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Seven Ways To Use The Light Side of the Force to Lead Your Startup

Startups are hectic places to work. During the early days, employees typically wear multiple hats performing different job tasks as required. Founders, who find themselves working alongside their employees as newly minted executive managers, often lack a seasoned management style that can motivate and cultivate positive workplace collaboration. Often the demands to succeed push these novice manager/founders to embrace the “dark-side” of management to force compliance and improve productivity. As a founder, I can testify to the temptation I felt to use my late-mother’s favorite parental phrase, “because I told you to do it,” on the startup team I managed. For sure, managing with an iron fist can yield the temporary productivity results and even spur un-paralleled innovation. As one might expect, iron fisted, dark-side, management styles often die under their own weight over the long-term.

I remember working for a genius, dark-side manager who was most famously known to have fired an associate on the spot because the employee dared to inform him that he had a hole in his shoe during a meeting with an ad agency. “After two hours of discussing the brand, the most you have to offer is telling me that I have a hole in my shoe? Get out now. We will have your stuff shipped to you,” the senior executive was quoted as saying during that meeting. As this story was relayed to me, I had two immediate reactions. First, I figured that the senior executive must love those shoes because he could certainly afford a new pair. Second, I surmised that the safest opinions were the opinions shared by the senior executive. If everyone else in the company came to the same conclusion, it would not be very long before the company would die under the weight of “sameness.”

Dark-side management balances top-down decision making with a heavy dose of paranoia – a mixture that eventually builds a wall between key employees and the information they need to do their jobs. I have worked with startups that had multiple founders who had not yet embraced the “light-side.” The startups struggled to sustain growth because the team could not figure out how to share credit for accomplishments or which founder to align themselves behind as the leader. As you might guess, dark-side employee management techniques can easily seep into these cracks as founders jockey for position within the organization.

After 25 years of strategy management consulting, corner offices and startup experience, I have gleaned from first-hand experience that there are Seven Ways a Founder can Lead their Startup Using The Light Side of the Force.

  1. Define your culture first and celebrate it often Founders are not only the face of the organization, they are the cornerstones of the culture. Define and display your organization’s guiding principles and live them every day. I had a boss who would give out Disney figurines for significant accomplishments because he wanted the company to become the "The Happiest Place on Earth.” As more figurines populated cubical desks, employees embraced the concept and even took on the persona of Disney characters on Halloween. Sustaining your culture also means celebrating employees who decide to leave the startup. I worked at a high-powered Washington DC law firm that celebrated employee departures like grandparents welcoming a new grandchild. Departing employees were given the right to have their favorite meal catered by the firm’s chef and the lunch festivities included a roast and the presentation of a memorable gift. When I asked one of the partners why so much was invested in the lunches, He replied, “We hire the best people. We want them to stay and succeed with us. However, should they leave; we want to keep the doors open to work with them in the future as an employee or a client.” Founders who trash employees after they leave to pursue different opportunities are essentially spitting in the face of the remaining employees.

  2. Empower your employees to conduct self-evaluations Founders should participate in employee self-evaluations at the beginning of each year and meet at least quarterly with those employees to see if they are making progress toward their personal career goals. Founders should also conduct the same exercise for themselves with the entire team. Founders who share their weaknesses, visions, and plans for success with their teams often build a level of comradery that inspires the team to take on their largest competitors (See the early days of Apple Computer).

  3. Become a mentor to your worst performers A team is only as good as its weakest link and everyone knows that in sports and business, talent wins. Founders can use mentorship to strengthen their startup team especially if the best people are paired with struggling employees. During my last startup, I mentored a customer support representative who was struggling at her job. I told her that when I was acting as her mentor, I was no longer the CEO of the company, and that she could ask me anything, and I could not hold it against her. I also told her that in my capacity as her mentor, she could ask me for help solving problems without any blowback regarding the circumstances that created the initial problem. She took full advantage of my mentorship offer. She would often call me and start the conversation with “I need your help as my mentor.” The goal of my approach was to show her that problem solving was a collaborative process. Over the course of a year, she moved from struggling employee to the customer service team lead.

  4. Host Lunch & Learn About Me Sessions Great teams, like great marriages, are built on great friendships. As the cornerstones of the culture, founders have the inherent title of “Chief Friend Officer or CFO.” CFO’s primary purpose is to learn what personally motivates an employee and to create the environment in which those motivations are a part of the employee’s everyday work experience. I had the privilege of learning these lessons from a boss who simply called himself the “Tribal Elder.” He would often grab new employees and take them on a Lunch and Learn About Me Session during which he would gather more information about them than one could possibly imagine. A few days after the lunch, the Tribal Elder would start leaving motivational notes on the new employee’s desk. A few months from the lunch, the Tribal Elder would assign the new employee a nickname based on what he learned at that lunch (thus inducting the new employee into the tribe). It has been 14 years since I worked for the Tribal Elder, but he still contacts me on my birthday. Last year when he learned that I was struggling with a business opportunity, he made an impromptu to me and offered valuable advice, “Peterman, I know you can do it. You are too stubborn not to win.” The gesture will stay with me forever.

  5. Rotate job tasks Startup life can be a drain particularly when you have more work than you have employees. Founders who embrace the light-side believe in sharing the pain. I made sure that I worked every job at my last startup and rotated job tasks with front line employees so that the team realized the value of everything we did to win and retain our customers. I often stated to these employees, “We are working for each other’s paychecks.”

  6. Link job functions to performance metrics As your startup starts to mature and grow; employees need a North Star to guide their specialized work effort. Founders owe these employees a framework that ties the long-term strategy to the everyday work being performed. Why? Employees who can visualize a mountain spend most of their time complaining about its size. Employees who can visualize the view from the top of a mountain want to climb it. Linking an employee’s job function to performance metrics and setting obtainable goals provides a clear line of sight and direction.

  7. Turn suggestion boxes into internal shark tanks Accepting input from your employees gives them ownership in the future of the business. To solicit feedback, some companies post a suggestion box. I encourage startups to take it a step further and give employees the opportunity to pitch their ideas (shark tank style) and earn the right to pursue the concept if it is projected to be profitable and fits with the startup’s strategy. 3M Corporation launched a string of blockbuster products that were created by frontline employees.

Some startup founders may lament, “You don’t understand the power of the dark-side!” True. There is power associated with your title. However, if you are the only person left on a sinking ship, does that title really matter? Embrace the light-side and may the force be with you.

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