How to “consciously uncouple” at your startup (like Gwyneth Paltrow!)

Screen Shot 2015-01-16 at 10.02.54 PMLast year I saw Gwyneth Paltrow speak at the Re/code conference. She got on stage in front of a bunch of tech luminaries and gave a talk on fame and internet trolls.

It was horrible.

She was nervous, or maybe acting nervous — you can’t tell with actors. She made an awkward sex joke about being in a sandwich with the other two speakers. That joke would have gotten any of the audience members banned for life, I’m sure (no sex jokes EVER at a tech conference — that’s rule number one!).

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She came across as not very likable, based on the hate I heard after her talk. This was, of course, paradoxical given that her talk was on trolling.

Well, Paltrow was on Howard Stern this week and I absolutely fell for her. She was honest, charming, and raw. Howard has become a master interviewer in his later years and this was a top 10 interview for him.

The funniest parts came when he talked about the insane “conscious uncoupling” post she wrote on her blog. Howard’s reaction back when that post came out was to trash her brutally along the lines of “she’s too good to get divorced like the rest of us!”

On the show she explained how stupid it was of her not to explain the context of “conscious uncoupling.” It was a school of thought about how to separate without having to hate each other for the next 10 years, which in many cases includes the formative years of your kids. It all made sense: she was a groovy person, trying to exit a marriage without hurting her kids, and she wanted to share what she had learned. She simply didn’t do it well, which is to say with self-awareness and … wait for it … that word we all love … context!

People are going to misunderstand you, and you’re going to communicate poorly at times. It’s important that you keep trying to get your point across. That’s why I’m blogging hard again: I want y’all to know exactly who I am, how I think, and why I think it.

Now, over the past couple of weeks I’ve dealt with some folks leaving startups I’m invested in or involved with. Earlier in my life I was a hardcore loyalist and really didn’t like people leaving — I took it very personally.

These days when folks leave I, almost universally, am cool with it because I’ve trained everyone around me on how I think you should “consciously uncouple” from me (a.k.a., quit).

Over time I’ve learned that you don’t want to have folks working for you who are not 100% committed. Also, everyone goes at some point, so the best thing to do is leave on good terms.

Here’s how to “consciously uncouple” at work:

1. If you’re planning on leaving your job the Gold Standard is to meet with your boss and say:

“I’m thinking about moving on to my next adventure. My time here has been amazing, but I’ve got some other things I’d like to pursue. I want to make sure I leave the company in much better shape than it was when I arrived, so I’d like to help you hire and train my replacement. I can give you a couple of weeks, or a month — heck I’ll give you two if you need it!”

2. If you’re planning on letting someone go for any reason other than cause (an example of cause: they stole from you, like some dopey kid did at one of my companies recently) the Gold Standard is to give them two chances to correct their mistakes (in writing, in detail if possible). If you’ve done the warnings, the script is easy:

“Hey Jason, we’ve decided that you’re not a fit for what we’re doing here at Inside.com. We gave you those two written warnings, so I’m guessing this isn’t a shock to you. I’m also guessing you might feel the same way, so I wanted to be candid with you about it. We’re thankful for your effort, and we think it is best for you to resign. We’ll give you X weeks severance and we can be a solid reference for you in the future when you do. If not, we are going to have to fire you, which means we will not be able to give you severance and our reference will be limited to what dates you worked here.

Huge disclaimer: always consult your lawyer and HR department about firings, especially if they are contentious. Always have at least three people from your team in the room when you do fire someone. Always keep it professional, don’t make it personal, and try to make it as positive as possible (i.e., “We really wish this had worked out, but we’re sure you will land on your feet and find a perfect match for your skills!”).

For bonus points: I always tell folks when they are interviewing with me, “I consider joining this company at least a three- or four-year commitment — is that something you’re prepared to do?” That really sets expectations on both sides, and I’ve had people say they don’t think they can do more than a year because they were planning on moving back home or starting law school. People are honest, and that can be super helpful!

For mega bonus points: I always tell folks stories of people who have worked for me previously and how I have invested in their startups, joined their boards, and written recommendation letters to get them into business school. I explain to them that if they put in four years for me I will always be available to them in the future to help with their careers.

For super double mega bonus points: I tell everyone in my companies how I expect folks to leave the company (which is to say, the Gold Standard above). When folks leave the company with the Gold Standard I host a going-away lunch for them. If folks leave without following the Gold Standard? No going-away lunch for you!

OK, maybe I’m still a little hardcore about loyalty with that no going-away lunch thing!

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