How to create your own leadership development program inside a startup
When I think about leadership development and rotational programs, my mind conjures up images of twenty-something-year-olds wearing recently purchased, ill-fitting suits. They’re seated in a nondescript room on the sprawling campus of a Fortune 500 company. Brutalist buildings with muted carpeting dot the grounds. The walls showcase the company’s culture through a series of large format, vivid reprints of past advertisements, its history through a gallery wall of acrylic rectangles that neatly frame the severe faces of former chief executives. Perhaps most telling of its tenure is the seamless processes in place. From the orchestrated security protocol as you enter the building to the folders that punctuate the table with everything you need to know about the multi-year journey you are about to embark on, everything has been carefully considered, approved, and implemented.
Perhaps this picture is too extreme. But I’m probably not that far off.
These development programs are popular among large enterprises. And with good reason too. They have been put in place to develop the future leaders of the organization. They expose recent graduates (of both undergrad and graduate programs) to vast swaths of the organization, allowing them an immersive and comprehensive learning experience. The expectation is that during this time they develop a deep understanding of the company, its history, and graduate as a high-performing employee with exemplary leadership skills.
I considered these programs after I graduated, but, I was overwhelmed by the idea of working for an organization with tens of thousands of employees. Additionally, the culture and ways of working seemed at odds with my ethos. I grew up around startups. Watching my parents build companies from the ground up gave me an unshakeable desire to do the same. And I knew that when the time came to start my own business, I would need to understand the nuances of early-stage company growth.
And I knew that when the time came to start my own business, I would need to understand the nuances of early-stage company growth.
The challenge with that, of course, is that the quintessential startup experience is more likely to include a kitchen outfitted with kombucha on tap and a thousand-dollar espresso machine than a structured and organized process for your personal career development. This isn’t to say that startups lack learning opportunities, nor do employees languish without these processes. Startups are a highly sought-after opportunity, not just because of a potentially lucrative liquidity event, but also due to vast learning opportunities in an unstructured and yet-to-be-defined environment.
Following my gut, I decided to pursue a career in startups, and, instead of waiting for those startups to create a rotational leadership program, I invented my own ad-hoc development program. I knew that if I chose the right startup and was strategic about how to expose myself to the boundless learning opportunities, I could leverage that experience to accelerate my personal career growth, ultimately, setting myself on a trajectory for leadership. And here’s how you can too.
1. Find a startup in a high-growth space with less than 20 people
I joined a very small startup (ten people) in the rapidly developing area of innovation and growth consulting. I knew walking into the role that the field was evolving and that there were a lot of unknowns. Because of that, there were no formal processes for doing, well, anything. I saw this as a feature rather than a bug. Problems would arise daily, and I treated each one as an opportunity to define a solution and make the company stronger. Because of our size, it was perfectly acceptable for me to raise my hand and offer to help in an area of the business that had nothing to do with my area of expertise.
What mattered most is that someone rolled up their sleeves and got it done. Doing so helped me garner trust amongst the leaders of the company, and because they trusted me, I would get invited to more meetings. And yes, at first, I was usually in those meetings to take notes or maybe make a slide afterward. However, I was also able to listen in on some of the more important conversations that were happening amongst leaders: our growth strategy, friction in our service delivery model, disagreements on methodology. They were living and breathing learning moments, and I drank them up. This early exposure was critical in helping me to think more strategically as I took on more and more responsibility in the company.
There were no formal processes for doing, well, anything. I saw this as a feature rather than a bug.
2. Look for a group of leaders (and peers) you can learn from
I met with nearly every single employee during my interview process (remember, there were only ten). I noted how bright, articulate, and passionate about the mission they were and sensed that I could learn from each person. As it turned out, I was right. By the second year, I had reported up to six different people at different times and had worked closely with all (at this point, thirty!) employees. In that time, I helped launch a new service within the company, managed accounts receivable, built IP, helped drive and grow partner accounts, and did what felt like everything in between. I worked closely with the company’s leaders and saw first-hand how they approached problem-solving, team-building, communication, and other critical elements of being a good leader. In addition to learning the task at hand and good management principles, I was also earning credibility.
3. Ignore your job description and take a leap
A rapidly growing startup isn’t always able to fill talent gaps in time. Additionally, new roles emerge as the company grows. These are precious moments to think outside of your job description and roll up your sleeves. I’ve seen entry-level hires actually pull out their job descriptions as a reason to not do something. While I applaud their ability to say no, one of the best ways to learn is by trying something new. And, the only way to prove that you can do something without prior experience is by doing it. Every single job I had at Bionic didn’t exist before I identified it, pitched it and took it on. And I only knew there was a gap because I took the time to understand it and fill it. Sometimes officially. Sometimes unofficially while we waited to staff it with a new hire. Staffing starts to become more regimented as companies grow beyond twenty or so employees. At that point, it is harder to take something new on without stepping on toes or having to go through a formal process.
Every single job I had at Bionic didn’t exist before I identified it, pitched it and took it on.
In the end, I contributed to and learned from literally every area of the business, from sales to product to account management to operations and back office support. I went from an entry-level Associate to a Director in three years. And perhaps most importantly, I was able to take advantage of a valuable lesson for business and life: growth happens when aspiration meets opportunity; choose wisely and then get ready to roll up your sleeves.