Women and Work: Intentional Invisibility?

Be seen. Speak up. Make your voice heard. These are lessons we are taught as we enter the workforce and climb the ladder to corporate success. Yet, many women are uncomfortable with this advice, even though they want to succeed

A recent article in the Harvard Business Review titled, “Why Women Stay out of the Spotlight at Work,” explores the concept of “intentional invisibility” and why some women use this as a strategy to navigate the workplace. Immersed in a women’s professional development program, the HBR authors learned how this cloak of invisibility enabled women to “get stuff done” and quietly move things forward without drawing attention to themselves. The drawback? Although these women were well-liked, they were underappreciated, (probably underpaid), and often overlooked for promotions.

Women tend to choose intentional invisibility for three reasons:

  1. to avoid conflict,
  2. to be authentic to their personalities, and
  3. to seek personal and professional balance.

The term intentional invisibility really clicked with me. I believe that looking at this issue more closely can help C-level executives and managers value and encourage leadership qualities in women they work with, even if those women may not lead in the same way as their male colleagues. Here are some examples I’ve encountered in my own life.

Conflict Avoidance when Choosing a Startup CEO
At MIT’s delta v, student venture accelerator program, I mentor entrepreneurs. During the program, student teams form startup companies and choose a management team. Although women are well-represented in delta v overall, we still have more male CEOs than female CEOs. Often, the most extroverted person in the group is rewarded with leadership responsibility, and more reserved women on the team defer and don’t put forth an argument as to why they should be considered as CEO. Later, I’ve had female team members share with me that it just wasn’t worth the fight, or that it doesn’t matter who has the CEO title, they will all work together. This conflict avoidance lets the team initially move forward more quickly, but hidden resentment sometimes bubbles up to cause problems later. Ultimately, if the company succeeds, it is important who is the CEO. I’m encouraged that a lot of women in the delta v program this year took advantage of the personal coaching sessions we offer to address imposter syndrome. As leaders, we should ensure employees are evaluated on several different, varied criteria because the person who speaks up the loudest is not always the best for the job.

Self-Identified in a Helper Role
In another example, many women I know (myself included) often end up in the job of the indispensable helper or chief assistant, the so-called right-hand man … only in this case, it’s a woman. Whether it’s as a COO, vice president, or research assistant, the right-hand woman makes it easy for her boss (usually a man) to be successful while she stays in the background. This role may be more aligned with her authentic sense of self, or it may be how she has been guided through the organization. When we meet these women, we wonder if their bosses could ever survive without them. In my opinion, many of these women would make excellent top executives themselves, but they may gravitate toward these roles because they define themselves as helpers. I’d encourage women to think about what they really enjoy in this role and find a voice. They should strive to shine independently and get credit for their accomplishments, not just enable their boss’ success. If they realize they’ve been hiding in their bosses’ shadow and would rather be the boss themselves, they should take the steps to grow into that position. I was fortunate enough to work with an executive coach who told me, “You don’t need a seat at the table, you already have it. Now, act like it.” No one had ever told me that before and it really re-framed the way I thought about my job.

The Balancing Act and the Second Shift
Finally, women tend to choose invisibility over face time when they need to balance responsibilities at work with those at home. However, what women really need is flexibility, not invisibility. Although the dynamic is changing, most of the women I know are still responsible for the lion’s share of household duties, our so called second shift – especially when it comes to parenting and elder care. While face time is important to get ahead in an organization, it becomes deprioritized for women who need the flexibility to bring a sick child or parent to the doctor, assist with after-school activities, or even to be the one who works from home when the cable guy is coming. Jobs that involve travel for work, networking events outside of regular work hours, or even casual after-work drinks often deliver undue stress for women. They know it’s good for their careers, but they either decline to attend or need to do a lot of juggling to make it happen. While the boss is getting chummy with the guys over a beer, often the female colleague is rushing home to pick up the kids, get dinner on the table, throw in a load of laundry, and get everyone ready to do it all over again tomorrow. When it comes time to pick someone for that plum assignment, Tom gets chosen because he’s a good guy and the project leader got to know him socially after work. This is a tough one, because it’s an implicit bias. I believe things will only change when both partners at home equally share responsibilities and both must deal with juggling the needs of a demanding job and home life. Of course, this is even trickier for single parents and caretakers.

