May 24, 2019

Dear founder: people + culture advice you might not want to hear… but need to know

Photo by Jehyun Sung on Unsplash

I’ve spent my entire career as a People generalist, enabling tech companies to achieve sustainable and scalable success through focusing on People + Culture. That’s kind of our bag at Unleashed.Company.

This means I’ve had the privilege of working with and coaching some incredible founders in the early stages of building and scaling their businesses. I am always so inspired by the stories of people who start companies and I never fail to find their passion for what they do and lack of respect for the status quo inspiring.

Though every business and every founder I’ve worked with is totally, wonderfully unique, there are a few reoccurring themes…

No-one will be as passionate about your company as you

This is your baby. The likelihood is that before you even hire your first team member, you’ll have spent months pouring blood, sweat and tears (mainly tears) into figuring out if your idea can actually be a business.

Expecting everyone to have the same all-consuming love of the business as you just isn’t realistic (or healthy!) It causes behaviours that are arrogant and shortsighted (paying people below market rates not because you can’t afford it, but because ‘they should want to be part of the journey’ is a surefire way to lead to attrition and resentment — if you manage to hire anyone in the first place.

People have different motivations for doing what they do. Some will be deeply passionate about the product, some of them might just want to be excellent in their field, some might want to experience what building a business is like so they can do it themselves one day — and there are loads more layers than that. Instead of expecting everyone to obsess in the same way that you do — get to know your team’s individual motivations and figure out how you can support them.

Your behaviour is contagious

Founders = basically the flu. When you’re the founder of a business, your behaviour doesn’t just shape the culture, it is the culture. So you need to think carefully about the culture you want to create, and just as importantly what you don’t want to create.

This comes as a shock to the system to many founders. Generally, startups come from great ideas created by ‘do-ers’. People who want to create. Then suddenly, the idea gains gets funded or you take on some customers. Blink, and you find yourself leading a team. From the moment you take on your first employee, you are a leader.

People will look to you and consciously or unconsciously replicate the behaviours you demonstrate. Our brain is wired to do this — we literally have mirror neurons designed to ‘catch’ the emotions and behaviour of people around us. Add this to the fact we have a basic human need for status — and suddenly you’ll find yourself surrounded by all of your best and worst traits. So if you’re wondering why your team are constantly stressed — look to yourself and assess your ability to regulate your emotions.

Take the time to self-reflect on the kind of leader you want to be and the kind of culture you want to create. Seek feedback to make sure your self-perception is accurate, and if it’s not, work on closing the gap between your intention and behaviour.

No-one can read your mind

Because your business is your baby, not your teams (see above), it is your job to overcommunicate. You have a unique, birds-eye view of the business. To stop yourself being a mahoosive blocker to anything actually getting done and to align people behind your mission, you need to share — freely and frequently.

Context is everything. Clearly communicating it enables the people in your team to operate with more autonomy. It also means you don’t have to solve every single problem or challenge yourself (which is both exhausting and completely un-scaleable.) You don’t have to do this alone.

From the moment you start to grow your team, ensure you are creating deliberate and consistent opportunities to share the good, the bad and the ugly. Then tackle it together.

Written by Unleashed’s Managing Partner Hannah Keal.

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