Startup employees look to their CEO's for inspiration, communication and any hints of "perspiration", hanging on every word and action of their leader, as their primary source of information as to whether or not the business is in trouble, or not. When an employee is paddling along with you in a "river raft adventure" of a startup, they want to make sure their lifeboat is not taking on water. And, the CEO is typically the first person to know when things are not going as planned, and frankly, whether or not the business is going to survive and the employees will need to be looking for new jobs to pay their mortgage.
Back in Lesson #13, we talked about Creating the Right Culture for Your Startup, including having an open-style of communication between the CEO and the employees for the good, the bad and the ugly. During difficult times, you need to learn how to communicate any bad news to the team in a way that will keep them informed, but motivated and confident at the same time. The last thing you want is your staff to become demoralized, when they need to be energized, putting an already struggling business into a death spiral.
What this typically means for a startup CEO is: no "public displays of rejection". A staff seeing their leader worried, depressed or losing confidence is they equivalent of their swallowing a poison pill. When a staff lives and breathes with eachother, they know everybody's specific habits, personality and style. And, any change from the norm from their CEO, can often set off red flags with the staff.
So, when communicating with the team, use the same tone, personality and facial expressions you always would, in both good times and bad times. This especially means keeping up your energy, confidence and eye contact, regardless of the problems at hand. And, do your best to maintain your normal routine: keep all normal meetings with staff, do all the normal birthday celebrations, continue to keep the door open to your office, keep a normal presence in the office, don't come across frantic in your daily activities, etc.
A consistent and confident captain, will instill trust and confidence in his shipmates. That said, your staff are smart people, and will typically know when confidence is unjustified and will not appreciate you trying to sell them a bunch of bull. So, keep it honest at all times, and upbeat where you can.
As we discussed in Lesson #29, iExplore was staring over the edge of the abyss after 9/11/01. But, despite how ominous it looked that the business could survive, I was able to convince the core staff of nine employees to "hang in there", with them willing to work without any current income for the four month period it took me to raise the additional capital required to resume normalcy to the business. I had built up their trust over the years (which was key, never promising anything I couldn't deliver, and successfully navigating the business through prior bad times). So, if I said "trust me, we were going to get through this", then by George (pun intended), we were going to get through this, and all hands on deck to batten down the hatches. It would have been much easier for these employees to start looking for a new job, which I even encouraged them to do, as a back-up Plan B to protect themselves. But, we were all clear, saving iExplore was Plan A, and we were all on board to give it the college try, despite any personal sacrifices we needed to make.
And, it was largely due to the delivery of the message. Had I walked into that room with my head down, crying with my tail between my legs (how I really felt), it would have been game over. Instead, it was business as usual, with an open and honest message of the fact we were in a difficult position, but had a clearly communicated plan on how we would get through it. And, the fact I acknowledged their personal fears of them potentially losing their jobs if the business went under, by allowing them time to interview for new jobs for Plan B, deepened their trust in me and had them wanting to work with me that much harder.
So, keep an even keel in both smooth and choppy waters, regardless of how much pressure or stress you may be under during the bad times. If you can avoid letting your stress or fears pass along to your team, the odds of you successfully getting through those bad times just increased ten-fold.
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