SXSW Interactive is always a fire hose of great conversations, interesting encounters and words of wisdom. This year there were several great sessions for women in business. Here are just some of my favorite take-aways.
‘If you get the no, ask what does yes look like’ – Virginia Miracle, Chief Customer Officer at Spreadfast
One of the best things about starting my professional life as an actor is that you are used to hearing no. No is the norm for an actor, so there is no fear, nothing personal. No only means not now. This is something every woman should get comfortable hearing. No is only another obstacle not a dead end. This quote is a great way to walk yourself around the obstacle so can get what you want.
‘Marry well’ Sara Clemens – Chief Strategy Officer, Pandora
This is not sexist, so sit down folks. This just means that she found a partner for her life that enriched and supported her work life. It’s ok to admit you need help, so ask for it. Seek it out. No one can build anything alone. Everyone needs a support system that allows for travel, late nights and stressful days. Make sure you have that support. Don’t feel guilty and let someone you love help you carry the load.
“Don’t wait until you have all the data points to have a conversation – just go.” Karen Griffith Gryga – Managing Partner, Dream It Ventures
Women overthink a great deal and feel the need to over prepare before making a move. Whether that move is a new hire, a conversation with an investor, asking for a raise or applying for the dream job, we get in our own way. It is important that you do your homework and prepare, then trust you know enough and go for it. No one ever knows enough or is prepared enough to be a mom. By the same token, you will never satisfy yourself that you’re fully prepared for the next step. So just take it, you will surprise yourself that you knew more than you realized.
‘F*#k it’ Kara Swisher – Co-Founder/Co-CEO Re/Code
At some point you just have to let go and say ‘f*#k’. Letting go of judgement from others, doubts or obstacles from the past is essential at some point to get ahead. No one wants to follow someone who’s wishy-washy. I’m not saying always do exactly what you want and don’t listen to anyone – although once you’re at the top, you will probably know more about your business than anyone else. This is about bravado and taking the bull by the horns. So when that terrible day arrives or someone says no or is standing in your way – say f*#k it and keep moving.
I am just recovering from 5 long days at SXSW. As ever it is a hectic and overwhelming array of sessions, workshops, parties and chance encounters. The last of these is always the most interesting and rewarding.
SX is always so interesting for me to occasionally sit back and listen. Every event and line at Starbucks is an opportunity for me to eavesdrop on a pitch. Everyone goes to SXSW to do business, find clients or get funding, so everyone should have their pitch at the ready – sadly most do not.
I was standing in line at Starbucks the first day and overheard the conversation of the two guys in front of me. One had already mentioned to me that he was in town with a Venture Capital group. He was speaking on a panel later in the week. (This was a long line, so there was time for several conversations). After we finished our chit chat the young guy in front engaged him in a conversation.
This young guy is the co-founder of a start-up looking of venture funding. His nerves and excitement got the better of him and he began a long and rambling explanation of the birth of his company, why they had to pivot and the crazy search for a new CTO. In his mind, he was laying the ground work to show the VC why they’re smart and how hard they work. But then suddenly, he was at the front of the line. His time was up and he failed to do the ONE thing you MUST do with your pitch –
PIQUE SOMEONE’S INTEREST SO THEY WILL GIVE YOU MORE TIME.
No pitch can or should, say it all. The point of a pitch is to give the listener a clear idea of who you are and why it would be valuable to know you. This guy missed the boat. He had a captive audience and he failed to engage or interest him in anything.
I don’t know if they guy had a ‘formal’ pitch prepared for meetings and presentations. What I do know is that he was not prepared for the informal pitch. These are often the most successful when done well. So what could he have done differently? Here are a few thoughts.
1. Introduce himself, his title and the tagline for his business. – Keeping it short in a situation where time is limited is key. This is enough to give someone context of both you and your business.
2. Briefly layout his vision for his company. People care about where you’re going not where you’ve been.
3. Ask the investor what brought him to SXSW – Everyone likes to talk about themselves, so let them. This can also give you an idea of where you may have common ground or additional topics for conversation.
