The Founder's Paradox: How to Maintain Urgency When You Are Not Pressured
There is always more to do. When you are in startup mode, there are clear and ongoing existential pressures. Those who survive set the right priorities and deliver what is needed. Everything is go-go because slowing down has a real consequence. And if you work hard and are fortunate, your business takes off. You go from scrappy to prosperous and the pressures start to fade. You become sustainable.
How do you instill a sense of urgency in an incredibly successful organization — so that everyone always feels energized and committed to rapid value creation?
"Success breeds complacency. Complacency breeds failure. Only the paranoid survive." This quote is often attributed to Andrew Grove, the former president, CEO, and chairman of the board of Intel Corporation. It has become a sort of battle cry for entrepreneurs and business leaders and I can see why. To create something meaningful and do what others have not, you must have an energy that does not quit.
But urgency is not always given if you have gained a market leadership position. I know because I have worked for a number of market leaders who slowed down and still held onto their advantage for years. The momentum that they had initially built managed to keep moving them forward. And even if you are operating in a dynamic space, with evolving market demands and an environment of disruption, the slowdown can happen.
It is up to founders and company leaders to burn complacency down wherever it starts to take root.
Now some people might think urgency is really anxiety in disguise. Creating artificial pressure can lead to a toxic work environment. But I am referring to a "good anxiety" or a type of productive insistence — which can keep ambitious people motivated and lead to more growth for everyone. It is what keeps people striving, never settling for just good enough. The best leaders I have known instinctively encourage urgent mindsets and action across the organization.
Besides, it is worth thinking about what a laissez-faire mentality is actually saying to your team. When there is no one driving that sense of importance, then the message is effectively: Our vision of the future is less ambitious and our goals are limited. Working with urgency is no longer needed.
It is easy to see why great teams want to rest and can get comfortable doing it. Turning a breakthrough idea into a viable business takes a lot of effort and it can be exhausting. Think about how you can prioritize urgency 10 years from now as your success grows.
I feel fortunate that we recognized the need for it early on and we were able to cement this thinking into the Aha! culture. We knew it was vital enough that we started to document what a framework for our team could look like. This became The Responsive Method and the principles still serve and guide the team today. It is how we are able to keep pace — delivering weekly product enhancements to our customers, responding to customers in less than two hours, and responding to problems immediately when the need is fresh.
It is a virtuous cycle. The more you operationalize and reinforce, the more teammates will be able to encourage each other to not wait. Here is what I have found to be helpful for company leaders when setting that tone:
Your focus and cadence matter more than you think. Lead through action. Review work and respond to questions quickly. Know that your attitude is impactful too. Showing calm confidence while communicating urgency is a delicate balance. Consider how you can light a fire that sparks excitement, not dread, about the need to move fast. Focus on what rapid achievement means to individuals, customers, and the team.
Confident decisions are critical. This is where having a goal-first approach can help you give the team what they need to keep going. I mentally process or even jot down the pros and cons of a given decision so that I can accelerate the decision-making process. And if you find the same challenges keep popping up, document an approach or create templates so people can follow them on their own.
Drama is a distraction and often leads to sluggishness. When you find it, stop to think about why it might be popping up. It is important for leaders to get continual feedback and understand the root issues — what challenges might be slowing people down. Make it possible for anyone on the team to bring up an idea or issue when it arises. You do not want anything to prevent people from highlighting opportunities or problems that need attention.
Be the details
You have to stay really close to everything that is happening. I know that this is counterintuitive in some ways. But I have written before about how micromanaging in the early days is essential. Your vision and values will guide the team when you cannot be involved in everything. Trust that the details people bring to you are real and need your attention.
Urgency without rest is unsustainable. You want to encourage quick breaks so that people can replenish without losing connection to the company's mission or the team. We have increased the amount of paid time we offer at Aha! and use our onsites to create midyear breaks that rejuvenate the team. This one is its own paradox though — when urgency is a driving force, the harmony between action and rest can be hard to perfect.
Keep it light
Building a company is an adventure. Have some fun along the way — this is our one life. Show that you enjoy the thrill so others can find their own fulfillment and joy. Remind people that they are supported by the rest of the team and other company leaders. This is how you avoid turning productive urgency into pressure.
When you can harness your own excitement and intensity in a lasting way, it can unleash everyone to achieve more together.
Urgency will atrophy in the presence of comfort and absence of concern. That is why focusing the team on the importance of achieving right now is some of the most important work leaders do. If you have built a culture of action that continually pursues outstanding achievement, you will be resilient and truly lasting.
Read more of The Founder's Paradox.