Cultivating Psychological Safety On Startup Teams

According to Gill Hasson and Donna Butler in Mental Health And Wellbeing In The Workplace, “People need to feel psychologically safe . . . In a team with high psychological safety, each person feels safe to take risks and be vulnerable around others. They feel comfortable expressing themselves and feel safe that no one will undermine them, embarrass or punish anyone else for bringing up problems and tough issues, for speaking out about concerns, making and/or admitting a mistake, asking a question, asking for help, or offering a new idea.” Psychological safety on teams benefits everyone.

Compassionate Leaders Make People’s Lives Better

“The more you get into leadership, the more opportunities you have to do harm due to your blind spots.” Don’t project your stuff onto your team,” says D&I expert Aubrey Blanche.

Ways you can be a compassionate leader and contribute to a culture of psychological safety include:

  • Process your own emotions, including anxiety and anger, before reacting. This includes not impulsively sending heated communications to your team, but rather sitting with your strong emotions and then communicating.
  • Understand your biases and practice respect for people’s individuality. Be aware of your own biases and work hard to check them so that you don’t inadvertently discriminate or create a hostile work environment. Everyone has biases. We all have to learn how to recognize them and not perpetuate discriminatory behavior.
  • When you make a mistake or misstep in a situation with a team member, own it and make a plan to improve. Don’t expect others to make you feel better about your mistake. For example, if you make a comment that offends someone based on identity, commit to improving and don’t make the issue about the other person.
  • Encourage your team to seek appropriate support. If something happens that violates an employee’s rights or boundaries, do not dismiss their concerns. Encourage team members to get help from HR or People Ops and be willing to help them seek those resources. In this vein, leaders often go into “hero” mode and try to solve all problems. You have limits, and you are not their therapist. Accepting this is both annoying for people who love to think they have ultimate control, and also highly freeing because it lets you be a part of the solution while knowing you’re not the only (or best) resource to resolve issues in most cases.
  • Understand that your team’s health and wellness comes above work, always. Don’t expect your team to put their wellbeing ahead of the company’s needs. Be aware that people will go through periods where they need more time off or flexibility. As long as they’re accomplishing their goals, do not fault them or cause them to feel guilty and pressure them to put their own wellbeing on hold for the company’s sake.
  • Be compassionate towards yourself. Do your own inner work with a coach, spiritual advisor, or therapist to understand your needs and communication style better so you can learn better how to work with others’ needs and styles.

Final Thoughts

Emotional maturity and compassionate leadership make a difference in people’s lives. You don’t need to be a healthcare worker or a teacher to have a positive impact on people’s wellbeing and personal development.

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This post is adapted from my forthcoming book, Lead Upwards: How Startup Joiners Can Impact New Ventures, Build Amazing Careers, and Inspire Great Teams (Wiley, 2022). Pre-order your copy today.

Introducing my next book: Lead Upwards

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It’s an honor to officially introduce my next book, Lead Upwards: How Startup Joiners Can Impact New Ventures, Build Amazing Careers, and Inspire Great Teams, which will be published by Wiley in Spring 2022.

In Lead Upwards, readers will learn how to maximize impact and results in a startup leadership role. The book describes every step on the way to realizing your goals—and the goals of your startup—as you navigate the gap between a management role and the executive team. Learn what to do in your first 90 days, how to build and sustain a healthy team culture, and the art of communicating results to your leadership team and board.

You’ll also learn:

  • How to manage the challenges posed by leading a remote, distributed, or hybrid team
  • Management strategies based on inclusive and diverse teambuilding, alignment with business objectives, and inspirational leadership
  • Effective ways to level up your skills and stay current as your company grows

Written for current and aspiring execs and leaders at startups, Lead Upwards is also a guide for startup board members, founders, funders, and managers seeking an insightful discussion of business leadership. Available May 2022.

