The dearth of startup leadership!


An erroneous statement it seems to be, especially when startup is driven by entrepreneurs with shared purpose to change the world. However, in practice, startups need leadership more than ever as an increasingly challenges they faces everyday. Theranos’ crisis demonstrates how wrong leadership could kill a startup at any stage of development. From personal speculation, here are three areas in which leadership is critical but usually overlooked by startups. As a side note, this discussion is more relevant to startups with validated idea than early stage.

  1. Product development

The ability to build product quickly, with short iteration is a critical part of startup life. This is also the most challenging area to keep in the right track, and many assume a delay in release is acceptable. Why is this assumption is wide spread as if it could not be mitigated? In essence, product development requires high level of planning, designing and execution. While the first two tasks could be done smoothly without much interference, it is critical for founders or the personnel in charge of development to foresee hurdles and build the process where every team member is motivated to perform extraordinary. This requires critical thinking beyond agile methodology and similar project management methods, as it can fix the process in long-term, rather than focusing on short-term projects. For instance, a shift from report style to open communication leadership would help startup to intervene delay immediately as employee have no fear to voice out the problems. This also requires high level of technical understanding from leaders, in which they could provide thoughtful feedback and stimulate collaboration effort to improve the process. Nonetheless, few have pay attentions to leadership when product miss deadline; instead, it’s common that a layer of management is put into place to push the progress, which is mentally devastating for both employees and customers.

2. Hiring and retaining talent

Finding an A+ player is hard, getting him/her to work with your startup is even harder, and retaining them to work for you for two or three years is literally a dream. Would a six-figure salary and attractive perks good enough to have those people work for your startup? A walk into potential candidate mind would pose several questions like these. What can I learn from this startup? How am I going to be in the next year? What make it different compared to working with Google, Facebook?… A thousands questions could be wondered by candidates. Meanwhile, there’s no definitive answers to those inquiries, but a shared purpose in which leader define and exhibit would change the course of candidate’s decision. Besides, the situation can also be improved in which leaders create an environment where employee can work autonomously, is able to master their skills and able to achieve their purpose in a meaningful way. These leadership elements, while not obvious to reason, create a mutual purpose in which employee want to stay long-term with the firm to achieve ultimate shared goals. In reality, few startups places an importance of these intangible factors in hiring process; instead, they focuses on short-term values that would become demotivating factors when things go wrong.

3. Making change

To cope with increasing challenge in the market, startups also need to change constantly. This can be minor change in the process, when a new feature is introduced so marketing and customer support efforts need to also be modified to support this. It can also be a major change, as company’s structure and culture needs to evolve itself to support new stage of development. Being able to deliver successful change required great deal of leadership as many startups failed just because they couldn’t transform themselves. Twitter is a great example for both change success and failure. The company was originally focused on podcast subscription, and successful turn-around by pivoting into micro-blogging service. However, as the company growth, they become struggling even with multiple replacements in leadership. Without too much speculation, Twitter’s current struggle is attributed to fail in leadership, in with change is not comprehended and communicated thoroughly to stakeholders. Several other reasons attributes to change failures such as fear of uncertainty, unclear vision, rigid organisational cultures, etc…, which requires startup leader not only to be self-aware and courageous, but also be flexible enough in leadership style in order to adapt to new situation with growing complexity of organisation and market.

Being able to understand why is the first step to make solid progress. As the startup beginner, I would love to hear more about your leadership experiences so we can learn together, and hopefully avoid expensive mistakes. This is the first part of startup leadership that I plan to do in the next couple months, please don’t hesitate to provide your feedback and opinion.

Warm regard,

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