- Communication is now much more personal. We are talking to employees from our homes and in their homes and leaders must embrace that.
- We are all now “living our work” and that will have a profound impact on company survival and success.
- Embrace Aristotle: “forgive yourself, forgive others and seek understanding.” This underpins great communication. Aristotle again: “speak your truth with clarity.”
Setting the scene.
Communication is critical in startups, especially as an organisation grows. Ensuring everyone across the business is aligned with the company’s vision and values, the behaviors, what matters most, the path to success. The importance of communication is heightened in 2020 as we’ve all moved to an offline world and now an increasingly on-off world.
Renn Vara, Co-Founder of SNP Communications is one of the world’s leading experts and practitioners on communication in startups, working with Founders across the Notion Family and at many of the world’s iconic tech brands. Renn in particular, and SNP Communications as a whole, helps tech founders and brands find their voice, build teams, and create trust and clarity across fast-growing, globally-dispersed companies.
2020 has been a challenging year and one in which only the best founders excel.
This is one of those really interesting moments. This is a time when great founders really excel, they love moments like this. I think of Brian Chesky, CEO of Airbnb. When this all happened, Airbnb was about to go public. The perception from everyone around the world was, “it’s over, this is going to destroy Airbnb.” You’d think Brian would be depressed. He wasn’t, it was the opposite. He was elated. He was giddy at the opportunity to prove the world wrong. This response is fundamental to many founders; they love challenging moments.
The bottom line is that this is a creative moment for founders. And for many that’s a positive thing. The negative is they have to really pivot quickly and make changes they don’t want to make such as letting people go, which is the worst thing in the world for a founder to do. They don’t like that they’re going in the wrong direction when that happens!
But what I love about this moment is it appeals to the base instincts of why I love founders, they love challenging moments. And has there ever been a bigger one for us than this?
For the last five years I’ve been working in Europe and the response I’m finding with the vast majority of founders I work with is, “this will make us stronger.” It’s been really impressive to watch and they’ve said that at the very beginning. And as we go into the end of 2020 months, they’ve actually made it so and it’s been quite impressive.
So what’s different now, in terms of the communication challenge, versus pre-Covid?
The number one thing is to realise this: if you’re a founder or a senior person in any company, whether you like it or not, you have now become a full-time communicator.
Communication is everything right now; it’s not just one thing you do, it’s everything. And the founders that get that concept understand the need to engage with their teams constantly (not overdoing zoom because you can drive people friggin crazy) but realising they have to reach them on multiple levels.
What else is different is that this time it’s personal, it’s this idea that we’re “living our work.” Before I could leave my house, go to work and there was a separation, often signalled by the commute. It might crossover, but it wasn’t 100% overlapped. Now it’s 100%. So because of that you’ve got to really over-communicate, be phenomenally empathetic and you have to get personal. This is hard for some business people to understand. But you’ve got to get personal because people are living their work and it’s a very different way of thinking. So communication is everything.
Is there a winning formula?
One of the questions we get asked is: “who’s doing this well?”. The answer is nobody – people are getting parts of it right. But this thing is so new and so different, that we can’t get it right just yet, because we don’t quite know the scale of it. You know, when it first happened, I would tell many of the founders I talked to, “Look, something really weird is happening globally. And it’s going to have implications that we’re just not quite sure of yet”. We’ve asked the world to go home and ponder its navel. Go home and think about your life; go home and spend time with your kids, spouse, partner. All this means people are reassessing their lives and they’re actually going through a level of self analysis right now that is very odd. This has never happened on a global scale before.
So we don’t know the implications of this yet. We hear engineers saying, “I’m not going back to an office, I’m going to live anywhere I want to on the earth.” But what does that really mean? How do you build a business that way? Those of us who’ve been in business a long time know that most great work happens in the hallways, in the breakout room, or in those casual moments when we run to get a cup of coffee together. How do we run businesses without that? It’s a really interesting moment. So the short answer is that we don’t really know yet; we’re in the middle of it. What I encourage everybody to do is experiment and just try stuff to see what works. My gut tells me that we’re not going to find a real model that works just yet. But we’re going to find elements of a model that work. And then we’re going to have to be terribly creative on knowing what to flex and when. You’ve got to really embrace this idea now that communication is everything; understand that and then tinker. Because as of yet, there is no winning formula.
