Being a Leader Doesn’t Mean Having All the Answers

When I relocated from the U.K. to Silicon Valley, I learned a crucial lesson: Even when you’re leading the team, you’re still a member of it.
Headshot of author Robyn Exton
Robyn Exton
Expert Contributor
December 1, 2020
Updated: July 13, 2021
Headshot of author Robyn Exton
Robyn Exton
Expert Contributor
December 1, 2020
Updated: July 13, 2021

In order to be a successful founder, you have to ensure that your communication style reflects and promotes your ideals in order to cultivate the culture you want to create. This may seem like a simple task, but in our increasingly globalized world, we must recognize that people use different methods of communication driven by their own personal experiences. Think of this as Empathy 101: Better Communication Through Better Understanding.

Let me give you an example from my own experience. I live in San Francisco, but I’m not originally from here. Long story short, I grew up in Britain, had the idea for a queer dating app for womxn while working with a dating business in the United Kingdom, taught myself how to code, immersed myself in the London tech community, and ultimately moved to Silicon Valley to launch my company, HER. Until I became a CEO, I had never been at the very top of the food chain before. That means I had to make a change in the way I operated as a professional on top of living in a new city. And theres a thing nobody tells you — launching a startup is just the beginning. In order to execute your vision, you must build trust with an ever-growing team, understand any communication differences that may arise and balance your views on how to approach work as a leader. What I’ve found in the last seven years is that you can’t build a work culture based on your experiences alone. You have to meet people on their level and adapt. In Silicon Valley, unlike my home country, that means being vulnerable. Although many people think of vulnerability as a weakness, I use the word here to evoke a deeper connotation. Vulnerability is a way to show that you’re emotionally available through your communication. This availability means you’re able to understand and empathize with the experiences and needs of those around you.

 

The Challenge of Being a Single Founder

Cultivating this kind of vulnerability is even more important when you’re the sole architect of your company. Sure, the idea of being a single founder (single as in “no co-founders” but yes, in this case also “single, single”) sounds enticing. You can move at lightning speed with only one voice at the table for leadership decisions. You want to implement policy changes? Done. Focus on a new design feature? Greenlit. But the reality is that, as the top-level decision-maker, you’re expected to have all the answers without the benefit of anybody to bounce ideas off of. This often exacerbates your internal perfectionism, and when you’re getting a startup off the ground, every little thing feels like the weight of the company depends on its success. Under those conditions, you may forget how important empathy is as you’re struggling to keep up with running things on your own.

On top of the personal pressure of needing an answer for every possible question your team might throw at you, being a female founder has its own difficulties. I’ve heard this problem described as “women don’t get the benefit of the doubt.” It’s particularly troublesome when you’re asking someone to trust you, whether it’s your investors, your mentors or your customers. When I was at YCombinator, only 8 percent of founders were female, and half of those were single founders. Only six of the initial 30 investors in HER were women. There’s an undeniable and well-documented gender disparity in Silicon Valley, which meant that a “queer-womxn-no-cis-men-allowed” app didn’t click with most people here. Not everybody was going to get it. That’s fine because it’s not for everybody, but it did mean that I was fighting an uphill battle.

So, what did I do? I built a team and tried to imbue a work culture that would get the job done (some might say “prove em all wrong”), even when I had to work 10 times harder to make it happen. As a female founder running a company, accomplishing this task meant both learning to manage my own expectations and quickly adapting to my new surroundings. In part, I had to embrace the nuances of communication to be a better team member. Even as a single founder, I was part of a team.

 

New Home, New Style

Moving to San Francisco to get a tech startup off the ground was a culture shock in many ways, but particularly in terms of how people communicate in a business setting here versus in Britain. People initially found me to be ... how do I say it ... intense? Assertive? My mother would say that I’m “ferociously headstrong,” and mean it as a compliment, but that’s one of the differences between Britain and Silicon Valley — each place communicates differently. I realized that I had to embrace new styles of presenting myself and my opinions. I had to embrace Silicon Valley’s favorite style of communication: vulnerability.

British work culture doesn’t value vulnerability. The concept seems — can I say — foreign? In my experience, it isn’t normal for your boss to admit that they don’t know what they’re doing, or are stressed out or that they have no brain space for any other questions. British work culture demands a heads-down, work-harder approach to company growth, which doesn’t really resonate with the more empathetic culture of Silicon Valley where open communication isn’t simply tolerated, but actively celebrated. Early on, I found that I had trouble communicating with my team, at least in a way that resonated with them. The British side of me wants to approach problem-solving by just saying, “We’ve got to suck it up and pull to make this deadline!” but that doesn’t fly in my new home. Maybe on the East Coast it might, but certainly not here. So I had to pivot. I had to adapt and learn what does work. People often see vulnerability as a shortcoming, but here, vulnerability is a communication technique, a method by which to create clarification by fostering a sense of safety in conversation. Californians often feel like they’re at the center of the universe, and you’ll hear people say that they “don’t know how to communicate with people” when they’re outside the Valley. Vulnerability is a way to address communication breakdowns. By embracing your shortcomings as a leader, your work culture can develop a shared understanding. We don’t always know everything, but we can learn without judgment.

In embracing my newfound vulnerability mindset, I had to set boundaries for myself. In Silicon Valley, you don’t have a choice other than to just be nicer to people. So I did that. I’m not naturally a softy, so I had to focus on breaking through my emotional barriers in the workplace to become a better leader. In a sense, that meant I had to relinquish control. Not over the vision of the company, but control of how people saw me as a single founder, which people often assume means signing off on every little movement with 100 percent certainty. I realized that I didn’t have to know everything, I didn’t have to put my head down 24 hours a day and grind. And I didn’t need my team to see me like that either.

In order to build trust, I changed my approach. Having to be right all the time is stressful and definitely not scalable. When you’re building something new, which is what all tech companies are doing, you’ll never have all the answers because you’re processing information in real-time. It’s always stressful. But that’s OK because there are ways to push through and not let “stressed businesswoman” become your personality. I started using a key phrase: “Right now I’m thinking about....” This phrase alleviates that feeling of having to be right all the time, which is a huge help because the first thing you think isn’t always the right answer. It lets your thoughts just be thoughts instead of definite decisions. I started embracing vulnerability as a communication strength rather than a flaw, so I could work toward creating a safe work culture where employees can share their thoughts and embrace their emotions. These subtle changes have changed the company dynamic for the better.

 

Bring Your Vision to Life

Being a founder means having a vision for a better future. In my case, that means through a dating app that connects queer womxn together. Developing your vision requires building trust with an ever-growing team, understanding their communication styles and balancing your own views on how to approach work with the views of those around you. In Silicon Valley, I discovered that people don’t want to work under the watchful eye of a headstrong dictator. Instead, they want to be a part of an emotionally connected, growth-oriented team. And you know what? It frees up a lot of emotional weight to just be honest with how you’re doing. As a single founder, you won’t have all the answers. Stop acting like you do, and you’ll find yourself less stressed. Being a founder doesn’t mean you have to be alone as long as you’re willing to join your team.

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