Pre-order your copy

Join Us For Boulder Startup Week 2021

While it seems like both a lifetime and no time at all since the first all-virtual Boulder Startup Week in 2020, I am excited to share that I have the privilege of being the marketing track captain for Boulder Startup Week 2021. It is an honor to support the vibrant Boulder startup ecosystem, especially during a time that has been challenging for so many. The theme this year is resilience, and our spotlight marketing event will focus on the role that marketing plays in driving revenue for today’s cloud companies.

Boulder Startup Week 2021 Event: Marketing = Revenue

A panel of marketing leaders from the startup ecosystem including Carly Brantz, CMO of DigitalOcean, Cate Lochead, CMO of JumpCloud, Lizelle van Vuuren, CMO of Undock, Olivia Omega, Strategist at Wallace Marketing Group, and I will discuss the topic of how marketing contributes to pipeline and revenue. This event is aimed at those who want to align marketing, sales, product, and customer success teams, understand how to take a revenue marketing approach and the role that data and account-based marketing play in successful go-to-market programs.

Watch the recording

Introducing Intricately’s New Podcast Selling In The Cloud

Selling in the Cloud Intricately Podcast, hosted by Michael Pollack and Sarah E. Brown

I’m excited to share the launch of Selling in the Cloud, a new podcast I co-host with Intricately CEO and co-founder Michael Pollack dedicated to the business of cloud sales and marketing.

Our first episodes feature marketing legend and Crossing the Chasm author Geoffrey Moore, and Carly Brantz, CMO of DigitalOcean. Stay tuned for more episodes with cloud leaders discussing the ins and outs of selling in the cloud.

To listen, head on over to iTunesSpotify or your podcast platform of choice. If you feel inspired, please do leave us a review, and join the conversation on Twitter at #sellinginthecloud

Join Us For Boulder Startup Week 2020

Life has changed a lot in the past few months. In personal news, I moved back to Boulder late last year, and am thrilled to share I recently started a new role as the head of marketing at Intricately, the leading provider of product adoption, usage, and spend intelligence for cloud sales and marketing teams.

While this is a time of hardship for so many in our community in Boulder and beyond, I’m inspired by the resilience of the Boulder Startup Week team, who have been working hard to ensure the success of this year’s online-only festival. A special shout-out to Ben Travis, who runs the Boulder Marketing Meetup, and Rendl Clark, Director of Boulder Startup Week, for their amazing organizing efforts!

I’m looking forward to hosting two events (all-remote!) during this year’s Boulder Startup Week:

BSW ’20 Panel discussion: How To Grow Your Startup Marketing Career 

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A panel of marketing leaders from the startup ecosystem (Rachel BeiselSimone Johnson, and Victoria Stitt, MBA. ) will discuss the topic of how marketers can level up and achieve their goals along their startup career path. Watch the Recording

BSW ’20 Film Screening: Chasing Unicorns (“Ükssarvik”) 

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One of the most successful Estonian movies of 2019, Chasing Unicorns is a semi-satirical narrative feature about a female founder trying to make it a male-dominated tech world, from Estonia to Silicon Valley. RSVP to join us

Why an Estonian startup film? After traveling to Tallinn, Estonia in February, I was inspired by Estonia’s thriving startup ecosystem, including their innovative e-residency program. After watching the satirical Estonian startup film Chasing Unicorns, I reached out to the filmmakers Tõnu Hiielaid and Rain Rannu about the possibility of sharing the film with our Boulder startup community. Several months later, we’re partnering to host a virtual film screening during this year’s BSW. While Tallinn and Boulder are distant, I’m grateful for this opportunity to connect our startup communities through the film.

Looking forward to seeing folks (virtually) at BSW! For those interested, consider supporting Colorado’s COVID Relief Fund.

January 2019 Update: Book Launch, Podcasts, Reviews, Events & More

In October 2018, I published my first book, Power to the Startup People: How To Grow Your Startup Career When You’re Not The Founder.

Here is a recap of recent podcast interviews, press, reviews, and events related to the book.

