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3 Things You Can Do to Cultivate Leadership

One of the major problems facing small businesses and startups is the leadership question: At what point does a small-business owner promote employees to leadership roles? And how do you identify and develop the right people for those roles?

Founder’s syndrome can stagnate a small business, leading to micromanagement and difficulty accepting fresh ideas. Devin Lemoine, owner of Success Labs, says she can relate to this anxiety that small-business owners have. “There comes a point where you're too connected to all of the relationships, you're too connected to the work, and it becomes very hard to let go,” she says.

This is why cultivating leadership is crucial to a small business’ success. Here are three ways to identify and develop potential leaders in your startup.

Recast the Role

It’s important to consider that leaders can be any age or come from any background. “Traditionally we think about leadership as being associated with people who have more experience or who have achieved certain goals,” Lemoine says. “But it behooves you to think outside the box. There's lots of opportunities to demonstrate leadership at any experience level, any age — especially in small organizations and startups.”

Leadership roles are as varied as individual skill sets; they can be developed in a variety of areas — management, diplomacy, even charisma. Younger employees often demonstrate eagerness to take on responsibility. Lemoine warns against missing opportunities for employees because of preconceived ideas of what a leader “should be.”

Learn from Experience

Common ideas of leadership associate it with personality traits — particularly traditionally masculine ones — but leadership is so much more. “Practical leadership is organic, growing from actions and reactions,” Lemoine says.

This is especially true for small businesses. Lemoine suggests making sure each employee gets exposure to each facet of the business. You never know when one person’s skill set may turn out to be exactly what you need for a project manager, and you’ll never know if you don’t give them a chance. “You have to ask yourself, ‘What would be a good developmental opportunity for somebody else?’ And then be intentional about letting go, and letting them prove themselves.”

Let It Go

But don’t just delegate — train employees to do what you do. Small-business owners run the risk of spreading themselves too thin, and offering on-the-job training to promising employees is a positive way to keep things running smoothly.

Lemoine suggests establishing a leadership structure, but maintaining flexibility. “Sometimes what makes you successful as a startup is that ability to pivot and be creative, and sometimes there's a loose structure surrounding that,” she says. “It should never bog down into micromanagement. You want just enough structure and process to where people can understand how to be successful and the owner-founder can stay informed, knowing everything is moving in the right direction.”

Lemoine suggests keeping a knowledge-transfer matrix to identify which candidates are most qualified to specialize. Identifying each leadership candidate’s strengths, and matching them to projects that utilize those strengths, is a great way to cultivate leadership, she says.

Stephen Loy