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Some people are born leaders. Others have to be taught how to lead. And others still are petrified by the idea of being the person in charge – they’d rather just be issued marching orders and asked to complete a specific task.

And there’s nothing wrong with any of those roles (just ask the U.S. military). In fact, most companies are better off when they have a mix of each personality type.

With that being said, everyone can be a leader. They might just need a little nudging or coaching to get there.

The Year of Leadership

Earlier this year, I was inspired by what Scott Dorsey, CEO of ExactTarget (NYSE:ET) has done to develop their ExactTarget leaders. They have grown to almost 2,000 employees and have a terrific leadership team. At the same time, they are working on their next generation of leaders and have developed a best-in-class professional development team that provides both formal and informal leadership training programs. This year, ExactTarget has defined its people development statement as “The Year of Leadership.”

A couple of months ago, I was asked to speak to roughly 100 ExactTarget leaders as part of their development program (I have been on the Board of ExactTarget for almost 9 years and have watched it grow from roughly 30 employees in 2004). I was impressed by the eagerness and appreciation that the ET leaders had for the program and the company’s emphasis on developing them.

That’s why, at our annual review and planning meeting earlier this year, I followed Scott’s lead and issued a very simple challenge to our firm: Make 2013 your “Year of Leadership.”

The idea was to encourage our entire team – from newly hired associates to founding partners – to:

  • Lead something, even if they hadn’t done so previously
  • Lead better and more often
  • Improve their individual leadership levels

Why do I think developing leadership within every employee – regardless of their hierarchical standing or personality type – is so important?

It’s simple, really. One of the best ways to create true impact in a growing business (or venture capital firm) is to create a team full of innovators who aren’t afraid to start or embrace a movement.

That doesn’t mean I want to construct a team full of rigid, “Type A” extroverts who all feel like they should be spearheading every company initiative.

In fact, as serial entrepreneur Derek Sivers says in this excellent TED talk, leadership doesn’t always have to mean being the first person through the door. In fact, it can sometimes mean being what Sivers calls a “first follower” – the person who brings momentum to an idea by embracing it and encouraging others to join them.

That might remind you of the theory of diffusion of innovations, and it should.

Great ideas are just that – ideas. They don’t become something tangible or relevant until they’re embraced and implemented by a population larger than the original innovator (early adopters, early majority, etc.).

Leadership within a company is no different.

If everyone in your business is comfortable with leading something – be it an enormous, game-changing initiative or a simple task that falls under the umbrella of a bigger idea – then it will be easier to innovate. Everyone will slot into their respective leadership comfort zones and you’ll naturally possess leadership at every level of your organization.

If, on the other hand, your business is comprised solely of idea creators or just “first followers,” it’s going to be difficult to advance ideas beyond the initial stages of innovation (or have them embraced at all).

Leadership at all levels plays a critical role in the advancement of ideas, which is why it’s critical for every employee – whether they view themselves as innovators or not – to understand what it means to lead and to develop the skills to take charge when their strengths are applicable.

Are you ready to make 2013 the “Year of Leadership” at your company?

Doing so doesn’t require you to overhaul your entire corporate philosophy. In fact, it can be as simple as asking employees to:

  • Brainstorm for 10 minutes about changes they would make to improve the business
  • Write down ideas for how they could lead those changes
  • Choose one leadership opportunity per quarter to take on
  • Reflect on what did or didn’t work, and how they can improve as leaders

Having every employee embrace leadership might make some of them uncomfortable in the short term – particularly introverts who, as leadership consultant Lisa Petrilli writes in a post on her blog C-Level Strategies, don’t typically draw their energy from leading larger groups.

But that doesn’t mean those people are incapable of being dynamic leaders. In fact, they might prove to be some of your best leaders (or first followers).

It just comes down to context, and encouraging your employees – introverts and extroverts alike – to reflect on their strengths and weaknesses, and explore ways that they can leverage or improve them.

At the end of the day, doing that can boost employee engagement, productivity, and self-worth, and create a team-wide excitement around generating and executing new ideas.

What expansion-stage business wouldn’t benefit from that?

As the founder of OpenView, Scott focuses on distinctive business models and products that uniquely address a meaningful market pain point. This includes a broad interest in application and infrastructure companies, and businesses that are addressing the next generation of technology, including SaaS, cloud computing, mobile platforms, storage, networking, IT tools, and development tools.

  • Clint Wilson

    Great Saturday morning read Scott and my take away, “Lead something, even if they hadn’t done so previously”, as we enter our Q2 with many exciting leadership opportunities at our company.


