So You're a Startup CEO? In Fact, Your Job Is More That of 'Chief Myth-Buster.'

So You are a Startup CEO? In Fact, Your Job Is More That of Chief Myth Buster

It’s funny how the end of a busy week causes us to pause and reflect on exactly what we've accomplished. Your calendar, like mine, is most likely filled with meetings, product review sessions and updates on the financial status of your company.

In all these meetings, though, I find an increasing need for the voice of reason -- the need for someone to clarify points or summarize ideas so that all may be assured that, as it’s often phrased, “Everyone is on the same page.” Traditionally, this role has rested with the meeting leader or the most senior individual according to the organizational chart of your growing startup.

If you’re the CEO, that person would be you.

And, as CEO, when you undertake the "same page" summary, a nuance in your  effort to achieve clarity comes down to what I call myth-busting. These myths can begin as rumors, and left unchecked, turn into false beliefs about why something is being changed or a decision has been made.  

If that myth didn't start because of a rumor, it’s certainly an assumption that employees have made. Such assumptions are rampant in every organization. While not explicitly stated, these assumptions prompt team members to carry on with a reasonable explanation for the current state of affairs.

Myth 1: Systems

"We’re changing our systems because . . . "

Some companies move faster than others at changing or improving their systems. Employees have become accustomed to navigating their way through the day, starting with such business software as productivity apps (email, calendar, docs and spreadsheets), customer-relationship management apps and the usual financial or accounting systems.

Introducing an entirely new system that replaces the old, therefore, is a daunting task, regardless of the size of your organization. From planning to implementation, and then training and adoption of the new system, someone will always exclaim, “Why are we doing this anyway?!”

The myth-busting approach. In dealing with the need to bust myths, I defer to Bill Hybels, leader of Willow Creek, who in a speech to the Global Leadership Summit, touched on his often-referenced definition of leadership. It’s about moving people from "here" (a comfortable, but flawed place) to "there" (an unknown but better place). 

When changing systems, you must clearly communicate what is wrong with the current software package, Hybels said. Perhaps the product has reached the end of its development and is no longer being supported by the company. Or, there may be two versions, and you need to upgrade in order to unlock some key functionality that will improve productivity. Whatever the reason, you must be clear in explaining why the status quo is no longer acceptable.

Only then can you introduce the new system with any hope of achieving 100 percent adoption.

Myth 2: Process

If you’ve invested in cloud-based, secure and scalable systems, it’s unlikely that you’ll be migrating to a new platform entirely. Rather, you may find the need to change your processes, meaning the steps required to complete a task within the system.

Tasked with the noble goal of increasing productivity, you’ll likely discover processes that have become overly complex, with several steps added over the years.  

In one area of our company, we had an automated process for de-duplicating and merging customer records, followed by a simple four-step process for manually verifying that there were no duplicate records in the system. But we also had four pages of rules to follow, detailing what to do and whom to notify when a duplicate customer record was found. The notion that anyone could remember four pages was overly optimistic.

The myth-busting approach. Again, comparing for your employees the old cumbersome process versus the new simplified process is a surefire way to win over the hearts of your team.

Letting people know they can cut out steps and eliminate clicks makes it easier for all to navigate their way through your system. Simplifying the rules of engagement and operating practices gives your team members the confidence of knowing they are doing a great job. In short, if you need to change the process, for goodness's sake make it easier and more memorable.

Myth 3: Finances

Regardless of the degree of financial transparency in your company, intuitive employees can pick up queues as to the financial health of the organization. Budgets that are cut, trips cancelled or people dismissed are all signs that financial results may have been lacking. 

We’re all guilty of filling in the blanks with our own assessment of the finances. At the most basic level, we do this because we want to know we have job security. More optimistically, we also want to know that we’re part of a growing organization and that we’ve made a great career choice.

When budget changes occur, questions are asked, and unfortunately it’s easy for rumors to start. “We’ve reduced budget because . . . ”

The myth-busting approach. As the leader, it is your responsibility to get out ahead of this with a truthful explanation. If a product launch has failed, say so. Give a presentation of all the steps the team took to make it successful and all the money spent on the campaign, and then say exactly what happened.

Being honest in your explanation is not the failure, but lying about it would be. Similarly, if a department is losing money, share a simplified profit and loss statement. Show revenue, and then subtract the main expenses, explaining each one. Very quickly, the team will see how and why the department is losing money -- and as difficult as it may be, will be more understanding of tough decisions ahead.

Myth 4: Deciphering your words

Every organization develops its own lexicon, a collection of words commonly understood by the employees. In fact, we include language as one of the four attributes of our culture.  

When buzzwords get included in everyday speech, it can be difficult for an employee transferring from another branch office or department to understand exactly what is meant by what is said. I feel for the new employees who have to learn not only the behavioral norms in the company but also the right words to say to be understood.

I’ll admit it: We’ve got our fair share of quirky corporate speak -- as much as the next company. However, we’ve also provided tools such as a Glossary of Terms and a Learning Management System that serve as our online university where systems, processes and products are explained in bite-sized two-minute videos.

The myth-busting approach. Avoid business-speak when you talk. Meetings and memos, emails and phone calls all can be accomplished using everyday language. Further, avoid acronyms which try to summarize three words into one but end up developing their own unwanted meaning.

In tough times, people want to hear from a fellow human being; they don't want to hear corporate-jargon-style, legally-cleared speech. Launching a “reprioritization program” and saying that there will be a “reallocation of resources” may not hit home with everyone. “Getting back to the basics of what made this company great in the first place,” is much more digestible.

Busting myths is your job.

Myth-busting just got added to your job description. In the absence of information, there is a vacuum. Most people feel the need to fill this void with their own best guesses about the reasoning. Be on the look-out for hidden assumptions and commonly held beliefs that simply aren’t true, as well as other opportunities for clarification.