Forgive yourself, forgive others and seek understanding.
Embrace Aristotle in a very big way: forgive yourself, forgive others and seek understanding. This concept is so powerful. Walk the earth non-judgmentally, seeking understanding and listening like crazy. And really pay attention, because we don’t know what works.
What’s not to love about working with founders?!
The best founders are incredibly creative, think very differently from normal business people and are willing to break rules. They’re willing to say, “let’s try something else.” When somebody walks into a room and says, “This is the way to do it. This is what works and that won’t,” they will say, “Well, why not? Why wouldn’t that work, let’s try it.” There’s something really wonderful about that creativity.
Founders are a brilliant group of humans that look at the earth in a very different way than most of us.
What does it mean to help a founder find their voice?
You can’t do this overnight, it has to be authentic. The first thing is you’ve got to really help people clarify their values and find their best selves. You do that through conversation for example about how they grew up, about their parents, about their big moments. But we do that quite casually, so they don’t even know we’re doing it frankly.
The first thing is to help them see themselves, “just really, who are you really? Cut the bullshit, who are you really?”
The second thing is, I put them in context: let’s see them in the company, let’s see them in the world, let’s see how others respond to them. When does their best self show up? And when does their worst self show up? For some founders (particularly in the West Coast of the US back in the day) there was a big ‘bro’ culture. And so these young men just didn’t really realise how they were being perceived, their bravado, you know, “I’m going to change the world” and all that stuff. Sometimes people just don’t think of themselves in context, so we help them see themselves in context; what works, what doesn’t, when do you sound like a buffoon and when do you actually see that other people’s eyes light up, when they really do hear you?
And the third thing is, how to sculpt your language, or as Aristotle said, “speak your truth with clarity and passion.”
So if I can capture those three things, I can help a founder find their voice. If I can just get them to see themselves in context, to see the impact they make – good and bad – and then find that sculpted voice, I can get them there.
That sense of speaking your truth with clarity and passion and sculpting that content is very evocative. How does that translate into creating a business where every employee is aligned and engaged?
This idea of speaking your truth with clarity is very closely connected to organisational alignment.
Let me tell you what I do all day long: I rewrite leaders’ emails, I help founders with the stupid things they do in Slack, I talk to founders right before a tough conversation. And by actively working together on sculpting the conversation, they learn the art, because that’s what it is, an art. This is not just 10 steps and you get it, it’s a practiced art.
It’s like with me, I play the piano. How do you learn to play the piano? You play all the time, mostly badly. The same thing is true with the language. So if you understand that this is a practiced art, and you practice it all the time – which means you’re going to get it wrong a lot – then you will improve.
So then alignment comes from three things:
- You’ve got to really be clear on the goals and objectives of the company and ensure you and your senior team have clarity. And, by the way, you can’t overdo that clarity. You think you’re clear? You’re never as clear as you think you are. Simon Sinek’s idea of “The Why” gets to the heart of this. Why do we exist? Why is this important? Get that clear, play with that language until you can say it really easily in a simple 1,2,3.
- Become a politician and stay on message. Apply the 10 by 10 rule. The 10 by 10 rule means that every day, you’re going to say that “why,” 10 times in 10 different ways. So your mission all day long is to be Gorbachev doing perestroika, your job is you are going to just constantly talk about this mission and this vision, and you have to do it in 10 different ways.
- Build the structure of the company so that the message scales – the way you do that is by having your senior team know what their job is on scaling the message and then you make sure that the senior team gets it to their managers. Then you have this idea of cascading.
If you do those three things, you get clarity, you get the 10 by 10 rule, and you build the structure, meaning you will get alignment.
