October 16, 2016: As the founder of a startup, you have three constitu- encies: your customers, your team, and your investors. Being a low maintenance leader is a great way to get the maximum support from all three. This is not such a common term; it’s much easier to find references on low maintenance pets, for example. For this week’s essay let’s define some of the traits of “going low when others go high” (sorry but I couldn’t help that rephrasing from the politics of the day).
Be timely. In one sense this means showing up on time for meetings and not wasting the time of others who are depending on your being there. It is a sign of respect to be punctual; it tells others you value their time as much as yours. How many people do you know who are always late? I bet it’s quite a long list. This seems like elementary courtesy, but it’s an all-too-common problem. Yes there may be occasions where tardiness is excused; traffic is certainly a plausible explanation in places like Austin and Atlanta. But, it doesn’t hurt to plan ahead for such contingencies, even at the risk of being early once in a while.
Be timely with your participation. Another aspect of valuing the time of others is paying attention all the way through a deal, project or contract when you are asked for input. Jumping in after everyone else has finished their milestones and then revisiting or changing agreed items is demotivating and frustrating to those involved, whether inside or outside your company. It’s hard enough to negotiate with an outside party, and you don’t want to inflict on your team the added burden of negotiating with you after they believe you have been paying attention and everything is buttoned up. You may well catch some major error and be justified in reopening a closed case, so to speak, but you bear responsibility for letting it slide when you had multiple earlier chances to review progress.
Be consistent. Don’t change the rules in the middle of the game. You don’t like it when your customers surprise you after the order is in hand or your investors throw in a new twist into the terms sheet already presented. Try not to be so creative that you spring surprises on others inside or outside your company. Your constituents like to know that you can stay on mission and on schedule. There’s a time when you have to commit to a direction, stick with it, and not overthink it thereafter. You may have picked the wrong direction, but hopefully you’ve hedged with some time and resources for curative pivots. It’s a lot like golf. When you decide on a shot, you just have to trust your swing to accomplish it. Bobby Jones’ notion of the “quiet mind” is ever so true. Don’t overthink.
Focus on the important. This is especially meaningful when the issue at hand involves any design, intangibles, guesswork, or creativity. How often have you worked with a perfectionist who has trouble reaching the finish line because he or she gets mired up in too many details? Have you allowed yourself to dive into the weeds at the expense of keeping the objective in sight? Some things are worth fighting over, and many are not. If you’ve ever remodeled a house, you know what I’m talking about. It’s easy to dwell on a color choice for wallpaper while your contractor is clobbering your with unexpected charges for slightly changing the dimensions of a portico. All parties may be acting in good faith in that case. But, when you’re running a business, you can’t lose the big picture while entertaining yourself with things that are relatively trivial. Your team will take note of your behavior when you do that and wonder if they’re expected to do their jobs or to join you in tinkering.
Go forth and get things done. If there’s a need to visit a customer in person, go, even if it means getting on a plane on short notice. Be an easy traveler. The back of the plane lands at the same time as the front. You may lose a few minutes of ground time if you’re not in first class, but, hey, you benefited from the miracle of air travel. Be grateful. Don’t whine. Just set the proper example by getting the job accomplished. I’ve never regretted going to a meeting or event that didn’t seem at first to be an absolute necessity, but I’ve regretted missing many an event that would have been a better use of my time than sitting in my office. Things get done when folks are together in person. Skype hasn’t replaced the human touch. A few billion people on the planet would trade places with you for the luxury of air travel to conduct a business deal. Appreciate your privilege.
Use leverage sparingly. Yes, you may have a lot of leverage in a particular matter at hand, and you may be able to back up your threats. But, that may not be the case the next time around. When dealing with others who are important to you, there’s no need to overplay your hand. The relationship is more important. Being easy going is fine; being a jerk will come back to haunt you. It will. Don’t come to be viewed as someone who has to be coddled and managed as opposed to someone whose lead people will gladly follow.
Pay on time. “Fast pay makes fast friends” is a golf course truism. Some large companies are notorious for dragging out payments and keeping you in a pinch with your receivables. That’s not by accident; it’s systemic, and it’s a policy. That doesn’t give you license to pass that on. You can win a lot of loyalty by adhering to the terms you agreed with your own vendors. They’re much more likely to go the extra mile in making a delivery on time if they can count on your honoring your part of the bargain. Nearly every startup gets in a pinch once in a while, but if your standard practice is trustworthy, you’ll enjoy a lot more grace when you have a legitimate shortfall.
I could go on, but you get the point. Be as low maintenance as the lazy dog in the photo, and enjoy the results.
<Image of a sleeping dog in Syria by High Contrast via Wikimedia Commons.>