Entrepreneurs Are Prone to Creative Self-Destruction. Here's How to Stay Grounded and Succeed.
Misbehavior by Travis Kalanick at Uber, Dov Charney at American Apparel or Miki Agrawal at Thinx is awful. There are obvious ways to avoid it.
The world's smallest violins come out for CEOs, the ones with the cushiest, most glamorous, most exhilarating job that totally sucks to do.
Everybody, it seems, in my startup community in New York was reading the brutal story about the underwear-maker Thinx's CEO this week -- the stories about incredible misbehavior that led to her being out.
It didn't have to happen that way.
I've started and led a bunch of companies, backed dozens of CEOs as an investor or adviser, so I had a reaction my colleagues in the office called "cringeworthy."
But here it's a plucky, little company. And it's a startup taking on behemoths. And it's a woman-founder and a mostly-women company. I'm usually rooting for these folks, and I felt bad for them as much as I was shocked.
The classic economist who wrote about startups is Joseph Schumpeter, and his famous term for what happens is "creative destruction." He profiles the mindset of the people who create new ventures -- a big part of it is breaking boundaries. VCs call it "biting the heads off chickens." It's considered necessary.
In fact, when academics study entrepreneurs you find a very strange psychological make-up -- people who are nearly blind to danger, intense and easily taken by zany ideas. It's a recipe for creative self-destruction -- especially when you add in the world-on-your-shoulders emotional rollercoasters of starting companies. It's insane, and I've been there. And, I've never done it as a woman -- which makes it way harder, like Ginger Rogers dancing every move Fred Astaire danced except "backwards, and in heels."
But, there are also some obvious things people who want to lead companies, social ventures or anything else should be doing if you want to succeed.
1. You are a bit crazy. Recognize this. Get some non-crazy people and give them authority.
If this is news to you, as a founder, then you should be glad you are reading this. People don't start new things from scratch because they are relaxed normal people. They do it because they are weird, they persist because they are weird and they succeed because they are exceedingly rare personalities (that is, weird). Once you do realize this it should change how you think about your people. They did not sign up to be mistreated by a psycho. You'll need help.
2. Things will get bad and you might fail. Say this to everyone in advance. It makes it easier when it happens.
The rollercoaster ride is the essence of starting something new, being CEO, taking the heat. When things are in free fall, it's scary. It is the top way folks end up hiding, isolated and unable to communicate with their people. The stress is intense as you start thinking, hmm, we may have to fire people. But people know this! They are smart! Take the stress down a level by putting the facts on the table before things get bad.
3. You're the founder, but of a team. People play with decent human beings, not tyrants. Apply this mindset to all "HR" issues. You are the HR department.
Founders are encouraged to shoot from the hip, but they aren't often reminded that people trust people more than weirdos. Often you hear CEOs say they haven't had time yet to build their HR department, or that they are a lean team. Fine. Staff or no staff, the duty is at the top, and the easiest lens for understanding the fairness of your own behavior, your company's and your policies is to imagine what normal human beings would think. Be human. Perhaps easier said than done.
4. Diversity is your defense against groupthink and will help you judge the dangers and boundaries you like to ignore.
One way to find people who will challenge your thinking and put guard rails around your worst habits is to find people who are just plain old different -- diverse -- from a different class or race or gender or region or all of it. The simplest way to have healthy debate and pressure test ideas is to avoid sameness. And, you get to be virtuous while doing it.
5. Make sure you get off of the dance floor occasionally. You can't do everything. You'll need fresh air and perspective from up on the balcony.
Some leaders are in the nitty gritty, the intense back and forth of the work that needs to be done. You are probably the best at many of the tasks your company needs to get done -- after all, you are the leader for a reason. But, you have to step away and think strategy sometimes; and that means breaking away from the action, delegating, out-of-office messages and generally changing mindset. You can't think strategy in the middle of the mosh pit.
But whatever you do, don't actually try biting the heads off chickens. Salmonella.