Journey of a Serial Entrepreneur

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How to get from where you are to where you want to be

5 Steps to Better Negotiations

“Any business arrangement that is not profitable to the other person will in the end prove unprofitable for you. The bargain that yields mutual satisfaction is the only one that is apt to be repeated.” B. C. Forbes

Most of us take part in some form of negotiation everyday. In life, skilled negotiators are able to close better deals, and reach mutually acceptable agreements faster. Ever since I undertook this entrepreneurial journey, negotiations seem to have become common place. I have come a long way from my early negotiations, at that time, very often I did not get the best deal possible . Experience however is a great teacher, and although I have made many mistakes in the past, I have also learnt much, which has honed my negotiation skills . Listed below are some key steps to be undertaken during negotiations, to ensure that a mutually acceptable agreement is reached quickly, fairly and efficiently.

1. Motivations & Interests: At the heart of every negotiation, each side has a set of motivations and interests which enable them to take  certain positions on issues. Before beginning the negotiations, identify  your personal motivations and interests for resolving the issue at hand. Internal clarity helps greatly to communicate your message. Next, we need to understand the other side’s position, as also why they have taken it. What are their motivations and interests on the particular issue? The initial round or rounds of negotiation need to include candid discussion to ensure as clear a picture as possible. To read specific examples please click here.

2. Focus on the Problem: The entire objective of negotiating is to find a mutually acceptable consensus. To ensure that this objective is achieved, we need to keep the process as simple as possible. This requires us to understand each other’s perceptions to ensure that we are on the same page. It also requires us to keep emotional baggage off the table. Lastly, we need to ensure that during the negotiation process both parties communicate clearly, and listen attentively. At the same time, we need to be aware of non verbal communications as well. Being focused on the issue and not deviating ,greatly improves the speed at which to reach an agreement. To read more specific examples please click here.

3. Develop Options: The objective of the option development phase is to arrive at a set of mutually viable and beneficial options. To reach this objective much collaborative work is required. We need to have several candid sessions whose sole purpose is to chart out maximum number of options. Each side has to ensure that its position’s and interests are clearly communicated, with the entire focus on how to maximize expectations by working together on a macro level. To read more specific examples of developing options please click here.

4. Alternatives: These are options which form our backup options if negotiations break down and agreement cannot be reached. Before the negotiation process, one should clearly list down all the available alternatives related to the issue at hand. Then list down possible alternatives that the other side may have. This gives a better understanding of how much room there is to negotiate. Alternatives are vital negotiation tools and need to be used tactfully to ensure that a fair agreement is reached. To read more specific examples of alternatives please click here.

5. Objective Criterion: These are benchmarks which provide a fair assessment to rate particular options against. Negotiations which use objective criterion’s usually result in fairer agreements. Therefore it is important that before one begins negotiations, criterions are researched and decided upon. Whether it is for purchasing a business or negotiating a salary increase, one needs to identify quantifiable metrics which can help make the decision making process easier and fairer.To read more specific examples please click here.

Negotiations are usually not very straight forward. Much of the time, emotions get in the way which complicates matters dramatically and frankly confuses both sides on procedural matters. To say that we need to keep all emotion out of the picture is not possible. What we need to do is to exercise a great deal of self control, and constantly put ourselves in the shoes of the other side. Only once we begin to see negotiations as a two-sided process will we be able to progress to becoming a more skilled negotiator. I wish you the best of luck in all your future negotiations.

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Objective Criterions

“Here’s the rule for bargains: ”Do other men, for they would do you.” That’s the true business precept.” Charles Dickens

Most of us have at some time, played the high-lowball game during negotiations. For example, a while ago I was attempting to buy a domain I wanted. The seller had a listed price of $500, I put in a lowball offer of a $100 dollars straight off the bat. The $100 I offered, had no actual basis and was nearer to the $200 or so I wanted to actually pay for the domain. The seller and I had a number of correspondences back and forth, and a deal was struck around $230. Did I get a good price? Was my reservation price, one that had a logic basis? Unfortunately I could not answer any of these questions.

