We can all learn from Andy Dunn, the cofounder and CEO of Bonobos, when he shares that the biggest challenge in growing the company over the last seven years has been, "Me. Managing me is the biggest problem."
It takes a confident and self-aware CEO to acknowledge his flaws, and I recently had the pleasure of interviewing Andy in depth to discuss how a founder and CEO can and must manage your own psychology in order to grow in tandem with your business .
Bonobos is an online menswear company with a focus on great customer service that has evolved to include brick-and-mortar stores. To date, Dunn has raised more than $127 million in venture capital funding, completed a deal with Nordstrom to sell in all 118 doors, and opened 10 Guide Shops around the country. Bonobos has doubled its sales each of the last five years. *Full disclosure: I am an angel investor in Bonobos, and Andy Dunn is a good friend of mine, so I am both financially and emotionally biased.
According to Andy, his ability to grow as an individual and a leader while growing the company is a key component to his success.
He expanded, "The normal human response is to not think too much about the things that you suck at because it's painful and can potentially degrade your self-esteem, but ignoring those things will make it impossible to lead. That's the reason most founders don't last as the CEO of their own company."
Andy shared the seven emotional states he believes are the most important for every entrepreneur to manage:
"Most leaders think that, as a leader, you can't show vulnerability, but the reality is this is only part true. You can show it in so far as it inspires people to follow you and makes you more human but [if] you overdue it, you are at odds with good judgment." Andy's advice is to "share small pieces of vulnerability with the group." For example, he recently received a tough review that said he was only meeting expectations. He said that sharing it with his team was a very connecting moment. Many employees approached him afterwards and expressed their positive feelings about the CEO also being subject to review and that he shared his results. Andy made it easier to connect with him as a leader in this vulnerable moment; he also led by example, showing employees how to handle feedback with grace.
According to Andy, "Self-pity is the most unhelpful leadership emotion. There is nowhere to put it, because no one cares. It makes you sound like you care more about yourself when one of the core functions of a leader is to care more about others." Unlike vulnerability, Andy says it's not helpful to share self-pity when you're the leader "Going and complaining about your life as a leader is a very bad thing to do." Instead, he recommends you get yourself out of it privately.
So what do you do when that emotion is there? Andy's solution is creativity; "The best thing is to work your way out of it. My role model is David Remnick, the chief of the New Yorker. When he's in a bad mood he goes into his office, closes his door and cranks out superb individual contribution pieces. He takes that energy and just puts himself in an immersive experience of creating something."
"If you make an individual contribution of some kind, you will change the way you feel about yourself. You will go from feeling bad about yourself to creating something, and then you don't feel self-pity, all of a sudden you might feel grateful for your job."
Like self-pity, Andy believes anger is dangerous because it doesn't inspire people. "In my experience, usually what's happening is I've got the wrong person in a role." Andy believes the best rule to follow is "If you're angry, it's your fault...If you employed someone who doesn't share your core values and isn't a fit for your culture, you need to take responsibility for your hire." Instead of spreading blame, Andy empowers himself to handle the situation and says "it's not helpful to share the anger, get calm first, and then have the discussion."
"No one is more afraid than the founder of a company. Fear of failure declines as you move down in an organization. Your leadership team will be pretty afraid too, because of the economic stakes and their livelihood." Andy said one of the biggest mistakes he made early on was to assume everyone else was as afraid as he was. He counts one of his biggest gaffes as a leader when he made a presentation that everyone needed to be more afraid. It backfired, and his then VP Engineering resigned in a vote of no-confidence on Andy's ability to lead.
In the end, people prefer to be motivated by joy and attaining goals, not by fear. See next point.
As a leader, you want to find authentic ways to motivate through joy. Andy recommends hiring people who naturally hold themselves to a very high standard, and then praise them with very specific feedback when they do well. "Build a culture of recognition: from little hand written notes to one-line emails to larger team-wide awards, there are no diminishing returns to specific positive feedback . People think they can't be nice all the time and build a good company. That is simply not true. As your organization scales, your praise and recognition will only mean more. The more you can put time into a daily practice of telling people what they are doing well, you'll create a culture of positivity and that's the best way to motivate people in the long term." Plus, Andy said a wonderful side benefit of motivating people with praise is that he went from not feeling like himself on the job to feeling that he's an authentically positive person. "And if I can feel positive, I will be happier as a leader."
Dunn's perspective is "You have to be careful with doubt. You need to engage it enough to be able to be intellectually honest about the things you need to change, but not so much that it hampers your ability to move forward. Some decisions are genuinely 50/50 calls. These are the hardest. It's easy when you can resolve your question with an experiment, so you can test your way into the right answer. The real challenge comes when you can't really test it: Asking a Co-Founder to leave. Making a huge change in strategy. Deciding not to sell the company. For those moments it's best to realize that your job is supposed to be hard because everyone is betting on your judgment, and at some point you have to stop agonizing and make the call. The good news is that if your call is right, no one will remember the dilemma. And if your call is wrong, you can look at it as a learning opportunity. It's only for the risks not taken that people feel regret."
7. Tenacity. (This is an attitude, not an emotion, but why stop a list of 7 things short?)
Andy believes a tenacious determination is the number one predictor of success. "Ask the great CEOs what they have in common and they all say one thing, they didn't quit . There isn't some secret recipe to being a great leader, it's all about survival. Don't give up. No matter what is happening in the world around you, never give up. Have hope for yourself that you'll figure it out. Fundamentally, if you keep doing it, you'll get there."
Vanessa Loder is an entrepreneur, empowerment coach and writer whose company, Akoya Power, supports women in creating fulfilling lives aligned with their passions and values.
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