Launched Power to the Startup People at Techstars in Boulder

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We launched the book at Techstars Boulder with a lively panel discussion about startup careers featuring:

  • Andrea Guendelman, Founder, BeVisible Latinx
  • Erin Rand, COO, Atipica
  • Analiese Brown, Director of Talent & Culture, CampMinder
  • Josh Ashton, Head of People Operations, GutCheck

Thank you to the panelists, Techstars’ Julie Penner and Hannah Davis, who helped organize the event, and to everyone who joined us at the launch.

Featured in Feld Thoughts Post By Brad Feld

VC and Techstars co-founder Brad Feld has been an amazing supporter along my startup journey (as well as the journeys of countless others), including helping me launch Flatirons LGBTQ Tech Meetup in Boulder, CO back in 2014. I’m honored by both Brad’s official book endorsement (check it out on Amazon) and by his generous feature of Power to the Startup People in a recent blog post on Feld Thoughts.

Brad Feld reviews Sarah E. Brown book Power to the Startup People

Read Brad Feld’s Power to the Startup People review

Power to the Startup People Featured in Helping Sells Radio Episode with Bill Cushard

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I enjoyed discussing Power to the Startup People on Helping Sells Radio with my epic beloved former podcast co-host Bill Cushard. Bill is a fantastic interviewer (and a friend) so this was particularly fun to do.  Listen to the episode

Featured in Investor Connect Podcast Interview with Hall Martin

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This is one of my favorite podcast interviews I’ve ever done. Thank you to Hall Martin for featuring Power to the Startup People on his podcast Investor Connect. In this episode, we discuss the following topics from the book:

  • How does someone from a large corporation re-adjust quickly to the startup world
  • What do you look for when you join a startup?
  • What do you negotiate up front when you join a startup?
  • When is the best time to join a startup?
  • When is the best time to leave a startup?

Listen to the episode

Featured in the People Stack Podcast with Jennifer Bunk

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I also discussed Power to the Startup People on the People Stack podcast with Jen Bunk. We talked about how you can contribute to a startup when you aren’t a founder, the challenges of transitioning between phases of a company and the power of mindset and more.

Listen to the episode

Featured at Lesbians Who Tech All Gender Book Club at Udemy in SF

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In December, Lesbians Who Tech + Allies featured adrienne maree brown’s Emergent Strategy and my book Power to the Startup People at the recent All Gender Book Club hosted at Udemy SF. It was a dream come true to talk about startup careers with the amazing LWT community–thank you to group leader Dom Brassey for organizing and to Udemy for hosting.

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Photo cred: Kersh Branz

Featured at Lesbians Who Tech + Allies All Gender Book Club East Bay

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Lesbians Who Tech + Allies will be hosting another All Gender Book Club featuring Power to the Startup People and adrienne maree brown’s Pleasure Activism in Oakland on Tues., April 2nd, 2019. RSVP to join us 

Thank you for reading!

Power to the Startup People: How To Grow Your Career When You're Not the Founder by Sarah E. Brown

If you would like me to come talk about Power to the Startup People: How To Grow Your Startup Career When You’re Not The Founder at your organization, please feel free to drop a line via email to sarahbrownmarketing [at] gmail.com.

P.S. In other non-book news, BuildingConnected is now part of the Autodesk family and I’ve become co-organizer of San Francisco Bay Area Vegans In Technology Meetup.

Wishing everyone a peaceful and meaningful start to 2019. – Sarah 

Introducing my new book Power to the Startup People: How To Grow Your Startup Career When You’re Not The Founder

Power to the Startup People: How to Grow Your Startup Career When You're Not the Founder

I’m thrilled to share that my new book Power to the Startup People: How to Grow Your Startup Career When You’re Not The Founder launches today! This book has been two years in the making and would not have been possible without the incredible help and support of so many of my friends, family, and members of our startup community.

In today’s tech startup world, career paths are nonlinear. A startup career can be rewarding, but it often can be challenging and confusing. While a ton of proverbial ink has been spilled on how to “crush it” as a founder or startup leader, there’s very little in the way of guidance for how employees can hack our own careers. If we’re lucky, we find mentors who have had careers we admire. But we may never find these people. Or, if we do, it may be too late, or their expertise in the particular area with which we need help may be limited.