It therefore got me thinking, that having objective criterions are necessary to ensure that both sides get an optimal deal. In the case of the above example, companies such as Sedo are able to calculate the true worth of a domain through several established criterions that include, estimate of the domain name’s value, list of recent comparable sales, search engine friendliness, branding potential, legal situation and even, possible buyers. This estimation establishes the true worth of a domain. If the had seller relied and gone with such a report from a trusted authority, stating the domain estimate at $500, I would have had very little room to negotiate a price which was substantially lower. We can therefore see, that by adding objective criterion’s to negotiations, we can optimize the value created on the whole.

It is therefore recommended, that whenever you enter into a negotiation, be it changing terms of payments with your supplier, a salary increase for your staff or the sale of your business to a private equity firm, do research regarding the metrics that can be used fairly, to add objectivity to the negotiations. It is important that the criterions proposed are acceptable to both sides. A key characteristic of skilled negotiators is, they are always prepared. They know their underlying interests, the options available,  available alternatives, and a list of objective criterions to reach an optimal agreement for both sides.

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What are your Alternatives?

“The hardest thing to learn in life is which bridge to cross and which to burn.” ~David Russell

How does one assess whether one is really getting a good deal or not? To answer this question one needs to have a deeper understanding of the alternatives available. Lets say for example, we are negotiating a salary increase with our employer. We want an increase from $50k to $60k. We bring up the topic with our employer, who immediately refuses the suggestion blaming the current economic climate. We could be an extremely valuable resource for the company, but without any available alternative we have very little leverage in this negotiation. However if we do some research about market rates for our profession and may even float our resume around to get an idea what our market worth is we could arrive at a figure which gives us a better understanding of our market worth. With this figure we now have a foot to stand on during negotiation.

Alternatives however are rarely as straight forward in complicated deals where one is negotiating the sale of a business or better terms of payment from suppliers. They do however give us an important edge to see how far we can actually push during negotiations. Lets say for example I am selling my car and my reserve price is $20k I meet a seller whose maximum limit is $30k. In this case any price above my $20k reservation price will be a positive outcome for myself and likewise any price below $30k will be a positive outcome for the seller. This brings out the objective of negotiations which is to achieve a better deal than not negotiating at all. Revealing your alternatives during negotiation is usually not a good strategy unless it strengthens your position at the negotiation table. It is important to remember that alternatives should not be used to apply pressure or force the other side into a particular decision. They are markers to help us make an optimal choice.

Before the negotiation process, one should clearly list down all the available choices related to the issue at hand. I then list down possible alternatives that the other side may have. This gives a better understanding of how much room there is to negotiate. It is important to not use ones alternatives to apply pressure tactics to induce the other side to give in. Such tactics may work in the short term, however repeated use of such strategies will hurt your future chances of getting a better deal. One needs to be fair and ensure that each side is benefiting from the agreement to ensure better long term results.

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Options Development

Everything is something you decide to do, and there is nothing you have to do.” Denis Waitley

Often in negotiations, each side promotes their optimal outcome without taking into account mutually beneficial options. We often only concentrate on how we can get the most out of a particular predicament, rather than creatively coming up with alternatives for mutual gain. Other common problems leading to stalemates, is when each side looks for a single answer to resolve the issue, or views the pie as fixed, and looks for ways to increase their own share. These road blocks lead to slow negotiations, and can be frustrating for both sides. Below are a couple of ways I follow for option development:

1. Separate Brainstorming & Decision Making: The option development phase is an important one, and needs to be handled independently. If we mix the option development phase, with the decision making one, it could potentially lead to premature judgments. This phase needs to focus on the creativity of both sides, to develop options which cater to the bigger picture. At this stage there is no option which is too crazy, and both sides must feel comfortable in expressing their point of views and opinions. The end result of these sessions should be a developed list of potential options which cater to both sides and are mutually beneficial.

2. Cater to Interests: As mentioned in earlier posts it is important to focus on interests rather than positions during the negotiation process. This has great significance in the option development phase. For example, if we negotiate a larger equity stake in the business with one of the founders, it is important to let the partners know why you want 10% instead of the 6% offered. Is it because the 10% signifies the actual opportunity cost that you are foregoing to join the business? Explore the reason of the founders interests  and why they had offered 6%. Without this, the discussion is polarized to very hard positions, its either 10%, or I will not be joining. Such an attitude is not conducive to developing viable options.

