The greatest startups I’ve been involved with are comprised of individuals stacked with talent and passion. Each person has had a unique upbringing, attended different schools, experienced varying family structures and has journeyed through the limitless avenues presented in adult life.
A startup is a compilation of wildly different views, expectations and assumptions of how business – and the wider world – should operate. This team also possesses a wealth of talents, experience and valuable insight that would be impossible for one person to gain in a lifetime.
In my experience, the greatest leaders are those who are able to harness and focus the team’s strengths to achieve a collective goal.
But it’s easier said than done, and with differing realities, values and expectations within a group, aligning around a common goal isn’t always straightforward. Problems arise. You hit dead ends. It’s the natural course of a startup, but knowing the difference between what’s right and who’s right is often the determining factor in survival.
Navigating founder bias
Founders are those who have experienced that divine moment; the fleeting yet surprisingly persistent thought on the drawn-out car ride or the seemingly innocuous conversation over dinner that sparked the ‘what if’ question. What if we could put HD video cameras on the space station? What if we could snap a picture of any item in the real world and immediately purchase that item with our smartphone?
Having that momentary flash of inspiration is a remarkable thing. A notion becomes an idea and that idea, instantly flooded with a stream of projections, predictions and assumptions, has the potential to consume an entrepreneur, to the detriment of their sleep, for months – or years.
Once a team has been assembled around this founding idea, the hard work really begins. The founder must begin the process of getting out of the way of his or her own success.
In the initial stages of a startup, founders primarily exist within a vacuum, where their reality and expectations go unchallenged. As the startup grows, however, tactical operations, project completions, minimum viable products and deadlines become part of the equation.
Founders’ expectations are often based on their ‘big vision,’ and not on the realities associated with the day-to-day grind that make the vision work. When expectations aren’t met, it can be a tough pill to swallow for founders, as well as the company as a whole.
This is the perfect time for founders to examine their own bias and deploy the insight of their team, not in an effort to absolve themselves or others from responsibility for perceived failures, but to understand whether they’re operating from misplaced assumptions. Removing bias from the equation is one of the most difficult tasks for a startup founder.
Identify team bias
Founders who have taken the time to understand where their own biases exist are far less likely to enforce their own will, and far more likely to lead based on the idea that ‘what’s right’ is more important than ‘who’s right.’ It’s also far easier for a founder to then recognize those similar, limiting traits in their team members. The best leaders commonly look to help individuals in their organizations to gain a wider understanding of where entrenched biases might cloud their ability to objectively view a situation, crisis, or outcome.
Realize you can’t control everything
One of the most difficult things for an entrepreneur to deal with is the fact that some things are out of their control and cannot be solved or accounted for. Worse still, there are situations where outcomes were unforeseen by everyone. Surprises are a sure-fire way to miss a heartbeat in the startup world.
Creating a strong, cohesive team and culture can make the difference between a startup succeeding and failing. The brutal truth, however, is that no matter how aligned a team is, problems will arise – especially when you’re a startup under intense pressure, Conflict within a startup isn’t something that should be avoided. It’s something that all young startups should recognize as inevitable and, in many cases, is needed in order to forge strong companies which are fundamentally based on truth and understanding.
When those involved in early stage companies can exist as a team and remove the desire to enforce their individual judgments, instead looking to retain focus on what is best for the company, conflicts become more constructive than destructive, and growth becomes inevitable.
At the end of the day, the strongest companies understand that it doesn’t matter who’s right. What matters is what’s right, and what pushes the company forward.
Cameron Chell is co-founder and CEO of Business Instincts Group, a venture creation firm in Calgary that finances and builds high-tech startups. To learn more about his work with sustainable startups visit www.CameronChell.com
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