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Advice / Succeeding at Work / Getting Ahead

3 Steps I Took to Grow My Leadership Skills at a Startup (and How You Can, Too!)

people working at a startup
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Choosing my career path after college came down to answering one particular question: Should I work for a big company or a startup?

To me, one advantage of working at a large corporation would be the presence of carefully considered leadership development programs—programs that are put in place to groom the future leaders of the organization. As a result, coming in as a recent graduate, you’re exposed to vast swaths of the organization and an immersive and comprehensive learning experience.

This was an important factor in my decision-making process as I’d pivoted away from my intended career path (neuropsychology research). By the time I realized I was truly passionate about building businesses, it was too late to change majors, and I knew that I would need to learn the foundations on the job instead of in the classroom.

I, of course, was highly tempted by these leadership development programs after I graduated—but at the same time, I was overwhelmed by the idea of working for an organization with tens of thousands of employees. Plus, the culture and ways of working seemed at odds with my ethos. I grew up around startups. Watching my parents build companies from the ground up gave me an unshakeable desire to do the same, and I knew that when the time came to start my own business (which was my main goal), I would need to understand the nuances of early-stage company growth.

The challenge with that, of course, is that the quintessential startup experience is more likely to include a kitchen outfitted with kombucha on tap than a structured and organized process for personal career development.

This isn’t to say that startups lack learning opportunities, nor that employees languish without these benefits. Startups are highly sought after because of the vast opportunities they provide to learn and thrive in an unstructured and yet-to-be-defined environment.

So, following my gut, I ultimately decided to begin my career working at a startup. Instead of waiting for my company to create a rotational leadership program for me, I invented my own version. I knew that if I chose the right startup and was strategic about how I navigated the space, I could leverage my experience to accelerate my personal career growth and set myself on a management trajectory.

And it worked! Three years later, I’m the Product Director at Bionic, working closely with our leadership team to elucidate product development initiatives that add value to our Fortune 500 enterprise clients.

Here’s how I got here:

1. I Found a Startup in a High-Growth Space With a Small Team—and Used That to My Advantage

I knew two things walking into my role as an accelerator associate: that the whole company was comprised of about 10 people, and that the field it would be in—helping enterprises avoid disruption by launching new products and making early-stage investments—was growing and evolving rapidly, as evidenced by the surge of books, articles, and consultancies in the space. Because there were a lot of unknowns, there were no formal processes for doing, well, anything.

I saw this as a feature rather than a bug, knowing that I would be able to experience a lot of important setbacks and breakthroughs and have my hands in a lot of different projects. Problems would arise daily, and I treated each one as an opportunity to brainstorm a solution. And because of our size, it was perfectly acceptable for me to raise my hand and offer to help in an area of the business that had nothing to do with my role on paper.

What mattered most to the company was that someone got it done. Being this person helped me garner trust among the leaders of the company, and because they trusted me, I would get invited to more meetings.

And yes, at first, I was usually in those meetings to take notes or maybe make a slide afterward. But I was also able to listen in on some of the more important conversations that were happening—about our growth strategy, friction in our service delivery model, and disagreements on methodology. They were living and breathing learning moments, and I drank them up. This early exposure was critical in helping me to think more strategically as I took on more and more responsibility in the company.

Want to Do What I Did? Read: How to Land a Startup Job (Before Anyone Else Knows It’s Available)

2. I Looked for a Group of Leaders (and Peers) I Could Learn From

I was fortunate enough to have met with nearly every single employee during my interview process (remember, there were only 10 people). In those meetings, I noticed how bright, articulate, and passionate about the mission each person was, and sensed that I could learn a lot from them—which further convinced me to take the job.

As it turned out, I was right. By my second year, I’d reported up to six different people at different times and worked closely with all (at this point, 30!) employees. This meant that I also had the chance to work with all of the company’s leaders and saw firsthand how they approached problem-solving, team-building, communication, and other critical elements of being a good leader. This helped define what kind of leadership style I wanted to (and would) take on later in my career.

Want to Do What I Did? Read: 22 Interview Questions That’ll Get You the Real Inside Scoop on Company Culture

3. I Ignored My Job Description and Took a Leap

The company was rapidly growing, and so there were often times where we weren’t able to fill key talent gaps in time. Additionally, new roles were constantly emerging as we grew.

These were precious moments when I was able to step up and think outside of my direct responsibilities. I’ve watched plenty of other entry-level hires pull out their job descriptions as a reason not to do something. While I applauded their ability to say no, I knew one of the best ways I was going to grow was by forcing myself to try something new. And I knew the only way I would be able to prove that I could do something without prior experience was by actually doing it.

Every single job I’ve had at Bionic didn’t exist before I identified it, pitched it, and took it on. For example, when we launched our account management team, I noticed a gap in resources and support. I raised my hand, pointed it out, and wrote up what responsibilities I thought someone would need to cover to fill this gap. Not only did I outline what ended up being a full-time job for me, but it also became a critical role inside the company, and we ended up hiring two additional people to do this work full time.

In all of these cases, I took the time to understand the problem, and while I didn’t always have the traditional expertise or resume to fill it, I had enough context about the business to add value and move us forward. Those moments allowed for immersive learning experiences, ultimately helping me to become more well-rounded and connected inside of the organization.

Want to Do What I Did? Read: 2 Easy Ways to Expand Your Role (Without Overstepping Your Boundaries)

Joining a startup was the best decision I could have made for my career. It allowed me to contribute to and learn about literally every area of a business, from sales to product to account management to operations and back office support. And within three years, I’ve gone from an entry-level associate to a director—a leap almost unthinkable in other industries or at other companies.

But perhaps most importantly, I picked up a valuable lesson about business and life that everyone should take note of: Growth happens when aspiration meets opportunity. So do your research and choose wisely, and then get ready to roll up your sleeves.