a stack of start up and design books

A great founder or a terrible leader?

What do we know about corporate leadership? Pretty much everything — so many books are written about motivation, leadership styles, team management. Many of us came across a known wisdom “If you can manage three — you can manage thousands”. But is it really true, that person who has managed to get three people to work together on a startup is going to become a great leader for a larger team?

A new idea of what can be called ‘teleprofessionalism’ (as it was introduced by Richard and Daniel Susskind) — rather than meeting face-to-face, is a collaboration between professionals conducted by a video link or real-time messaging. This is already happening within number of organisations and especially within startup culture. Notice, however, that teleprofessionalism is not a fundamental departure from traditional ways of working. Of course, teleprofessionalism may not work when matters of great emotional or commercial sensitivity are concerned. But many current interactions fall into neither category, and remote meetings are much less costly than physical get-togethers.

While more and more teams are working remotely and communicating online via project management tools like Slack, Trello, Asana, Monday it enables a company to have multiple teams working together on a number of tasks. Take a look how most popular Slack channels are named: #team-development, #team-marketing, #team-sales, #team-finance. It means that people engaged in online communication are usually grouped by their area of expertise. Following the logic of a leadership within large corporations, each of the group should have an appointed leader to perform to their maximum abilities. But would such logic work within a startup?

Let’s take as an example an imaginary tech startup founded by a group of university friends. Three people with diverse experience but one idea and passion to change a world of VR were coding, developing and testing product for 9 months until they got a $4M from a group of angel investors. Seems like a dream came true — people believed in product, money came in — time to grow a team! 30 people hired, pressure is growing and investors are dying to see X30 in a 3-year time.

Slack channels are overloaded with messages, now there are not 3 active participants, but 30 and all demand a response ‘asap’ as a speed of decision-making in a startup is crazy. What it means for Founders is that a micro-management would be an only appropriate solution in this situation. Co-founders have split areas of responsibility based on their expertise, and responded to messages only within their area. It seems to work for a few months — team is fresh and full of ideas, processes are organized and group managers are appointed. But few months later Founders have noticed that quantity of messages on Slack has decreased, reports were sent less frequently and the quality of ideas was not that satisfying at all.

Did a CEO have time to feedback and engage with numerous teams to explain strategy/vision/mission when his/her main goal was to develop a product and scale a business? The answer is “no” — 13 people from the team provided a feedback to the CEO prior to leaving the company that they have lost a vision of where are they going. What happened is that a team (remote and in-house) has lost its initial ‘doze’ of motivation and has not received a new one. A wake up-call made the CEO realize that a time for him ‘doing things’ is over — it is time to ‘lead’.

Was a parson with an engineering diploma who has spent majority of his University time in the computer lab ready to take a lead? Were other of his co-founders aware of the management techniques and wonders of team motivation? Obviously, only a strong desire not to lose the rest of the team made them to take management courses and watch hours of videos about leadership.

n 2006 Ori Brafman and Rod Beckstrom in a book “The Starfish and the Spider: The Unstoppable Power of Leaderless Organizations” stressed the importance of a new generation of leaders that they called “catalysts”. Authors summarised a long list of skills that is needed in order to be a catalyst and promote social and political change:

  • 1. Genuine interest in others.
  • 2. Numerous loose connections, rather than a small number of close connections.
  • 3. Skill at social mapping.
  • 4. Desire to help everyone they meet.
  • 5. The ability to help people help themselves by listening and understanding, rather than giving advice.
  • 6. Emotional intelligence.
  • 7. Trust in others and in the decentralized network.
  • 8. Inspiration (to others).
  • 9. Tolerance for ambiguity.
  • 10. A hands-off approach.
  • 11. Ability to let go.

What three bright tech professionals from our case-example discovered is that despite of the digital era, true leadership is still taking place primarily offline, or via video calls, where emotional connection is important and where less technical questions are discussed. It is more about setting the strategy and making each team member to feel a part of a big story.

Nowdays, as we can see from the example, a new type of leadership is required not only for being a politician or social leader. That is an essential requirement for management of most of tech and networked organizations. Accordingly, leadership in an environment that is dominated by teleprofessionalism requires new type of skills. Due to dynamic nature of this environment, the list of these skills, however, is not constant and can’t be concluded by what was offered by Brafman and Beckstrom. This list should be continuously revised and critically analyzed, in order to ensure that new type of leadership fits the new organizational challenges of digital collaboration.

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