Disrespecting a Team Member is Never Acceptable

I was two years in as a full-time entrepreneur and we were meeting a potential customer in a small nondescript building less than a mile from our office. Our startup was still struggling and I, as an eager first-time entrepreneur, was chasing any opportunity regardless of fit. Helping me that day at our sales meeting was our lead engineer, and after a few pleasantries, we started talking shop with the prospect.

Quickly, as the conversation turned technical regarding product capabilities, our lead engineer dove in regaling all the details. Only I, as a sales-oriented entrepreneur, thought our lead engineer was focused too much on the minutia and not enough on tying the functionality back to the customer’s needs. So, in an expression of poor leadership, I interrupted him mid sentence and took the conversation a different direction.

Another topic with the prospect, another detailed comment from our engineer, another poor interruption from me going a different direction — on and on it repeated.

Only after the meeting, as we got into the car, the lead engineer shared with me how little he felt. How I had unprofessionally talked over him. How poorly I had reflected our company in front of the prospect. How miserable I was in the setting.

It was all true.

Now, 16 years later, I still remember this lesson. I did an unacceptable job setting expectations with the lead engineer before the meeting. I did an unacceptable job showing respect to the lead engineer in the meeting. I did not lead, I trampled.

Disrespecting a team member is never acceptable.

The next time you have the urge to talk over someone, let them finish. Hear them out. Reflect on their position. Treat them with respect — it’s always the right thing to do.

‘I’ vs ‘You’ When Giving Advice

Back in 2008 I had the opportunity to join Entrepreneurs’ Organization (EO) and go through a day long program called Forum Training with the excellent Ellie Byrd. In addition to meeting a number of great people, the most valuable education to me was learning about the Gestalt Protocol.

The Gestalt Protocol, in it’s simplest form, says to share personal experiences for the purpose of giving advice only using ‘I’ and never ‘You.’ Most often, when people give personal advice based on their experiences, it’s in the form of “You should do X because that’s what worked for me.” Instead, remove the use of ‘You” and reword it with ‘I’ so that it’s like “I did X and here’s what I learned.”

When giving advice, especially from a person that’s in a position of power or more experience, it’s too easy to start telling the other person how to do things, even while they lack the details and context of the situation, beyond what they’ve been told. In addition, when receiving the advice, it becomes less valuable when the advice comes across as directives without the corresponding experience and learnings behind it.

By following the Gestalt Protocol and using ‘I’ instead of ‘You’ when giving advice, it becomes more about experience sharing and letting the other person understand what did, and didn’t work, from a similar situation in the past, without passing judgement on the specifics of the current scenario. Personal experiences, delivered via the use of ‘I’ make for much better sharing and mentoring.

Mentors would do well to follow the Gestalt Protocol and focus on sharing personal experiences.

The Struggling Executive Who’s Really a Manager

One of the more common conversations I’ve had with entrepreneurs scaling their startup goes something like this:

Me: How are things going?

Entrepreneur: We’re having a hard time with leader X?

Me: Why’s that?

Entrepreneur: It feels like he’s always reactive.

Me: What do you mean?

Entrepreneur: Well, we keep having issues in his department and it feels like they’re things that shouldn’t be issues.

Me: What should he be doing?

Entrepreneur: He should be proactively spotting things that could be potential issues and addressing them so that they they’re non-events.

Me: Sounds like the struggling executive is really a manager, not an executive.

I’ve had this conversation with entrepreneurs numerous times and it’s always the same issue: a person was put in an executive position and they aren’t really an executive, they’re a manager.

Managers see short-term, right in front of them, and are often reactive.

Executives see long-term, around corners, and are proactive.

Managers bring problems forward.

Executives bring solutions forward.

Now, not all managers are like this and not all executives are like this, but the key difference between and a manager and an executive is the ability to see further out into the future and proactively get things done.

The next time you’re having an issue with a leader, ask the key question: are they a manager or an executive?

Statute of Limitations on Experience

Last week I was talking to an entrepreneur and she started asking me questions about recruiting best practices. How do I recruit engineers? Where do I find them? How do I build a high performance engineering culture? All great questions, but is my personal experience out of date?

This prompted me to think about the role of experience, more specifically recency of experience, in helping entrepreneurs. When an entrepreneur asks me for help, it’s most likely due to the success of Pardot. Only, Pardot was nearly seven years ago.

