Tuesday 12 November 2019

Startup diary: When mistakes happen - and they are going to happen - losing your cool will not fix anything


Anger management: Shouting at people when things go wrong can take an emotional toll
Anger management: Shouting at people when things go wrong can take an emotional toll

Richard Rodger, Voxgig founder

Most startups fail. That means most startup founders will go through one of the most traumatic events in their lives, by choice. Coping with this event and preserving your mental health is going to be difficult.

Despite much more openness about this part of the startup journey in recent times, it is still considered a mostly taboo subject - to the detriment of all participants in the startup ecosystem.

It is inevitable that your startup will not go to plan. Even if it does, that does not make things much easier; hyper growth can also be very stressful.

I've experienced both sides of the coin over the past 15 years of being a founder of four companies.

Many will give you the advice to exercise, meditate, have other interests, and so on.

There's lots of advice out there to do things not related to your company. That's fine as far as it goes, but you also need to adopt some behaviours inside your company that will keep your stress levels down.

The ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle is often quoted as saying: "We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit."

Aristotle did not say this - it is a quick-fire capture of his ideas, and was coined by a writer called Will Durant in 1926.

This little phrase is more powerful than it first appears. The right habits, exercised as such, do in fact change your brain chemistry and your neural wiring.

Aristotle had some intimation of this all those centuries ago, and Durant gave us an easily understood call to action.

As a startup founder, you will experience many external sources of stress directly from your business.

How you decide to handle them, how you decide to behave on a habitual basis when presented with these challenges, will help you manage your own internal state, and keep your business moving forward.

Necessarily, I speak from personal experience, so here are some of the habits that have helped me. These are hard-learned lessons.

Your staff will make mistakes. They will make big, bad mistakes. Company killers. These mistakes will come at the worst times, when you have issues in your personal life, as well as your business.

You're human, and you'll get angry, and you'll take it out on your staff. Nobody is a saint all the time. Even the calmest people will lose their rag sometimes.

The problem is that this behaviour generates no good outcomes. It is a poison that slowly destroys your culture.

Let's say your team fails to deliver an important milestone, and you start giving out to them in a management meeting. You say some cutting things, and directly attack the responsible executives. They needed a kick up the backside anyway!

The effect of this behaviour on your part is to teach your team to 'manage' you. Now you won't get accurate information.

People will not feel safe to raise problems. People will cheat to meet targets. You'll have the nagging feeling that something is off, and your sense of paranoia will build; that'll be great for your mental health.

Failure and bad performance are better dealt with in a different way. Pure failure happens.

Be careful not to judge decisions and actions only by outcomes.

Business is complicated, and you can make all the right moves, and still lose. Think about the way that airline safety is handled - full, deep and honest investigation makes us all safer.

Hundreds of people a year used to die in airline accidents in the 1970s. That doesn't happen any more.

Bad performance is not corrected by shouting at people. If the person is not up to the job, that's on you as leader, and you need to correct that by moving them, or letting them go.

If they are, but are not performing, you need to find out why.

Temper tantrums on your part will shut that down.

There are successful companies that are led in this way - it is a tactic that can work. But be prepared for high turnover, lots of stress and more risk than necessary.

In all cases, the toll on your mental health of repeated anger will be a heavy price to pay. It is short-term emotional gratification that undermines your long-term goals.

It is a mistake I have made many times, and always regretted. You may feel betrayed by your staff, and feel your anger is justified.

Perhaps it is, but acting like a baby is not going to fix anything.

Shouting at people might get you better performance in the short term, but you'll pay a personal price in due course, even if your company is successful.

The bad behaviour of some founders is often caused by unresolved mental issues that are driven by the loneliness caused by being a 'hard' boss.

Metrics: this week, we have 86 open issues, and 295 closed issues.

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