Reality Check

As the HBR article explains, organizations value leaders who stand up, are visible, and take credit. But, this definition of leadership can leave women out in the cold because their behind-the-scenes contributions are overlooked or undervalued. It suggests that organizations value unconventional forms of leadership, fight implicit bias, and balance women’s second-shift responsibilities in order to make it easier for them to be seen and promoted. I wholeheartedly agree that today’s leaders must dig deeper to recognize and value the contributions and leadership qualities of women who are intentionally invisible in our workplaces. Most of these women truly don’t want to be invisible, so as leaders we need to see them, encourage their input, recognize their contributions, and offer flexibility. We need to make it OK to succeed by following a different path.

If you feel like you gravitate toward an intentionally invisible role at work, what can you do? Be mindful to push yourself out of your comfort zone and step in the spotlight. Find your voice and own your career, rather an allowing other people to do so. There are a lot of paths – you are allowed to do things your way and own your success!

Necessity vs. Innovation-Based Entrepreneurs

This article originally appeared in Xconomy.

What makes someone an entrepreneur? Most simply defined, an entrepreneur is a person who identifies a need and starts a business to fill that void. But others will argue that a “true” entrepreneur must come up with an innovative new product or service and then operates their business to sell and profit from that innovation.

Under the broader definition are those people who become entrepreneurs out of necessity – starting their own business after losing a job, to supplement their income, or to gain the flexibility to attend to other demands in their lives.

Take Joanne, for example. Joanne started her holistic health business about eight years ago. Although she doesn’t necessarily consider herself an entrepreneur, the necessity of a family member’s health situation created both a challenge and an opportunity that shifted her path of employment. As a graduate of Boston University with a degree in math, and Syracuse with an MBA, Joanne had been working as a technical engagement director managing large-scale database development projects.

However, she was also managing the special needs of a son at home with learning differences. She was hit with a layoff from her job about the same time that her son required more services. She was doing tons of research to help him in any way possible, including alternatives to mainstream treatment, and she started an unpaid e-mail service to friends and family sharing what she learned. The response was tremendous – several people told her that she had changed their lives and she should make a career out of it. She decided to take the plunge, pursued further education, and then started JBS Holistic Nutrition where she offers health coaching and healing alternatives. The nature of her business allows her to be flexible. She is currently working part-time, which enables her to manage the needs of her family and help take care of an ailing parent. She sees her business as an opportunity to help people change their lives for the better.

Joanne is someone I’d consider a necessity-based entrepreneur. Often, necessity is financially based, but pursuing a passion and work-life balance issues also play into necessity.

One of the first references to “necessity entrepreneurship” was in the Global Entrepreneurship Monitor (GEM) report in 2001. This third annual GEM assessment researched entrepreneurship in 29 countries. Respondents were asked to indicate whether they were starting and growing their business to take advantage of a unique market opportunity (opportunity entrepreneurship) or because it was the best option available (necessity entrepreneurship). At the time, the average opportunity entrepreneurship prevalence rate across the 29 GEM countries was about 6.5 percent, while the average for necessity entrepreneurship was 2.5 percent.

Interestingly, GEM’s most recent report for 2017-2018 looks at entrepreneurship through a few more complex lenses, but it states that most entrepreneurs around the world are opportunity-motivated. On average, three-quarters of global respondents stated that they had chosen to pursue an opportunity as a basis for their entrepreneurial motivations, with 83 percent of entrepreneurs in North America falling into this category. Women were more likely to start businesses out of necessity, compared to men, in all regions except in North America.

My guess is that necessity-based entrepreneurs may be somewhat under-represented in these numbers as they may not self-identify as entrepreneurs. Necessity-based entrepreneurs also may be less likely to respond to this type of survey.

Some of the early research on the topic discusses a push-pull analogy. “Push” (or necessity-based) entrepreneurs are those who may be faced with a job loss, dissatisfaction with their current positions, or lack of career opportunities. For these reasons – unrelated to their entrepreneurial characteristics – they are pushed to start a venture. “Pull” (or opportunity-based) entrepreneurs are those who initiate venture activity because of the attractiveness of the business idea and its personal implications. They may seek independence, increased earnings, and opportunities to carry out their own ideas.

