When I was 30 years old, I faced one of the toughest moments of my life. I was the CEO of a startup, the father of a 6-month-old — and about to tell my 75-person team that our business had failed and that they needed to find new jobs. I was crushed.
Like other dot-com founders in the late 1990s, I had built a company fast and focused on revenue and our people — but wasn’t worrying about profitability. I spent my time building a team, a culture, and revenue. When the bubble burst, I was completely blindsided and felt very, very alone amid the fallout. I can vividly recall my feelings of failure. That experience (and many others) have taught me so many lessons over the past two decades.
As a lifelong entrepreneur, I’ve weathered my fair share of tough challenges. When leading people through these atypical times, I look to three strategies:
1. Find the hidden snow lanes
At 35, I hired a young instructor to teach me to snowboard because I couldn’t seem to pick up the sport on my own. He spent the morning on foundational skills: how to put on the boot, how to get on or off a lift. It felt like I was going backward, but then I realized that these basic skills were making it easier and less stressful for me to get around.
Then, he took me to the top of the mountain and told me we were going to the bottom — through the trees. I was incredulous. I’d hit a few trees in my time — and there was no way I was going to let that happen. He said, “Dude, you got this. Don’t focus on the trees. Find the snow lanes. Where your eyes go, your board and body will follow.”
As we glided down the mountain, it started to work. When I looked at a tree, I hit it. When I shifted my focus to the snow lanes, I moved like a pro. Years later, I still think about that day. My snowboarding instructor gave me an incredible life lesson — don’t look at the obstacles, look at the opportunities.
Negativity breeds negativity, so focus on the positives. Research by McKinsey found that during previous pandemics, emphasizing good information was far more effective than trying to minimize bad news. In this unprecedented time, make sure your team sees the potential and not the problem.
2. Take off your emotional mask
Until a few years ago, I didn’t show much vulnerability or emotion at work. It’s the way I’m wired. Showing emotion in the office was outside my comfort zone and leadership aspirations. But I’ve found that being more transparent makes me a stronger business leader.
Case in point: The weekend of George Floyd’s death, I prepared to speak at our all-company meeting that Monday. I planned to address the unrest in our nation, but I underestimated the importance of using Floyd’s name and speaking directly to the pain my team was dealing with. After my talk, I found out that I missed the mark. I resolved to keep learning, to listen more, and to be OK with discomfort. And that’s what we did.
People are hurting, from your employees to your clients. After realizing my error, I’ve taken steps to be more socially aware, starting by apologizing to my team directly. We founded an internal diversity council to help promote inclusion and to make sure everyone’s voice is heard.
If the act of being raw and transparent seems foreign, stick with it. Think progress over perfection. The alternative is ignoring others’ vulnerabilities, which is incompatible with emotional intelligence. And Gallup finds that employees simply won’t be engaged in their work if they don’t have an empathetic manager. A little show of compassion and vulnerability these days will go a long way toward strengthening those working relationships.
3. Tap into your inner communicator
I’ve worked hard to communicate with my team during the past several months. I am a classic introvert, so it hasn’t been easy. Constantly pushing out information didn’t come naturally to me, but I have come to embrace and appreciate the process because lack of communication creates fear and doubt.
In my communications, I talk about everything from weekly sales figures to the wins we’re having as commerce begins swinging in positive directions. Again, I want to help my employees see those snow lanes, the opportunities. For instance, we were able to shift gears and start shipping products to workers’ homes because their remote setups weren’t adequate once lockdown measures were in place. Communication made that possible.
The last thing I want is for the fear of the unknown to cause my team anxiety. If consistent communication from me allows them to sleep better at night, why wouldn’t I overcommunicate and seek feedback? You can’t run a business if everyone’s shell-shocked. Edelman has found that the majority (63%) of workers prefer daily company updates during COVID-19, with one-fifth of respondents wanting several communications per day.
When you face tough times, you have two choices: admit defeat or embrace the hard-knocks education. What we’re experiencing is rough, but it’s not impossible to navigate. Find your snow lanes and boldly steer your team toward a safe destination.