“If this thing fails, I’m not sure what I’m going to do,” Lance tells me as we finish our first call.. “And under no circumstances can our investors find out what’s going on.”
Par for the course for a mediator to hear, and quite understandable. I give him the assurances of confidentiality and a look at the powerful toolbox we as an experienced mediation team will be drawing from. And this reality check: “I guarantee that at the end of this process there will be change; and I guarantee that not everyone is going to like it.” That’s often how the “team performance sessions” begin when we get called in to support a team in crisis.
He and his cofounders are about to entrust us with some of the most important things in the world to them – their startup dreams and their identities. Sugar coating what they are about to enter into won’t help anyone.
Can a mediator singlehandedly save a company?
I submit – yes, we can! (Superhero cape not included.)
An organization, no matter what size, can find itself facing a conflict so entrenched, so ugly, that a key person is paralyzing the productivity of an entire group, a department is chronically unable to come up with a new idea, or leadership is in such disarray that partners aren’t speaking to each other and some are ready to walk.
For a startup, which by its nature is already on fragile footing and taking risks, negative conflicts like these can literally bring a company to its knees. Mediation is the tool that can help people come to the table, get clear on the issues, sort out their conflicts and put the company back on track.
Back to Lance and his startup company.
The group of founders who have been interpersonally very close before and during the birthing of this company, now find themselves no longer able to talk about the real issues, and in fact can barely be in the same room together. There has been almost two years of negative conflict and now the jobs of almost ninety people hang in the balance. A daunting cash burn rate has been an untouchable subject for more than half the year.
Our process begins by holding interviews with all the key players to gather their knowledge and perspectives on the situation. We also test for trust every step of the way in these initial interviews, because “loss of trust” is a key indicator of how hard it will be to recover the relationships and resolve the conflict in a way that is productive for everyone. Is there still trust within the team and if so, how can they leverage it to help themselves get better? Who has it, who lost it, who still wants it, and who is beyond wanting it? In this case some have lost trust in the others and declare it’s “beyond repair.” We ask ourselves, “Is our job simply about damage control or can this team thrive again?”
Elephants squeezed into the room
The first all-team session with five people begins. There are so many elephants in the room it is hard to move! They include past relationships, bad business decisions, blame, different working styles, personality types, conflict styles, strategic needs – and most worrying of all from our outsider standpoint, almost no overlapping foundational interests.
Our “all-in” relationship with this team includes shooting some elephants and riding some others. Questions are asked, emotions are teased out. In one sharp and painful moment one of the key players quits, taking his equity, knowledge and dedication with him. I think the paint is going to peel off the walls when the screaming finally stops. Mediation textbooks call this kind of interaction “venting” – I call it a darn shame that it’s gone this far. But these deeply-festering emotions need to surface if this team has any chance of surviving.
Breakthroughs often come from surprising places - one of the great satisfactions of this work. The “venting” wakes up a person who’s not only been checked-out for the last two days, but also happens to hold the keys to change. The oppressive energy in the room shifts as the lights go on for this person and a glimmer of hope emerges..
Can this company be saved?
After nearly three days of meetings, everyone begins to see both the reality of their situations and the real conversations they need to have in order to alter that reality. We help them build a new story they can all hitch their wagons to. Together, they commit to taking the first steps to a new trust.
Lance’s company is on a good path to live another day! Is everything fixed - identities preserved, jobs saved, investments secure, mutual trust on the rebound, a brilliant new technology still on track? This group, and many others who have called us in when in crisis mode, have taken years to get to the stage they are at. These course corrections take time. We will continue to work with this group, setting up a series of observations and coaching sessions which will help them see where they are gaining and where they are losing ground. Over the course of a few months they will continue to develop trust in each other, make hard and necessary choices, and build momentum toward their new story. And they’ll not only get better at seeing the elephants, they’ll get better at dealing with them before they ever make it into the room.