Leading #Startups Through Crisis

How #Startup CEOs Can Keep Moving During The Unthinkable

Is there ever a time during a #startup CEOs tenure where you aren’t in crisis? I know it never FEELS that way. There’s always an overwhelming amount of things weighing heavily on your shoulders. The needs of your investors, your employees, your customers, your significant others and your family. The weight is always heavy and even though good things will happen, it still usually feels like you’re living your life in crisis mode. And that’s during the good times.

But what happens when things get real bad? Things that you didn’t predict? Things that are truly unpredictable? How do you need to adjust as a leader to get through that kind of environment?

There are some excellent management constructs to reference for this kind of environment— but all of those things are irrelevant if you can’t function as a human first. If, under all the pressure, fear and shock, you can’t find a way to get up, put your feet on the floor and move forward every day, all the process and management theory you can find is useless (even more so than most of it usually is). So that becomes the priority. Moving forward.

In his book, “Deep Survival”, Laurence Gonzales talks about the survival techniques used by people in life threatening situations. He highlights how sometimes, skillful, accomplished and capable people can get themselves deeper and deeper into trouble because they deny that they are in crisis, and scared, and, as a result, rely on the same constructs they use when not in a crisis. They don’t shift perspective. They don’t listen to their inner fear even though they hear it loud and clear. Not making the mental shift into ‘everything isn’t alright’ often leads to death.

Survivors listen to their inner fear. They understand what it’s telling them:

“Holy shit, this isn’t normal. You are in danger. Maybe really, really serious danger. If you don’t get through this, you could be well and truly fucked”

Survivors don’t ignore this voice. But most importantly, they also don’t let it paralyze them or force them into decisions and actions that threaten their existence through irrationality. They set it aside and make decisions about how to move forward based on the new reality.

True leadership isn’t the absence of fear. It’s not even portraying the absence of fear. It’s about acknowledging that the fear is real. The situation creating the fear is real. But at the same time, not letting that fear stop us from doing what’s right for right now. The constant question that a good leader or CEO should be asking herself in this situation is, “How do we survive this crisis and live to fight another day? What are the right steps for right now? What does my team need from me right now? Not for tomorrow — but right now? What do I have to do to make those things happen”

One of the best real-world illustrations I’ve seen of this struggle, as well as the mental shift needed to move forward comes from a book by Gabrielle Hamilton called “Blood, Bones & Butter.” In it, she describes a situation where, as the Chef and owner of an up and coming NYC restaurant, mother of a toddler and nine months pregnant, she finds out two of her chefs are leaving right before a large service. Admittedly, this isn’t a global pandemic, but it is without doubt, one of those unplanned-for moments in a leaders life where she needs to lead a team in a time of unexpected crisis (any errors are my own):

“I grabbed a black Sharpie and wrote myself a To-Do list for all of it. In twenty years of chronic, compulsive list making I had authored some that have been downright Beckettian in their sequencing, and it is exactly the anomaly in that sequencing — the non-sequitur — that makes some off those To-Do lists earn a spot in your box of keepsakes…But this one, written in a calm and steady hand, surpassed and out-surrealed all other To-Do lists in my life thus far lived.

  • Get w/AT and limit menu
  • Train CR in a 2-man line
  • Call Roode for a fill in?
  • Have baby
  • Tell brunch crew vinaigrette too acidic
  • Pick up white platters
  • Change filters in hood
  • Figure out pomegranate syrup

And I did, in fact, do all of that, and the syrup got figured out and the platters got picked up and the hood filters got changed and the baby was born and the ship sailed, with a diminished crew and a severely handicapped captain. But most urgently, besides listing what to do and when to do it, alone in that office with the door closed, I sat trying to figure out how to leave my office and re-enter a room full of keenly watching cooks, and get back to my cutting board and family meal, without appearing devastated or even dented. The staff does not want to see you fall apart. It unnerves them. You can let it go in the privacy of your own office, you can weep in the walk-in, but at the bench, you must pick up your knife and finish boning out those chickens.”

So it’s OK to feel scared and it’s even OK to have a mini-breakdown. But what isn’t OK is to let it stop you from functioning. The fear and anxiety are real. They won’t leave you until you find a path to move forward. And the fear and the anxiety of your team is real, and they won’t be able to shake it either until you give them a path forward. So when you leave the walk-in after sobbing and feeling sorry for yourself, let that all go for now, step up and lead your team. Renew their purpose. Give them direction. Show them that the service will still happen. It might not be perfect right now, but it will still happen. And then go finish boning out those chickens.

I know there’s a lot more that can be said here. I’m happy to go deeper in the comments, so please ask.

Be a #BadAssCEO

This post is part of the “#BadAssCEO” series. I work with CEOs struggling with the immense and often overwhelming decisions inherent in running and growing a business. To hear more as they are published, or contact me about speaking, follow me here, on Twitter (@Dgmandell), or reach out directly at VentureVoodoo Partners.

Founder, VentureVoodoo, Co-Founder, Massive. Partner, The Fund, Rockies. If you walk properly, you can move the earth. @dgmandell