The Alchemy of Leadership Styles: Building High-Performance Executive Teams, Part Two

Leadership teams need a complementary set of skills to quickly and effectively surmount the many challenges facing start-ups. There are four complementary leadership strengths: Vision, Execution, Speed, and Empathy.

The Alchemy of Leadership Styles: Building High-Performance Executive Teams, Part Two

I previously put up a blog post that summarized some of the key ideas from our webinar on creating productive cultures in companies and, in particular, executive teams. Jocelyn Kung joined me on that webinar to explain her “TAX” model for leadership, which begins by building trust and then moves on to aligning the intentions of your executive team. The final step in her TAX model is execution; after all, none of this matters if you don’t get anything done!

Leadership teams need a complementary set of skills to quickly and effectively surmount the many challenges facing start-ups. There are four complementary leadership strengths which Jocelyn labels V, X, Z, and Y:  

  • V for Vision
  • X for Execution
  • Z for Speed
  • Y for Empathy

During our webinar, Jocelyn invoked the cookbook, “Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat.” She told us that just as mastering those four aspects of cooking allows one to prepare any dish, a founder who understands vision, execution, speed, and empathy can build a great leadership team, regardless of what particular business they may be in. There’s no hierarchy; from time to time you and your team will need to channel each of the four traits.

Most people have most (if not all) of these traits in them to one degree or another, but each of us tends to have one dominant skill. As a founder, it is important that you assemble an executive team that, collectively, has strengths across all four. It is equally important that members of your team have a shared understanding of each others’ strengths. That shared understanding is a key to building and maintaining trust, as well as clear and honest communication–within your leadership team and across your entire company culture. Bear in mind, however, that your natural strength is not your sole destiny. We can all develop new skills and improve our weak points–a process that begins by first acknowledging them!

Now, I’ll dive into each of these four key skills with the help of four founders from Neotribe portfolio companies who all graciously participated in our webinar. Each one of them epitomizes one of these strengths, each shares how their particular strength contributed to their career or company.

On Vision

Many founders are ‘V’ types. You must have vision to imagine something that does not yet exist. They have lots of ideas; they love brainstorming, are comfortable with ambiguity, and they’re often drawn to complexity. The visionary personality type, Jocelyn notes, often comes across as aloof or even intimidating, leaders with this strength should ensure they cultivate complementary strengths such as empathy, or find those strengths elsewhere in their team.

When you are building a company, it’s hard not to get distracted. You may begin with a clear vision, but then, as Mike Tyson famously said: “Everyone has a plan until they get punched in the face.” You may have setbacks or get distracted by shiny pennies. But if you start chasing short-term gains to the detriment of your long-term goals, it's very hard to keep yourself on the rails as an organization.  
To avoid that, you must apply experience and empathy so that the team trusts you will remain committed to them and to the long-term vision. You also need to have the right “connective tissue” between your long-term vision and the day-to-day execution so that staff and customers can clearly understand the rest of the story.  
For that, it really helps to have the right people to help translate that vision on the horizon into the steps that you need to take to build from where you are at today. Then it becomes something where you can say “Hey, here's the bite-sized way that we can actually execute and go to market around this vision.”

—Devin Redmond, Theta Lake

On Execution

People high in that ‘X’ factor focus on planning, details, and process. They are accountable, they follow through, and they’re good with details. As Jocelyn says, a person high in V loves a whiteboard, but a person high in X loves a checklist. They also seek certainty and predictability, so in their case they may need to develop (either in themselves or on their team) complementary strengths in vision and the willingness to forge ahead.

My definition of execution is taking an idea or a vision and actually making it a reality. I employ two steps to do that: structure and organization. I'm notorious for using multiple tools to get the job done; Asana allows me to assign commitments and deliverables to people. I'll have Google Docs that explain why we need to do these things and why the people doing them should care.
So execution really involves defining the commitments, the deliverables, and then making sure everyone is on the same page. It's like you're a project manager for your startup because you really can't afford to have many project managers at the moment.

—Shevy Karbasi, Moichor

On Speed

If ‘X’ is the follow-through, ‘Z’ is the opposite,” Jocelyn tells us. She describes people high in the speed attribute as fire-starters and out-of-the-box thinkers. They tend to jump in—with or without a plan. One essential complement to a strength in speed is execution.

My dominant trait is speed. Jocelyn calls it the pixie dust. Everyone has that pixie dust, but sometimes the fear of being misunderstood or looking like a fool stops us from using it.
Years ago, I was at AT&T on a leadership rotational program in this very coveted role, launching U-verse TV and U-verse Internet. The charter was to bring ESPN to the table, but they would not even enter into negotiations, because they did not believe it was physically possible to connect enough subscribers.
As Jocelyn said, I just jumped in. I came up with an idea to prove we could do an end-to-end installation in under 90 minutes. My colleagues were horrified, but with a videographer in tow, I went into a manhole, installed a U-verse there; climbed a pole, installed a U-verse there; went to someone's house and installed it there. It took me 87 minutes, and that was in a pair of fabulous 4-inch heels! That really won ESPN's hearts and minds. AT&T even created a manhole award.
So now if I find myself wondering, "Is this leader like? Is this founder like?" I just ask myself, is this manhole like? And the answer is always that it can't be worse than that!

—Shruthi Rao, Vendia

On Empathy

People high in Y are like chameleons; they’re able to read other people and respond in the style that most suits them. They build trust, make meaningful connections, and are fantastic storytellers which makes them great motivators. They have a tendency to try to please everyone and may not take care of their own needs, so complementary skills are execution and, possibly, speed.

When you're running a startup, you really need to understand the skills and expertise of each and every member of your team, and make sure they align with the kind of work that they're doing. I’ve applied this internally too, as I’ve figured out the things that I'm really good at and areas where I need my team to take the lead and guide me to get to that final goal. Even with vision, speed, and execution, you need to have the right people in the right places to get the whole team to that peak.

—Gorish Aggarwal, Sybill

If you’re a founder, one of your most important goals is to create a resilient culture within your leadership team and across your company. That’s why it is a grave mistake to hire in your own image; no single strength is sufficient on its own. Rather, you should assemble a team with a balance of vision, execution, speed, and empathy because at some point you are sure to need all of them. And, as Gorish points out, you should understand your own strengths—both so you can work on your weaknesses and know when to step back and let others on your team take the lead.

If you’re a founder or leader and would like to delve further into creating strong, balanced teams, please contact us. We’d be only too happy to explore this further with you, or to connect you with our friend Jocelyn Kung, whose work in this subject has helped many startups.