The soul of a start-up, nimble leadership, flexibility and control

By Elisabeth Goodman, 5th August 2019

Remember Gary Hamel’s article last November about how to retain employee engagement in growing and large organisations?

The latest issue of Harvard Business Review (July – August 2019) carries two articles that provide some stimulating and converging ideas about how to achieve employee engagement through a combination of control and flexibility.

It is good food for thought in the context of another article on employee engagement, from the 31st July Business Weekly, which I reference in the conclusion at the end of this blog.

The start-up “soul”

The first article is by Ranjay Gulati (a professor at Harvard Business School) which essentially shows us how to retain engagement in start-ups.  It all hinges around what he calls “the soul of a start-up” – discovering what this is for your organisation, and then putting in measures to retain it.

The soul of a start-up
Image inspired by Ranjay Gulati’s article: “The sould of a start-up”, HBR July-August 2019, pp. 84-91

Ranjay Gulati studied more than a dozen fast growing ventures, and interviewed 200-plus founders and executives to help him reach his conclusions.  Although the companies he spoke to are US-based, and did not include the kinds of Life Science SMEs we work with at RiverRhee , what he deduced certainly resonates with our experiences.

THe three dimensions of a start-up’s “soul”

Ranjay Gulati has identified three dimensions (“the spiritual trinity”) of a start-up’s “soul”:

1/ Business intent. Employees are energised in SMEs by being connected with what their organisation aspires to achieve – also referred to as the vision, mission, purpose, or meaning of their work.

2/ Customer connection. An intimate understanding of the perspectives and needs of their customers will enhance employees’ energy and creativity.

3/ Employee experience. This is described as giving employees “freedom with a framework”, “voice and choice”, or basically the autonomy to innovate and make decisions within the context of the company’s overarching purpose and general rules of engagement.

balancing control and flexibility

Ranjay Gulati’s experience is that start-ups will fail if they don’t introduce structure and discipline to support them as they grow.  But they do also need to be uncompromising about their original business intent, maintain strong customer connections and ensure that they retain the flexibility that will allow employees to be autonomous and passionate about their goal.

The author cites examples from Netflix and Warby Parker for how to do this.

At Netflix, the message to employees, once managers have made the context about the organisation and its operations clear, is: “We think you’re really good at what you do.  We’re not going to mandate how you do it, but we’re going to trust and empower you to do great work.”

At Warby Parker, they developed the “Warbles” program, where engineers are asked to suggest and advocate new technology initiatives, and to position them within the context of the organisation’s strategic intent. Although the ideas are voted on by senior management, individuals can also pursue any that they choose if they align with their priorities and can deliver “maximum value”.

RiverRhee delivers training, workshops and one-to-one coaching in range of management and team member skills.  See our website for more information.

“Nimble leadership”

Deborah Ancona, Elaine Backman and Kate Isaacs (all associated in some way with MIT), approach the subject of employee engagement from the perspective of retaining employees’ entrepreneurial spirit in mature organisations.

They use PARC and W.L.Gore as case studies in their article (Nimble Leadership, HBR July-August 2019, pp. 74-83) to describe three types of leadership, which, together with clear cultural norms, also result in a balance of flexibility and control.

THree types of leadership

Deborah Ancona et al’s three types of leaders and their characteristics are as follows:

1/ Entrepreneurial leaders who are very much in the frontline of the action in the two companies.  They “sense and seize” opportunities, or new initiatives, and influence their colleagues to join them, or provide resources to make them happen.

These entrepreneurial leaders are again well-tuned into the strategic goals of the organisation.  They have the self-confidence and energy that enable them to exercise autonomy.  They are also good at influencing and persuading others, whilst having the openness to listen to others’ views and the flexibility to change course if it makes sense to do so.

[These sound like they could be the senior scientists, or project leaders that we encounter in Life Science SMEs – but with a significantly different decision-making and resource allocation model.]

2/ Enabling leaders are generally more experienced than entrepreneurial leaders, and are there to coach, develop and connect the entrepreneurs to each other.  They also have a strong communicating role to ensure that everyone is kept abreast of the bigger picture:

  • What activities others are engaged in
  • The overall business context (which includes the vision, values and simple organisational rules – all key “guardrails” for decision-making)

[These sound like they could be the line managers we encounter in Life Science SMEs – but with a much more explicit remit for talent development and support.]

3/ Architecting leaders are essentially the senior leaders in an organisation who are paying attention to the bigger picture, and changing remit, culture and structure.  They initiate change, and will also respond to how the ‘bottom up’ initiatives may be a prompt for change.

Conclusion – some refreshing ideas for tackling employee engagement

These two articles have some very refreshing ideas for creating the combination of “flexibility and control” which seem to be key to achieving employee engagement.

Jennifer Leeder (Senior Associate at Birketts LLP) has some sobering data about the current state of employee engagement in the UK (“Taking steps to improve employee engagement”, Business Weekly, 31st July 2019, p. 14).

She quotes a 2017 Gallup analysis, State of the Global Workplace, revealing that only seven per cent of UK employees are actively engaged at work.  The data no doubt vary by sector but that is little consolation for this very low average.

I was interested to find three measures in Jennifer Leeder’s article that echo those in the HBR articles and would also create and support environments featuring flexibility and control:

  1. Define your culture. She mentions company values as a component of culture.
  2. Keep open and honest communication flowing between managers and employees.
  3. Develop your leaders and managers

How rigorously are you preserving the ‘soul’ of your organisation?  Are you making sure that everyone in your organisation is connected to your strategic intent, perfectly attuned to your customers’ perceptions and needs, and exercising autonomy within this well-defined framework of mission and values?

Are you keeping the communication flowing in all directions?  And are you developing your leaders and managers to sustain this way of working?


RiverRhee‘s offerings include team building workshops and leadership and management development. We can help you to articulate your vision, mission and values, as well as develop your team.  You can see further details and testimonials on our team building workshops and on our management development.

Elisabeth Goodman is the Owner and Principal Consultant at RiverRhee Consulting., a consultancy that specialises in “creating exceptional managers and teams”, with a focus on the Life Sciences. (We support our clients through courses, workshops and personal one-to-one coaching.)  Elisabeth founded RiverRhee Consulting in 2009, and prior to that had 25+ years’ experience in the Pharmaceutical Industry in line management and internal training and consultancy roles supporting Information Management and other business teams on a global basis.  RiverRhee is a member-to-member training provider for One Nucleus. 

Elisabeth is accredited in Change Management, in Lean Sigma, in Belbin Team Roles, MBTI (Myers Briggs Type Indicator) and is an NLP (NeuroLinguistic Programming) Practitioner. She is a member of CILIP (Chartered Institute for Library and Information Professionals) and of APM (Association for Project Management) in which she was a founding member of the Enabling Change SIG.

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