A study out of Stanford on Opportunity versus Necessity Entrepreneurship explores the common and seemingly paradoxical finding that business creation increases in recessions. It looks at two distinct motivations, “opportunity” entrepreneurship and “necessity” entrepreneurship (with the simple definition of a necessity entrepreneur as initially unemployed before starting their business). The research found that opportunity entrepreneurship is generally pro-cyclical and necessity entrepreneurship is strongly counter-cyclical – that is, recessions drive necessity-based entrepreneurs to start their own businesses. Opportunity entrepreneurship was also found to be associated with more growth-oriented businesses.

I believe there are many profiles of the necessity-based entrepreneur, and it’s a segment of entrepreneurship that deserves more attention. Not every entrepreneur is the genius superstar with a new technology. Some forms of entrepreneurship are a bit humbler.

An example of this are gig economy entrepreneurs. These “gigs” are often short-term contracts or freelance work as opposed to (or in addition to) permanent jobs – think Uber and TaskRabbit. Although this is an emerging form of entrepreneurship, is it a positive experience for the entrepreneur (and the economy)? Or, is it a necessary side hustle some people need to survive?

Women and minority entrepreneurs are often necessity-based entrepreneurs. The startup rate for businesses created by both women and minorities exceeds the overall rate for new startups. The Minority 2018 Small Business Trends survey by Guidant Financial surveyed 2,600 business owners and aspiring entrepreneurs, and found that 45 percent of small business in the country were owned by minority ethnic groups and 26 percent were owned by women in 2018. What is driving these business owners, and are we measuring their contributions effectively?

While economic gain is certainly one component of necessity-based entrepreneurship, a broader definition includes entrepreneurs who are motivated by their belief that the traditional labor options available are insufficient to meet their non-economic needs and goals as well.

At MIT, we foster entrepreneurship through programs like our delta v student venture accelerator where our students are out to change the world with their innovations. But, entrepreneurship has many forms and there is no one right model or best way to measure success. Necessity-based entrepreneurs are shaping their own success in a way that works and should be included in the broader study of entrepreneurs.

This article was published in Xconomy on November 26, 2018.

Giving Thanks for the Essence of Entrepreneurship

Recently, I spent time in Zurich, Munich and Milan meeting with MIT alumni, in the hopes of gaining philanthropic support for the programs run by the Martin Trust Center for MIT Entrepreneurship. As I talked with our alumni in these cities, it made me think of the Entrepreneurial Philanthropy practice put forward by lifelong entrepreneur and philanthropist, Naveen Jain. His promise is that philanthropy is at its best when it is founded on entrepreneurial zest and agility.

Naveen Jain states in a Huffington Post article, “True philanthropy requires a disruptive mindset, innovative thinking, and philosophy driven by entrepreneurial insights and creative opportunities. To disrupt the status quo, drive philanthropy at tremendous scale, and develop long-term economic vitality through giving, we must apply the same models for success in our philanthropic endeavors as we do in business.” I could not agree more.

MIT students are fortunate because they are encouraged to work on problems, projects, and ventures that will positively impact the world. During their journey, they are provided support through tailored classes, mentorship, access to Makerspaces, extracurricular programming, and competitions that offer opportunities for the application of learning and assessments. MIT alumni play a significant role in student support whether it is through mentoring, episodic coaching, programmatic support, introductions, or financial support.

Martin trust centerThe Martin Trust Center for MIT Entrepreneurship continuously finds new ways to encourage, advise, and champion aspiring entrepreneurs as they take new ventures from idea to reality. The Center’s goals are high, as are its needs; it provides the most innovative opportunities for learning and expands MIT’s global entrepreneurship ecosystem, but it depends on the support of philanthropic partners.

However, as I visited these cities, I had to ask myself – how do you raise funds to sustain entrepreneurship programs in a global environment that does not embrace it as a serious area of study, or in cultures where education is not necessarily the place you would direct your philanthropic funds, or where risk is not rewarded? Although entrepreneurship is part of our culture of innovation here in the States, it is viewed through a different lens in different cultures, as I learned in the Nordics earlier this year.

