The hard truth about soft skills
TL:DR — there’s nothing soft about great leadership
I’m curious by nature — I guess it goes with the territory, being a coach. I especially love the opportunity to ask questions of startup investors and board members to understand their experiences working with founders of their portfolio companies. One of the most common reflections I hear goes something like…
“the founder of company A is technically brilliant, but s/he just doesn’t seem to get that soft skills, the people stuff, is critical for the next stage of their growth”
It’s not surprising really when you think about it. In the earliest stages of a company’s journey, there aren’t always people to think about. Focus is on building something that works, that is understood and appreciated by the market (product-market fit) and doing it in a way that allows you to stay alive for as long as possible.
Inevitably though, as success comes, it is likely that your team needs to grow — and it often needs to grow quickly. The leadership skills required to build and evolve great teams are not developed overnight. They are not always intuitive. They take time to learn and refine. And the inevitable mistakes that are made in the learning are costly in terms of time, money and momentum.
These ‘soft skills’ are often lumped into one amorphous category- which contributes to the challenge of developing them. So, rather than thinking about them as a broad grouping, let’s break them down and look at some of the questions that you might want to be asking as you build the skills.
Based on my experience coaching and mentoring fast-growth companies, I suggest there are 5 critical categories of leadership skills for founders — purpose, people, performance, process and potential.
The 5 Ps of Fast-Growth Leadership
- Why should people join your team?
- What would make them want to be part of what you’re building?
- What are the underlying values that drive the way you want to build the company?
Prospective team members want (and deserve) to know the answers to these questions if they’re going to commit fully to jumping on board with you. The upside here is that there is a good chance you’ve already thought through many of these questions in great detail to be able to answer them for customers and investors.
- What are the skills and capabilities you’re missing in the team right now? What are you likely to need in 6–12 months time?
- How will you turn these lists of skills and capabilities into well-defined roles that can be easily understood by potential and existing team members?
- What determines whether a candidate is ‘the right fit’ for the role and for your company? How will you find and recruit ‘the right’ people? How will you integrate new people into your team and ensure they can contribute their best as quickly as possible?
- How will you protect the safety and wellbeing of your team under the inevitable pressure of fast-growth?
Mapping your people needs requires a careful balance — between short-term and medium/long-term thinking, between conceptual design and detailed task planning and between individual roles and integrated workflows.
Describing what you need might be relatively easy when it comes to skill sets — but what about values, personality types and communication and work styles? Constructing your team means being able to describe what you need and being able to assess the prospects you meet.
Safeguarding the mental health of your team has become a high priority for leaders in all types of organisations. This need is exacerbated in our new(-ish)world of remote working and particularly for purpose-driven companies with highly motivated teams.
- How would you describe the culture of performance and pace you’re trying to create? How well have you communicated that to your team?
- How consistently are you setting goals and expectations for all team members?
- What are you doing to unlock discretionary effort within your team?
- What approach are you taking to giving and receiving feedback?
- How do you hold people accountable? What do you do if someone in the team is not performing?
- How are recognising and rewarding performance?
Elite sport provides a helpful analogy when considering the development of performance culture. In that case, the goal is crystal clear — winning a gold medal or a championship. Expectations are set through training schedules, diet and nutrition requirements, recommendations for intensity patterns and rest. Underperformance and/or less than full commitment may result in exclusion from the competition. I’m not suggesting that your performance culture should mirror those in elite sport, rather, that the clarity and structure evident in the sporting analogy can be used as a barometer for the decisions you make about your company’s performance culture.
- How are you creating opportunities to listen to your team? What are you listening for? What do you hope to hear? What do you fear hearing?
- How will decisions be made within the team as you grow? What decisions should you be delegating to others?
- How well are you creating scalable collaboration within the company and with your external partners?
- How are you encouraging and managing productive conflict within the team? Can you tell the difference between productive and disruptive conflict? To what extent is an absence of conflict impacting your progress?
While first thoughts of process typically go to physical operations, the focus in this instance is on how people work together. There is a tendency for the evolution of decision making, delegation and autonomy and collaboration to lag behind the growth of the company which, at best causes inefficiency and at worst significant friction amongst team members. Ensuring that people processes move in step with team growth can present a significant personal challenge for founders — but ‘letting go’ and trusting the team is fundamental to the scalability and sustainability of the company.
- How will you actively create opportunities to develop and grow the talent within your team?
- How are you supporting your team members’ learning and development goals?
- How will you ensure that you continue to innovate as you grow?
The intensity of today’s priorities could distract you from thinking about the growth trajectory for individual members of your team. While that is unlikely to cause a problem in the very short term, as an individual’s proficiency and capability increase so does the likelihood that they will begin looking for new challenges. Wouldn’t you rather those challenges came from within your company? After all, you have invested in getting them this far…
I realise that for many of you, this article has raised more questions than answers. Fear not. This is the first in a series I will be writing over the coming weeks where I will dig further into each of the 5 Ps of Fast-Growth Leadership. You can follow me here to make sure you stay up to date with the latest articles. I’ll share tips, lessons learned and pitfalls to avoid. I’m also happy to answer any questions you might have so please send them to at email@example.com.
Till next time, thanks for reading.