One leadership lesson that took me entirely too long to learn was that different communications require different mediums. The idea is that communication mediums like face-to-face, video chat, phone, and email make it easy to share words but the context and nuance varies wildly. As an example, if people are upset or any sort of miscommunication is going on, face-to-face is significantly better than email or text message.
Let’s look at some of the different mediums and communication circumstances:
- Face-to-face – Best for anything emotional (good or bad), alignment-oriented, or difficult
- Video chat – Not as good as face-to-face but still auditory and visual, especially for staying connected to someone in a different physical location
- Phone – For exchange and dialogue on a complicated subject as well as times when emotion and relationship are an important part of the equation
- Email – Simple, fast, and effective for basic information exchange, tasks, and clarification
Chat and text message are similar to email in that they’re digital but have a greater sense of immediacy and two-way communication about them. Regardless, it’s important to choose the right medium for the communication.
What else? What are your thoughts on choosing the right medium for the communication?
We’re working on ironing out the Atlanta Tech Village mission, vision, and core values to be a guiding force for the next 20+ years. Each item builds on itself with mission being the next five years, vision the next 20 years, and core values forever. Thinking about the next 20+ years seems strange, but it’s absolutely the right thing to do to make a huge impact.
Be the #1 hub for tech companies and startups in the Southeast
Make Atlanta one of the top 10 tech and startup cities in the country
- Be nice
- Dream big
- Pay it forward
- Work hard, play hard
Note: we’re debating between “dream big” and “dream bigger” as one of our core values (more info from Johnson on it).
What else? What are your thoughts on the Atlanta Tech Village’s mission, vision, and core values?
One of the challenges we always had with software engineering was finding the balance between strict deadlines and time to get it right. Software development is still more art than science, especially when innovating and working on major changes. Different constituents like customers, prospects, analysts, sales, support, and engineering have things they’d like to see, and want visibility into when the features will be delivered. Naturally, the market changes so fast that as an entrepreneur or product manager, there’s a desire to push back on too many fixed deadlines as that limits flexibility to adapt to new information.
Here are a few considerations with balancing software engineering deadlines:
- Work off short deadlines, like two week sprints, and use that to keep up a good pace of progress (don’t allow any to do items longer than two weeks such that something that might take two months is broken down into two week chunks)
- For longer range considerations and road maps, try painting broader strokes for areas that will be addressed instead of specific improvements
- Find a level of accountability for the engineering team such that there’s ownership over delivering on time while also making sure it’s fully baked (don’t let the balance of influence sway too much such that deadlines and deliverables aren’t met while still being realistic)
The best thing to do is to build a really strong engineering culture that views code as craft and has peer-to-peer accountability.
What else? What are some other considerations for maintaining a software engineering balance between strict deadlines and time to get it right?
Recently I was meeting with an executive from a startup talking about lessons learned. She recounted the story of a startup she joined that was doing was well and kept raising more and more money. After a substantial series D round, the bar was set so high for revenue growth by the investors that the executive team knew it wasn’t attainable. Against the odds, the startup was able to deliver and meet the expectations for a short period of time.
There was one major problem.
She described their meeting revenue growth targets as requiring “unnatural acts” meaning the team was working 80 hours per week and rapidly approaching burnout. It wasn’t sustainable. Unfortunately, the entrepreneur had promised the investors they could achieve certain results. After two quarters of hitting the numbers, the wheels fell off. The startup’s growth slowed considerably, the market shifted, most of the executive team left, including the entrepreneur, and the venture-back startup is in zombie mode now.
Beware of unnatural acts leading to startup team burnout as it isn’t sustainable.
What else? What are your thoughts on unnatural acts resulting in burnout?
One of the questions I get from entrepreneurs is “how has your day-to-day changed going from a seed stage startup to a growth stage startup?” The three core responsibilities of a CEO never change: make sure there’s enough cash to keep going, help set the vision, and get the right employees on board. For my first year as a seed stage CEO, I spent most of my time writing code (~40 hours/week) and the rest of the time doing whatever it takes to be successful (20 – 30 hours/week). Now, five years later, things are much different.
Here’s what a typical day looks like:
- 10 minute daily check-in with the executive team
- One or two one hour catch ups with a department head (meet with each department head bi-weekly)
- One to two hours working on strategic projects (usually juggling 2-3 strategic projects at any one time)
- One hour reading blog posts and books (usually read one business book per month)
- Miscellaneous meetings, email, and other work
As you can see, the ratio of doing front-line work to managing people changes dramatically as the startup gets larger. Days go quickly and are very productive.
