Platt Perspective on Business and Technology

Transitioning into senior management – Part 18: leadership in startups – 2

Posted in job search and career development, startups by Timothy Platt on July 22, 2011

This is my 18th installment in a series on joining and working on an executive team (see my Guide to Effective Job Search and Career Development, postings 158-174 for parts 1-17). This is also my second posting of that to explore issues of leadership in the startup and early stage context.

My first posting on that more specific topic area focused on the issues and challenges faced by a first time manager as business founder. I turn next to the more management-experienced founder or startup/early stage executive. And I divide these executives into two basic groups:

• Executives seasoned in established businesses but who do not have prior startup or early stage experience and
• Serial entrepreneurs with prior experience working with or as a part of a startup or early stage business.

I will discuss their particular sets of core issues in that order, focusing on the first group here.

Executives trained and experienced in established business know their basic functional areas and how to manage them, but their experience is circumscribed. They know how to work on a team within well established organizational structures, with a great deal simply taken for granted as to underlying order and processes are concerned. They know, and take for granted the corporate culture they have been working within, and this can be a source of blind spots if their entire career has been in one industry and one company within it.

When you are an executive with a startup or early stage business you cannot take anything for granted – you have to be able to wear multiple hats and you have to be able and willing to make a lot of fundamental decisions in building the sort of structure you have always simply accepted as being there. There are learning curves in doing this and both for what has to be done and with what priority, and when in the business building process.

I am not saying this cannot be learned as you go along, but it is important to understand that any seasoned executive who only has experience in established businesses, probably has a real learning curve ahead. And that learning curve is going to involve at least some unlearning too, and coming to not take some basic givens from past successes for granted.

That said, any seasoned executive who breaks out of their established ruts to try building their own business, probably approaches that with a great deal of frustration as a spring board for moving forward from.

• People who are happy, or at least contented working with an established business are not in most cases simply going to walk away from that and into the unknowns and uncertainties of building from scratch.

I have met a few seasoned, established executives who have broken free to start out on their own, and they all had reached a point where they saw that as their only viable option if they were to remain true to themselves, and to their visions of what a business should be doing. These were, and are creative, hard working people who saw way too many opportunities lost and way too many good and even vital ideas bypassed by the ongoing inertia and by the barriers of silo walls. So they had something to prove, and not just to themselves. A new path taken from this starting point is never going to be easy, but it can be made to work.

If you are that established executive looking to move off on your own with your own new business, network, network, network. Identify and tap into the resources you have, and can have available to you, and for startup advice and for help with the details. Look to leverage your very real strengths and assets without tripping over unexamined differences between your assumptions and your real circumstances, and approach everything with fresh eyes and a sense of humility that you do not know it all for this.

For a fast paced and rapidly changing technology context as for example, a chief information officer would face, keep it simple and focused and both to control costs and so that you can do essentially everything in your area of responsibility yourself, and hands-on. Then build in the complexity as your startup develops to the point where it can support more and add staff, and with clear cut benchmarks and priorities in place as you move forward. But first and foremost, and executive-by-preference or not, think hands-on and act hands-on too. This can be the single greatest challenge for the entrepreneur executive starting out on their own as a new business founder or founding partner. You have to be willing to in effect take a big step back on the table of organization if you are to move forward and succeed.

I am going to round out this set of founder types in my next series installment, looking at the serial entrepreneur with prior startup experience, having now looked at first time executives and executives who only have experience in established business contexts.

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