The altMBA is about digging deep, asking yourself difficult questions. It is a process that is led with a light touch. There are deadlines, but there are no grades, which begs the question, how do you know if you are doing it right. I am at the halfway point in this journey and I come to realize that you are doing it right when it is terribly uncomfortable. Because it is when you are uncomfortable and choose to lean in, dive deep and muck around in the mess that comes to the surface, that is when you are preparing yourself to make a big fucking ruckus. So here is goes, I hope you enjoy the mess!
Here is the org chart of the tour company that I co-founded with my husband and my husband’s best friend, hence referred to by these titles.
Appears straight forward right? Well it is, but it really isn’t. While we would like all of our areas to be strictly our individual domains, it is nearly impossible. We all have fingers in each other’s pies and no decision is really taken autonomously. And that is where we run into problems. For major decisions, which for a company with 9 total people, of which one-third are co-founders, almost every decision feels like a major decision, we need a unanimous decision. It is like the UN Security Council and everyone has veto power. Decisions come to die with us, the co-founders. We are hum and haw and are scared to make decisions. We cower from confrontation — we may well be shell shocked from too many confrontations early on, specifically between myself and the best friend. Even easy decisions that are proposed by the team need to be run past all of us and it makes us slow, even though our small size would imply we are nimble.
My worldview: Starting this company has been a fun challenge. The company has never been my sole source of income. I saw this as a playground to try new things, push ideas to the limit. I figured after we were established in our city we would grow and take over the whole of the country with food tours. My worldview is one of reckless abandonment in the best possible sense of the word. I was never worried about what would happen if the company failed, as I felt and still feel that I will always be able to start something new. I currently feel bored with the work because we have stagnated and are no longer pushing ourselves. The story I tell myself is that I am the difference maker, if I wasn’t involved it would be just like any other tour company in town because I give us the unique perspective of the foreigner, specifically the American foreigner. I see myself as the risk taker, the outsider and the one trying to push us forward.
Husband’s worldview: A constant learner, he cofounded the company not for a love of food, but for the challenge and the opportunity to learn. In the beginning he worried about what would happen if we failed and how it would be perceived. He has since moved beyond this concern and is instead now bored with the stagnation, but doing the best he can to maintain it, even though that means doing the boring jobs of payrolls and accountancy. The story he tells himself is that he is the peacekeeper, he is the referee between myself and the best friend, who are constantly butting heads. He also sees himself as the rational one, the one that is able to disconnect decisions from emotions. He also sees himself as the one trying to nudge us forward.
Best friend’s worldview: Has always worked and lived in the same city he was born in. He started this business with us on the side, but got fed up with his job and the low salary and quit it about 6 months after we started the company. He is risk adverse by nature and is very preoccupied with strong foundation. He has always had the most skin in the game. He is the only one of us who depends solely on this company for his income. He is also the one who has created the tours, thus he feels more ownership over them, as well as more protective of them. He likes to see himself as in the know and informed about what is going on in relation to the business. The story he tells himself is that he is the one putting everything he has in it, he is the one with the most at risk and myself and the husband are always trying to come in and mess with things that we do not know enough about.
Damn. Being that honest with myself and my business partners was difficult. It hurts to reread it, to see what a box I have painted each of us into and that we also feel painted into. I also never gave the best friend the credit he deserves for all that he has risked to found and run this company. I have always just seen him taking cautious decisions because I assumed it was his personality. I never took the time to ask if he is scared or worried about what would happen if we lose it all tomorrow. For the husband and I it would not be the end of our world, but for him, this is everything he has built his life around at this point.
Today I had a call with the best friend. For all of my reflection and deep diving, I did not break the pattern. I butted heads with him, I was dismissive of his opinion and confrontational. The worst part is that I saw it all happening and I was too scared to walk it back. Why am I so scared to walk back this position that I have staked out for myself? Why am I scared to be more vulnerable with him and open to him? Why can I not let go of my ego?
If my ego is so hung up on being right and on being contrarian to the best friend maybe the problem is actually… me.
I am possibly the reason we are stagnating. I am the one where decisions go to die because I am the one so hung up on being right, at not admitting the holes in my logic or the lack of knowledge, that when decisions come to us as a group of founders I am the one that stops decisions for being made. I do this by not allowing there to be a space for others to disagree and because I do not allow for calm, rational discussions. I am scared because if I am not the one vocally fighting and calling attention to myself then people may think that I am not important. I know this is a big fear/frustration of mine. It stems from the fact that I am the outsider and that people rarely remember I am even a founder, partners look past me as though I am a secretary. This combines for me to feel insecure in my position in the company.
If there is something that needs to change it is me. However, I fear that the company is not strong enough to deal with the turmoil that may result from me trying to change. I do not imagine that it will be easy and I worry how the rest of the team will suffer. Maybe the change that needs to occur really is me leaving. Not because it is the easiest decision, in fact though I had flippantly mentioned it earlier in the altMBA, it is the hardest decision I can make. But if I feel weighed down by this endeavor and I see that the company is weighed down by my presence and (worst of all) that my marriage also is weighed down by this partnership than I think it is my responsibility to make the tough decision.
But before I make that decision there are too many good questions graciously offered to me by my teammates in this adventure that require more exploration.
If I stay what needs to change? First and foremost, is my interaction with the best friend. I need to give him an A, not because I think he has earned it or because it is the generous thing to do, but because he is a human and he deserves it. I have a hard time imagining what this looks like because I think our personalities are both very big and I currently feel that only one of our personalities can be at its fullest at one time. I do not want to turn myself into a church mouse either, but as @danielborg often writes big ears, small mouth. This would look like me finding my peace with observing the conversations, letting go of the need to drive them. Also, with the excellent idea to maybe not make decisions, but to put trust in the best friend and allow him to work autonomously.
My fear in all of this is obviously that I will look like a passive member of this team, that the success would have come with or without my contribution. This would be a blow to my ego, but maybe a blow that I need. That said, the second thing that needs to change is the story I tell myself. The story that says I am the co-founder everyone forgets about, I am one doing lots without the chance to be written about directly in guidebook or appear on TV with Anthony Bourdain. This story needs to change. I am not the victim in this story, I am one of its heroines.
The third thing that would need to change is a restatement or even reformulation of the worldview of the company. We are all operating with different worldviews of what we are doing and where we are going with all of this. However, if we can get back at what is the core why of what we are doing, I think it would do wonders to help us evolve and move away from the day to day reactionary model to a more forward thinking and strategizing model. It could also help us to reframe how we make decisions and be more efficient in our decision making as a group.
Now that I have imagined what would need to occur to move this company forward with me still in the picture I feel scared. Scared that if I open myself up and share what I have learned through this altMBA experience I will be judged, that the husband and the best friend will balk at my advances and rebuke me. I still do not know which way to go. Both options scare me and neither feels like the easy or the right decision, but I know I want to make a decision because this company does not deserve to stagnate; I have worked too hard on it to let it be weighed down by my ego or my fear.