What I’ve learned from being a team leader of a startup project

Sep 17 2013

The author pitches an idea for an incentive-based news product to work on during the fall semester.

The author pitches an idea for an incentive-based news product to work on during the fall semester.

What’s the best way to make sure that the members of a small team are working to the best of their abilities?

During the Summer Startup project at the Reese News Lab, students worked in groups of four in a completely flat, leaderless structure. But based on student feedback – that teams didn’t stay on track and weren’t always sure what they should be doing – the Lab is trying a new structure this fall.

Today, students work in groups of four, and one student in the group is the leader. The leader’s job is to make sure everything stays on track with each project and each team member knows what he or she should be focusing his or her efforts on.

My goals

As a member of the summer staff, I was acutely aware of some of the reasons people deemed a leader position necessary. Therefore, I made it my priority to prevent any of these issues from arising during the semester.

To ensure that everyone knew what he or she should be working on each week, I began sending out weekly debriefs. While the Lab’s leadership sends out a similar staff-wide email, I take the information from there and apply it to our team’s specific needs. For example, I divided our IRB application (a process to make sure our market research is done in an ethical fashion) into manageable sections and assigned each of us one part.

In order to make sure that we worked as efficiently as possible, it was also important for us to make sure that we were all on the same page as much as possible. This is especially critical in the early stages of a startup when the idea is more fluid. Therefore, anytime I feel our idea shifting or notice that someone seems particularly confused about a portion of our project, I do a check-in.

This usually entails everyone articulating how they currently envision our product. I found that we could quickly identify the point of confusion by asking, “If this business started tomorrow, what would it look like?”

If something arises that we do disagree about, it serves as an opportunity to build consensus rather than cause an argument. This consensus-building is an important part of ensuring that our team works well as a whole. Through consensus, everyone can claim a stake in the project. There is not a discussion of “my project” or “my idea” — instead it is “our project.”

Feedback and moving forward

While it is great to be introspective, it’s impossible to effectively evaluate your work in a vacuum. I had already decided that I wanted to get feedback about the project thus far, so when asked if I’d write a lab report, it seemed like the optimal time to check in with my team on how I was doing. So I sent out a brief survey that included qualitative and quantitative responses and hoped for the best. Well, I hoped for honesty primarily, but I also wanted affirmation that some of the ideas I had implemented were actually working.

Upon reviewing my team’s responses, I was greatly relieved. They said that overall, meetings felt productive and they appreciated my organization. Most importantly, my team didn’t resent me, which was secretly one of my biggest fears when I was told that I would be a team leader. In fact, I found that they were highly appreciative.

Fortunately, I also received some constructive criticism, too. In an effort to maintain the sense that everyone on the team was equal, I inadvertently left some questions or ideas too vague. It seems that I need to be more specific when it comes to the questions I ask or assignments I make. This is something that I now know I can easily work on because I can feel that my team has confidence in me.

Leadership advice often focuses on what leaders must do for their team, but that means it forgets a key component – what teams must do for their leaders. Team leaders are humans too. They have a fear of failing or being resented by their team. In order to continue building as a team, the team must be willing to be proactive and give honest feedback.

Though team building and fairness fall on the team leader, communication should be everyone’s responsibility. If a team lacks consistent and honest communication, it’s sure to weaken the team and the project overall.

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