Do me a favor: Google "top factors for startup success" and skim the top five articles. I'll wait.
Did you see a pattern emerge? You probably noticed what I did: Leadership, talent, capital, strategy, timing, and ingenuity are frequently in attendance, often repeated several times over. It would seem that the business set has homed in on these as the cornerstones of entrepreneurial success -- and with good reason. Studies show these to be key.
But there's also something conspicuously absent: TLC (or, as many of us know it, workplace compassion). Many writers have tackled this subject, but most do it either by speaking in vague generalities or giving business leaders a formula they can slide into their business plan. Neither one works very well because, quite frankly, compassion looks different for different people -- and yet it is something that needs concrete application.
So let me take a different tack. Let me illustrate my version of TLC -- which I break down as "Thoughtfulness, Listening, and Consideration"-- by telling a simple story.
Several years back, I worked for a startup that was enjoying explosive growth. As you no doubt already know, startup growth is always a double-edged sword; for many of us, it meant ditching our job descriptions and doing whatever needed to be done to keep things afloat.
The most harried of our number was my immediate boss -- an energetic go-getter who nonetheless stumbled daily due to exhaustion; unending strings of workplace fires needing to be put out; and urgent, whiny requests from all corners of the company.
He handled it all with confidence, breaking through the fatigue and angst to answer questions, solve problems, and fill in regularly-appearing voids. While, just occasionally, he would quiver or quake from the stress, he was very good about removing himself from a troubling situation for a few moments to work through momentary panic or frustration, returning to it calm, cool, and collected.
That wasn't the most impressive thing about him, though. This was:
Every week, I met with him to discuss my laundry list of to-dos as I tried to make sense of ever-shifting priorities. He had precious little time for me, to be quite honest; there was always something else competing for his attention -- often something that was more important.
Nonetheless, he attended our meetings religiously. And while I was always prepared to dive in and make the most of our meager 30 minutes, he would always begin with what, at first, seemed like time-wasting chit-chat:
"How are things going with the fam? You said your mom recently had surgery, right? How did that go?"
"Thanks again for those doughnuts yesterday. Did you really make those yourself? I've always wanted to take up baking, but you know, it's hard to get motivated when you can just buy what you want. Still, if you have that recipe..."
"Did I hear you talking to Sarah about the lineup for the music festival this summer? Any recs? I'm thinking of taking my brother."
You get the idea. It did seem, in the early days, like forced banter, but as time went on, I could see he was genuinely interested. And clearly, he was paying attention to what was going on in my life. Surgeries, moves, vacations. He cared enough to ask about them.
As you might expect, this made completing our meeting in a tight 30 minutes next to impossible. And we seldom did, to be honest. While his multiple phones rang off the hook and his computer pinged him incessantly with messages and emails, he ignored them (often taking a moment to silence them) so we could finish working our way through my needs and notes.
At the end, he always closed with some variation of a smile and a kudos: "Thanks for the great work -- looking forward to catching up next week. Let me know if you need anything, okay? My door is always open."
It took a while for me to appreciate all of the little things my boss did to make me feel appreciated, cared for, and supported, But over time, the realization hit. And not only did I feel an increased sense of loyalty to him, but I felt a willingness to sacrifice my time to complete work that was overwhelming him; I regularly made a point to offer support and, a few times, he took me up on it. It felt good -- like I was part of something bigger than myself.
Compassion in the workplace -- or TLC, as I like to call it -- is not as sticky a proposition as it may seem. It doesn't make you seem weak. It reaffirms that you know what's most important about any business anywhere: the people. And when the people are cared for, listened to, and supported, then the business thrives.
Here's an added bonus: Years later, when I had the chance to catch up with my former boss, one of the first things he said was how much he missed our weekly chats. They made the madness worthwhile, he quipped.
I couldn't agree more.