Tuesday, January 28, 2014

5 Tips for Personal Success in a Startup

Ten years ago I was in Washington DC for a two day kick off meeting with Marriott. I was traveling with Mark Bissell, my boss at the time, and eager to impress him and the Marriott team. After a great first day I was beginning to feel a little bit of confidence. We had a great objective setting session, got some solid conversations going and were tracking well on our agenda. We only had the dinner meeting to go. Ten of us attended the dinner at a nice Italian restaurant in the DC suburbs. We were seated at a long table in the middle of the busy restaurant. Dinner was great. We enjoyed our antipasti, lasagna and other great food and ordered another round of wine. Carrying a tray of wine back to our table, the waitress tripped, spilling five glasses of red on my white shirt and soaking the only suit I brought with me. I was beyond mortified. Sitting at the head of the table I looked bad. Really bad. Worse than that even. The entire restaurant turned to the sound of breaking glass. I was center stage and immediately unsure what to do in this type of situation. Sitting frozen in embarrassment as streaks of wine ran down my white shirt the waitress frantically wiped wine from my face. The hostess and soon the manager joined her, creating a bigger commotion, if that was possible. The waitress burst into tears and left while the manager apologized. It was awful. My only thought was "What the hell do I do with this?" There was nowhere to hide.  No guide on how to handle this type of situation. No one to tell me the path forward or the path out.

While I hope that I never experience that level of embarrassment again, the feeling of nowhere to hide is one of the reasons I came to HireVue. It was one of the things I loved most about the early days at SuccessFactors. At a start up there is nowhere to hide. Every individual on the team is accountable. Success and failure is totally transparent. Everyone knows who is contributing and realizing success and who is struggling and failing to deliver. It can be uncomfortable at times. It forces hard decisions about people. It demands the best of everyone. Some will step up and develop themselves when challenged and others will look for cover, look for someone to blame or simply make excuses. A start up is not for everyone. Over the last 10+ years I have learned, often the hard way, a few keys to success in a nowhere to hide environment:

Execute  Analysis paralysis, perfection procrastination... whatever you want to call it, the excuse it is just that, an excuse. Success in a start up requires getting it done. Period.

Own it  Being successful in a start up does not require that you are always right. It does require you own your decisions and those of your team, good and bad.

Be flexible  Success in a start up requires wearing a lot of hats, proactively jumping in where help is needed, and most importantly, doing whatever it takes and whenever it is needed regardless of your role or title.

Commit  It is not always easy, fun or sexy. Sometimes help is needed with tactical, menial and basic work. If you believe in the mission of the company, if you believe in your leadership team and in yourself, commit to it. Half ass will only get you half way. And that's not good enough.

Grow  What got you here won't get you to the next level. You need to continuously challenge yourself and your team to do better, do more and go faster. If you think that you are done, you probably are, and that's not a good thing.

At a start up like HireVue there is nowhere to hide. The benefits, in my opinion, far outweigh the risks. At a start up you have the opportunity to build something. You have the chance to define yourself more broadly than just the immediate team you are working with. At a start up you have the chance to stand out, rapidly grow your career and have your work sit in the spotlight of an entire organization. But that spotlight is not a choice like it can be at a larger company. It is simply the way it is every day. There is nowhere to hide. We all sit at the head of the table, eyes on us, forced to decide "What do I do with this?" And then we live with the results.

About David Verhaag

David is the Vice President, Client Experience at Degreed, the lifelong learning platform. Prior to Degreed, David established and scaled the Customer Success function at Kahuna and HireVue and spent eight+ years with SuccessFactors where he led the development of the global Customer Value team. David lives on a sailboat in Half Moon Bay, CA.

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