Tuesday, November 20, 2018

New INC Magazine Blog Post by Kaplan Institute Exec Director Howard Tullman

Are You Becoming the "I" of the Storm?
If you fear that things are starting to slip, the first course of inquisition may have to be you. Keep an eye out for these four telltales that the boss may need to have a talk with the boss.

Executive director, Ed Kaplan Family Institute for Innovation and Tech Entrepreneurship, Illinois Institute of Technology

Now is the time of year for some quiet reflection. Yet it's hard to make the time because entrepreneurs aren't particularly introspective or self-aware, as most of them are quick to admit. They rarely like looking in the rear-view mirror or rehashing old news or past mistakes. If you need a current poster boy for this attitude, look no further than the Zuck, who's all about future fixes and moving on and not interested in the least in talking about past failures and the damage done.

This "full speed ahead" attitude is actually a source of some considerable pride among the more arrogant execs in the Valley as they continue to lecture the rest of us on solutions to world problems and on how to improve our lives and society without opening their own kimonos to take a look at the messes they've made. We used to describe this approach as "often wrong, but never in doubt" and, in reality, it's clearly both a blessing and a curse for most business builders.

A blessing because the best entrepreneurs focus on possibilities more than problems--winning rather than worrying--and, above all, tomorrow and not yesterday. This astute and calculated ignorance is actually a competitive advantage for the newcomers who are building startups. Because when you don't know, or focus obsessively on, what you're not supposed to be able to do, or what you're actually qualified for, or even capable of, often you just go right ahead and simply get it done. You don't ever have to be bound by the limitations of others. That's the good news.

The curse is when you spend so much time seeing the "big" picture, setting the vision, and steering the ship not around, but through the tough times. That's when you can lose sight of yourself and how and whether things are still working for you. This isn't good news. Being the boss of any business is hard enough, but it's even tougher running a struggling startup (an oxymoron for sure, because who isn't sweating every day in their business to get better?) and it's almost impossible to do it well if your own head isn't fully in the game.

I wouldn't say that we should expect to be or need to be "happy" to take on these challenges, but we do have to believe in our hearts and heads that what we're doing is valuable, meaningful and likely to make a difference. Otherwise it's easy to become bitter. As always, Springsteen says it best in Devils and Dust when he sings:

What if what you do to survive
 kills the things you love. 
Fear's a powerful thing baby. It can turn your heart black...

If you find yourself angry more often than amused--upset more often than uplifted-- and pissed more than proud, it's time to take a break and take a close look at yourself. This is a difficult topic to take up because having a heart-to-heart conversation with yourself isn't easy but it is essential, and now's as good a time as any. I've written about this issue before in terms of when it's time to do something different, but here I'm talking more about a tune-up rather than a termination

If you want a quick and easy way to getting the process started, your own conversations may be the key. I call this "the I's have it" approach, a shorthand way to see if things are starting to slip and are going to require further examination and work. Listen carefully to how you're talking to your people and about the business. If too much of the talk is about "I" and not "we", it's a good bet that you're feeling angry or sorry for yourself or both and need to get yourself back on track.

Watch for these negatives:

(1) "I don't really care..."said NO entrepreneur ever. Of course, you care - it's your business and your baby. This is just a way of telling the team that you're unhappy without being honest enough to put it out there. So, you sulk and shut down. It's not just your unhappy employees who can suffer from "whatever" sickness. The good news about this is that sitting on the sidelines isn't in your DNA and you'll be back minding everyone else's business soon enough.

(2)  "I didn't know..."about someone. As often as not, you did know or should have known, but this is just a handy way to deflect responsibility and blame someone else for something you should be doing or should have addressed. Great entrepreneurs sweat all the small details and there's very little that goes on or matters in their companies that they miss. And even if they missed it, there's always a parade of people waiting at their door to give them the unhappy news. 

(3)  "I wasn't asked..."about something. This is an especially sad cop-out because you built the whole business on people taking chances, risks and initiative and now you're whining that they didn't ask nicely for your permission. Or maybe you saw what was going on (and wrong or sideways) and you decided to be willfully ignorant and let the chips fall where they may. This isn't you either and it's pretty close to cutting off your nose to spite your face. Get over yourself and get busy fixing the problems.

(4)  "I didn't have..."X or Y or Z.  And I'd like to grow 10 inches taller and play center for the Chicago Bulls. Of course, you didn't have certain things. No one ever has it all - that's why you make do and do the best you can with the people and resources that you do have. It's just another part of the job. If it was easy and everything was handed to you on a silver platter, it wouldn't be much of a challenge. Entrepreneurs know that it's the journey-- the work that you put into filling these gaps, inventing new work-arounds and solutions,  and making these things happen-- that's the real joy in building a business. 

Bottom line: this has been a tough year in some ways for nearly everyone. And it's easy for an entrepreneur to feel lonely and unappreciated. Sometimes the hardest work is thankless, but that work is still important and still needs to get done and done right. Take some time to take your own temperature and listen to yourself; suck it up, and then get yourself back in the game.

And remember that great entrepreneurs don't do this stuff because they want to; they do it because they have to, and they wouldn't be caught dead doing anything else.

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