Why ‘Hands-On’ Is The Most Valuable Leadership Style at a Startup

There are two ways to build a startup: you either raise a lot of money and take on more risk, or you take a small amount of money, find a small, loyal team and you bootstrap.

We chose to bootstrap our business, and as a new CEO, I adopted the hands-on approach to leadership.

Being a hands-on CEO means putting in the extra effort to learn alongside your employees, to roll up your sleeves and take on tasks you normally wouldn’t consider tackling given your title.

In the later stages of your business, being hands-on means supporting your employees on a more personal level. At Render Media, I have one-on-one meetings with my direct reports and anyone from the company who wants face time with me. Even today, years into this venture, I am still involved in projects that require us to build out new processes or teams, and I make an effort to stay involved in projects that need a more gradual transition as we hand off responsibility to new hires.

There are three reasons why I think the hands-on approach is the most valuable leadership style at any startup:

  • You get better insight into your business. You can see what’s working and what’s not at every level of the company. If your employees have a problem, you are the first person they come to.
  • It enables you to pivot quickly without burning a lot of cash. I don’t think we would have been able to execute some of the changes we’ve made without bootstrapping. We would have had more people to answer to, and would not have been able to take on as much risk.
  • You earn more respect from your employees because you’ve learned about the business and know how everything works. This allows you to develop closer relationships with your team, which increases retention.

Although I’m not this hands-on anymore, when we founded the first iteration of Render Media, I did everything from learning how to use Drupal, to trafficking ads and using an ad server, writing and publishing content, to acquiring users on social media.

Gaining an array of experience in different areas of your business at the founding stages will enable you to speak the language of your employees and lead by example in the future. By learning from the ground up, you can be involved in all of the important conversations from the top down once you reach mid-level.

Going from seed to mid-level, the biggest challenge in terms of my leadership style has been knowing when to stop doing things myself and hiring or delegating instead. When you get to a certain level, you can’t be as hands on and have to trust your employees. Not trusting your employees can be a huge pitfall if you focus too much on minute details or hold up projects by micromanaging. It’s about knowing when to let go and delegate.

At Render, we learned this early on and were able to establish a company culture based on trust.

To me, developing a hands-on leadership culture also means committing to trust, transparency and mutual respect. Spending quality time with my employees is something that we all value, since it so greatly improves the health of the business.

What are your experiences with hands-on mentorship styles, and how have they impacted your business?

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