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Gustin Partners | January 10, 2013 |

Leadership at Early Stage Technology Companies and Start-ups

by Paul Basson, Director, Europe; Principal, Basson Consulting

Leadership is the catalyst that translates vision into reality, ultimately realizing something in the future that would not have happened without that leadership.

Early stage and start-up technology companies differ from those in other sectors and from established companies in many ways. They are generally much more innovative and often product and technology focused because the founders are still running the business. Passion and enthusiasm runs through the organisation and expectations are high and need to be managed. Fundamental administration, social support infrastructure and business process do not exist, creating inefficiencies and frustration. These are exciting fast changing environments and it's important to ensure everyone understands where you are going and how you are going to get there. Technical innovation tends to be highly valued at the expense of sales, marketing, finance and administration. In this environment leadership is crucial.

Leadership is expected to come from the Founder/s and they are often not equipped to meet this challenge. They find themselves isolated although they already have many of the fundamental qualities, passion and determination. With some external support company founders can meet the challenge and achieve much more as a leader than as an innovator. Then they are able to attract and develop leadership in all the key disciplines of the company.

Many academics discuss leadership, but small group leadership is straightforward. If you aspire to, are selected or find yourself in a position where you need to show leadership the following will help you meet that challenge:

  1. Understand and commit to the vision of the founder and be able to communicate it to others, expanded to encompass your discipline or area of expertise.
  2. Discuss, debate and agree on the objectives that will enable you to fulfill the vision.
  3. Do everything you can to support and facilitate the rest of the team so that they ALL succeed.

At the beginning there are one or more Generals – this usually creates early problems until THE General is identified, usually the lead founder.

Then there are a whole bunch of enthusiastic Privates, until finally some Corporals emerge.

That then tends to be the structure until the start-up becomes a business and has Products/Services, Markets and Customers, when it becomes an early stage business and more structure starts to develop.

Now if you are the Founder/General it is your absolute responsibility to turn your “cool technology/service/market opportunity” into a vision for the company that is founded in reality and to which the people around you can understand and get behind.

Then you need to translate vision into reality and to do so you must figure out how to get there, lead from the front and take people with you.

“A leader is one who knows the way, goes the way and shows the way.” -- John Maxwell
Founders are not always leaders, and the wise and successful Founder will attract a strong leader as a partner to help translate his vision into reality.

If you are one of the enthusiastic employees, you probably work because you want to make a difference, and you have some area of expertise that will be required. Be really good at what you are there for, grow your experience and ability through hard work, watching others and learning then you can really contribute to the translation of the vision into reality. Understand the Vision, review and enhance the objectives, and focus with others within your area of expertise to execute.

“Before you are a leader success is all about growing yourself. When you become a leader, success is about growing others” -- Jack Welch.

This will naturally lead you to the 3 key requirements listed above. Who knows you might make Corporal.

-- consults with early stage technology companies’ leaders to coach and support them. A lifetime of experience in these roles enable us to provide "off the record" feedback and advice to the leadership team and run leadership workshops for people who find themselves in a leadership role, because it can be very lonely at the top of even a small company.


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