Leaders Must Mentor & Lead

Being a leader of any business, particularly one with institutional investors (VCs, PE folks, family offices, etc), can be a lonely job.  It’s also a job you won’t know if you can handle until you find yourself in the role.  I have been fortunate, having gotten to work to with leaders across all stages of a company’s life-cycle.  From start-ups, to growth stage businesses, to a nearly 100 year old “old economy” enterprise.  And I’ve noticed there is one component of leadership that crosses that entire spectrum that sometimes less experienced CEOs lose sight of.  You have to lead – you have to mentor – and in some sense you have to separate yourself from the team.

That may seem like a blinding glimpse of the obvious, but in today’s business and entrepreneurial culture, the idea of being a collaborative leader, of being a good listener, of empowering your teammates is sometimes translated into treating your subordinates like peers in all aspects of your relationship.  While this may not seem like a big deal, the reality is someone needs to be in charge.  Your direct reports (and their direct reports) are indeed looking for autonomy, support, pick-me-ups, but they are also looking for direction, mentorship and a vision to follow.  They want to know that someone has a firm hand on the rudder and is going to help them grow and evolve.  But they also want to know that someone is going to hold them and others accountable, and will be willing to make tough decisions when tough decisions are called for.  Having your teammate’s back is important, but you still need to lead.

It’s a fine line.  And in my experience, much of this skill seems to be innate.  Unfortunately, one can be very effective role player, reaching very senior positions professionally, without having this weakness exposed since it’s never tested until you stand at the conn.  But as investors and board members, once it is exposed, it cannot be allowed to persist.  An organization without a capable leader is like a sailboat without its captain having a firm hand on the rudder.  You will drift listlessly.  And while that in and of itself is dangerous, culturally there are things happening below deck no one is seeing that are creating even worse potential problems for the future.

So treat your team with respect.  Lead by example.  Delegate and promote open communication and empowerment of subordinates.  But don’t forget to lead.