Yesterday, I took an hour-long walk around the park with a peer in the venture industry. We spoke about the complexities of stakeholder management, the constant tug-of-war with time management and prioritization, and some of the big-picture initiatives for the year ahead. As I’ve now been in my role at USV for more than three years, I also shared with her a fair number of “lessons learned” and mistakes I made early on. (The power of hindsight is a wonderful thing.)
At the end of our walk, she turned to me and said, “You know, a lot of great ideas came out of this conversation today. But I think the thing I’m going to walk away with the most is just knowing that I’m not alone.”
I stopped walking mid-stride and exclaimed, “And that’s EXACTLY the feeling we’re trying to capture with every event that we host for the USV Network!”
Each year at USV, our Network Team organizes more than 150 events and training opportunities for employees across the portfolio, engaging more than 2,300 people on an annual basis. We facilitate dozens (if not hundreds) of one-on-one introductions, we manage a talent network of 1,500 people, and a Slack community of 4,000 members.
That said, a lot of people still ask, “What comes out of all of this? How do you measure success?”
Yes, we use Net Promoter Scores. Yes, we survey people after every event. Yes, we’re constantly iterating on our processes to see who’s showing up. But the truth is, it’s quite possible that that squishy feeling of not feeling alone is the #1 reason we’re all here. That pit-of-your-stomach relief of — “I’m not quite sure how to quantify or use this right now, but I know I do know that I feel a little bit better about my life having done it.” Let’s call it what it is: Empathy and connection.
While I’ve written before about how to think about measuring the impact of a VC platform strategy, I’ve never really dug into this one particularly nuanced element. So, I’d like to do that today.
The power of empathy in the wild world of startups
Each year, we conduct an all-network survey to help us understand more about the people who work at our companies, what are thinking about, and how we can help. When we ask these employees to share testimonials about how the network helped them the most, we rarely hear about specific examples where people applied what they learned in an actionable context at work.
Instead, what we hear are echoes of the importance of connection and community. Here’s one of my favorite responses:
“I’d describe the most impactful takeaway as simply the reminder that there are other awesome companies experiencing their own challenges. Sometimes it’s not even about the analogy to my work, but more so just comforting in some shared entrepreneurial journey kind of way. Knowing that you’re not alone is a helpful feeling.”
Of course, this “not feeling alone” thing can be a pretty tricky thing to quantify. As my friend pointed out yesterday, “How do you quantify the value of a vacation day policy?” But everybody who takes time off will tell you how wonderful it was to “take time off” or “disconnect” or “recharge.”
I believe this sense of connection and community is just as valuable as vacation. Here’s one hypothetical examples about how this connection might play out.
Step one: It provides a release valve.
Let’s imagine that you attend a session with fellow marketing leaders where you speak with people from two other companies about how they can’t get their product, marketing, and sales teams to align on anything. You share a few laughs, you commiserate with each other, and you hash out shared war stories. On your way home that day, you feel a bit lighter in your gut. You’ve not only been heard, but understood. It feels good.
Later on, maybe you start to recognize that your own work conflicts aren’t nearly as personal as you’ve been making them out to be. It’s not a unique issue to your manager, your team, or even your company. Maybe, just maybe, this is simply what it means to have this type of job. From that release comes acceptance. And that can be a really helpful thing.
Step two: It unlocks empowerment.
When you return to your office the next day, in the midst of yet another cross-functional battle, rather than do what you usually do — give in your own exasperation and frustration — you pause and think to yourself, “Ah yes. This is an example of what we were talking about yesterday. How was it that this other company managed through another tricky situation like this again? Maybe I’ll try that today.”
Having established a shared vocabulary with peers just the day before, you’ve now given yourself permission to experiment and tinker. You’re no longer a victim of your situation or the problems around you. You’re empowered to enact change. In the fast-paced startup environment, this intangible feeling can go a really long way.
Step three: It creates windows of opportunity.
A month later, having taught yourself how to recognize these patterns, you’ve grown a bit more accustomed to “going with the flow” as changes take place around you. You’re able to not only be more effective in your job, but coach people around you to do the same. Hey, it feels good, doesn’t it? You’re growing and maturing as a leader, and people around you are benefiting, too.
Toxic attitudes spread like the flu. But so does positivity. By taking on a different vantage point and perspective, having observed a few shared stories from peers, you have managed to shift your entire attitude toward work. I have to imagine this leads to more productivity, engagement, and output down the road.
To think — you got all of this from just a little bit of cross-company calibration.
In conclusion… I know this stuff is “squishy” and that can make it hard to quantify. But if we can all agree that time away does wonders for the soul, then I think it’s important to consider a potentially equally viable benefit of “finding your people” or sharing your problems with someone else.
It sucks to feel alone. But having a community makes it a little bit easier. And that’s why the work we do as network builders is so fundamentally important.