How do you translate that clarity into the structure of the business?
Let’s go back to Brian Chesky… At Airbnb we launched him on this thing called a listening tour where he would go from team to team and do these listening sessions, so that over a quarter he would have personally met with every single team. Now why did we do that? Because initially we had to firm it up, we had to make sure people saw him in-person and heard him talk about the why, the goals and the objectives. So the managers saw him in action and their job was to repeat, repeat, repeat.
You have to establish some form on how you establish this in the ranks. But then what you’re getting to is things like performance management OKRs. You roll it in there. Make sure managers are communicating clearly in one to ones and structure the one to ones, so you make sure you talk about the tactics and what needs to be done. Talk about their career, make sure that’s in there. And then make sure you spend some time with every employee on the why. What are we doing and why is it important? You structure that right into one on ones in the performance management. HR roles that into everything, they roll that out to the team so that in a quarter, you’ve touched everybody again, reminding them of why we’re doing what we’re doing, what our goals and objectives are, and how you fit into that mission. Even if you’re the one emptying out the trash cans you see yourself in mission and the great companies do this really well. So if you stop the janitor, they’d be able to say to you, “I love working for this company, because…” and they will tell you why. You want to get to that point.
Some people have responded well to working from home, some people haven’t. If people aren’t happy and they’re not well, nothing else really matters. How do you encourage founders to think about employee wellness?
Again you have to to get personal. Think about it… I’m a business person, I’m a professional, and I’m having a really horrible time at home, but I am just not going to tell my manager because we don’t have that kind of relationship. Things can get really bad, but I’m going to hide it as much as I possibly can, because I’m embarrassed. I think, “I’m a professional, I should be able to manage this.” Think about young couples that have their children in their house and the kids are right underneath their feet as they’re trying to run meetings and do what they’re supposed to do. Or worse a marriage is falling apart and they’re now locked down in a house together. These things are real and it’s happening. You just have you talk to psychologists – they’ll tell you that the most dangerous place on earth is a personal home.
If you look at it statistically, more damage is done to human beings inside of their own homes than anywhere else on Earth. So we’re here, all of a sudden, in quarantine with everybody else, in the most dangerous place on earth and stay there together 24 hours a day! What do you expect to happen?
So our jobs as leaders are becoming increasingly personal.
You’ve got to have personal conversations with them: How are you doing? How are the kids? Get to know their names! How are they doing in school? How are they coping with remote schoolwork? How’s the dog? You’ve got to get personal because you got to uncover where the pain is. And then as a leader, you have to respond to it.
I’m a real fan of surprising and delighting people at home, encouraging leaders to deliver little packages to their house. Think about their family, not just the employee. What could you surprise and delight the spouse with? What could you surprise and delight the children with? They’re seeing mom sitting in front of a screen all day long and they’re confused, they don’t know what they’re doing. Could you as a leader do something analogue that would bring joy to that house. Find ways of getting personal and helping them. That’s what we’re saying. People are now living their work, so understand what that really means. Their house now is ‘your’ office, so you have a responsibility. And that’s a hard thing for us to get our heads around. But we have to do it.
We all need to learn how to communicate remotely.
First of all, try not to communicate solely through video conferencing. Instead, make a phone call, jump on WhatsApp, walk around the garden and talk. Try to make it so you’re not just standing in front of a screen all day because that same fatigue you feel when you binge on a Netflix series will hit you. If when you binge you wonder why you have a horrible headache, it’s because there’s something about the screen that just wears you out. So try not to do it all day long. If you can, help to try to find ways of breaking away from it.
But if you are doing it, realise the impact on the other person. So when you’re talking, always look at the camera, not the screen, because then they perceive you’re looking them in the eyes. Get your screen up on top of books or some way of making it at eye level, so you’re not looking down your nose at them. Push the screen away so it’s not too close.
