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Leadership: which hat to wear today?

Each month, we publish a SETsquared Bristol blog written by the Centre Director and members of her team. This month Centre Director, Emma Thorn, explores the topic of leadership, and the many guises it can take for business founders and CEOs.

One of the themes that frequently comes up as an area our members would like help with, from the Bristol SETsquared Incubator, is leadership. So, we have recently developed a three month Leadership Programme to try out with a cohort of our Founders. This has got me thinking about what to means to be a leader, in particular if you are Founder of a start-up. Unlike having a leadership role in an established business or corporate, a start-up founder has little back-up, probably no process, and certainly can’t tap into an existing culture. In addition, there is the challenge of all the multiple hats a leader must wear.

Surely, though, leadership is all about leading forward? The leader who comes up with solutions to the problems their business is facing as it navigates through its roadmap. The visionary leader who can see where they are heading and has the resilience and tenacity to stick to that journey. It is undeniable that start-ups face enormous hard decisions in their early days, and the competence of founders in approaching those pivotal decisions may decide the fate of the business.

Or, is leadership more about leading others? CEOs of start-ups often find a point in the growth of their business where they are suddenly required to lead a team. No longer just focused on their technology or product, but now responsible for the motivation, performance management, recruitment, and conflicts and problems of a disparate group of individuals who need to be on the same page. This requires an awareness of what motivates individuals, and the challenge of creating a culture, or personality underpinning how your business operates.

Viewed from another angle, leadership of a start-up is brought into sharp focus when leading outwards. The CEO in a founding team is the “face” of their company and must look the part to customers, investors, partners, and other stakeholders. Raising investment is often talked about as being a full time occupation, so in this situation the CEO or co-founders have to outwardly project their leadership style and approach to convince interested investors that they are fit for the job in hand.

When developing the SETsquared Bristol leadership programme, we quickly realised that one size would not fit all. The result is a bespoke programme, which starts off challenging founding CEOs to consider what leadership means to them, in the context of their business, and then incorporates coaching and accountability sessions to guide them through their own journey of self-reflection and discovery. We will bring Alumni Leaders in at the end of the programme to share their own personal journeys, and the peer group will also meet to learn from one another.

It is rare that a start-up founder gets to step outside of the urgent fire fighting work of growing their business to focus on growing themselves. At SETsquared, we are focused on building resilience in our entrepreneurs, so that means taking the time to work and experiment with those leadership hats.


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  • University of Bath
  • University of Bristol
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