So you’ve got your startup off the ground, and now you’re ready to take it to the next level. Whether you founded the company and took on an executive-level role or were hired onto the senior leadership team as one of the first employees—chances are that despite your title, your position probably hasn’t required too much leadership up until this point.
But maybe you just received your first round of funding (if so, congrats), and it’s time to start hiring, or perhaps you just brought on your first direct report.
Whatever the case may be, your startup will demand leadership skills at some point or another. Unfortunately, no textbook will prepare you for the high-pressure situations you will encounter—whether making a critical business decision, choosing between two job candidates, setting your team up for success, or firing someone.
For this reason, it’s a great idea to bring on a leadership mentor that can help ensure that you are well-equipped to handle these instances when they arise and keep your business growing.
At Growth Mentor, we are dedicated to helping founders and leaders set themselves up for success by connecting with mentors who have done it before. In this article, we will dive into startup leadership and how a mentor can help you navigate the many unforeseen challenges that you will face as a leader.
In a startup environment, there are tons of exciting things going on. From product development, improving retention and churn to fundraising, it’s easy to get sidetracked by the “sexier” elements of the business, like creating a vision or perfecting your big idea. But as Steve Jobs (and many other entrepreneurs) famously said, “To me, ideas are worth nothing unless executed. They are just a multiplier. Execution is worth millions.”
While the idea is the more exciting and still essential part of a startup, for most people, the execution is really what matters. Without good execution, an idea is just an idea. With excellent execution, it can become an empire.
However, for many startup leaders, the execution of the idea is an afterthought. Therefore, many founders or startup leaders will hurry to hire their friends and family who can rally around their vision, whether or not their prior experience or skills suit the (future) demands of the job. So when it is time to hire more talent, and these initial hires are asked to lead others and make crucial decisions, they struggle.
Whether you are the friend or family hire, or the person who hired them, it’s not too late to sharpen your leadership toolkit. While this is just an example of a typical execution misstep, it is evidence of the problem. All decisions made at the start of a startup often haunt it down the road, so it’s essential to start learning and getting guidance as early as possible.
If you focus on building effective leadership skills from day one—your company is much more likely to succeed than if you ignore such development.
Leadership cultivation shouldn’t be optional. As an entrepreneur or business leader, it should be something you put at the forefront of your company and personal development.
According to Noam T. Wasserman in his book, The Founder’s Dilemma, only 18% of startup founders have management experience prior to founding their company. Because many of these founders assume executive positions, there is often a great need for mentorship. Below we highlight some of the business components that managerial leadership skills can impact.
Culture and Morale
A skilled leader with great people skills will be able to motivate and direct his team of employees into doing great work and fostering a healthy, happy office environment. As your startup grows, it’s critical to keep great culture and morale top of mind.
Great cultures are built by celebrating wins, setting clear expectations, encouraging failure, and fostering professional development opportunities. But unfortunately, creating a great work environment is not something that can be taught; instead, it must be learned through experience.
Great leadership can help turn your team into a well-oiled machine that helps your business thrive. With intuitive leadership skills, you can ensure that your team is committed to and working toward your vision as well as maximizing their potential within the organization.
While hiring the right people is an essential component of building an effective team, nine out of ten people will need the right leader to help them deliver the most value. This is another reason startup managers, or even potential managers, should focus on developing and refining their leadership skills.
Maintaining Your Position
Demonstrating excellent leadership skills as an officer or executive within the startup is crucial not only to your company’s success but also to the longevity of your role. According to a Harvard Law Schoo study on Corporate Governance, over 60% of startups still have a founder CEO after their IPO.
As your company grows and you become more and more removed from the day-to-day work, managing your team will be one of the most critical duties. As a result, there will continually be more pressure put on you to fill the shoes of your position. And if you aren’t able to fill them, the board will opt to have you replaced.
A strong mentor/mentee relationship can be the deciding factor in whether your startup succeeds or fails. If you’re trying to find the next stage of growth with your startup, you can look to others who have been there before and learn from their experiences.
Leadership mentoring allows entrepreneurs to learn leadership skills that might otherwise take years to develop. Mentors can pass on their wisdom and expertise to those who are greener.
Whether you’re looking to improve your management skills or learn how to give effective feedback, leadership mentoring can help you get there. One of the benefits of working with a leadership mentor is that they can act as an advisor, sounding board, and strategist for your professional development. A leadership mentor will come to understand your strengths and weaknesses and can offer guidance in areas where you are lacking. But, just as significantly, they will help you develop proper strategies for developing those skills.
