- Executives have a tough job and have several roles. To define your role as clearly as possible, figure out where your startup is in the business cycle.
- Once the startup is out of its initiation phases, executives should leave the execution and delivery to their teams.
- After this, the New Venture Team of executives must give leadership and vision to the rest of the business.
Being an executive of a start-up can be confusing at times. Not only that your role is unclearly defined, but it is also constantly and rapidly evolving - demanding different tasks to deliver and skills to develop. The market expectations are also confusing. On the one hand, you hear complaints such as: “CFOs of start-ups need to be more hands-on”, and on the other hand “the exec team is not strategic enough”.
I work with many start-up executives that are first-timers: it is the first time they are involved with a start-up or their first time as executives, and sometimes it is their first time as people managers. Hence, clarity of what is expected of them personally and their roles and which skills they need to develop is important. However, skills development is like networking: once you need to deploy the skills, it is almost too late to start developing them.
When to Develop Skills
So, where is the balance for the executives? Are they expected to play in the strategy arena only or focus on being hands on and deliver? The answer depends on where the start-up is in the life cycle:
Discovery, Validation and Product Development
Scale Up: Efficiency, Growth and Mature
Main Focus of Role
|Hands on, delivery, execution||Strategy, Vision, Stakeholders’ Management, Empowering Delivery|
When the start-up is in its initiation phases (idea, validation, and MVP), the executives are often hands-on and focus mostly on ensuring execution and less on strategy (though this should still be a very important focus). However, when scaling up, the role focus changes rapidly and dramatically. As the company scales up, each people management level requires a different focus:
The shift between the first stages to scalability is often where start-up leadership teams fail and face their most significant challenge. Leading scaling up start-ups means different skills than those that were used to successfully develop MVP, acquire the first clients and raise sufficient capital for scaling up. Once you scale up, it is all about execution and delivery - not to the executives, but by their teams:
- Team Leaders: Focus on their team’s delivery and problem-solving. They enable the team to deliver on time and at a high quality.
- Managers: Responsible for a few teams and their operations. They coordinate between the teams and work closely with other managers.
- Executives: Responsible for the company’s strategy, vision, business plan, and management of external stakeholders. Their team is composed not only of their direct reports but from the wider organisation as well. It is no longer about the operation and success of their own silo, but about how the entire system works together to ensure the organisation achieves its strategic objectives. For example, marketing works closely not only with sales (to generate the pipeline) but also with HR (since people and culture are responsible for the brand). The New Venture Team (NVT) must operate as a high performing team, while creating the vision and mission, inspiring and empowering the entire team to follow the vision, innovate, and deliver.
The New Venture Team
This is the tipping point where most executive teams get confused. One day, almost as a surprise, they find themselves having to move from responsibilities similar to those of a team leader role to an executive role. They may be prepared emotionally for the challenge, but often find themselves without the skills and experience to make the shift.
This is also where fractions in team chemistry are found, and the culture is changing for the worse. Without addressing this tipping point, the start-up survivability is at risk. After all, the success of the start-up is in the execution, not the idea and technology alone. Execution is all about people, leadership, and culture.
Obviously, the best solution is to develop the New Venture Team’s skills while the start-up is in its initial phases. However, at these stages, there is not enough capital and resources to facilitate the development. Hence, at the beginning of the scaling up process, start-up New Venture Teams need to reflect on their teamwork and skills (individual and those of the team), and if need be, start working on skills development and culture. This reflection can include the following skills as an example: operational, management, leadership, building high performing teams and resilience.
Having the right skills and culture is only one aspect of functioning as a high performing team. What are the skills that New Venture Teams need to develop? Find out in my next article.
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