Startup leaders are primarily in the business of cheerleading: energizing people inside and outside the organization. In order to be an effective cheerleader, a start-up leader needs to exude positive energy, be in great spirits and above all, be in great physical shape to sustain the energy. This year, I decided to hit the gym with the help of a trainer to become a better “cheer leader”. I signed up for a 1-year membership, promptly evoking a stifled laugh from my friends and colleagues, hinting that I am being overly optimistic. I told myself that I would be just fine since I have the propensity of putting myself in challenging situations and enduring pain (why else would I become an entrepreneur?).
As I started my gym sessions early this year, I realized that a gym is a perfect training ground to learn great startup leadership lessons and very soon, my trainer became my management guru, unbeknownst to him. The following are some key lessons from the gym that a startup leader can use while managing the team.
Lesson 1: Know your purpose
The very first question that my trainer asked me was ‘What do you want to achieve by joining the gym?’. Your motivation to join the gym drives your exercise routine and helps the trainer help you reach your goals. In the startup context, it is important for the leader to ask the all-important question to a prospective team mate, ‘What do you want to achieve by joining us?’. Similarly, it is important for the leader to talk about the raison-d’etre of the startup so that the employee is clear on what the company wants to achieve.
Lesson 2: Start from the heart
The first thing my trainer focused on was my cardio vascular health. He put me through a battery of cardio exercises that tested and pushed the envelope on the efficiency of my heart. He explained to me that only when the heart performs efficiently, blood flows through all the veins of the body and consequently, the body and the mind get warmed up for the uphill journey. In a startup as well, it is important for the leader to start from the hearts of the team mates, appeal to their passion, get them to see the big picture and prepare them for the uphill journey. A teammate with his heart in the business tends to be relentless and strives for excellence even during hard times (which tend to crop up much too often in a startup)
Lesson 3: The importance of discipline
Very early on, the trainer instilled in me the importance of being disciplined about managing time and maintaining a routine that works. He also emphasized the value of meticulously following the agreed plan. Needless to say, in a startup as well, where timelines are extremely short and the team members don multiple hats, it is imperative that the startup leader reinforces the importance of time management and sticking to the plan. Without financial and operational discipline, the startup can very quickly burn its resources and find itself in a tight spot.
Lesson 4: Set Stretch Goals
On my first day when I was huffing and puffing on the treadmill, my trainer calmly walked up to the machine and bumped up the speed, much to my chagrin. He constantly pushed the limits and tested my mettle. By setting stretch goals, he made me go out of my comfort zone and stretch my capabilities. As Mark Cuban would put it, employees in a startup have to learn to punch above their weight class. This is possible only when the leaders set stretch goals for the team and constantly challenge and motivate the team.
Lesson 5: Know your limits, Stick to the threadWhen the trainer saw me getting carried away with early successes in my routine and trying much harder exercises that were not part of the plan, he was quick to advise caution. This situation is akin to startup leaders getting carried away with initial successes and squandering away precious resources in activities that make them lose focus. I am reminded of an advice that Sanjay Anandram of JumpStart had given me –“For startups, focus is spelled as ‘NO’”.
Lesson 6: Persist by Dealing with Negativity
One fine morning, the trainer walked up to me and said, “Today you will do 600 calories”. The maximum I had done in my life before this was 250 calories. The first thought that came to my mind was, “This is impossible”, and when the trainer bumped up the intensity when I was struggling, I thought “Boy, can this person be any more cruel?”. As I toiled hard, I started experiencing an intense tussle between the mind and the matter. The mind comes up with amazing reasons for quitting the drill. What worked for me eventually is the age old saying, “What doesn’t kill you only makes you stronger”. I told myself, what could possibly happen if I actually pushed myself all the way? The thought was truly liberating. I am sure a lot of startup leaders have dealt with this emotion at some point in the life of their startups. Startups operate in highly uncertain and often daunting situations but what carries a team forward is the ability to reframe the situation, look at things in a positive light and keep pushing ahead.
There are plenty of real life situations that offer valuable startup leadership lessons. What are your sources of startup leadership lessons from real life?
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