Practice What You Preach: How I’m Also Learning To Listen To My Customers

 

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Running a university accelerator, I have to remind myself now and then that students and working adults are different, and that I don’t, won’t, can’t always understand the former. Many of the students in the Wildfire program weren’t even born yet when I was in school (read: skipping class and driving my parents nuts). Things like Snapchat are to this generation what three-way calling was to mine. So naturally, some things get lost in translation.

Following Bootcamp Week, which was intended to overwhelm students in a way, I thought that I had scheduled the next few weeks appropriately. Mondays would be all team check-ins; Tuesdays and Thursdays would be “free days” for the teams to work; Fridays would be reserved for pitch practice; and Wednesday would be left for content. From my vantage point, packing all of the content into one day made all the sense in the world. On that first Wednesday, I planned to start at 9am for a 3-hour workshop on “Empathy and The Entrepreneur,” break at noon for lunch, and end the day with a 4-hour workshop, “How to Design and Run Experiments.” That’s less than a normal American workday, I thought, how hard can it be?

Turns out, very.

On Wednesday, I had to leave early as a result of a week-long celebration for my 40th. My body basically tapped me on the shoulder and delivered a Mike Tyson uppercut. The next day, feedback started trickling in from the staff that the students were burnt out by 4pm. My initial reaction to the news was anger. I thought to myself, seriously, they really can’t handle one long day? I was also giving them Thursday and Friday off due to the July 4th holiday. So… Really!?!?!

I let time do what it does best, calm me down. Then, I decided to flex my own empathetic muscles and try to understand what was going on from the students’ perspective. When I returned the next week, I kept my mouth shut and ears open. And when a colleague asked me if I ever felt burnt out when sitting in an all-day seminar, I was forced to do some much needed self-reflection. Indeed, I do often feel burnt out after an all-day work seminar. 

During all team check-in, I asked the students for their feedback and assured them I had my big boy pants on, so they should tell me what I needed to hear. Several students raised their hands and all made good points, one of which was that they would prefer to have content in the mornings, so that they can digest and apply what they learned in the afternoon. When they are in class, lectures and seminars all day, that’s just not possible. Fair. Accurate. Yes.

What does this all mean for me? Well, for mid-course correction, I need to let off the gas a little, which is tricky since I already scheduled the content providers, but I’m trying to work it out. For the next Wildfire term, I will cut back a third to half of the content and provide more time for office hours with mentors. The students prefer and get more out of the one-on-one conversations where they can receive immediate, actionable feedback.

Like any startup, we are all learning and growing, and that includes me. And it is good for me to practice what I preach—empathy. Listen to your customers. They might not always be right, but neither am I.