Communication Breakdown

Over the last few months, I’ve watched three separate episodes of blowups between co-founders or between CEOs and board members. In each case, it’s evident in hindsight that it wasn’t a single act, but historically poor communication which led to pent up anger that ultimately boiled over into fractured relationships. These wrangles have not only caused harm to the individuals, but created collateral damage among the management teams of the companies as well.

During the early years of marriage, many young couples inevitably reach a point where they have to learn to communicate better or watch the foundation of their new relationship begin to crack. Little things like left-open toilet seats, uncapped toothpaste tubes and lights left on foster passive-aggressive behavior until someone explodes over something silly like dirty coffee spoons left on the counter instead of in the sink by their mother-in-law (yup, that was me). Luckily I’m married to Pam, a woman who has patiently taught me to be a better communicator and finally, after more than twenty years together, has been hinting to me lately that her work with me might be nearly completed.

As anyone reading this knows, building startups are indescribably taxing, even among the most functional teams. With everyone moving at warp speed, it’s easy to get frustrated and annoyed by little things that colleagues say and do. As someone who leaned towards passive-aggressive behavior when I was younger, looking back, I know I didn’t always handle these types of situations with patience and understanding. I can think of a couple of valuable relationships in my career that were irreparably harmed through poor communication on both sides. While I’m not big on regret as life is one big learning experience, in hindsight, I’m confident that healthy, open and honest communication would have saved those relationships which mattered a lot to me.

Two years ago, David Cohen told me he wanted to bring in David Brown as our partner to manage the operational growth of Techstars (absolutely brilliant move, he’s an operations ninja). He and David had worked together for almost 25 years across three startups. I soon found myself in a partnership with two people who had been working together since college. The two of them talked like an old married couple while David Brown and I spent the first few months feeling each other out. We certainly had our share of miscommunications (and still do) but we quickly developed a real knack for diffusing them in real-time or shortly thereafter. “Hey, when you said yada yada about that thing this is how it sounded to me” or “Your email to me earlier today felt a little off, is everything ok?” has become the norm between us. It’s fostered an incredible working relationship and a deep mutual respect.

After a couple of decades of being around management teams and boards of startups, it’s clear to me that healthy communication is a big stumbling block for many and causes a good deal of harm not only to the two parties, but the momentum of the company itself. If you see it happening in your company, you might want to consider bringing in a coach like Jerry Colonna and his team at Reeboot.io who can help a team get through these issues.

Halfway through my 50th trip around the sun, I’m far more focused on quality, high-functioning relationships than being right or getting my way these days. As those close to me might attest, I still have my moments, but I’ve learned that being thoughtful, proactive and choosing my words carefully produces much better outcomes than the power play of passive-aggressive behavior or the instant gratification of lashing out.