Team Building: Ideas to Keep in Mind

“There is no I in TEAM.” – attribution unknown

The importance of a management team to the success of any venture is a well-known business fact. I have blogged about this in the past and it has been the key focal point of investors for years. So given the fact that no man is an island and one needs a team to succeed, a great question for an early stage entrepreneur is where do you start?

I have had the chance to build a number of successful teams in my career but more importantly, I have watched some truly accomplished entrepreneurs build them on a greater scale and with much better results. So when I reflect on what seemed to work for all of us, I kept coming back to five ideas I would suggest you keep in mind as you start the most important task you have as a leader – – building the right team:

1. Think leaders and creators. One of my favorite clients would often remark that an idea of mine was “counterintuitive” and that is what you might be thinking here. You may feel that you are the leader, so maybe these traits are not as important for team members. The point is most businesses successfully build to scale by having a series of teams who use their creative capabilities to solve problems. If you need any proof of that, just read about NASA and the race to land on the moon.

2. Look for the same culture but different skill sets. My advice is culture trumps economics every time. So if you want to build a real team, make sure your key members share a common culture – that comfortable work environment, transparency and a sense of what is right and what is wrong that can overcome the absence of short-term financial rewards.

3. Those who share your vision are good; those that share your passion are great. I have mentioned in the past my client who used the phrase “I always admired a man who can stand up and say, you said it chief.” Everyone will see through someone who is a blind supporter of your vision or worse yet, overly passionate about it. Do not force this; spend the time to make sure each key team member is on the same page. I would prefer serious and dedicated strong silent support over the shallow cheerleader any day.

4. Seek those who seek challenges. The shortest and easiest road is not always the best. The odds of having to pivot at least once along the way is high and that means change, and change is a challenge many do not like to face. While being supportive is important, it is better to have members on the team who have the inner strength to help correct the ship versus fight a required change in direction.

5. Share the pie. How you do this is up to you. Whether you choose to reward every team member (I call it the chicken in every pot approach) or those leaders and drivers having the most impact, make sure you think of and reward those most responsible for helping you on your journey.

So there they are – – hopefully, some helpful ideas you can use as you build your team. And please try to avoid that self-centered promoting type even if they have a skill set that you need. That person never gets the point that there is no I in team.

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Leadership – Five Easy Steps

“They are my people! I am their sovereign! I LOVE them. Pull!” – King Louis quote from “History of the World” by Mel Brooks

For many Brooks’ fans, this classic scene epitomizes what it is like not to be a leader; turning one’s subjects into human clay pigeons for sheer pleasure. Fortunately for all of us, there are many great leaders – – some of whom we encounter in our everyday lives and some who just seem to step up when a situation or opportunity presents itself. It is much more than just staying positive and checking your happiness quotient. I, and others, have blogged in the past about traits and characteristics that are common to both respected and poor leaders. But what about some simple, practical advice you can use every day to become more effective in a leadership role?

Here are five easy leadership steps to consider:

    • Know thyself – One of the best tools I ever employed was the Myers-Briggs test. Finding out my “personality” type allowed me to better understand why I acted and reacted in certain ways and helped me to modify my style. But more importantly, it allowed me to better understand my peers, colleagues and fellow team members and how to more effectively work and communicate with them.
    • Read, read, read – Delve into the case studies and books of those who were great leaders. Learn effective habits and traits to help you negotiate through difficult issues and roadblocks. You do not have to become a disciple of Covey, but understanding concepts such as his will make you stronger.
    • Have a style – You have to work in a manner which makes you comfortable. You may be more of a taskmaster or perhaps a cheerleader, but being consistent allows others to better understand you and builds their confidence in you. There is no need to drastically change to a style that is not you; others will see right through it and your effectiveness as a leader will suffer.
    • Hold others accountable – They say leadership is hard to define, but you know it when you see it. Holding people accountable for their actions and responsibilities is one way of demonstrating this. You do not need to micro-manage or constantly be on your team’s “case,” but a firm, periodic assessment of status goes a long way toward showing you are an effective leader.
    • Admit and address mistakes; celebrate success – Balance here is the answer. Too often, the person in charge spends too much time on one and too little on the other. Perhaps the most difficult but endearing trait is admitting you made a mistake. The typical excuse (usually self- imposed) is you will appear to be a less effective leader if you do something wrong. Keep in mind the famous saying, “That’s why they put erasers on pencils.” And celebrate the “wins”; everyone takes pride in an accomplishment.

So there you have it. Not exactly the complete recipe for being an effective leader but some simple, practical steps you can take each day on your journey to success.

