Leading on the job: advice for new leaders

Not long ago you were part of a small team of people with a big idea that you thought could change the world. Now you’ve taken on significant investment and are responsible for a rapidly growing team of people who are looking at you for direction. Your burden of responsibility has increased dramatically and you need to learn to lead quickly. Over the last few years I’ve coached a lot of new leaders in this situation, in venture capital and private equity-backed businesses. I’ve turned that experience into five pieces of leadership advice.

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Advice for new leaders

1. Learn about what leadership is

The corporate world grooms future leaders for their roles, but startup and high growth businesses thrust people into leadership often without any previous experience or training. The spotlight and responsibility of first-time leadership can be daunting but it is an incredible place to learn. 

I’ve never been a leader, or an executive, before. What do I do?

Said a CTO client to me the other day. Taking some time to learn about leadership provides a good base for developing your own authentic leadership style. A collection of the best articles & books for new leaders contains some of my favorite articles that I share with clients. Fortunately leaders in startup and high growth businesses are often curious souls, so I recommend reading and reflecting on the advice in the articles and asking yourself what leadership means for you?

2. Work on your self-awareness

Before you tell me how self-aware you are, be advised that 95% of people believe that they’re self-aware, but only about 10-15% really are (according to this research discussed in the Harvard Business Review).

Great leadership starts with self-awareness: your ability to recognize and understand emotions in yourself and others, and your ability to use this awareness to manage your behavior and relationships. I’ve seen very capable individuals fail in new leadership positions because they cannot look inward enough to reflect on their own behaviour and the influence that it has on those around them. I encourage leaders to improve their leadership self-awareness by answering these 4 questions.

3. Learn to let go

As your business grows, you will no longer be able to control everything tha happens within it. Discussing this daunting feeling, and helping leaders to adapt, is one of the most common coaching conversations that I have. In How to Scale: Do Less, Lead More, executive coach Ed Batista identifies five patterns of behaviour that often afflict new leaders.

  • Leader as Bottleneck – when the work to be done outstrips your capacity to do it.
  • Leader as Unqualified Decision-Maker – when you retain authority to make decisions even though you’re no longer the most-qualified.
  • Leader as Outdated Expert – when you continue to be viewed as the expert in a given area, inhibiting people with deeper expertise from taking greater responsibility (or discouraging them from joining the organisation to begin with).
  • Leader as Short-Circuit – the fluidity and ambiguity that foster creative problem-solving in a young business feels like chaotic dysfunction later on in the company’s growth. You need to allow efficient systems to develop to get tasks done and not stand in their way.
  • Leader as Heroic Demotivator – leaders should be able to step in at a tense moment and take heroic measures to defuse a crisis or solve a difficult problem. But continual intervention in these situations teaches people that this is the leader’s job, not their’s, and they fail to develop their own crisis-management and problem-solving abilities. 

Do you recognise any of these leadership challenges in your own behaviour? Raising your own self-awareness of the areas in which you are ‘holding on’ is the best starting point for working out how to ‘let go’. Here are some specific things to try, based on conversations that I have with coaching clients and exercises that we do together:

  • Go through all the meetings in your diary and ask yourself ‘do I really need to attend?’ Aim to take three meetings out of your diary next week, and set yourself the task of briefing someone else to lead them and feedback.
  • Consider all the projects that you are on point for and ask yourself if you still need to be? Empower someone else to own delivery and brief and support them accordingly, at the same time developing their own management and leadership skills.
  • Try ‘doing nothing’ for a day and see how it feels. I’ll bet you that your team is more productive!

4. Provide the right amount of direction

Startup and high growth businesses are inherently uncertain, it’s part of the allure. The problem is that human nature does not like uncertainty. In fact, it detests it. Uncertainty is like a pain in our limbic system.

You joined this business accepting huge amounts of uncertainty but others are joining you later on in the journey. Whilst they may be attracted to the entrepreneurial energy of a rapidly scaling business, don’t kid yourself that they are necessarily as used to it, or embrace it, in the same way that you do. They will want to have some sense of certainty that they will still have a job in a few months time so that they can do things like buy their other half nice presents, pay their mortgage and take their family on holiday.

Your job as a leader is to set the Vision and take people on a journey with you. This means treading a fine line between what you can be certain about and what you can’t. The point is that it’s not okay just to deem everything uncertain because that’s the nature of a scaling business. Your team needs (and psychologically craves) more direction from you than that.

5. Develop a culture of leadership

There’s no shortage of advice about how to develop a positive company culture. I was even interviewed about it myself for Forbes magazine: Building A Company Culture Is Not Just About Writing Values On A Wall. Less commonly discussed is the importance of developing a leadership culture, as a critical component of your overall company culture. Whilst company culture reflects the way things get done across the organisation as a whole, leadership culture is more specific. According to the Centre for Creative Leadership, it is:

The self-reinforcing web of beliefs, practices, patterns, and behaviors. It’s the way things are done — the way people interact, make decisions, and influence others. Leaders’ own conscious and unconscious beliefs drive decisions and behaviors, and repeated behaviors become leadership practices. Eventually these practices become the patterns of leadership culture.

Both company and leadership culture develops over time. It is already enshrined in established businesses, but for startup and high growth businesses it develops as the business scales. As a leader, without any established cultural framework within which to operate, it can be both a force for the good or bad, depending on whether you get caught in a positive or negative feedback loop. Unfortunately, I’ve seen too many growing businesses pay little or no attention to their leadership culture and how it impacts the rest of the business, with serious negative consequences. 

There are a number of things you can do to avoid falling into this trap. Start by taking time out among your leadership team to discuss what culture of leadership you want to create. Ask yourselves:

  • What does it mean to be a leader to be in this business?
  • What are your leadership values?
  • How do you make decisions as a leadership team (and what are the bottlenecks)?
  • What is good about your leadership function at the moment?
  • What might you improve and/or do differently?

In How to build a leadership culture in your business, I outline three more steps that you can take, including: engaging with the whole business about what leadership means for them, owning culture from the top, and investing in leadership development.

Both company and leadership culture is the DNA of your organisation and it comes comes from the top. Step up and take responsibility for it. Your team will respect and thank you.


Ready for more? You might like:

More details about my Executive Coaching services and #FutureOfLeadership development programme for new and emerging leaders.

The world is changing, are you? The best books for future leaders contains my recommended reading list for 21st Century leaders.