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Startup Founders & Entrepreneurs - Natural Born Leaders?

So in an effort to help founders and entrepreneurs evolve their perspective on leadership development I've described the 5 most commonly referenced skills from my discussions  (Anyone interested in specific targeted strategies to help develop these skills can email us at leadership@latchmereconsulting.com).

If you spend any time at startup conferences or networking events you'll find a tremendous amount of discussion on the technical aspects of business.  You'll repeatedly overhear the same questions sometimes asked seemingly from reflex: "What's the market potential?"; "How do you monetize?"; "What series funding are you in?"; or "How large is your user base?".  All important questions, especially for budding tech companies, but what so surprises me, especially given the creative and curious nature of most founders, entrepreneurs and the startup community as a whole, is the lack of discussion about people within startups, how they work with each other, contribute to innovation or strategic advantage, and the leadership skills required to run these organizations.

There are many possible reasons for this lack of attention to leadership and interpersonal effectiveness (or "soft" skills as many founders, sometimes dismissively, label them).  I heard them over the last few weeks at the recent Tech in Asia Conference and other events.  Tight deadlines, limited staff, use of freelancers, or running on borrowed funds with pressure from venture capitalists were all commonly cited justifications for why founders don't really need to focus on leadership now.  Of course these also beg the question "if not now when?" or more pointedly "Can a lean highly pressured startup really afford suboptimal teamwork and leadership?"

Another more difficult to challenge assumption is that the founder already has all the leadership skills she needs.  In other words she or he is a "natural born leader."  While that may be partially true - having the confidence to take a big risk in starting your own venture means you're likely to have some capacity for dealing with people - certainly, we know there are disaster stories are out there: startups with great concepts but abrasive or incompetent CEOs whose employees are just dying to jump ship and certainly not thinking about how to help the company succeed.  If there are disaster founders, do we think there are no "middle of the road" CEOs or startup managers out there, ones who are getting by just okay but would really flourish with improvements in the right leadership areas?  Even if a founders skills are adequate for the time being when you're rapidly rising any skill you pay no attention to will soon becomes an inadequacy. 

Considering that Founders by the nature of the job are often in the most significant leadership position they've ever been in and discussion on the topic of leadership is limited in their community we should do more to help them navigate this critical aspect of their businesses.  On the bright side, when prompted many founders, startup incubators and employees already have a good sense of which leadership skills are most in need.  So in an effort to help founders and entrepreneurs evolve their perspective on leadership development I've described the 5 most commonly referenced skills from my discussions  (Anyone interested in specific targeted strategies to help develop these skills can email us at leadership@latchmereconsulting.com).

1) Delegating Effectively - The sheer amount of critical work founders are responsible for means that any work they can successfully delegate can dramatically improve the success chances of their business.  Allocating more time to spend on things like building partnerships, revising strategy, or optimizing team performance can lead to dramatic returns on the investment.  Many leaders play it safe and avoid hiring extra staff or outsourcing work in order to save funds but their business ends up starving for strategic attention.  Some may try delegating, not approve of the results and automatically blame the employee where it's just as likely they have erred by not clarifying expectations, building capability, or delegating decision making power.  Great leaders are ever vigilant of both their workload and the people around them, they are constantly testing out ways to free up their time and build their staff's capability. 


2) Driving Others to Achieve Results: Given the time pressures of most startups, a leader's ability to drive their team to ambitious results can make all the difference between the next round of funding or shutting the doors. The fast pace of change and leanness of startups makes it more likely for employees to be uninformed about changing priorities, to not know when new projects have started, or to neglect to pursue new insights and shortcuts as a result of not understanding the bigger picture.  Leaders may confuse these problems with a lack of capacity to get the work done or a lack of enthusiasm among employees.  Both judgment errors can wreak havock on a project schedule.  Successfully driving results requires common awareness of priorities, and key project information throughout the company, as well as demonstrating and setting clear expectations of accountability, reviewing of key metrics, and celebrating progress. 

3) Creating an Effective Network:  No startup possesses all the resources required to succeed within their company.  At some stage all startups will need to look externally for things like market information, business knowledge, funding, skilled talent, business partnerships etc.  The strength of a leaders network will determine how much access they have to these resources and at what cost.  By the time the need for these resources arise it's often too late to work on building a network to obtain them.  Incubators and accelerators can help to fill this gap but they come at a significant cost in equity and still require dedicated efforts on the part of the founder.  Pro-actively analyzing your network, identifying gaps, and practicing methods to strengthen it will dramatically improve the trajectory of a start-up.

4) Building Talent:  With a small team and limited resources being part of a startup guarantees employees will take on responsibilities they've never done before.  As the company grows employees will need to grow with their increasing responsibilities.  A founder who actively cultivates new capabilities in his team will be well situated to ride their own growth curve without setbacks.  Building talent requires leaders to give people the right mix of encouragement and critical feedback,  provide them with challenging assignments, and ensure they have room to make mistakes so they can learn from them.  Given the unique culture of the startup community most startup employees are likely more than willing to take on new challenges and motivated to grow their capabilities.  Founders who take an interest in building the skills of their employees and recognize improvements create a culture of personal development which in one year's time provides them with a vastly more capable team than their more transaction focused competitors.   

5) Creating an Engaging Work Environment: People cannot work at their best in just any old work environment.  We know factors like psychological safety, autonomy, personal development, constructive conflict, and working towards a common purpose greater than oneself, can all contribute to improved performance.  Leaders must learn to foster these qualities in their team and continuously probe for improvement opportunities if they want to get the best from their people.  In startups a "honeymoon phase" for an employee's first few months helps to create engagement.  Often they are excited by their broad responsibilities, high company growth potential, a fun relaxed environment, and possibly just the appeal of working for a startup, however that initial excitement can easily fade when setbacks inevitably occur and employees re-evaluate their engagement levels.  I found no shortage of stories about ineffective leaders and their disaffected employees being courted by other companies.  Successful founders need to Build an engaging work environment to maximize output, quality of workBusiness Management Articles, and pro-actively sustain their teams through tough times.
While it's tempting to believe "I am a natural born leader" we should realize that even the best of us have opportunities to improve. Put another way even those who are destined for leadership greatness must learn and practice before realizing their full potential.

 

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR


Justin Paul is the Founder and Principle Consultant at Latchmere Consulting, a firm which specializes in aligning the needs of employees and businesses to maximize performance and engagement.  If you are interested in learning more about or participating in a study on leadership and people practices within startup organization, contact us at inquiries@latchmereconsulting.com



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