Be the Change You Wish to See

One of my favorite movies is The Godfather: II (the entrepreneurship, leadership, and business lessons of which may warrant another post entirely), and in the midst of all the action and drama there is one subtle line Michael says to Kay that stood out the most to me:

“I’ll change; I’ll change. I’ve learned that I have the strength to change.”

The cynical side of me thought people could fundamentally change (and since when is Michael Corleone an optimist?). While certainly people grow and over their lifetime, the idea of truly changing seemed a bit unrealistic.

Being an “athlete.” At startups, however, change is the only constant. Big wins – a key recruit, a new customer, a product breakthrough – can change the company. Obstacles like low cash flow, competitive pressure, fulfillment issues – can do so as well. Because of the magnitude of impact on startups from these sources, keeping perspective during times of volatility and the need to adapt to change may be the most crucial personal traits.  Put another way, you have to adapt your outlook and even change your skill set when you sign up for a startup; almost no “job description” matches the actual day in the life of a startup role.

From listener to orator. I personally lived this – while always given feedback in school and in early jobs that I was too quiet and not assertive enough in meetings (my family and current colleagues may not believe this, but it’s true ☺), when I found myself standing in the offices of some of the top Silicon Valley VC firms I realized that effusively evangelizing our company would be a more effective way of asking for capital than my usual hard-to-get demeanor. “Sing for your supper” is true.

Perfectionist to… not so much.  Whether you believe in astrological signs (I’m a Virgo) or Myers-Briggs Personality tests (I used to be an ENFJ, emphasis on the J), you could say cosmically I was set up to be a meticulous perfectionist. But in startup life that just can’t always be the case – I recall in one of my first week I did an analysis of consumer behavior and created what I thought was a good powerpoint presentation; upon sharing with the team, my CEO told me to “unlearn” this. There was no time for lengthy processes or polished internal presentations – what are the handful of insights and the one or two action items that come out of this? Anything other than bullet points on a google doc or numbers in a raw spreadsheet was seen as wasted time. Similarly schedules are in flux – one bug or AWS outage can change an entire day – so you can’t cling to the predictability of 9-5 life or set meeting times.

While the continuous change and the “80/20” rule is certainly the right mantra for a nascent company overall, do realize that some roles – legal, accounting – need to maintain consistency and that sharp attention to detail for the rest, so hire accordingly.

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