Great teams are a feature of the startup scene. Founding groups made up of committed, talented people. On the surface leading this kind of group should be easy. But it does not work that way in the real world. Simple, short term incentives don’t work. Providing the right challenge and setting an overall direction are necessary. Then have the courage to allow everyone to express their own intelligence and ambition. In their own way. The results will be amazing.
Success in a startup depends on the team. New ideas, great product, efficient business model, innovative marketing all count. But is the people who deliver the prize. The best startups have great teams. Full of talent and potential. High motivation coupled with passion and commitment. In theory leadership should be easy in this environment.
Not As Easy As It Looks
The real world is different. A startup is like a group of high performing professionals. The leadership challenge is similar to a surgical team or a big law firm or a global consulting project. Herding cats is the most common metaphor for these types of team. Traditional leadership approaches don't work so well. Natural routes like setting clear goals are not suitable. Aligning incentives and establishing defined roles is not enough.
Here are three reasons why leadership of high performing teams is different:
Ask Don't Tell And Other Startup Leadership Rules
Allow Your Team To Find Their Own Way
To some extent no motivation is needed when you have a team like this. Yet you still want to maximise the potential. The first rule is work. Great professionals needs good work and plenty of it. In my career in professional services, boring tasks were the second biggest problem. Lack of work was the largest by far. Good people hate being idle. Overwork was never an issue. At least in the short term. In the medium and long term persuading people to take breaks was a challenge.
Work also needs to be new and challenging. Even a routine, tedious task which is OK one time. If it is new to the worker it will be tolerated. Doing the same thing over and over is the reverse. No matter how exciting and engaging, the best people lose interest fast. Ask for a repeat might work. By the third or fourth attempt, all motivation disappears. Once a professional has proven his technique and banked the experience, he or she wants to move on.
One other simple rule about work. Ask don’t tell. Command and control never works with talented self motivated people. For any task no matter how important or urgent you ask the person to do it. My old firm employed over 150,000 people. Even in an organisation of this size the global leader would ask the lowest intern about the simplest task. For example to make a photocopy or fetch a coffee. it was never a written rule. But everyone understood the basic respect involved.
So far a startup is in a great position to motivate the team. There is never any shortage of work. And the pace of change makes sure that new challenges are not in short supply. Does this complete the incentive picture?
Not quite. The risk is that a group of individual talents will pull in random directions. Brilliant flashes will abound but nothing will connect. How can the energy and intelligence focus on a collective goal? Set a clear simple strategy and allow the team to find their own way of achieving it.
Leaders need to allow each individual freedom and responsibility. Communication is the critical skill. Each member of the team needs to understand the same end goal. This is not as straightforward as it sounds. When a group of smart committed people listens to the same message at the same time, they each find a different meaning. Set the scene with the group but then take the time to engage each individual. The leader needs to know how each team member thinks and behaves. Adapt the conversation to find the right focus one by one.
If you lead a great startup team you are lucky. Working with great talent is a joy and a privilege. Achieving the impossible with a passionate group is the most fun you can have. Recognise and nurture each individual. Make the whole even better than the sum of the parts.
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Kenny Fraser is the Director of Sunstone Communication and a personal investor in startups.