What Founders and Startup Leaders can learn from Survivor
Recently I've been smashing Australian Survivor on Amazon Prime. For me, it's the ultimate reality game show. It has a social element, physical challenges, mental challenges, and entertaining group politics.
Like running a start-up, Survivor is about making the most of the situation you find yourself in, navigating an ever-changing landscape, and staying the course despite hitting adversity.
What can founders and start-up leaders learn from a group of strangers in Fiji?
Know when to step in and when to take a backseat
During survivor challenges, you can volunteer to step in and take a prominent role, or you can volunteer to sit out and take a backseat. This can often be the difference between having a good reputation and a bad reputation, and dozens of Survivor players have been voted off due to poor challenge performance.
This key skill of knowing when to get heavily involved and when to let others lead is a crucial skill for a founder. Being ruthless with where you spend your energy, maximising the value you provide to initiatives that really move the needle, is essential to avoiding burn-out. It also carves out a reputation of excellence in those areas and letting others handle others.
Knowing when to step in and roll your sleeves up and when to delegate requires a great level of self-awareness. What core skills do you have and what brings you energy? These are the areas you should naturally gravitate towards.
Having said that, as a company grows, the founding team's day to day tasks should end up being more concentrated on culture, hiring excellent employees, and making decisions. Anything else tends to detract from progress.
The importance of getting buy-in
Throughout the game, a hierarchy of players emerges in each of the camps. Those who are at the bottom are at a constant risk of being voted off the show, whilst those at the top are at risk of a blindside as the 'middle of the pack' get frustrated with their leaders decision-making.
Oftentimes this frustration occurs because the person at the top becomes more of a dictator and less of a leader. The person becomes too big for their boots is kicked out of the tribe.
Contrast this with leaders who form strategic alliances within their camps who actually ask for opinions and operate more of a democracy, they typically last in Survivor until the final few episodes. Turns out people want to have a voice. Funny how that works!
This lesson can be ported across to startup life as well. Yes, you need leaders to make the final decision, but if they become a dictator it becomes a problem. Dictatorships don't empower the people working beneath them or help them grow in their roles. Added to this, it can foster resentment towards the leader as the person brought on to perform that function isn't being allowed to work autonomously. This is where a devolution framework is really important. What needs founder sign-off and what doesn't? This strikes a nice balance of speed and risk mitigation, whilst giving team members a voice.
Another common feature in Survivor is the need to pivot strategy in the game.
Some players come in and know they are going to have to play a social game, winning the hearts and friendships of their tribe members to progress. Others, ex-athletes for instance, know that they are coming in to play a physical game where they dominate challenges and win rewards for their tribe.
During the course of the game, players often pivot their strategy. Either through need or through choice. Sometimes they realise that their strategy is not optimal, and therefore make a proactive switch to try to advance further in the game. Other times, it's forced through external factors, like the tribes merging or the challenges becoming less physical and more intellectual.
Founders need to have a clear strategy that can be communicated to others, just like Survivor contestants, but they also need to have the flexibility and foresight to pivot the strategy when needed. This, in my opinion, is something that likely can't be taught and is learned on the job, explaining why investors like to back second-time founders, as they've already learned some of these skills.
Regardless of experience, it's important to have regular strategy meetings to ensure the current one is fit for purpose and optimal.
Running a company, like Survivor, is a tactical slog of a marathon. Knowing when to shuffle the deck, when to get hands on, and how to maintain morale throughout the team are crucial to success.