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Intensity Isn’t the Only Way

I listened to someone share his observations about entrepreneurs. The gist of it was that intense entrepreneurs are the most successful entrepreneurs. By “intense” he meant outspoken and demanding—characteristics that push them and others to get things done.

I disagree. People of all personality types can be successful. People who are laid back or don’t say much can be just as ambitious and convicted as outspoken, demanding people. They just communicate it differently.

Building something great isn’t about pounding your fist on the table and yelling. It’s about giving your team clarity on what the mission is, holding everyone accountable, motivating them along the way, and celebrating wins together. If you do these things and have the right people, and they’ve bought into what you’re trying to accomplish, you can accomplish what seems impossible. Notice that these management skills don’t require intensity. You can do them all and still be as laid back as you want.

If you’re a founder or aspiring founder, remember that intensity isn’t an indication of your ambition, conviction, or likelihood of success. Be yourself. Lead in a way that fits who you are naturally.

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Communicating Popular—and Unpopular—Decisions

I listened to a friend criticize a founder’s decision on an important issue. The founder originally told his staff they would do X. A few weeks later, he changed his mind and decided to do Y. I was curious why he changed his mind, so I asked. In short, the data changed. His initial decision was based on a projection that had materially changed since then. If he’d stayed the course, the result could have been serious challenges for his company in the future. The initial decision was well communicated and well received. But when the decision was reversed, there was no official communication; people heard about it through the grapevine.

Hard decisions must be made when you’re leading others. There’s no way around them. Making difficult or unpopular decisions isn’t what gets leaders in trouble; it’s the way they’re communicated—or not—that can land leaders in hot water. Some leaders avoid delivering unpopular news for fear of upsetting their teams. What they don’t realize is that people are often OK with whatever happens if they know why it’s happening. And people don’t like uncertainty. They want to hear from their leader when there’s important news that could affect them.

If you’re a founder, there’s nothing wrong with changing your mind or making unpopular decisions. It comes with the territory. But be aware that how you communicate your decisions can have a lasting impact on your team’s confidence in you as a leader.

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Leaders Be Warned: Smart People Are Watching You

I had a discussion with a buddy about different leadership styles. We talk about a few founder friends and compared their styles. I believe leaders have to figure out what style works best for them. Some people are great motivational speakers. Some are quiet and lead by example. All can be effective.

My buddy expressed a view that I hadn’t thought about: Leading by example is your only option when you have a team of A players because smart people don’t care what you say—they’re watching what you do and will take their cue from that.

I don’t totally agree with my friend. Smart people listen to what leaders say, but they take it a step further. They verify by paying attention to what leaders do. They make sure there’s alignment between a leader’s words and actions. When there’s a disconnect, they take note. Saying something is a lot easier than living it. So, when words and actions don’t align, smart people believe that action represents the truth. If a leader’s actions aren’t what they expect or don’t align with their values, you can expect them to start planning their exit.

If you’re a leader and you want to build an amazing team, remember that A players are listening and watching. Your actions must align with your words. If they don’t, you’ll end up with an average or worse team and average or worse results in your organization.

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Proximity to Success

Earlier this week, I shared my takeaway from an interview of coach Mike Tomlin. A friend read the post and pointed out something else that we had a great discussion about. Tomlin shared how impactful working with Tony Dungy was. Tomlin was a 28-year-old new coach in the NFL and also a new father. He was nervous and not sure if he had what it took to succeed in either role. He specifically pointed out that a big part of his nervousness was due to not knowing what to expect—he’d never worked in the NFL and wasn’t raised in a two-parent household.  

Tomlin had dreams and aspirations and was working hard to make them happen. But he didn’t know what it looked like to be a successful NFL coach or a good father. Dungy showed him not only what each looked like but also what it looked like to do both at the same time. Dungy led by example, which gave Tomlin proximity to success and changed the trajectory of his career and his life.

Tomlin is a great example of the impact of proximity to success. When you can see people to whom you relate succeed, it starts to make the impossible feel possible!

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Resist Comfort

I watched an interview in which coach Mike Tomlin described how he stays at the top of his game. After winning two Super Bowls, he still has the same fire he had when he first became an NFL head coach fifteen years ago. Tomlin shared something that really stuck with me. He resists comfort. In fact, he tells his team, “Don’t seek comfort,” because special outcomes—outsize outcomes—are the result of being uncomfortable. He explained that he views thinking back to his success as a Super Bowl champion as seeking comfort. So, he ignores his past success and the comfort it breeds.

Tomlin may ignore his track record, but it’s impressive and speaks to his credibility as a coach and leader.

Growth often comes from being in uncomfortable situations. You’re forced to think about and do things that are unfamiliar. Succeed or fail, you’ll learn from those experiences. I really like how Tomlin is intentional about resisting comfort. It tells me that he’s a learner and constantly looking for ways to improve himself and the team he leads. It makes sense that after fifteen years, he’s still at the top of his game.

