What business leaders and entrepreneurs can learn from two best-selling authors
There isn’t anything quite like the entrepreneurial experience. Characterised by long hours, high stress levels and the relentless pressure to continuously iterate and innovate, it’s not for the faint of heart. The perception of the typical entrepreneur is also influenced by success stories like those of Jobs, Bezos, Zuckerberg and Gates.
While most of us know such men experienced setbacks, we view these as just a small part of the process, perhaps necessary for them to truly thrive.
The truth is much starker. Entrepreneurs regularly experience high levels of stress and anxiety, often neglect their mental and physical health, and work with the knowledge that three out of four startups with venture funding fail.
It’s a growing industry nonetheless, and with it grows myriad ways to tackle entrepreneurship head-on: to disrupt and improve on the imperfect system, as it were. This starts by separating the fantastical success stories from the pragmatic lessons and advice we can take from those who have done it all before.
Enter Seth Godin and Simon Sinek.
With 24 books between them, global sell-out seminars, viral TED Talks and countless fans, they’re two of the biggest names in business.
Their areas of expertise are both broad and niche, ranging from the future of leadership and entrepreneurship to brand awareness and corporate culture. No matter the topic, both challenge traditional ways of thinking and offer us the chance to see things differently.
But more than that, they cut through the conventional stories we’ve been listening to for decades and speak to a deeper part in each of us with a stirring message. They ask us why we do what we do, and dare us to do it with ethical fortitude and daring leadership.
In the lead up to Simon Sinek Live and Seth Godin Live; The Growth Faculty’s first major events of 2020, we’ve put together the top tips for entrepreneurs, from two entrepreneurs who’ve spent years learning hard lessons, and striving to find a better way.
It’s a tension most of us resist. We’re encouraged to make bold, game-changing moves, but the incentives for staying on course are compelling. If taking a risk means potential reputation damage, financial strain or professional ruin, it hardly seems worth it.
But for Godin, risk is just the cost of doing business:
“Hard work is about risk. It begins when you deal with the things that you’d rather not deal with: fear of failure, fear of standing out, fear of rejection. Hard work is about training yourself to leap over this barrier, drive through the other barrier. And after you’ve done that, to do it again the next day.”
Sinek’s most recent book, The Infinite Game, clearly articulates the way our corporate systems reinforce our compliance, and our temptation to avoid risk altogether:
"Though many of us lament this state of things, unfortunately it seems like the market’s desire to maintain the status quo is more powerful than the momentum to change it. When we say things like “people must come before profit,” we often face resistance. Many of those who control the current system, many of our current leaders, tell us we are naïve and don’t understand the “reality” of how business works. As a result, too many of us back down."
Being bold enough to see an alternative way forward, a better way of working and a more effective method of doing something is a risk worth taking. And as most of us know, taking a risk is almost synonymous with simply being an entrepreneur.
Treat Failure as a Positive Experience
“If failure is not an option, then neither is success.”
Like playing it safe, the necessity of winning above all else is something we hear a lot, and many of us grew up with the familiar refrain; be the best at all costs. And yet in recent years, the charge against Millennials – a topic Simon Sinek is famous for exploring – is that they were too coddled, received awards merely for participating, and are thus entitled, lack grit and could never endure the realities of the business world.
A middle ground, according to Godin and Sinek, is the sweet spot.
Failing is the result of trying, of taking a risk and attempting something new. It’s where we learn our most valuable lessons and grow as leaders. It’s a cliched adage but is true nonetheless: if we’re too scared to fail, we’ll never aim high enough to achieve greatness. For entrepreneurs, this means doing something nobody else is doing, innovating in the face of the status quo, and backing ourselves in the face of ongoing rejection.
It means taking a big swing.
“It’s not that they are not afraid of failure, nor is it that they ignore the possibility of it. Quite the opposite. The best entrepreneurs are the ones who accept the very real possibility of failure and proceed anyway.”
Find Your Passion
“The secret of leadership is simple: Do what you believe in. Paint a picture of the future. Go there. People will follow.”
It’s a lovely sentiment, no doubt, but the reality is far more complicated. We’re bound by concerns about money, stability and security, not to mention the less tangible but no less important drivers like status, prestige and authority.
But what if ultimately, we’re holding ourselves back? Godin acknowledges this, stating that while powerful leadership is about forward-thinking momentum, our understanding of passion is backwards. Rather than expecting to find passion in something before we do it, we should be doing the opposite:
“Offer me a chance to contribute, and I’ll work hard on it, with focus, and once I begin to make progress, I’ll become passionate about it.”
Sinek has a linguistic dispute with understanding ‘passion’ as a goal, rather viewing it as a result, feeling or energy. It’s finding our Why, and figuring out the rest from there. It’s feeling we’re making a difference, doing something worth fighting for and inspiring those around us to do the same.
Lean into your passion, but be willing to work hard to feel the necessary spark.
Simon Sinek's famous Golden Circle
Be the Last to Speak
Unlike the ability to dominate discussion, keeping quiet is a skill that many leaders lack. How many do you know who regularly hold back their opinions, actively listen instead of impatiently waiting to speak and make you feel heard?
