The Art of Survival as a Futuristic Startup Leader

If you’re feeling overwhelmed, facing stressful situations daily and rarely feeling like you’re winning, even though others think you’re a success — you’re not alone. There’s a big community of founders and leaders of startups who have either gone through it, can offer advice or commiserate with you. Many of them were at the 7th annual startup festival in Montreal this past week, and they had lots to say. Speaking with many of them validated my own ideas and experiences and others that I’ve heard about within the industry. One needs to be strong to thrive while building a rapidly evolving startup. It’s difficult, but building habits to restore and connect with others can help.

Build a Solid Foundation With Your Core Vision and Values

As a startup on the road to success, you will inevitably find the need for authentic external messaging in addition to cohesive internal culture and employee messaging. Both are as mission-critical for your startup as are your funding sources, business plan and revenue models. Your vision and core values are even more urgent, in fact, because they are the essential building blocks that every startup’s leadership buys into at the start and continues to enact as they scale.

Without examining your implicit and explicit values as a leadership team, your risks are great. You’ll have contradictory systems and processes, HR blunders, frequent talent exits, a fragmented brand plan, confused marketing and sales messaging (not to mention employees and customers), and a growing sense from your team that you’re hypocritical and maybe you ‘don’t really walk the talk’.

In order to ensure you don’t stray from your core values, you need to give them attention more often than you might think. They might evolve, and as a result you may pivot and shift the vision for your startup. Communication activities will become the majority of your time spent. As your role shifts and the company grows, you’ll have to grow rapidly as a leader to keep up, and that is intense and deeply personal work.

If There is no Integrity and Alignment at the Leadership Level, There is no Logical Way to Scale

When we as leaders are not acting by our core values, we need to stop and take time to asses the situation. Someone who we respect needs to call us out on it. Having a coach and/or a mentor helps. It isn’t always a ‘business as usual’ approach, but unfortunately when things are hard, survival mode kicks in, and what’s actually needed is a timeout session, self-compassion and some headspace.

Sometimes stressful situations arise and our responses to these challenges are regretful. As entrepreneurs we might stray from our core values and become negligent because we are driven to succeed on the business side. Our ego kicks in, and we might do things for the wrong reasons — we may become power-hungry, greedy or jaded. We are born to compete with others, and ourselves, and if we have one more thing to prioritize it threatens to push us over the edge. But we have to come back to what we believe in, and what drives us to do what’s right.

During desperate times, burned out executives will need help to get out of the danger they put themselves in. If we starve ourselves from sources of hope, trust, inspiration, emotional connection with our family and friends, and our own well-being for too long, we won’t be the best leaders. Contrary to belief, by pushing so hard we may push good talent and team members away, or against us. They say it’s often lonely at the top – probably with good reason.

Question Why you Treat ‘The Struggle’ Paradigm as a Fact of Startup Life

To quote Ben Horowitz, in his well-known blog post from 2012, The Struggle is Real,

“When you are in The Struggle, nothing is easy and nothing feels right. You have dropped into the abyss and you may never get out.”

This can really feel true sometimes … but if we can’t live for the moment, and if the struggle for the utopian future we’re building takes over — What next? Have we turned into powerful ego-driven cyborgs that are somehow less human? Is this what life is about? A psychological state of pain and suffering is not optimal, nor sustainable. Meditation and other self-care routines will help, if we make the time for them. As leaders, we should protect ourselves, and the people on our teams, as finite business assets. Although we are all replaceable in today’s job market, we are each truly unique, and there is a business cost to turn-over.

For most of us, we have to walk a fine line that also embraces today and is present in the moment. If we’re not living a meaningful life today, then tomorrow hardly matters. What is the success for? We need to celebrate it. When positive energy on a leadership team is not present, then we need to restore it.

If you’re part of a leadership team, you need to understand why you’re doing something this hard and feel inspired to do great things. As your startup grows its your job to instil that passion like a virus in others throughout the company. If you’ve lost your way, you need to get back to the core values that brought you together as a team. Build back trust, and not just with the founder — throughout the entire leadership team. There should be a good group dynamic, with a web of interconnections and support for each person.

Slow Down to Avoid Damaging Pitfalls and Grow Rapidly, Yet Sustainably

Yes, there is a business to run, there is a problem to solve, customers to serve, and a great utopian future to build, but we also have to take care of the here and now, today, this second and this moment. Slowing down for a few hours, a vacation day, or a sabbatical, will help us to speed up and grow sustainably for the great future that’s ahead of us. We are often our own worst enemies and harshest critics.

Triangulation, toxic gossip, victimization and harassment, retribution and humiliation — — these are things that transformative companies need to proactively take the time to prevent. Systems for conflict resolution, decision-making, and leadership tiers, with defined scope for authority, all have to be explicitly resolved, and not left to chance.

Future Visionaries Unplug to Connect the Old Fashioned Way

It is no wonder that today there are a growing number of services and events to assist busy tech professionals get back to nature, unplug and take care of their health and well-being. I see this as a huge step forward — that as a tech community we have realized that the status quo doesn’t always work for us. With events like Fireside ConferenceStarup Weekend, women’s only retreats like Gather North, and conferences where disconnecting is required, I predict we will see a shift in how we relate and do business together. I hope we see each other more holistically and in a less transactional way. Meanwhile, as more women (and specifically parents), take on more leadership positions in tech, we may ask for more time to spend with our families, more flexible work hours and remote work.

This could be a new kind of revolution in the workplace that we’ve been waiting for, that says ‘there is more than one way to be successful’. If we can give ourselves permission, we will see a big shift in our work environment. We surely have something to gain by maintaining some of the old-fashioned humanistic elements that life has to offer, while driving forward toward our collective future progress.