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The DNA of great start-up leaders

Monday, 19 November 2012 | By Alexandra Cain

feature-leadership-thumbRichard Branson tells a tale in the now-defunct technology magazine Business 2.0 about what it takes to make a great leader.

 

In the story he recounts stealing some coins from his Dad as a boy and hot footing it to the local milk bar to buy some sweets.

 

The shopkeeper called his father, who immediately came down to the shop. But instead of punishing young Branson, despite knowing he was guilty, he gave the shopkeeper a mouthful for having the temerity to accuse his son of stealing.

 

Branson never stole again, but had an opportunity to reflect on this lesson years later when he found out a young executive had been stealing Virgin records and selling them at a local record shop.

 

He took a leaf out of his father’s book and instead of sacking the employee he had a little chat with him.

 

The exec eventually became a head of marketing at one of Virgin’s business.

 

The lesson is: People know when they’ve screwed up and they don’t need it rammed down their throats.

 

Pascale Helyar-Moray, CEO and founder of custom-made jewellery business StyleRocks, identifies persistence, creativity, the ability to learn and iterate quickly and resourcefulness as the key attributes of great leaders.

 

“Learning and iterating are important. Leaders need to be willing to learn from failures and not be fixed on following a specific path,” she says.

 

Helyar-Moray, formerly a high-flyer in the UK corporate world before returning to Australia to start-up, says excellent leaders usually also have a high EQ – emotional intelligence.

 

“This is a trait that may not be as obvious as the other qualities – and it’s also harder to measure. But when you look at successful people they tend to be more intuitive,” she says.

 

The Institute of Executive Coaching and Leadership takes this idea one step further in its paper, Follow the leader: Leadership development for the future.

 

The paper argues for a shift from individualistic approaches to leadership to a focus on a style of leadership it calls ‘connected intelligence.’

 

CQ is about collaboration, relationships, meaningful conversations and the involvement of people across all levels of a business to make it sustainable.

 

Aside from intuition, fast and frequent decision-making is something at which every start-up leader must excel.

 

But it’s also one of the toughest parts of the job. Helyar-Moray’s advice when it comes to decision-making is to focus on the things that bring money into the business.

 

She says: “Whether it’s customer service or finding ways to grow the business, expand operations or raise capital – these are the things that bring money into the business.”

 

“Many everyday things – not to denigrate them – such as stock management don’t bring money into the company. It’s such a simple principle but it really helps you to decide what to focus on.”

 

International entrepreneur Melissa Widner, a partner at venture capital firm SeaPoint Ventures, says it’s essential to have focus as a leader.

 

“Entrepreneurs see opportunities everywhere,” she says.

 

“When you’re starting a company you can go in a number of different directions – I see people trip themselves up all the time because they are chasing too many ideas.”

 

“So focus on one or two paths and have the ability to switch paths quickly if necessary.”

 

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Kath Purkis, founder of fashion start-ups Le Black Book and, more recently, Her Fashion Box, agrees that in the early stages of setting up a company it’s crucial to identify tasks and opportunities that are going to be most beneficial in the long term.

 

“I’m currently working on my second start-up and it's definitely easier the second time around.”

 

“Networking and having business mentors also helps boost confidence in your vision,” says Purkis.

 

“And if you’re moving from being an employee to CEO, it's a simple transition if you are passionate, committed and willing to do anything to reach your business goals,” she adds.

 

As the CEO of a start-up, it’s essential key stakeholders such as customers, staff and competitors believe you have the ability to be a top rate leader.

 

This can be a challenge, given the business and its model is often unproven and sometimes the CEO doesn’t have previous leadership experience.

 

Helyar-Moray says convincing others of your leadership skills becomes easier as the business becomes more successful.

 

“We’re part of the Microsoft High Potential Program and we were a finalist in this year’s Sydney Business Awards, plus we have had a huge amount of press coverage.”

 

“Once you have some runs on the board, suppliers, customers and others will be more convinced of your ability to deliver,” she explains.

 

Purkis adds: “Once you start talking about your start-up and the vision with passion, it's infectious. People, whether they are customers or staff, will get excited about your business once they see things start to happen. People love to hear your story.”

 

As for how to place yourself front and centre in your business, Helyar-Moray’s advice is to outsource as many of the non-core tasks as possible.

 

“There will always be mundane tasks you have to perform. But outsourcing some of this so you can concentrate on your areas of expertise is one of the ways to cement your leadership position.”

 

Says Widner: “Cede control early and find people to work with who know more than you. Then give them the freedom to do an outstanding job.”

 

Top tips for improving your leadership skills:

  • Surround yourself with people who will share their experiences and give you great advice. Set up a formal or informal advisory board.
  • Invest in your leadership skills: talk to as many leaders and attend as many seminars and conferences on leadership as you can.
  • Find a mentor from whom you can learn about leadership.
  • Read leadership blogs and books. You may not be able to meet Richard Branson, but you can read his books to get his take on leadership.
  • One of Widner’s tips is when bringing people into the business, give them an equity stake. “The probability of success increases with lots of owners.”
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