So You Want To Start a Business? A Note To 23-Year-Old Me Part 4

4. You must continue to improve as a leader, and it won't be easy. Obviously, leadership is critical to a startup. Leaders set the tone, inspire, guide, and have the vision for what the organization will look like and what it will accomplish. The leadership lessons learned through the Marine Corps form the nucleus of my personal leadership style to this day. 

Many people have a perception that Marine Corps leadership is all about yelling and screaming, but after initial training, that couldn't be further from the truth. The Corps is a continuous series of lessons in how to motivate and guide your team in accomplishing their mission in the most effective manner possible, whatever that mission may be. It can be intense, and is typically direct, but in my experience, good leaders handle the task with a calm, firm professionalism that is the hallmark of the battle tested leadership principles in practice since 1775. Marines all operate from a baseline of values that allow us to quickly get in sync with each other in fast moving circumstances.  There is no better leadership training than spending a few years as a Marine.  The foundations of leadership I learned from the Corps served me well after my transition to leading a startup.

Coming off of active duty, I made assumptions that if I could lead Marines I could lead anyone, that my own personal leadership was sufficient to the task at hand, and I could focus on growth and profitability more than my continued development as a leader. I also made positive assumptions about the presence of core values, work ethic, open communication, and emotional resilience of those that I would lead in the civilian workforce.

I soon learned that in order to survive  I had to continue to evolve as a leader to meet the changing demands of a new environment. I was floored the first time I asked a team member about a missed expectation in a straightforward manner, and was met with a passionate mix of defiance, insubordination, and blame. I wasn't prepared for such a reaction, and the disciplinary tools I would have had in the Corps were unfortunately not an option. So, I had to take a hard look at myself and evaluate my effectiveness. I realized I needed to adjust my approach to reflect a much different environment.

The change was subtle, but the impact was striking. High standards, values centric, time tested principles remained unchanged. Focus on accomplishing the mission in the most effective manner remained, but effectiveness became the operative concept, and this required a change in communications tactics.  I learned to ask a lot of questions in a non-threatening way to get to the truth, and hopefully get the team member to see it as well. I made good use of the phrase, "Tell me more about that..." I worked diligently to improve communications skills and facilitate honest feedback. From holding office hours to leadership evaluations, to regular all hands meetings to keep everyone in the loop, open communication became a priority. I added flexibility to my style in recognition that what motivates one person might overwhelm or frustrate someone else.  Effectiveness had to overshadow my ego that boldly proclaimed, "I am who I am and the world must deal with it."

The issue of how to handle different perceptions and definitions of values required decisive action. Rather than assume the team operated from and agreed on our shared values, we worked through identification of our core values, as well as our vision (purpose) and mission (objectives). These became a focal point for all of our operations. If we ran into a question of how to best move forward, it was often helpful to refer back to them and see what course of action synchronized best.

These efforts were humbling, required sometimes painful introspection, and didn't happen overnight.  The truth is that the process continues even now, as leadership is a skill that requires constant refinement. Effective leaders constantly evaluate themselves, and if you don't struggle daily as a leader, then I would say that you most likely aren't getting the most out of yourself or your team. Leadership in a startup stripped away all of the institutional authority and support structure I had in the Corps. I had to handle recruiting, service delivery, sales, salary negotiations, and training, while worrying about taxes, cash flow, and dozens of other tasks.  I didn't have the hundreds of years of tradition, shared values, or leadership structure filled with wise, experienced veterans to serve as mentors and guides. My team members could "vote with their feet" at the worst possible moment for any reason at all, unlike Marines who were usually on a four year hitch.

As the company grew in size and scope, my personal role in directly accomplishing critical tasks would by necessity be reduced as I adapted more and more to depending on others. The requirement to coordinate, synchronize, and guide their efforts became even more critical at the same time it became more difficult due to increased operational scale and tempo. The solution was familiar - leadership. I had to develop other leaders in the organization and delegate more operational tasks to facilitate growth. Once again, I had to evolve and improve.

Even though being a leader can be challenging, remember that challenges lead to growth in many areas of your life. Growth doesn't happen when you do the same thing day in and day out the same way. Healthy organizations as well as individuals continuously adapt to new circumstances to gain a competitive edge. Take heart and don't be discouraged, it's to be expected. Remember that Moses, one of the most effective leaders in history, got so frustrated with his situation that he felt the burden of leadership was too much for him. (Numbers 11:11-15)

Here are a few additional points I would tell my 23 year old self. These may sound a little pessimistic, but these tips would have saved me a lot of trouble early on. 
  • Team members will come from many different backgrounds, and they all bring experience that impacts how they operate, think, and perceive their surroundings. Some good, some not so good.
  • Don't assume everyone shares your values. Anything you absolutely need everyone in sync on should be documented and instilled into your team so there is no room for misunderstanding.
  • No amount of training is going to fix poor values. There can be no compromise in this area.
  • Some operate by the motto, "My goal is to do as little work as possible, while demanding as much pay as I can get until I find the next opportunity." This is not acceptable.
  • The incompetent usually don't realize they are incompetent.
  • People don't change all that much. You can't take a "C" player and turn them into an "A" player. The best you can hope for is to coach and polish them to a "B". If you expect to get more from them than that, you'll both end up frustrated. Screen diligently before bringing someone on the team, it's your responsibility to make sure they are a fit.
  • Personality conflicts and drama are often used to mask poor performance.
  • Don't make assumptions about activity levels and performance. Spot checks and supervision should occur frequently to ensure quality and high standards. Once trust is established, these can be less frequent, but early on they are critical to maintaining a culture of excellence, setting proper expectations, and providing feedback. This type of coaching is much different from micromanagement, which entails telling someone exactly how to do a task, and then constantly watching them to make sure they do it exactly as prescribed. If someone requires micromanagement to perform, they aren't someone you need on the team.

If you enjoyed this post, check out a leadership post I wrote several years ago with some additional tips:


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