3. Focus on Increasing the Pie: On a micro level when you look at an issue there are a couple of possible options available. For instance, if you are negotiating terms of payment with a vendor there are a limited number of options available to reach an agreement. However, if we take a 3 dimensional view of the issue at hand and take into account macro level factors to improve the situation, a number of options will become available. In the same negotiation with the vendor, if we zoom out and brainstorm new ways to increase the volume of business with the vendor through shared activities, maybe the vendor would be more inclined to negotiate more favorable terms. Broadening the scope of the issue is an essential trait of the skilled negotiator.

The objective of the option development phase is to arrive at a set of mutually viable and beneficial options. To reach this objective much collaborative work is required. Many individuals shy away from talking through options and stating their interests, only because they fear they may be giving too much away and may appear vulnerable. Such a stance will most likely lead to a limited set of options, most of which do not cater to the interests of the involved sides.  We must therefore introduce candor into our negotiation process to yield optimal results.

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Focus on the Problem

“When dealing with people, remember you are not dealing with creatures of logic, but creatures of emotion.” Dale Carnegie

Dale Carnegie’s quote, eloquently summarizes a major challenge we face at the negotiating table. Negotiations tend to get complicated due to the fact, that as human beings we bring a lot of baggage to the process. In the seminal book “Getting to Yes” by Roger Fisher and William Ury, they have a dedicated section devoted to separating the personal element as much as possible, from the negotiation process. They identify three main segments which tend to complicate matters repeatedly, they are perceptions, emotions and communications. Listed below are a few tips on dealing with each segment.

1. Perceptions: As stated in yesterday’s blog post, if we do not look adequately into the other sides position and interests, our perceptions will be skewed. We may perceive an issue in a certain manner because of a particular reason, whereas, it could be due to something completely different. We need to open up candid discussions on both sides. Unless this is done, both sides will blame the other and point fingers. Each side needs to be part of negotiation process, as also clear on each other’s positions, to reach a mutually agreeable decision.

2. Emotions: This area tends to complicate matters during the negotiation process as a routine. To become an adept negotiator, one needs to become emotionally aware of ourselves and others. Emotions tend to play either a positive or negative role in negotiations. It is only when negative emotions such as anger, fear and distrust come into play, that reaching a consensus becomes very challenging. As skilled negotiators it is important to keep a constant check on our own emotional levels, as well as that of the other person. When we sense a boiling point it is important to diffuse the situation by either changing our stance or by temporarily leaving the scene. It is important to focus on the issue at hand and not take personal jabs at the other person.

3. Communication: During the negotiating process if the involved individuals are not able to communicate properly, chances of reaching any sort of agreement is minimal. We need to ensure that during the negotiation process both parties communicate clearly and listen actively. At the same time, we need to be aware of non verbal communication as well. Key factors such as eye contact, facial expressions and body posture are continuously communicating messages to the other side. We also need to be aware of the non verbal cues we may be receiving from the other side as well. Miscommunication is one of the primary reasons why negotiations break down, we must ensure that the focus on keeping channels of communication clear at all times is maintained.

The entire objective of negotiating is to find a mutually acceptable consensus. To ensure that this objective is achieved, we need to keep the process as simple as possible. If we complicate the process by bringing external baggage into the equation, chances of reaching a consensus become slim. We need to ensure focus on the issue at hand at all times. This will undoubtedly be challenging, and there will be moments when our emotions will get the better of us. However, if we always remind ourselves of the core issue and make a concentrated effort to reach a consensus, both sides will benefit.

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Understanding Motivations and Interests

“Level 5 leaders channel their ego needs away from themselves and into the larger goal of building a great company. It’s not that Level 5 leaders have no ego or self-interest. Indeed, they are incredibly ambitious–but their ambition is first and foremost for the institution, not themselves.” Jim Collins

At the heart of every negotiation, each side has a set of motivations and interests which enable them to take  certain positions on issues. When the sides lack an understanding of the other’s interests and motivations, reaching a mutually agreeable decision is very challenging. Before beginning any negotiations, there are a couple of steps I take, to better understand my position on the matter as well as the other individuals position. Chances are, we will not have all the information needed to make an optimal decision. However, the initiative to understand positions better, will greatly improve chances of reaching a common ground.

