How to develop leadership attributes all founders need
by Jane Reddin
For a founder, in the beginning, the word is self-reliance. In my 25 years working with over 350 early-stage founders, I’ve watched in awe as you constantly punch above your weight, acting as multi-tasker-in-chief, building conviction around your vision, to achieve early traction.
After Series A, the leadership context changes. Like stepping up from competitive sportives to the Tour de France, the challenge becomes harder, the competition fiercer and the demands more intense. As the expectations change, so must your capability as a leader. To thrive and scale, to leap from self-dependence to mutual trust, it’s not about being the strongest, smartest or most attractive. It’s about adaptability, resilience and confidence.
Adaptability is one of the most powerful capabilities a founder leader can master. Especially in the unrelenting heat of hyper-scaling, its power can be used to great effect in micro moments of performance pressure, and can also carry you through different scaling phases.
You’ll face a new set of leadership challenges every six months between seed and Series B. For example, you must evolve from being a hands-on doer, to leading a team with distributed autonomy. Even superhumans do eventually need to sleep. Although hands-on decision-making is initially healthy, as the company grows, accept that your hires need space to own their accountabilities. This improves execution capacity for everyone and enables the team – and the company results – to effectively scale. To successfully tackle these modal shifts, you must set the development of your own leadership toolkit, to track ahead of company growth. In parallel is too late.
Whilst creating an OKR framework to set and cascade deliverables is an external signal of process evolution, the internal psychological shifts for every founder leader are as important and are not easy. Your identity and ego shifts, required to scale, go deeper than goals and role descriptions. Keeping a mature handle on emotions during these phases is vital. How to do this? As Brene Brown says: “We do not have to do this alone; we were never meant to.”
In my experience, the distinction between a coach and a mentor is very useful here, because both are critical to success and can complement each other to deliver maximum support to you.
Firstly, work with a coach to truly understand your performance mindset preferences. What’s your sensitivity to threat vs the intoxicating pull of reward? Ordinarily, playing to our strengths is what helps us perform. Out of their sweet spot, these same strengths trip us up. Under pressure, we are likely to become more fixed. Learning when, and how to adapt, is a bona fide, legal, context switching, performance enhancing formula to increase your ‘VO2 max’ leader capability.
A wise founder leader harnesses the transformational power of shifting perspectives. There’s always more than one truth. In practice, for example, switching your perspective from ‘what could go wrong’ to ‘what might go right’ (or vice versa) can provide a more complete view before making a big decision.
Secondly, work with a mentor who has experienced the same growing pains as you, has successfully navigated to the next phase after you and can share their lessons learned. Like having a previous Tour de France winner providing technical and tactical advice, it will help you scale the mountains ahead.
According to Eddy Merckx, one of the cycling greats, “the race is won by the rider who can suffer the most”. The hyper-scaling race is the same. Whether it’s a hiring mistake or a product misstep, failure is part of the job, but it doesn’t need to define you; each setback is simply part of your development curve.
Along with adaptability, this tough-mindedness can be honed individually and also embedded in the team. AlbionVC’s portfolio teams cultivate their start-up edge by hiring for the 12 indicators proven to have the greatest impact on the team dynamics and to deliver results in any start-up (see below).
Resilience can be developed when you embed mutual trust and give the team freedom within the start-up edge framework. By giving trust first, without the team needing to ‘earn it’, you’ll set the foundation of psychological safety and promote open collaboration, whilst executing under relentless pressure. It gives the team a deep sense of confidence that no setback is insurmountable. It powers the team forward where others would fade away. This start-up edge rubrik operationalises a growth mindset that filters from you into every part of the company, fuelling weary legs to achieve the next major milestone.
Confidence is another mental attribute that you must sustain. As a founder, your capability zone is synonymous with your confidence zone. If you believe you can do it, then you can push beyond your ‘limits’ to achieve extraordinary growth. But how do you cultivate confidence, especially when facing the toughest challenges?
At AlbionVC, we use the temple of confidence (see below) as a framework for expanding confidence in yourself and your team. As a start-up leader, you will have left your comfort zone a long way back, but you can master the uncomfortable ‘suffer’ zones by:
- Understanding yourself – work out what really scares you and what motivates you
- Building your support network – sustain your confidence, support you when you fall and keep your strengths in their sweet spot
- Leveraging your strengths – double-down in areas you excel and optimise others strengths’ to complement your blind spots
- Sharing your values – codify what matters most to you, to inspire the team around you
This last point is key. Teams look to their leader for belief. If you’re confident of success, this will rub off on the team and enhance their capabilities too. Like the rookie still wearing the yellow jersey on the final week, your confidence will make those around you feel invincible and you’ll all perform higher.
A no-regrets move: invest in your own development
As leadership is contextual, it needs to flex; depending on the environment, product, team and, most importantly, on you. The right leadership support for a founder serves as a trampoline for developing the mental attributes required to help you thrive whilst at the helm of a hyper-scaling company. I’m personally committing my life’s work to supporting and developing the founders at AlbionVC and we have built a partner network of leadership coaches, experts and mentors, who are ready to develop any founder-leader we invest in. If you’re interested in kickstarting your leadership journey, get in touch.