I was recently asked what advice I would give to young entrepreneurs looking to make it in the technology industry. I’ve always found this to be an interesting question, as my own journey has been far from traditional. From my first role as a nuclear physicist/engineer in the Navy, to multiple stints in the finance and tech sectors, I’ve had the opportunity to learn from great leaders across a variety of industries. Over time I’ve come to believe that great leaders share a few traits, and that there are multiple strategies aspiring leaders can adopt as they grow their careers.
Choose a “major” and a “minor”
The best leaders are masters at their craft. They hone in on one specific area, working hard to gain the knowledge and experience needed to become the best at that one practice area or function. They also deeply understand how every other part of the business ladders up into the overarching company goals. Think of this as having a “major” and a “minor.” Your “major” is that area of focus where you have a greater depth of knowledge, while your “minor” are those other functions that you have insight into, but less deep expertise.
My major has always been product. I’ve always loved having the opportunity to build something new that resonates with customers and brings the company vision to life. Over the years, my depth of knowledge in product has led to various leadership positions across multiple departments (Marketing, Customer Success, Design, etc.). Today I’m using that expertise to lead Heap, which provides the technology that helps other teams build great products. Having a major in product gave me the credibility that I needed to become a leader in the product space, but my minors built the strengths that ultimately helped me become a CEO.
Master a single growth phase
I tend to see earlier stage businesses as falling into three stages: founding, growth, and scale/maturity. Each stage requires different skills and knowledge. At the founding stage, it’s largely about pattern recognition, creating a blueprint for your business and finding that initial fit between product and market. At the growth stage, it’s about bringing on good talent and scaling go-to-market and expanding the product. Finally, at the scale stage, it’s about improving operational efficiency and sometimes driving renewal, and even reinvention of the business.
Each phase of the business lifecycle is so complex that building expertise in just one, let alone three, can take a lifetime. My advice is to choose one stage and master it. For the entrepreneurial-minded, that probably means mastering that first phase, and then recognizing when to tap into others’ expertise in order to bring the company into the next phase.
Take your time in each stage, too. As one of my professors at business school put it: “Be driven, but not rushed.” Remember, Bill Gates didn’t build Microsoft overnight.
Shape your leadership mindset
Deciding what type of leader you’re going to be is almost as important as deciding what type of business you want to go into. The skills you gain as you develop your major, minors, and lifecycle focus will end up shaping your unique leadership style.
Because I worked hard to make product my major, I spent a lot of time learning the framework for how to make great products, which comes down to hypothesizing, testing, and iterating based on feedback. And I’ve adopted this approach for my leadership style, too. I try to approach every business decision — whether about our product, our go-to-market strategy, or our culture — as an opportunity to test, gain valuable feedback, and improve our offering or strategy based on that feedback.
Regardless of your focus and expertise, there are a few factors that I have admired amongst certain great leaders:
- Balance empathy with accountability. Great leaders hold people accountable for their actions, but they also support their teammates with empathy and understanding. By providing that support, leaders “earn the right” to hold their teammates accountable. Great leadership is both tough and human.
- Combine product depth with customer intimacy. You can’t build a great business without knowing how your offering aligns with customer needs. “Taste the soup” and consume the voice of the customer, their pain and their goals. Similarly, take the team to understand your product intimately and the future potential of that product so that you can drive improved product-market and GTM fit over time.
- Communicate your product and customer knowledge effectively. Whether that’s as a CEO writing to team members, or as a founder-designer building a customer interface that’s easy to use, you need to be able to speak the language that resonates with your audience.
Tech companies, like all companies, are looking for people with the ability to lead. There isn’t one type of “good” when it comes to leadership. Differences might arise depending on the industry you’re aiming to disrupt, the current market conditions you’re working within, the type of customer you’re trying to reach or our personal strengths, weaknesses, and style. But from a high-level, there are a few commonalities underlying those leaders who have found success in their roles. Be willing to test new approaches, incorporate feedback, and refine your approach. Through focus, empathy, and determination, you might just build the next great business.