Every startup founder rightfully starts out as the single leader of the startup, but as the business grows, many entrepreneurs struggle with relinquishing any control, or fail to recognize and allow other leaders to emerge. The result is that the business becomes dysfunctional as growth stagnates, and entrepreneur health and happiness decline.
The right alternative is to focus on finding and delegating some control to the hidden leaders in your startup. These leaders are those exceptional team members who have proven themselves or developed the strength of character, behavior, and learning to be the drivers of the next phase of your business growth.
Yet, unless you know what to look for, the natural human tendency is see all team members in the same light, or see them as never changing from the day they joined your team. In a recent book “The Hidden Leader,” by Scott Edinger and Laurie Sain, I found four great insights into recognizing the behavior and results of team members who are likely the leaders you need:
Seek out those who demonstrate real integrity. It’s important to recognize consistent individual integrity in everyday work actions – by noticing how each team member makes decisions, handles challenges, collaborates, and more. Of course that means that the entrepreneur has to foster a culture that enables and rewards integrity.
Recognize team members who build win-win relationships. Team members who demonstrate great interpersonal and collaborative skills, including giving credit to others, initiating business discussions, and forging emotional connections are demonstrating emotional maturity. Entrepreneurs need to recognize and nurture these as future leaders.
Demonstrate a focus on business results. Few things make a difference in a startup like hidden leaders who are focused on results. Normally this indicates the ability to take the initiative and maintain the big picture perspective, both of which are required to be a leader, if kept in balance. The result is higher productivity for everyone in the business.
Driven first by the needs of your customers. Team members who are truly customer purposed, meaning proactively envisioning how every task affects the value provided to the customer, are potential business leaders. This includes a customer service focus, but goes beyond today to include more visionary preparation for tomorrow’s customer needs.
Once an entrepreneur recognizes potential or hidden leaders, the challenge is to engage and capitalize on their performance and leadership potential. Here are some key recommendations for entrepreneurs that the authors and I agree are required to further develop this emerging leadership potential:
- Up the ante on your communication practices. Leaders on the team want to act out the value promise of your business, and bring your strategy to life. But they can do so only in an environment where the value promise is clearly understood by them, and everyone on the team. Personally discuss your strategy and goals with new leaders.
- Make sure that startup goals are aligned with tactics. Cultures that align strategies and goals with tactics allow everyone to see the relationship between what they do and the contribution of others. With good alignment, power and leadership can be shared among people at many levels. Everyone feels confidence and a sense of leadership.
- Embrace change and innovation as positives. Change is inevitable in a startup, and it needs to be a part of the culture for leaders to emerge. Find ways for new leaders to test their hypotheses in small, controllable experiments. Reward well-managed efforts, even if they do not work. Encourage innovative approaches, which can make everyone a leader.
- Foster a culture of high engagement and commitment. This starts with a clear set of values and purpose. High levels of engagement will nurture hidden leaders in all corners of the business. When commitment is high, team members seek out leaders who can make the startup and everyone look good. Incent everyone to do their best work.
A startup is usually initiated by a single leader, but it requires many more to grow and scale. For maximum speed, team morale, and commitment, these new ones need to be developed from hidden leaders on the inside, and complemented by proven leaders recruited from the outside. Make this combination a key element of your sustainable competitive advantage.