Author Archives: Marcy Swenson

Why startup teams resist hiring a new leader, and what to do about it

angry mob

I’ve run across this situation with startup CxO coaching clients three times in the past week, so it felt like a good time to write about it…

Here is the scenario: You realize that you need to hire a more experienced leader for an existing team, and there is lots of resistance to making the hire: the team doesn’t see the value in bringing on someone more senior, they think it will ruin their existing freewheeling culture, or they are confused that you want to replace a leader who is well-liked (but not performing well).

Here is the deal: they often don’t know what a great leader would look, sound, or feel like, or what they would contribute to the team. Early hires tolerate uncertainty & chaos well, and value a lack of structure. To them, you are “ruining” a great thing. They have heard (or lived) the horror stories of bad managers, so they value strong individual contributors who can organize people around them reasonably well, and who primarily represent the core values & beliefs of the team. You, on the other hand, are looking for a solid people manager who will provide some more structure, accountability, & mentoring, who will contribute to a broader strategy and to the exec team, can act more autonomously, and who will balance the demands of the business with the needs of the team.

You’ve announced that the hire is underway, you’ve written a job description, and you’re bringing in candidates. The team interviews possible leaders, and because they can’t actually envision what a more skilled/senior leader would look like, they screen for what they would look for in a peer (ability to do the hands-on job of senior individual contributor is usually what they look for), and overlook the qualities that would make them a great leader: people skills, ability to lead a team in making a decision, planning, accountability, and collaboration with peers to solve complex company-wide problems. The post-interview meetings devolve into arguments about what you’re looking for, and you start questioning your sanity, especially if you haven’t hired for this role before. You feel like you’re totally wasting your time talking to the team that’s arguing about this, and you wonder if the drama will ever end…

The assumption that most drives people nuts about this one is that they dearly want it to be a collaborative process; they value getting the input & buy-in from those around them, and they can’t understand why the team won’t fall in line and help with the hire.

I can think of at least two paths to follow, both with pros and cons…

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Why values? because otherwise, it’s all about money

“Values are the foot you leave on the floor when you pivot.” – Eric Ries

This was Eric Ries’ response earlier this month, when I asked him if he had any thoughts about company values. I love the mental picture this creates; of a team with one foot planted so solidly in their values that they can use that as an anchor when making a decision about where to go next when they realize that customers don’t love their product, or when their business model isn’t working.

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The Happy Movie (and why startup folks should see it)

Director Roko Belic with Marcy and Dale

We don’t usually blog about movies, but wanted to recommend The Happy Movie (playing in San Francisco at the Roxie theater through the end of next week, free screening tomorrow night). We met Academy Award nominated director Roko Belic, who spent five years journeying around the world researching the question “what makes people happy?”

The movie looks in on people around the world (Calcutta, Okinawa, Lousiana, Bhutan, and more!), and demonstrates by example and through research that the people who are the happiest are not the people who are focused on external motivations (money, fame & social status), but rather internal motivations (relationships, community, helping others). The movie did an especially good job of highlighting how powerful it is to have a tight-knit family or group of friends.

It also points out that the happiest people are the highest functioning.  In other words, make sure you’re happy to make sure you’re performing at your best.

Startup founders who are able to continue putting value on intrinsic motivations (relationships, community, and helping others) are more able to weather the fickle storms of fame and fortune, and remain happy throughout the process, regardless of whether their company somedays files for an IPO, closes its doors, or anywhere in between.

The movie is worth seeing; hope you like it, and would love to hear your thoughts!

Happy – A Documentary Trailer from Wadi Rum Films on Vimeo.

Agile & Lean Self Development at Quantified Self Conference 2011

Today Dale Larson and I will be giving an Ignite! talk and workshop about Agile/Lean Self Development at the Quantified Self Conference.

The idea of Quantified Self is that you take ongoing measurements about things that you’re interested in knowing more about, and changing, like sleep, diet, exercise, and mood (aka self-tracking). Software developers are notoriously interested in improving and optimizing things (not just code!), and many QS’ers seem to have a background in computing.

