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There is a fundamental difference between leadership in large conglomerates and leadership in Start-ups. While, as individuals, leaders can excel in both environments, the expected approach to leadership is markedly different. Here are five traits for a great start-up leader that you must embrace if you are already haven’t and are running a startup.
1. Be innovative by the second
Wise people in the analytics world say around 90% of start-ups fail because they lack innovation. How do we define innovation? As a founder, I see two types of innovation. First is the innovation by design, where you get together, rack your brains to solve technology problems, meet market expectations, unravel production challenges innovatively and therefore create differentiation.
The second kind of innovation is to meet an ‘extreme and urgent demand’ that you face every moment in a startup to handle situations which seemingly have no direct solution and hence innovating a new way forward is the only way. This second type of innovation goes under the radar and does not get counted as innovation at all, though as a leader this is an area where you will find yourself innovating the most. If not for this type of innovation, 100% of start-ups would fail!!
While the first type of innovation takes the company forward and results from a combination of knowledge, passion, teamwork, etc. the second type of innovation keeps the company alive.
In the first type of innovation, breeding innovation is key, and leadership is all about nurturing this innovation.
The second type of innovation is almost a knee-jerk reaction to situations, and it requires a high degree of decisive, innovative and the ability to foresee consequences. These innovative steps are particularly critical as they are often based on half inputs, unsure outcomes, ambiguity in team buy-in and possibilities of creating an absolute mess if the ‘innovative’ decision goes wrong.
If you have to succeed in a startup, you must be ready to make the ‘knee-jerk’ innovation a way of life, ingrained into your routine of decision making.
2. Ability to Lead – in an alien area
In start-ups, by definition, the leadership is a part of the execution team, and often the greater contributor in actual execution. Things get tough with leadership when the leader is expected to ensure that the execution and the enablers of execution too work well. This would translate the leader’s KRA to ensuring that the kitchen has enough stocks for a food start-up to make sure the Food Ordering app integrates well with the payment gateway.
While extremes such as these are rare, the high-intensity work environment in a start-up requires that every issue is fixed in the shortest possible time. In such scenarios, with vanishing hierarchies the team sees a leader as one among them and therefore, the natural ‘go to person’ is the leader.
This sets an expectation of the leader’s ability to solve problems that are beyond the zone of the leader and solving them or at the least a serious interest in solving reiterates the team’s connect with the leader, which is so important amongst the uncertainties of the start-up environment.
So when you are signing up to lead a bunch of enthusiastic professionals to start-up success, it is important that you consider sparing a significant of your time and effort in areas that were alien to you and your team would look up to you for guidance irrespective of your core capabilities.
3. Glide from Passion to compassion
A key ingredient for start-up success is passion. This keeps the team going. The success is also however attributable to a high-performance execution team. This is where the challenge comes. The passion of a capable professional hired may be tangential to the collective passion of the Start-up and individual aspirations may take time to align with the passion of the leaders.
A good and capable performer may see the employment with the start-up as a stop-gap job or a career or a place to learn or maybe just as a place where coffee is good. As a start-up, we live with the realization that all the talent we get as team members may not form the core of what we do, but they are important to a team and therefore need to be retained, till the balance of under-performance tips over all the good that the employee brings with him/her.
Therefore, as a leader, you must be prepared to forego the urge to demand the same passion and commitment that you have and understand the expectations of team members with compassion. This would help enhance the allegiance of the team member and help build a great team.
4. Have Marketing as their culture
As a start-up leader, you are incomplete if you have not developed the culture of marketing into you. Your team needs to be marketed to. In Start-ups marketing is synonymous with being able to communicate, especially when in it comes to teams within. Marketing your passion, drive and vision builds and motivates team members.
A great product often fails to see the big market, not because of its shortcomings, but somewhere the leaders did not incline marketing as they did for building the product. It is important that the passion for building the product be translated into an effort that showcases the product in the same light as the start-up leaders see them, the passion needs to be made contagious.
The same passion helps build investor confidence and wins customers. Future employees love being associated with stories passionately told and overall it works wonders for your start-up.
5. Be Subconsciously mathematical
At the bottom of everything, there is mathematics. With the limit and strain on resources, Start-ups live and die with mathematics. As a start-up, it is a natural expectation for you to be on top of your numbers. Numbers are needed to analyze employee productivity and hiring forecast, to plan operational expenses, sales pipelines, and marketing investments. Every decision that a leader takes needs to be based on one or more of these numbers.
While being on top of these numbers is a default necessity for a start-up leader, asking for an automated process and templates for capturing and analyzing all the numbers in real time, may not be realistic as it might need expensive dedicated bandwidth and resources. Hence comes the need for being subconsciously aware of the numbers that would help in the decision process, which many a time need to be taken in spontaneity.
Have an attitude to listen, learn and course correct.
Start-ups are typically a passionate story of a very limited set of individuals – often just one. This can lead to a sense of ‘my way is the right way’ attitude, and this could become the start-up’s undoing. As a start-up leader, you must be open to listening to your team, listening to the market, listening to your mentors, investors and be quick to course correct. This is particularly important where almost everything around us is transforming so fast, be it technology, communication speeds, businesses, mindsets of audiences and it is very easy to overlook a grave mistake or an area of great opportunity.