Surviving The Apocalypse, Step 2: Communicate

By: Eric Marcoullier and Joseph Logan mentors of Labs.

Over the coming weeks Eric and Joseph will dive deeper into each of the steps outlined in their first post The Startup Guide To Surviving The Apocalypse. Make sure to read Step 1: Don't Panic before moving forward with this post.

One of Joseph’s favorite phrases is “when you’re getting tired of saying something, your team is just finally starting to hear it.”

I’ll have to trust that you’ve heard me loud and clear on this next phrase, because I’ll never get tired of saying it: The CEO has three jobs: communicate the vision, hire great people and don’t run out of money.

Communication comes first for a reason. It’s only through good communication that you build the trust required to hire talented people, raise capital and sell your product or service. And in the absence of good communication, especially during times of crisis, people will project all of their worries, fears, insecurities and anxiety onto you. If they feel you’re not being transparent, they’ll assume the worst.

In Jerry Colonna’s Reboot, he tells a story about a time in his life where he had a lot of stuff going on, and he held it all back from his family in order to keep them from worrying. Eventually, his son demanded a conversation, saying that if he didn’t know what was going on, he would assume it was all about him and it must be really bad.

Right now, every CEO is Jerry Colonna, and every stakeholder around them is his son. Employees, cofounders, investors, customers… everyone will assume that if you’re not talking about the impact of COVID-19 on your business, it’s because it’s really bad and it’s going to impact them personally.

Don’t get me wrong, this is not a license to dump your worries on your employees. If that seems like a boneheaded thing to do, you’re more dialed in than Joseph, who did exactly that to a team many years ago. In a poorly executed attempt at transparency, Joseph communicated that the company might have to eliminate 50 jobs. They only ended up laying off four people (who were probably going to get fired anyway), and they sure freaked out a bunch of employees in the process.

Back in the 2000s, I worked at an independent video game developer called Cyberlore. We came down to the wire on payroll several times, but rather than telling the employees they might not get paid next week, our CEO Joseph Minton always spoke about what needed to happen in order to succeed as a company. “Everyone needs to pitch in so we finish the prototype by Friday,” or “ask our developer and publisher connections if anyone needs contract artists.”

The difference between the two boils down to the classic question, “for whose benefit are you doing this?” If you’re communicating something only to relieve stress and make yourself feel better — get a coach. By explaining the success criteria, no matter how dire the situation, you’re empowering your team to make a difference. You’re also being fair and transparent about the general level of security, and giving your stakeholders a reasonable understanding of where things stand. It might mean a few team members begin looking for alternate employment, but others will feel even more invested and they’ll give you their very best.

If what you’re communicating doesn’t help calm the person you’re talking to, give them something to do and/or provide some level of control, then it isn’t for their benefit. If you need to say something that’s only for your benefit, find someone else who’s not invested in your company’s success to talk to about it (i.e., hire a coach).

This step is straight-up not about *whether* to communicate. It is about *what* to communicate. Stress is uncertainty about and the inability to affect the future, so telling stakeholders how bad the future might be without giving them something to do won’t make them feel any better. So, seriously, no sitting down with an employee, telling them they might not be getting paid next week, and then thanking them for making you feel better. I’ve seen that happen. Bad CEO, no cookie.

And again, this applies to every stakeholder in your company. One of our clients, Ross at Covered, who we’ve mentioned before, recently emailed an update to all of his company’s investors. He began with the following:

Many of you have reached out to inquire about Covered’s stability, operations, and strategy given the current macro environment. As such, this is a special update to efficiently update all of you.

Summary: we have it under control

  • We’re making decisions to focus on near-term opportunities and priorities
  • We know the market and where to accelerate traction and are prioritizing accordingly
  • The team is optimistic, healthy, and working efficiently in a remote (work from home) environment

That is a baller statement. Nothing could be stronger than “we have it under control,” followed by bullets to prove it. To be sure, it could be less rosy news. I’m sure he would have been crisp, concise and extremely clear about the reality of his company while remaining optimistic regardless of what had to be communicated.

In order to communicate control as Ross does, you do, actually, have to have things under control. You can’t be panicking. Best case — you communicate a plan. Worst case — you communicate awareness of the situation and solicit help on a very specific topic. At the end of the day, “under control” is a state of mind, and developing and communicating that state of mind is a skill every CEO should be cultivating right now.

— Eric Marcoullier

Eric Marcoullier has spent 27 years as a tech entrepreneur, starting digital companies in media, games, social networking, big data and travel. His companies have exited for more than $850M in total, including an IPO, three acquisitions and a turnaround. Additionally, he co-owned a software development shop for four years and has worked with Techstars since the very first cohort in 2007. All this to say that he’s seen some pretty successful companies, as well as dozens, if not hundreds, of failed companies over the years (including several flameouts of his own). Eric blogs each week at ObviousStartupAdvice.com.

Joseph is a coach and turnaround veteran focusing on founders and teams. He has done exec stints as a CEO and COO, learning about businesses as diverse as data analytics and hemp-derived CBD. In his coaching practice, he has worked in teams in health tech, advertising, social media, behavioral health, and aviation. His work focuses primarily on team performance and operational discipline with a line of sight to profitability and increased valuation. Joseph blogs at theteamsthething.com and josephlogan.com, where you can find his TEDx talk, "The Upside of Crisis".

If you're interested in connecting with these mentors directly, please ask your Labs Manager for assistance.

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