Choose Your Words Wisely

Matt Harvey, Stanford University May 31, 2011

“A bad word whispered will echo a hundred miles.”

Chinese proverb

Amidst the daily pressures of trying to successfully deliver a product and win over customers, entrepreneurs can forget how their words and actions appear to partners and co-workers. What you might view as your unwavering commitment to success, may appear to colleagues as bullying and grandstanding.

Of course, if your startup is a one-person shop, feel free to blast orders as you’ll be the only one responsible for delivering on them. In fact, some founders prefer to fly solo when it comes to all strategic decisions. But when other employees are involved, savvy entrepreneurs should choose their words wisely.

Richard Scheller, Executive VP of Research and Early Development at Genentech, discovered this lesson when he moved from Stanford University to an expansive management role in the private sector. Here Scheller shares his awkward, amusing, but ultimately illuminating first experience with direct management and the employee/manager review process.

First time managers and entrepreneurs may identify with Scheller’s inaugural experience in building open relationships with employees. The careful selection of one’s words is critical in management, as Scheller says, because employees will try to deliver on what you ask of them. Entrepreneurs benefit from strong leadership in operations, not just when sharing the “big” vision, but also when communicating clear expectations to employees.

Keeping these open lines of communication may require entrepreneurs and employees to face honest and open feedback from one another. While some of this feedback may come as a surprise to each party, a willingness to share constructive insights can encourage greater trust among team members. And beyond carefully choosing your words, as Scheller points out, you need to be a better listener and learn to respect other peoples’ opinions, if you want to make the most of your working relationships.