Entrepreneurs (You) Are a Mixed Bag: Show Your Empathy
Have you ever imagined what it’s like to work for or with you? Whether it’s employees, business partners, customers, or vendors, have you thought twice about the effects of the day-to-day interactions they have with you and how they perceive your actions and behaviors?
Does this sound like you?
-Changing course on a new strategy and showing paranoia because a key employee left to take a job with a competitor.
-Deciding to start or stop spending money based on cash flows.
-Working late into the night due to an acquisition opportunity you can’t talk about.
-Distancing yourself from everyone because something in your personal life has become a distraction.
Entrepreneurs are a mixed bag (from your perspective).
One of the hardest lessons I’ve had to learn over the years is how different I am from the many people who have been my direct reports or my own managers. Like most entrepreneurs, I’m comfortable with uncertainty, ambiguity, chaos, and change. Most people aren’t. It helps explain why there are few entrepreneurs and far more employees.
Like most entrepreneurial types, I can make some decisions impulsively and be perceived as too quick to pull the trigger. With other decisions, I will change my mind as new circumstances arise, being perceived as both flip-flopping and taking forever.
When I find myself in "flow" and someone asks for my attention, I can be perceived as inattentive and perhaps dismissive. Yet when I’m in a one-on-one meeting, I tend to be a very focused and attentive listener.
So acknowledge your idiosyncrasies and admit you're difficult.
If you know that empathy is the single most important competency for effective leadership, then acknowledging your entrepreneurial idiosyncrasies--and the effects they can have on others--can go a long way to building better relationships and a stronger company culture.
As entrepreneurs, we are in control. We literally own the place. We do what we believe is best for the company. But in our efforts to pursue dreams, ensure survival, close deals, grow companies, and overcome challenges, it’s easy to forget how difficult we may appear to others. We can be seen as naïve and inexperienced, with unreasonable expectations, and unfocused.
And as you start to build things, it's easy to get distracted by "shiny new object" syndrome. It's not atypical, when you encounter new business opportunities, to redirect your resources, which means you may put other projects on hold or take your eye off the core business. This leads to the perception (sometimes true) that you're unfocused, all over the place, and spreading yourself too thin.
It's also true that others expect you to know everything. You know you don’t, especially if it’s the first time you’re building a company. As a result, entrepreneurs often navigate waters or make decisions with ambiguity and uncertainty, and rely on speculation, instinct, and perhaps external advice. Sure, it’s a sign of humility to be able to say "I don’t know," but after you say that a few times, people sometimes perceive you as clueless, inexperienced, or in over your head.
It thrills you to put in extra hours. Others, not so much.
Your passion and commitment can be problematic, if not for you. Your business is your own, so naturally you have no trouble constantly and making sacrifices. It's you, after all, who has a lot on the line.
You're looking to build something great and generate strong financial returns. You're the one who's comfortable getting in early and leaving late, sending emails on holidays and vacations, or coming in on weekends.
And naturally you want people who are as committed and as passionate as you are, right? You want them to meet the same expectations you have of yourself. Then you're left wondering why they don’t. Work is always "on" for an entrepreneur. It’s important to remember that it’s not always "on" for your team members.
Be candid about your flaws, quirks, and experiments.
From my experience, acknowledging these idiosyncrasies and vulnerabilities help in building more authentic relationships and a stronger culture. I may poke fun at myself, give colleagues fair warning of quirky behaviors, or otherwise chalk up things to being an experiment.
I’ve found that being candid with others and bringing these matters into the open itself is a demonstration of leadership. It also helps others feel comfortable doing the same.
Use these strategies to see how people perceive you.
It's not always easy to know which of your behaviors tend to raise eyebrows among the people you work with. In those cases, you have to figure out how you'd perceived.
There are different ways to do this. Some leaders do 360-degree reviews of themselves and get feedback from their entire company of not only their performance but also of their leadership style and management practices.
Others hire a consultant to do a workplace review that involves interviews with customers, employees, investors, and suppliers.
A third approach is the anonymous "comment box," which provides a more spontaneous, informal way for people to share their thoughts.
What's the goal?
The goal with any of these strategies is two-fold: to become aware of how others perceive you and to use that awareness to help mold your future behaviors. But it has to start with empathy--the ability to recognize the thoughts, emotions, and feelings others have as a result of your behavior.
So you can't just test others and get results. You can you go ahead and be yourself--authentic, quirky, determined, unpredictable, or indecisive--but you must also show others that you understand the impact you may have on them.
Occasionally, you can thank people, too. My thanks goes to Amy Bretz, a former employee who not only inspired this column but who had to deal (I don't know how she coped) with my idiosyncrasies for three years.
Raman Chadha founded The Junto Institute, a progressive school that develops leadership capabilities, emotional intelligence, and management skills for founders of growth companies. He's also a Clinical Professor of Entrepreneurship at DePaul University, a frequent speaker and blogger, startup advisor, and graduate of Northwestern's Kellogg School of Management and the University of Illinois.