Founder advice
7 tips for meaningful conversations, self-care and keeping emotionally fit
In the spirit of taking care of ourselves and checking in on others, we looked to those leading by example for ideas.

Startup founders and teams have it tough on the best of days. Chasing momentum, flywheel effects, traction, and hockey stick charts all stand in contrast to the stagnation many have felt for the last 18 months.

Today is R U OK Day, and it’s great opportunity to down tools and check in with each other. If the idea of not knowing how to respond when someone isn’t OK is daunting, you can learn how to prepare for these conversations here.

In the spirit of meaningful conversation, checking in on each other and keeping emotionally fit, we’ve sourced tips on how to do all that from those leading by example.

Hustle sustainably

After founding Coa, Dr Emily Anhalt, a psychologist who has been working with founders in Silicon Valley for more than a decade, started to experience firsthand the ups and downs of building a company.

Hustle-porn culture means burnout has become proof of dedication, and no one blinks an eye when a founder loses sleep, relationships or a sense of reality. It can feel like the success of your startup is tied to your willingness to sacrifice your mental health.

“The very traits that make a founder successful can become the root cause of their challenges,” says Dr Emily. “Strengths, when left unchecked, often become weaknesses — which is why self-awareness is so essential to emotional fitness, strong leadership and entrepreneurial success.”

It’s an unhealthy dynamic and an easy trap to fall into. If your strengths are starting to fuel burnout rather than success, take note:

Read your emotions

Read your emails. Read the room. Read that contract. What about reading your emotions?

Justin Kan, Cofounder of Twitch, summed up how he reads his emotions in this LinkedIn post:

If you’re struggling with getting a read on your emotions, try naming what you’re feeling first. Naming our emotions — what psychologists call labelling — is the first step to dealing with our emotions effectively, which is a key leadership skill.

It can be hard to put language around our experiences, but filing all the emotions we face under giant umbrellas like “stress” doesn’t help. What does help is if you identify what is underlying that “stress”. Is it actually disappointment or exhaustion? Once you start noticing the cause of the emotion, you can recognise what you need to put in place to deal with it.

There’s also mounting evidence that taking a deeper dive into our thoughts and feelings promotes beneficial biological changes in the brain at a cellular level. On the flip side, avoiding our feelings comes at a cost in the form of lower wellbeing and physical symptoms of stress, like headaches.

Looking for the right word to label your emotion? Start here:

Source: Susan David for HBR

It’s just as important to do this with “positive” emotions too. Being able to say that you’re excited about launching your startup (not just “nervous”) or inspired by your cofounder (not just “they’re nice”) helps you set your intentions for what you want to achieve and your relationships.

Create a culture of kindness

You can be the start of a domino effect in acts of kindness. Research shows that when people receive an act of kindness, they pay it back — not just to the same person, but often to someone entirely new. For founders especially, just imagine the behaviours you could cultivate as part of your company culture from doing good deeds.

When you’re focused on going from zero to one, it’s important to take a step back, celebrate the wins and reflect on the progress you’ve made. We were inspired by this post from Jennie Rogerson, Leadership Operations at Canva, on the importance of being kind at work.

While we all figure out our way through the pandemic, acts of kindness are the social glue that helps us build and enhance our connections. We loved these suggestions for how to incorporate kindness in your day wherever you are:

  • Take an extra minute to show curiosity. When all your interactions happen via Slack or in online meeting slots, we tend to jump straight to the point. Looking for an alternative to asking How are you? What’s one thing you’re looking forward to? What made you laugh today? What have you been listening to?
  • Schedule meetings at a time that works for everyone (where possible!). Factors in things like time zones, school drop off and pick up and “no meeting” days.
  • Acknowledge you’ve received a message on Slack, even when you’re busy. An emoji goes a long way when people are working remotely.

Share your story

For many, the most challenging part of R U OK? Day is saying you’re not OK. For some, it’s easier to put pen to paper and start a journal. For others, it’s easier to confide in someone they don’t know via the many support services available.

Finding the courage to have a conversation with someone you know is made a whole lot easier when we know we’re not alone and we know we’ll be met with empathy.

Mitch King, Head of Talent Acquisition at LinkTree, candidly shared his experience and what a difference it can make when you see other people sharing their stories.

As a leader, sharing your story may feel vulnerable, as you have to get in touch with uncomfortable or painful emotions. But it helps you respond with empathy and connect with others over shared feelings. Great leadership relies upon vulnerability, as it requires courage and honesty. Brene Brown describes emotional vulnerability as the birthplace of innovation, creativity and change. Any founder setting out to change the world must choose the adventure of being brave and afraid at the exact same time.

Do you want comfort or solutions?

This one’s not just for personal relationships. Regardless of whether you’re doing the talking or the listening, you can stop a conversation from going round and round in circles by knowing what the other person wants, rather than brainstorming solutions while the other person is trying to vent.

Don’t waste time crafting a fail-proof solution to improving metrics or mediating a work squabble when all the other person wants is to get their frustrations off their chest and hear you say, “Damn, totally”.

When you’re chatting to a colleague, here’s some tips on what to do, based on what they want.

If they want you to listen:

  • Don’t hijack the conversation with anecdotes about yourself.
  • Help them shape their thoughts and feelings by asking questions, e.g. “What do you wish you could change about this situation?”

If they want solutions:

  • If you’ve been in a similar situation, share your learnings about how you navigated it.
  • Think about people in your network who you know could help, and offer to connect them.

Savour the moment and find flow

Psychologists think about mental health on a spectrum from depression to flourishing. Conversations often focus on these extremes, skipping over the middle ground: languishing. If you’ve felt like you’re not operating at 100%, you’re having trouble concentrating and your motivation has dulled, you probably know what we’re talking about.

The real danger with languishing is that with a never-ending to-do list and the #hustle of startup life, we might not notice things dulling or the malaise creeps in. Here’s where naming our emotions comes in handy: if we acknowledge the feeling of languishing, we can do something about it. One antidote to the feeling of languishing is savouring.

Amy Brown, Chief Executive Officer at Invest NSW, shared her experience of shifting feelings of “languishing” to being present and “savouring” the moment in a LinkedIn post.

Building on savouring the moment, Organisational Psychologist Adam Grant, who put languishing on the map last year in an article he wrote for the New York Times, explores “How to stop languishing and start finding flow” in his latest TED Talk.

When you’re absorbed in an activity like cooking or gardening, you get transported to a different world. We find peak flow when there is mindfulness, mastery and mattering. Find something you love to focus your attention on, celebrate the little victories and share those with the people around you.

Turn off your camera

Some more wisdom from Adam: the research is in, and having our camera on all day in meetings isn’t doing us any favours. The feeling of being “watched” increases the need to manage impressions, directing focus inwards and inducing fatigue.

For founders and leaders thinking about diversity and inclusion, “camera on” mandates may be causing more harm than good, particularly for women and those newer to your team. The research found that women feel a heightened pressure to demonstrate competence and meet societal appearance standards. Newer employees feel the need to put their best foot forward to shed their newbie status.

It’s not to say you should never have the camera on, especially if there’s dogs or a good view involved. Just give yourself and your team permission to switch it off if it’s not 100% needed.

If you need help or support, please call Lifeline on 13 11 14 or chat online.

Looking to speak to an expert? Check out our Open Source VC Mental Health and Wellbeing Support List.

Additional reading & listening

🎧Below the line
📖The 15 Commitment of Conscious Leadership
📖The Happiness Hypothesis

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