As founders, it's up to us to decide what we focus on. This is sometimes a problem - because we all have biases. We focus on things that are exciting and fun to work on and put off the least enjoyable tasks until later.
I'm certainly guilty of this. In my last venture, I waited too long to fire the employee that didn't fit, to fire the off-shore development agency that wasn't delivering, and famously, to market my product before it was too late.
They were important issues that got worse over time. They were complicated and resolving them would impact the entire company. Customers, ship-dates and the team's morale all lay on the line. And a wrong move could lead to disaster in the short term. So I waited.
These issues weren't urgent - at least, at first. No-one was screaming "fix this now!" like they were for a hundred other demands in my inbox. I learned that it's easy to focus on the urgent and put off the important. And when important things become urgent, they can turn into crises.
Where was my accountability?
As CEO, I answered to the board of directors and shareholders. Every month or so, I reported on the month-to-month strategic performance of the business. But there was no time to get stuck into weekly operations. Besides, no-one on the board had much operational experience - at least, not in a tech startup.
I'd regularly receive great advice from my personal network of mentors. But very few made a point to follow-up and call me out. And was it even their place to do that?
I realized that, for the most part, the only person holding me accountable for my weekly performance was me. There was no-one pushing me to go deeper on important issues, stressing testing my plans of action, and calling me out when I missed a personal deadline. And occasionally, just occasionally, personal accountability was not enough.
Swept under the startup rug
I've worked with many founders that, like me, avoided going deep on important issues until they reached crisis point. They knew these issues existed... but they came up with reasons why it was best to wait until later. Things like:
Having less than 6 months of runway
- Building on top of an unscalable architecture
- Keeping the wrong people on the team
- Pursuing invalid revenue assumptions
- Moving against technology trends
- Extremely low user retention
- Co-founder conflict
- Unsustainable working hours
Issues like these are often too scary to bring up with the board and too complex to cover in a one-hour mentor session with someone that barely knows the context. Sometimes, they're even too painful to admit to ourselves. We've all met a founder in denial, haven't we?
Speaking with founders that lost their startups or careers as a result of not addressing issues like this sooner, their words of regret are the same: "I wish I'd acted sooner".
The strongest performing founders don't rely solely on their notebook and personal willpower to keep themselves accountable. They set up systems of accountability that guarantee that they clarify important issues early, plan effectively and act quickly.
Building a system of accountability
To move faster, we need to reduce the time between recognizing important issues and addressing them. I call this 'limbo time'. Reducing limbo time has a direct impact on your speed of execution and your time-to-revenue.
A system to cut out limbo has three components: (i) clarification, (ii) proactive planning and (iii) follow-up.
- Clarification. To clarify important issues, it's helpful to talk them through with someone that can ask good questions that help you assess the issues from different angles. We all have blind spots in and having someone play back your words is a great way to recognize faulty internal logic. It's strange how hearing your words back through someone else's mouths make them sound different.
- Proactive planning. When solutions are too big to implement in a day, they need to be broken down into manageable chunks. As a rule of thumb, I suggest that you look for one or two actions you can take to start addressing important problems by this coming Friday and prioritize these over urgent but not important tasks.
- Follow-up. Your to-do list isn't always strong enough to hold you to your word, especially when there are 28 other urgent items in it. Ask a co-founder or mentor to hold you accountable if you miss your deadline. Find a way to guarantee that you'll follow-through.
Consider hiring a CEO coach
Being a founder CEO is an incredibly hard job, even with the support of co-founders, mentors and advisors. Increasingly, CEOs of funded startups are hiring coaches for extra support. Just as top athletes need a coach to keep them aware of the bigger picture in the context of each win or loss, top CEOs are no different.
A good coach asks questions and plays your answers back to you to help you recognize and clarify important issues in your business. They pass on practical advice and personal experiences to help map out the plan forward. And the best coaches follow-up on difficult action items to ensure you follow-through on the hardest parts of the job.
Are there important issues that should you be dealing with, but aren't? Are your systems of accountability robust enough to act on important issues before they become crises? Act now - before it's too late!
Note: I coach CEOs of funded startups to help them execute more effectively. Get in touch to find out if CEO coaching is a fit for your startup.