Entrepreneur Nicole Bernard Dawes wants her team to tell it like it is.
When designing the can for a new drink flavor recently at her startup Nixie Sparkling Water, she fell in love with a red color scheme that looked beautiful among the other cans on the shelf, but made the lettering illegible. She leaned on her team, as she always does, for feedback.
“The worst thing they could have said was, ‘You’re right, Nicole,'” she says.
Bernard Dawes has worked hard to coach her team on decision making and critical thinking. “You’re right” is something she never wants to hear.
Before founding Larkspur, California-based Nixie, she co-founded snack company Late July with her father in 2001, and later sold it in 2018. While the particulars of coming up with a delicious sparkling water or cracker are quite different, at least one aspect of her product development approach has remained the same: She doesn’t invest in third-party focus groups. Nixie’s 11-person staff does all of its research and development for beverage flavors, which include lime ginger and watermelon mint, internally. And the entire staff does a blind taste test as the last step before a new product goes into production.
“You’re the one who has to be passionate about a product … I’ve trained myself to be really honest–I never sugarcoat anything for a new product,” she says.
But she can’t exist in an echo chamber, so Bernard Dawes demands the same candor and critical feedback from her employees. Not an easy task, given the enormous temptation to tell a boss what she might want to hear. That skill–teaching people how to have smart opinions and own their decisions–is one of the most important career development tasks you can do for your employees as a CEO, she says.
Critical Thinking 101
Bernard Dawes shows employees she cares about their opinions starting on their first day on the job. She includes new hires in product meetings and makes a point of asking them directly for their thoughts.
“I set the tone early,” she says. “If you really like something, like it,” she says. In other words, she’s looking for employees not just to offer an opinion but also to stand by it and explain where it’s coming from.
“I don’t always win [in product debates]. If people see that, they feel much more comfortable being honest,” she says.
In the case of the can design she loved, Bernard Dawes did not win the debate. Nixie’s head of marketing plus her co-founder and husband, Peter Dawes, pushed back. They scrambled to put together a lineup of new colors–the winning hue was pink–even though it meant they missed a deadline, and Nixie had to push the launch date out by three weeks.
“At Late July, I probably would have panicked or not slept,” Bernard Dawes says. “But it’s much more important to have it be perfect. This potentially could be our next bestseller. You need to believe the world needs this product.”
And, just as important, not only for the product but for the success of the company in the long term. “You have to have the awareness to hear when you’re wrong,” she says.