Entrepreneurial Loneliness – Learning to Share

“It’s lonely at the top of Olympus” – quote from Emperor Nero (Dom DeLuise) – “History of the World” – by Mel Brooks

Some would say that today, we live in the age of the entrepreneur. As someone who has been in this space for over 40 years, I must say I tend to agree. When we first formed entrepreneurial services at EY, it was considered by most to be just small business. There was no Bill Gates, Jeff Bezos, Mark Zuckerberg or Steve Jobs back then. Each entrepreneur we met seemed to be possessed by this passion to set out to create something that big business wouldn’t (or couldn’t) do. They were the outliers; jousting at windmills and looking to accomplish the impossible. Looking back on all the innovation, financial success (can you say unicorn?) and social good, one can only say thank goodness for those early pioneers. It has been quite a ride and the juggernaut continues.

However, I see something a bit different in many of the entrepreneurs of today. While I still believe that deep down inside they want to change the world, they start out motivated by something a bit different; the ultimate vision of being their own boss. They raise questions like, “Why be creative for others?” and, “Why put up with all the office politics, infrastructure and chains which will keep me back?” Perhaps they just can’t find a job. But they love the image of that ultimate dream – – waking up in the morning and looking in the mirror and realizing you have nobody to answer to but yourself. Ah, nirvana.

So why the concern? To me there is an important part of the message of success that does not get delivered as forcefully as the image of the entrepreneur on a stage by himself or herself explaining their success to the world. Lost is the importance of the support cast. Where would Steve Jobs had been if Steve Wozniak had not been there? While every entrepreneur loves the fact that they answer to themselves, that same scenario conjures up visions of fear and uncertainty – – most feel personally responsible for the success or failure of their company. The immediate reaction is usually to do “whatever it takes” to make sure the business is successful. Learning to build a team and share some of that responsibility and “pain” with others does not come easy.

I am surprised that with all the business coaches and organizations that offer advice and the plethora (thank you “Three Amigos”) of guidance on team building that is prevalent in business media, I still get introduced (on more occasions than I care to admit) to successful business owners who believe they are on their own and who are feeling the strains of “being alone on Olympus.” My role with them sometimes morphs into a form of pseudo psychological therapy, but mainly it is just that of an objective observer offering advice that often reinforces what the entrepreneur believes but feels they cannot share with those close to them.

So please, as you build your business, find people to share your successes and your challenges – – key employees, advisory board members, advisors or peers. Many of those in your personal network are more than willing to help and support you on your journey. As the famous saying goes, “No man (woman) is an island,” and for an entrepreneur, no truer words were ever spoken.

Getting Your Pitch on the Right Page

“I am them, they are me, we are all singing, I have the mouth.” – a line from Fabiola, a Mel Brooks character.

So another week of reviewing pitch decks has passed, and as the saying goes, “The more things change; the more they stay the same.” I like to reflect on my comments on decks from the last week or two and search for commonality. This week seemed to indicate that founders are struggling a bit expressing their vision.

Here are some ideas that may help:

  • Don’t be too esoteric. Much like the Mel Brooks character above, don’t hide your vision by burying it in language which makes the reader feel like they have to interpret Plato’s “Allegory of the Cave” in order to get your point. Instead, state clearly the nature of the problem you are solving. You may think the correct interpretation of your pitch will result in investment, but be careful. That sound you hear may just be indigestion.
  • Try to avoid repeating. Once you have outlined the problem and solution, assume the reader can follow and will move on. Having to repeat your key concepts more than once (save for in the body and closing) may not add value to the investment thesis.
  • Less is more. Related to the previous subject, a deck should be no more than 20 or so slides. It is a vision piece, not courtroom evidence or a master’s thesis. I would suggest a useful exercise from my college communications course – pretend each word costs you $1,000; then review your pitch with the goal of cutting costs.
  • Acronyms can confuse. In an attempt to show your market prowess, using abbreviations may showcase your industry knowledge, but is every investor as in tune as you are? You want people to know when you use AI that you are talking about artificial intelligence and not aortic insufficiency, so words may trump abbreviations.
  • Show a picture. I do believe a picture is worth 1,000 words but I believe value is conveying the right ones. Have a simple visual of the customer, your product and the problem with limited notes that highlight the interplay. When I explain succession planning, I now find it is easily understood when I show three intersecting circles representing family, management and ownership. We relate better to something we can see.
  • Practice, practice, practice. You have to start by making your pitch in front of family, friends or advisors. Start with the request that they point out at least one or two things they would do differently if they were making the pitch. Honest feedback is worth its weight in gold.

Please keep in mind that the more eyes who see and honestly comment on your pitch, the better it will be. It is crucial to make sure that while you do not want to lose your vision; if others cannot see it (aka be on the same page), you will probably be disappointed in the value your deck brings. Simple steps like the above can bring you an improved result.

How Do I Know It Is Time To Get Out?

