Am I leading or simply walking…

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThe 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.

On being the chief cook and bottle washer…

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAWhen you start out it really seems simple.  You have a great idea, progressed it to what you think is a minimum viable product and you just KNOW people will buy it.  But often they don’t.  That could be because you have not found people who will pay to get the problem solved or your price is not right or there are so many bugs in the software that they cannot use it or they simply cannot see the value in using your product versus that of your competitors.  Of course now we are moving into the realm of business development and more particularly, business building.

Hang on, but I thought that all I needed to do was have a great idea, build a product, sell a few and someone would buy it and my idea would be the next Google?

In our startup, we very quickly realised we needed to not only operate in the detail of our area of expertise, but we also needed to look up and take a helicopter view on things such as our vision, what type of company we wanted, and the practical issues of company registration, intellectual property protection, human resources and all that goes with employing people, costs, investors and so much more…

So were we capable of operating at both a detailed and high level to build this company, particularly as we were only three partners who needed to be management, leaders and employees?  Also, we had to understand all aspects of business.  Aspects which are often so complex that specialists are required to deal with them.

If I had to do it over I would focus on the following 5 steps:

  1. Firstly I would make sure that I had the right partners. Here you can refer to my previous post ‘People issues…Ignore at your peril’.
  2. Secondly, I would have got acquainted much quicker with what a business model is and how to build one.  Here I recommend the book ‘Business Model Generation written by Alexander Osterwalder and Yves Pigneur. This is a practical book that helps you understand what is required to build a sustainable and profitable business and what assumptions you need to validate with your customers.
  3. Successful entrepreneurs know that building a business is hard work and that despite what people might think there are methods that seem to be more successful than others.  I would have tried to understand much sooner in the journey what successful entrepreneurs were saying about what methods or steps work and where the focus should be. In this space the most influential proponents are Steve Blank (The Start-up Owners Manual: Step by step guide to building a great company) and Eric Ries (Lean Startup).  If you do not like discipline and method, then it is possible that getting your business to where you want it to go might be more painful for you than it needs be.  Get their books, read their blogs and follow their simple steps and accelerate your success.
  4. The next thing I would do is understand my own strengths and behavioural preferences and work with the team to really understand theirs.  Talk to successful people, search Google, YouTube, there are clues everywhere of what needs to be done and what type of strengths and behaviours are required to do it.  I would assess the team’s strengths and behaviours and see how it matches with what successful people say is required.  Here I would use a Neuroscience based tool called PRISM.  This tool encompasses the latest research on how the brain connects and is well priced and well within reach of a small budget (For more information leave me a comment and I will put you in touch with a practitioner). This tool enables you to build a benchmark of the types of behaviours and aptitudes that are required to build a business and then match each individual to the benchmark.  This would have given us a better understanding of our natural behavioural preferences and allowed us to identify where we had gaps and what it would mean to fill these gaps.
  5. Regardless of everything we did not know it is still important to have a plan and act on it every day.  Plans are like budgets, they very seldom turn out to be the reality, but it helps you focus and move forward.  As you are growing in the above aspects you can change your plan with the insights you have gained.

The answer to whether you are able to perform multiple roles in the business in my opinion is ‘YES’ as long as you are willing to grow and learn in the areas of business building, leadership and in the areas of the additional roles, for example Human Resources, Legal, Finance that may not be present in the team.  Being aware that when you are starting out in your business that you now have multiple roles to play is very valuable.  Lift your head out of the detail where you feel comfortable and critically look at your business. Knowing where you and your team lacks strength is even more valuable and will save you a lot of frustration, after all it is people who build a business and make things work.  Where there are gaps, outsource where possible or do the work to understand how to perform those roles effectively until you can hire someone more competent than you. But know that if what is required does not come naturally to you it is going to take energy and effort to do. You cannot ignore what needs to be done and hope you will be successful anyway.

Unfortunately until you are making money you own the restaurant, cook the food, serve the clients and wash the dishes, if you like it or not.