The Advancing Leadership Blog

View From the Top: Transitioning from Start-Up to Sustainable Business Venture

Catherine Osler, President of TEC Canada

In honour of Global Entrepreneurship Week, this week’s post comes from TEC Canada President, Catherine Osler.

The news is full of stories about start-ups and entrepreneurship. They often captivate and inspire, but don’t always tell the whole story. While there is generally significant attention and support given to entrepreneurs at the beginning of their careers, with the success of a start-up comes new challenges – most notably that of creating a business that can be sustained outside of the start-up bubble.

The challenge – and opportunity – for the entrepreneur is learning how to evolve from a bootstraps start-up to a professionally managed company. Many entrepreneurs must deal with the happy problem of high growth. They’ve had a dream, started a company on their own, and once the business becomes too much for one person to handle, hired people to help them achieve their vision.

It is in the nature of an entrepreneur to be able to “wing it.” Entrepreneurs are people who have can-do attitudes; they get up in the morning and see that the world is full of possibilities, so with their dream and vision, off they go! One day, however, they wake up to find that they are no longer in it alone. There is often a loose group of employees, systems and processes – and with it a situation that has become unsustainable. They know that if they actually want to build an enterprise with long-term value, they’re going to have to change the way they operate. At some point, leaders must begin to work on the business rather than in it, and that can be a difficult transition to make.

Frequently, the biggest challenge for entrepreneurs is to let go. Entrepreneurs usually have high goals, dreams, aspirations and standards that can sometimes look a lot like control or perfectionism. These are behaviors  that can (and must) be changed and adapted because eventually, all entrepreneurs will have to let go if they want to build a sustainable enterprise. The weight of an entire business can’t be carried by one person forever. Most entrepreneurs understand this, but learning to take a step back in order to lead is not always easy.

Leading isn’t about delegation. That is a management skill more so than a leadership skill – it’s about learning how to lead people. How do you build a team? Empower that team? Recognize each person as an individual and understand the contribution they can make? A good team with strong leadership can come together and be the lift under the organization, so you don’t have to do it all by yourself.

Great leaders are able to inspire others, but they must also be able to build a followership among those who are working to help them achieve their goals. People must be able to trust their leader, have reason to buy into their vision, and feel that they are given room to grow and contribute. Building followership is critical to being a great leader, and an important step in the process of letting go.

Most people know they need to do this. It is a constant leadership challenge as you grow, but not just from that  raw entrepreneurial beginning to the first baby steps of being a professionally-managed company. Even after many years in business, most leaders still wrestle with these questions: What is my role as a leader? What can I do to build a team around me that is part of the solution, part of the vision? What is my relationship with that team?

This is a constant challenge, and an ongoing question of leadership. You don’t become a leader and then stop growing. There will always be a constant evolution of your role and contribution. Leading is an activity – it’s active, not passive – and you’re always asking and answering questions: What’s the step to take at this point? What does the organization need? What do the people need? It is ongoing, and as leaders we’ll go to our graves asking these questions.

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