Today marks 3 months since I joined Atlantis as the COO of its South East Asia operations. Atlantis is a fintech startup that is building solutions for consumers and businesses in India and SE Asia. As a leader, my primary responsibility is to translate our company’s vision into a series of actionable goals for my team. To this end, I spent my first 90 days thinking about our strategic priorities and crafting out a road map to deliver against these priorities.
I want to share my top three leadership insights from my experience so far in running an early-stage company. I hope that it will be of interest to those of you who are in similar roles at start-ups and those of you who are interested in transitioning into a leadership role.
1) Choose the right people, not the best people, and create a culture of respect
Start-ups are exciting because they offer something that large companies don’t — the thrill of being a creator and a chance to build something from scratch that could shape the future of the world! Yet, being a part of this realm of possibilities means dealing with tons and tons of uncertainty, which is not something that everyone is comfortable with.
While a great resume can indicate a good fit in terms of skills needed to do the job, that alone is not enough. As a leader, you need to make sure that every member of your team has a deeper reason for wanting to be a part of your mission — their personal WHYs. These WHYs will act as their north star, guiding them when the going gets tough, and give them a sense of purpose and direction.
It also opens up your talent pool to a wider range of individuals. People who might not have all the skills needed to do the job today, but are willing to learn, experiment, and grow with your company, because your mission resonates deeply with them on a personal level. Such people tend to be more resilient and can bring forward an enormous reserve of efforts to deliver against goals.
This is where having a clearly defined culture helps with finding the right people for your team. Everyone in the team MUST clearly understand the company’s purpose, the problems it is trying to solve, and their own role in the company’s story. Your culture helps to translate your company’s mission into shared behavioural traits and qualities that your team should embody — leading to better decisions and fewer mistakes.
2) Communication is key
“If everyone is moving forward together, then success takes care of itself.” — Henry Ford
For a startup to be successful, teams need to operate like well-oiled machines. There is no room for misunderstandings or miscommunication. Open communication enables the expression of diverse thoughts and opinions, which is crucial to avoid blind spots and groupthink, a point of particular interest to innovative companies.
As a leader, I have found that investing a lot of time one-on-one with team members is essential to establishing and maintaining clarity of communication. It presents an opportunity to delve into the details and to understand individual communication styles. This helps to ensure that every team member has absolute clarity on expectations, goals, deadlines, and the rationale for why we are doing what we are doing as a company. It also ends up saving a lot of time going back and forth later on, resulting in higher quality output.
It is equally important for each team member to have a clear understanding of what their other teammates are responsible for and working on. This helps provide additional context around their own work, and allows them to reach out to the right people for support as and when they need it.
At Atlantis, we strongly believe in thinking through writing. Each of our colleagues has written a “How to Work with Me” manual, which outlines how each of us operates, what approaches work best, and what are signs of trouble. The objective is to ensure smooth channels of communication across cross-functional teams, especially now during the COVID-19 crisis, when a lot of us are working remotely.
What often seems like a small issue can build up and cause a massive avalanche later on. It is imperative that these issues are brought to light as soon as possible so that the best course of action can be decided. Therefore, it is critical to establish a solid rhythm of meetings early on, where team members can freely share their successes, priorities, flag issues, and request any support needed to achieve their goals. This allows start-ups to fail fast, learn quickly from their mistakes, and chart a corrective course of action.
3) Never stop learning
“Learn continually. There’s always ‘one more thing’ to learn” — Steve Jobs
I am no stranger to learning. I have spent my whole life studying — be it my degree in Economics, studying for the CFA exams or, more recently, completing my MBA at London Business School. Yet, as we move into the new decade of technology, it is clear to me that leaders in technology companies should continue to prioritise learning even after they leave the classroom.
The rate of innovation in the technology sector is exponential. While it is easy to get completely absorbed in the day-to-day activities of one’s job, it is very important to keep up with the developments in the market, the use cases for new technologies, and emerging business models, to ensure the continued success of your business.
In my role as a leader, I strive to provide personal growth opportunities for my team. We encourage each and every single team member, regardless of function, to invest a couple of hours every week to upgrade their knowledge through extensive reading. Establishing a good discipline of reading can turbo charge one’s speed of learning.
Prioritising learning allows leaders to conduct thought experiments around potential business ideas in a risk free manner. This, coupled with thinking through writing helps leaders structure their thoughts to craft clear and impactful strategies for long-term growth.