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Running on “E”

When our tanks are empty how do you replenish them?

Read Time: 5-6 minutes

By: Heather Wentler – StartingBlock Madison Entrepreneur in Residence

Even though this is my March article, it’s February as I write this. February is my hardest month of the year. My workload isn’t the problem though, it’s an emotional depletion that causes physical pain and impacts all aspects of my life. The cliche saying of “Check on your Strong people, they need support too” is so accurate, but also needs the counter of “Strong people, let others support you”.

I consider myself a strong person. I’m also a mix of wearing my emotions on my sleeve and bottling them up inside until they explode all over everything. My husband likes to jokingly compare me to the characters in Inside Out, where I rock between the Anger and Sadness characters. I’m “flame on” or the world is crumbling around me. I try to hide this from most of the world and come across as having my sh*t together and I’m an ear to bend when you are looking for support. I love helping people overcome problems and obstacles, which is why by mid-February, a time when most of us are feeling our Winter Blues the strongest, I forget that I need to take care of myself too and figure out how to recharge as well as continue to keep others moving forward.

My January and February articles were about accountability. This month I want to explore how to lead when you and others are feeling depleted and ways to continue to hold them accountable. Leadership is difficult and messy. We all have bad days. We all “flame on” or crumble at one point or another.

Be a reflective practitioner.

When I used to be a middle school teacher we were told to show no vulnerability, to command the classroom, and to be authoritative with our students. That philosophy never worked for me and I adopted the approach of being a reflective practitioner. This style leveled the playing field, taught mutual respect, and gave space for emotions, vulnerability, and acceptance. When I was having a bad day or was not excited about the lesson, my students could feel it. They also felt comfortable asking “Ms. Wentler, are you ok?” and I had the space to say “Today is not my best, but we’re going to get through it together” or “I want to apologize for how I behaved in a past moment and hope you can forgive me”. It created space for me to engage with my students on a level that they were also seeking- one that made them feel seen and heard. It also taught empathy and compassion which we all could use a little more of, especially right now.

As a coach, boss, business leader, wife, friend, and member of various communities, using the skills of being a reflective practitioner helps get me and others through difficult times when we’re feeling like we’re running on empty. Physical touch can trigger reactions in our brains to produce neurotransmitters or hormones which make us feel better. Sometimes that’s all someone needs to feel like their tanks are replenished. But if you know me, you know I’m not a hugger or someone who likes to be touched in any capacity. Instead, I use my listening and reflection skills so people feel like they’ve been given a hug and empower them to continue on.

Check-in with your people.

At Doyenne we have various check-in meetings to support team development, company culture, and accountability.

During quarterly and monthly check-ins, we dedicate the first 10-15 minutes of the 90-minute meeting to do a personal check-in. Everyone is welcome to share what’s going on outside of work, the good and the not-so-great. We do this to celebrate each other as humans and also acknowledge the challenges we’re all going through. At the weekly check-ins, we do this too, but you’re only given 3 words to identify. Typically the three words are emotions or feelings – Happy, Anxious, Lost, Optimistic, Excited, Depleted. We note the words used, and at the check-out at the end of the week, we ask again to see if they’ve changed over the course of the week.

You may be thinking to yourself that sounds like a lot of extra work. You’re right! But it’s critical for company culture.

Provide accountability through support.

Another reason we prioritize team and one-on-one meetings is to help with accountability. After the self-report, at the monthly and weekly meetings each team member answers the following questions which all should relate back to their monthly and/or quarterly goals within their departments:

  1. What are your big goals for the week/month?

  2. What is continuing from last week/month?

  3. How can the team support your work?

  4. At the monthly meeting, we also go through each of our goal tracking spreadsheets to discuss where we’re at on quarterly goal achievement and stretch goals

These questions are also documented with bullet point responses entered by each team member. We set a timer and they get 5 minutes to report out. Team members’ role is to actively listen and recognize if there are ways they can support. After the person is done addressing the questions there’s an opportunity for others to provide support after the check-in meeting. They may say something like:

  1. I’d like to find time for us to talk about something you discussed as I feel it relates to something I’m working on

  2. I notice that you continue to have one topic continue to show up on your “continuing form last week” list, can we find time to talk through your approach and brainstorm other options/solutions?

  3. I feel like your list is extra heavy this week and I know you’re also trying to navigate things in your personal life, can we find time to talk about if I can support any of these items since I have extra time this week?

Recently I recently read an article that said “a company isn’t a family”. I think it comes back to what you consider the definition of “family” is. Just like a family, your company team(s) are interdependent and spend a lot of time with each other, as a family does. They learn each other’s mannerisms, how to push each other’s buttons, and also how to co-exist when their personalities clash, as well as how to work together and meet a common goal. Creating space for team members to understand each other on a deeper level supports creating a positive company culture. There are always going to be people who want to leave their personal lives at the door, respect that, do not push people to share or be vulnerable in ways they don’t want to or feel comfortable doing so.

Define what support looks like.

We all want each other to succeed and doing so means sometimes making a heavier lift, but knowing that we each are there to share the load. We also want to respect each other’s time which is why we don’t monopolize time within the check-in for going into details and instead set up side meetings and conversations.

Again, you may notice some team members aren’t willing to take this extra step to offer support or they are less willing to let others help with them. As the leader, having those difficult conversations about what being on a “team” means within the company is vital. Your employee handbook should also support this conversation (and accountability). If team members still refuse to support, sometimes you can let that go and just accept that they are who they are, and sometimes it requires additional conversations or consequences.

I use this style across all company meetings and conversations, not just at check-up meetings. I report to my team just as I expect them to report to me. I feel safe saying to them “I need your help”. They hold me accountable and support me when I need it most just as I do for them. I also acknowledge when I don’t have the bandwidth to support more and show empathy around this. I model how I want them to talk and treat each other and address behaviors as needed in a direct communication style that isn’t demeaning or passive-aggressive. I ask probing questions and phrase things in ways to create understanding and accept that my role within the company and my lived experience is very different than theirs and try to find solutions that include compromises that work for everyone. Does this happen every day? No! As stated earlier, we all have bad days. But I also do my best to acknowledge when apologies need to be made and not make excuses for falling short.

Put in the work.

Company culture and accountability are hard work! Let me say that again, it’s HARD WORK. When stressors within the company, personal lives, and the world are stacked on top of the day-to-day it’s even harder. But, the change is necessary for addressing systemic change that needs to happen across all aspects of how we interact within our world if we really want to be leading and creating workspaces where people want to engage and are proud to say they’re part of.

Here’s a bonus tip for how to overcome running on empty. Encourage your team to use their vacation time and sick time for their mental health. Time away from work can be just as productive as time sitting at work. And sometimes it’s even more beneficial to their work because it creates time and space to think outside of their normal grind and bring in new ideas. I get some of my greatest inspiration and problem-solving accomplished while sitting around a bonfire in the middle of nowhere or enjoying a “beach read” book while people’s voices echo off of the hotel pool area walls.

What to talk more about how to create company culture change or space for vulnerability within your company? Or to talk about anything else related to running and working for a startup venture? Schedule an Office Hour with me.


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