Yesterday, I had lunch with Mark who is one of my advisors. Lunch started with a typically casual conversation about family, friends and upcoming vacation plans. Then we quickly covered all the tactical topics like traction, marketing, strategic partnerships and of course money. It was a typical advisor meeting until we started to talk about the team. I asked a question that changed Mark’s demeanor and the tone for the rest of our meeting.
Knowing the team’s makeup may help pull the question into perspective. My core team is basically the same core team from my last startup. But I also need field experts so I formed an extended team.
An important skill for any successful founder is the ability to bring on people smarter than yourself. The problem is that you end up surrounded by people smarter than yourself.
The core and extended team are made up of Ph.D.’s, scientific researchers, and alums from schools like Thunderbird and Stanford. All of them are at the top of their game. Me? Well, I have… I have no pedigree of note. Once, I was a side bar in HBR. But these guys, they are all published. My point is, when you bring in people smarter than yourself you are never the smartest person in the room.
Almost daily I have conversations with the team that frankly goes over my head. That does not excuse me from the need to understand what they are saying or what it is that motivates them. I need to understand because I have to communicate across the team — effectively.
What I asked Mark was this, “How can I best lead when I don’t understand all the facts?” Mark sat back in his chair, folded his arms and looking directly at me said, “Now, you are sounding like a CEO.”
That just great… I “sound” like a CEO. But a CEO is a hard leadership position (read manager) and what I need is to know how to offer soft leadership (read coach) to a highly skilled and experienced team. His response was, “EXACTLY!”
Mark then said one the most humbling thing I have ever heard. “Dave,” he said, “they believe in you and in your vision. They believe it will change lives. You need to believe it as much as they do.”
Mark spent another 30 minutes making his case.
The market problem is crystal clear. The solution and technology works. Early use has proven people will buy it. There is market demand for it. The long term potential is huge. I have formed partnerships with industry leaders and even received an offer to buy out the company pre-launch. I know that it is going to work, because it is working. The point Mark was making is that I needed to believe it. I needed to have faith. And faith is very different from knowing.
The challenge for anyone leading a team, (and I mean leading, not managing) is to be out front. To set the vision. To set the direction. To establish priorities. To keep walking, especially when things get bogged down. To pick up team members who are down and to give encouragement every step of the way. To find the YES when everyone is saying NO. In turn, your team puts trust in you. The only way to build that trust is through open, honest and respectful communication.
A lot of my time is managing tasks; collecting them, assigning them and just making sure they get done. But my real job is to lead. So when I have a Ph.D debating things I really don’t understand I can’t manage them. I don’t have the background or knowledge to even participate. What I need to do is lead.
I listen to how things are said and what is not said. I watch body language to see how others respond. I monitor debates and encourage discussions. I Look for passion and I look for compassion.
I am still learning that a founder’s job is. Every time I think I know it I end up learning something new. There isn’t a school that teaches “foundership”. It is all on the job training.
What I have learned is this; A founder’s job is to first set the vision. Second, to have faith in yourself and faith in the team. Third, create a culture of open, respectful and honest communication to make it all happen.
A founders job is not to be skilled in every task that needs to get done. It is to find people who have those skills, help them to believe in the vision, join the team and to accept the culture.
When the path is unclear or skills are missing it is then the founders’ job to forge ahead and discover new paths and ways to get things done. In turn the team will grow to trust you. That level of trust requires that you first have faith in yourself.
Sharing a vision, having faith and cultivating a culture is the hard part. In comparison, getting a product to market and growing a business is easy.