startup

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.

Rajon Rondo’s ACL: A Lesson for Startup Leaders

Rajon Rondo is a star NBA player on the Boston Celtics. A four time all-star point guard, he quarterbacks the offense, calling plays and controlling tempo. Rondo’s been having his best year this season. Only one problem: as a team they’ve been mediocre.

Rondo recently tore his ACL and will miss the remaining 39 games of the season. The media lamented Rondo’s injury, collectively asking “What will the Celtics do now??”

The answer: Rattle off seven straight wins.

Here’s what Celtics coach Doc Rivers said about their Rondo-less win streak: “I like our vibe. I like our spirit. We’re playing selfless and free.”

Fact is, Rondo’s teammates don’t seem to like playing with him. He’s been known to yell at teammates, sulk during games, and once smashed the team’s big screen TV with a bottle while they were watching game film.

The streak can’t be solely attributed to Rondo’s absence. Bench players stepped up, and a new offensive scheme was deployed. But there’s no doubt a weight has been lifted. Morale is suddenly flying high.

Like athletes, entrepreneurs can be smart, gifted tacticians who’ve had personal success, but it takes more than all-star cred to be an effective leader. Positivity and team building are crucial to creating a culture that’s upbeat, selfless, and operating at a consistently high level. All-star or not, if a leader can’t foster that, the results will often be mediocre. In the NBA mediocre means you may not make the playoffs. In the startup world, it means failure.

The Visitor with a Blank Slate

Imagine for a minute that you woke up one morning and realized you were transported to a parallel dimension. It looks the same as your previous life and your memories contain the same events, but they feel different. You start to figure out why.

Recalling the good times makes you grin as always. But you feel no emotional attachment to any of the bad times. No lingering frustrations, resentments, or disappointments. But that’s not all.

Your career. That boss you hated? The promotion you didn’t get? Your startup that crashed and burned in spectacular fashion? None of it drags you down anymore. Actually you feel like you’re being propelled onward and upward.

In this parallel dimension, you’re a blank slate. You aren’t afraid of failing or what other people think. Suddenly the ideas start flowing and all you can think about is which one you’re going to build your next company around.

Since you’re a visitor in this new life, you don’t know how long you’re gonna be around. A year? A month? A week? Better get this party started.

Now stop imagining. Wouldn’t it be great to live in that parallel dimension? See where this is going?

Anyone can be a visitor with a blank slate. You just have put in the work to learn from negative experiences without being constrained by them. And we’re all visitors of course. Tomorrow could be our last day. No time to waste.

Onward and upward!