4. Ask the investor about the types of companies in his portfolio – You don’t want to drill down into the details of your SAAS based sales platform if he only funds health tech companies.
5. Shut up and listen – Need I say more
6. If the investor liked the space – give a good reason (market opportunity, traction, client base) to meet again and hand over a business card. By showing him the company was ready for funding and then stepping back, the investor doesn’t feel pressured and can set up a meeting when he has time.
7. Follow up – even if he didn’t get a meeting with the investor, he could follow him and his company to keep track of their interests. If the time is ever right and another opportunity comes around he won’t be remembered as the guy who rambled in the line at Starbucks.
First time founders often find the process of Investor Relations and Board Communication difficult to master. Often entrepreneurs have spent the first few months or years of their business surrounded by mentors who freely offer advice and are often proactive about staying in touch. But once you have larger investors and formal a board of directors, it is your job to ensure you set up best practices for communicating with them.
When you get a new investor or a new board member, it is important that you let them know how and how often they will hear from you. Your members will have varying degrees of activity and involvement and you want to ensure they are clear on what they can expect from you. It will also give them an opportunity to let you know what they need. That way the lines of communication will be open and clear.
The meeting before the meeting
Your board meeting should simply be a formality you will need to go through quarterly. If you have had a conversation with every director before your board meeting, you will know well in advance any issues, objections or concerns your board may have. You can then take the time to think through the issues and have a solution or clear response prepared well before you meet.
Quick – Call them
If there is bad news, even if it’s only a little bad or you are confident it will be fixed by the next board meeting – let each member know quickly. Otherwise, you may find that you lose the confidence of the board/investor. Don’t email either – pick up the phone and call. A personal conversation will give you the opportunity to gauge their reaction them the opportunity to hear your confidence leaving them feeling reassured that you have a plan.
Stick to your vision
There may be one or two highly active, i.e. verbal, members of the board who have strong ideas of what to do and how. And board members will not always agree with you. That is why it is important that you are always clear and firm about your vision. If you can clearly articulate it to your directors and investors, it is much easier to persuade them that yours is the best course. Then, they will remain confident that you are the right leader for your business.
The saying goes if you can’t say anything nice, don’t say anything at all. That’s not usually a good idea. The problem is that in our silence, we communicate a great deal. People will often fill the silence with their own ideas of what we might say and that can disrupt projects, cause tension on a team or even cause a company to lose a client.
The current situation with Hillary Clinton is a perfect example. Regardless of whether or not she should have used a personal email address or if there is even anything relevant in any of those email, her lack or response to the issue, is now the story. Her silence is deafening. People who are not fans of hers are happy to jump in and fill the silence with their own thoughts and speculation.
I wouldn’t claim to know what she should say. I am sure she has a team crafting a message as I write this. However, her lack of communication has already created a larger problem that she now how has to manage.
Professionals at all levels and in all industries will find themselves in a situation they would either prefer to avoid or they don’t think warrants a response. It may be an unhappy team member or an angry client, a board member who doesn’t agree with you or a frustrating vendor. Whatever the situation your project, your business and your team cannot afford your silence.
So next time you what to avoid a conversation or don’t know what to say, don’t remain silent.
- Acknowledge there is an issue or that a conversation needs to take place
- Ask for some time
- Craft a message and communicate it clearly
I know you won’t want to do this. I never do either, but I promise in the end you will be grateful for the results.
Let me know how someone else’s silence communicated the wrong thing to you.
I’ve been thinking over the past couple of weeks about Brian Williams and his recent fall from grace. Many are shocked and disappointed. I can only see a glaring example of why authenticity and consistency are key to credibility.
Credibility is the third leg of the communication stool along with Connection and Clarity. A great message and great rapport mean nothing if the audience does not trust you. Brian Williams has spent over a decade in the anchor chair build trust with his audience, but he lost sight of the first rule of communication – it’s not about you. He began to make the stories about him. He found ways to put himself in the heart of the story or make his point of view more important, this lead to embellishment. Consistency of his story went out the window and with it went any sense of trust we had. His authenticity which had made time an ‘anchor’ both literally and figuratively was in question. What’s the truth? Has he lied before? Was he even who we thought he was?
