The title of this blog I take from John Maxwell, who says that if you think you are leading, check if anyone is following, if not, you are simply walking. I have been pretty lucky throughout my life as taking the lead has never been difficult for me and people seemed to like to follow. This has resulted in a lifelong passion for learning about and practicing good leadership. I have always believed that the trust that people place in you to lead comes with great responsibility.
But a startup is very different, particularly when all 3 people in the business are the owners, who should take the lead? If you are lucky, two of the team might naturally defer to the other’s leadership. What is important here is to clarify the leadership role with the other two and ensure that there is a common understanding and acceptance of the leadership role and the rest of the team members’ accountabilities. Once again, it is important to assign accountabilities according to each person’s strengths, and clearly understand where you might have a gap in the strength set. Luckily in a startup everything is being validated and nothing is fixed which leaves room for the leadership role to be rotated if there is no clear leader emerging. This approach allows the team to see each person’s leadership capability in action and then choose the best person for the role. In my experience joint leadership rarely works unless there is real clarity around who is accountable to lead in which area. One of the difficult tasks for a leader is to have the difficult conversations with people who might not be meeting their deadlines or who are generally underperforming. Joint leadership muddies the water around this responsibility. Unfortunately just because people own the business does not mean they are competent in the roles assigned to them, the tough conversation might come around quicker than you think.
In a startup more than in any other business stage the toughest leadership job is leading yourself. You have no employees, only colleagues, different roles that are confusing, no or little money, more downs than ups and it is up to you to have mental toughness, stay positive, focused and encouraging everyone around you in the face of many challenges. Here the only thing that works is strong supporters who believes in you and in what you do, and cutting yourself some slack now and again.
Startup being such an unpredictable and risky place for a business to be in, I found that I had to use my leadership intuition more than in any other leadership role I have been in. I also found myself ignoring and doubting my intuition more than in any of the other roles I have had. I can only attribute this to the fact that I was often making decisions with less robust information than I would normally have and the normal road markers were absent such as making a profit and having paying customers. After often waiting too long to act on my intuition, I learnt the hard way that I could still trust that little voice that had successfully guided me in the past.
Leadership in a startup even becomes more complex when the same people are playing different leadership roles. In our case we were all shareholders, directors and employees. Generally shareholders are concerned with the growth of the investment and shortfalls of capital to make the business work. The directors are focused on the business strategy and of course the employees have to execute on the day-to-day activities that will realise the strategy. I found putting on these different hats was very difficult at times even though you would think that each of the roles were focused on the same outcome of making the business successful, I found it not to be so straightforward. There were often decisions that we made as shareholders that we would not have made as directors and vice versa. The only advice I can give here is that you need to have different meetings for the different roles and emphasise at each meeting what the focus of the role is at that meeting.
The key to successfully leading an organisation (and no less so than in a startup) is that the business can only grow as fast as the leader is growing. It was my first startup and I very quickly realised that I had a lot to learn about the most successful methods to use and all those aspects that I was not so familiar with, such as how to structure the company, getting investors, etc., but more importantly, I needed to learn how to listen to the clients and be willing to learn from them to get to a profitable and sustainable market. I found myself changing our strategy often as we received feedback from the clients and in any of my previous roles in established businesses this approach would have been frowned upon and frankly, I would have lost face as a leader, being accused of not being competent. So allowing myself to lead in this way and not feel like a failure took a lot of self talk and convincing and I am still not sure I have personally bought into it.
The next time round I would clarify my leadership role and accountabilities much earlier in the journey, get a mentor to guide me through the whitewaters and have the tough conversations sooner.
As the leader it is your responsibility to know how to build a robust business, create and sell the vision, grow your skills appropriately, know your business numbers and the strengths and weaknesses of the group, filling the gaps quickly and efficiently.
The buck stops with you.