A very successful friend recently confessed that his job was making him sick. He had held big jobs in the past, with the typical stress factors that accompany big jobs, and he had managed just fine. In fact, he had always excelled. But this time was different. The stress of this job was causing him to lose sleep, lose weight, and he swore it was even causing him to lose his hair.
This time, for the first time in his career, he was working for a start-up.
Part of my friend’s stress stemmed from the company’s weekly financial meetings. The purpose of these meetings was to keep employees informed about the business’s cash on hand. Or in this case, the lack thereof. Like many young companies, this start-up was eeking by on the thinnest of financial margins. They were fending off anxious and angry vendors daily. They had missed payroll. More than once. And they were months behind on expense reimbursement checks.
But because of the company’s policy of financial transparency, the owners could point to the bank balance and shrug. What do you want us to do?
I’ll Show You Mine
Loosely viewed, this company is using an Open Book Management tactic. Many companies tout the virtue of Open Book Management and even credit this technique with the success of their company. Made famous in Jack Stack’s book The Great Game of Business, when executed properly OBM empowers and engages employees. It allows informed employees to better forecast the business and make critical decisions. It’s a management tool that gives employees a sense of control over the direction and success of the company.
That is, when the tool is used properly.
This Hammer is for your Head
But that’s not what’s happening at my friend’s start-up. As Stack’s website states, Open Book Management is “not just sharing numbers.” Publicly opening the company’s wallet, only to have moths fly out, is not a management strategy. It’s a scare tactic. It’s the equivalent of standing on a ship’s bridge screaming “iceberg dead ahead” and then asking employees go about their business as usual.
Without other tools in place, management is only sharing the burden of too much information.
The Edge of Reason
The second (I think bigger) issue at play may be a case of square peg, wrong role. Poor management tactics aside, lot’s of start-ups live on the financial edge in the early years. And lots of employees thrive in this “drink now, for tomorrow we die” atmosphere. They happily stand at the edge of the abyss alongside their entrepreneur bosses and plot how many ladders it will take to traverse the crevasse. My friend looks into the abyss and wonders how many ladders he will have to descend to find his 401K.
It’s the difference between a corporate employee and an entrepreneurial one. The entrepreneurial employee understands it ain’t a party until somebody’s broke.
Divorce Made in Heaven
In the courting stage, my friend and the start-up seemed a perfect match. He had industry knowledge, clients and contacts all beneficial to the founders. They had equity to give and the lure of an independent work environment. Both sides got what was promised; but neither side is getting what they need. The problem goes way beyond weekly financial meetings; there are irreconcilable differences at play. My friend’s Fortune 100 brain can’t wrap itself around the inevitable uncertainties that accompany working for a start-up. And the company founders can’t imagine not finding start-up challenges exhilarating.
As enticing as it all looked on paper, it may be time to admit defeat and close the book on this ill-fated business relationship. Before my friend’s sanity joins his hairline in full retreat.
Working for Wonka? Know this: The unique and inevitable stresses that come with a start-up environment are not a fit for everyone. And if you suffer from any of the symptoms my friend describes, there’s a pretty good chance that the environment is not right for you. As a wise famous attorney once said – if the job don’t fit…you must quit. Isn’t that what he said?
(Reprint from FastCompany Magazine)