Startups tend to move quickly and there’s always more work than there are hours in a day. A leadership mentor can teach you how to scale growth, prioritize tasks, set priorities, establish boundaries between work and personal life, manage workloads effectively, etc.
If done right, mentorship can even keep your startup from experiencing burnout by helping leaders learn time management techniques to take ops to the next level. With these benefits, it’s no wonder that so many companies are turning to leadership mentoring programs today.
Leadership mentoring programs help startup leaders spearhead their personal growth and help progress the company along. This is why most management teams—and some companies without formally designated management structures—are involved in mentorship programs. While leadership mentoring is ideal for those in managerial positions and those making hiring decisions, mentors can also be beneficial to contributor-level employees as well.
When deciding whether to seek a leadership mentor, it is helpful to assess your strengths and weaknesses, so you can start to imagine where a mentor can help guide you.
However, if you are unsure where you need the most help, a mentor can help you pinpoint your biggest opportunities. This is why it’s essential to work with a mentor who has been in your shoes and can generally understand all of the demands and challenges you are up against.
Finding a mentor who has robust leadership experience is critical for leadership mentoring. However, depending on their backgrounds, mentors can offer other benefits such as social connections or specific functional or industry expertise as well.
Some people look for mentors with vast industry experience and connections; others value long-term work experiences over speed and networking. Leadership mentorships can cover any or all of these areas. So we encourage potential mentees to vet mentors for everything they can bring to the table.
It’s also important to consider what you want out of your mentorship. Do you want advice on how to develop your leadership skills? Are you looking for feedback on an idea or product? Are you hoping that your leadership mentor will help connect you with other leaders in your field? It’s crucial that mentees be honest about their expectations from a mentorship so they don’t end up disappointed.
In this section, we outline what makes a great mentor.
One of the most critical aspects of leadership mentoring is that they listen to you and actually get to know your unique concerns, challenges, and needs.
A good mentor will help you work through your challenges, listen to your concerns and get to know you as a person. They’ll ensure you’re getting what you need out of your relationship.
Be clear with your mentor about how frequently (and for how long) you’d like to meet and how (phone call, email, etc.). It may be helpful to start with weekly one-hour phone calls and progress from there, depending on how much time it takes for things to sink in.
They Offer Constructive Criticism
Good leadership mentors understand that you’re not going to agree with every word they say. In fact, leaders who are always right have a serious weakness; they don’t like hearing that they’re wrong and it can be incredibly dangerous if these types of leaders have control over others.
A good leadership mentor doesn’t tell you what to do or how to do it, but instead offers constructive criticism to help you make informed decisions. They explain why they feel a certain way and offer ideas on how your situation might change if you act differently.
They Let You Make Your Own Decisions
Mentorship can help you gain a new perspective on difficult decisions. For example, you’ve probably already faced some difficult decisions that seem impossible to make because they involve a lot of unknowns and contingencies. These tough decisions can become easier to tackle with a mentor who has likely navigated them in the past.
A mentor can guide you through these decisions by giving advice, offering their perspective, and helping weigh risks and rewards. Mentors are helpful in decision-making because they’ve been through similar situations themselves. As a result, they can walk you through their thought process and get you to consider all scenarios. Although, a great mentor will not make decisions on your behalf or impose their own opinions on you (unless you ask them to, of course.)
They Ask More Questions Than They Make Statements
In a leadership mentoring relationship, your mentor is ultimately there to help you become more effective as a leader. How can they do that if they are doing all of the talking?
A huge part of effective mentorship is asking the right questions rather than imposing an opinion or suggested solution. For example, rather than telling their mentee that they think their idea is terrible, they may instead ask, “why do you think that’s the right approach?” or “have you thought about xyz?” By asking the questions, they help you reach an informed conclusion.
They will teach you how to think about problems and come up with the right solution, rather than having you rely on them for an answer (that may not be the right one.)
Growth Mentor is a great place to find a leadership mentor. Growth Mentor has mentors for various different functions so there is an option for every unique need. Find a mentor for yourself or employ a mentorship program for your entire team. From former founders, investors, and senior leaders for Fortune 500 companies, you can access some of the greatest mentors for a reasonable monthly price.