Have a Leadership Role at a Startup?
Learn This Exec’s 9 Keys to Success
With all the activity in the electric car space, there are a number of innovative solutions coming together to charge all those cars. One of them is Volta Charging, who recently won the 2017 Cynopsis Social Good Award for Best Environmental Initiative. Volta is building a network–the largest in the U.S.–of ad-supported, free charging stations. Free charging is a major driver of electric car adoption, so Volta is helping to reduce our carbon footprint even faster.
One person at Volta helping them grow is VP of Operations, Jon Michaels. Jon has held various roles in the energy sector, but started his career as a helicopter pilot in the Navy. The varied challenges and extreme pressures he has faced prepared him well for the broad set of responsibilities needed to make a fast-paced startup successful. Looking back on his first year at Volta, Jon has come up with nine key aspects of what can make a leader in a startup success.
1. Smooth is fast
Do not move fast just for the sake of moving fast. A well-orchestrated series of actions executed smoothly and professionally is what moves organizations forward quickly. This means you will need to balance making some decisions quickly with imperfect (or no) data, with letting some topics ‘soak’.
2. Wait…what is soaking?
Good leaders are curious. They absorb information about potentially important trends and developments all the time without constantly reacting. They contemplate. They read more.
They have what former GE CEO Jeff Immelt calls a “soak period” before concluding what the information means for their company.
Give the idea some time to soak in. Resist the urge to be reactive or jump, but rather think through the idea, play it out in your head, and then reflect.
Sometimes a long soak period is not just acceptable, it is needed.
3. Fail well
Be able to experience painful failures that provide big learnings without failing badly enough to get knocked out of the game. It is not just, “move fast and break things,” but rather “if things break, work for them to break in pieces you can reuse and build on.”
3M’s Post-It business started this way. They were working on a new adhesive–only problem was it did not really adhere. They could not figure out what to do with this thing that sort of sticks.
Instead of focusing on what the adhesive could not do and shutting the project down, they looked at aspects of what it could do and found a gap in the market for notes you could stick, remove and re-stick all without damaging what you stuck it to. Out of that failure, Post-It notes were born.
4. Keep the Finance team close
It can be easy to have a mindset focused on your part of the business and overlook important collaboration points regarding budgets. Coordinate early and often with Finance on your initiatives and you will be in a position to succeed. This helps ensure your needs are considered when setting budgets or working on fundraising–two life-or-death things for startups.
If your initiative requires spending on software development or buying equipment, you may lack the resources at your disposal to pay for these things–especially at a cash-strapped startup. The financial wizards you work with can help solve that problem through their knowledge of what resources are where, or what alternative financing options may exist.
Without them understanding what you are aiming for, they will be much able or inclined to help.
5. Learn how to interview and hire for an unfamiliar discipline
You will be interviewing and hiring many people in areas you do not know a lot about. Start by trying to do (at least some of) the job yourself. This way, you will know exactly what the role entails and what questions to ask job candidates.
Enlist experts from your network and your advisors to better understand a role. Whatever approach you take, you’ll need to come up with an approach to help the organization grow.
6. Look for force multipliers
You cannot just throw money at problems and hire more people. You need to enable one person to have the impact of 10. Force multipliers do that. It could be outsourcing certain activities (and having one person manage the work of 10 contractors) or enabling your team with software or other tools.
For example, if you cannot afford lots of powerful servers to crunch through a huge dataset, why not consider a cloud computing solution? Having your employees try to use their computers to do it will be too slow and make their computers nearly unusable, hurting the team’s productivity. Offloading that task to the cloud is cheaper per month than buying servers would be, gives you access to huge amounts of power, and lets your team get back to work.
Have people working remotely to save on travel and office costs, but are you finding things are moving too slowly because of a dispersed workforce? Try one of the many collaboration tools out there–both free and paid–to speed up the pace of change by bringing people back together virtually. Tools like Skype, Facetime, Google Docs, Slack, Zoom and Huddle can make a big difference.
No matter what, you need to find your force multipliers.
7. Develop a mantra
A mantra is easy to remember and helps emphasize crucial points. As a (former) military pilot, Jon and his peers were ingrained with a mantra: Aviate, Navigate, Communicate (in that order). In his team at Volta, they have a mantra of execute effectively, execute collaboratively, and execute with a smart sense of urgency. Those three items guide all their actions.
8. You are setting the rules
There is no blueprint for success. You will change the way you work as often as you need to. If something is too slow, you change it. If a process causes errors, you change it. You have no guide to follow, so you must learn to be a problem solver to succeed.
If you feel trapped by people saying, “Yeah, it is annoying, but that is the way we do it,” then a startup may appeal to your throw-out-the-rule-book mentality.
Unlike big companies, startups have not yet defined all the rules or layered on process and protocol, so you can work in a less-constrained way while getting to define how things get done in the process.
I’ve worked with several startups and small businesses, and one of the most common complaints I hear from employees as they start to scale is “we’re becoming too much of a big company with all these rules.”
Being at startup gives you freedom from excessive or unchangeable rules, while also giving you the responsibility to help keep them from creeping in and crushing your culture.
9. Ask your employees even more questions
The best leaders do not provide all of the solutions–this inspires curiosity, creativity and deeper thinking in employees. And that starts with asking the right questions.
Encourage your employees to slow down and explain what they are proposing in more detail by saying something simple and to-the-point, like, “Wait, what?” You could also use phrases like, “I wonder why…” to encourage curiosity. And then follow up with, “I wonder if things could be done differently.”
Jon leaves us with one last bit of advice,
“Enjoy the ride. It will be bumpy, but hugely gratifying.”
This post is inspired by my best-selling book, “Do a Day: How to Live a Better Life Every Day” available in print, eBook and audio book formats. It originally appeared in my Inc.com column on December 13th, 2017.