Entrepreneurs get the lion’s share of glory, but much of the work is done by us: the contributors, the team. This book was born out of my desire to find answers to my own questions about how to have the best startup career possible, while ideally avoiding some pitfalls that, unfortunately, are hard to foresee unless you have a direct mentor relationship with someone who has experienced a similar situation.

I wrote this book from the vantage point of being a startup employee who wants to navigate my career as successfully as possible, while enjoying the journey along the way. While this book is not by any means exhaustive, it will hopefully help readers make more sense of the world of tech startups and make better decisions about their careers along the way.

I have a greater purpose for sharing this information. I truly believe that we, the startup people, hold the power of the tech industry in our hands. By taking command of our own startup careers, we will make a greater impact at the companies that are shaping our future. As the world grapples with questions about the nature of technology in our lives, with concerns about privacy and data and our looming automated economy, we, the employees who make this ecosystem work, will have to decide which companies deserve our time, sweat, and tears. My goal for publishing this book is to give us more choices and more power to shape our own destiny, so that we can in turn enrich the tech ecosystem with our talents. Power to the startup people!

Order now on Amazon

Thank you for reading! I look forward to hearing what you think of the book. If you enjoy the book and find it to be helpful, please leave a review on Amazon–it truly helps. Thank you! Sarah

 

Talking Tech Diversity & Inclusion In The Bay Area And Boulder On Boulder Tech Cast Podcast

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I recently enjoyed chatting B2B SaaS, Customer Success, BuildingConnected, the origin story of Flatirons Tech, and tech diversity & inclusion in the Bay Area and Boulder on the Boulder Tech Cast podcast. This episode was recorded during Boulder Startup Week 2018 at Dojo4.

Listen to the episode

Strategies for Assessing Startup Culture Before Joining

pexels-photo-380768Before working for a startup it is essential to understand company culture and values to ensure you align with them. This is not a complete list, but here are some of the questions I think are worth exploring before joining any startup.

1. How is bias handled? 

All humans have biases. “We need to out our biases to ourselves and each other and not be afraid to say, ‘I’m biased,’” says ServiceRocket COO Erin Rand. “We need to constantly remember and take action to correct our biases. We can’t feel ashamed of our biases and let that shame prevent us from doing the right thing.”

Given that bias is universal, how does the startup you’re considering joining handle bias? Do they acknowledge bias openly, working to ensure that it isn’t playing a role in key decisions like hiring, promotions and firing?

Startups that acknowledge bias take steps to mitigate it. Those that sweep it under the rug just end up reenforcing bias.

Consider asking an interviewer to give you an example of how bias is addressed at the company. Their answer may be lip service, but you are more likely to find a place that genuinely takes bias seriously if you ask about it and they give you an open, direct answer. Beware when anyone skirts the issue or says it “isn’t an issue”; it’s always an issue.

2. How do departures look?

It can be just as important how employees exit (or “retire”) as when they arrive. If employees leave and then sometimes come back, that’s a good sign. If departing employees leave behind a trail of awful Glassdoor reviews, take notice. In fact, the first thing you should do is head to a peer-review site like Glassdoor and find out how employees find the exit process. It’s also worth it to find out if your company has a decent severance package for employees who are laid off or fired.

Some startups advertise their severance packages. Netflix, for instance, has a outstanding severance package for employees. They do this to reduce the risk that anyone sticks around who isn’t a great fit and to make it easier for managers to fire underperformers or bad fits. The thinking is if that you’re firing someone who you know is going to have a great parting experience, you’re more likely to do so rather than hanging on to people who aren’t a fit, thus improving the quality of the team.

Unexpected or unwanted departures can happen for all kinds of reasons at startups — sometimes a startup hired too quickly, or a pivot means no longer needing a person or department. Your role as an employee is to make yourself as versatile and adaptable as possible, but you may, nonetheless, depart either willingly or unwillingly, and you want to make sure that it will be as positive an experience as possible.