If you’re aiming to do something special, consider asking yourself, “Am I resisting comfort—or seeking it—when I make decisions?”

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What’s Important: The Right Answer, Not Being Right

Sean McVay, head coach of the Los Angeles Rams, shared how he led the Rams to win the Super Bowl this year. Sean is the youngest head coach in the NFL. Some of his players are his age or older. I was curious about what he had to say. Part of his formula for success is listening to his players. He acknowledges that he and other coaches don’t have all the answers. He cares about what’s right, not who’s right. This stood out to me and reminded me of something similar Ray Dalio said:

I just want to be right—I don’t care if the right answer comes from me.

Dalio also tweeted a similar thought a few months back.

It’s telling that two credible people in different industries are saying the same thing. If you’re a founder, consider taking a second to ask yourself: Do I care more about being proven right or about getting to the right answer?

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Will a Body Count Be Part of Your Founder Story?

Founders tend to be impatient people. They have ideas, but they realize that it’s the execution of their ideas that matters. Most have high expectations around execution. They manage others with a focus on getting things done quickly. Their impatience can be a superpower, but it can also have unintended consequences.

Focusing exclusively on rapid execution at all costs can be a slippery slope. That type of management gets results, but at a cost. People burn out. The company’s culture can turn toxic. The business churns through people. The body count rises.

If you’re a founder, consider: Do you want a high body count to be part of your legacy? Does your current management style align with the legacy you want to leave behind you?

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Founders, Be Willing to Get Your Hands Dirty

An early-stage founder asked me for advice on handling a weird cofounder dynamic. This CEO realized that his team doesn’t respect his cofounder. Finding this odd, I dug in. I learned that the cofounder is used to a more corporate setting with resources and a team beneath him. He sees his lane as being narrow and stays squarely in it. Translation: the cofounder isn’t used to getting his hands dirty and taking on tasks he isn’t experienced in.

Early-stage companies are in constant flux and usually have only a handful of people. What needs to be done changes constantly, and there are never enough resources to get everything done. Often, everyone works on tasks outside their role—leaders included—until the company has the resources and scale to hire sufficient staff.

Early-stage founders should lead by example and be ready to get their hands dirty. Otherwise, they risk losing the respect of their team. It’s hard for your people to wrap their heads around running through a wall for you if you won’t run through one yourself.

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Part-time Commitment Won’t Help a Business Realize Its Full Potential

I recently became a customer of an interesting business. It seemed amazing, and I wanted to learn more. The product is great. I was surprised it hasn’t seen explosive growth. I decided to dig deeper and spent time observing and talking to the team. The owners are absent most of the time and live somewhere else. Once they got the business open, they began to focus on other projects, relying on general managers to run this business. Two general managers share the load, each running the business for approximately six months at a time. I spoke with one of the managers and asked about this arrangement. She said she has other projects outside this job that take priority and this role was never intended to be a full-time or long-term commitment. I spent time with the junior team members as well. They all live close to the business, and this is their full-time and only job.

I realized what’s missing. The owners and managers of the business aren’t fully committed. Leadership all have other things they’re working on that are more important to them than this business. The rest of the team sees the lack of commitment and has adjusted accordingly. None of them spoke of this as a place they see themselves long-term. They view it as a job and are passing through until their next opportunity.

There’s no one on the team fully committed to seeing this business reach its full potential, so it hasn’t. It’s just chugging along as a mediocre business. I suspect another entrepreneur will come along and see its potential. They’ll buy it and commit to taking it to the next level.

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Exit Interviews, Done Right, Are Golden

In the early days of a company, the team is small. One person leaving the company can be a big blow to the team. To an early founder not anticipating the departure, it’s frustrating. Usually, team members opt to leave when things aren’t going well, so the departure combined with challenges in the business can feel like a double whammy and cause founders to question themselves as leaders.

Departures happen at start-ups. The first leaver likely won’t be the last. You want to do all you can to build a great environment and have everyone aligned on the mission, but however hard you try, people will leave. It’s a setback—but also an opportunity to get candid feedback on the business, how leaders are perceived, and the mood of the rest of the team.

I’m a big fan of doing exit interviews when team members choose to depart. Along with thanking them for their service and letting them know they’re always welcome to come back (if they were a good team member), it’s important to ask them for candid feedback. When someone is departing, they’ll usually give more direct feedback because they don’t have anything to lose.

Listening to feedback from someone leaving a hole in your team is hard to do. But it’s super important to look past how you feel about the situation and the extra workload caused by the departure. Listen to understand the why behind the person’s decision to depart, what’s going well, and what can be improved. You may not agree with everything they say, but this opportunity to learn and improve in various areas doesn’t come often. It often leads to valuable golden nuggets.

If you’re an early founder and a team member exits, don’t dwell on the fact that they quit. Instead, focus on what you can learn from the situation to minimize the chances of it happening again and to make your business better.

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