Burning All Your Boats

Yesterday, I heard the phrase ‘burning all your boats’ when someone was talking about a new business venture and it got me thinking about this popular turn of phrase by Napolean Hill. At the core of this statement lies the fact that, without complete focus and commitment it is not possible to achieve greatness. The imminence of failure pushes us forward to do things we thought we could not do but must in order to win.

I began wondering whether there were degrees to how many boats you could burn!

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Charting the Course

“Controlling your direction is better than being controlled by it.” Jack Welch

An entrepreneurs’ journey is riddled with potholes and unexpected events at every turn. Controlling your direction is not as easy as charting a plan and then sticking to it irrespective of what happens along the path. However, having a clear idea about the direction you are going in and why, is mandatory.

It is critical on this path that the entrepreneur is adept and adaptable enough to be able to maneuver the direction of this ship. The word “pivot”  is fast becoming a word with over usage in startups. Many of them seem to be controlled by events, the reason for this is, I believe, that they are not certain about why they are on the journey in the first place.

There are two factors entrepreneurs need to be aware of, understand and have down pat before they head out on this journey:

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Performance Optimization

Great leaders have an inherent ability to distill complexity into simplicity. A great story which reflects this talent is attributed to steel magnate Charles M. Schwab. One day one of his floor managers came to him complaining about varied schemes he had attempted in order to increase the average output per shift, without any luck. After having listened to his strategies Mr. Schwab simply asked him one question “How many heats has the day shift completed?”. When he got “6” as the answer he simply took a piece of chalk and wrote a big “6” on the entrance door!

When the night shift workers came in and enquired about the significance of the number “6”, they were told that the boss had enquired about the output of the earlier shift and had written that on the wall. That night, the night shift beat the day shift and demonstrated this by erasing the number “6” and writing “7” there instead. Over the next couple of weeks output from each shift surged.

Stimulating competition has a powerful effect in getting individuals to push themselves harder. To get optimal results, it is important that performance tracking is not only tracked on an individual basis, but also done in relative terms to others in the group. By using relative performance gauges we are able to push ourselves further or then simply acknowledge another’s edge by bowing out when we think we are out of a given league.

Do your Employees Care?

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With time, as your startup grows, the need to hire more people and build and develop support structures will arise. This is a critical point in the life of any new business. A company’s employees are essentially word of mouth agents, who go out to their families, friends and acquaintances, and let them know what it is really like to work at your company. If your employees are disconnected from your business’ vision, are not aligned with the core values that the business is built on, and are just paid wages in return for the hours they put in….do you really think they will care?

People are your most important assets. Unfortunately, this mantra is just a mantra at many companies. I admit that as businesses get larger, keeping that close knit working environment becomes more challenging. However, that should not be used as an excuse to dilute the passion, the basis which the business was found on. Many talented individuals join smaller companies, not only to shine and stand out, but to be more than just another statistic at a larger company! As a small business, this is something we need to take advantage of and build a culture that not only rewards, but is transparent in operation.

The greater the level of buy-in by each person that works at your business, the higher will be their level of productivity. Before placing your customers as your number one priority, take a look at the people who work side by side with you everyday. Are their needs taken care of ? Do they feel like they are a part of the business that your team is creating? Answering these critical questions will not only result in a more motivated work force, it will result in happier customers, and in turn, happier investors!

Leadership Inertia

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Things at your start-up are going horribly wrong. People quitting, contracts being lost to competitors and as a leader you keep blaming just about everything else in this world apart from your own ability. The fact of the matter is, that the path your company is on is a core responsibility of a leader. To correct your start-up’s course, if it is going down the wrong path, requires one to start getting as much feedback as possible from your investors, colleagues, customers and advisors. One needs to get a reality check on the type of job they are doing, and what the company can do to put itself back on track.

Unfortunately, a lot of entrepreneurs believe they know the answers to most of these questions themselves and are afraid of making themselves vulnerable in front of their peers. We need to leave our egos at the door and make sure that we do whatever we can to get the business moving again. I have personally found that having a group of mentors who you can use as sounding boards for the problems you are facing is a great way to get perspective on the matter at hand. They say it like it is, and you get honest feedback that may be difficult for your colleagues or peers to give you.

However, to take the step to ask others for help and assistance requires one to get of one’s high horse, roll up one’s sleeves, and get our hands dirty. Delegation is a key part of leadership, but sometimes you need to become a role model for others to push themselves further, by closing deals, making sales and boosting your team’s spirit from the ground up. The longer we keep our head buried in the sand, the closer the startup or business comes to shutting down.

Are You Micro Managing?

