Founders, your teams need to hear from you

LearningsJan 17, 2023

We know it’s a stressful time, but don’t forget your team.

It’s a tough time. We know this. Founders are heads down, laser-focused on retaining business, staying lean, avoiding layoffs and appeasing needy investors. As a consequence, I’m starting to hear a common theme among early-stage teams — founders are going dark. With so many ‘urgent’ crises requiring immediate attention, it can be easy to de-prioritize company communication and forget about the team.

If this sounds familiar, I’m here with a wake-up call: your teams need you now. They need to know you are still passionate. That you believe in the future of the business. That you have a plan to steer the ship, especially in choppy waters. Silence from the top creates space for employees to build their own narrative, which might be much less flattering than the truth.

Communication from you, the founder, is crucial to keep your team on track. At a time when founders should be doing everything they can to hold on to their A-players, communicating a company’s north star is critical. When team members feel like they are a part of something bigger than themselves and that their work is critical to achieving it, they are more likely to put in the extra effort and stay engaged. On the other hand, if they feel like they are working in a vacuum, it can be demotivating and inevitably lead to a lack of productivity.

I haven’t been able to find data strictly correlating founder communications with company success, but anecdotally I am hearing about the impact of not communicating a lot right now. People are leaving because they think their company might be next in the swathes of layoffs happening across the tech sector. Great people are jumping ship. In times of uncertainty, silence can be fatal.

Ask yourself these three questions:

1. Am I consistently communicating with my team?

When was the last time you did a company all-hands? What about regular conversations with smaller groups? If we asked any team member what your strategy is for the next 12 months, would they all give us the same answer? Would they even have an answer?

Years ago, when I had Skype as a client, I had the opportunity to work with Saul Klein while he was in-house at the company. To this day he remains one of the most disciplined communicators I have ever worked with. Whether he was speaking to colleagues (at any level), external agencies, or the media he repeated his message relentlessly — always in the right context, it’s important to say. When I commented on his remarkable consistency, he said ‘I’ve learned that I have to repeat my message over and over again, until I am sick of hearing myself say it. Then I do it for another six months and by that time it’ll be starting to sink in with those who are hearing it.”

How frequently and consistently you communicate your message will determine how much others believe it. If a leader can’t get a message across clearly and motivate others to act on it, then having a message doesn’t mean much.

2. Are you being too humble?

Your people need you to lead. Making any decision is better than making no decisions. And for people to trust your decisions, sometimes you need to talk openly about stuff that has gone really well (especially when we are in a tough cycle) as a direct result of your leadership. Yes, there is a team alongside you, but sometimes it is important to acknowledge you are the leader, and too much humility can get in the way of doing the things you need to do in order for your business to grow.

One leader I have watched over the years is Daniel Ek, founder of Spotify. As someone familiar with Swedish culture and the tendency for Swedish innovators to highlight what their product can’t do instead of what it can — I have often wondered how someone with a self-described lack of charisma can lead such a successful company. He’s the kind of person I strive to learn from.

If you’re having trouble leaning into your own leadership evolution, read this article from 2018 in Fast Company magazine where Ek opens up about his leadership journey. He understands not only his outsized role in setting the culture of the company, but also the benefit of acting in the way a great leader is expected to act — even if it is outside his comfort zone . He says ‘If I’m having a sh***y day, there may be someone who’s worked in this company for three years and this is the only time they get to spend an hour or even 15 minutes with me. What impression do I leave? For someone who’s not a natural leader, that’s super tough.’ He follows by talking about the changes he needed to make to his communication style as the company grew: ‘I realized that I didn’t have to change who I was in order to do well. But I needed to more clearly and succinctly explain myself.’.

This level of self-awareness, and a continuous willingness to work on himself as a leader is even more interesting to me because he appears to be the exact opposite of the kind of founder who is idolized in the valley.

The real question to ask here is: are you putting yourself forward as the leader your people need you to be right now?

3. Are you really listening?

Listening is under-rated. Real listening. The kind of listening where you’re taking in new information instead of listening for your turn to respond. Listening is key to help you gauge how well what you know about your company matches what everyone else thinks about it. While you have a complete picture of everything going on across your business — you cannot assume that those on your team have the same depth or breadth of knowledge. Dedicating time to really listen to your team will pay dividends. And especially so if you act on what you hear.

Sometimes it helps to look at the behaviour of some of the world’s biggest companies — outside the venture-backed tech sector — to examine the elements of their success. Indra Nooyi served as the CEO of PepsiCo from 2006 to 2018. Under her leadership, the company’s revenues increased from $35 billion in 2006 to over $63 billion in 2017.

Nooyi talks often about the importance of communication, and specifically listening. She directly equates the ability to listen, with the ability to influence, regardless of titles. At a summit in 2021 she said: ‘anyone can influence the people around them, and in that sense, they become leaders. Listen to the people around you to learn about the paths that lead to success and about what people truly want to do within their career’. Nooyi has a 3 hour Masterclass on the subject of leadership here, and published a book a couple of years ago if either of these pique your interest.

Strong communication is the real work of leadership. The most polished strategy can only succeed if the team around you understands, remembers and acts on it every day. But to communicate properly takes time. And if it starts to feel old, boring, or repetitive, you’re doing it right.

Remember Saul’s advice to me — communicate your message until you are sick of hearing it — then do it for another six months. And then check your work. You might feel like you’ve been communicating regularly and clearly, but your team is the true litmus test of whether you’ve done enough.