How Corporate Experience Can Prepare You For Leadership at a Startup

People tend to categorize, and while mental boxes can be useful, they can also lead to false divisions. Consider the binary between corporate and startup. Corporate culture is about hierarchy, role specialization, formality, and contrast-collared shirts, while startups are all about social leadership, free-form structures, youthful energy, and hoodies emblazoned with pop-culture shout-outs.

How working can prepare for senior position

These are, of course, oversimplifications. Every corporation began as a startup, even if its origin can be traced back several hundred years. Startups that survive mature into their corporate selves one day. And both operate within the same overarching business culture.

Oversimplifications can also blind us to the fact that the skills learned at one are transferable to the other, and can be vital to that type of company’s future. If you’re in corporate now and looking for something new, your work history may make you the perfect candidate for a senior position leading a startup.

You are the industry map

A startup team may understand their product and service. They may have a general knowledge of the industry they want to disrupt. What they likely lack, however, is trade knowledge. Lucky for them, your career in corporate has given you that knowledge.

During your tenure, you may have collected sales experience, technical know-how, an intuition for which data are important and which are noise, and much more. This knowledge provides you an overhead view of the industry’s landscape, and your team can access that map to determine where their product/service can make the most impact efficiently.

At a young company, such understanding can be critical to positioning or understanding how to iterate offerings to meet previously unconsidered needs.

Building a strong foundation

Startups are still developing many of the protocols, structures, and cultural foundations that corporations set long ago. Because of this, in a senior management position, you would have an outsized influence on how those developed.

Having seen what works and what does not, you can help your team avoid the potholes so many other companies have stumbled through. For example, you may be able to identify inefficient practices you witnessed in the corporate world, weeding them out early or stopping their adoption outright.

Sometimes, startups can be run by dreamers who are more at ease with their ideas than in day-to-day operations. To these innovators, your skills will be invaluable in designing a strong culture that fosters innovation, empowers employees, and creates a foundation they can build on for years to come.

The startup’s wingman

Startups do not have the connections that corporations take for granted. Sure, the internet makes cold calling easier than ever, but startups still lack those deep, long-term relationships.

You, however, have made the time to build those relationships, potentially across many industries. You’ve networked, gotten your name out there, and built a sterling reputation that precedes you. This makes you and your address book invaluable assets to any startup. You can skip the cold call and help your team by making the introductions they so desperately need.

You can also teach your young colleagues the language and interpersonal skills necessary to interact with these businesspeople and potential clients on their terms.

Scale it up

Every startup aims to grow and mature. For them, it is an exciting new phase. You have seen what scaled up looks like though. You can use this insight to help the startup grow favorably.

However, it is important to remember that a successful startup will not be a copy-paste of your past experiences. It will be its own thing. Your role, and the theme of this blog post, is one of mentorship. You offer the guidance and insider knowledge that supports its goals and eases its growing pains.

In return, you get to work at a place that values and cultivates creativity and embraces risk-taking. Even in a senior position, you get to experiment, innovate, and develop your role in ways that were not possible in corporate’s more role-specialized model.

In that way, education and growth are a two-way street. You and the startup can grow together and get the chance to build something that may be truly special.

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