Your Startup Needs a Coxswain
On a small team, everyone’s rowing. There are no “managers” — there’s only room for rowers.
First, understand that rowers face backwards (the joke on our team in high school was that crew is the only sport you win by sitting down and going backwards). Rowers do not see where they are going.
Second, understand that you win a race not on any individual’s skill; the team whose rowers are most in unison will win. Watch a few clips in this video if you don’t know what I mean.
See how they must be perfectly in sync to beat the competition.
As a startup founder, I’m rowing with my team every single day. And I think that’s an important part of being a good leader. But I cannot forget, even when there’s a million things to be done, that my team needs a coxswain.
The coxswain fulfills two very important functions: steers the boat, keeping it safe and on track, and sets the pace to keep everyone in unison, providing motivation to push harder as needed.
A boat without a coxswain would not be in sync; and rowers out of sync will lose the race.
But the coxswain is also the only person facing forward — the direction to which the boat is quickly moving. Without a coxswain, rowers would only know where they were rowing to once they got there.
As a team leader, it’s up to you to identify leading metrics and project into the future to see, in advance, when your team is headed towards a crisis that could be avoided entirely with a slight change in direction now. A team without a coxswain is just like a crew without a coxswain: the team only knows where they were headed once they get there. Crises have a way of sneaking up on these teams.
It’s also up to you to set the pace, keep the team in unison, and ensure everyone is properly motivated. This gets harder as your team grows; poor communication causes different team members to execute towards slightly different goals.
Who is the coxswain on your team? Are they taking enough time out of the day-to-day to be the team’s coxswain, facing forward and looking far along your current trajectory?