Experienced leader and startup. Is this a good idea ?

Adventure Startup for experienced leaders.

Does an experienced leader and a startup organisation go hand-in-hand? Or is there a nominated winner? I am in leadership roles since 2010 – quite some time. Early 2020 I had to decide if I wanted to join a startup – well, a young organisation. 10 years leadership experience and bigger teams vs. a young, well-funded, organisation with a great vision and roughly 15 people overall.

Just recently, end 2022, I reflected on the decision from almost 3 years ago. Was it a good decision to join a startup as experienced leader? Would I do the same again – enter a young organisation? Before I share my summary I’d like to share some of my impressions.

VUCA? I experienced it live and in color.

VUCA is an abbreviation and stands for volatile, uncertain, complex, ambitious. It is typically used as a description for the economic situation currently perceived in comparison to “the good old times”. Typically, VUCA comes as a very abstract und intangible description. I at least haven’t had the experience of a real VUCA environment – so far.

The young organisation changed this – a lot. The key paradigm of the overall organisation was and still is to get as much value for the company as possible in the finite amount of time left. This resulted in a series of constant changes in strategy and direction for the employees and the leaders (volatile ✅ uncertain ✅). As a lead person – in whatever department – it was always a tough decision between do it just “good-enough” or now is the “right” time to do it right (complex – ✅). Now, mix a bit of COVID with some financial crisis and the need to kick-off the next financing round. The end result are external signals that need constant interpretation and allow at best a “steer at sight” approach (ambitious ✅).

It takes a lot of patience, a “keep-calm”-mindset from an experienced leader in the startup to get the organisation ahead – in the right direction.

Time warp – 1 for 7

After some time in such a dynamic environment you start to realise that 1 month in the organisation feels like 7 months in real life. Decisions are taken so fast, projects need to be prioritised, organisational changes fly by, important meetings with investors and clients are lined up, technical escalation meetings and management meetings give each other a hand. It happens a lot in a minimum amount of time. So, better be prepared on how you organise yourself and the functions you’re responsible for. It’s definitely a different pace than what you’ve experienced so far.

Surprise? Surprise!

“Planning replaces coincidence by error.” by Albert Einstein. So true! Most of the other planning activities you do for roadmaps, budgets, mission, project planning, quarterly plans are typically altered after months, weeks or even days. After a while in this hamster wheel you realise that you can only prepare yourself for “not being surprised by any surprise” (borrowed with pride from D. Siegel and his great book “Decide & Conquer”). So, prepare yourself for the unthinkable – it’s likely to happen.

And out of the chaos a voice spoke to me: “Smile and be happy, it could be worse!”, and I smiled and was happy, and it came worse…!

unknown (most likely the “Chaos”)

There will be nobody to delegate to … get your hands dirty!

A lot of experienced leaders are used to have some people around them – subject matter experts eager to shine on topics. This is different in a small organisation. It’s you to shine – be prepared to get your hands dirty. I ended up – initially – installing notebooks, creating user accounts in Office 365, setting up the tech environment for performance ads, drafting a great recruiter strategy, put rough processes in place – which are better than nothing, but far away from good. No time to lean back. It hits you like a train.

Fun & lots of talented people around you

Typically, the people around you purposefully selected a young organisation. They are hungry for the pace, the responsibility, the growth and the purpose. The energy and willingness of these people is stunning. Clever, talented people around you – ready to grow. And they are typically looking for a certain level of experience to guide them, to indicate the “right” direction. That’s a part of the experienced leader – they’ll need your advice.

Experience matters, a lot.

You and your experience – you are the lighthouse in heavy water, you’re the rock in the surf. You have seen a lot in your career – so your prime action instruction when the organisation faces one of the aforementioned surprises: stay calm. Most likely you’ve been in comparable situations – others have not. Where your heartbeat parallels others in the organisation are close to panic’ing. In these situations all eyes are on you and typically it’s by applying simple management techniques and you get the situation cleared. The calmness is, however, important for the organisation. Your spot in the organisation is to support with your experience and bring it forward, fast.

Would I do this again?

Even the above mentioned points are surprises in its own and one might ask “Why would you even consider repeating such a journey?”. Well, “with great power comes great responsibility”. In no other environment you can move things as fast as in a young organisation. Impact, everywhere. Clever and eager people, everywhere. Surprises, well also everywhere. Fun, definitely. So, count me in for the next round!

Personal core values. What’s important to you, leader?

My Personal Core Values - People, Simplicity, Transparency, Performance

Personal core values

Companies have core values, leaders should too – Personal core values. Many organisations spend a lot of time trying to figure out from their teams what is important to the organisation. What are the principles and norms that the team can relate to? These core values should give employees of the organisation guidance, stability.

