Startup Leadership: Conflict, Culture, and Empowerment
While culture is frequently a hot topic in startup circles and beyond, it's rare to hear founders discuss conflict. In a perfect business world, an idea is born, a company formed, great leaders selected, and loyal employees hired to fuel the dream. Customers flock to the product, buy effusively, tell all their friends, and the startup IPOs. This is what every entrepreneur hopes will happen when he or she is daydreaming about the next big thing. However, we all know it’s a little more complicated than that.
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A founder’s life is rife with disruption. Business model challenges, production errors, technological glitches, recruiting difficulties, funding needs, and more. It is in these moments of disruption that powerful changes can occur. And these disturbances have the power to alter the course of a business’s destiny. Why? Conflict.
Conflict is a necessary catalyst for the exchange of new and different ideas imperative to agile thinking. These seemingly inconvenient differences of opinion are actually catalysts that trigger an organization to identify strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats. More importantly, conflict allows a company to fortify its foundational immune system. It is here, in the trenches, where the critical element of culture is defined and tested.
Contrary to popular belief, culture isn’t just an espresso machine, free lunches or a ping-pong table. A strong culture is a company’s central nervous system. It is the road map that sends signals to all extremities of the body or in this case, the organization, on how to process information and respond to it. Culture is a critical indicator of the overall health of a company, and the mechanism that allows unity and autonomy to coexist. How?
Conflict provides an opportunity to empower team members on all levels, from the trenches to the C-suite, to discover the most optimal solutions together. Strong leaders serve by example and model how to identify, discuss and resolve challenges. They invest in the health of their product or service by demonstrating humility, transparency and willingness to their people. Wise founders recognize conflict as the stimulus that engages three of the key elements any business needs to succeed: solid structure, sound processes and quality people.
There is a fine line between delegation and empowerment. Delegation, by definition, is the assignment of tasks. Empowerment, however, is to give power or authority. What makes you feel more valued? Being given a task, or being recognized and rewarded for your skills and achievements? Without the opportunity for alignment that conflict provides, there is only the vacuum of delegation. Imperative conversations and timely adjustments don't happen. Team members feel undervalued or invisible, and a systematic shutdown occurs. Sometimes quickly, sometimes slowly. But, regardless, it eventually destroys all three critical aspects of the business. People leave, processes fail and structure collapses.
Startup Leadership Lynchpins
As leaders, it is our responsibility to embrace conflict as a tool to empower our business to succeed. Recognizing and rewarding the unique gifts of our valued teams by allowing them the opportunity to share vital feedback, thoughts and ideas not only strengthens relationships within an organization but the organization as a whole. Through these meaningful communications, we reinforce the commitment we made when selecting our staff, give respect even when in disagreement, and maintain the humility that allows us to remain teachable. As leadership lynchpins in foundling organizations, empowerment is the evolutionary trait that ensures our survival.
Saylor is an agile marketer, startup evangelist, mentorship advocate, tech aficionado and world traveler based in Denver, Colorado. She is most likely to a) stop and pet that puppy and b) sweet talk you into giving her an upgrade.