Last Saturday I invited a former Oliver Wyman consulting colleague and friend of mine, Lisa Cousins over to help me think through my Q2 plans and long-term strategy for my business. Yep, even business coaches and advisors like me need outside help in strategizing to succeed in business. Lisa is a super-bright Harvard MBA and has worked in both large firms like Oliver Wyman and Disney and now is at a startup, so she sees both perspectives. We did this work while sitting on the couch in my living room using big flip charts I keep around for getting ideas on paper.

What good looks like

What struck me was how different expectations are for What Good Looks Like (#WGLL) in large corporations vs. startups. The standards are wildly different, yet appropriate for each context. In my experience there is a lot startups can learn from big companies in terms of business practices and standards, and many large corporations would be well-served to take on more agile and focused startup behaviors. 

I’ve seen a number of people exit corporations to launch startups. One of the many challenges formerly corporate employee, now startup founders face (nearly all of the problems I had in my last corporate job have vanished and instead I have inherited an entirely new pile of problems - more on that another time) is reframing expectations for success. It is extremely difficult to know if what you are doing is adequate because in startups there is often no “bar” for performance. This is because you don’t have a manager, have never done it before, perhaps it has never been done before, or there are no other comparable standards for success. So know that not knowing how well you are doing is a common experience. Even worse is when non-entrepreneurs ask the dreaded "how is it going?" question!

Corporate vs. startup
In my corporate days at places like Lockheed Martin and Marsh (as well as observing dozens of similar-sized clients I consulted to) #WGLL was often: detailed, complex, with certainty, littered with dependencies, blessed by everyone, global, and thorough. In startups #WGLL is very often: simple, fast, actionable, just-in-time, just enough, decisive, prioritized and with many unknowns. 

What is your #WGLL yardstick?
Entrepreneurs are notorious for being hard on themselves and often fail to recognize or celebrate progress. While this insatiable drive can always keep raising the bar it can also leave startup executives and their teams feeling like losers who never are doing it right. That’s why I am finding it critical to redefine #WGLL in what I am doing. As it relates to my business strategy conversation with Lisa my simple yardstick was “did I move my business forward?” Yes. In fact, in three hours I developed a much more focused picture of my long-term aspirations just by putting it on paper with Lisa’s listening and I walked away with ~10 actionable insights for me to take on in the next three months. If I used the yardstick of a 3-5 year strategic plan with detailed objectives, goals and financial projections like I used to help create in my corporate days, I would have felt like my efforts Saturday were entirely inadequate, yet they weren’t. 

What startup leaders should unlearn:

  • Ensure you have everything figured out before you get started 

  • Always stick to the plan 

  • Make it “comprehensive” - aka have boundless scope and introduce lots of complexity and dependency 

  • Think long-term, multi-year 

  • Use big words, jargon, acronyms and high-dollar words

  • Have different people create the strategy and plan vs. those who execute 

  • Make it dense and detail oriented (think: slide deck or huge project plan) 

What startup leaders need to learn: 

  • Relentlessly prioritize 

  • Simplify

  • Test and try in short loops

  • Act immediately 

  • Communicate it clearly with accessible and commonly understood language 

  • Be okay with items labeled “not now” being figured out later and not halting progress 

  • Make it concise (think: one page) 

Not at a startup?
Even if you aren’t a startup founder or employee you can still take away the #WGLL insight. Apply it to your work and get aligned with your manager when you take on a new assignment, creating a common definition of #WGLL and doing the same when assigning work to others. Perhaps the #WGLL tag will become part of how you communicate within your firm.

Bonus opportunity
Reframing #WGLL is a mindset and practice that can be brought to nearly everything you do. Two bonus points:

  1. Keep this in mind for yourself always. And if you want to be a kick butt manager that is a magnet for talent, work to define #WGLL each time you give a material assignment to one of your employees. Setting clear expectations will help avoid waste (either getting crappy quality work product or having something over-engineered/produced) as well as help your team feel successful knowing where the bar is and acknowledging when they’ve achieved success. 

  2. As your company grows in revenue, funding, footprint, etc. you must continue to reframe #WGLL (read: raise the bar) for you and your team 

Share with others 

How do you define #WGLL in your startup or organization?

Photo Credit: Actual first page of notes from my 3/15/2014 meeting with Lisa - started with a brain dump which I find is a great way to clear space to have a true strategic conversation.