Four Pillars Of Startup Leadership

There's no place where strong leadership skills are needed more than in a fast-paced startup. Here's how to develop these capabilities

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Recently, India celebrated its 100th Unicorn, paving the way for a renewed surge in ideas, innovations, and new enterprises. However, we know that founding a startup is only the beginning and early funding only provides inceptive validation. The real measure of success lies in how well the startup scales to deliver consistently superior value.

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As startups begin to grow (usually with the tailwinds of institutional funding), they focus on building their functional capabilities, aggressively trying to fill positions such as CPO, engineering, CMO, sales executives, etc. Talent acquisition and retention become daily challenges at these fast-scaling startups. Growing startups also put new demands on the founders' time as multiple priorities scream for attention. Founders notice that their startup's DNA is changing: from an experimental state to delivering consistent results, and from a chaotic culture to one of execution-at-scale.

There's no place where strong leadership is needed more than in a fast-paced startup environment in which daily hustle for traction, talent engagement, customer delight, and cash-flow management is the norm. Triggered by COVID, talent pools are increasingly becoming global, and managing such a diverse workforce is a huge challenge for startups. Startup leaders, hence, need to double down on their efforts to inspire others, align them with the mission, and raise the bar on their performance.

Leadership capabilities needed to launch a startup are significantly different from those required to scale the venture into a successful business with more moving parts, greater operating autonomy, and a larger team size. But founders are often uncomfortable with letting go and empowering others, as their identity evolves from a comfortably-chaotic startup to an effective organization. Founders also underestimate their role as leaders whose primary responsibility is to build a resilient culture by developing leaders at all levels. Even the most gifted founders find this transition challenging.

Growth-stage founding teams need to hit the ground running, hence a lot of their learning about leadership is on the job. But it helps to know the key areas that they should focus on. Based on our work with hundreds of startups, there are four key dimensions of startup leadership. These apply not only to the founders, but all members of the organization as they rally together to take their rocketship higher.

Personal Leadership

As a foundational element, this ensures that even before they give a boost to their organization, the founders are building an internal source of personal energy and motivation. Based on a strong moral compass, and an objective view of their strengths/weaknesses, this area brings a growth mindset to the culture. The founding team commences the venture with an objective understanding of their motivation as well as a shared understanding of their collective capabilities and resources. Personal Leadership sets the stage for the new organization to develop a culture of transparency, trust, and continuous learning.

Leading People

"Before you are a leader, success is about growing yourself. When you become a leader, success is about growing others." — Jack Welch.

The focus of this leadership area is to make the organization an "employer of choice' – not so much as for winning external awards or recognition, but for having an intrinsic sense of attracting, retaining, and developing great talent. Empowerment, continuous learning and care are the cultural hallmarks that leaders need to create. Structured approaches for recruitment planning, performance management, sharing information, induction, and mentoring are introduced, as well as systems for empowering individuals to own and manage their learning and careers.

Flawless Execution

This leadership pillar is about having the organization's feet grounded in stakeholder commitments that it needs to fulfill to thrive. The focus is on disciplined execution to meet business goals, and on creating a sense of meritocracy and accountability within the organization. Startup leaders need to become adept with analytics as they track individual, unit, and organizational performance against their goals to ensure the right outcomes. Alignment of performance goals across individuals, projects, units, and the organization ensures consistency in translating strategic objectives into everyday results.

Shaping the future

Dave Ulrich was right in posing this bold question to the founders - "Are your customers, employees, and partners excited to enter the future with you?" As a key leadership responsibility, shaping the future entails creating a shared vision and a promising future. It further requires strategic orientation to map the startup's position in the competitive landscape and to prepare the organization for the challenges that lie ahead. Being proactive, engaging with external stakeholders and building partnerships are key leadership skills that are required to lead the organization forward. The startup begins to build an inherent ability to innovate continuously on its business model, products, services, and processes; giving it an edge in its industry.

It goes without saying that startups need to invest continuously in building their leadership quotient. We are not professing endless hours and days in "leadership training', but rather a conscious and balanced approach between virtual/classroom training, on-job training, assessments, and executive coaching to make leadership development personal and relevant. The good news is that investors realize that great startup leaders will deliver the best ROI for them, and are super keen to support founders in this initiative.