MIT alums think broadly. The people with whom I spoke on this trip are thinking about how to attract talent, innovate companies, inspire creativity – and they want out-of-the-box ideas for their communities. We had some spirited debates during our discussions as to the benefits of entrepreneurship to their particular ecosystems. The most common misconception was that entrepreneurship is about embracing repeated failure. However, I would argue that at the Trust Center, we try to mentor and guide students so that they are not repeating the failure of others. Our measure of success is that the student learns the skills to start their own businesses and that they self-identify as entrepreneurs. This lets them take risks while they’re here – ahead of the VC stage.

When I started in business out of college, it was a different time. Companies like Honeywell, IBM, HP, etc. all had training programs that cross-trained new graduates. That experience is not as prevalent today, and startups are a great way to get hands-on experience across multiple disciplines. As my expertise moved from engineering to manufacturing to service to sales operations to logistics to senior leadership etc. there mitsealwere always a willing set of mentors who helped me at critical points – for this, I am very thankful. At MIT, we teach a Disciplined Entrepreneurship approach – an approach I have seen work in practice. We have over 60 courses that provide the MIT “mens et manus” approach of mind and hand. Like my apprentice programs years ago, MIT offers hands-on programming to help students understand what working in a new business venture is like and teaches skills of finance, legal, marketing, sales, etc. with industry experience in biotech, healthcare, energy, fin-tech, and other industries.

For many of the alumni, these programs did not exist when they were at MIT. However, in speaking with them, they are confident in the educational and hands-on experiences that are available now to MIT students. Several alums said they would love to go back and be a student now. (Wouldn’t we all!?) Although the world is a different place now than even five years ago, the Trust Center keeps abreast of these changes as evidenced by the success of our MIT delta v teams. Our students are the pulse of change in the world.

Supporting an institution like MIT – and centers such as the Martin Trust Center that provide entrepreneurial programming – creates a workforce that has cross-disciplinary experience.

Demand for delta v has grown, while our budget has not increased for the program. We need funds to support these deserving student teams. As our success becomes public, so does the demand for our product, and increased resources enable us to teach others to become entrepreneurs wherever they are located. We cannot do it without a community and the philanthropy that will plant the seeds, so our students can positively impact the world.

 

How the MIT Ecosystem is Supporting Entrepreneurs

0044_8788 copyAnother MIT delta v Demo Day is in the books! Our 2018 cohort was the biggest yet, with 25 teams presenting, and for the first time, we had a program in New York City in addition to our Cambridge team.

With all our preparation for Demo Day and the excitement of the day itself, sometimes it’s tough to step back and look at the big picture – but, it’s important. In this case, the big picture is the MIT ecosystem for entrepreneurs, and how it works to support our startups.

As our Managing Director Bill Aulet said in his introductory presentation, the mission of MIT is that we DO things, and that’s what this is all about. We are driven to bring knowledge to bear on the world’s great challenges. Our entrepreneurship program at delta v is about trying to solve some of these great challenges – and we do it by creating an environment and an ecosystem where these entrepreneurs can thrive and flourish.

An Inspiring Environment for Diverse Ideas

Delta v is the most inspiring environment I can think of for an entrepreneur. There’s an energy here that propels each of our teams forward. For 90 days, the delta v teams eat, sleep, and breathe their companies. They are guided through a process that makes them really think through the realities of starting an actual business. It’s not just chasing a cool idea – the fundamentals and bedrock of the business must be in place, including a solid business plan, working collaboratively with a board of directors, and testing their concepts with customers. The mentors, Entrepreneurs-in-Residence, our board of directors and the customer community are all part of the ecosystem.

