Life in a tech startup is a lot of things. Boring is not one of them.

When we speak of scaling a tech startup, the focus tends to be on the usual suspects – increase agility, refine the product, hiring fast to fulfill the imminent needs of the company. The list goes on. But how often do we ask, “Is there a leadership challenge to be addressed as my startup scales?” Honestly, this is often an afterthought.

While we, the “leadership”, focus on figuring out the best possible ways to accommodate growth, we forget that much like the focus that we place on creating a scalable venture, a crucial piece of the growth puzzle is scaling leadership. This is my note to all in the leadership boat. And to those in that boat with them.

This can be a tricky situation. Shifting tack early could alienate your employees who helped you to get to this point. Start late, and you might have already let leadership chaos set in with an ad-hoc mentality and no structure.

So how can we scale this leadership challenge? Here’s some food for thought.

Bringing the shift in the leadership mindset

Imagine a place where all the employees get along, they work hard, and the profits go ka-ching. But the reality of a startup often looks different. It’s often the leader, working with utmost precision to keep track of the work at hand keeping a track of what ‘everyone’ is doing. It’s that individual’s pedal to the metal. The implicit fear is that without their extreme effort the whole company will collapse.

A startup might seem like a house of cards. But when your startup scales, this mindset has to change. While you might be laser-focused on building a great product, good leadership demands that you focus on building a great company as well.

So to the leaders out there. Ask yourself this, for all the times that you were busy sweating the small stuff, were you missing out those things that would make a greater difference to your organization? When you get busy with all the little details, remember Conway’s Law. This law states that services or products that you are producing are a reflection of how you, as a company, are organized. Often, these products or services mirror the way the company creating them is structured.

Being a micro-manager leads to chaos. It impedes innovation. And most importantly, it demotivates the workforce. Consequently, you have a company culture where ‘accountability’ and ‘ownership’ are alien concepts. Scaling demands a shift of attitude.

Process or people – where should your focus be?

When your company is in its nascent stages the dependency on people is sky-high. You fill up the jobs with people who are self-starters. They need little or no direction. They are freewheeling people who are quite comfortable flying by the seat of their pants. You are the glue that holds it all together. You, and they, know what you want. However, as your company grows, you need to bring in more structure. You will need to formalize your team’s tribal knowledge.

Once your company begins to scale, you, as a leader, will have to shift your focus from ‘presence’ to ‘process’. Your physical presence should be directed to things that have an impact on driving company value. Micromanaging employees does not fall in this category.

Establishing clear operational and communication processes removes the dependency of the workforce from the ‘person’ and help it all work in an organized and optimized manner.

Build your leadership pipeline

Nothing is more beneficial to a growing startup’s long-term health than the cultivation of a tier of future leaders. While many companies invest a lot of time in curating lists of potential future leaders, succession planning and leadership development have to move hand in hand.

You might want to build your leadership pipeline by identifying your high-potential employees. But creating a leadership pipeline means more than having a list of these people and the slots they can fill.

Leadership development is not a one-off activity. So, give your high-potential employees real-life exposure to a variety of jobs and tasks that they might have to undertake in their leadership roles. Your aim, apart from identifying the right leadership candidates, has to be to ensure that the people with the right skills are at the right place to fill the right role that will take your company to success.

Find your critical positions

Let’s face it – no one is married to a company. Not even the people who lead the company. What happens when a leader leaves? How does the organization fill that void? Does the company crumble?

Leadership positions are not just those that belong to the very top. They also belong to middle management. So, when developing your succession plans, looking intensively at linchpin roles (roles that are critical to the long-term health of the organization) is imperative because:

  • These roles are rarely individual-contributor positions
  • They belong to the established areas of business
  • They are strategic
  • They are critical for the future of the company

For example, a plant manager’s role in a manufacturing company would be a linchpin position. The partners managing emerging sectors in the biotech industry would be linchpin positions in the professional services sector. Program managers may be the linchpin positions in the software development business.

As a company founder, you equate your company with yourself. But soon as your startup begins to scale, it starts to become bigger and bigger…till it eventually becomes bigger than you. When facing this progression, it helps to remember that the company now belongs as much to the employees as it does to you. Trust these people. Build them up to become your leaders of tomorrow. Enable them with the right responsibilities, the right processes, and the right tools and growth will be certain.

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