A Great Startup Leader is the Janitor: 6 Ways to Improve Your Innovation Leadership

“If you want to build a ship, don’t drum up people to collect wood and don’t assign them tasks and work, but rather teach them to long for the vast and endless sea.” – Antoine de Saint-Exupéry

By Brinkley Warren

My friend Willy Woo, CEO of the successful social entrepreneurship venture, , exited his first company towards the end of the 90s Internet boom — it was mobile software for Palm pilots, and he’s been living as a humble millionaire in New Zealand ever since.

Critical in this story is that Will never stopped working, but instead he has used the resources to better align his life purpose more fully with his own daily practice, and I have no doubt he has a couple of more ventures still waiting to be launched. Will always says that the CEO of a startup is the janitor, and I agree. As a multi-time CEO myself, it’s startup truth. As CEO you clean up after others, you are the standard of service, your work goes unnoticed, you often sleep where you work, you are the janitor.

Instead of having a huge team to delegate tasks too, everything is your responsibility. Filing paperwork with the secretary of state’s office, dealing with payroll, marketing, sales, and not to mention product development and delivery and customer service. All of this requires capabilities that a liberal arts education doesn’t really prepare you for. Great startup leaders must develop a very wide and broad set of capabilities that allow them to grasp and steer the big picture, the mission of the organization and fully own the product and strategic direction; and they often have visionary notions about how to capitalize on opportunities to create value.

Even if you have never started a company, I know as a fact that these types of entrepreneurial capabilities can be learned so that you can behave and innovate more like a startup leader does. It’s easy, you just have to leave your ego at the door and start putting yourself into service for an idea larger than yourself. You might study Servant Leadership principles and Human Centered Design principles.

At Lean Monitor we help organizations create a culture of continuous and sustainable disruptive innovation by combining Intelligent software design with professional services and training.

A startup leader is like a farmer of innovation, but anyone can learn techniques that will help them grow better yields.

Here are 6 Things You can Do to Improve Your Startup 
1.  Have Vision in the Face of Uncertainty. Even if you are creating a clone of someone else's existing innovative business or product, it is your vision to create the clone and even then you must have taste. Be aligned with purpose. Have a mission.
2.  Absorb uncertainty and make bold, brave leap of faith assumptions. You must take responsibility for every decision the organization takes.
3.  You must be fully accountable for the venture's outcome. As a startup leader, even if operating from inside of a large corporation, you must have accountability of the entire scope of the venture -- from creative innovation all the way to global scale. You must take complete ownership of the project and guide it through the process and try to bring it to life. You must love the idea you're working on.
4.  Build your own team. Strive for transformational leadership culture where everyone could serve as CEO if needed. Compliment your weaknesses with other people's strengths. Get the right people on the bus (i.e. -- Good to Great).
5.  Take pride in all team members taking calculated risks. Be passionate about learning from failure and use failure as teaching lessons so that the organizational culture is entrepreneurial, innovative, transparent, and accountable.
6. Develop your startup leadership capabilities. You should be the expert in any methodology you hope to teach others. You are the product owner.

As a startup leader, you are the janitor. You’re there early and late. The work you do goes largely unnoticed but it keeps the whole thing working. You must balance the visionary leader in you with the executive manager in you. Startup leaders don’t get the luxury of being one or the other — you must become both. You must be a great executive manger, but an even better leader and more importantly, you must know when to switch back and forth between those modes.

This switching between the manager and leader aspects of your role can be harnessed through ZENFUL Innovation methods that you can learn about by signing up for free Zenful Innovation updates using the form on the top-right of this page.

What are some other ways a startup leader is like a janitor? Leave a comment…



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