This article was inspired by the Innovation Bay seminar, which took place on the 22nd of April 2020. A huge thank you to Innovation Bay, as well as to the speakers: Nick Crocker, Jane Martino, Amanda Price and Craig Davis, for making this amazing seminar happen.
You’ve probably heard time and again that this situation is unprecedented. But it’s true. This is not only because COVID affects everyone but because it’s come at a time in our history where we’re more interdependent than ever.
However, if there is a group of individuals who are well prepared to face the current crisis, it’s founders. For these individuals, their careers are shaped by uncertainty and changes of all kinds. In short, they’re used to overcoming tumultuous times thanks to built-in adaptability, flexibility, and resilience.
Loneliness is what every solo founder goes through
The biggest threat to founders doesn’t necessarily come from outside. Loneliness, among other ailments that accompany immense pressure and isolation, can be as much of an obstacle as anything in the physical world. This isn’t a new discovery. Although, it’s taken some time for us to recognise mental health as a major hurdle for founders.
"Starting out as a sole founder was the most isolating experience of my life," - Jonathan Hefter
Being the founder means you are the essence of your company. For the company to be strong, you have to be strong yourself. When you build a company, you need to prove to everyone what you are capable of and what separates you from those that have embarked on similar journeys and failed. Many people may watch and judge you, they may doubt your capacity, your commitment, and ideas. Often as a founder, you may think you can’t afford to show “weakness” to others. You must be stalwart, to show any wavering is to undermine all you’ve worked to achieve.
But is this really the case?
It was “like I was carrying a weight that I couldn’t share with anyone”, said Alex Turnbull, CEO & Founder of Groove. That feeling that the world is against you, that no-one will understand, and that you are responsible for everything going on... it’s bound to make you feel extremely isolated...
Here’s one solution
Reach out, engage, and talk to other founders. Sharing your feelings, your ideas, and your doubt with someone with similar burdens will help relieve that emotional weight. Sharing will also help you realise that you’re not alone in how you feel that many people have to fight the same fears and pressures.
Even under lockdown, this kind of communication is made easy by an array of platforms.
Reboot, as mentioned by Amanda Price, is a company that helps founders deal with pressure and connect with others. It allows you to share your experiences, to be honest with others and also with yourself.
Another great platform is The Elephants’ program. Here, the idea is to create a group of four founders with whom you can discuss, with full transparency, you and your company on a quarterly basis.
How to be the leader your company needs you to be?
There’s no magic potion that will turn you into an effective leader. Nor is it something that you can become overnight. Mental fortitude, confidence, and the ability to adapt are traits that will have to be earned over time with dedication, and discipline. Below are some tips but don’t just follow them blindly. Instead, see how you can adapt them to you and your company.
Put on your oxygen mask first
According to Craig Davis, the best thing founders can do at this moment is to first prioritise themselves. This may not be the most altruistic of suggestions, but look at it this way: you won’t be of any use for anyone if you’re a nervous wreck. This implies, as Jane Martino said, you need to schedule time for yourself; to sleep, eat healthily, exercise and take breaks.
How do you expect to deal with complex decisions if your mind isn’t clear? In an aeroplane, you’re told to put your oxygen mask on first before helping others. You can’t help others if you’re unable to breath yourself.
“He will win who knows when to fight and when not to fight” - SunTzu
Don’t try to solve everything. Accept that some struggles are simply out of your hands. Your journey is a marathon, not a sprint, and you’ll finish it by managing your energy well. That means picking your battles.
Never minimise the disruptive power of unequal situations
Don’t underestimate how hard it can be to work from home. We may be facing the same global situation, but everyone has their own personal circumstances, ensuring no two experiences are alike.
Because we are not able to physically work together in the same space, empathy and clarity are key when it comes to explaining what the company is doing and what is expected from employees. You can do it by giving everyone the same tools and the same degree of confidence. If you haven’t already, establish a clear routine to ensure everyone starts their day the same way. In terms of tools, provide everyone with access to the same software, so no-one will feel undervalued or left out.
“Employee engagement arises out of culture and not the other way around.” - Carrick and Dunaway
Nick Crocker, spoke about CultureAmp, a platform which helps individuals manage and build great relationships with collaborators by strengthening company culture. Despite the fact employees are working in different places, it’s more important than ever before to remain connected. This isn’t going to happen if we neglect company culture. CultureAmp is a platform that can help you reinforce the spirit of your business as well as team engagement.
Nick shared with us some successful initiatives Blackbird Ventures have implemented since having to shift to a remote work footing. For example, one new activity is sharing among themselves one life story per day. At each daily meeting, one team member speaks a few minutes about their personal lives, including stories to do with their family, friends, pets, or simply just themselves. Additionally, for those who usually see each other in the office but don’t work together, meetings are set up to facilitate personal connection. The idea is here to maintain and reinforce your business culture. A workplace connected by empathy and personal connection is markedly more effective in times like these than one linked together by purely ‘businesslike’ relationships.
If there is one thing to remember when it comes to leading through uncertainty, it’s that you, as a founder or a CEO, need to be stronger than ever before. This is a must for founders, and it comes with a lot of pressure. It means working on your emotional intelligence, looking after yourself, creating a routine that helps you lead a happy life, to be kind and empathetic to others. Use this time to look deeply into your processes as well as your habits and, most importantly, be ready to listen and adapt...