In the next of our Tips from the Top series, we speak to Ed Lowther who leads The Soke’s Founders Development Programme, a first-of-its-kind course designed to provide vital knowledge, understanding and skills to founders at the helms of fast growth businesses.
When Harvard Business School spoke to its 141 HBS alumni who led start-ups, they asked: “What does someone who aspires to your role need to know?” The research revealed that of all the possible areas to focus on, there are two essential areas that over 80% of the group unanimously agreed on.
At the outset, a founder needs to assemble a founding team – a series of vital decisions around choosing co-founders, appointing key talent, splitting equity, recruiting advisors, and managing a board. These are all vital, but highly demanding tasks that a founder must achieve alongside building their new business that if not done correctly can lead to early failure, no matter how brilliant the idea. Founders reach these decisions through a combination of instinct, experience and the use of trusted advisors or mentors, in combination with key skill development.
Secondly, for those looking for investment, or looking to invest, a founder needs to foster a critical set of leadership skills needed early on, that in turn helps to attract further investment and support the business on its path to success. What’s clear is that early development of specific leadership skills in communication and conflict management is where a founder can really differentiate themselves.
Whilst many founders may believe that they naturally possess the skills to successfully build their business to success, the reality is that few come to the fundraising table with the array of skills needed to successfully lead an organisation from an idea through the teething stages to growth and finally exit. This is particularly the case when founders are required to run a company not purely to satisfy their own ambition (management, creative, financial, or otherwise), but to meet the expectations of investors and other stakeholders, including staff.
So what steps can founders can take to improve their skills in communication and manage conflict with their co-founders or staff?
- Your business is founded on a great idea – it does not mean all your ideas are great.
In business journals, strategy reports and insight magazines, much is made of creativity being at the heart of business success and growth. Tesla CEO Elon Musk is vocal in encouraging his employees to think creatively, eager for them to predict future trends and allowing them to share their ideas freely, to improve the prospects of the company. The stratospheric growth of Tesla suggests that his approach is bearing fruit.
For those at the beginning of this journey, the thought of fostering creativity can feel like a luxury, alongside all the other business demands. Innovation is however proven to create growth. Businesses at all stages need to remain nimble as their customers’ needs and demands change. How successfully a founder facilitates the communication of ideas around their business and across functions is a marker for future innovation and adaptability for the business idea to survive in the market.
Create dedicated time for creativity and innovation as part of routine business operations, giving space for open communication between the founder and team members of all functional areas. Foster an environment for the team to be creative and openly communicative, without it all being founder-led, so that ideas are assessed on their own merit, whatever the role of the team member in the company.
- Learn to share through building communicative resilience
Once a founder has the fundamentals of their new business in place, the idea is taking hold in the market and revenue is growing, it’s an exhilarating time. Few businesses can grow rapidly through organic growth alone and therefore a founder must also accept the challenge of securing capital through external sources. It can be an exciting but risky time, with a number of factors that can damage a business just as it begins to succeed. Much of the damage comes from the amount of time that is needed, coupled with the energy required to be successful, which takes away a founder’s dedication to their clients. Customers can sense neglect, just at the moment a business wants to secure their lifelong loyalty.
At this moment, a founder will be at their communication limits, often exhausted by the sound of their own voice, as they describe the brilliance of their business, the financial plan and the superb team assembled to make it succeed, to yet another room of potential investors. The key skill to develop here is ‘communicative resilience’, a combination of sustaining a consistent and engaging narrative of the idea, clear understanding of the business strengths and challenges, and a willingness to answer penetrative questions designed to interrogate a founder’s financial shortcomings. This combination tells investors that you can share this with them and make it successful at the same time.
Be mindful that you communicate the strengths of the business in a way that puts the business idea at its heart and that through additional financial support, this idea will flourish. The moment that investors sense that a founder does not want to share and is more interested in their own success irrespective of the idea, the fight for their funding is lost.
- Conflict is inevitable – fail to prepare for it, prepare to fail.
It’s likely that as a founder builds their team, they have been successful in recruiting a diverse team, all with unique skills and often varied or differing opinions. In fact, this diversity is often a key ingredient for driving a business forward as these individuals bring perspectives to the founder that they would not otherwise have seen, helping them grow the business successfully.
The differences in this team that exist through individual variances of cultural background, learning styles, personality and many more factors besides, overlaid with managerial expectations, accountability issues and communication styles, will inevitably lead to conflict. And at this point, the founder needs to establish a pathway that is neither a hierarchy of opinions, where ‘I win because I’m more senior,’ or that a conflict is simply ignored. Without establishing this early on, conflicts cannot be resolved satisfactorily and can lead to increased stress and decreased performance in the team, which will impact business growth.
Plan to navigate conflict by setting out a framework for all employees to identify and resolve issues between each other, building a culture that celebrates diverse perspectives with a way to manage the conflict that this diversity can bring. It will help shape the best outcomes for the business and build genuine trust and respect between team members, managers, and the founder.