Back in college, when I asked my professor what makes a successful startup team, he would give me a one-word answer: experience. He may have been right. But having built a successful ed-tech startup myself, I have come to realize that experience alone does not make a good team. In fact, a recent study in the Netherlands, which astonishingly covered 95 per cent of the startup teams in the country, validates my hypothesis. It found that experience alone won’t help a team be successful at what it is trying to do.
Don’t get me wrong – I’m not claiming that experience isn’t necessary. Having experienced industry professionals in your team helps in many ways – identifying opportunities, for example. But experience alone does not help. With experience, I have realized that one needs the five following things to build a successful team for a startup.
1. Shared strategic vision acts as a glue
Vision is often dismissed as a “management issue” that has little application in real-world situations. If you believe in that, you can’t be further away from the truth.
Having a shared vision keeps the team together. The early years are tough for every startup. When a company is struggling and is yet to taste its first success, it is the shared vision of the members of the team that keeps them going.
Moreover, when there is no shared vision among the members of the team, it becomes almost impossible to achieve a consensus in decision making. If the members of your team do not share your vision, they may not be sufficiently motivated to take forward your plan of action. If that happens, your startup is likely to fail sooner or later.
“The greatest leaders mobilize others by coalescing people around a shared vision,” Kenneth H. Blanchard, one of the most iconic management thought leaders and author of the New York Times bestseller ‘The One Minute Manager’ says.
This does not mean that you need people who share your vision from day one. You have to mold the team in a manner that they believe in the vision that you have for the startup.
A shared strategic vision is critical. Tactical differences can be reconciled.
2. Collaborative relationships keep chaos away
If everyone is moving forward together, then success takes care of itself,” Henry Ford, founder of the Ford Motor Company, had said decades ago.
While Ford may have exaggerated a bit, no one knows teamwork and collaboration better than him – he personally designed the Ford Motor Company’s assembly line, which was based on the concept of common and differentiated responsibility, another name for collaborative work.
Collaboration helps in many ways. In my experience, it is critical for a startup because, in the initial days, there’s an awful lot of work to be done – tasks accomplished – in a small time frame. At this stage of the startup, territories are not marked, and a lot of work falls under undefined categories. Any lack of collaboration can lead to unwanted outcomes or chaos.
Moreover, with collaboration, you can foster trust among the members of the team, which is critical for success. It also helps build efficient communication ties between members, which pays off well as the company matures and becomes a mammoth organization.
3. Stable leadership provides continuity
Leaders build teams. When leadership changes and a new person takes the reins in their hands, a new team has to be built because everything from vision to tactics changes with the change in leadership. Thus, in the early days of a startup, it is important to have stable leadership because that ensures continuity of practices and processes.
Of course, this does not mean you can’t make changes. But incremental changes should be preferred over big-bang reforms. As Michael Eugene Porter, the Bishop William Lawrence University Professor at Harvard Business School, says, “The thing is, continuity of strategic direction and continuous improvement in how you do things are absolutely consistent with each other. In fact, they’re mutually reinforcing.” You will do well to remember this.
Frequent leadership changes can also create fissures among the employees. While healthy competition among employees is good, groupism can damage the company from within.
4. Space for personal ambition prevents rupture
As a leader, you will have to accommodate the aspirations and ambitions of your employees within the framework of a team. If aspirations are not met, it could lead to your team breaking up. If the aspirations of a few are met at the cost of others, it could create bad blood. How your employees interact with each other has a bearing on your company’s culture.
“If a team is to reach its potential, each player must be willing to subordinate his personal goals to the good of the team,” Bud Wilkinson, legendary American broadcaster and politician, once said.
I, however, disagree with Wilkinson. In my experience, a leader must not discourage individual ambition among the members of this team because, for many, it acts as an inspiration to continue working. But, at the same time, you must ensure that personal ambition does not take priority over the interests of the team, which directly translates into the good of the startup.
As their leader, you have to be a good listener and find ways to accommodate their ambitions.
5. One bad apple spoils the barrel
You must eliminate the rogue elements at first sight. A misfit can not only bring down the productivity of the team. Worse, it can bring the team to a grinding halt.
As the leader of the pack, you must know how to identify a misfit, try to align them with the team’s collective goal and take the tough decision of eliminating them from the group at the right time if they fail to fall in line and become an integral part.
As far as bad apples go, there’s one in every branch. While you must not always be on the lookout, as that can hurt team morale, you must have an eye out for one.
Always remember, building a successful team is like running a never-ending marathon. In practice, a marathon ends at some point, but the process of team building has no end. It is an everyday task. Hence, perseverance and patience are paramount.
As I was constantly reminded of Steve Jobs while writing this blog – he believed in many of these attributes, let me end it with a legendary quote from him: “Great things in business are never done by one person; they’re done by a team of people.”
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