During our recent Seedcamp Founder Summit, we had the honour of having Nicky Moffat CBE kick-off our event with a fire-side chat on leading teams. From Wikipedia, “Brigadier Nicola Patricia Moffat CBE, known as Nicky Moffat, was the highest-ranking woman in the British Army from 2009 until her resignation in 2012.” With her story and experience as a backdrop, we covered what it took to be a leader of small teams scaling all the way to teams in excess of 4,000 (which she herself led, during her last posting in the Army).
Whilst there is no lack of leadership insights to be gathered from fellow tech-leaders, it was interesting to hear the unique challenges Nicky had throughout her career in the Army. In some ways, they paralleled those of any tech company (attracting, training, leading, and retaining key team members) and as could be expected, in many ways they were drastically different. Nicky kindly shared various anecdotes during her chat, which she requested we not share, but what was clear across all of them was the high pressure environment Army officers operate under, the unique challenges she had to overcome within the various roles she held, and the sheer size and scale of the organisation and variety of challenges that can present to any leader. As she shared her stories, three themes for developing leadership within an organisation bubbled up. The three themes were:
- Becoming the Master of Your Brief
- Creating the Context for Leadership (to happen)
- Leaving no Stone Unturned
Becoming the Master of Your Brief:
Before you can lead others, you need to become the master of your domain. Part of leading, is mastering the items you are responsible for, and likely will have others be responsible for down the road. During her chat, Nicky shared difficult anecdotes of her life where she learned the importance of this lesson. In particular, she shared:
- Just as a soldier’s weapon is their body (and thus fitness is something he/she needs to invest in day in and day out), if you’re a knowledge worker, your mind is something you need to invest in daily. You need to stay mentally ‘fit to fight’ throughout your career.
- When you have doubts in an area you are responsible for, you need to double down on it and invest the time to achieve mastery, review all the relevant factors that contribute to that element, and then train until it becomes second nature. Don’t hesitate to gather information from as many sources as possible to achieve this goal.
- Remain curious. It is that curiosity that helps you in understanding what is going well and what isn’t.
- Remain resilient in your quest to master your brief (and yourself). You will have moments where you fail — but you need to pick yourself up again, learn from those mistakes and not let them keep you down.
Creating the Context for Leadership (to happen):
As a leader, you need to create an environment where others can flourish in their leadership. After you’ve mastered your brief, and you find yourself leading others, what you will realise is that not everyone will share your values. Nicky shared her view on how to best align the organisation around a shared vision, but more importantly how to create an environment where others could become leaders within the culture she created. Here are her key points:
- Firstly, start by cataloging the positive values you find in the organisation or those values you want to have that lead the organisation.
- Then, start identifying your traits and those of your early hires (and or existing colleagues) to see how they map to where you want to go.
- Identify the bad apples, as they infect others, and either correct them, or get rid of them
- Set the culture clearly, don’t delay
- Hold people accountable to that culture
- Highlight and promote those that live up to it
- Don’t let walls build up in your organisation, do your best to break them down
- Break down cliques, there are no favoured groups in your success. Spend time with your team equally.
- Make sure all roles are acknowledged as having value if they live up to the culture you set. Don’t let people feel like they aren’t important to the bottom line.
- Set a clear vision for what you want to achieve. Communicate your vision and culture early and often and it’ll pay dividends later.
Leaving no Stone Unturned:
To conclude, Nicky stated the importance of re-visiting your mastery often, polishing what’s necessary, reflecting on what’s missing, and hiring for diversity of thought. Nicky highlighted that diversity in your team begins with a deep exploration of yourself and your weaknesses (gaps), that if left unresolved, your organisation will suffer if not corrected. Additionally, she emphasised that diversity is not only about those attributes that are visible, but also about attributes that are invisible. What’s important is that you hire for diverse ‘thought’ as that’s what will truly give you perspective.
In order to do this:
- Know what kind of leader you are — for example, are you an authoritative team pace setting leader?
- Find someone different from you to balance things out — if you are authoritative, for example, find someone who is more of a democratic affiliate leader. This will provide your team with perspective and balance.
- In effect, find someone that complements you and has their ear to the ground
- Trust them, and be open to their feedback. There is no point in bringing them on board if you are going to simply ignore their input.
- This applies to your entire leadership team, don’t just build your team in your image
In conclusion, whilst Nicky admits that the challenges startup leaders have are different from those that are in the armed forces, her insights into small team and large team leadership dynamics showcase how much there is to learn from common challenges in leading people, and more importantly leading and starting with yourself.