Failure is almost always spoken about in the past tense. That creates an artificial safety net. There isn’t true vulnerability in that. Love this article (“Opening Up About Startup Failures and Vulnerability”) in “First Round” that goes into it. Read on.
Leaders, entrepreneurs, founders and others many times open up and share their failures ONLY after they are successful. But does that really help others who are in the midst of struggling? Founder Jeff Wald shares what it means to get raw and vulnerable about failure in the “present tense.“
“CHALLENGE #1: GETTING VULNERABLE BY MAKING IT PERSONAL”
“Failure’s become trendy. We live in a culture of innovation and pushing envelopes, which requires failure,” Wald says. “But I’d draw a distinction between failure and vulnerability. We’ve confused the idea of putting failure out into the market as making yourself vulnerable, when it isn’t. Talking about how your startup didn’t work or how your product fell flat isn’t the same as digging into how that made you feel or how you failed specifically as a leader — there’s a degree of separation there. You actually need to put yourself out there.”
Here’s the difference between talking about failure and getting truly vulnerable: Vulnerability is necessarily personal while failure is not. Don’t conflate the two.
Sharing tales of startup failures, market defeats and company losses is not necessarily an exercise in true vulnerability, especially when there’s a safety net of follow-on success to fall back on. “I only got comfortable mentioning Spinback after there was a successful end to that story, when there was no downside for me,” he says. “Given where I am now, everyone automatically views the failure as a stepping stone to that success. So even though I’m more forthcoming about it, talking about the company going under doesn’t really make me vulnerable. It’s an abstract layer, a discussion in which I’m still shielded. Talking about the depression that went along with it and the inability to cope with the failure — that’s a little bit more down the road of vulnerability.”
FAILURE AS A TEACHER: TACTICS FOR EXTRACTING THE LESSONS
Failure has been an invaluable teacher for Wald, but only because he put in the time to excavate its lessons. “Failure can be something that happens to you, or it can be something you learn from. But that doesn’t happen through osmosis, it takes a lot of concentrated effort and dedication to unearth the takeaways,” he says.
For Wald, moving past the notion that his failure defined him ultimately required professional help. And something he’d once scoffed at — working with a coach. When first approached with the idea, he wasn’t too receptive. “One of the WorkMarket board members took me on a walk and said, ‘We think you need to get a coach’ and I said, ‘I think you need a coach,’” Wald says. The board member, however, made it clear that the suggestion wasn’t optional.
“At the time I was more focused on proving that I was right as opposed to being effective. I was very emotional and volatile. There were board meetings where I would sit in the corner with my arms crossed, hoodie up, and not say anything,” he says. “There were other times where I threw things — sometimes tables and chairs. I was an asshole. I wasn’t giving off the impression that I could provide the leadership that a growing and transforming company needs.”
Wald reluctantly went through the process of finding a coach, determined to do the bare minimum to satisfy his board and nothing more. “I certainly planned to blow it off,” he says. But just as Wald needed to connect with fellow founders to get a better context for his work, it took a coach who had a similar career path, and thus more relevant context, to realize how helpful an outside perspective could be. “I met with people that had clinical backgrounds in coaching, but I knew from my own makeup that I needed somebody that had sat in my chair before. I was introduced to someone who had been incredibly successful in the startup world first and then went back to become a coach.”
Excellent post on creating great company values (versus lame ones) & challenges behind “living them” by the Twilio CEO. Encourage you to check out the article below.
“CULTURE is a word that Silicon Valley and startups everywhere toss around all the time,” says Lawson. “What does it really mean and how does it relate to VALUES? What I landed on is that culture is living your values.
Values are written words, and your culture is how you actually live those written words.”
“Our values are in motion, specifically through a three-stage lifecycle that gets us to the next stage of growth. First, we articulate our values, then live them and finally, test them.”
Love these two values the most (see the picture below):
1) “Empower Others: Make Heroes. Unleash the greatness of others inside and outside the company.”
2) “No Shenanigans: Be thoughtful. Always deal in an honest, direct, and transparent way.”
Values are for guiding behaviors and helping people make decisions that everyone will support and feel proud about.
Values are really really hard to get right and usually take iteration. But it’s worth investing in because the positive/negative consequences are massive.
Anthony & I get into a “meaty” conversation on his fantastic human resources podcast (E1B2 Podcast -Employee 1st Business 2nd) on the challenges w/ employee engagement, employee experience, culture building, teamwork, new employee onboarding, & other HR areas.
“In today’s episode, we cover the following topics ( Why teamwork is the most important company asset and least understood. We also discuss why and the cost/impact strategies and tools to build it. We also conduct a deep dive into Why 99% of onboarding is broken and what to do about it; what matters the most as it pertains to onboarding new employees? Finally what brands need to care about the most from a psychological perspective during the onboarding process!)”
An underperforming employee can drag the entire team down and create unnecessary drama and tension. It could be things such as missing deadlines, not thinking strategically, poor communication, missing goals, or many other things. The “knee jerk” reaction for many managers, after most likely several intense conversations and a lot of frustration, is training or termination.