Have you ever thought of doing such an exercise on your personal profile? Wait a minute, why would you do that? For me, it was quite simple. I needed to understand what is really important for me. What do I focus on in my daily leadership work? What values can people stand on? How can I become clearer as a person, as a leader?

I decided to share my personal core values so people can look them up and take me at my words. Like a user manual for me.

What’s important to me, Michael Maretzke?

The reflection and thinking phase – which took me some hours spent across a minimum of 3 months resulted in my core values.

For me, the personal core values are real values, no phrases.

These are People, Transparency, Simplicity and Performance – short: PSTP.

Personal Core Value #1 – People: What do they mean to me, Michael Maretzke?

People do their best. they grow. shine. make mistakes and learn. We are these people – we all have strengths and weaknesses. People – our employees – are the organisation. Every single person has individual characteristics, views, needs, fears, desires, motivations.

Most people are reflective enough to see a higher value for themselves and behind their work – the purpose. Some maximise wealth, others sell insurance, others optimise business processes. Everyone operates according to their own value system. Important for everybody is the “Why?” Why do I get up every day and go to work? People need purpose to deliver highest performance.

In addition to a sense of purpose, these people are driven by the opportunity to address problems and solve them alone or as part of a team. These head people feel comfortable when they can work in a self-determined manner – autonomy. Unlike on the assembly line, it’s not about optimising repetitive processes, but creativity and cleverness are required.

When these people pursue their work, they want to get better at the specialty they are pursuing. They want to master their field – mastery.

People and their leaders

The role of the leadership team is to enable a creative, creating organisation to do this. To this end, the leadership team ensures that everyone in the organisation understands what the organisation is striving for. Why are we doing all this? Once the direction is clearly understood, it is consistently corrected and communicated accordingly. OKR’s are a participatory model exactly for this purpose. Employees contribute their individual knowledge to the collective of the organisation. Through intelligent corporate goals, the leadership team ensures that the framework is set wide or narrow enough for the organisation to move in the desired direction.

Once the direction is clear, the leadership team ensures that staff have enough space to contribute. Mistakes are allowed and encouraged – only from mistakes will individuals and the organisation learn. Successes are confirmation, mistakes are learning opportunities. Through this freedom, staff take responsibility and relieve the leadership team. The leadership team can devote itself to other, more important topics. The experts work on the implementation and solution of the assigned tasks.

Person-centred and participative leadership models turn away from the Taylorist “command & control” model of leadership and focus on developing the employee – coaching. One – if not the – central task of the leader is to help the employee grow. Provide guidance at the right time, don’t intervene too early, avoid catastrophic consequences, but always stay on the edge of the comfort zone. Coaching enables optimal, individual development of the employee – towards readiness to take on bigger and more valuable tasks.

People who work in creative, formative organisations want to contribute, they want to be challenged and encouraged. Recognising this – and then implementing it successfully – is extremely important to me.

Without purpose – no buy-in from staff
Without buy-in – no contribution
Without contribution – no success.

Michael Maretzke

Personal Core Value #2 – Transparency: What does it mean to me, Michael Maretzke?

Transparency in communication is a key element in creating understanding. This understanding leads to wider acceptance of policies, rules, restrictions, strategies and other conditions that management needs to communicate to a wider audience. This knowledge, the background information, is an important prerequisite for an environment of trust. I argue that transparency leads to trust – and trust is, after all, one of the essential building blocks of an organisation.

Even in situations where the news is catastrophic for individual team members – for example, when the need to restructure the company leads to job losses – you should be transparent. Transparency in such cases gives people who remain in the organisation confidence in the leaders.

Be cautious! I am not saying that everyone needs 100% of all available information at all times. Of course, there are differences in the degree of transparency depending on the target group. But the information that is relevant to the target group must be communicated as early as possible.

Personal Core Value #3 – Simplicity: What does it mean to me, Michael Maretzke?

Simplicity affects both the structure of an organisation and the development of technical solutions. 

An organisation must be simple in order to be understood. Only when employees understand their role and their tasks, when they know where their area of responsibility ends and where the area of others begins, can they give their best within the organisation. Simplicity enables them to understand their position within the organisation and the impact they can make.

Technical solutions tend to be over-thought and over-engineered. Take the simplest solution to your problem, forget the gold rim solutions. When working in a team on possible solutions to complex or complicated problems, I think it is always advantageous to choose the simplest solution with the least necessary complexity. The focus is on solving acute problems, not anticipating future problems. If you aim for the smartest – and most likely more complex – solution possible, you invest now in not-yet-known problems of the future. You may solve the problem, but you may not. Point taken: simple solutions will probably need revision or perhaps even replacement in the long run, but you still gain time acutely. You solve the problems of the future when they are known and actually occur.

Personal Core Value #4 – Performance: What does it mean to me, Michael Maretzke?

Performance here means: Impact on the organisation and technology. 