If you want to build credibility and influence remember to be authentic. Don’t try to be someone else, more important, more connected, more capable. If it’s not authentic, people will sense that something is not right. Eventually, consistency will fail. People will see a side of you that doesn’t fit with the image you want to project and then any good will you have built will go the way of Brian Williams.
Great leaders don’t embellish. They are rooted in the truth of their story, their business and themselves.
How is that possible? If you had the choice this instant of going up on stage and spending one minute telling everyone about yourself or having a fatal coronary – what would you choose? I thought so.
So now that you know public speaking can’t be that bad, take a deep breath. Chances are you have been doing a version of public speaking all day… all week. I believe anything you don’t do in front of your mirror (your worst audience) or your dog (your best audience) is public speaking.
So let’s talk about all of the other times. Whether it is a keynote at an industry conference or a sales pitch or an interview for you dream job there are some simple rules to follow that will help you for when preparing.
1. Prepare: Don’t hope you will know what to say in the moment. Plan your main messages in advance. Write them out. Say them out loud. Edit and re-word as necessary.
2. Focus on what you would want your audience to know. We often walk into these situations thinking about what we want to say. We forget that the audience may not want or need to hear it all. When you are planning your messages, make sure they are relevant and meaningful to your audience.
3. Anxiety is just in your head. Nervous energy is like excited energy. Your heart rate goes up, our breathing is shortened, you don’t think straight. The only difference is with nervous energy your thinking is negative and can focus on what can go wrong. ‘I hope I remember my speech.’ ‘I hope I don’t lose the sale’. I hope I get the job.’ With excited energy your thinking is positive. ‘I can’t wait to tell the team about the new plan.’ ‘I know I will meet one meaningful contact at this event.’ ‘This is going to be great first date.’ Nerves can be good they give your speech and presence some much needed energy. Just make sure you keep it positive. Then you can focus on giving your audience great content instead of worrying about what can go wrong.
4. Be bold. Don’t shy away from opportunities to speak. If you don’t do it someone else will and then they may be taking their career to the next level instead of you.
Write me if you need some tips the next time you are getting ready for a big speech.
Before any startup gets serious money, the name of the game is being scrappy and bootstrapping. But once investors are added to the mix, a company grows and things change. Now they need to move from entrepreneur to CEO.
3. Delegate with clear expectations.
Because startups have to bootstrap for so long, entrepreneurs are used to doing everything themselves. Now that there’s more staff, it will be a relief to have help, but it can also be a challenge to let go of some control. The key to successful delegating is setting clear expectations. If new team members know exactly what is needed from them — and exactly when it’s needed — they can more easily deliver quality outcomes while the CEO focuses on steering the company to continued success.
It is often hard for founders to move out of the day to day of product development or client service. To some degree they started their business because that part was fun for them. But if the entrepreneur-turned-CEO is not the keeper of the vision, working on the longer-term plan, their team will not see where the company is going and where they will end up. Keep them inspired and engaged by looking more to the horizon and not always at the day to day.
4. Look the part.
The harsh truth is that people judge how successful or trustworthy a person is based on how they look. Why else would lawyers dress up their defendants in fancy clothes or would actors walk into auditions “looking the part”? The shoes, the haircut, the choice of jeans or slacks — it all plays into how a person is perceived. A polished, professional look can go a long way toward building credibility with new hires and important board members.
Note that this doesn’t necessarily mean wearing a suit. Depending on the culture of a business, its industry and the city that it’s based in, it may be more appropriate to dress down than to dress to the nines. But be smart about it. It’s best to leave the flip-flops, raggedy sneakers, and that comfy college T-shirt with the mustard stain at home. Even Mark Zuckerberg leaves his hoodie at home sometimes.
And remember, as the company continues to grow, so must its leaders. A CEO will constantly need to acquire new skills, greater influence and a bigger vision.
Let me know what challenges you have faced when transitioning from founder to CEO.