1. Identify Self Interests: When we enter a negotiation process, there are obviously some goals and targets  we want to achieve. For example lets say,  you want to exit a partnership in a business you have been with for the last 5 years. What are your reasons for wanting to exit? Asking ourselves questions helps to view the issue from an analytical aspect. Identify the reasons for your inability to work with the other partners, is it due to office politics, or to fund an financial emergency need ? We need to be clear about our position to quit when we go to the negotiating table. Internal clarification greatly assists in the communication of our message.

2. Understanding the Other Side: Once your position and the interests which led to its selection is clear, begin to focus on the other side. This is a critical step which gives a holistic view to the issue being discussed. Much of the time we forget to look at the issue from the other’s point of view. We need to not only understand the other side’s position, but also why they have taken it. Through this exercise, it is possible to come up with different positions which may be taken and create counter arguments for them. In the example above, the other partners may look at the sudden request for quitting as suspicious and may choose a hard line when negotiating terms of exit. You could be a critical member of the team whose departure will cripple the firm. As many possible positions should be taken into account.

3. Candid Discussions: Both parties need to have detailed discussions to help each other understand points of view from each angle. Sometimes this can be difficult when individuals do not want to cooperate, this is quite common. The fact of the matter is, if we choose to take the hard ball route, one side is forcing their position down the other side without paying adequate attention to the other’s interests. To make any progress, one needs to gauge what, and how, the other side thinks to be able to reach common ground. This is a difficult process if candid discussions are not part of the organization and will take time. However it is well worth the wait.

Negotiating is a challenging task. If we just look at the surface on “what the other side wants” instead of also asking “Why do they want it?” we will only have half the picture. By taking the initiative to understand our own interests as well as those of the other side, will provide us the ability to look at the bigger picture and make a more informed decision. Becoming stubborn and refusing to pay attention to the other’s interests, or dismissing them all together will only make the negotiations difficult.

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5 Common Entrepreneurial Frustrations

“All that is necessary to break the spell of inertia and frustration is to — act as if it were impossible to fail.” Dorothea Brande

Lets face it, we all have days when things do not go as planned. We only know they did not go as planned, because we have something to compare them with…… days, everything went right. To experience life to its fullest we have to see it from all perspectives. The way we handle difficult situations shapes the course of our lives. Some of us choose the easier option, and do not experience life to its fullest, by preventing ourselves to be placed in vulnerable situations . If you are contemplating taking the path of entrepreneurship,  handling being placed in these awkward situations is what it is all about. Below I have listed five common frustrations which I  have experienced on my journey;

1. Idea Generation: This process can be extremely frustrating for individuals or teams if dragged over a long period of time . This is an important stage and opportunity, to gather all those thoughts in your head, put them onto a piece of paper and make sense of them. This process requires continuous action, it cannot be limited to a conference room! To read more about the frustrations of idea generation please click here.

2. Lack of Resources: Managing limited resources in a startup is always a challenge. When this challenge begins to hinder your drive and motivation to move forward,  is when frustrations set in. The idea of managing your business with an unlimited budget is an attractive one, it also comes with its own set of challenges. We have to stop blaming the lack of resources as the only reason for lack of success. Success depends on having a good team, good ideas, in the right market. To read more about managing frustrations due to a lack of resources please click here.

3. Team Dynamics: A major sources of frustration for startups arise when teams stop working well together. This often happens with a misalignment of value systems and goals. Couple this situation with poor leadership, and frustrations are bound to run high. Team development from the onset is a very important aspect of getting the success formula right. To read more about how to handle frustrations caused by team dynamics please click here.

4. Lack of Sales: If you have been through the arduous task of writing a business plan, getting a team together, and, despite every effort, have been coming up short, frustration is inevitable. However, if you let this frustration bog you down, it will convert into a continuous downward spiral which could result in eventual failure for your organization. Focusing energy on analysing why this situation occurred will result in more positive and constructive discussions and could solve your particular predicament. To read more on how to handle frustration caused by a lack of sales click here.

5. Time Management: If you constantly feel that you do not have time for the important aspects of your life, there is something very wrong here. The misallocation of precious resources often results in being frustrated, grouchy and generally not very happy about life. We need to learn how to allocate this resource more intelligently to enjoy life. This will only happen when we prioritize aspects which are important to us and allocate time likewise. To read more about handling frustration caused by misallocation of time please click here.

