Leadership for Startups – It’s not a gift, it’s hard work

Leadership for Startups – It’s not a gift, it’s hard work

My oldest son plays guitar and, over the holidays, he did a solo which he posted on Instagram and Facebook. I learned about two years ago, from a friend, that my reposting and sharing wasn’t just because I was a proud dad. He’s built quite a following and has surpassed the 10,000 hours of practice required to get really good at something. That solo has had over 4,000 views on Instagram and 3,000 on Facebook. I’m proud of his work and sad when some people credit that work to giftedness.

Malcolm Gladwell describes this as the deliberate practice required for a form of mastery in a particular field. At least in those fields where a 7’1″ wingspan isn’t required, like basketball. There is no gene that has been identified for music and there is no gene for leadership. You’re going to have to put in the hours if you really want to be good at any learned skill.

As a Startup Founder, what do you need to be a great leader? There are so many areas of study and practice that you should consider, but let me pull a lessons from Charles Duhigg’s new book, Smarter Faster Better, which I’m listening to on Audible. There are myths about good teams and there is research about good teams. In the book, he references Google’s Laszlo Boch and his 5 key norms – BTW, Laszlo just left Google, keep an eye on what he does next.

  1. Teams need to believe their work is important
  2. Teams need to feel that their work is personally meaningful
  3. Teams need clear goals and defined roles
  4. Team members need to know they can depend on one another
  5. But, most importantly, teams need psychological safety. Team leaders need to model the right behaviors

Let me break this down into what this means for startup founders and CEOs.

Is your work important? Not in a contrived mission/vision sort of way. I have a great friend in the gaming business, and he admits he’s not solving the world’s problems – he’s just creating fun and that’s OK. If you are solving a real problem, great, recognize it for what it is and get that in front of the team for them to understand. If you really want to change the world, even better! Answer the question, why is what you are doing important to your customer?

One of the things I learned from Donald Miller at Storybrand is that most companies think of themselves as the hero of their own story. But they aren’t, the customer is the hero of your story. You are the guide to help them succeed. You, your team and your company are part of the narrative, but not the center of the story.

Is your work personally meaningful? Not just to you as the founder or co-founding team. Are the early team members compensated with stock options, do they see how what they are doing actually makes a difference in what the do every day? You as a leader need to recognize that contribution – it should never be implicit, it should always be explicitly stated and recognized. By the way, as the leader, that means when good things happen, the team gets the credit, not you.

Do you have clear goals and roles? Early stage companies are notorious for flip-flopping as they try to find product market fit. If you are at that stage, you may want to redefine the team’s goal as “find product market fit” vs positioning yourself as the all-knowing (and new) CEO who has the singularly and divinely granted product vision.

Are you doing daily standups with the entire team? Do you know their current blockers and what is on their to-do, doing and done lists of tasks? You can’t micromanage them. If that is required, either they are the wrong person, or you’re the wrong manager. Everyone on the team should know the “Leader’s Intent.” In the military, that means the goal is to take that hill. But as we all have heard, everyone has a plan until the fighting starts. Do they know your intent? If they don’t, it’s not their fault, it’s your fault as a leader.

Can they depend on one another? Have you created a culture, where people can depend on one another for feedback, encouragement, and support? Your startup may just be you and a co-founder at this point. You can start there, in fact, you have to start there. If you don’t start with intent, you likely will screw up the culture before you get large enough to know any better. Your team is made up of individuals who are “whole people.” They bring a lot of tools and baggage into this relationship that you call work, and it all comes with them – the good and the bad.

You are going to need to get to know the team members, what’s going on in their lives and how to read them with empathy. You don’t have to be their new best friend, but you need to be friendly. You need to show that you care and, like all good relationships, you will need to invest in that relationship. You can start with “being present” as the leader by focusing on who is in front of you at that moment. Multi-tasking is possible in some environments – just not when people are present.

Have you created an environment of Psychological Safety? Saving the most important item for last. Psychological safety is a shared belief that the team is safe for interpersonal risk taking. In psychologically safe teams, team members feel accepted and respected. It is also the most studied enabling condition in group dynamics and team learning research.

It was so important that Google created a checklist to help managers be consistent across teams.

  1. Leaders should not interrupt teammates during conversations because that will establish an interrupting norm
  2. They should demonstrate they are listening by summarizing what people say after they said it
  3. They should admit what they don’t know
  4. They shouldn’t end a meeting until all team members have spoken at least once
  5. They should encourage people who are upset to express their frustrations, and encourage teammates to respond in nonjudgmental ways
  6. They should call out intergroup conflicts and resolve them through open discussion

There are a few indicators when your team isn’t operating in a safe zone:

  • No one makes decisions without seeking your approval
  • People don’t talk at meetings until you or another co-founder have set the stage for the conversation
  • There are more conversations about the meeting after the meeting is completed

If you’re in the midst of building your team and culture, start by asking the team members, one on one to begin with, if they feel comfortable bringing ideas forward in the group. If bad ideas get pounced on, people will stop bringing any ideas to the table. Over time, you’ll find that you are the only one talking at the meetings or that it is dominated by only the most knowledgeable voices on the topics around the table.

I’ll quote one of Steve Case’s favorite proverbs:

“If you want to go quickly, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.”

Welcome to the New Year – time to invest in learning and growing your culture! A journey of 10,000 hours starts now.

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