While staying quiet has its advantages, Sinek makes a distinction between listening and being the last to speak; asking questions and actively listening, and only offering your thoughts after everyone has shared theirs. This ensures all team members feel heard, gives them the freedom to speak uninterrupted and without influence, and gives you the benefit of hearing a range of opinions before offering your own.
During a discussion via Facebook Live, Godin elaborated on the necessity of speaking with purpose:
“Typical big company CMOs in the United States last 18 months, that’s the term of office. The question is, why is that? And the answer is it takes 16 months for the CEO to realise you can’t keep your promises, and two months to find your replacement.”
Speaking too soon and too often is made worse when commitments can’t be met. Instead, be a leader who makes very specific promises and communicates clearly. There’ll be less glory, sure, but you’ll build a reputation for following through on commitments and promises. You’ll build trust.
Tell Stories, Not Slogans
Resonating with customers is a concern of all entrepreneurs, and Godin has been campaigning (pun intended) for a shift from pushing slogans to telling stories.
Why is that we feel differently about buying lemonade from a neighbourhood stand than a vending machine? One experience resonates with us, fits in with the way we want to see the world, while the other represents an untrustworthy, faceless corporation. We connect with stories, and the best marketers spread ideas that give customers a compelling reason to want more.
Sinek, likewise, sees the power of approaching customer relationships with a generous motivation, in the spirit of giving:
“...when someone shows up with the desire to give, to share an idea, to share a perspective, to share a new product, to share a new way of looking at something, people are much more receptive. Though there may eventually be some sort of reward for the presenter, showing up with the desire to give is actually the best way to achieve that.”
Showing up wanting nothing in return builds trust, forges authentic relationships, and ultimately captures attention. And once you have that attention, your opportunities are limitless.
Understand the Power of Status
The hierarchical structure of the traditional office is less common with the rise of start-ups, but it’s still present. And built into many of these spaces are behaviours influenced by real and imagined power, status and importance, often reinforced by entitled leaders and down-trodden subordinates. But for the rest of us, Sinek argues that hierarchy can be useful.
In fact, people aren’t upset their leaders make more money or use the premium parking spots. It’s helpful for designating the decision makers and providing voices of leadership. It’s when said leaders lay-off staff to protect their bonuses that a decline in trust, satisfaction and engagement starts to bleed into business.
Hierarchy may not be an inherent problem, but status is something all entrepreneurs should be thinking about. Godin says it’s key to understanding marketing:
“What marketing is really about, is helping someone tell themselves a story about maintaining or changing their status.”
We’re always asking what others are doing, and it’s time to acknowledge that status is a real driver for customers.
From an internal perspective, Sinek strongly advocates for experiencing multiple jobs at different levels in a company, to learn how your work hurts and helps others:
“The best things that companies can do is share people.”
Stay True to your Ethics
“The ability to succeed is not what makes someone a leader. Exhibiting the qualities of leadership is what makes someone an effective leader. Qualities like honesty, integrity, courage, resiliency, perseverance, judgment and decisiveness,”
Business leaders and entrepreneurs at their worst can create hostile work environments. They care about profit over people, work towards meaningless targets and prioritise their own status over the needs of the team.
This short-term, finite thinking is the basis of The Infinite Game, which makes the argument that leaders are accountable to those in their charge, above all else. This starts by having a commitment to your values and ethics.
Both Godin and Sinek put it simply: entrepreneurs should focus on being better, not doing more.
Godin believes we get hooked on simple metrics because they give us short-lived but instant gratification, but it’s far more sustainable to focus on getting better. Happier employees, a better product and a cause worth fighting for are ultimately better for the bottom line, too.
“If you’re measuring more all the time, you’re distracted from better,” (emphasis ours).
To be clear, the best entrepreneurs strive to be better and do more, but they prioritise better first. Even if it’s by a small margin, they lean towards looking after their people.
The Entrepreneurial Burden
"You'll never be able to serve everyone, which is comforting, since you're less likely to be disappointed when it doesn't happen."
The truth may be harsh, but it’s worth saying: you’re far more interested in your business than anyone else, and nobody owes you their interest if you don’t earn it. And earning it is not easy.
Additionally, entrepreneurs face unique pressure every day, that often impacts their physical and mental health, personal lives and ability to make rational decisions. Yet most entrepreneurs would tell you it’s worth it a hundred times over, no matter the cost.
Through the work of Godin and Sinek, it’s clear there’s a way for entrepreneurs to live in this state of tension, of pressure, of discomfort, but do so within a set of boundaries that make their lives – and the lives of their customers and employees – much more sustainable. Moreover, it gives them the tools to thrive.
The Growth Faculty is proud to be presenting Simon Sinek Live in March, in Sydney, Melbourne and Auckland. Limited tickets are still available. Marketing guru Seth Godin will also be touring in 2020, visiting Sydney, Melbourne, and Auckland in May. Discounted early bird tickets are available here.