Almost every entrepreneur starts their journey by developing a solution, based on their idea of a new technology or required service. These idea and developer skills are necessary, but not sufficient, to build a business. A real business requires leadership – thought leadership to attract customers and mind share, as well as people leadership around a team, partners, and investors.
One answer is for the developer to find a partner, like Steve Jobs, who is a leader to build and run the business, and two heads in a startup are almost always better than one. But in my experience as a startup mentor, I find that the happiest and most successful entrepreneurs in the long-term are those that continually stretch themselves to get comfortable in the leadership role.
In fact, being a leader is often outside the experience and training domains of both experienced developers and experienced business professionals. As pointed out in a classic book by leadership expert Herminia Ibarra, very few people are born knowing how to “Act Like A Leader, Think Like A Leader.” But we can all learn and step up if we get the right guidance.
I really related to Ibarra’s direction on how to build your leadership skills by learning to complement your insights with outsights, defined as the valuable perspectives you gain from external experiences and experimentation. Every entrepreneur already knows that building a startup is all about experimentation, new experiences, and problem solving.
To get you started, here is my summary of a half dozen of her key tips, re-focused to the leadership success elements for entrepreneurs, even though the same principles apply to business professionals in larger companies, and even non-business domains:
- Don’t be afraid to challenge your own identity. Because doing things that don’t come naturally can make you feel like an imposter, authenticity becomes an excuse for staying in your comfort zone. The trick is to work toward a future version of your authentic self by doing just the opposite, stretching way outside the boundaries of who you are today. Emulate the leadership attributes of entrepreneurs you admire, such as Richard Branson.
- Let go of performance goals that limit new learning. We all like to do what we already do well, so it’s easy to focus on achieving higher performance in that domain. Take the risk of setting goals in the leadership domain that will force non-linear learning. This is called avoiding the competency trap, and lets you bridge to new competencies.
- Manage the stepping up process. Let the gap between where you are and what you want to achieve be the spark that motivates you to action. Stepping up to play a bigger leadership role is not an event; it’s a process that takes time before it pays off. It is a transition built from small changes. Map out the steps, and celebrate each success.
- Practice your new learning in extracurricular activities. Professional roles outside your startup can be invaluable and less risky for learning, practicing new ways of operating, raising your profile, revising your limited view of yourself, and improving your leadership capabilities. It can then be exhilarating to bring these outsights back home.
- Create and use new networks to tap new ideas. When you connect to people in different worlds, you will access different perspectives to broaden your own. Avoid the network trap of sticking to the same old players for insight, motivation, and advice. Leaders need at least three different networks – operational, strategic, and personal.
- Start acting and thinking like a leader now. Stretch yourself to take action now, and recognize that you may not see at first how all the dots connect as you start branching out beyond your comfort work zone, habitual networks, and historical ways of defining yourself. Slowly but surely a more central and enduring leader identity will take root.
Thus if you have mastered the art of developing solutions, but struggle with building a business, it’s time to focus on your critically important leadership skills. Stop hiding in your comfort zone, and branch out for some new outsights. You too can find an entrepreneur identity in yourself that you never thought possible, and business success that you once only dreamed about.