Normally, an organisation acts in an economically oriented way and strives for profit. The outcome of an organisation depends on the willingness of people to go to their limits – and beyond. Outstanding organisational results require a high level of commitment from people. They drive the organisation to perform at its best. They want to give their best to achieve the best for the organisation. Results, as quickly as possible. Striving for success. A good way to drive an organisation to peak performance is to implement OKRs well.  

In technology, performance means optimising a system to produce customer value as quickly as possible. A high-performing system delivers web pages to the user as quickly as possible, it also delivers finished developed functions to the user as quickly as possible using continuous integration or continuous delivery, it also uses methods and tools to help developers write high quality code in the shortest possible time. 

In both cases, organisation and technology, it is all about the right mindset. Strive for performance to get as much real value or result as possible from the system.

“the REMIX” by Lindsey Pollak – a Book review

"the REMIX" by Lindsey Pollak - a book review

Book review

The book “the REMIX” by Lindsey Pollak deals with challenges and solutions in a multi-generational workspace. Me, being a Generation-Xer, working with a lot of Gen-Y and Millenials, read the book and had some real A-HA moments. Those moments make a book valuable (and allow a better understanding of your employees, colleagues and even kids).
The book is definitely worth reading. It is a good mixture of theoretical aspects and practice tips, examples and easy to read (especially for a non-native). Most impressive – for me – were the rules for remixers – people who pay special attention to the differences in expectations due to different ages / generations.
I’d definitely recommend the book to “new work” addicts and leaders with a “lean” or “agile” mindset.

Lindsey’s rules for remixers – something to keep in mind from “the REMIX” by Lindsey Pollak

#1 Stop the Generational Shaming.

“I see no hope for the future of our people if they are dependent on the frivolous youth of today.”

poet Hesiod, eighth century B.C.

There is no point in blaming other generations for whatever they do. Most likely it’s a form of socialization, a habit – and most likely it’s up to us to try to understand them better.

#2 Empathize.

Replace the blaming from #1 with empathy. Try to understand them. Why does this person of another generation act like she / he does? What’s the motivation behind? Try to see the world through the person of the other generation.

#3 Assume the Best Intentions.

Expanding on #2 Empathize, always assume the best intentions. This enables you to better understand the “why” behind somebody’s behavior. It also allows to explain the “why” behind your reasoning.

“It’s so annoying that the Millennials and Gen Zs on my team always wear earbuds in their ears at work.”

#4 Think “And”, Not “Or”.

If you ever come across to make a decision “the old way” or doing something “the new way” – never make this exclusive choice – combine the best of both.

#5 Remember That “Common Sense Is Not So Common”.

Don’t take your socialization as granted. Other people were raised in different economic conditions and in a different technology context.

Executive: But that was confidential!
Millenial: You never told us that!
Executive: I didn’t think I had to!

Traditionalists, Baby Boomers and Gen Xers have a different understanding of sharing information. For Millenials and younger information sharing is a natural habit and leads sometimes to misunderstandings.

#6 Don’t Change What Works.

Do not change what works in your leadership style and habits. Good leadership skills are inter-generational and independent of the age of people you’re working with.

#7 Be More Transparent.

Share information with your people, explain rationales behind decisions – make them understand to raise their understanding. Don’t be 100% transparent – but more transparent.

#8 It’s Okay if Everybody Wins.

Give more trophies for accomplishment. Celebrate, everybody wants to win, wants to be a hero. Don’t allow questions like “When there’s an intergenerational conflict, which generation should win?” – the right question would be: “How do we flex and adapt to one another so each person can have the opportunity to be part of the winning team?”

Classification of Generations

GenerationBornSize USCommonly Cited Characteristic
Traditionalists1928-194547mloyal, cautious, formal, proud
Baby Boomers1946-196476mself-focused, competitive, optimistic, “forever young” mentality
Generation X1965-198055mindependent, cautious, skeptical, tech pioneers
Millenials1981-199662mself-expressive, group oriented, purpose-driven, tech dependent
Generation Z1977-tbdtbdcautious, technology advanced, diverse

To keep in mind from “the REMIX” by Lindsey Pollak

Lindsay cites an CMO’s answer on a panel discussion on the question “If you could go back to the very beginning of your career and give yourself one piece of advice, what would you tell your younger self? What do you most wish you had done then, knowing what you know now?”
The CMO said: “If I could go back to the beginning of my career and give myself one piece of advice, I would tell myself not to be so afraid. When I think back on my career – and I have been very successful and achieved a lot – but to this day I still think about and regret the jobs I didn’t apply for, the raises and promotions I didn’t ask for, the ideas I had and didn’t share. I don’t regret my mistakes or embarrassments of failures; what I regret are the times I held myself back.”

Find this book as well on my Agile Bookshelf.