Leaders in a startup – It’s a different ball game

Leadership is a topic that has been much talked about. There are quite a number of articles that one can find online, highlighting the trade secrets of a successful leader. Also, there are specific management lessons to refer to. If one sticks to the rule book, he/she is expected to succeed, more than often, especially in case of traditional companies.

Cut to startups and the story is very different…

Over the last few years, startups have emerged as a highly sought segment, because of the vast opportunities they provide to learn and evolve in an unstructured and evolving setup.  More and more professionals are picking up lucrative leadership roles in startups as they believe these will be satisfying in their own way. A lot of them are highly experienced with in-depth knowledge about their profession/domain but limited understanding of the startup community.

However, startups are not everyone’s cup of tea. They are challenging, they need a different mindset and they provide a conducive environment for those who believe that ‘learning is a continuous process’. 

Leadership in a startup is not everyone’s cup of tea

To be a successful leader in a startup, one cannot really follow the rule book. You need to define your own rules and reinvent them to accommodate the requirements of the startup, or align them to the company’s focus. Startups are not about following already defined processes- they are about creating your own or reinventing the existing ones. 

It is possible that as a Department leader, one faces challenges on running the most tried and tested ideas due to a number of reasons- the Founders do not see value in it, the team is not up to it, or the profession and target audience do not buy it.

Over the past 7 years or so, I have held leadership roles in marketing/ communications profiles in numerous startups, worked across diverse teams and Founders. While there is no success formula of being a successful leader in a startup, some of these might be handy for those who either intend to take up a leadership role in a startup or are already trying to sail through one.

Be prepared for the unpredictable

This is the first and foremost. If you are looking at building a career in a startup, you should be prepared for the unpredictable to come your way. The annual plan and the laborious excel trackers wont always work in startups, as they are operating in a high-activity zone. There will be numerous instances when a product that was on the priority list disappears a few months later, as the Management/ Founders/Investors think otherwise. One needs to be prepared to handle such scenarios, take them in his/her stride and also ensure that the morale of the team members is not impacted.

Soak as much information as you can

To lead well in a startups, be curious. It is important to have a thorough understanding of the market and competition. For example, if you are working in a fintech company, it is recommended that you closely follow all the regulatory announcements and news around government initiatives, along with having a detailed knowledge of the business and the competition mix. 

There is a need to contemplate and read more. It is not important to react at the spur of the moment. One should absorb, understand and then work around a robust plan for the future.  Sometimes a long soak period is not just acceptable, it is needed so that one can come up with a thought -through plan of action.

Be ready to fail…and rebuild

Failures are a key component of building a startup. The leaders who join a startup from established companies are generally not used to such roadblocks from a business standpoint. If you want to be a successful leader in a startup, you should be able to take failures in your stride and believe that there is light at the end of the tunnel.

A startup leader should be able to experience painful failures that provide big learnings without failing badly enough to get knocked out of the game. It is about building, failing and then bouncing right back with all the enthusiasm.

As a leader, one should always remember that there might be possibilities of rebuilding a product in a way that it appeals to customers. The story of 3M’s Post-It business is a classic case study. What the team started out to build was totally different, but post identifying a gap in the market for notes you could stick, remove and re-stick all without damaging what you stuck it to, they launched this product that is a lifeline for many juggling with multiple tasks and deadlines today.

Collaborative work culture is essential

Startups are built on the premise of being lean and efficient. Hence, the teams across functions tend to work very closely. As a leader in a startup, it is imperative to build relationships across departments and also encourage your team to collaborate across teams for the best interest of the organisation’s success. 

Also, a lot of times, there could be long working hours and urgent deadlines to be met. A collaborative team can deliver better results in such scenarios.

Working in silos does not exist in startups!

Do not micro manage

People managers in startups need to understand that they have hired employees for their expertise in a specific area. Micro management can be detrimental to the success of a startup as it ends up making the team members feel they are not trusted or valued. 

It is advisable to build a team culture where the team members are well tuned to the importance of a project at hand. Also, leaders should focus on ensuring that the employees feel empowered as this will in turn enhance their productivity.

Think out of the box…and don’t blindly copy

Presence of mind is what works in startups. As a leader, one needs to be smart enough to understand the market dynamics and guide his/her team to achieve the desired result. Encourage the team to think out of the box and give ideas. While it is good to get inspired by what the competition is saying, it is advisable to not blindly copy what is already there. 

Force multipliers can give you an edge

Startups operate with limited workforce and budgets It is advisable to hire force multipliers. These are high performing individuals who can single-handedly have the impact of 10. These  individuals thrive on challenges, are problem solvers, can successfully drive big initiatives and stand out in the crowd. It is important to have a few force multipliers and back them.

Leaders can also leverage new age technology tools for better collaboration across teams (that may be scattered across locations). These tools can also enhance productivity immensely.

No matter what, you need to find your force multipliers.

Set the rules

There is no blueprint for success in startups. No set format that will work across all. You will have to change the way you work as often as you need to. 

If something is slowing down, you need to push so it gains steam. If there are errors, you need to fix it. If something is just not working, you will need to trash it, without thinking about the number of months you would have invested to ensure it sees the light of the day. 

Problem solvers are survivors in startups. Leaders who can get this skill set to solve problems and look ahead do well in startups. 

Unlike big companies, startups have not yet defined all the rules or layered on processes and protocol, so you can work with a free hand while getting to define how things get done in the process. 

Speed to market is the key…but with riders

Do not move fast just for the sake of moving fast. A well-planned series of actions executed smoothly and professionally is what moves organisations forward quickly. This means you will need to find the fine balance between the things that are totally unplanned and those that are slightly planned.

However, in startups it is essential to be agile and keep going. For startups, it is about getting things off the ground and quickly. Extremely long and complicated processes and longish meetings are not for startups. They will slow down the process and reduce productivity.

To conclude…

A startup gives you freedom from excessive or unchangeable rules. It is like a blank canvas that can be painted the way you want. That is the beauty of startups- the unpredictability, the risk, the fun of building something from the scratch and see it becoming a way of life. 

I believe that startups are fun for those who enjoy ‘chaos’. They are made for the ones who find peace in madness. So, if you are the kind who likes to build, create his/her own rules, and is not wary of change or of exploring the unexplored, you will be a good fit for a leadership role in a startup.

Akanksha Jain
Akanksha is AVP and Head - Marketing Communications and Public Relations at Pine Labs.

She has over 14 years of experience in working across global/ digital public relations, corporate and brand communications, crisis communications, brand and market communications domains. In the past, Akanksha has successfully planned and executed public relations/brands campaigns across India and over 25 other countries. She is a start-up specialist and has extensive experience of working with emerging brands.

Akanksha is an avid traveller, a cricket lover and a tech enthusiast. She enjoys reading about a range of diverse topics, and listening to music, in her free time.

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