Today was a very odd first day back at work. I’m kicking off 2012 not as CEO of a startup (OneRiot was acquired by Walmart), or even the leader of a standalone business unit. Instead I’m a cog in the wheel of a big company’s machine. For the last 10 years I would have spent the last week thinking: how do I make sure the troops are fired up on day 1? This time I’ve been thinking: I wonder what they’ll want me to do this year?
Asking that different question has got me thinking about what we did (or at least, what we should have done) at OneRiot in an attempt to kick the year off with a bang, rather than stumble into January with hazy, post-holiday hangover. Getting everyone pumped up fast about this year’s plan of attack is critical. So how did we do that?
1 – Start communicating this year’s plan last year
Whether this year’s plan of attack involves new products, bigger numbers, radical shifts in strategy, or simply a refinement of a familiar theme… start communicating it to everyone in December. Even if they’re away on vacation, team members will spend some time between Xmas and New Year thinking about the year ahead. Painting the big picture in December means everyone will spend that time thinking about stuff that is directionally correct, rather than mentally running off into random territory (or, worse, thinking that there is no plan).
2 – Re-iterate the plan on the first day back
Getting everyone in a room the first day back, and then delivering a clear, concise and energetic overview of the plan, is key.
A - It sets the immediate tone. “We’re back, and we mean business.”
B - It clarifies. If things weren’t understood by anyone in December, or became fuzzy over the holidays, this is a second chance to discuss and align and make things crystal clear.
C - If needed, it can also reignite the camaraderie that’s critical in a startup. Folks may well have been away, spent time with family, or generally fallen out of the habit of working closely with colleagues. An all-hands on day 1 is a great way to get everyone back into that habit, fast.
3 – Make the plan clear
Setting out the plan of attack for the year ahead is not a time for fuzziness. Folks want clear objectives, clear goals, backed up by a strong sense of how the company is going to get there. Even the bits that are not yet clear can be communicated clearly. For example, if you are going to turn on a revenue model in Q3, but don’t know what exactly it is yet… state that. Clearly. “Determine and agree revenue model by end of Q1. Roll out to users by mid Q3.” It lets everyone clearly know that something awesome is coming. It lets everyone clearly know that the time for ideas is now. And it lets everyone clearly know that we’ll all be heads down executing an agreed approach 3 months from now. It also clearly explains why the specifics don’t exist yet (i.e. because the thinking-about-what-it-is bit is yet to be done) and, also, why that’s absolutely fine.
4 – Make the plan – and the presentation of the plan – concise
No-one wants to sit through hours of Powerpoint presentation. Especially on the first day back. Less is more. But creating something kickass that is concise can take a lot of preparation time – so make sure you put in the effort in advance. Cramming potentially complex plans into easily digestible presentations can be hard. Frequently, to counter potential complexity, we would use a simple “business framework” to communicate. This would clearly illustrate the big levers in our business, and describe what we were doing to pull them. So even if pieces of the micro detail were missed by some, everyone would walk out of the meeting with an understanding the macro framework. This would do three things.
A - Give everyone an appreciation of how his or her “stuff” fitted in with the bigger picture.
B - Provide a common reference language for future discussions on particular product details (“How does feature X help us pull Lever Y?”).
C - Set the context for any follow up discussions with individuals that were needed to clarify any remaining fuzziness.
5 – Show how your plan for the year is another step along the way to winning
In startups, stuff changes. All the time. If things are going well, you’ll be shifting quickly through the gears of scaling the business or tackling new markets. And even though this means you’re kicking ass, it can often feel like whiplash for many team members who will be in the front line for the new stuff. So it’s key to show how this year’s specific plans make sense in the context of a bigger, stable, strategic picture. It’s key to explain that what can feel like whiplash is actually a desired gear change. (Or, if it really is whiplash because the business is not doing well, and you’re really changing direction, then it’s perhaps even more important to communicate what’s going on and why).
6 – Be prepared to keep communicating the plan
If you did it right, most of the team provided input to this year’s plan – explicitly (because you asked them) or otherwise (because you listened, synthesized, and incorporated the best ideas). But only a few people (maybe only you) really, deeply, “know it” end-to-end before you start communicating. And the only way you can communicate things so clearly is that you have likely soaked in this specific plan 24/7 for weeks. It took you a long time to “get it”. So don’t expect everyone else to get it first time. Be prepared to keep communicating consistently and clearly until everyone really understands – and that might take some time.
I’ve made this mistake so many times it’s painful. I’d communicate once, assume everyone got it, then move on – leaving everyone behind and subsequently getting frustrated when things weren’t being executed to plan. Luckily (finally!) as CEO at OneRiot I learned to slow myself down to speed the company up – by consistently communicating the plan until everyone is soaked in it. Last year, we did 1-on-1s with everyone in the team to review the plan and discuss their specific role in it. For some folks we did that session two or three times. (note: I appreciate that probably only works for a small startup. We had 20 people at OneRiot – so the whole process took a week or so. Different techniques are needed when you have bigger companies, but the basic principal remains the same).
So, in summary, getting people pumped up about this year’s plan of attack requires a lot more work than simply standing up and delivering a single rousing speech. It can take days, even weeks to communicate effectively. But every minute is completely worthwhile if you want a team that’s pulling in the same direction, fast, and feeling like this is the year when they’re going to kick some serious ass.