Leadership is a funny old thing and something that at some point in your life we will all have to deal with. This could be in sports, youth work, teaching, corporate or political environments. All have their unique subtleties, requiring different skill sets and experiences. There are of course qualities that transcend all sectors such as vision and inspiration (there are many more of course), but I want to focus on what makes a good leader in the world of start-ups and in particular tech start-ups.
Now once again this is purely my opinion and is based on working in Executive Search for start-ups as well as helping found a VC backed Series A stage tech firm. The first thing I have learnt is leadership differs based on the stage of the business. This may sound obvious, but I didn’t realise how important it was until living through it.
A tech business has three components roughly speaking: Tech, Operations (including Finance) and Sales. The founder will come from one of these three and if they have a founding team the aim is to find the missing two / three. This is where the first lesson is; they all need to be leaders. They don’t all need to be CEOs or have that desire, but they are going to set an example for the first 1-2 years and people are going to want to join their teams.
Let’s assume the first two years have worked. Now what happens? Leadership is about recognising others strengths and enabling them. Trust. If all three teams are vying for budget and growth, how do you decide where it should go? You need to be able to recognise that it’s not always in your area, be willing to sacrifice your needs and have the ability to motivate and rationalise. Most leaders will claim an element of competitive nature, striving for the best for them and their team. But to put your team under pressure for the bigger goal is hard and you need to be able to communicate the why and motivate the needs.
Leaders at start-ups require high emotional intelligence. People are there for a belief they are doing something special. On the whole they won’t be paid market rate in the early days, the hours will be longer and the perks fewer. So why do it?
Well often it comes down to the leader, the person(s) setting a vision that everyone buys into. Now this can only last so long, and it either explodes and everyone is in for the ride or it’s tougher than you think. If the latter happens a leader needs to recognise that there might be people out there that are better than them at this stage of the business, and take advise. All the best sport stars have coaches… leaders in business need them too.
Finally, a leader needs to be able let go. There are hundreds of quotes around hiring better than you; Apple’s Steve Jobs was a huge advocate of this. This can be knowing when to sell, knowing when to hire in and let some one else run the show or simply trusting one of the team that challenges you and going with their opinion. No one person can be good at everything and no one person knows how to take a business from zero to billions (well there are a few out there, but you get my point).
There are moments you will be the best person for the job and there will be moments when you are definitely not. A great leader embraces all of this. Their role is to keep the journey on track, motivate people and make the right choices.
I’ll finish with a quote I love: “A good general not only sees the way to victory; he also knows when victory is impossible.” —Polybius
By Seb Haire, co-Founder and Director at ProFinda