As an editor here at Fast Company’s Leadership section, I witness all kinds of entrepreneurial posturing every single day. Most founders–at least when they interact with the press–make a point of sounding enthused and confident, or humble and self-deprecating, or dead serious and mission-driven. Pick your PR persona and run with it.
But it’s far more interesting to glimpse how leaders actually communicate with their teams behind the scenes. Christian Bonilla, the CEO of a software market-research startup called UserMuse, has been a Fast Company contributor for just under a year. As we were trading notes this week on new story ideas, Christian forwarded me an email he recently sent to his four-person team that he said earned a surprisingly positive response, and asked if I thought it might be a good springboard for a story.
I thought it was great as-is, and instead of spinning it into an article himself, Christian agreed to let me reproduce his email in full. Here it is, very lightly edited and with his young son’s name redacted for privacy:
Yesterday around 7PM, my evening took a weird turn. We all have kids, so I can share this. XXXX, evidently in an odd mood, decided to relieve himself in the tub the way no one wants to see their kid do.
So five minutes later, Lauren’s bleaching the tub and I’m carrying a garbage bag of unmentionable filth down the stairs when I missed a step and twisted my ankle as badly as I can remember doing. I mean blinding pain, guys – I screamed, which made XXXX run down to where I was and then start crying. So there I was, crumpled in a heap at the foot of the stairs, clutching my devastated ankle and consoling a toddler as I sat next to a bag of smelly trash. I did not feel like a CEO in that moment.
Now, I told you that so I can tell you this: It doesn’t always feel like we’re starting something big. You guys are sweating it out in every spare moment you have. I’m working more than I ever have in my life and haven’t had a paycheck since May. But we ARE starting something big, and we’re getting there one small milestone at a time.
This week we had our first gross profit.
It doesn’t mean we’re a profitable business – this is a volatile a stage and things are going to be up and down for a while. But if we can net $300 in a week, we can net $400. And if we can net $400…
Trust me, there’s no shortage of CEOs and entrepreneurs out there with thoughts to share about the value of vulnerability, emotional intelligence, empathy, and those other “soft skills” you keep hearing about. And many of them have great things to say on those subjects. But seeing those traits put into practice proves just how powerful it can be–and how simple it is to do.
Christian might’ve been surprised that his 264-word email made for such an effective pep talk, but I’m not. In that short space, he tells a memorable story, shares candidly how hard things feel, and points out that it’s the small wins that matter most (because–look! they’re already paying off). That’s the kind of honesty people need from all their leaders, not just startup CEOs. In the long run, it beats out affectation and bluster every single time.