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The University of Pittsburgh student accelerator, the Blast Furnace, hosted another great set of speakers recently to discuss the subject of building and leading your startup team during the various stages of growth. 

In the Furnace this week were Alan Himler and Henry Wilde. Al, Senior Director of Business Development at Wombat Security Technologies, is a serial entrepreneur, and a graduate of the Katz School. He has over 25 years of experience in product management, business development, and executive leadership roles in the technology industry. In addition, he has delivered expert product consulting and strategy services to a broad list of software clients. He has served in leadership roles and executive management (CEO, COO, VP level) at Malcovery Security (UAB spinout), CombineNet/SciQuest (CMU spinout), eBillingHub/ThomsonReuters, Logic Library/SOA Software, Emprise Technologies/ASG, and Legent Corporation/Computer Associates.

Henry Wilde, our other guest, was for 22 years the CEO and Chairman of the Board of Four Rivers Software Systems. He led the company until its successful sale to Accruent in August 2014. Prior to Four Rivers, Henry was an account executive for four years at NeXT Computer, Steve Jobs’ company between his two stints at Apple. Prior to that, he was a Corporate Account Executive for five years at Wang Laboratories ($3B)

Combined, these two gents have seen, as I like to say, a lot of ‘movies.’ So their advice on what it takes to build and lead a successful team is instructive.

For Henry Wilde, it was always about the team. He emphasized at the beginning of his talk that in an enterprise software company, 81% of his costs “walked out the door every night.” In short, he wasn’t investing in machinery; he was investing in people, their skills, and talent.

Henry kicked things off summarizing his experience into four key takeaways:

  1. Know Thyself
    For Henry it was important to know what you value, what your company valued, and stay true to that. That could be continuous growth and learning, family orientation, or accountability and transparency. But the team had to stay true to that. Inconsistencies, like the first time someone needs to leave early for a sick child and the company says ‘no’, undermine the values you espouse. So know who you are as a company, and then stay true and consistent
  2. Follow the leader
    While this sounds easy, it’s not. Henry emphasized that the leader needs to set the direction and expectations in writing, and that there can only be one definition of success. That definition needs to be agreed upon by the team and acted upon consistently so that the limited resources of every startup have a chance to be successful. One other piece of advice is to be sure to avoid the strategic direction of the day. As the old saying goes “a man who chases two rabbits catches none.”
  3. Fit and Friction
    Part of being the leader is creating and maintaining the culture. Henry relayed a number of identity issues, such as: do you want to have a big company or small company mindset? Be ethical or caveat emptor? Passionate or 9 to 5? Cooperative or combative? Transparent or secretive? You need to decide what it is that you value. The team needs to fit those values. Beyond that you need to measure the imbalance with these values, or what Henry referred to as friction. One way to measure friction is to listen to the ‘chatter’ – emails, texts, complaints, meetings, etc. It tends to pop up in these venues.
  4. Failure to Change
    Henry shared a John Wooden quote that at first may have sounded in conflict with his earlier advice. “Failure is not fatal, but failure to change might be.” Henry emphasized that while you have to be true to your core values, consistent with your behaviors and decisions, and laser focused on your goals, you also have to be open to change. This is a fine line as you proceed as the leader. And listening to the changes that will progress your company, versus chasing the ‘strategy of the day’ is one of the tough jobs of a leader.

Alan Himler then shared his insights about building a team and leading it. Al started by asking a question: Who do you admire as a leader? He stated that in years of asking this question, he rarely, if ever, got a CEO’s name as the answer. And last night was no exception, with sports stars and presidents being the most typical answers. So Al’s key piece of advice: don’t be the leader for the glory.

Similar to Henry, Al broke his advice down into several digestible chunks:

  1. Transition from entrepreneur to CEO can be a tough one – and ‘Founder’ is not a business title
    Al was put into the role of CEO and leader several times in his career. It wasn’t something he sought. However, he always wanted to do what was best for his team members and the company, so he stepped into the roles. Al emphasized that once he did take a role he made sure that folks knew he was the final arbiter of decisions. In short, he was in charge. It was important that he establish himself as the decision maker for the company and people on the team knew where the buck stopped. And also remember that while you may be a founder, that is not a role or responsibility. It simply means you helped start the company.
  2. Align/rationalize your personal goals to your business goals One of the great pieces of advice Al shared was: do you really want to be the person in charge? Do you want to be the CEO? Does that match who you are and what you like to do? It was great advice for first time entrepreneurs who may think automatically it’s the natural or right thing to do. But as Al cautioned, maybe it’s not in line with who you are and your personal goals. Great insight for someone to pause and think about what they want out of their business and themselves.
  3. Different stages of company requires different leadership skills

Finally, Al emphasized that the leadership skills that take you from $0 to $1M, and perhaps $1M to $5M, or $5M to $25M are all different. Don’t be afraid to admit when the company has needs that are beyond what you can deliver as a leader. It takes a great deal of maturity to know yourself and if you are still serving the company’s best interest at any stage.

It was again a great evening in the Blast Furnace with lots of wisdom and insights shared about one of the toughest subjects in building a company.