The startup journal III – Don’t call me boss

Wu Nan

It has been two months since our startup began running. Every now and then I hear my colleagues call me boss. A title I’m still struggling with.

Many reporters I know including myself are used to running as a one man band. We ask our supervisors when we need help or work with our coworkers when collaboration is called for. But now my role has flipped. All of a sudden, I’ve become the one giving orders.

Based on my own experience, I prefer a boss who’s like a friend. But it has to be the case that, as professionals, my boss and I know where the boundary is. We trust and respect each other’s work while being crystal clear about our responsibilities.

But for a new team that has been together for only two months, and with many team members who have limited working experience, it is challenging. My business partner and I are grateful to have teammates who are very intelligent and responsive to their tasks. In the past two months, we’ve published more than 180 stories. Many are in-depth analyses and features with unique angles, and we have started to get positive feedback from our readers.

However, there are also times when miscommunication and mistakes happen. When the mistakes appear to be simple and happen repeatedly, I get frustrated. I don’t want to always feel like a helpless elementary school teacher when a student concludes that 1+1=1.

What matters is how to stop this kind of mistake from happening. The biggest change I’ve made was to abandon my hypothesis that smart people don’t make simple mistakes. Professionals including myself also make mistakes, but less often.

In my own career, what I found to be helpful in avoiding mistakes and being a faster learner is to remind yourself to apply the right method and skill every single time. I’ve shared these methods with my colleagues. It’s up to them to practice it without losing their discipline. And I need to be more patient and let them grow.

The tricky thing is when the discipline is lost or when the team member does not feel the same responsibility as you do – what can you do next? Reminding them that the work they deliver is important is necessary. Strong leadership is also needed to make sure that the standard is followed and to maintain work quality.

Leadership is not about being a chameleon who puts on the boss face from time to time. I still believe that being genuine and open is the key. And I despise the hierarchical style of management. You may have heard that hierarchical management is still common at some Chinese newspapers and companies. The fact that only the top boss makes final call is accepted as normal seems to have something to do with Chinese social and political tradition.

Jack Ma reportedly uses Chairman Mao slogans to implement company rules. In his most recent public letter explaining why Alibaba donated USD five million to support the development of women’s rights in the United Nations, he first addressed that women play big roles in the company as CEOs and CFOs. Then he joked about their competitive work environment, saying “we use women as men, we use men as animals.”

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A poster about “women hold up half the sky” in 1960’s China, from Baidu Image.

His words may sound a bit controversial to a foreign audience, and yet it reflects the famous Mao slogan: women hold up half the sky. In reality, only about 35.6% of senior managers at Chinese companies are women, a survey showed in 2014.

Nevertheless, I think that in a team, every member’s voice needs to be heard and his or her talents should be discovered. But that can happen once the person has proven him/her to be responsible and to perform consistently. Once the mutual trust is broken it’s hard to restore.

So far I have enjoyed the learning process that goes with trying to be a good team leader. I’ve found important ways to channel my stress and feeling of being overwhelmed caused by poorly performed tasks. I met an aspiring writer and consultant at an event on mental health on Saturday. She told me that entrepreneurs can experience depression when running a business under great pressure and with great risk.

Unfortunately, depression is not adequately addressed in Chinese society. It was reported last year that among the 30 million Chinese who suffer from depression, only 10% were accepting treatment. The rest are either in denial or remain ignorant about it. In the IT industry, the competitiveness tends to drive entrepreneurs to only share successful stories and hide failures. Stress and frustration can easily build up if not being dealt with properly.

What do I do to keep my spirits up? Open discussion with business partners and team members to improve communication and achieve mutual understanding is the key. Talking to experienced friends and seeking advice is helpful. And simply doing your favorite things: exercising, cooking, exploring music and reading. Everyone should try to make some time during the day to keep yourself away from work.

Your mind is sharpened when you are refreshed and charged with energy. Even robots need a power source. I’ve been too busy to do my favorite activity, swing dancing, which helps me empty my mind and feel liberated by jazz. But luckily, I’ve found alternatives: like attending a fun Halloween dinner dressed in a wizard outfit.

Read the Startup Journal series.

Wu Nan
Wu Nan

Nan is the Founder and Editor in Chief of AllTechAsia. She is an award-winning journalist with honors from Foreign Press Association in New York and Hong Kong Journalists Association. For years she worked for top-notch media outlets including South China Morning Post and the Wall Street Journal. She co-founded the NetEase Annual Economist Conference (NAEC), a leading economic forum in China. She holds a master's degree in Journalism at U.C. Berkeley and is a 2012 Nieman Fellow at Harvard University. Write to her: nan[at]alltechasia.com

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