3. What is the dress code? 

Dressing for success at a startup could mean anything from jeans and a logo t-shirt to khakis and a button-down shirt. Ask ahead before an interview — nothing looks worse than being over- or under-dressed. The key consideration: Will you, in all of your uniqueness, feel comfortable bringing your whole self to work? If you have multiple piercings and hair dyed a color that does not naturally grow on human heads, will you feel out of place? Is there a policy that you can’t live with? Do you prefer to dress up and want to work somewhere that this is the environment? Find out ahead of time by talking to HR, looking on the company’s social media and website and sussing out the office for yourself.

4. Does the company champion inclusivity? 

Tech still has a long way to go in terms of diversity and inclusivity. The latest reports show that startups are overwhelmingly white male-dominated. This is a big can of worms; many companies purport to champion inclusivity but what does this mean?

How To Answer These Questions

It’s worth asking outright, but there are more subtle ways to assess startup culture as well.

Do your online research

If a startup’s career video proudly displayed on their homepage showcases men hitting each other with nerf guns after downing sake bombs celebrating a release of code, well, there you have it. Does the company have “Best Place to Work” awards, or is their Glassdoor is rife with one-star reviews highlighting the terrible leadership team from disgruntled former employees? (Note: Ex-employee reviews may not be all true. Look for patterns vs. individual data points)

In addition to the company website and sites like Glassdoor, don’t miss company social media accounts (especially if they have an Instagram; that tends to be the least formal platform with posts most indicative of culture), as well as social accounts of company employees — especially those who will be on your team. Related: Be sure that how you personally show up on social media aligns with your values; startups can and will research you, too!

Talk to people

The best way to figure out what a company is really like is to talk to people who are currently working there. You can also talk to former employees. Try to engage people who aren’t directly involved in your hiring decision. When you go for the interview, observe. Hang out. And…

Go to the kitchen

Pretend you’re an anthropologist on a mission to observe the startup culture through its kitchen. Go get a glass of water and listen to what is being said. Sample the startup’s snacks and see if they’re organic/gluten-free/free-range enough for your taste. Overhear how employees are feeling about their work and lives. Do they clean up after themselves? Analiese Brown, Director of Talent and Culture at CampMinder, wrote a great blog on the link between employee engagement and kitchen cleanliness. You will invariably learn something if you spend time in the canteen.

Observe leaders — and lower-level employees

Even if you’re considering an executive position — or perhaps especially — pay close attention to how the company treats those who aren’t in management. This includes those fresh out of college or those in lower-level positions.

Respect for everyone should be a foundation of any company culture, and if it’s not, you can anticipate other problems.

Be a consultant

Some startups will allow you to join as a consultant on a project basis before you join full-time. This can be a great opportunity to truly understand the work environment, as well as how likely you are to enjoy the experience.

Being a consultant is a great way to de-risk your involvement with a startup.

You can engage in an initial project with a company in order to assess fit with the team with whom you’ll be working, assess whether the values are truly lived by the company, and overall whether you and the company/role are a great match. Some companies have employees do an unpaid test or assignment before joining. This is not the same thing as being a consultant! It’s one-sided and doesn’t quite give you the chance to dive in with a team, whereas with consulting, you’ll be contributing something tangible, be paid for your work, and get a much better insider’s view of the business. Not every company will allow you to do this, but it’s worth asking if it may be possible to do an initial engagement prior to working together.

Should You Join A Coding Bootcamp? Ask Yourself These Questions First

pexels-photo-90807Bootcamps are a great way to get into a programming career if you are motivated but lack the skills. Reputable programs boast a 95% success rate if you follow their career services guidelines; once you land a job as a junior developer, you will always be able to continue to grow as a software developer throughout your career. But bootcamps aren’t right for everyone. To understand who should join a bootcamp and how they should approach the task of finding the right one, I sat down with Flatiron School’s Head of Online Instruction Peter Bell, who shared advice from years spent helping people make these very decisions. Here are the questions Bell recommends asking yourself before taking the leap.

