It’s fairly easy to get caught up in the fantasy of the idea of your business--before the reality of the challenge hits you.
As the leader of your business, you establish the voice of the company. You are often the face of the business, and you drive the energy that will represent the gestalt of the business.
So it’s no surprise that you will be up days and nights and days planning the important strategic issues about the company--the business model, the launch strategy, the funding, the board, the people, the culture. And somehow, you have to be building your business, and hopefully generating revenue, at the same time.
But few entrepreneurs take that same active, strategic approach to defining and cultivating their leadership voice. As a result, they stumble blindly into some version of leadership because it seems easy.
Challenge yourself to develop an effective leadership voice, and I guarantee it will have an impact on your success. Here’s how to get started:
Ask yourself: What is my leadership voice?
This question is not trite or facetious. It is the entrepreneur’s version of “What do you want to be when you grow up?”
Have you actually ever methodically put together a profile of your leadership style? For women leaders in particular, the stereotypes and the bad examples get a lot of airtime. Consider the leadership styles of women you have met and worked with, and which traits you applaud and which are to be deplored.
Identify people whose styles you admire across fields
Observe them intently. Have conversations with the people you have access to. For those whom you do not have access to, watch their public appearances and read their writing. Find them wherever they are: in business, politics, sports, TV, your neighborhood, on vacation.
I try to integrate my father’s intellect and humor, my PR guru’s relationship-building techniques, the grace of Meredith Vieira, and the intensity of Derek Jeter.
I am fascinated by the delicate balance of professionalism, intelligence and accessibility of a Brian Williams, the ability to recreate of a Madonna, and the “aw shucks” demeanor of a Eli Manning.
I didn’t say this was easy. And you can see how personal this gets depending on who you admire.
Write down the characteristics that appeal to you
It’s not enough just to admire someone. Figure out what is about them, specifically, that draws you in. Note their confidence, their ability to build relationships, their network, their charisma, their intense knowledge of a particular area. Identify what intrigues you. No need to reinvent the wheel.
All of my roads lead to Oprah, and I am not ashamed to say so. I admire her personal struggle and success, her ability to reign as queen and immediately switch to girl- next-door, the public declaration of her goals and the pursuit of them, the ability to build excitement and relationships. And she makes it look so easy. I am sure it isn’t, but in my opinion her seeming ease makes her more magnetic.
Identify the natural strengths in your own style
Be honest with yourself about the characteristics you might be better off without. What qualities have worked for you in the past? In what situations were you most successful? Why? Let’s face it--if you are a wallflower, it is unlikely that you will become the court jester of your company. You can be an improved version of you, but you can never be a fake, or a recreation.
I am not Oprah, nor will I ever be. But I can take my skills in terms of marketing, strategy and communications and figure out how I can use those. I have to be cognizant that my unrelenting directness works better in some circumstances than in others. You need to develop your inventory of assets and challenges.
Test your “leadership voice” hypotheses out in low-risk environments
That doesn’t mean trying to talk in different accents or changing your hairstyle. It means trying different approaches to managing people and getting decisions made.
Try to make a decision with consensus, then in an authoritative tone and then one in the middle. It will be immediately clear what “fits” you. You don’t have to do this in a high-risk client situation or in front of venture capitalists who will determine your funding future. Try making a plan with friends, getting your children to do what you need them to do, or sitting on a non-profit committee. Practice with your spouse, your friends, or your network.
Just like building a business, this is a process. The earlier you are in your career, the more latitude you have to experiment. If you are already in the public eye with an established approach, it is much harder to make big changes.
You might not get it right in the first year, in the first business, the first financing, the first launch or maybe even the second or third. But awareness is the first step. Now go forth and lead.