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5 battle-tested strategies for building a team that performs under pressure

4 min read


In transitioning from the Navy to entrepreneurial life, I’ve learned that stress is relative. To someone who’s experienced life-or-death situations, a missed deadline doesn’t seem like a big deal. But for a recent college graduate working his first job, it can feel like the end of the world.

As an officer, I had many roles: boss, friend, drinking buddy, parent, financial adviser, and marital counselor. Stress management became a way of life: Not only were there physical dangers inherent to the job, but there were also countless emotional tests in the form of erratic schedules, long hours, homesickness, and moral dilemmas.

This experience taught me how to successfully lead sailors through stressful circumstances, and these lessons also apply to office settings.

Here are five strategies to create a team that excels under pressure:

1. Don’t freak out. Faced with a high-stress situation, your team will use your actions to guide their behavior. In a crisis, leaders must remain calm and solution-oriented. I do this by putting my problems in perspective: When you’re stressed, know that you can pull through this; focus on solving the problem at hand rather than stress about how you got there. No matter how terrible my day is, I remind myself that there are no missiles pointed at me — I always have the option to leave the office and grab a beer.

2. Make plans. There’s a saying in the military: “Plans are worthless, but planning is everything.” Plans often fall apart, but the planning process helps you understand your goals clearly and outline your options.

Going into the second Gulf War, I was tasked with creating a training plan for a mission I didn’t fully understand. Although the plans I developed were wrong, the process helped me better understand how the tactics led to the goals. At a startup, oftentimes the simplest way to get moving is to build a plan you know is wrong and enlist help to improve it.

3. Check in regularly. This is essential, yet it’s often the first thing to fall off leaders’ radar when they get busy. Try taking your teammates out for coffee monthly and having two-way conversations. Ask how they’re doing — both good and bad — and solicit their opinions. Listen, take notes, and ask follow-up questions; make sure they know you value their feedback.

If you check in regularly with your staff members, they won’t hesitate to approach you when something begins to get stressful — rather than wait for it to become a catastrophe.

4. Teach your team to prioritize. At startups, tasks can pile up to the point where it’s not humanly possible to accomplish everything. Teaching your team to prioritize ensures the right work gets done.

On the USS Harry S. Truman, I led a terribly disorganized sailor. He was extremely motivated and worked tirelessly, but he continually fell behind. I had him write a daily list of tasks and select five things that absolutely had to be completed that day. After two weeks, he was so effective at prioritizing that he got through his entire backlog.

5. Make good habits reflexive. When people encounter stressful situations, they often revert to instinct. The key is instilling the right instincts in your team and ensuring their actions lead to successful solutions.

When I served as a nuclear plant watch officer, we were trained to recognize worst-case scenarios and gear our responses toward preventing them. As a startup leader, you’re (probably) not dealing with nuclear reactors or super-pressurized steam systems, but you certainly have situations demanding quick, consistent reactions.

The pressures your team faces are likely different from the pressures of Navy life, but the resulting stress is universal. With a little compassion and a lot of planning, you can help your team function better under stress and get one step closer to completing their mission.

Ben Williams is an entrepreneur and technologist who specializes in IT, energy, and aerospace. He has worked for large organizations such as Lockheed Martin and the U.S. Navy, as well as founded and led startups (Hangar Underground, Open Sky Energy, and PennDSL). He is currently the CTO at Reelio Labs, a tech startup based in New York City. His education spans engineering and business, and he is a combat-decorated veteran, a rugby player, and an alpine mountaineer.

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