The best serial entrepreneurs – contrary to most of what you read or the junk you see on the big and little screens – aren’t drug-fueled drunks, or one-shot wonders like Travis Kalanick and Adam Neumann. Nor are they the manipulative, insecure and power-hungry assholes in financial porn shows like Billions or Succession who treat their people like disposable cogs, punching bags, or worse. The most successful business builders invest in and build their people right alongside their businesses because they know that, if their people aren’t growing, there’s little or no chance that their companies will.
A different and better world can’t be built by indifferent people.
If there’s a drug that drives the true creators of new businesses and sustains lasting innovation and real change, it’s not heroin, it’s hope. The best leaders are hope dealers; they’re always willing to bet on the best in people; and it’s their commitment, passion and enthusiasm that makes their hopes contagious. Not surprisingly, when you sit them down and ask them what the absolutely most important and satisfying part of their job is, they all say the same three words: bringing others along. Hope combined with help is quite a heady brew. We ultimately succeed by making others successful.
Now I realize this isn’t quite the kind of pithy phrase that commands the fleeting and fractured attention of the next few generations of entrepreneurs, but the words speak clearly and directly to the folks who’ve been there and who have repeatedly done precisely what they describe. People don’t sign up for slogans anyway, they don’t commit to companies or institutions these days (if they ever did), they commit to other people. But only once they’re convinced that those people are equally committed to them. And then, they’ll eat glass and walk through walls to get the job done – whatever it is and however tough it may be.
Ask anyone who’s lived through the ups and downs of a startup, whether successful or not, and they’ll have a million stories to tell you about what they went through – together. How they shared a dream and tried to make it real. How they reached back constantly to pull others along with them to share in their own joy and excitement, to seize the moments that might not ever come again. How they collectively built a vision, a culture, and a team that was as much of a family and a part of their very beings as any of their spouses, kids or other blood relatives.
The veterans of the adventure almost never talk about the money they made or lost, or about the stress, loneliness and heartaches that were part of the process. Rather, they will always tell you how their leaders treated them and made them feel that they were part of something bigger than themselves. No one ever forgets how you made them feel. Often, it was bigger and better than they felt about themselves. They weren’t simply accepted, they were expected: to learn, to grow, and to become what they were capable of becoming and not to settle for anything less than the best they could be.
Entrepreneurs set out to accomplish many things but leaving people better than they were when they found them – inside and outside of their companies – is always high on the list for the true believers.
With half the working world still remote, such a task is going to be harder than ever. Yet you have to meet and reach your people wherever they are before you can start the process of helping them get to where you want them to be. In these frantic times, even the smartest HR people can lose sight of the need to invest the time and energy required to educate and mentor the key members of the team – especially the newbies – in the company’s culture, commitments, strategy and ethics.
Given a world full of chaos, the temptation is to focus all the energy and emphasis on getting things moving again, putting out the everyday fires and addressing the latest crises. But you risk losing sight of how important it is to keep building your company’s people advantage, which is going to be so crucial for your long-term success. Don’t let the “urgent” stuff eat up all the time and space needed to deal with the “important” matters as well. Your people will ultimately make the dream come true, but only if you invest the time and give them the tools and the attention needed to get them ready for the job.
There are three critical steps you need to take to get the ball rolling in the right direction.
(1) Make the time during working hours to do the conversations right.
These “talks” can’t be some quick watercooler check-in or a chat over evening drinks in some crowded bar. It’s a much more important conversation than that and committing “real” time to it is the only way to send the right message. In fact, schedule two sessions at a time because continuity and regularity are also critical. This is a solid and serious slice of time carved out of calendars that’s treated just as importantly as any other event, meeting or commitment. It’s not a favor or a function or a checkbox item and it’s also not a gift, obligation or transaction. It’s a sincere effort – first and foremost – to make an emotional connection with someone you actually care about and whose future at the company is important to both of you. And finally, this is one-on-one. Don’t plan on bringing a friend.
(2) Clear the table and start from scratch.
The first meeting or two needs to be agenda-less. If anyone walks into the session with a list – good news, accomplishments, grievances, financial issues– the whole process is off to a really poor start. This is not a review or gripe session and there’s no real end point, immediate goal or clear objective. Those concepts are too narrow, too directive, and too concrete. And largely beside the point. No one comes to work to do a decent job. This conversation needs to be, at least initially, about dreams, desires, and aspirations and not about means and ends. It’s more about why you come to work at all rather than anything you do at work. Purpose and values are foundational elements of the talk.
(3) Talk about the person, not policies, processes or office politics.
Younger workers today bring their whole selves to work. Honestly, I’m not exactly sure what that even means, but I do know that when people come to work, they need to be connected to a vision…not just a story…but a vision of how their efforts will make an important difference. They take it very personally and, even before the pandemic, the distance between their work lives and the rest of their lives was continually shrinking. How each and every employee feels about their work has a great deal to do with their own self-worth and also how they view and describe themselves to their peers and others. The talk needs to be in a safe space and the topics are tough and emotional by definition.
These are “new” collar workers, and they require a much larger and serious investment on management’s part in addressing touchy-feely areas which – given all the accompanying sensitivities, trigger points, and other woke issues – can be seen by older, more senior, leaders as fraught minefields. Their own caution and anxiety lead to a tendency to try to objectify the conversation and talk about policies, rules, and regulations as a shelter and respite from the harder and more emotional conversations. But that doesn’t work. You can’t phone this stuff in and if you’re not equipped to get down and dirty and to the heart of the matter, you won’t succeed in building the critical connections you’re seeking.
But, far more costly than simply failing to connect with your newer team members is the high likelihood that, if you miss the boat and don’t start acting now, you’ll be spending the next couple of years looking at tons of turnover, workers walking around with “whatever” attitudes, and a business that’s barely keeping its head above water as the continuing waves of the Great Resignation wash over us all. It’s not a vision of the kind of future or business that any serious entrepreneur is seeking.