Even though I am no longer teaching, almost every week a former student hunts me down to ask for a letter of recommendation. Recently it was one of my favorite students, who I imagine will be an ambassador at some point. We had a wonderful conversation about his future plans structured on a 10-year timeline. His goals were well developed, realistic and achievable, all leading to a fabulous career.
When I was his age (22 to be exact), I had things pretty figured out. Tour life was awesome — different city every night, usually sleeping on the bus en route to the next show. My beeper kept me in touch with the world, and I carried quarters by the rolls to make calls from the road. Most of my friends were leaving the indie labels I was supporting with my TV show and other activities to sign with major labels. The “sellouts” were taking other bands from the scene on stadium tours. I had an amazing network of contacts in the entertainment industry and thought my life would be in television programming and production, integrating technology into content delivery. Then a bunch of stuff I was planning on didn’t happen. And since then, much more than a decade later, many personal and business aspirations haven’t panned out. Somehow much better things have happened than what I had hoped.
No matter your resources, how much you may want that job or that opportunity, some things are just beyond one’s control. A sales meeting with your top potential customer may end with the knowledge that the company just signed with your competitor. A bug may shut your business down — everyone in the office could get the flu at the same time and/or hackers could send you a gift. As a leader, your reaction to these types of situations will define your success and your team’s ability to keep moving down the field.
By reframing challenges as opportunities for learning, you set a tone for accountability and process transparency. This is not an easy task, but entrepreneurs must weather storms, focusing on achieving the long term with lots of short-term goals. The key is having the agility and flexibility to attempt different routes to get there, preparing for what you can. The following tips will help your team execute your vision and start the process for becoming a learning organization.
• Set personal and professional principles and let them be your guide. Know who you are and what your company will do and won’t do and stick to it. There are lots of potential customers for most businesses: Are you going to focus on those that will bring you prestige, access to a network, and validate your integrity? When things are lean, it is easier to justify lowering your standards, but make sure you consider the consequences for yourself, your family, your team, your existing clients, your suppliers and distributors, and your competitors.
• Debrief and reflect on missed deals or failures. Failures can be what leads the team to success. The bonding that can only be done through pain is a unique chance to raise the team’s performance to another level, if managed well. Make sure there is time to talk through lessons learned so mistakes aren’t repeated. This is a great chance to remove barriers to future success, which may include HR or adjusting the marketing budget, etc.
• Stay positive, and keep communication lines open. There’s no crying in startups. Pick it up and move on! Obviously, be there for your team, but also keep in touch with the lost deal decision-makers. Business is about relationships, and sometimes it may be many years of building trust and respect before that contact becomes a customer. His or her next job may yield a contract much bigger than the first time you tried.
As I write this column, I am harkening back to dozens of moments that lead me to where I am today, some that were extremely painful at the time. Twice not even being offered an interview for my then-dream job of running an entrepreneurship program; losing months of momentum in hiring and training a singer as my first employee who then left and went on to sell 35 million albums; losing respect for a mentor who was very important to me — each contributed to who I am. Maybe I am too loyal or optimistic; I think big and am very direct, but you always know where you stand. I can only control my own actions, and I hope it makes my family and team proud.
Susan Amat is the founder of Venture Hive. You can follow her on Twitter at @susanamat.