If you are like most entrepreneurs I know, there just aren’t enough hours in a day to get all your own work done, as well as run the many one-hour meetings each team member seems to demand for decisions and mentoring. I have found it to be more productive and effective to lead with the model that no meetings will take an hour, and may be done in as little as five minutes.
Of course, this requires some discipline and focus on your part, as well as the willingness to trust team members and allow them to do their jobs. For example, you must forego the traditional meeting approach, where a team member presents a slide deck with all the background and multiple solution options on an issue, and asks you for a decision.
I recommend the elevator pitch-approach instead, which you probably learned in dealing with busy investors, where the person calling the meeting is asked to summarize the purpose, value and recommended solution in the first minute or two. That leaves three minutes, or maybe a few more, for you to clarify your understanding, approve their approach or suggest additional work.
Meetings at this level should never be seen as “working sessions” for actually solving the problem, but as mentoring and direction setting for team members. I have personally used this approach in leading startups as well as large organizations, in highly technical roles as well as business development and marketing. But it only works if you observe the following principles:
Never hide from your team. If you are always hard to find, too busy or unavailable behind closed doors, no leadership or mentoring relationship can work effectively. The old principle of managing by walking around will give the background, and people always having to wait makes them talk longer when they get your precious attention.
Listen and adapt your style to theirs. You rarely learn anything by talking. Practice active listening and respond with a simple affirmation, step-by-step instructions or an anecdotal story, depending on the style and experience of the team member. Five-minute meetings cannot be five minutes of anyone talking.
What is said in a meeting must stay in the meeting. Of course, decisions and action items must be communicated immediately, but individual disagreements, comments and recommendations must never surface around the water cooler or in later reviews. You want team members to provide input openly, honestly and without fear of retribution.
Provide immediate direct and constructive feedback. Team members need your critique of their work to learn, but attacking the person is never productive. Use every opportunity to clarify your goals and set the context for follow-on discussions. If you must provide negative feedback, make every attempt to highlight the positives first.
Make it clear that team members are accountable and responsible. Your most valuable team members wouldn’t want to work any other way. Encourage them to come in with solutions, not problems, and empower them to drive their recommendations to success. Everyone learns best from failures, so failure should never be a feared option.
For one-on-one coaching from the startup founder, I call this approach five-minute mentoring. The goal is not to use your time doing the job for less-experienced team members, but instead quickly identifying their barrier to progress, and providing guidance on a next step. Even if multiple cycles are required to reach the goal, you will spend less time, and they will learn infinitely more.
I fully understand that the best entrepreneurs are problem solvers by nature, so this approach requires a mindset change from solving to a specific answer, to coaching on the process, which will pay big dividends for both of you as the company grows. You can be a problem solver and build a product alone, but you can’t build a successful business alone.
Your primary responsibility as a startup founder is to provide vision, leadership and communication to all internal and external team members. Long meetings behind closed doors are draining for you and not productive for the company toward these objectives.
Start today with five-minute meetings and mentoring to get the fun and productivity back.
*** First published on Entrepreneur.com on 4/17/2015 ***