Great leadership is the difference between success and failure. It's why some good ideas take off and others don’t. To run a successful startup you don't necessarily need to be a brilliant leader, but you do need to know how to access the brilliance of your team.
Successful companies are led by founders that operate as trusted thought leaders, doing everything they can to help their employees succeed. They grow their people's capabilities by giving them 51% ownership of critical projects while holding them accountable for 100% of the result. By keeping 49% of the vote, leaders remain engaged and committed to seeing projects succeed—without taking control of how projects get done.
Isn't this what founders are looking for from their investors as well: Resources with clear expectations and advisory input, but not prescriptive strategies about how projects or tasks should be accomplished?
Building a Utilization Culture
Leading in an age of disruption requires founders to work smarter than ever to get their emerging companies to thrive. Entrepreneurs take on all of the roles: individual contributors (e.g.,writing code, courting investors, and attracting talent) while also ensuring every new hire is delivering great work. With little time and feeling stretched too thin, founders need to eliminate what doesn't matter so they can go big on what does, which is amplifying the intelligence and capabilities of their employees.
Rule #1: Believe and act like employees are smart and can figure things out.
This rule is a multiplier that accelerates success. It's the fundamental idea behind how good leaders make people who work for them smarter, and founders that follow it hire that way. They make offers to people they think are intelligent, and give them a little space and time to work out problems.
In contrast, diminishing leaders hire smart people, but micromanage them. This is counter to the reason a new employee was hired in the first place. Moreover, micromanaged individuals feel underappreciated and unfulfilled, so time and time again, they leave companies early.
To build a culture that utilizes everyone’s talents to the fullest, the foundational idea has to be a belief that people are smart and can figure things out coupled with a leadership style that treats employees that way.
Empowering Not Undermining
Renowned psychologist and winner of the Nobel Prize in Economics, Daniel Kahneman has written extensively about human judgement. Cognitive bias in hiring makes it clear that leaders can't predict whether an employee will be a great fit or not in a new organization. That's why giving new employees ownership and holding them accountable for what they do is so important.
A good leader gives employees big projects—rather than many small tasks. Serving in the role of a trusted advisor (rather than micromanager), he or she clarifies what is expected by articulating deadlines and defining what constitutes winning, yet lets employees figure out the steps. A good leader also recognizes the importance of personal responsibility, avoiding the temptation to rush in and solve a problem at the first sign of conflict or failure. The best leaders understand employees need clear roles and ownership responsibilities to get wins in their roles.
Asking Not Telling
Humans want to contribute and make a difference. Bossing employees around, telling them what to do all the time, kills a contributing culture and prevents talents from being fully utilized. When leaders believe people are smart and can figure things out, they have a heightened consciousness around how much are they asking versus how much are they telling.
The best and brightest employees are looking to work for curious leaders. Good leaders practice expressing their curiosity genuinely and in a way that adds value. They ask leading questions, such as "What’s the very best way to get this done by next Thursday?" which communicates both the deadline (adding value) while inviting the employee to offer the strategy (make an impactful contribution). This shifts the focus away from dictated terms to empowered employees.
Employees also want to work in an environment where they are appreciated and can own or accomplish something significant. Founders that focus too much on themselves tend to lead that way, undermining their own success. A leadership style that embraces expectation setting, advisory input, and employee empowerment helps organizations with good products become great companies.
About Shawn Vanderhoven
Shawn Vanderhoven is a Partner at the Wiseman Group and heads the leadership practice for senior executives and emerging leaders. He is a collaborator on the Second Edition and New York Times Bestseller Multipliers: How the Best Leaders Make Everyone Smarter. He consults with companies around the world on how to build a intelligence culture that fully utilizes peoples talent. He has co–designed leadership development strategies with executives at leading brands like, Capital One, Deloitte, Google, Intel, LinkedIn, and Salesforce. Before working in executive development, Shawn grew his family’s so ware business by 30X. He lives in Menlo Park, California with his wife and three sons, where he is researching the neuroscience behind why we follow certain leaders.
About the Alchemist Accelerator
Alchemist is a venture-backed initiative focused on accelerating the development of seed-stage ventures that monetize from enterprises (not consumers). The accelerator’s primary screening criteria is on teams, with primacy placed on having distinctive technical co-founders. We give companies around $36K, and run them through a structured 6-month program heavily focused on sales, customer development, and fundraising. Our backers include many of the top corporate and VC funds in the Valley—including Khosla Ventures, DFJ, Cisco, and Salesforce, among others. CB Insights has rated Alchemist the top program based on median funding rates of its grads (YC was #2), and Alchemist is perennially in the top of various Accelerator rankings. The accelerator seeds around 75 enterprise-monetizing ventures / year. Learn more about applying today.