More than a decade ago, I was at an open-air metal festival in Germany for a few days. The highlight for me was seeing Iron Maiden live. As they finished, the PA system started playing Monty Python’s Always look on the bright side of life (that’s from that concert. The internet is amazing). It was incredible how all of those fans who were disappointed the fantastic show was over kept having fun together regardless. (In general, as that video exemplifies, I adore the metal community’s innate dissonance between mosh pits and such silliness, but I digress). Looking at the bright side is an invaluable tool for tech executives and is core to developing an executive mindset. You should help your team find the positives even in today’s market climate.
Have you had to freeze hiring? Maybe you needed to shelve the growth plans for your team. Perhaps you even had to cut down on staff, as the majority of the companies I’m talking to see to be doing or expecting to do within a quarter. Such a situation is always tough. There’s no denying that. Nevertheless, as a leader, you cannot shrug and commiserate with your team about how tough things are. Now’s the time when genuine leaders shine by crafting a narrative that motivates their team.
The First Step
You cannot be a beacon of positive energy and optimism if you cannot envision a good outcome. I’ve worked with leaders who thought it was their role to “be part of the system” and channel a message they didn’t believe. That never works. Your people are not stupid. Disagree and commit might be appropriate for tasks and roadmaps but not for something as major as the vision for the company.
If you cannot see a likely path to a better future, you might not be the right leader for the company. However, experience shows that we often simply need to take a methodical look at the possibilities. Sit down and consider the different risks, their likelihood, and impact. Think about what the company will do. Think back to all the times a crisis made you think “the end is near” but is now long forgotten. Find this optimistic path forward, and your job will be much easier. Funny enough, many startup founders default to such positive thinking, but senior tech leaders have callouses that make them pessimistic and cynical. Put that attitude aside.
Once you’ve become a believer as well, you can turn your attention to your team and help them.
Some think working on narratives is a form of “spinning.” I completely disagree. Creating a compelling narrative for the team and the company that motivates people and helps them envision a path forward is invaluable, especially at times of volatility. It is how you align people around an important goal and help them focus on what matters, as opposed to continuing to gossip all day about rumors and issues.
This is only possible if you are willing to be frank and tackle the obvious issues. For example, you cannot describe a rosy future that depends on a bunch of epic sales happening if the company has no track record of those and nothing in the pipeline. Just like the team can spot a bug in a lengthy pull request, they’ll be able to nitpick on these obvious holes in your plan. That’s not to say that everything is supposed to be crystal clear and straightforward.
You should embrace the ambiguity and risks and talk about them frankly. Explain the reasoning behind your optimism. Keep them updated about progress so they can tell when things are improving or witness their work’s impact on the company’s efforts. That way, the narrative will slowly turn into reality for all involved.
What Doesn’t Kill You
We’ve all heard tales about startups where precisely when things seemed dire, the team kept pushing and was able to survive and eventually reach success. While there’s certainly no guarantee the same will happen to you, help your team see that these are the types of times that forge people. You gain a lot of experience and wisdom during times of crunch if you keep your eyes and ears open. Virtually every top engineer and executive I know have at least one story that helped shape their careers and mindset.
I often say the bright side of such periods is that they seem to accelerate experience. Things move a lot faster, and like approaching the speed of light, time appears to move differently. However, that’s only the case if the team decides to get all they can out of this experience rather than sulk around.
Lastly, you have to anticipate that not everyone on the team will share your vision or bask in the glory of the company’s “Hail Mary.” Some people will leave because they don’t believe the vision anymore because they’ve had enough, or even simply because they have an obligation to their family and cannot risk their income. Whatever the case, don’t let these bring you down.
You’ll need to roll with the punches and keep squeezing those lemons for lemonades. One of my clients started a call with me, fearing what would happen should their key engineer decide to leave. By the end of the call, he could see how he would survive that and perhaps even leverage it to change things in the organization and promote someone more easily. Most things are not as terrible as they seem at first sight.
Keep smiling, and remember that the last laugh is on you! (I kid, I kid.)
Get a sample chapter
Get the best newsletter for tech executives online, along with a free sample chapter of The Tech Executive Operating System 📖. Tailored for your daily work. Weekly, short, and packed with exclusive insights.