Article (September-2017)


Leadership development in Startups

Ishita Agghi

Designation : -   Research intern

Organization : -  Snapdeal, Gurgaon

Other Writers : -  Abhishek Budhraja - Director, Snapdeal, Gurgaon


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Unfortunately, there is little or no literature which demystifies leadership development in startups. Learning by doing is the "mantra", but the trick to scaling up, lies somewhere in the ability of startups to also identify and nurture the leadership pipeline. For multiple reasons, past experiences with leadership development efforts in startups have resulted in average returns and working in a startup ourselves, we wanted to crack it once and for all. By nature, LD efforts are cost and effort intensive and hence the pressure to succeed is immense. The efforts are directed towards the best and failure of programs could hurt in more ways than one. Most of our discussion and research has been derived from startups or literature about companies which have had "technology" as their core, but can be easily extrapolated to other fields.
Methodology followed 
We started with an internal study, followed by an extensive literature review of available material, capped with an external benchmarking exercise which ensured our recommendations reflected the best resources internally and externally. This also meant critically analysing every single initiative run in the company over the past 3 years from a very different lens, different from the favourite in - process HR measures to the ones which made sense for the business & the individual only.
When are startups ready?
The perennial question plaguing startups is whether one is ready to make significant investment in leadership development early on. Our strong view is that extensive efforts in leadership development should start once there is a certain sense of predictability to the business. Leadership development is less likely to yield returns when it is not capped with succession planning and micro - managing of "action - learning" assignments/projects. If a startup is in the early stages, a more "reactive" approach should be followed, wherein self - directed learning and on the job coaching become the most potent tools for leadership & people development. Self - directed learning, in today's world would (for the large part) mean making the most appropriate topics available to the target population, preferably in the form of byte sized modules and revised via quick, agile training needs analysis. Top it with engagement initiatives centric around leadership exposure and you will be fine. More investment than this, if not backed by conscious leadership intent in succession planning (which is genuinely difficult) may prove to be counterproductive.
Defining the Context & impact on leadership "requirements"
HR programs, if designed, without defining the context fail miserably. "Traditional programs" which we have learnt about from (vintage) companies are likely to fail in setups where Maslow's laws apply very differently. A few things which are fundamentally different are tabulated below and this list isn't exhaustive. The difference in context also implies that expectations from Leadership change a bit too. While the core of what leadership means continues to be how Dave Ulrich & Marshall/Goldsmith define it, there are finer nuances which need to be plugged into the startup leader for sustained success.
Net, Startups are different and leadership too, is unique. Some key competencies which are different vis-à-vis traditional setups are illustrated below -
  • Receptivity to new ideas & knowledge
  • Clear Concise communication
  • High risk appetite
  • Innovation with limited resources
  • High change appetite
  • Decision making with limited information
  • Systems Thinking
  • Design thinking
Program Derailers & possible workarounds
Startups are able to hire the best talent from across industries but somehow miss that every leader, every manager has their own realities. This phenomenon was brilliantly articulated in the Harvard article ( ). Thus, as a first step, people responsible for leadership development have incumbent upon them to reach out to all corners of the organisation and calibrate expectations from any such program, both from the leaders and the participants. One could use top talent attrition & cost of hiring a backfill as simple ways of articulating ROIs and a convincing push should be able to get leadership on your side. Half the battle is won when leaders are the ones championing the cause. When your CTO leads the first group discussion or the CFO takes the first outdoor lesson, the organisation notices. Remember, HR practitioners also have their own pre - set context & sometimes starting afresh is a challenge. Some of the key suggestions we had were as follows:-
a) 100% program alignment with leadership, announcement in town halls/forums.
b) Mandatory leadership presence every time (at least in the first edition).
c) Sufficient incentive (positive & negative) built into the program via rewards, promotion guidelines, recognition. 
d) Constant Internal & External Publicity (starting at least 3 months before launch).
Finally, the program
The outcome of the research gave very interesting insights. Some key characteristics are illustrated below:- 
  • Make 6 month targets - Startups will be startups & hence don't over commit. 
Pre work
  • Start sensitising the ecosystem & the population at least 3 months in advance of your program. Remember the entire leadership team has a point of view & takes time to get them on your side.
  • Short listing via a performance criteria & a psychometric tool. It is best to use a psychometric tool (duration <60 min) to shortlist the program participants.
Pick 3 competencies for development
  • Use the psychometric assessment results in conjunction with other tools being used in the organisation (360 feedback etc.) to come up with the competencies which are absolutely essential.
  • If possible, get a leadership sponsor per competency.
  • For each of the competencies, plan not more than 2 activities.
  • Allocate a cross - functional mentor, train mentors upfront.
  • Track an action learning project which is anyways a part of the individuals' work profile.
Sell the program, make them feel special 
  • While the jury is out on this one, we believe the "list" should be made public.
  • If possible, this is the time to involve family. Strengthen the bond.
Induction, building commitment & selling the content 
  • Use the forum to sell the quality of the content and success stories.
  • Also clearly articulate expectations which participants should have from the program.
The Program
  • For each competency mix the activities. Never repeat the format.
  • Use a mix of adventure/physical activities, instructor led trainings, simulations, e-learning modules & mentoring to sustain interest. Gamified versions work even better.
  • Attempt action learning projects only if the environment allows, avoidable in the first edition.
  • Ensure monthly hits - Via content, feedback, peer group meetings or mentoring.
  • Close the loop with success stories, revisit in 6 months, form a new batch.
Leadership development programs will spread with word of mouth if done well and both in - process & outcome based measures can be used to evaluate effectiveness. We tried to evaluate effectiveness via ROI calculations on action learning projects vs. average performers. In summary, largely two things will decide success. The relevance of content (picking the right competencies) will always be the first pillar. From using adventure trips to a jungle in order to build risk appetite to getting yogis to do lectures around stress management, to taking participants to the Kumbh Mela to see organisation & systems thinking. Boundaries around learning need to be stretched to ensure sustained interest and relevant learning. The second key pillar is the environment - readiness/leadership buy-in and the ability of the organisation to integrate with succession planning/promotions is integral.