There is a uniquely warming experience about looking around at a group of people and knowing that they “get” you. I notice this with football fans who are either hugging in ecstasy or consoling one another, depending on the Sunday. I see it too with groups of young parents who can signal to one another with just a look that they have spit-up on their shirt. It’s a feeling of belonging, yes, but also of support and honesty. It’s a feeling that entrepreneurs need to be proactive about cultivating—because there’s no jersey or spit-up stains that signal “Hey! I’m one of you!”
All professions can benefit from solid support systems, but in the entrepreneurial world it’s particularly important. If you’re a founder, there’s a tendency to feel like you need to project confidence, all the time, no matter what’s going on in your business or in your life. You have to be the boss, inspiring people to work for you or invest in you, or to buy your product or service. But you also have bad days—sometimes really bad days. And you have moments of doubt and uncertainty. You might not feel like you can burden your significant other with it—again—and she or he might also not have the inside knowledge to really get it. Connecting with a support system made of people who’ve been there not only allows you to take some of the excess air out of an overflowing tank, but it can offer you insight and perspective that you may simply be too close to see. Here are some ideas for connecting with your tribe in a meaningful way.
1. Network with authenticity. Don’t make connections just to make them—meet people and ask them questions because you’re genuinely curious about what they do and how they manage. Build a special relationship or two out of your networking efforts, or form your own group out of those you feel a connection with.
2. Be reciprocal. If you find a kindred spirit whose advice or sympathetic ear you often seek out, be sure you’re lending your own in kind.
3. Join an organized peer-to-peer group like Young President’s Organization or Entrepreneur’s Organization. These groups are known for how seriously they take confidentiality. And confidence in privacy is imperative.
4. Be real. I have what I call the Great Tribeship Test, which is really a question: Would you cry in front of that person or group? I’m not saying you need to bring the tissues to every meeting, but do consider whether you feel you can be vulnerable.
5. Don’t surround yourself with yes-people. There is a place for empathy and cheerleading, and it can coexist with criticism. If your tribe is only made up of people who think you can do no wrong, you are missing the tribe’s potential.
6. Invest in a professional. There are ever greater numbers of therapists who specialize in business issues, and life coaches who have seen it all. Even if you think you can’t spend the money or time, consider it. Your business will not make it if you don’t remain healthy. I believe every founder and every CEO should have a therapist or coach, and know plenty of experienced entrepreneurs who swear they will never do without one again.