If you’re interested in joining a bootcamp, be clear about your objectives.

Are you looking to get a full-time job as software dev, to enhance your skills with front-end dev as a designer, or to build the skills required to found a company? Each objective drives a different learning environment. Bell says the first job out of a bootcamp is the hardest job you’ll ever get; after that, you’ll be turning down offers within two years. Once you snag that first job, the only reason you wouldn’t succeed long-term is if you chose not to because you didn’t like the job.

Are you sure you really need to participate in a bootcamp to meet your career goals?

Bell says if you just want to be a product manager, you don’t necessarily need to learn to code to manage developers. Learning to code gives you deeper empathy, says Bell, but if your only goal is manage development, he says taking a bootcamp isn’t the most effective way to build skills you need. in addition to focusing deeply on skills you don’t need, bootcamps don’t cover a lot of skills regarding product design, agile, kanban, scrum, workflows, and other important things. Bell says bootcamps are primarily training you to be a junior engineer – not build or manage a dev team. So make sure you really want the software dev skills or want to become a software developer.

Have you tried free online labs to see if you actually like software development?

Bell recommends going to Code Academy or Flatirons Schools Bootcamp Prep Program where you can go through labs for free. These free online programs will show you whether you enjoy the process.

“The actual task of being a software developer is writing code. It doesn’t work, then you spend the rest of minute, hour, day or week getting it to work,” says Bell. “Do you find that frustrating or in general to be an enjoyable challenge?” Bell says if you spend hours or days or weeks getting it to work, finding the answer on StackOverflow, trying to figure out why the thing that worked yesterday doesn’t work yesterday, and enjoy this process the way you enjoy doing crossword puzzles, great.

“If you get frustrated when tech doesn’t work like it should, you won’t enjoy the task no matter how much you like developer salaries and opportunities,” says Bell.

Have you fully researched the bootcamp(s) you’re considering?

Assuming you want to become a software dev or have a reason to take a bootcamp, try to check on coursereport.com where graduates provide feedback from their experience. Bell advises you to take the time to look through those reports. Find out: does a particular bootcamp align with your values and learning style?

Do you want to do an-person bootcamp or an online course?

The first decision you’ll need to make is whether you are going to do an in-person bootcamp or an online course? Bell says the benefits of an in-person course is much more structure.
“You complete the course in less time and build good friendships and connections that help you get through program and succeed over time in your career,” says Bell. This is because it is easier to build a network during an in-person course.

“In-person is a wonderful experience,” says Bell. He says if you don’t live near an in-person bootcamp and the logistics of moving somewhere for three months, or you have a job or family that make a 60-70 hour week impractical, there are a number of online programs.

Whether the bootcamp you’re considering is in-person or online, Bell advises speaking with one of instructors. It is important to figure out the instructor’s objectives and background. Bell advises interviewing a bootcamp company the same way you’d interview a place to work for. He says not to discount cultural alignment.

“You’re looking for a place that values similar things,” says Bell.

Ask them specific questions about learning environment, and what to do when students are struggling or having trouble with motivation or other issues. Admit your weaknesses upfront to see if it’s a good fit. Bell says you’ll get a good sense for whether the program adopts a “be tough or else you won’t make it” approach or is a more supportive and engaging environment.

Has the bootcamp you’re considering scaled quickly?

It is not wrong for a bootcamp to be large, but there are cultural challenges with scaling any organisation. As with any company growing too fast, be particularly careful about the quality of the instructors you’re going to be working with.

“That will have a big impact on experience,” says Bell. He also advises asking for their jobs report – do they have some statistics on what percentage of grads get a job and average salary, and ideally listed by a third-party. Those statistics can shed light on the quality of the program, regardless of scale.

Final Thoughts

Bootcamps aren’t for everyone. Be clear what you’re looking to achieve from attending one, whether it’s the right program for you, and plan to invest energy into going above and beyond the requirements.