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One of the qualities of an entrepreneur is that most of them strive for perfection. Things have to be just right, and they have strong personal opinions about a lot of different aspects of the business. I know this feeling a little bit too well! When I see something like a presentation, proposal, process, logo, website or any other aspect of the business that does not look or feel right, I am going to be on it and seriously voicing my concerns. To a certain extent , voicing your concerns and getting people to buy into your vision is something you need to be good at doing. However, it reaches a tipping point, when you start controlling every part of the entire process, and things start to lose control. Most likely, if you are a small business, the people you work with have similar passions and goals as you. Each one of them may have functional expertise in their respective fields, and if you begin to micro manage what they do…sparks are bound to fly.

The argument that you have to let go to grow etc, is all very well and great to hear and read about. However, a perfectionist will always be a perfectionist. Whilst figuring out this entire letting go concept, I began to realize that I was micro managing because the people I was working with did not have the level of functional expertise and drive that they needed to have. There was always this level of doubt about their ability to deliver on what was promised. I then realized this micro managing was entirely my fault. Some of the reasons this was happening was either:

1. I had hired or partnered with the wrong individual/s.: A common mistake for first time entrepreneurs, and a lesson I think we all need to learn the hard way. If you put a wrong person in the wrong seat, you are bound to see fireworks happen in some form or other. Identify the role you want the person to play, evaluate whether they have the expertise to deliver, and most importantly , the drive to see it all the way to the end.

2. I had obviously delegated insufficiently or ambiguously: No matter how great a person may be, if he/she does not know where they are going or what they have to do, things get complicated. From the get go tasks must be broken down into manageable chunks. Performance metrics need to be established and regular updates need to be provided. If communication gets muffled, you spend half your time telling someone things you thought you had already told them. Be clear from the beginning.

3. Addiction to control: Perfectionists like to be in control. It is how they reach a level of inner peace and satisfaction, knowing that things are in order. By micro managing we withhold that level of control and that is why so many small businesses remain just that small businesses. This addiction for control becomes one of the greatest detriments for entrepreneurs to evolve into better and more confident managers.

Everyone micro manages at some point or other. I acknowledge there will be times when due to circumstances, micro management will be necessary. However, if it becomes a habit, you will begin to lose your best partners and employees, it will limit the amount of work you can take on, it will also cause insurmountable levels of stress and anxiety and eventually may lead to your downfall.

Do you think you micro manage?

Weak Links Within Your Team

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I was having dinner with a friend who manages a large team of 20 people at a very reputable software development company. The conversation drifted to troubles he was having with a couple of his team members who were not pulling their weight. This is a common scenario and one that every manager has to deal with. At larger organizations, ineffective members of teams are able to stay below the radar. They are either rotated from one department to another or given some menial task that requires very little intellectual input. At smaller organizations, and more so in smaller teams with strong leaders there is very little room for one of these individuals to hide. For instance, an early stage startup team may comprise of anywhere from 3 – 10 individuals. Even if one individuals is not pulling his weight, that comprises of 10% of the entire strength of the organization. This is unacceptable, and needs to be dealt with as early as possible to ensure the survival of your startup.

I have seen first hand how ineffective team members can drive an entire team insane. Fractions are created, people begin talking behind closed doors, and sometimes even sabotage is a possibility. Ineffective team members are kryptonite to your excellent team members. Excellent members of the team who have a strong work ethic and believe in giving their best, will be driven away from your team if they believe the leader tolerates such individuals and sub-par work. It is hence pretty clear that some action needs to be taken towards individuals who are evidently weak links in your team:

1. Briefing: I prefer having the entire team present at the first briefing with the person or persons who are clearly not meeting their targets. Candid discussions can be uncomfortable, but if done in a controlled manner and with the assistance of some 360 degree evaluation tools they can be most effective. The manager or leader needs to sit down with the individual and discuss their performance. If it has been severely lacking, I usually give them another 30 or 60 days to reach certain targets and monitor changes in their behavior.

2. Decision: Monitoring the performance of your team is the responsibility of every manager or leader. Thorough performance appraisals and feedback systems should be put into place as early as possible. If the weak links do not change their outlook within the stipulated period of the briefing, I believe there is only one option left and that is to let them go.

I do not like letting people go, I think that is a fairly universal feeling (other than Donald Trump who seems to enjoy it!). However, tough decisions need to be made to ensure that your startup can reach its target goals. It will require sacrifices to be made along the way. Sometimes, freeing your team from the burden of a member who is pulling everyone down can have an amazing impact on overall productivity and motivation. Look within your own team and evaluate whether you have any weak links. If you do, addressing this concern should be of the utmost importance.

I would really like to hear from readers how they deal with weak links on their teams. What strategies have you used that have shown results and which ones have not. Look forward to hearing from you.