How Do Great CEOs Handle Setbacks?

One of my favorite quotes is “Life is 10% what happens to you and 90% how you react to it.” (It’s a paraphrase of a Charles Swindoll quote.)

Think about that. Feels empowering, right?

I know and work with a quite a few CEOs. It always strikes me how the great ones react to difficult situations. I’m talking about really stressful stuff like repeated rejection from investors, missing payroll, cofounders leaving, or major pivots.

I’ve blogged before about founders being mentally prepared for anything because shit will happen, guaranteed. But how do great CEOs react when things actually go south? Here’s what I’ve learned from them:

Do:

– Analyze it. What just happened? What caused it to go bad? How can it go better next time? Don’t be a slave to your emotions. Make a list. This is your business, so be businesslike about it. Only then can you …

– Learn from it. Avoid the vicious cycle of the same issues happening over and over. And use that knowledge to salvage the situation/relationship if at all possible.

– Be accountable. What could you personally have done to get the results you wanted? Sometimes there’s not much else you can do, but you’d be surprised how often the answer is “Yeah, I guess I could’ve done ‘x’.” CEOs who aren’t accountable will fail. It’s that simple.

– Be honest and fair. Everyone gets their ass kicked. Keep your integrity no matter what.

– Stay in tune with your passion! Never forget why you started your business and why you’re on a mission. If you’re not passionate about it nobody else will be.

Don’t:

– Blame others. Maybe this happens because people are scared of being wrong and looking like a screwup. Good news: Everyone is wrong and screws up on a regular basis ‘cause we’re all human! Give yourself a break and accept that you’ll make plenty of mistakes.

– Get discouraged. Crappy stuff will happen. Getting discouraged is contagious and if you make a habit of it your team’s morale will sink.

– Get angry. Anger is sometimes a defense mechanism because it’s easier to feel angry than disappointed in yourself. But it’s counterproductive to your mission and robs you of creative, positive energy. If you feel your blood boiling take a break, a walk, meditate, anything to cool down and regain your perspective.

– Panic. I’ve seen CEOs completely change their strategy after a lost deal or one bad meeting with someone they respect. Stay confident in your mission! If you stay cool and focused, so will your team.

– Burn bridges. Get used to rejection – it’s part of startup life. Even if someone says no, maintain the relationship and don’t write anyone off. You’ll gain respect as a leader by being professional when you don’t get what you want. Also it can be great for your business: sometimes today’s “no” becomes tomorrow’s “yes”.

Startups are freakin’ hard and as CEO you’ll be challenged more than you thought possible. But you control much more than you think. 90% of life is how you react. Your move.

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