 Letting frustrations bring us down, means, we are essentially giving up on our dreams. It is easy to throw in the towel and blame everyone else for why success is not coming our way. It takes a lot more courage to face adversity head on and tell yourself , “I am going to get through this”. Thats what entrepreneurs are, anomalies in the system, who have the extraordinary ability to adapt and change according to circumstances. The word “quitting” does not exist in our vocabulary, if we decide to get something, then there will be little rest till we reach our end goal. Team squabbles, resources or unfavorable circumstances are tests which we must overcome. The next time you feel frustrated and ask yourself “Why”,  decide what you can do about it, rather than what it is doing to you!

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If only we had more time!

The great dividing line between success and failure can be expressed in five words: “I did not have time.” Franklin Field

Time and its correct management is a frustration felt by people from every walk of life. Time moves at an almost blistering pace, due to which one often loses track of it and suddenly, the day, week, month or even year has passed you by. It is amazing how, with all the conveniences we have in the 21st century, it has somehow managed to shrink the time available to us, rather than increase it. The entrepreneur also faces this challenge, often the inability to correctly manage our time leads to massive amounts of frustration.

Take my own example, I am constantly battling to manage my time across the multiple facets of my life. There are stretches where I experience disconnects from certain aspects of my life. It is not hard to get so caught up in the daily struggle, that you lose sight of the bigger picture. There are a huge number of stories regarding time management, one I read a couple of weeks ago stuck with me. In a nutshell, the story explained how we are often so involved in our lives, that it takes a brick to be thrown at us to slow us down. (Actual Story) What happens is, we forget to live in the present because we are so busy making plans for the future. Whenever I have talked to people who have followed this path, many of them did not get that sense of satisfaction when they eventually made it to the finish line of the race they wanted to win. 

Learn how to balance your life as soon as possible. I have found that people who complain about managing their time, are the ones who do not allocate it usage well . In the end, it comes down to how disciplined you are, and also to realize how precious every moment of life is. When people ask me question about when they should start their own business, I have a standard response in most circumstance….”as soon as possible”. Sitting on the fence ,debating whether to jump in or wait for the “right time” is just an excuse. If you want to find time for something, you have to make a concentrated effort to make it. Otherwise, it will be just another thing which will continue to drag along and frustrate you further.

For those who are currently managing their own business and are finding it difficult to manage time, the first thing you need to do is to take a step back. Find out what you really want to achieve in life, then picture the life that you want to have. Next you will have to see how you prioritize your time according to the life you want to be leading in the future. Learn not to make excuses about not having time for this or that. If that something is a thing you value highly, make sure you make the time. It is only when you find equilibrium in  all aspects of life will you be able to lead a richer, happier and more productive life. If you have not prioritized what is important to you, I would strongly urge you to do that right now and make sure that you allocate your time likewise.

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Why isn’t anyone buying?

“Show me someone who has done something worthwhile, and I’ll show you someone who has overcome adversity.” Lou Holtz

This statement may color and trouble your thoughts, be it in a team discussion or over a cup of coffee with your significant other, and can be a significant driver of frustration on your startup journey. It troubled me greatly at the start of my journey. We would get everything ready, ranging from basic operational procedures to our sales and marketing strategies, however, when we put ourselves out there, no one was biting. Put yourself in the shoes of individuals who have dedicated 6-8 months straight in developing a product/service and get nothing but “maybe’s” during their sales cycle. This is fairly major frustration. This happened to me a couple of times in my earlier ventures and really got to me. It affected both my performance at work as well as my personal life. 

What happens at this point is, we begin to play the blame game. The market is lousy, we don’t have adequate resources, our competition is too strong or we are too inexperienced. This attitude permeates into other areas of life, you are more tense, short tempered and life loses its flavor. All that energy which had you jumping off the walls six months ago seems a distant  memory. What often happens at this point is,  you begin to lose hope and if left unchecked, eventually call it quits. This is a familiar scenario as it has happened to me in the past. Today, I work with a different perspective, slowly realizing that doing business is one thing and doing it successfully requires a completely different level of patience, persistence and belief.

