps to avoid in your next project include:
- communication failures between persons and departments
- no “walk through” period to identify weaknesses or ambiguities in the process
- identifying persons key to the success of the project who were not suited or not in favor of the project from the start– the stealthy saboteurs
- a lack of oversight during the rollout; poor monitoring the money, service quality and customer feedback.
Swallow that “jagged little pill” and take responsibility for the failure. Even though others may have contributed to the project’s demise, release your grudges. These persons know who they are, what they did and realize they have let you down. You have learned something new about the people you work with. Be professional and remain cordial. Note that especially in small companies, you may need these folks again in the next project. Perhaps, next time, they’ll step up to the plate.
Emotional self-regulation is a core executive function that every self-starter needs to master. Learn about effective, non-medication ways to manage your emotions and make transitions easier. Contact me at [email protected]