In April 2016, I visited the "Pearl of the Adriatic" in southern Croatia. The city was exquisitely preserved to maintain its medieval charm. Its rich maritime history and tradition shone through its breathtaking views, historic buildings and majestic natural landscapes. It was easy to get lost in the old town alleys, wander through the steep stairwells, and chat with the locals at every turn.
It's ironic that I was negotiating my exit from my previous startup at the same time. Before leaving for Croatia, I called the CEO that we should "part ways amicably." Breakups are hard, especially when you're the one calling it off. Conflict is a necessary part of life. At some point, you'll experience an uncomfortable situation. The only thing in your control is how you respond. Here are are my three tips for conflict management.
First, it's okay to be alone. When the exit negotiation started, I gave myself plenty of space to evaluate the conflict without any distractions or external influence. On my first day in Dubrovnik, I woke up early to walk the walls solo and avoid the crowds. I strolled at my own pace, and I saw the city and its coastline from multiple angles. During my two-hour jaunt along the wall, I reviewed the behaviors and events leading up to the conflict, considered multiple perspectives, identified points of agreements and disagreements, analyzed alternative scenarios and developed a plan of action.
Second, look at the conflict from a different angle. For a bird's eye view of the city, my friend and I took the cable car up the mountain one early afternoon. At the top, there is a cute cafe where you can get late lunch or afternoon tea with a killer view of the old town below. Similarly, it's helpful to evaluate conflict objectively at a "high-level" and reflect on what I learned. I considered the short-term and long-term positions of the company, the founders, external partners and me. I took note of the warning signs in order to help me avoid these situations in the future. Most importantly, I am able to define more specifically what I wanted for any future opportunity. I prioritize integrity, ownership and learning throughout my career. By assessing the conflict from a different angle, I realized that the startup's behavior did not align with those values and couldn't fulfill my career development goals. Thus, I was able to accept that it was best to cut my losses and move on.
Third, remember what (and who) brings you joy. Food brings me a lot of joy. Not only does it provide sustenance and energy, but it helps me connect with people meaningfully. Influenced by Italy and the Mediterranean, Croatian food and wine were to die for. While walking the wall, I discovered a bar just outside the wall and enjoyed a beer next to the sea. One of the best grilled fish I've had was at Lady Pi Pi, a restaurant perched on top of the old town buildings. After dinner, I sampled a few Croatian wines at the D'vino Wine Bar. According to the local wine bar owner, they keep all the best in the country. Startup life is grueling, so you have to be highly aware of your physical, emotional and mental well-being and recognize your limits. The product can have immense potential; however, no startup is worth the financial instability and emotional stress if you don't believe in the founders and people. I love traveling solo, but it's nice to have companions to share meals and be active listeners to help clarify the conflict. These conversations can provide valuable insight and feedback, but you should never let them fully influence your decision.
Ultimately, you are the arbiter of your own happiness and life. I spent my entire two weeks in Croatia negotiating with my previous employer, but I walked away without signing the exit agreement. Above all else, my integrity was non-negotiable, and no amount of money could make me compromise. I did not leave empty-handed as I walked away with new knowledge, network and experience that will be valuable in my future endeavors.