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How to lead during times of change — Quartz at Work

How to lead during times of change — Quartz at Work

Within the final 18 months, my firm has modified its identify from the Unreasonable Institute to Uncharted, modified its enterprise mannequin, misplaced two-thirds of its administration group, and almost ran out of cash.

I turned CEO when there have been solely 90 days of monetary runway left earlier than we would wish to lay off the group.

Ultimately, we discovered strong floor. Whereas beforehand we had funded startups with social impression, we shifted our technique to construct groups that assault issues like meals deserts and concrete poverty from a number of angles. After elevating virtually $1 million of funding for our new imaginative and prescient, we have been in a position to double the dimensions of our workforce fairly than letting individuals go. However the transition was understandably uncomfortable for everybody.

As people, we don’t like being within the in-between area of our present actuality and our future hopes.

As people, we don’t like being within the in-between area of our present actuality and our future hopes. We really feel uncovered and unsettled. My first yr as CEO was painful, joyful, unsure, and invigorating. I made errors. I discovered. I found reserves of resilience I didn’t know existed.

Many growth-stage organizations like ours undergo transitions, and I needed to share what I discovered from the expertise. To be trustworthy, I’m additionally scripting this for myself and our group’s future leaders, so when the subsequent transition comes, we now have a reminder of what helped this time.


Timing issues: I shortly discovered that the timing of my communication was simply as necessary because the message itself. Although I all the time strove to be open and trustworthy, typically I held again info as a result of I believed that—at that point—it will forestall our staff from doing their greatest work or would trigger pointless nervousness. Listed here are two situations the place I discovered that timing was particularly essential:

  • New Concepts: As our impression mannequin and enterprise mannequin shifted, I had dozens of conversations with numerous exterior companions and supporters. Typically I might come again to the staff and share a number of new concepts. For a group that was already navigating a considerable transition, these new—and typically conflicting—concepts have been disorienting. “Wait … are we doing that now?” I discovered that an organization’s management wants to contemplate the emotional influence of communication. Is a bit of info useful to the individual receiving it? How may it hinder her or him? The considerate consideration of these questions just isn’t at odds with a tradition of openness and honesty.
  • Troublesome information: There was a second final yr when our runway was brief and we have been contemplating giving the staff choices to scale back their weekly hours. I used to be within the center of a three-week fundraising journey, and I debated with the administration staff about whether or not I ought to cease fundraising and return house to converse to everybody concerning the choices in individual (or if we should always wait till my journey was over).I made the choice to pause the fundraising journey and booked a flight residence. I knew delivering the information in individual was the best factor to do, despite the fact that I used to be afraid to do it.Finally I didn’t have to ship the information in any case. I canceled the assembly a couple of days later when new funding got here in.

Make fewer guarantees. However make them extra particular: I felt a robust want to encourage our group, assist them uncover the optimism I had, or perhaps simply to vocalize optimism, hoping it might increase the feeble hope I had on days once I was afraid. It was tempting to toss round encouraging guarantees. However finally, I misplaced some of the group’s belief by making guarantees that we weren’t in a position to fulfill. My staff later advised me there was a way of, “yeah, the leadership is saying that, but I’ll believe it when I see it.”

In moments of transition, when issues are shifting and uncomfortable, a promise looks like the most cost effective and best type of encouragement and the quickest shortcut again to stability (“Once we get through all this stuff, we will be able to hire again!”). However an empty promise, whereas tempting for its short-term reward, is finally damaging long-term.

In fact the group wants to know that leaders are considering long-term about what’s subsequent, however a reliable chief with out the right plan is best than an untrustworthy chief with one. I discovered that I wanted to make my guarantees grounded, outcome-based, and time-bound.

When you’ll be able to’t make the promise that you really want to make, it’s higher to make a extra reasonable promise: “I don’t know when we will be able to do x,y,z, but I can promise you that in two weeks, during our next check-in, I will give you an update.”

