How Your Better Half Makes You a Better Leader
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Building a company is never easy. Every entrepreneur who dares to dream will encounter naysayers who want to see the company fail for one reason or another. Believe it or not, these detractors are a necessary and important part of the building process.
But equally important to any chief executive is the camp of believers who want you to succeed. My wife, Sapna, is my biggest believer. Her advice and encouragement ultimately led me to start Nutanix seven years ago, and her continued support throughout this journey has made me a better entrepreneur.
Of course, I don't presume that having a significant other is a prerequisite for effective leadership. But if you are married or in a domestic partnership, I believe true alignment with your life partner is the most important requirement to build a successful company. Here’s why.
A champion in your corner.
In September 2009, I left the comfort of a steady paycheck to launch Nutanix. While it felt like an overnight decision, in actuality it was the culmination of numerous conversations with my wife. She knew it could invite chaos into our lives at a time when we already faced much uncertainty. Still, she told me to stop postponing my passion and do something that would make me happy.
Communication has been a core part of relationship since the beginning. When we met in the "Bombay" chat room on the now-defunct TalkCity.com, I was living in Texas and she was halfway around the world in India. We spoke for more than seven hours the first day. Our long-distance relationship lasted three-and-a-half years. We made countless phone calls during that time, developing the skill of engaged listening. It's served us well throughout our relationship -- especially when we discuss big life decisions.
A Harvard Business School study found many executives consider emotional support to be the largest contribution their partners have made to their careers. This support comes in a variety of forms. Our partners might urge us to take business risks or encourage us to pursue job opportunities that are not immediately rewarding but lead to longer-term satisfaction. They might simply believe in us.
The value of this support cannot be overstated. Given the frequency with which startups fail, it's natural for people to react with some skepticism when they learn you want to launch an independent company. But when your partner is a believer and not a naysayer, it emboldens you to press forward.
A shared vision.
According to data from Harp Family Institute, which focuses on how entrepreneurship affects relationships (and vice versa), couples who create a shared vision for their future find increased satisfaction in all areas of life. Before I started this new venture, my wife and I discussed the $10,000 we had in the bank. She suggested we could use our savings to keep the business afloat should the situation arise, and even borrow from our 401(k). I consider myself very fortunate to have found a partner who was so willing to sacrifice everything for an unknown future.
Maintaining a shared vision with your partner is critical throughout every stage of a company. It's particularly crucial during the early and high-growth stages, when work-life balance is put to its greatest test. Our lives have changed considerably since our mutual decision seven years ago. We no longer have to worry about dipping into our savings, but we do have to navigate new situations. We're now raising a young family with a job that requires me to travel more than 200,000 miles a year. Because we aligned our expectations from the very beginning, however, we're able to reach compromises by viewing outcomes through the lens of mutual understanding.
The ultimate advisor.
Your partner can be your most valuable sounding board. The late SurveyMonkey CEO Dave Goldberg called his wife, Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg, his “closest adviser.” Sandberg noted the same was true for Goldberg, who advised her on issues such as negotiating a higher salary during compensation talks. There is great value in a partner who can provide an outside perspective, delivering fresh thinking or honest criticism.
Beyond direct requests for advice, your relationship with your partner can pay indirect dividends. A recent Stanford University study ranked conflict management as the highest area of concern for CEOs. Raising a family also creates no shortage of conflict. While it can be difficult to realize in the moment, I recognize conflict provides a breeding ground for developing emotional intelligence. As my wife and I work through these issues together, I've attained the high emotional quotient necessary to scale a business.
No one can build a company alone. Whether your source of support comes from a personal or professional network, understand you're on a shared journey. It's one I'm grateful to experience with my biggest believer.