I’ve spoken before (at SxSW 2011 with Dinah Sanders) about Agile Self Development. We’re excited about repurposing the vast, rich body of tools and methods called Agile Software Development, and using it to help people improve themselves. At SxSW, we had a lively chat with a few hundred attendees about how to get the most out of the conference. Out of that experience, Scott Pierce (who attended the talk), started an Agile Self Development group in Birmingham that hosts a daily standup, and has made tremendous progress in moving toward goals.

Recently we attended Eric Ries’ second Startup Lessons Learned Conference, which focuses on the concept of the Lean Startup. A Lean Startup is an organization that is optimized for creating the most validated customer learning in the shortest amount of time. It’s a new-ish concept, only a few years old, but it’s gathering steam quickly in the startup world. They use the mandate: “Build, Measure, Learn”. They start by assuming that you don’t know anything until you get out of the building and come into contact with real customers, and the most learning comes when you put product in their hands. Releasing an early beta in weeks is better than building a product in “stealth mode” for years before unleashing a well-polished, ready-to-scale flop.

We are hoping that the QS community will find the tools in Agile Software Development and Lean Startup communities to be useful in conducting experiments and creating change; we think that it’s a great place to borrow from. Some useful concepts from this body of knowledge are:

We are curious to hear if anyone is already using Agile or Lean Startup methodologies in their Quantified Self projects. Please find us at the conference, or send us a tweet! @marcyswenson @dalelarson

Postscript: looks like Thomas Christiansen is using Agile and QS on a project related to allergies; more info at <a href="MyMee.

6 Steps for using Agile Self Development

Agile Self-Development is a lightweight methodology for personal development that is a reaction against all-or-nothing goals and resolutions. It lets geeks repurpose Agile tools and methodologies with which they may already be familiar.

Dinah Sanders wrote a lovely Agile Self-Development Manifesto that really resonates with me:

  • Increasing individual flow using whatever works over adherence to a system
  • Quality of life over quantity of achievement
  • Simplicity over complexity
  • Responding to change over following a script

BSP: Dinah Sanders and I are hosting a core conversation about Agile Self Development at SXSW, on Saturday, March 12th, at 11am in room Rio Grande B at the Marriott Courtyard, 300 East 4th Street (half a block from the northwest door to the convention center).

When I start working with a new coaching client, they often arrive with a massive list of everything that they want to accomplish in their work and their life. Desires are limitless! This situation reminds me of a CEO who is hungry for every single feature in a software product to be implemented immediately. So how to begin? Here is what we do next:

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5 Tips for Maintaining Confidence on the Road to Funding

One of the most challenging hurdles for early entrepreneurs is raising money. To get funded, you need to do a lot of prep work: you need a great vision, savvy initial product development, thorough market understanding, thoughtful execution, a kick-ass team, and luck.

A critical part of fundraising is connecting with people; both the people who will help you along the road, and the people who will actually write a check.

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Behavioral Interviewing for Awesome Teams

One of the best ways I’ve found to create high-functioning teams is to interview well. (The other is to create a company & culture that great people voraciously want to join, so that when you find someone terrific, they say “yes.”)

There are four things I want to know about a candidate before I make them an offer: Continue reading

7 Principles of Startup Happiness (v 0.1)

We’re seeing a new type of entrepreneur starting companies lately; they are approaching their company culture with almost as much passion as the business idea itself, with the goal of creating the type of organization that they will be most happy being a part of.

Over the past several months, I’ve been working with my colleague and fellow business coach Dale Larson to try to describe this phenomenon. We’ve tested it out with a variety of entrepreneurs, VCs and journalists in meetings and at parties, and heard lots of yes. Here is our first formal presentation of these ideas.

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Zuckerberg on Making Mistakes

This week at the Web 2.0 Summit, Mark  Zuckerberg from Facebook talked about four values that he’s made a key part of his company’s DNA: move fast, be bold, take risks, and don’t worry about getting everything right.

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Simplify your To Do List (part 2)

Struggling with a 5-page To Do list? Wondering where to start? How to prioritize? The list often turns into a blur of competing priorities, and it’s overwhelming to look at it all at once. Here’s a trick: pick a theme for the week.

In my last post about To Do lists, I talked about how people get stuck looking at the same To Do items week after week, and how to fix that. This post focuses on how to make sense of the sheer volume of possible things to do as an entrepreneur.

Stacks of food, etc.
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