    • Scott Maxwell

      Thanks Clint! Your takeaway is great…they will learn a lot in the process and your company will be better off!

      • Clint Wilson



  • Maria J. Trapani

    Great posting, Scott! There should be a license to fill in leadership positions. So many of those are just filled with bosses, not leaders; or at the other end of the spectrum, with micro-managers (anesthesia please!!) but not leaders. Opportunity cost and damage for a mistake like this for a company is hard to quantify but certainly HUGE. As you say, there are many styles of leadership- however all around the same core: to lead is to serve.

    • Scott Maxwell

      Thanks for the comment Maria! I like your point on leadership: “to lead is to serve”…I think that this is a great mindset to have!

      • Maria J. Trapani

        Thanks, Scott. That is just what history tells us: from A.Lincoln to Tim Cook. Maybe because of bad leaders is that those you mention do not dare take leadership positions: they may think that they won’t be able to do what their (bad) leaders are doing? -and thankfully so! We need to re-educate, re-wire people in terms of what is leadership. I believe we have a leadership crisis all over the world, in all fields: from governments to corporations and churches. Your “Year of Leadership” is a great call to action now. Should be a massive campaign!

        • Scott Maxwell

          I like your thinking Maria. I believe that there is something that is also impeding people at all levels from leading…it is probably partially bad management, but I think that their is something in the education system and many management systems that makes people believe that they should be able to predict outcomes from initiatives and that any “failure” in getting to an outcome is a failure in planning or execution. I think that this belief is completely wrong and makes people believe that failure to get to an outcome is their fault (many times there is faulty planning or execution, but many times you just can’t predict what the outcome is going to be…you need to try, learn, and iterate in my view). I believe that this “belief system” prevents many people from trying to lead new things…too much downside and not enough upside in their minds.

          • Maria J. Trapani

            Absolutely, Scott! Our biggest enemy and our biggest ally lives between our 2 ears. Few realize that even ‘failure’ is a learning experience. What you are saying on failure and beliefs reminds me of Shawn Achor’s message.
            Re. predictability: look at The Street! And look at many mammoth-like (dinosaurs?) corporations trying to keep up with change, without taking any risk or demanding some ‘failure insurance’ in order to make a decision. Thanks God for entrepreneurship. I strongly believe entrepreneurs will keep the world going and the economy healthier.

          • Scott Maxwell

            I agree on entrepreneurs and appreciate the link to the video (really good stuff!). I have been working with Scrum guru Jeff Sutherland for several years trying to figure out how to bake these kinds of things into management systems for expansion stage companies (Scrum was originally a management system for software development that we have been adapting). The idea is that if we can get specific items baked into a rhythm for a company, then the people in the company will both be more aligned and develop faster, thereby leading to better company development.

            Jeff has actually been working on baking a happiness index into the practice of retrospectives (similar to the after action review that the U.S. military uses), one of the basic Scrum practices. Here is a link to some of his thinking on the topic:

            There is a short daily meeting in the practices of Scrum (called the Scrum) whereby each of the Scrum team members is asked to answer three questions:

            1. what did I do yesterday?

            2. what am I going to work on today?

            3. what are my impediments?

            I just e-mailed Jeff with the link to the video suggesting that perhaps their should be a fourth question: “What am I grateful for?” or “what am I happy about?” in keeping with the Shawn’s suggestion.

            thanks again Maria!


          • Maria J. Trapani

            Thanks to you Scott for introducing me to Scrum. WOW!!! Although I am not surprised to see that reflection practice is central to this, I AM surprised at the numbers. I will share this with sr execs at work- i wonder if we would have been scrumming at the few mergers I participated in, would results have been better. Shall also share Scrum at another venture I am involved in.

            I like your 3 questions (will try them in my team as a quiet pilot and let you know in a few months!). I feel that in my world, people just run-run-run without thinking/reflecting much. Stopping to reflect twice a year at the scheduled career planning time and at performance appraisal time is nothing! Then negative surprises come, but they have been living in total disconnect with reality, while feeding totally off expectations.

            Ah, gratefulness! Just a part of the practice of awareness. As you were saying earlier, we focus and are pushed to focus too much on the negatives/failures/weaknesses/fears/lacking. We often forget gratefulness while it can be so empowering. I believe it is one of the key switches to positive thinking and to leadership, and an antidote to bad-type stress and low self-esteem, and many other things!

  • Zikria Syed

    Love the idea of creating the culture of leadership in the organization and having every employee lead something. The practical tips for how to implement are great as well.