That might still be the end result, but there is a better three-step process to go through that I outline below.
Here’s an important data point to keep in mind when you are thinking about this:A manager’s ability to accurately and quickly diagnose their employees’ performance challenges and then provide the right prescriptive solutions is critical to building high-performing teams and companies.
If a manager can’t, it not only causes frustration between the manager and employee, it cascades through the entire team and other teams they interact with.
Managers often struggle to understand the root causes when employees struggle. How? They often assume that the “surface level” issue is the problem when it actually runs much deeper. Often times there is/are issue(s) beyond knowledge, skill, and competency that play a primary or secondary role.
If you don’t address the entirety of the challenge, it often comes back again in a different scenario. That’s both costly and huge time waste.
The first place to start is root cause analysis (i.e. getting to the “roots” of what’s causing the issue and why they can’t move past it). These are self-reflective questions the manager can run through, then discuss with the employee and finally implement.
Before you go through root cause analysis it’s worthwhile to run through a quick exercise: There are three key questions that help determine if someone can change, overcome an obstacle/difficulty and learnskills/knowledge to get to the next level in their career.
Are they willing? (You can’t do much with someone who isn’t.)
Are they motivated and do they care? (If they are disconnected, and disengaged, it’s really, really hard to help someone).
Are they coachable? (Change requires new behaviors, thinking, and actions. If they aren’t open to new ideas and taking new “leaps of faith” to trying new things, you can’t move them forward).
Unless you are very certain the answer is “no” for all three, keep reading. There is hope and a possibility for improvement. And remember, every great employee at one point in their career will get really stuck.
Here’s the three-step employee performance root cause analysis process
Step 1: Diagnose the Problem
Answer the following questions…
What are they required to do?
Who do they have to work with?
When and where do their underperformance issues appear?
What’s the impact of the underperformance?
What does great, average and poor performance look like? (and do they know what it looks like?)
What has been done in the past to address it?
Step 2: Do Root Cause Analysis (see the template/tool kit below)
There is a useful performance issue diagnostic tool that can help a manager get at the potential root causes for the employee’s underperformance. Check it out. It goes through a template and check-list on their motivation, knowledge, skill, and environment.
Here is part of it so you can see it before you download it (sorry for the small size):
There are a few key questions that I would add to the above list:
Do they understand how they will be evaluated?
How are they being measured? Tasks, activities and/or results?
Are they regularly informed about the feedback? Is it soon and often enough? Is it specific and accurate? Is it understandable and clear to them? Is it tied to things under their control?
Are there incentives for them do well? Do they know what they are? Are they motivating for them?
Step 3: Prescribe the Right Solution
Sometimes it’s not just the employee that needs help, it’s the manager too.
If it’s knowledge/skills – provide education, training, and coaching
If it’s standards/measures – realign expectations and provide “crystal clarity” on measurements
If it’s lack of feedback – the manager needs to get leadership and management coaching
If it’s environmental – provide the additional resources, tools, assistance and anything else they need.
If it’s ability – rehire if the skills, knowledge, and experience gap is too big.
Root cause analysis is very helpful when looking at employee performance challenges. It also can be very useful for high-performing employees to get them even more engaged and motivated.
Elon Musk sent out an internal email to Tesla employees on what great communication looks like and the chain of communication. I find this a fascinating read and worth discussing. It’s definitely controversial and can be challenging to pull off. Here is his email:
“There are two schools of thought about how information should flow. By far the most common way is chain of command, which means that you always flow communication through your manager. The problem with this approach is that, while it enhances the power of the manager, it fails to serve the company.
Instead of a problem getting solved quickly, where a person in one dept talks to a person in another dept and makes the right thing happen, people are forced to talk to their manager who talks to their manager who talks to the manager in the other dept who talks to someone on his team. Then the info has to flow back the other way again. This is incredibly dumb. Any manager who allows this to happen, let alone encourages it, will soon find themselves working at another company. No kidding.
Anyone at Tesla can and should email/talk to anyone else according to what they think is the fastest way to solve a problem for the benefit of the whole company. You can talk to your manager’s manager without his permission, you can talk directly to a VP in another dept, you can talk to me, you can talk to anyone without anyone else’s permission. Moreover, you should consider yourself obligated to do so until the right thing happens. The point here is not random chitchat, but rather ensuring that we execute ultra-fast and well.”
What’s the main takeaway for me: Managers shouldn’t be bottlenecks, silos and/or “information-stoppers.” Anyone should feel safe, able and comfortable reaching out to anyone else company-wide. It’s completely inefficient to always have to run something through a chain of command instead of problem-solving it yourself.
That being said…
Know your company culture (and values) and what’s acceptable (and what’s not)
Weigh the consequences of going around people
Managers can be very helpful by being a sounding board, “war-gaming” a strategy/plan, being your advocate and much more
Individuals should also go back and loop-in people because excluding them entirely causes its own set of issues
An individual’s skill level on emotional intelligence, communication, teamwork, empathy, feedback and more will go a VERY long way to help navigate what Elon Musk mentions