Assembling the right team to lead your fledgling enterprise is tough because it demands a degree of self-awareness few of us enjoy. If you aren’t the right person, then either learn how to recruit well or fold at the outset, before you have a lot of money tied up in the effort.
I’ve learned a few things over the past decade, some by astute observation, some by trial and failure and a few through the grapevine.
Good leaders have a sense of urgency. Nolan Bushnell, founder of Atari and Chuck-E-Cheese, conveyed this at a Stanford business school lecture back in the early 1980s. Good leaders don’t ponder for long. While there’s a place for analysis, good leaders focus on action. While it’s not necessarily true good ideas are a dime a dozen, it is true many more people have good ideas than are able to put them into action. Fear of failure has no place in the executive suite. Astute knowledge of a particular industry married to decisive action by the leadership team leads to success.
Leadership class is an oxymoron. You can’t learn leadership from a book. Believe me, I’ve tried. Leadership is demonstrated, not learned. The leaders I respect are action oriented. They don’t like to sit around and think about things like I do. They’re not passive or introspective. Leadership requires a willingness to step in front of the crowd, or camera or team and help the group organize thoughts and make decisions. Strong leaders are competitive. They were probably raised to take bold action on the athletic field, which requires high-energy risk taking reinforced by shared celebration when those actions lead to success.
Leaders are servants. Good leaders hire great people and then focus their efforts on helping their people succeed. It’s not just cheering them on, although encouragement is usually appreciated. It’s coming alongside every member of the team and getting them the help, training, resources and information to succeed. There will always be stresses among team members, especially between “the boss” and staff. Honesty and selflessness go a long way toward smoothing over these areas of friction.
Good leaders are visionaries. They have a picture of success they’re able to share with employees. There’s an old Wayne Gretzky quote about skating “to where the puck is going, not to where it is.” Leaders aren’t just cognizant of what’s happening in the industry, they also have a good idea of where the industry is going next. The only way to obtain this vision is to be passionate about what you do and curious about the competition. Of course, this vision is nearly worthless unless it’s communicated to staff so it can help in making the sort of decisions that are consistent with moving to where the puck is headed next.
Hire slowly, but opportunistically. When you run across unique energy and talent, hire them and even overpay them, but get them involved in your enterprise so the company is full of people who work harder than you do, are smarter than you are and have more friends in the industry than you do.
Be flexible in your demands. While the stereotypical startup in Silicon Valley has 20-somethings working all night long and feeding on pizza brought in by the company, that’s not going to work for everyone. Most startups are cash poor. Moreover, the cost of providing benefits in this new age of affordable health care has fewer and fewer companies able to provide that benefit or many others. The giant companies are still doing it, but those companies often pay poorly and are inflexible about hours and time off. Many of my best employees have been part-timers because they wanted to spend more time with family or were empty nesters and wanted to travel. If being flexible attracts that top caliber candidate to your firm rather than the publicly traded slave shop down the street, why wouldn’t you be flexible? And if the candidate isn’t attractive enough to merit a little flexibility, then don’t hire him or her to begin with.
Managing for growth isn’t about applying a successful template to your organization chart. It’s more like when a talented chef scours the pantry to find just the right combination of tasty and unique ingredients and finds a way to mix them together to create a delicious entrée.