If you’ve ever worked at a startup, you know how chaotic it can get. New issues, new opportunities, and new ideas come out of nowhere. Like a roller coaster, it’s fast and it gets the adrenaline pumping.
But eventually, the feelings change. What used to feel fast begins to feel painfully slow. New opportunities begin to feel like distractions. And no matter how fast the roller coaster goes, you seem to end up right back where you started.
When there’s so much going on, your team can start to move in different directions — and a team that pulls in all directions goes nowhere.
Aligning the Team
As a founder, I went to great lengths to keep the team on the same page. I held regular meetings, where I presented the latest objectives. Every week, we reviewed the most important metrics and shared updates.
Yet senior employees still told me they felt lost, and needed more direction. I noticed a growing sense of confusion about where we were going. Information that I’d presented just a week or two previously had quickly become a foggy memory.
I realised that the problem of aligning the team isn’t just about setting clear objectives. It’s also about overcoming people’s natural tendency to forget them in the chaos of a startup.
Repetition and Reinforcement
It’s easy to assume that once the mission has been communicated, the leader’s job is done. But keeping the team aligned means repeating what’s important on a daily basis. A powerful tool to achieve this is the mantra.
A mantra is a short, memorable phrase — maybe only three or four words — that you repeat over and over. Mantras are powerful because they simplify complex ideas in a very concise way. The simpler and more concrete the mantra, the more likely it is to stick.
Here are three concepts that CEOs need to repeat constantly: the Mission, the Focus, and the Core Principles.
1) Mission: What Are We Trying to Achieve for Our Customers?
As a founder, you need to connect today’s actions with your inspiring mission. Guy Kawasaki of Garage Ventures points out that traditional mission statements in big companies are too long and impossible to remember. A three or four-word mantra, that gets to the core of how you’ll help your customers succeed, is far more effective.
- Help ___[target customer] to ___[user activity]
- Make ___[user activity] 10X better
- Radically simplify ___[user activity]
2) Focus: What Are We Saying Yes (and No) to Right Now?
As a mentor once told me, ‘The main thing is to keep the Main Thing the main thing.’In other words, focus isn’t just about saying, ‘Yes’ to what’s important, but also saying, ‘No’ to what isn’t important right now. Holding the focus is one of the hardest jobs of the CEO and it takes a considerable amount of discipline and willpower.
To define the focus, you need to figure out what’s important. It might be targeting a particular niche, focusing on a particular metric, or learning from early customers. When you figure out the focus, you can express it with a mantra like:
- If it’s not ___[the focus], it needs to wait.
- Remember, our focus right now is ___[the focus]
- Focus on ___[the focus]
3) Core Principles: How Will We Make Decisions?
As founder, it’s tempting to make all the important decisions yourself. But as your company grows, this becomes impossible. Instead, you need to figure out why you make certain decisions. What are the underlying principles?
Sharing these core principles helps your team make better decisions on their own. Google outlines their core principles in their ‘Philosophy’; Uber call their core principles ‘Cultural Norms’ (which they recently updated following the scandals of 2017). And I recently shared my ‘Principles of Early-Stage Product Development’.
Whatever you decide to call your core principles, defining them helps align your team’s decisions.
Turning Mantras into Meaning
Great leaders go one step beyond creating mantras — they connect mantras to meaning. Jack Welch, the legendary former CEO of GE, insists that the primary role of a leader is to be the ‘Chief Meaning Officer’ giving meaning to every person on their team.
‘And here’s specifically what this means for you . . .’
What Are Your Mantras?
In a world of uncertainty, people need something consistent to come back to. Use mantras to incorporate your Mission, Focus and Core Principles into the day-to-day language that you use in the company. Call them out and draw attention to them every opportunity you get.
It’s important to acknowledge the understated role that repetition plays in leadership. In the words of Muhammed Ali: ‘It’s the repetition of affirmations that leads to belief. And once that belief becomes a deep conviction, things begin to happen.’