Many entrepreneurs are faced with the decision to go big and scale, or create something smaller, but lean and highly focused. When Chris D'Couto joined Neah Power Systems, the public company had 43 employees and seven executive staff. It was behind on various deadlines and commitments, and was pulling in multiple directions. Instead of growing it bigger, he leaned it out and focused the effort.

Today, the company has started shipping products to defense and commercial entities, as well as directly to consumers. While being a fully reporting public company, Neah is comprised of only 14 employees and consultants, plus three executive staff. It has commercialized three different products that are serving the consumer, commercial, and defense markets. D'Couto chose to develop a high functioning, small, focused organization to bring disruptive products to market.

Here's how he made this company a lean, focused game changer. Follow his tips to get your company to do the same.

1. Demonstrate strong technical knowledge, management and people skills

In small organizations versus larger ones, every team member directly interacts with the leadership. You have to build credibility with the team on a daily basis. They look to the CEO for technical leadership, resolving issues as they come up, and to help them grow. D'Couto found this to be a challenge, since he didn't want to provide team members with quick answers but rather to direct them in how to solve issues. D'Couto maintains that this approach requires a combination of subject-matter expertise, pointing them to books and programs that can help them grow and develop new skills, while still holding them tightly accountable.

2. Be ruthlessly fair

In small, tightly knit organizations, leaders carry a disproportionate level of influence. Small teams tend to be a mixture of a family unit and a goal-based unit. If any members perceive that the leader is playing favorites, this creates dysfunction. D'Couto prides himself on being considerate, "ruthlessly fair," and consistent across the board, while still being personable enough for people to relate to on a personal basis.

3. Lead from the front

D'Couto doesn't ask the team to do anything that he would not do himself. During his first few weeks with the company, Neah implemented 24/7 coverage to meet a deadline that the team had previously committed to but was at risk of missing. Going from 9 to 5 timing to a 24/7 company for the three-week duration in order to meet that milestone caused a lot of discomfort, according to D'Couto, but he led the way through the hardship. He worked the night shift, brought in pizza for dinner, and was trained to do certain technician work in the area that had the biggest need. Seeing that the leader was willing to do what it takes took away any complaints from people. He also set the expectation that if you make a commitment, you have to do your damnedest to meet that commitment.

4. Set expectations for meetings

When you have a small team, people tend to avoid confrontation and hesitate to call the bullshit factor. D'Couto works hard to create specific structures and expectations for distinct types of meetings. Brainstorming meetings are structured differently than progress update meetings, which are structured differently than troubleshooting meetings. But in all meetings, D'Couto sets a high standard, driving the team to make data-driven decisions that are defensible.

5. Fail early and fail less

As a disrupter, Neah has to innovate. D'Couto believes in safe-failure experimentation. He gets the team to build prototypes and learn from testing early on. They incorporate the learning in subsequent iterations. D'Couto insists this approach is a must for any small, product-oriented company. At Neah, the philosophy is that everyone learns more from building a prototype than from the most extensive paper study or ongoing research.

6. Remind the team of their aspirations

It's easy for Neah to inspire its employees. D'Couto constantly reminds the team that their products are one piece of the solution for global warming, that customers need the products to make a difference in their end application, and that the company has differentiated (patented) technologies that need to have widespread adoption. D'Couto helps the team understand the impact of the company and how each team member has a role in the positive result. He believes his team should be able to share in the pride that motivates him, to be able to stand up and proudly say: "I made a difference!"

Published on: Dec 9, 2014
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