The startup leadership style

I started leading teams in my second year of teaching, back in 1987… 36 years ago. Oh my goodness.

I had leadership ‘thrust upon me’, you might say. I had completed just one year of teaching, and the school appointed another Economics teacher, and de facto, I was made Head of Department.

Within a year, I had another 2 staff members. A proper team to lead, you might say.

Over the past three decades and more, I’ve led various departments, companies, boards, divisions, sporting teams and music bands. I’ve learnt a lot about what works, and what does not. I’ve made my fair share of leadership mistakes, and had some great wins along with way.

I suppose I’ve developed my own style, one that perhaps naturally evolved, and just “seemed right” to me.

I would probably describe it as ‘startup leadership‘ style.

This is not because I’ve had the past two decades working in and around startups – although that helped – it’s that I believe this style is the right one for an uncertain and changing world.

And it doesn’t just work in startups – it works in all forms of business, not-for-profits, associations, government, sporting teams, music bands… wherever you are leading teams.

The secret is not to get too hung up on strategy or process (have them, but be prepared to adapt to the situation) and focus instead on the team dynamic, cohesion and performance (hiring is the most important thing you’ll do), on the environment (‘happy productivity’ is best) and outcomes, outputs and impact.

This is not some lovey-dovey, sitting around playing table football, throwing trash into the bin via a basketball hoop, meaningless fun. I’m talking about hard-nosed performance getting great results, here. And the best way to get there.

Be on top of the numbers, and show them to your staff. As regular as you can. Coach them in what the P+L and balance sheet shows, and, importantly, the cash flow forecast and any other relevant outcomes depending on the organisational purpose (such as social impact, ESG).

Because you are not too hung up on one set plan of cast iron actions, you can feedback information from the ground, and adapt to changing situations. You have to have some inner confidence, be self-deprecating at times, and have a good dash of humility.

It is fantastic when team members come up with great ideas you had not thought of. Even better when you implement them, and they work. Can you imagine how motivating that is for the staff member involved? What a great signal to send to the entire team, too.

If in doubt, always do something. You can experiment small scale, try a few things, and build on what works. Learn from things that don’t work (there are no mistakes, if you have tried with your heart along a well thought out path).

Celebrate successes with the team, and keep it all moving forward. Have honest, open, no blame conversations.

Be the last to speak in meetings. Allow everyone to provide their input first. Cultivate a welcoming, supportive and fun environment.

Sounds like a great place to work right? And why not? If you spend 8 hours or so a day at work, 5 days a week, interacting with your team members, and a big chunk (40 years or so) of your life, then it should be enjoyable.

Team members should all be able to achieve something, individually and as a team. There will be days when you and they will be challenged, and that’s where a calm head will be called for (no one makes great decisions under stress and panic).

Startup leadership elements

  • Clear vision and purpose, with adaptable tactics on how to get there
  • Be Responsive to the market movements; have a customer focus
  • Have a hard-nosed approach to the numbers; educate the team
  • Be humble, hard-working, cultivate a positive team atmosphere
  • Hire the best, and encourage contributions and experimentation
  • Make the workplace happy, fun and productive
  • Celebrate wins, and learn from losses
  • Ensure any bad news gets to you quickly
  • Stay calm when under pressure
  • If in doubt, do something small, and measure the outcomes
About the author

20+ years in Perth’s business, tech, media and startup sectors, from founder through to exit, as CEO, mentor, advisor / investor, and in federal and state government. Originally an economics teacher from the UK, working in Singapore before arriving in Perth in 1997 to do an MBA at UWA. Graduating as top student in 1999, Charlie co-founded, running it for 10+ years before selling to REIWA, to run In 2013, moved to Business News, became CEO, then worked on the Australian government’s Accelerating Commercialisation program. In 2021, helped set up and launch The Property Tribune, and was awarded the Pearcey WA Entrepreneur of the Year (at the 30th Incite Awards). In 2022, he became Director Innovation, running the 'New Industries Fund' at the Department of Jobs, Tourism, Science and Innovation (JTSI).

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