Vision has a tendency to leak. I don’t know where I learned that; I do know I’m not the author. I also know it’s a principle no founder or leader in a tech company should ever forget.
You, for example, have a vision for your company. You wouldn’t have founded it otherwise. Your vision sustained you through months of living off savings and sleeping at the office as you fought to balance limited resources with the kind of steady growth that attracts investors. It steered you through the misery of testing and retesting an imperfect product while wondering if you’d survive the next slog of business financing before running out of cash.
What’s more, your vision helped you convince a team of smart, talented people to put their livelihoods in your hands and devote a significant portion of their waking hours to your enterprise. Now the enterprise has gained some momentum -- what role should vision play for you and your employees as you move ahead?
It's your job to keep the pail full.
Try to think of vision as a tangible asset, like cold spring water in a pail. Startup work is hard, and each challenge or setback is like a hole getting punched in the bottom of the pail. It starts to drip slowly at first, but as the hours pass, the water leaks out more quickly, until one day you’re staring at an empty pail. Now imagine that you and your employees are all holding these pails.
Related: Never Lose Sight of Your Vision
Without a replenishing source, the fellow with the empty water pail withers and dies. Without a replenishing source, employees with empty vision pails turn restless and sour. When enough vision pails go empty -- and enough of that sourness spreads -- your company culture will grow toxic. You’ll experience more and more talent turnover, and find yourself in a downward spiral that’s nearly irreversible.
You are responsible for keeping those vision pails full. After all, you’re the source of the vision, like a wellspring is the source of a stream, no matter how the stream twists and turns and takes on a life of its own. It’s easy for you to refill your own vision pail. Your business is your baby; it’s close to your heart all the time. If your pail keeps leaking regardless, think of how it must be for your employees. Our job as leaders is to always be looking for authentic moments in which to communicate our vision to our people.
As leaders, how can we accomplish this?
To start with, think simple. As the source of your vision, just your presence can be uplifting. My company, Nav, has its main office in California, but the bulk of our employees work out of an office in South Jordan, Utah. I make it a point to fly out every week to counsel, chat, work and laugh with this gifted, world-class team. Regular, up-close interaction like this also helps me empathize with my employees well enough that I can usually sense if something’s wrong, be it personal or professional.
Company meetings are another way we keep our vision pails full. Once a month, the California office flies into Utah for a kind of family reunion. The meetings are relaxed and fun, but charged with a sense of purpose. A few weeks before the meeting, I interview two of my employees about their lives, hobbies, careers, childhoods, etc., and then type up a little essay about each of them, which are later read to the whole team. We eat, drink and play; we look at company goals; we address problem areas and applaud improvements; and generally just reconnect and enjoy each other’s companionship for a few hours. Speaking for myself, I always leave these meetings feeling pumped.
A true story of vision in action.
Back in January, Nav had an experience that I think beautifully illustrates this concept of vision leaking and refilling. As part of Nav’s business credit monitoring tool, we send customers an alert whenever something changes on their credit reports. Our marketing team had the idea to send a second alert to customers who’d not logged in 30 days after their first alert. But the person who was in charge of sending the emails to this select little group used the wrong filter. We noticed a tremendous spike in activity in our system, and wondered what was going on. Turns out we’d sent the email to every single one of our customers and prospects.
In the moment, it seemed like we had a full-on disaster on our hands. Nav’s business model is built on trust. You trust us with your personal and credit data, and we’ll keep a loving, watchful eye on it and alert you if anything changes. It isn’t necessarily fun to receive one of these alerts, because it’s not always good news. For that reason, we have a strict commitment to never bug you unless it’s important. And we’d just told tens of thousands of people that they might have reason to worry when they didn’t.
You can imagine the potential fallout -- blood pressures spiking along with the system, fingers pointed, blame assigned, feelings hurt, panic. But none of that happened.
The first thing my team asked when they realized it was an error was how to correct it. Another member of the team stepped forward to share ownership of the mistake with the person who’d used the wrong filter. Customer support jumped all over problem-solving around incoming calls and emails. Someone suggested we write an immediate apology, which at first my business partner and I rejected, not wanting to compound the problem with a second email blast. Then someone else suggested that we offer to provide photos of the marketing team wearing stylish dunce caps to atone for the mistake. Both suggestions eventually won out.
We wrote a thoughtful, humorous email explaining what happened -- a human had clicked on the wrong field of our email management software. It was a wonderful failure.
Authentic and transparent communication.
That night, during my flight home, I wrote an email to the entire Nav team expressing love and gratitude. I wasn’t consciously trying to refill any vision pails. I wrote it because I had to, because it poured out of me. What had begun as the vision of two people -- my cofounder and myself -- had spread to over 50 people. It had been enriched a little more with each new hire, like the progress of sunrise over a lake. What begins as a few gleams on the water turns slowly into countless glimmers, which, if you squint just right, blend into one disc of light.
I won’t say that I cried on the plane, as it would have violated my lifetime resolution of no-tears-excreted. That my face must have registered the effort to hold them back, however, was brought home to me when a kind flight attendant offered me a cup of soothing tea and a defibrillator.