What else? What does a day in the life of your startup look like?
Recently I started reading the book Difficult Conversations: How to Discuss What Matters Most by Douglas Stone, Bruce Patton, and Sheila Heen. The authors are a research team at Harvard working on the Harvard Negotiation Project, which has been in the works for several decades. In all aspect of life, and especially the startup world, as with any fast-paced leadership situation, there are a number of difficult conversations with team members, customers, investors, and more.
One of the areas that resonated with me was around why we each see the world differently and how to better understand another person. From the book, here are three reasons why we see the world differently:
- We have different information
- We notice different things
- We each know ourselves better than anyone else case
- We have different interpretations
- We are influenced by past experiences
- We apply different implicit rules
- Our conclusions reflect self interest
If you’re looking for advice and guidance on being a better leader and communicator, this book is for you.
What else? What were some other takeaways from the book for you?
Warren Buffet is one of the most celebrated and successful investors of all time. Many of his musing has been recorded in books, articles, and posts over the years, especially content taken from his annual shareholder letter. Several of his essays were compiled into the book The Essays of Warren Buffet: Lessons for Corporate America several years ago, providing tremendous content for entrepreneurs.
Warren Buffet has three commands for CEOs at Berkshire’s operating companies, which are especially pertinent for all startup CEOs. The commands, according to the book, are for the CEO to run the business as if:
- They are its sole owner
- It is the only asset they hold
- They can never sell or merge it for a hundred years
Vinod Khosla drove this home yesterday with his post in the NY Times — Vinod Khosla: Maintain the Silicon Valley Vision. The Silicon Vally Vision, according to Khosla, and Buffet’s three commands for CEOs go hand-in-hand with long-term, big picture thinking and actions.
What else? What are your thoughts on Warren Buffett’s three commands for CEOs?
One of the most popular self-help and professional development books available is Dale Carnegie’s How to Win Friends & Influence People. Amazingly, the book was published in 1936 and is still supremely relevant today. As part of our leadership development program, we’re doing a book club with this being the next book on our list.
For leaders, the book is a must read. Yes, it is commonsense but commonsense that needs to be thought through and digested on a regular basis. Leaders are more effective when they are liked and respected — team members generally want to work for, and with, people they like.
From the book, here are six ways to get people to like you:
- Become genuinely interested in other people
- Remember that a person’s name is to that person the sweetest and most important sound in any language.
- Be good listener. Encourage others to talk about themselves.
- Talk in terms of the other person’s interests.
- Make the other person feel important — and do it sincerely.
How to Win Friends & Influence People should be on the list for all entrepreneurs and leaders looking to get better at what they do and how they do it.
What else? What are some other ways to get people to like you?
One of the best ways to built trust in a startup is through transparency of information. The author Jack Stack argues for extreme transparency in his book The Great Game of Business. Transparency, to me, is a great way to get everyone on the same page company-wide, align interests, and engender trust. Communication of information, especially information that changes frequently, is one of the more difficult parts of building transparency into the culture.
Here are some techniques to help facilitate transparency of information in a startup:
- LCD scoreboard in the lobby with near real-time information on progress towards goals
- Simplified One Page Strategic Plan updated and rolled out to all team members quarterly with financial information like revenue
- Bottom-up daily check-ins throughout the organization
- Anonymous town hall questions where nothing is off limits
- Discourse and explanations around company changes as opposed to edicts with no reasoning
Creating an environment of transparency is tough and requires commitment from the top down. These techniques and methodologies help set the tone and promote transparency.
What else? What some other ways to promote transparency of information in a startup?
Continuing with takeaways from Clayton Christensen’s book How Will You Measure Your Life?, there’s another area of content I want to highlight from the book. In the epilogue, Professor Christensen talks about the benefits of defining a purpose for a family and how similar it is to defining a purpose for a startup.
Here are the three parts of a company or startup’s purpose (pg. 196):
- Likeness – what the key leaders and employees want the enterprise to have become at the end of the path that they are on
- Commitment – a deep level of resolve to achieving the likeness laid out
- Metrics – defined results enabling everyone associated with the enterprise to calibrate their work
With these three parts of a startup’s purpose – likeness, commitment, and metrics – team members achieve clarity and alignment significantly increasing the likelihood of success. Purpose fits in with items like mission, vision, and values to paint a clear picture of the most strategic side of a startup.
What else? What are your thoughts on the three parts of a startup’s purpose?