The Leader's Checklist For The Startup Manager

Sustained growth requires deft leadership. Here's a set of core principles for taking your enterprise to the next level.
July 29, 2011

When Margaret Whitman came in to build eBay in 1998, the company only employed 35. When she departed a decade later, its payroll had soared to 15,000.

When Liu Chuanzhi started Lenovo in 1984, he began with just two employees, including himself. Twenty-seven years later, he now runs the world's fourth largest personal-computer company, with more than 22,000 at work.

On arrival at eBay's office, Whitman found that her staff maintained no appointment calendars or any structure—none were required for the informal ways in which founder Pierre Omidyar had led the fledgling enterprise.

On opening his company in a guard house at the Chinese Academy of Sciences, Liu required no formalities of any kind. With just one person besides himself, even a calendar would have seemed ludicrous.

Leading with 2 or 35, personal presence and continuous collaboration can be enough to get through the early days—they are more than sufficient. But in moving from a few reports to hundreds or even thousands as an enterprise prospers, continued growth requires consistent application of a set of enduring principles.

Those principles can and should be mastered, and at the core ought to be a Leader's Checklist—a set of the most vital precepts that provide a clear map for navigating through virtually any leadership challenge in growing a business (and are indeed invoked at every such moment of challenge).

From my development work with hundreds of managers in dozens of leadership programs, I have concluded that their thinking and experience point to just 15 mission-critical leadership principles that vary surprisingly little among companies or countries. Here is that set of core principles for leading a small or mid-sized enterprise that has moved beyond the start-up stage:

1. Articulate a vision

Formulate a clear and persuasive vision and communicate it to all members of the enterprise.

2. Think and act strategically

 Set forth a pragmatic strategy for achieving that vision both short- and long-term and ensure that it is widely understood. Consider all the players and anticipate reactions and resistance before they are manifest.

3. Honor the room

 Frequently express your confidence in and support for those who work with and for you.

4. Take charge

Embrace a bias for action, of taking responsibility even if it is not formally delegated, particularly if you are well positioned to make a difference.

5. Act decisively

Make good and timely decisions, and ensure that they are executed.

6. Communicate persuasively

Communicate in ways that people will not forget; simplicity and clarity of expression help, as do elements ranging from personal actions to grand events.

7. Motivate the troops

Appreciate the distinctive intentions that people bring, and then build on those diverse motives to draw the best from each.

8. Embrace the front lines

Delegate authority except for strategic decisions, and stay close to those most directly engaged with the work of the enterprise.

9. Build leadership in others

Develop leadership throughout the organization.

10. Manage relations

Build enduring personal ties with those who look to you and work to harness the feelings and passions of the workplace.

11. Identify personal implications

Help everybody appreciate the impact that the vision and strategy are likely to have on their own work and future with the firm.

12. Convey your character

Through gesture, commentary and accounts, ensure that others appreciate that you are a person of integrity.

13. Dampen over-optimism

Counter the hubris of success, focus attention on latent threats and unresolved problems, and protect against the tendency for managers to engage in unwarranted risk.

14. Build a diverse top team

Leaders need to take final responsibility, but leadership is also a team sport best played with an able roster of those collectively capable of resolving all the key challenges.

15. Place common interest first

In setting strategy, communicating vision and reaching decisions, common purpose comes first, personal self-interest last.

For mastering the checklist, one of the best avenues for business managers is to look back on one's actions just taken, asking what worked, what did not, and even what was missing from the checklist.

Such after-action reviews were critical to the success of Liu at Lenovo. At the end of every week since the company's founding, he and his top aides reviewed their decisions of the past five days. By repeatedly looking back to better see forward, Liu built his own Leader's Checklist that helped lead his company to acquire the IBM personal computer division in 2005 and emerge on to the world stage.

Michael Useem, author of The Leader's Checklist, is the Director of the Center for Leadership and Change Management and William and Jacalyn Egan Professor of Management at The Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania. The Leader's Checklist is available through e-book sellers including AmazonBarnes&Noble.com and Apple iBookstore.