This year, I was really impressed by the diverse industries in which the students worked. We had students with business ideas in crypto-currency, social, agriculture, mental health, financial, construction. And despite these wildly different spaces, the students still managed to find common ground and problem solve together. Three big themes stood out this year:

  • Inclusion – such as financial and societal inclusion
  • Human isolation – people are more connected today, but there is a lack of real relationships
  • Machine learning & AI – technologies with strong MIT foundations

A Strong Entrepreneurial Community

At delta v, we realize that a startup is only as strong as its community. So, we really focused on building more support systems for our students. We brought back delta v alums, like our keynote Spyce, a 2015 delta v alum who just closed on a $21 million series A round. We did consistent one-on-one counseling with founders and hosted outside advisors and speakers to provide novel perspectives for our students. In addition, this area provides an unparalleled innovation ecosystem access. The MIT campus and Kendall Square area is the densest innovation cluster in the world, with its concentration of startups, high-tech companies, and venture capital firms. This enriches the lives of our student entrepreneurs and expands the ecosystem where our they can grow and learn.

Personal Development as Leaders

A lot of this summer was about personal development for our entrepreneurs. I never worry about these students when it comes to technology. But it takes intentional entrepreneurship education – through many different teaching methods and technologies – to help create leaders that can rise to the challenge of starting a business. That’s something we hope to continue to grow at delta v in the coming years. Because really, anyone can raise money for their startup. But it takes better leaders and teams to know how to use that money and tech knowledge more effectively to continue generating revenue and try to solve some of the world’s great challenges.

If you want to get the full experience (and have 3+ hours), watch the video of the entire Boston Demo Day 2018 program:

To learn a little about each of the teams and view the startup videos (about 5 minutes each).

Also, see what BostInno and the MIT Sloan Newsroom have to say about Demo Day 2018!

 

How Imposter Syndrome Affects Our Best and Brightest

psychology-1957264_1920I heard a statistic the other day that 70% of people admit to feeling like an impostor at some point in their lives.* I work with students at MIT – one of the most prestigious universities in the world – and although it attracts the best and the brightest, college students at institutions like this are even more prone to suffering from insecurity.

A former student and I were discussing her experience at MIT and she said she completed her degree in three years – not because she was smarter than the other students, but because she felt someone would find out she didn’t belong there. Wow. And it continued when she went to Harvard Business School and felt the same insecurities. Today, this woman is a successful entrepreneur, but taking risks has never come easy for her.

Imposter Syndrome is a real thing. Although it is not an official clinical diagnosis, Scientific American classifies it as “a pervasive feeling of self-doubt, insecurity, or fraudulence despite often overwhelming evidence to the contrary. It strikes smart, successful individuals. It often rears its head after an especially notable accomplishment, like admission to a prestigious university, public acclaim, winning an award, or earning a promotion.” Interestingly, minorities and women are hit the hardest. Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg, Oscar-winning actress and Harvard alum Natalie Portman, and Starbucks CEO Howard Shultz all admit that they suffer from Imposter Syndrome and share their stories here.

Fake It Until You Make It

Those who suffer from Imposter Syndrome will probably shudder when they hear the words “fake it until you make it,” but sometimes this can be the best approach. For instance, there is a lot of research that says men will apply for a job when they typically meet only 60% of the qualifications, but women only apply if they meet 100%. This is the type of “fake it until you make it” approach that gives you a chance to level the playing field and prove yourself. The most prominent fake role, in my opinion, is parenting. You may have babysat for children and thought, “I can do this.” However, it is not until you have 100% responsibility for a child that you are aware that you are faking it. Yet we adapt, learn from our mistakes, and become better parents.

Deep Stealth Mode

My boss often talks about his first startup company being in a very “deep stealth mode” – meaning it failed. It failed, but is he a failure? Of course not. Today, Bill Aulet heads up the Martin Trust Center for MIT Entrepreneurship and he’s an accomplished professor, speaker, and author. He learned that each risk he took – and continues to take – makes him stronger. The book Antifragile by Nassim Nicholas Taleb discusses that although fragile things break under stress, there’s an entire class of other things that don’t simply resist stress, but actually grow, strengthen, or otherwise gain from unforeseen and otherwise unwelcome stimuli. There are some benefits from stress, disorder, volatility, and turmoil that may allow us to not only survive but flourish.

