5 Signs Your Startup Co-Workers Have Your Back
May 12, 2014

5 Signs Your Startup Co-Workers Have Your Back

by Brian de Haaff

You might call me sensitive, but I really wish my co-founder would ask how I am feeling a bit more often. But aside from that, we are a perfect match. He is the technical genius, who also enjoys legalese and finance, and I know my way around strategy, product management, marketing, sales, and general company building. After three companies and two acquisitions, we grok each other. But how do you feel about your co-workers? Do they have your back or do they want to stab you in it?

This is about your career and long-term happiness because you will spend more time with your co-workers than anyone else.

Travel back about 17 years with me — long before I co-founded Aha! I was at a middle-of-the-pack mainframe, screen-scrapping software company and many of the employees were nuts — led by the CEO who was the big cheese because he had been an early employee at Oracle. I am not sure if they were crazy before they started working together, but they definitely should have been in straitjackets and on sedatives when they were together.

I knew it was time to leave when the CEO started chasing a sales guy around a table in a meeting. I slowly stood up as they ran by and started looking for a new job. As I walked down the hallway, I concluded that Silicon Valley was an intense place and choosing a company where your co-workers had your back — not chased it — was a big deal.

The key question is always the following: How do you know if your co-workers will be there for you? It’s unlikely that you will “just know” but there are signs that might clue you in even during the interview process. Let’s start by considering what it means to be “there.” I suggest that a perfect match starts with alignment around what integrity means to you and them.

If there is a general co-worker match — you will build trust and that is ultimately the most important relationship trait you will need to be appreciated and protected.

It’s not easy to figure that out how compatible you are before you work together with a team for a year or more and face difficult times. And by difficult times I mean any of the following: there are layoffs, your boss leaves, you really screw something up, etc. I am talking about the type of problems that give you GI problems, exhaust you, but won’t let you sleep.

So here’s what I have discovered after starting or being an early employee of six software companies, working in two large public companies, and living in Silicon Valley for over 20 years. At any point, you can use this simple two-by-two matrix to figure out if your colleagues will support you by understanding yourself and asking them a few simple questions as well.

I would add three bullet points for yourself in each box and then do the same for your key co-workers. Where do you match up and where are there significant differences? There is no simple model for success because in some areas, similarity will help and in others, you are looking for greater balance. I have tried to provide a guide for each. Let me explain what each section represents and how I recommend you use it.

Integrity (look for alignment)

Most folks want to do well — while treating others well. The best type of winning comes with integrity. The integrity part is easy most of the time because you are not usually presented with situations that test your values to treat people with respect and play fairly. But over time, especially when times are tough, your integrity will be tested.

Integrity is at the core of this model, because everything vectors from it. You can even have wide differences in many of the areas described below — but it you have different moral fabrics, you are headed for trouble.

You should listen closely to what your colleagues say and how they behave when times are tough. For example, do they lie about the number of paying customers you have or how they are progressing against a goal? How would you think about dealing with an under-performing employee? How would you respond to a competitor who trashes you via Twitter?

Ability (look for diversity)

The key here is to honestly assess what skills you bring to the team. Consider two different questions. First, what exceptional skills do I truly have? Second, does the team need those skills now? In an ideal world, you would have close to zero ability overlap with others on the team. The only overlap that is truly acceptable early on in companies is technical chops. You are looking for balance across the required skill sets needed to do a great job as a team. Look for historical proof that you and your co-worker’s skills are unique.

Emotion (look for diversity within a range)

I thought I wanted to be a psychologist in college until I spent a summer working in a lab at U.C. Berkeley, coding the facial reactions of toddlers when they were presented with various age- appropriate images. So, that’s a way of saying I am no shrink, but I do think if you give me a bit of time I can understand someone’s emotional structure. This ends up being an important “soft skill.” Working well with any team is hard. This means you need to peer into the heart of your co-workers. So, get real and start talking about your feelings and how you react to stressful situations. What’s the half-life of your anger when something really pisses you off? What does soul-busting failure do to you? What is the most difficult emotional matter you have had to overcome? There is no perfect model but by gaining some emotional intelligence about each other, you can better understand the team’s emotional intelligence and the blind spots.

Aspirations (look mostly for alignment)

This might be the easiest one to get at because people are mostly willing to talk about where they are headed — if they have thought about it. And even if they have not — casual conversation often reveals interests and ambitions that are unrelated to work. We all tend work for a higher purpose, so if you can understand what your co-workers think comes next, you will know if you are aligned and what they might be willing to crawl over you to get to. Try to answer the following questions here, starting with yourself: what are you trying to accomplish in your current role and where do you see yourselves in five years?

Habits (look mostly for alignment)

Whoever said “ignore the little things” never worked in a cube city. I know because there was the guy who chewed tobacco at one of our companies and carried around a spit can, or the guy who snarfed food continuously between sales calls and threw what he did not want under the desk, and of course the multitude of folks over the years who have feared soap and water. These are extreme cases, but you need to be able to work closely with your colleagues. And this means you actually need to see and speak with one another regularly to collaborate and get work done. While you probably do not have to worry about leaving the toilet up or down or other types of bothersome personal routines, doing well is about some brilliance and performing the mundane well. Little annoyances can be big distractions.

So, that is my guide to understanding if your co-workers will have your back, or more importantly, if you will likely work well together for the long haul. I hope it helps you look for the key signs. Unfortunately, teams are fragile and sometimes destructive, but you can tilt the odds towards being productive and happy if you are aligned and understand the areas where you are not.
Brian de Haaff

Brian de Haaff

Brian seeks business and wilderness adventure. He is the co-founder and CEO of Aha! — the world’s #1 product development software — and the author of the bestseller Lovability and The Startup Adventure newsletter. Brian writes and speaks about product and company growth and the journey of pursuing a meaningful life.

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