How to Inspire Accountability in Your (Virtual) Startup Team

Inspiration by photosteve101 (2010)

For those of you who don’t know, my company is virtual. This means we run a completely distributed team of people. For a long time, this in and of itself presented a large challenge. How do you keep people who work all around the country engaged? How do you keep them on task, informed, and accountable? In hindsight I think our challenges were placed in front of us because there were lessons that had to first be learned in order to earn the team we currently have.

For the first time in years, each one of our employees is critical to the business, engaged in their role, and passionate about what they do. This didn’t come because we were lucky or stumbled onto it. In the beginning we were just as passionate. We had just as much hunger for growth. We weren’t aligned though. We didn’t know what the company was and how it could serve the masses. We had to hone our tools and find a place in an industry where our talent could play. Of course it ended up being in an industry that was mid-collapse and a genre that didn’t really exist. From what I’ve read though, that couldn’t be a better scenario.

Lessons we learned along the way (and are still learning):

Be aligned with your mission. Make sure everything you do can successfully pass through that filter. If it doesn’t feel right, then it isn’t. Let it go and keep the space for what does.

Love your people. Take time to get to know them. Learn what they love to do. Figure out what ignites them. Even if it’s completely unrelated to your industry, you’ll be surprised how it can wrap around the block and tap you on the shoulder.

Don’t be afraid to lead honestly. When everyone understands what the business is going through it’s easier to invite them to join the fight. Earlier this year we released our Profit and Loss statement from 2011 with a little narrative about the companies current state and our objectives for 2012. We invited questions. We have no secrets. That does amazing things for breeding trust.

Have the tough conversations. If something feels funky, have the conversation. If that conversation is tough for you, try leaning on partner for support. Chances are though, if the conversation feels scary, it probably needs to be had. Tough conversations have led to letters or calls of resignation, but they’ve also allowed for bonds to strengthen. Both scenarios were what was best for the company.

Engage. Find a way to engage daily/weekly/quarterly. For us it started with a quarterly retreat hosted by one of the team members. We covered travel and food costs. We talked shop, played games and just got to know one another. The first one was sloppy because it wasn’t the right combination of people. The second one was amazing. This has grown to a private Facebook group for all our staff, permalancers, and freelancers. We interact multiple times a day and it’s totally self-policing. The quarterly retreats are slowly becoming a place to bring some of the outside staff in to play and get to know the company. The core team finds other ways to meet as often as it needs to band some heads together.

What were some of your lessons?

After joining Round Table Companies in 2007 as director of publishing and client relations, David Cohen now serves as VP and chief strategist. Appearing in dozens of films, commercials, and television shows, David graduated from Rollins College with a theater degree. His last film project was producing Notorious B.I.G. Bigger Than Life with Academy- and Emmy Award-nominated director Peter Spirer (Image Entertainment [DISK], September 2007).

The Young Entrepreneur Council (YEC) is an invite-only nonprofit organization comprised of the world’s most promising young entrepreneurs. The YEC recently published #FixYoungAmerica: How to Rebuild Our Economy and Put Young Americans Back to Work (for Good), a book of 30+ proven solutions to help end youth unemployment.

About David Cohen

After joining Round Table Companies in 2007 as director of publishing and client relations, David Cohen now serves as VP and chief strategist. Appearing in dozens of films, commercials, and television shows, David graduated from Rollins College with a theater degree. His last film project was producing Notorious B.I.G. Bigger Than Life with Academy- and Emmy Award-nominated director Peter Spirer.

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