If you fail at a job what is the worst that can happen? You may get fired. Yet, the sun does come up the next morning. You figure out what happened, and hopefully, what you’ve learned. Then you can address the problem and try again. The key is the reflection and the learning but also taking the risk to try again. So why do most entrepreneurs fail a few times before they get it right? It may be that they are doing things that have never been done before. In some instances, they may not have the necessary skills. But the question is, can they learn or surround themselves with the right people to move forward?

Advice for Overcoming Imposter Syndrome

Going back to the story of my former MIT student; she looked to her mentors when she was faced with a decision to go out on her own and start a business. I could see that it was a positive step for her and knew she would do well. She struggled to make the decision, but we helped her through the process and assured her of her strengths. Ultimately, the decision was her own, and the leap was significant. She now has a thriving business and influences many people with the work she does every day. So what did we tell her?

  1. Be open to the possibilities.
  2. Find joy in what you do.
  3. Be open to change and learn.
  4. Learn from both failure and success, and let them make you stronger.
  5. Be a disciplined entrepreneur.
  6. Surround yourself with a board of advisors.
  7. Enjoy life!

The Scientific American article suggests two of the ways to overcome Imposter Syndrome are to choose a mentor (the way she chose to work with the Entrepreneurs in Residence at the Trust Center) or become a mentor. Becoming a mentor lets you gain perspective, share what you know, and nurture others.

I have grown through the ranks at large companies, completed entrepreneurial stints at two startups, and now I’m in education, guiding new entrepreneurs. Each move was, in my opinion, a risk with challenges, new people, and new technology. However, if you are lucky, you will have a long life with lots of options. I can tell you first hand it is much more meaningful to want to learn, from mistakes or circumstances, but it’s also important to know that even if I fail … I can start again.

*Statistic attributed to the International Journal of Behavioral Science

The delta v Culture: Six Entrepreneurial Essentials at MIT

delta-v-2017-On June 12, we’ll open the doors to this summer’s delta v cohort, beginning an intensive 3-month entrepreneurial “boot camp” for MIT student entrepreneurs. This post looks at the culture of delta v and how this environment helps to grow entrepreneurs.

The saying “culture eats strategy for breakfast” is attributed to management guru Peter Drucker and was made famous by Mark Fields, president at Ford Motor Company. It speaks to how vital culture is in an organizational setting. At MIT, Professor Bill Aulet has written an article that explains why, as an organization, we believe culture is essential for entrepreneurs.

For delta v, MIT’s capstone student venture accelerator, we create a culture of entrepreneurship that is all about risk-taking and the freedom to make mistakes. Although delta v operates out of a cool space with a startup feel, it’s about more than the free coffee and ramen noodles or the walls you can write on. The vibe of delta v is different because of the people inside it and the meaningful work they do. If you’re one of the fortunate student teams accepted into the summer-long “entrepreneurship boot camp,” you’ll be surrounded by smart people all working on new companies with big goals. During the summer, the teams will be working in small cohorts in similar fields and will also participate in being part of a greater cohort, where a true sense of teamwork and collaboration is established.

The staff at delta v know they are assisting students who are making a positive impact in the world. In this experimental culture, failure is expected because students are encouraged to take risks and stretch to their full potential. This is a safe zone to try new ideas and the disciplined entrepreneurship framework provides a basis and common language for the staff to work with students. The framework isn’t a hard and fast set of rules, but it’s more like a common operating system that guides all of the teams.

As part of the culture of delta v, we also bring in the outside community to meet and assess the student teams from an educational perspective – not to look for deal flow but to participate in the students’ learning experience. A key milestone for MIT delta v teams is meeting with their board of directors and gaining valuable input from these advisors. This year we are also starting a delta v cohort in New York City to expose students to a network that is relevant for their company, for example, fintech, real estate, fashion, media, the arts – but, again, with a common operating system. As students gain experiences throughout the summer, they also build trust and respect within the greater Boston and New York communities that will be important as they launch their companies.