When you watch great television people it feels so personal. That’s a hard thing to do. Imagine that actor or presenter in a studio staring at a big camera, with a burly guy behind the camera. And yet, they’re looking directly at the lens, acting like it’s a real human and looking you right in the eye. It takes a lot of work. But all I want you to get your head around is, the impact on the other person is so profound, that if you don’t do it, you lose so much in the conversation. So do it for them. Your job is to serve the people that you work with. So serve them, look directly at the camera, even though it’s painful, even though it’s odd. Just keep working at it, because it’s the critical element of this video thing that we’re trying to get through.
Beware the tyranny of experience.
I often speak to founders about the importance of being cautious about the idea of confirmation bias, and the tyranny of experience.
And what I mean by that is that often, especially for guys my age, our experiences work against us, because that experience is something that happened 10 years ago. It was valid, then, but it may not be valid today. It’s a tyranny and it can really mess you up.
I’m constantly telling founders to look out for that tyranny and get rid of it. It doesn’t mean experience isn’t great. It’s great. It informs us. It’s information. But be very careful about over-relying on it because generally, that experience relates to a different time in place.
So I often say to people, when they try to solve a problem, “can we have a base rule?” And the base rule is this. “If it’s been done anywhere else, by definition, we don’t do it here.” So if you’re going to solve a personnel problem, a structural problem, a market problem, let’s first start on a basic principle. If somebody else has done it, especially a competitor then by definition, we are not going to consider it right now. This pushes the team to get very creative about other ways of doing things. Now, do you end up doing it like them? Of course sometimes you do. But let’s first get creative.
People need to understand this about founders; they learn from experience, they don’t learn preemptively. I coach a lot of senior people working with founders saying, “look she has got to walk this path and make her own mistakes. What I want you to do is let her walk through the mud puddle, but have her do it quickly.” So let founders make mistakes, but then help them get through that mistake. Often what happens with senior team members is they are too quick to judge. Maybe they’ve been in the industry for 20 years, so they judge, they come in and go, “Ah, you shouldn’t do it that way.” But I say, “Don’t do that. Listen to the founder, really understand where they’re coming from.” Because founders often have a unique view. Understand that unique view and fully consider it, do not discount it, don’t judge it. Don’t push it out of the way. Embrace it and assume there might be something amazing there. So go there first.
We’ve broken the paradigm of work and new ways of working will emerge in 2021 and 2022.
We’ve broken that paradigm, that model of everybody crowding on a train early morning, shuffling up stairs, and getting into big buildings, and that whole rhythmic thing. We have blown that thing up. And something tells me there’s something really exciting there. But this idea of remote work, or mixed remote, changing the office space, how we interact, you know, I think there’s something that we’re going to find in 2021 and 2022.
We’re going to find a new way of working, that I hope solves a lot of the problems that the old world created, the level of stress that people are under, the insanity of these hours that we worked showing up into a building, and then the hours we wasted going back and forth, and the bad diets and all the things that went with it.
So I think blowing up work opens up a huge opportunity. I don’t know what that is yet. But I see a lot of hope there.
People talk about life balance. I’ve never been a fan of it. I’ve never had life balance myself, because I love my work. But I think right now, this is forcing us to maybe get that right, because work is so intrusive on our personal lives now. We now have to force ourselves to develop a discipline about work and life that we didn’t have to do before because we could use commuting as the interlocker.
And now we don’t have that as we’re going to be working and living in our house. So now you have to build a discipline. So we might actually figure out life balance now, in a way where we actually live our life, we still see our friends, we do what we need to do and we work. So we’ll figure this out, and get ourselves back to being human beings again.
This often happens in nature, something that seems like it’s breaking everything, ends up creating something even better. I think we’re in that moment. So I’m actually really excited that something is going to emerge. Because human beings do that, we find that silver lining. And we will. And it’ll be really interesting to see how that emerges in 2021 or 22. Assuming we get through the current stupidity of our politics, the damage to our economies and the turmoil and heartbreak for so many people around the world. But we can’t do much about that except just do our work and enjoy our lives. But once we get through this crisis, I’m very excited about what breaking this system is going to do for us.