“Well come on an’ let me know

Should I stay or should I go” . . .  lyrics from The Clash

Many established owners in mature businesses confront this dilemma at least once in their business lives.  In many cases, they are hoping that others will make the decision for them but unlike this classic Clash song, usually there is nobody to tell them; it is a question they have to answer for themselves.

“Getting out” has a different meaning depending on circumstances.  If you are the owner of a successful business and have a functioning management team in place to take over, that is one scenario.  If that is not the case and you are just at the start of this decision cycle, that is a whole different ballgame.  I will leave the former case to another time; let’s talk about someone considering an exit and cover the more common reason for doing so.

In his 2000-Year-Old-Man character, Mel Brooks pointed out countless times how fear motivated individuals.  In fact, he attributed the origin of dance to fear.  What better way to neutralize a potential enemy; grab the hand so they can’t hold a weapon and keep their feet occupied so they do not kick you.  Mel may have been on to something as fear is what has driven many of my clients to “get out.”  Just a few examples:

  • Disruption – a new “kid on the block” who has a more effective and economical product.  I had an industrial products client who was a specialist in transistors until they heard of something known as solid state and sold out before the new technology came to dominate the marketplace.
  • Paradigm change – while I only saw a small portion of the impact, how do you think Borders and Barnes & Noble felt when this upstart called Amazon began to rear its ugly head in their market?
  • Succession plan failure – I have had the chance to nurse more than one client through the painful process of realizing they had no successor – – no family member or management leader who wanted to take over the business or worse yet, family members who the owner was convinced would lead their legacy right into bankruptcy. In many cases, those owners took an “offer they couldn’t refuse.”
  • Not fun anymore – many of my owners truly enjoyed the daily challenges and rewards of “working” their business and making those tough decisions. But when the fun went out of it and it became constantly stressful – – maybe even to the point of impacting their health, they made the call that it was time to do something different.

Let’s face it; this is not an easy decision.  If there is one tried and true piece of advice I would give, it would be to develop some outside interest (golf, grandkids, volunteer work, travel, etc.) that will give you something to “go to.”  The reason for this is simple; if you do not have something to “go to” you will never leave because “going from” something can feel like failure and as we all know, entrepreneurs do not fail.

Culture Trumps Money

“‘Cause I don’t care too much for money… money can’t buy me love.”  The Beatles from Can’t Buy Me Love

I think it is fitting to reach out to the Fab Four as we celebrate 50 years of their presence in the USA.  My one wish is that owners reflected on these simple words when they go to construct compensation packages… especially for their startup and emerging growth companies.

Salary, equity, bonus plans – Lord knows that I have had the chance to discuss loads of them with clients and prospects.  And, it seems new schemes are evolving every day.  When I am called in to advise on this type of reward plan, I can’t help but notice that there is usually something missing.  All of the talk is about crafting economic rewards; and very little is on the work environment or culture – the so called softer things.  Well, I am here to tell you, unequivocally, that spending time and effort on the culture you create is not only a best practice, but it can save you money in the long run.  Culture trumps economic reward and becomes a competitive advantage because you can’t create it overnight.  So, when you are fortunate enough to have it, you can win where others lose.

For students of management, I think this began with the famous Hawthorne Studies of Elton Mayo.  He started by installing brighter bulbs at the workbenches and saw productivity improve.  That seemed to make sense until he then lowered the wattage but still got improved productivity.  What Mayo found was that the workers thought that management cared enough to make sure they had the correct lighting – in essence it was the culture of caring and being part of a team that resulted in improved work output.  That simple concept has been taken to new heights by some of the great leaders of companies today.

So, given that culture works, how do you get there?  It is not easy but I think there are a few clues that may help you on your journey; and a good starting point is to realize it is a journey.

First, don’t view culture as a tool to improve productivity but rather as a core value of the environment you want for yourself and your people.  It should be a source of pride and comfort and should never be forced on people.  It has to develop from within your organization and can’t be prescribed.

Next, culture starts from the top and comes from the heart.  You have to be sincere and really want to share your vision of a culture.  A leader’s actions are multiplied a thousand fold when it comes to setting culture.  Your people will see right through you if you are trying to create something you do not truly feel in your heart.  It has to be part of your DNA.

Third, be honest with yourself and your team.  It is fine to have them see your pride when things go well and your disappointment when they don’t.  Please do not use that phony cheerleader routine to keep everyone in a positive state of mind regardless of the circumstances – it is “so over” as the kids would say.

Finally, be careful not to create a cult or sect type culture.  Laying out detailed principles which you drill your people on like thoughts from Mao (remember John Candy as Tom Tuttle from Tacoma Washington in Volunteers) does not a desirable climate make.  You get Stepford Wives behavior and you destroy your chance to develop a positive culture.

So, stick with these basic thoughts and most of all, have the patience to let your culture evolve and soon, you too will be able to share your success with all of us.