Consistency > Inspiration: In 2017, there was a common, high-level alignment on our group about our new course. However past that high-level alignment, there have been specifics that have been unclear and wanted to be ironed out. Members of the administration group had totally different concepts about how we might handle them. This prompted confusion and disorientation for the remaining of the group.

In times of transition, when issues are up within the air, consistency of message from a number of individuals is extra essential than instilling one-off inspiration or buy-in. Administration ought to ask itself:

  • Is there a constant message we will talk to the staff proper now?
  • What’s unresolved or undefined, and the way can we truthfully talk—with consistency—our progress to resolve and outline it?

Pay attention in one-on-one conferences, and converse once you’re with the entire staff: One-on-one conferences with teammates have been instrumental in understanding how the group was feeling. It was tempting during these conversations to share progress, the newest inspiring dialog, or one thing irritating that lately occurred. I discovered that these conversations ought to as an alternative be targeted on listening and understanding.

On a retreat earlier this yr, the staff identified that I used to be sharing info associated to technique, our monetary runway, or our upcoming plans inconsistently. I might share it with one individual, after which neglect to point out it to another person.

When it comes to delivering essential information to the group, I now both ship it quickly in back-to-back one-on-one conferences, so everybody is aware of the information inside a couple of hours of one another, or just wait till full-team conferences to talk it.


Determine and help a cultural chief: Through the interval by which we had determined to change our identify, however had not but settled on the brand new identify, we felt placeless and faceless, like we have been at an in-between stage of id.

We have been lucky to have a member of our staff who lived and breathed our tradition and continuously introduced us again to these unchanging rules of our organizational id (and in addition reminded us to have enjoyable—even shocking us with an sudden “Waffle Wednesday” waffle bar one morning).

In 2017, I didn’t have the notice to cost somebody with turning into a cultural ballast to the workforce, however our teammate did it anyway, perceptively figuring out the necessity. Listed here are questions that could be useful when enthusiastic about how to help a cultural chief:

  • What cultural practices have we all the time carried out that we will proceed to do?
  • What about our group is unchanging? How can we create experiences and occasions for the group to reconnect with these sacred and unchanging elements of our id?
  • What widespread language can we use that helps floor the group during moments of transition?
  • What tales can we come again to that assist situate this transition in a bigger context? Are there organizational mythologies that everybody is aware of that must be resurfaced?

Acknowledge the emotional expertise of transition: Our branding company, Briteweb, had led organizations by way of rebranding processes earlier than, so it knew to acknowledge the emotion surrounding the expertise. Early within the course of, the company led us by means of an train the place every of us wrote personalised, confidential thank-you notes to the identify “Unreasonable Institute” for what it meant to us. These notes enabled us to honor the place we had come from, whereas additionally bringing a way of closure.

Within the days earlier than we modified our identify, our staff gathered to speak by means of what Unreasonable Institute meant to us, what we needed to deliver with us going ahead into Uncharted, what we needed to depart behind, and the way we’d contemplate this organizational transition as a catalyst for our personal skilled improvement and progress.

Create new tales and magic: Preserving what’s sacred concerning the present tradition is essential, however so is boldly stepping ahead into the longer term with new dynamics, tales, and magic. In The Energy of Moments, Chip and Dan Heath advocate “breaking the script” in a means that shifts individuals out of the snug approach issues have all the time been. Listed here are 3 ways we broke the script:

  • Dynamics: On the primary workday of 2018, we informed the workforce we have been going to re-organize our workplace and change the desk format. On the identical day, we advised the staff we needed to “go on the offensive in 2018.” They cleverly shortened it to the mantra “Be Offensive,” which turned half of our day by day vocabulary.
  • Tales: On the night time after we modified our identify, all of us went out and celebrated with cake, photographs of tequila, and a dose of ridiculousness that was sudden for a Tuesday night time. It was a night that has created a number of moments of joyful reminiscing since.
  • Magic: In 2017, our complete staff conspired to prank a teammate over the course of almost two months. The prank was completely non-essential, overly refined, and delightfully enjoyable (it’s onerous to clarify—e mail me if you’d like to know the play-by-play). We have been busy and had greater than sufficient to do, nevertheless it was too good of a chance to move up so the whole staff obtained in on it. Typically what’s most frivolous is what’s most necessary, just because it creates the connective tissue that bonds groups collectively.


