Home Thinking Aloud What Is Leadership?

What Is Leadership?


by John Vrionis, partner at Lightspeed Venture Partners

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As part of the Lightspeed Venture Partner Summer Fellowship program, I ask guest speakers to come in each week and talk to the Fellows about key topics related to building a successful startup.

This past year I asked Don Faul to come and speak about Leadership and what he has learned in his career as a Special Forces marine, and senior executive at Google, Facebook, Pinterest and Athos. Don is one of the most highly respected business executives in Silicon Valley and deservedly so. He has demonstrated repeatedly an ability to inspire, motivate and lead others in high stress, time sensitive situations. He is also one of the most humble and trustworthy people I have ever met. I would follow him in a heartbeat.

The following seeks to capture the essence of his conversation with this year’s Fellows:

What is Leadership?

Leadership is about how to lead and inspire people, how to bring together a group of incredibly talented individuals to achieve great things. Faul pointed to John Wooden, former head coach for the UCLA basketball team, as an example of a highly successful leader. “He was able to bring together a group of people, understand their unique talents, and build a team that capitalized on those talents for collective success.”

The type of leadership technology companies need changes as they grow. The first phase, before they get to product market fit, is all about technology leadership; startups focus on their technical vision, building their products or services, getting customer feedback. But as a company starts to see growth and needs to hire sales, marketing, support and other functions, scaling to hundreds or thousands of people, technology vision needs to be augmented with leaders who can build high-functioning teams. These leaders keep everyone on the same page, keep them motivated, let them know what success means, and make sure the entire company has a clear vision of success.

Leadership is about building a world class team, bringing out the individual and collective capabilities of each team member, articulating a common vision and common objectives, and inspiring people to do their best possible work.

Becoming a Great Leader.

Faul talked about the power of servant leadership. Servant leaders recognize that leadership is not about other people working to make the leader successful…it’s about understanding what their team needs to be successful and putting the needs of their team members first. Often it means leaders need to roll up their sleeves and tackle work that their teams do every single day. Recognizing that their role often lies in removing obstacles that their team members first, servant leaders must invest the time with their people to get to know them, understand what motivates them and what challenges they face. These may seem like little things, but they can engender great trust and respect.

Strong leaders try to achieve something great and incredibly challenging, and they inspire others. “As a leader, you’re a storyteller,” Faul said. “Leaders paint a picture of the future that taps into employees’ intrinsic motivation and helps them understand how their work ties back to the company’s vision. You want to make a lasting impact, and you should hire people who aspire to that.”

Humility is also important to leadership as it builds trust and helps create an environment where each member of the team feels empowered to challenge ideas in open and honest debate. Managers must hire people to get the startup where it wants to go, and they need to create an environment that allows employees to challenge them with different perspectives and opinions and to get all the best ideas, the best data, and the best information on the table. Leaders must work hard to create this dialog, to create an environment where each member of their team feels comfortable challenging their ideas when they think they’re wrong.

Being humble may be difficult, but Faul noted, “You can actually build trust and credibility by being open and transparent about your mistakes, because guess what, your people know when you’ve screwed up.” And as Colin Powell said, “If people are no longer coming to you telling you about problems in your organization, you have failed as a leader.”

Growing the Organization.

One of the hardest things a CEO must do is scale his or her organization while preserving its culture and making sure it remains a place where people love to come to work every day. To maintain a sense of trust and loyalty as a company grows, leaders need to focus on finding, training, and developing other great leaders who embrace the organization’s principles and values. “Early on, you make almost every decision,” said Faul. “At the end of the day, as your company scales, you’ll make very few, which means that the people you hire, specifically the leaders, are absolutely mission critical. Hire people who share the same principles and values, and make sure they have the support they need to be successful.”

As companies scale, they can use employee engagement tools to track how people feel about their work environment and their leaders. A five-minute monthly survey, for example, might uncover that a team in Dublin feels disconnected, or that employees do not feel empowered to make decisions. Managers can set aside time to communicate with their teams, in person or via videoconference, not only to remediate such issues but also to keep them up to date and give them a sense of what is going on.

People who know what is happening in the organization, and have the courage to tell their managers when things are going wrong, are an invaluable asset. Managers must use this information to understand how they can more effectively lead their organization, where changes can help their teams execute more effectively. Listening and responding to feedback will have a huge impact in building trust; it reinforces to your people that you listen, care about their concerns, and are willing to change.

Inevitably, founders must someday hire senior leaders who have years more experience than they do. Getting the right fit can be difficult; it is important to figure out what you really want and be transparent about it, because you are partnering with them in a sense. Most important are alignment in your vision, your principles and the type of company you want to build. You can’t spend too much time with these potential hires. Get to know how they think, what they care about and who they are as people. This time spent ahead of time, ensuring the fit is right, is essential.

Dealing with Uncertainty.

Startups are rife with uncertainty. Managers need to be honest about that with their teams while leading them through it; employees find it disconcerting when managers do not acknowledge real challenges. Managers also need to create structure; here is our vision, here is our strategy for getting there, here is what we are working for as a team, and we will report back on what we have learned and accomplished as we work towards our goal. Essentially, managers need to create structure around uncertainty and create a culture of problem solving. “Probably the single most important thing you need to establish within your organization is ‘how can we learn as fast as we can?'” said Faul.

Communicating Transparently.

Faul also stressed the importance of explicitly setting expectations of direct, honest, constructive and respectful communications. “Few things are as poisonous to an organization as when people feel they can talk behind each other’s backs,” he said. “We are in this journey together, and we owe it to each other to be direct.”

Transparent communication creates a powerful bond between managers and employees; without transparency, corrosive doubts that affect morale can begin to creep in.

Creating a Great Team.

As startups grow, they need to scale recruiting. It is easy to use a cookie-cutter job description; we need software engineers, here’s what a great software engineer looks like. This approach helps startups scale with consistency; the downside is that teams may become too consistent.

A great team is a reflection of different perspectives and backgrounds, and the perfect hire for a team depends upon the team’s existing nature. Before managers start hiring, they should think about what they really need. What does the existing team look like? What technical skills are needed? What kind of experience are we looking for? What are the cultural things we need? A team that is non-confrontational or passive-aggressive may benefit from having people who tell it like it is. Another team may benefit by hiring someone who brings a fresh perspective to the task.

“Managing and leading teams is a huge challenge and a huge learning experience,” said Faul. But creating a great leadership team is crucial to a startup’s success.


John Vrionis

John Vrionis (@jvrionis) is a partner at Lightspeed Venture Partners who focuses primarily on early stage enterprise and consumer technology investments. In addition, John is the founder of Lightspeed’s Summer Fellowship Program. John holds an MBA from Stanford University Graduate School of Business, an MS in Computer Science from the University of Chicago and a BA from Harvard University.


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