Succeeding as a leader requires knowing how your skills and strengths complement a company’s challenges and opportunities at a given stage in its lifecycle. This kind of leadership requires not just management chops, but also the capacity for reflection and self-awareness.
For instance, while many founders thrive in taking their startups through its first growth stage, nearly all reach a point at which new challenges emerge. At this point, astute leaders will recognize it’s time for a more seasoned CEO to lead the company through its next phase.
In rare cases, think Marc Benioff or Elon Musk, an individual leader can do it all -- from bringing the first product to market to taking the company through its exit. In most cases, though, a company needs different people to guide its distinct growth stages.
As Noam Wasserman found in his study of startups-turned-public-companies, fewer than 25 percent of founder / CEOs remained at the helm through the initial public offering (IPO). Building a fast-growing company and scaling a mature company are vastly different skill sets.
When you’re in a position of leadership or considering joining a new company in a leadership role, think about how your unique qualities will contribute to the company’s success. Here are three questions to ask yourself during that process.
1. Am I a builder or a fixer?
Leaders fall into different personas, and the most prototypical are builder, accelerator and fixer. Understanding your persona can help you determine whether your skills and experience are the right fit at this juncture -- both in terms of the company’s success and your personal fulfillment.
Do you find energy in building a team, accelerating an already fast-growing company or fixing a business that’s troubled in some way? You might adopt different personas at different stages of your career. Jack Dorsey, for example, left Twitter in 2008 following its second funding round and returned this year in the face of slowing ad revenue and stagnant user adoption. He left as the builder and returned as the fixer. It’s normal for our roles to change along with new experiences and evolving interests.
When assessing your persona, consider what’s driven you to be successful in the past as well as what challenges excite you now. When have you decided to take the next job and why? When have you learned the most? What are you most proud of contributing?
2. What growth stage most energizes me?
Finding the right level of company maturity requires understanding what you bring to the table and how that’s different from the previous leader. I joined Invoca seven years after the company launched and at a particularly rapid growth period. Founder-CEO Jason Spievak had already come up with the idea, proved the concept and built an awesome team. He recognized the company had entered a phase that required a different skill set: one for managing personnel, scaling operations and preparing for an IPO.
Think about what gets you going. Do you like paving the path, or are you more about turning it into a super highway? For example, Jason is an early stage builder; he likes challenging the status-quo and doing things that have never been done. Mid-stage building appeals to me -- I’m energized by the opportunity to enter a space where there isn’t a clear winner and define the strategy to nail it. Ask yourself how you define leading. Then think about how this definition matches a company’s growth trajectory.
3. What’s the market opportunity, and how can I focus?
Whether you’re a fixer or a builder, it’s important to consider the growth opportunity and competitive landscape, and how your work fits into it. Think about the company’s bio in three years, as well as your own. What goals do you need to set in the next year -- and then the following -- in order to achieve this? What will your legacy be? Once you’ve planned this vision, you can better understand what success might look like.
Ultimately, your job is to deliver a meaningful outcome for the company’s stakeholders. Steer your guns on a particular space, and focus on how you’ll grow it. Determine your true north and no more than three priorities. What are the few things you can do extremely well, both in the short term and the long term? Think about how you will align everything, from your people and product to your messaging, around these goals.
Reflecting on these questions will help you understand how your experiences, traits and skills fit into your next role and whether it will fulfill you personally as well as professionally. Focus on how you can drive the company to its next step -- as well as the next phase in your life.