Instead of blaming your circumstances and other factors, there are several more constructive questions and pointers you can look into, to find out the reason your product/service is not hitting your level of expectation:

1. Product/Service: Were your initial market demand estimates overly optimistic? Is the market for your product not as developed as expected? Take all this feedback and put it to use by adjusting your product/service to the market requirement . If the market is completely undeveloped, look for ways you can carve out a niche, if it is cost feasible. Remember to pay attention to both your product, as well as market requirements.

2. Positioning: A lot of the time, due to lack of experience, or market knowledge, we position our product/services towards a wrong segment of the market. If you experience sub par performance, evaluate your current target market to determine if the right one had been selected. Positioning your product towards different segments of the market is also a strategy you can look into. 

3. Pricing: Have you overpriced your product/service? Does the market understand the value that they get for paying a premium price? Getting answers to these questions, from prospects, could help you develop products/services which cater towards their needs as well as an acceptable price level . Have a strategy for the reason you price your product/service a certain way and make sure that it fits into the bigger picture.

4. Promotion: Have you put yourself out there? How are you marketing and promoting your product/service? What strategies have you used and what sort of return have you got on them? What are new strategies you can use to promote your product/service to your target segment. A lot of the time, we forget the fundamentals, promotion must be incorporated into your strategy if you want to drive sales. 

There is no doubt in my mind that you will get frustrated when your sales pipeline is not moving. When this happens, remind yourself, that to achieve great things in life you need to give it your best too. It works hand in hand, a half hearted attempt or lack of belief in the product/service will result in average results which leave you in a state of limbo. Trust me the younger you start on the journey the better, take advantage of fewer responsibilities. Keep in mind, most of the time we quit when we are really close to breaking the barrier holding us back. Do not make that mistake!

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Can we really work together?

  “Coming together is a beginning, Keeping together is progress. Working together is success.” Henry Ford

Team work, team work, team work. At the core of any great achievement is a great team. A team who understands each other, brings out the best in each other, challenges each other to go further and motivates each other to take that next big step. To get to a point, where the dynamics of being individuals merge together to become a winning team is often a long and frustrating process. This process occurs in various situations in life, we experience frustration at a number of levels on a daily basis. Dealing with the frustrations of team dynamics in startups however, can be quite complicated. This is true particularly for new ventures where team members have limited experience in handling such situations.

I have worked with startup teams in different capacities. Without a doubt it has been an exciting ride. In retrospect, even though we had our share of awkward and uncomfortable moments, I can not help but look back at all the good times I have had with great satisfaction. Frustrations with team dynamics arise for a host of reasons, some of the more critical ones are outlined below:

1. Misaligned Value Systems: When you have 4 individuals working together, and all four want the same thing, for example “success”, the way they envisage achieving it, can be very different. One individual may believe the way to success is through strong team effort. Another team member may believe however, that the way to success is to work in isolation to allow for greater focus. This team has a major problem on its hands. Find people on your team who share same values, work ethic and belief systems, otherwise, you are in for a bumpy ride.

2. Misalignment of End Goals: When you have 4 people on a team, each of them wanting to go a different direction with the business, you are bound to have major internal conflicts. These can escalate into extremely frustrating situations, being pulled in multiple directions, leaves team members confused and directionless. Your business/venture goals must be clearly defined and have buy-in from the rest of the team. 

3. Poor Leadership: Selecting a CEO or leader is a tough call. Ask 4 guys right out of college and working together this question, this is food for an interesting discussion. In many situations a group leader emerges naturally, he/she has innate characteristics, making them more qualified to take on that position. Make sure however, the team understands the reasons for this selection, and the leader what is expected of him/her. Being selected the leader places great responsibility of steering the ship, most of the time with no compass. Selecting a wrong person as leader, is a sure shot way to red line frustration levels, even to the point where team break down is a real danger.

If there is advice I would really like to give, it is, be as candid as possible when working in a team. Speak your mind without fear of being judged, the worst thing you can do is to bottle up your emotions and concerns, to have them explode later in a messy situation. At the same time, learn to be patient and when you take a stand, make sure it is supported with adequate research and evidence. If you can cross this hurdle, believe me, success is not far away!

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