Take the lengthy view: Once we have been contemplating the identify “Uncharted,” I used to be most involved that it was too shut to “Unreasonable Institute.” I needed us to make a considerable step away from our previous id, and this prefix factor was a big hold-up for me. However now that it’s been over a yr, I’m surprised by how little that appears to matter.

That’s the attitude of hindsight. However in times of transition, when issues really feel muddled and disorienting, how can we—as leaders—make selections which are sober and sensible within the long-term? Two approaches helped us to floor our decision-making schools.

  • Take the lengthy view: One of probably the most useful questions I requested myself was “What would our successors—the people in our roles 10 years from now—want us to do right now?” That helped me see that 10 years from now, the widespread prefix “Un” in Uncharted and Unreasonable Institute wouldn’t be an enormous deal at all. Nobody would care, and only a few would affiliate the 2.
  • State your bias: When our administration workforce was making strategic selections, we first defined to one another how we is perhaps biased or inclined to draw a selected inclusion. Our private preferences for sure outcomes would come out a method or one other, so it was higher to acknowledge these at the outset. Doing so allowed different decision-makers to assist make sure the bias didn’t overpower sound decision-making and evaluation.

We additionally requested ourselves the query: “What would have to be true for you to change your mind?” Doing so pressured us to contemplate what would make the opposite place the higher choice.

Know the distinction between wartime and peacetime selections: Merely acknowledging that 2017 was not “business as usual” helped me get via it. Listed here are two rules to contemplate when making selections during a transition.

  • Remind your self that the majority selections are reversible. In his annual letter to shareholders in 2016, Jeff Bezos wrote that the majority selections are reversible, so decision-making ought to be sped up. If it’s the fallacious determination, generally you’ll be able to right it later. The “reversibility” of a choice means a decision-maker ought to decide, however maintain it loosely. The secret is then to “set a gate” at a future date to re-evaluate the choice.
  • What are your non-negotiables? With massive selections, I discovered it useful to type my preferences into “nice-to-haves” and “need-to-haves.” Doing so invoked a vital pragmatism.

Private Care

Discover an exterior confidant: Final yr was the toughest yr of my skilled life. There have been many days when it felt like I used to be standing within the hole between who we used to be and who we needed to be, and that hole by some means was widening, not narrowing.

I’m somebody who advantages from externally processing the happenings of my life. It was tempting for me to go to members of the group with my worries (in any case, they knew higher than anybody else all that was happening), however I sought out an exterior confidant who was a sounding board and truth-teller for me.

Discover lightness and id outdoors of work: There have been extra late nights than I’d like to admit final yr, however there have been additionally times when I discovered lightness outdoors of work: a weekend with my closest pals from school the place we didn’t speak about work at all; an prolonged tenting journey within the Canadian Rockies; and my season-long ardour (and supreme tragic disappointment) within the Colorado Rockies baseball staff.

Defending my capability to see myself as an individual altogether greater than my job title has helped me to put my work—and this yr of transition—in context.

Give your self some grace: It’s tempting to really feel like each determination, assembly, and second is critically essential and irreversible. I’m arduous on myself, and I anticipate a degree of efficiency from myself that I don’t anticipate from anybody else. Wanting again at 2017, I might have felt much less stress and nervousness if I had simply prolonged a bit extra grace to myself all year long.

One of our teammates noticed my inclination to be unnecessarily self-critical and set a day by day activity for me to remind myself of one thing of which I used to be proud. On the finish of every day, I might see that activity and check out to remind myself that it was okay to be proud of how I spoke in that assembly, approached that dialog, or processed that call. Over time, I didn’t want the duties as a lot, and I slowly started to see that even amidst a lot shifting, there have been moments I might be proud of the best way I confirmed up.

Banks Benitez is the CEO of Uncharted.