I love using metaphors with clients. A metaphor takes something abstract, like “being CEO,” and pulls everyone present into a context they understand so the abstraction becomes something familiar to play with.
My favorite metaphor (okay, technically, it is a simile) lately is that of how a startup is like a mountain climbing expedition. A startup CEO is like the expedition’s guide.
On an expedition, the guide supplies a map that lays out which mountain the group will climb, where each day’s campsites are, the selected route, features in the landscape like rivers, bridges, and more. The guide gets to know their crew members, assigns responsibilities according to relevant skills, and so on.
In a startup, the CEO supplies a vision that lays out an objective (sell $2M of this thing this year!), milestones to achieve the goal, potential obstacles (failing to solve customer needs!), hiring and assigning responsibilities, and so on.
When climbing a mountain, the map doesn’t match the territory. That bridge you were planning on using to cross the river? It turns out that’s gone. The guide has to work with the team to come up with a solution. The same goes for a startup. The CEO lays out a (top-down) vision at the start of the quarter, and four weeks in, something unforeseen happens, and the team has to adjust (bottom-up).
This metaphor can help a CEO understand their role, and it can also give the team a shared language to maneuver the challenges that inevitably arise over the lifetime of a startup. Climbing a mountain is hard, accidents happen, and people get grumpy (especially when hungry and tired), but the team has to remember that everyone is in it together to achieve their shared goal.
One of the most common traps I see the founders I coach falling into is mistaking meaning for facts.
Facts are things we all observe. They are things that have happened, witnessed, and we can agree they happened. If I hit you in the face with a water balloon full of 35°F water, we’re not going to argue about whether you just got hit in the face with an icy cold water balloon—unless I’m a dirty liar, which for the sake of simplicity we will assume I am not.
Not only am I not a dirty liar, but I am also not a sonofabitch, so I did not mean to hit you in the face with the water balloon—I’m just an untrained liquid projectile launcher. But anyone who has ever been hit in the face with a water balloon knows that it’s easy to jump to the conclusion that their assailant definitely did that shit on purpose. The meanings we create about the facts we observe are not facts—they are interpretations or stories we tell ourselves about the facts.
The meaning we give a fact—like getting hit in the kisser with a slushy latex bag of water—can dramatically change how we react.