Six elements of the delta v culture are shaped by our principles at the Martin Trust Center for MIT Entrepreneurship:

  • MIT Standard of Excellence and Rigor – The delta v teams receive not only the highest quality education, but also the highest quality advising, and practical experiences as well.
  • Collaboration – By partnering with various departments and centers within MIT and the greater community these startups will be prepared to collaborate for the success of their businesses.
  • Diversity – Encouraging a wide variety of perspectives, people, and ways of doing things mean that new ideas and concepts are examined from many angles and the diverse contributions make each company stronger.
  • Experimentation – delta v is the place to “fail forward” and try everything in a supportive environment.
  • Honest Broker – Since MIT does not take a financial stake in the delta v startups, our focus is solely on nurturing and assisting the education of the entrepreneur.
  • Mens et Manus – MIT’s motto, “mind and hand,” fuses academic and practitioner perspectives for a well-rounded entrepreneur.

The way the Martin Trust Center shapes the culture within delta v will be reflected by each of the entrepreneurs and their ventures. Good or bad, all our past experiences come into play as we create something new. Sometimes we choose aspects of a culture we want to emulate. Other times, we actively realize that a certain way of doing things is something we want to avoid. Many of the delta v teams will go on to become successful entrepreneurs that help to solve some of the world’s toughest problems. (Read about some of them in the news here.)

We hope that each student and team carries forth the culture of delta v.

 

Why Consistent, Passionate Leadership Makes all the Difference

Netezza4_halo

I had lunch the other day with a friend and former colleague; he had been the CEO of a successful company that we worked together to build. As usual, we caught up and reminisced, but what struck me about our conversation was our discussion around leadership, and how much truly good leadership contributed to the company’s success, culture, and camaraderie.

He shared that as he visits companies that have been built by previous employees – and staffed by a lot of talent from his previous companies – and he is greeted with such warmth. He said folks tell him that being a part of the company he led was one of the best experiences of their lives. I agreed. We had a great team, a great product, and built a company of significant value that positively impacted customers’ businesses.

He chuckled at my recollection, said he kept emails from his staff telling him how badly things were going, how people disagreed with decisions that were being made, and that working with “so and so” was painful. In hindsight, that is true. So, is it the halo effect, where you remember only the positive and time fades the rest? Or, were we really accomplishing something as a team? I believe it is a bit of both.

Certainly, there were some low points – like when we blew a presentation, a product launch, hired the wrong people and took too long to recognize it, failed a customer, or failed to deliver as a team. We scaled fast but not fast enough, we forecasted sales but sold different models, we worked ridiculous hours. But, at the end of the day, we delivered it together. If we didn’t deliver on a customer commitment, it was “all hands on deck” to get that issue corrected, and that was a core value of the company. However, we also did a lot right. We focused on organic growth, so there was an opportunity to grow and learn. We took risks and learned from what worked and what didn’t.

I also talked to a former colleague who was just 21 when she joined the company. She remembers feeling personally responsible for making customers happy and making the company successful … and, everyone felt that way. If we weren’t passionate about the company, we wouldn’t care so much, and we wouldn’t have told the CEO all the things that we thought were wrong.

As a leader, how do you get employees to think like this? Part of it is to be transparent, celebrate successes, and think ahead to what is next. Communication of both successes and failures is essential, as is laying down the challenge to do better. I remember every day, as I left my office, I saw a sign that read, “Did I move the company forward today?” It was simple, yet meaningful. It was personal for me, and it was personal for others.

We had a mantra of: Performance; Simplicity; and to Be easy to do business with. It was a simple, yet consistent message of expectations – the expectations of our customers (who called us on it), and the expectations of our employees who focused on it internally and externally by communicating in an authentic way (rather than with charts or PowerPoint). This shared set of beliefs and living the culture every day became the guide rails we used to make decisions.

Leadership in building an enterprise is fraught with strife. How you show up everyday matters. It matters how you lead by example through good times and bad, the signals you send to the employees, prospective employees, customers, and investors. It matters what you say, and how you say it. People see how you carry yourself, and how you treat others. The CEO job is lonely, and all paths lead there, so it is vital that CEOs have their support network to provide perspective.

Maybe I have been lucky (or wise) in choosing the companies I have worked with, but I have experienced terrific leadership at a variety of companies, including employees that challenge those leaders to be better, and customers who depend on that. So, at the end of the day, I am pleased to hear that my former CEO is treated well – as he should be. There might be a bit halo effect as we reminisce, but in my experience, creating something special for others creates its own halo.