In early 2013, while working for a previous employer, I realized that we had a problem. I learned that a client for whom we were actively developing software had not been paying their bills. I had a large development team working very hard, and we were in the middle of a multi-month project. This client had just received a major cash infusion from a big investor, and the future looked very bright. What could possibly be wrong?
To my dismay, I discovered that a great many things were wrong. Not only had this client stopped paying their bills—they were months behind. On a phone call, we learned that their big investor was running a Ponzi scheme. The FBI had gotten involved. The investor had tried to flee the country and was caught. They had no way to pay us.
Now that the development team assigned to the project wasn’t being utilized, it became a large cost to the company. This put us in financial distress. We burned through the reserve cash and didn’t have enough revenue coming in to cover our costs. Panic was setting in.
How had things gotten so bad? I chalk it up to a mix of poor leadership and avoidant culture. The team could have confronted the client right away about the missed invoices. Instead, the leadership team decided to let it slide and kept the developers billing hours. Looking back, I think they hoped the situation would fix itself.
This situation was bad enough that the leadership team was fired. And I suddenly found myself in the position of trying to bring back the company from a death spiral.
This really sucked. How did I get in this position? And how was I going to get through it? Maybe it would just be easier to walk away.
“Be a player, not a victim.”
I’ve become really proud of this mindset at Atomic. I have heard that phrase uttered many times, in different ways, and by different people. And, like professional athletes, I believe this way of thinking creates real professional consultants. The ones our clients want to work with.
Grit is the raw endurance, perseverance, and passion that keeps you going, despite the obstacles in front of you. And it’s something you build in yourself. But only if you do the hard work.
But how do you build grit in yourself?
Work on Knowing Yourself
The real measure of a person is how they respond in times of difficulty. It’s easy to be a leader when things are good. It’s a different story when things start falling apart. Do you attack others or run away and try to hide from the problem? Are you self-aware enough to know what you’re doing to yourself? Or to those around you?
The most valuable investment you can make is knowing yourself better. Learn how you react in times of stress. Teach yourself to slow down and be present. Listen to your body, and notice the energy you are putting out that others pick up on.
When you become aware of yourself, you have the opportunity to make a conscious choice and bring the best you have to solve the problem. Those around you will notice and be grateful.
Bring Player Thinking
I have this little rock in my kitchen that says, “Attitude is Everything.” I’ve had it for 25 years. It constantly reminds me that we have a choice in how we want to engage the world. And the best way is to be a positive player.
Players take action on the most important things. Actions prove who someone is. Words just prove who they want to be. It may look impossible at times, but it’s important to keep taking steps forward…even if they’re small steps.
When I’m facing challenges, I remind myself of the phrase “a kind heart, a fierce mind, and a brave spirit.” This is positive thinking–the attitude I’m working on every day. The truth is, I’m not perfect at it. In the ups and downs of daily life, I sometimes fail to keep hold of this goal. But I’m trying really hard.
Embrace the Challenge
The struggle you’re having today will build strength for tomorrow. You can’t build grit without living through the struggle. Sure, you’re bound to feel scared. Acknowledge it and move on.
A great example of this has been watching my son evolve as a goalkeeper throughout the years. Sometimes, he has to stand in that goal all alone against teams that seem to score at will. Shot after shot going in. It would be easy to give up, and yet, he still gets up, resets, and does his best to stop the next one. That is grit.
The person who falls and gets up is so much stronger than the person who never fell. You want to work with people who have fallen and came back stronger.
So, be glad that you’re facing something challenging. There is opportunity hidden in everything—things we don’t comprehend in the moment and only recognize when it’s all over.
Courage is a muscle. By using it, it gets stronger.
Courage doesn’t mean you’re not afraid. It just means that you’re not letting fear stop you from doing what needs to be done.
Sometimes as leaders, we have to display courage when everyone else is paralyzed by fear. This means getting on the phone and having a difficult honest conversation with the angry client. Or giving feedback to someone that might ruin a relationship you’ve been trying to build over many years. Or letting someone go from your company because it’s not working out for them.
It’s not fun or easy work. But every time you do it, two things happen. You build more courage for the future. And the people around you have more respect and appreciation for the job that you do.
Invest in Trusting Relationships
Having trusting relationships will help you survive difficult times. Just being able to verbally express your FUDA to someone can help you process what’s happening around you. And it can give you the extra emotional capacity to work through it.
Additionally, there is nothing like mutual suffering to create strong bonds between people. But they have to trust each other, be invested in the outcome, and have a sense of hope for a better future. This is why it’s valuable to allow teams to work through painful challenges. If they can learn how to trust each other and find a way out, they will all be stronger for it.
The other trusting relationship you need is with yourself. That may be the hardest relationship to build. The good news is that, so far, you’ve survived every challenge that has been put in front of you. You will get through the next one, too.
Embrace Failure as a Teacher
Finally, the best way to build grit is to experience failure. We all fail. That’s part of being human. The person who believes or says they are perfect is delusional.
Failure can teach us valuable lessons about ourselves—how we make decisions, how we work with others, and what we understand about the problems in front of us. But this is only the case if we have an open mind to accept what failure is teaching us. This is the player attitude that separates the elite athletes from the average.
If we approach failure wrong and ignore the lessons, it will breed a self-destructive cycle that only creates pain and hurt. This is the victim mentality, and it’s easy to fall into it.
How the Story Ended
It would have been easy to throw in the towel back in 2013. But I didn’t. I felt a strong responsibility to the people under my care. And I had a strong belief that we could find a way to come out of the situation stronger.
I reached out to those I trusted. We came together, built a plan, and took action on that plan. Others at the company appreciated having a plan and seeing things change. It gave hope and confidence to all of us.
It was touch-and-go for a couple of months. In the end, after some brief pain, we were in a much better spot. The company grew to be stronger and became a better place to work. And we all learned a valuable lesson about taking action on late bills.