Since we sold Pardot, I’ve started several more startups but never got to product/market fit, making it feel like there wasn’t as much experience gained. Now, the investing and co-founding side has proved more successful than expected, but I’m a layer removed from the front line decision-making.

When does advice become stale?

When does the statute of limitations for experience occur?

Some of my recommendations should be timeless. Build regular simplified strategic plans. Be the best place to work and the best place to be a customer. Develop a meeting rhythm. Culture is the only sustainable competitive advantage completely in control of the entrepreneur.

Yet, my more specialized knowledge is dated. SEO? Marketing automation? DevOps? Agile? UI/UX? Recruiting? I’m feeling stale on a number of things that were stronger a few years back.

Now, my approach is to focus advice on high level startup and leadership strategies, and away from specific tactical things we employed at Pardot. Today, it’s more sharing personal experiences, mental frameworks, and startup strategies leaving tactical items to other practitioners with fresher knowledge.

General experience is invaluable, tactical best practices age over time.

Reforecasts and Communication

Two years ago I was sitting down with an entrepreneur debating what to do next. It was early in the hyper growth stage of the startup and things were growing fast. Only, with limited operating history, growth expectations were even greater than reality, and there was no way the annual forecast was going to be achieved.

Accountability was tied to the forecast.

Goals/OKRs were tied to the forecast.

Bonuses were tied to the forecast.

What to do?

This challenge is much more common than expected. Fast growing startups are inherently unpredictable. Even with bottoms-up and top-down forecasts, reality is different from the spreadsheet. At some point, trying to hit a forecast that is no longer possible is more demoralizing than motivating — it’s time for a reforecast.

A reforecast is simply redoing the budget and expectations after the year has already started to reflect new information. The key is to get all the stakeholders together, work to make the new forecast as accurate as possible, and then communicate it with the team.

Communication is the most important part.

By over-communicating, including why the reforecast was necessary, learnings from the experience, and go-forward expectations, team members are more bought in and more accepting of the changes. People don’t expect leaders to be perfect; people expect leaders to lead and be transparent.

Reforecasts are part of normal startup life. They shouldn’t happen yearly, but they do happen in the normal course of business. When a reforecast is necessary, make the changes and over-communicate with the team.

We > I for Entrepreneurs

Over the last year I’ve had the opportunity to meet with dozens of entrepreneurs through the Endeavor program. At one of the events I was seated, listening to an amazing entrepreneur tell his story and it was incredibly compelling. Only, every 10th word was “I.”

“I grew sales 30% last quarter.”

“I acquired a competitor last year.”

“I hired an amazing executive.”

“I raised an institutional round.”

Finally, I interjected and asked, “Are you open to feedback?”

Curious, thinking what he had said wasn’t necessarily feedback oriented, I shared that his use of “I” was disappointing. He didn’t achieve those things by himself. He leads a team, not just himself.

Leaders need to say “we” and not “I”, especially when referencing organizational results.

“We” accomplished the goal.

“We” made it happen.

“We” > “I”, always.

Pushing Harder and Pulling Back as an Entrepreneur

Late in the original Pardot days we were having a constant internal battle around engineering. With the market growing fast, and competition fierce, there wasn’t enough time or resources to accomplish everything we wanted. Often, we’d push so hard on engineering — new features, bug fixes, removal of technical debt, etc. — that quality would start slipping and morale would drop. Then, belatedly, we’d realize we were pushing too hard and we’d have to pull back. Only, we’d pull back for too long and then be a little late ramping the intensity back up.

The pushing harder and pulling back as an entrepreneur never ends.

Eventually, we settled on an approach where we’d push hard one quarter on new feature development and crank out a ton of new functionality. Then, the following quarter, we’d pull back on the intensity of the team and focus on scalability, removing technical debt, and refining existing features. Product updates were always being pushed daily with continuous delivery but the internal approach would change each quarter with one pushing harder via longer hours and a greater focus on new features followed by the next quarter via slightly shorter hours and a greater focus on maintenance.

Morale, culture, and team dynamics are all things that seemed fuzzy and not important to me in the early years. Then, with time, the value became clear that these are major determinants why some teams win and others lose. Constantly oscillating between pushing harder and pulling back is part being an entrepreneur.

Entrepreneurs need to pay attention to the intensity within the organization and look for ways and strategies to proactively work the ebb and flow.