Two approaches to managing company culture & teams
Read Time: 8-9 minutes
By: Heather Wentler – StartingBlock Madison Entrepreneur in Residence
For the past three months, I’ve talked about accountability for yourself and your team through these blog posts. For the next three months, I want to examine what “being the boss/leader” looks like and the many facets that you face by being within these roles.
The dream for many of us is to be the boss or your own boss when it comes to our career moves and decisions. If you’ve been in management or C-suite roles you probably know that there’s a love-hate relationship that comes along with it. There’s a real sense of power when you are within these roles. But your power, like we’ve talked about before, can also be your kryptonite.
The pay that usually comes with higher-level roles within companies is a key component that pulls people into wanting to be within management or the C-suite. I also believe that people view high-level roles to have more flexibility or less workload because they have others to support their work. The reality tends to be that these roles have more stress and expectations that fall onto the boss’s shoulders and they become more isolated with how they can interact with those who report to them and also to the higher-up executives or stakeholders. I’ve met and worked with many people who have left their management or executive positions to work as hourly workers or started ventures that fit their quality of life who have said “at the end of the day, the pay wasn’t worth what it did to me as a person”.
Being higher up on the company list means you’re making decisions constantly throughout the day. We spend every moment from when we’re in work mode (and sometimes before and after that) preparing or making rapid-fire decisions based on problems that are in front of our faces and also having to evaluate which problem is worth putting our attention into at that moment and which we can rubber stamp, or just approve without lots of mental thought because we don’t have the bandwidth to put more energy into it. This constant need to be making decisions quickly leads to decision fatigue.
The small decisions take as much of a toll as the big ones
For many of us in management roles within startups, we’ve never had training on how to effectively perform this role. We’re literally making it up as we go or depending on others to help us in how to go about being in these roles.
Decision fatigue is the idea of making a certain number of decisions within a time span affecting your ability to make more decisions, and how you prioritize making decisions. When you have one day a week that’s like this you may be able to tell because by the time you stop working for the day you feel mentally and physically depleted. It’s like you ran a marathon but you were sitting at your computer all day. The next day of work usually feels a little sluggish or like your mind and body are still in recovery mode. You may end up feeling like you’re living for the weekend or that next vacation only to just lay on the couch during that time off because you have no energy to do more.
When you’re in a startup or working for a company that has limited resources and staff, you typically don’t just have one day a week that feels like that, it’s every day. Those compounding days of running the marathon never end and because you’re stuck in the cycle you can’t stop, you can’t consciously recognize how to stop.
I’ve been there
I will never forget when my co-founder Amy and I were at a Doyenne event in Fall 2019 in Milwaukee where we recognized this need to stop within each other but didn’t know how to stop. In 2018 we had started expanding Doyenne out of Madison and into Milwaukee and starting to establish a chapter of the organization there. We were driving back and forth to Milwaukee two to three times a week over the course of 2018-2019 and spending 8-10 hours a day in meetings to fundraise, as well as meeting with entrepreneurs and entrepreneur support organizations to get the brand recognized in the community.
We didn’t even have a skeleton staff or the operational layout in Madison in 2018, so we were both trying to run it all as well as operationally positioning to hire in Madison and also get to a point we could hire in Milwaukee. We were working with over 100 entrepreneurs and other organizations a week through ongoing programming and also trying to have some sort of life outside of work.
Each month we held a networking event in Milwaukee for women entrepreneurs to meet each other, learn about Doyenne, and also hear a local entrepreneur’s story. Because of the constant decision flow and work mode we were in, I don’t remember who was speaking that night, I don’t even remember the location we were at. What I do remember is sitting in a room in a circle formation and while the entrepreneur was talking all I could think about was what needed to be done yet for the day while we were driving back to Madison. I needed to email people because it had been days since I had touched email, there was a fundraising proposal that was due at the end of the week, along with a laundry list of other things.
At some point during the event, I looked across the circle of people and made eye contact with Amy. We both looked so tired, older than we were, and we were fidgeting to try and not pull out our phones instead of being present in the moment. When we looked at each other, we silently said I’m tired.
We finished the event, packed up our stuff into the vehicle, and started driving back to Madison in the dark. It was really quiet in the car and then one of us said to each other “How are you doing? I felt like we both just hit a wall at that event”. Instead of our usual “I’m tired” or “I just want to be home” response I said, “What are we doing? I can’t continue at this pace for much longer and don’t feel like I’m at my best”. I remember hearing “Yeah, I feel the same. We need to make this work but I don’t know how”.
I wish that was the turning point and we had paused, scaled back, and made changes. But it wasn’t and we continued to push on until everything that happened in 2020 forced me to slow down and recalculate.
Coming back from Burnout
Depending on where you’re looking, there are 5-12 stages of burnout. They all start the same, a feeling of this won’t last forever or it’s only a phase, and all end the same, depression, chronic illness/ailments, and potentially broken relationships unless it’s recognized and supported.
When you start to feel like burnout creeping in it’s important to start looking for the signs. They could be one or more of the following:
Pushing yourself to work harder
Feeling like you have no time for anything to be completed
Neglecting personal care, needs, relationships
Behavioral changes with those at work and home
Feelings of quitting or giving up on what you’re doing
I notice that I have anxiety attacks when I’m in my burnout mode. I pace and fixate on things so I feel like I have a sense of control over something when everything else feels out of control. Since I know what my signs look like I can then take a step back and process why am I feeling that way and what can I do to overcome. Sometimes this means telling someone “I’m sorry but I have to ask to pause or walk away from the opportunity we were working on” or cancel a program within Doyenne because I know we won’t be able to deliver on it in a way that feels up to our professional standard.
Physical time away from work or a break from a certain aspect of their job works for some people to overcome burnout. Some people are able to disconnect for a few days or a week and be able to use that time away to reframe and continue forward once back. Others can’t break until they feel they’ve checked a few things off the list to then be able to disconnect. And some need others to help them identify the situation and step in to be able to overcome. None of these are perfect, but none of them are wrong either.
Asking for help and support is a huge key to fighting burnout. No matter the size of your venture team there should be people who you trust to be able to ask for help. You’re not alone on this crazy roller coaster called “Entrepreneurship” there are people who have been in your spot and are willing to help, you just have to ask for it.
What to talk more about how to lead and develop your company culture? Or to talk about anything else related to running and working for a startup venture? Schedule an Office Hour with me.