The Rally Meeting Is An Unavoidable Event
“Bad shit is coming. It always is in a startup. The odds of getting from launch to liquidity without some kind of disaster happening are one in a thousand. So don’t get demoralized.” – Paul Graham
The truth is, success in the industry is hard won, and even startups with good ideas and strong teams can fail.
Any project, no matter how well planned, can reach this point. Mistakes and emergencies are inevitable; deadlines are moved, plans fall apart, and the world can shift in ways no one foresees.
If You Take Risks, Sooner Or Later You’re Going To Have To Stand In Front Of Your Team And Ask For The Impossible
A good speech does a lot in a short amount of time. Let’s take a look at what one of mine would look like:
In the past months we have been doing something incredible, and I have been honored to work alongside all of you, but we still have further to go. I've asked a lot from all of you because I knew you were capable of it, and again I'd like to ask for your help. I’m sorry that I wasn’t able to anticipate this deadline better, but I know we can do this. We will need to commit our nights and weekends for at least three weeks. We anticipate acquiring 1000 clients, but this is not guaranteed. After the push, we won’t have the opportunity to take much time off, but at least a couple days rest will have been well earned. You've seen my plan, but I want to open this up to everyone for suggestions. Does anyone see a way to improve on my plan or to be ready for the conference without a push like this?
Breaking Down The Formula
Ask for help early
People can sense when they are about to be asked for something. Anxiety builds when the ask is buried. Be authentic by letting everyone know your intention upfront.
People want to help people they trust a lot more than a cold entity. Be trustable by owning your failures. If you didn’t have a part to play, think harder. As a leader there is always something you could have done differently, even if you could only learn it through hindsight.
Description of work
Don’t beat around the bush. Be clear about what you are asking of your team. Giving honest, direct goals and expectations is vital. Underestimating the workload only undermines the trust you have earned, and a finish-line, no matter how steep the hill is to reach it, will focus your team. It’s important, also, to remind them you are down there in the trenches alongside them. If you’re asking them to sacrifice their time and health, showing them you are just as invested will transform resentment into loyalty.
Description of opportunity
Be succinct about why the effort is required. The reason is not motivational, you are, but transparency helps build even more trust by setting up the final step.
Be honest about the reward
It’s likely that at the end of this there won’t be time to rest, and any reward will be be small. Don’t promise anything you can’t guarantee, because having to go back on that will be far more demoralizing that not having promised it in the first place.
Invite challenge of the reasoning
Allowing your team to poke holes in the requirements fosters autonomy and buy-in while refocusing this challenge as an opportunity to reaffirm your team’s shared vision. Moreover, a good speech by you will create a high-energy environment that’s perfect for productive brainstorming. A great team may even be able to find a way to not work through the summer!
A focused, thought-out rallying speech is the foundation your success rests on
I’ve been in the middle of this situation more times than I like to remember, and know firsthand how demoralizing it can be, but when our only two choices are to give up or charge ahead regardless, I’ve never doubted the correct path.
Your team needs to know exactly what you are asking of them, and you need to convince them that it is possible to achieve those goals. Winston Churchill famously said, “If you’re going through Hell, keep going,” so your job in these times is to lead your team through whatever obstacles have arisen, ensuring their focus remain on solving the problem, not on whatever mistakes led to it.
The most important thing to remember is that a team that trusts each other can move mountains.
Know who your “first follower” is before the meeting starts and let them know personally how that you will be counting on them. I like to think of a “first follower” as a sort of spiritual lieutenant, who trusts you and your message and will continue to motivate and focus your team even when you’re not around. During the meeting, ensure you connect explicitly with them or with strong eye contact. As inspiring as you are in the meeting, you won’t be able to cheer on your team every minute.
Check out Judith Glaser’s short article “The Right Way to Rally Your Troops” from the Harvard Business Review, which has some great examples of how a good rally is the difference between success and failure.