Patterns & Insights

Prioritizing an External Focus

by | Aug 21, 2018 | culture, leadership

Good leaders of early stage startups are often intently focused as they build their initial offerings, acquire their initial customers, and build their companies. While the charismatic leader who is fully engaged is often an important attribute for early success, it is also critical that the leader know when to evolve their personal role and their personal focus to sustain the company’s ongoing success. Scott Maxwell, OpenView Venture, wrote a great article in which he made the analogy of leaders who mistakenly squander some of their early success by spending too much time watching the dashboard and not enough time watching the road. His point is that keeping an external verses internal focus is critical for leaders of growth stage companies for success.

When I work with companies that are in early growth stages who are seeing success it is sometimes the case that the leaders begin to believe that it is their personal involvement in every facet of the business that has enabled that success and as such they should sustain that involvement. While it may be true that their personal attention to all facets of the business was critical in the early phases, it is important to know when they should evolve their personal focus and begin to empower and trust their teams for the day to day internal operations.  Every time the founder jumps in and inserts his or herself in day to day execution details, they are doing a disservice to both the team members and the company. 

Building a company to be successful requires intent focus by the founder and leader, but not at the expense of empowering team members – particularly when those team members bring unique and different experience and expertise unlike that of the founder.  When every decision made by team members is ‘tweaked’ or changed or even ignored by the founder, the culture needed to build and grow the company begins to atrophy.  Everyone in an early stage startup needs to feel they are a part of building something to get the necessary momentum to get through the inevitable hard times.  Every time a word in a blog post is changed, a suggestion is ignored, a decision made in the scope of responsibility appropriate to an individual on the team is reversed or ignored without communication and collaboration, the energy needed to move the company forward is diminished.

This of course does not mean that there are gong to be times in which the cause of the corrections is a recognition that mistakes in hiring have been made.  Hiring is hard and there will be mistakes that once discovered required swift action, transparency with the rest of the team, and an honest assessment of what went wrong prior to replacing the individuals.   

The pressure is on for leaders who are transitioning their companies from early startups to growth stage companies as well – the clocks are ticking for these leaders to make wise choices as they prioritize their own personal time and focus. Navigating the company at this phase often means the leader must recognize that it is time to give their teams the opportunity to run the operations while they redirect their energy and focus externally. Leaders who make the transition to early stage growth are typically the ones who intently focus on:

  • Hiring talent that brings diverse experience and knowledge to the team and trusting them to do their jobs;
  • Understanding the characteristics of their best customers;
  • Recognizing opportunities to better serve those customers through refining their offers;
  • Knowing the competition and maintaining a healthy paranoia with respect to the competitor’s ability to outpace them.

All of these items are externally focused. All of these items require humility and listening to the market, to their team, to customers.  Leaders and founder who persist with this external focus as priorities while letting their team grow, experiment, contribute, and thrive are more likely to build cultures for success. 

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