Leadership lessons from six Ottawa founders

As part of his Telfer EMBA, Michael Bell interviewed some of Ottawa’s most successful entrepreneurs to find out how they motivate and inspire their teams
Craig Fitzpatrick
PageCloud founder Craig Fitzpatrick

It was not too long ago that I had the opportunity to sit down with some of Ottawa’s leading technology entrepreneurs as part of my Telfer Executive MBA at the University of Ottawa. I deliberately set out to explore what makes these individuals “leaders” in their fields and how I can leverage this insight to better prepare myself for my transition from the military to the private sector.

The world of innovation, startups and entrepreneurship reminded me of what drew me to the military in the first place: The ability to have a direct and positive impact on the world, to be able to make things happen with my own hands and motivate others to do the same.

There were six entrepreneurs who were top of mind, namely Craig Fitzpatrick, the founder and CEO of PageCloud, Allan Wille, co-founder and CEO of Klipfolio, Chris Perram, founder and CEO of FileFacets, Nazim Ahmed, co-founder and CEO of CanvasPop, Jason Flick, founder and CEO of You.i TV, and Aydin Mirzaee, co-founder and co-CEO of Fluidware, which was sold to SurveyMonkey in 2014.

Maybe I shouldn’t have been so surprised, but once they heard what I was looking to do they all made the time to sit down with me. I feel I could write a book on the lessons learned in these six interviews alone, but I narrowed it down to these five key ideas.

Dream BIG! But don’t forget to execute

Dreaming big has a lot of upside: It can keep a team aligned, inspired and motivated, and it can help companies ride out startup turbulence. But it isn’t the size of the dream alone that matters, rather the willingness to take the risks required to turn dreams into a reality.

When management leads this way, they not only build credibility with their employees, but also create an environment where employees feel they have the space to grow. This often results in attracting talented people who are most likely to buy into that vision, and in turn focusing, pushing and developing them into the next generation of leaders and managers.

Ensure shared ownership

Ownership is an incredible motivator, but I don’t necessarily mean an employee stock option pool. I’m talking about ownership of the problem, the opportunity, the dream.

When responsibility is shared, and when we have the space to lead, take risks, fail and learn, we end up with a company of intrapreneurs willing to grind it out.

Nazim
Michael Bell (left) stands with the CEO of CanvasPop Nazim Ahmed. Ahmed was one of six CEOs Michael Bell interviewed as he researched what makes a great leader.

To succeed in establishing such a culture, senior management must be willing to look beyond job titles and positions on an organizational chart to realize that leadership, strategic thought and creativity can be found anywhere in the organization.

Facilitate creative conflict

When we open ourselves up to the free flow of ideas, conflict is inevitable. Most businesses would seek to reduce any instance of conflict in the workplace, but what is often missed is that conflict can be the greatest source of ingenuity.

When ideas are openly challenged, we are forced to consider other positions and reflect on the strengths and weaknesses of our own preconceived notions, resulting in more complete solutions.

In such situations, it is often leadership’s role to facilitate healthy dialogue; sometimes that means mediation to cool things down, and sometimes it means adding a little fuel to the fire.

Leaders set the tone

Startup leaders are the embodiment of their companies, and they therefore must live their lives in a way that reflects this. Said another way, the attitude of the company reflects that of the leadership; look around and let that sink in for a moment.

This is no more important than when navigating the inevitable periods of volatility. Leaders must control their emotions, remain positive, focus and be willing to dig in and get their hands dirty alongside those at all levels.

Allan
Klipfolio CEO Allan Wille

More often than not, the company will, with a strong sense of determination, rally around the leader and do whatever it takes to win.

Prioritize your team

The most common theme between these lessons is how critical the team is in the success of the company. Leadership’s No. 1 priority needs to be building the team in a way that is most likely to lead to a successful outcome for all.

This is often a major challenge as founders transition from manipulating ones and zeroes to influencing people, but it is do-or-die. Founders don’t scale, companies do.

Building a company of innovative and intrapreneurial leaders, people who will take stock in the big dream, share the risk and the burden in making it a reality, requires giving them the space to take risks, fai, and learn to challenge you and grow alongside you. Success here is what makes this handful of leaders amongst the best of the best.

Michael Bell is a graduate of the Telfer School of Management Executive MBA program and is transitioning from the Canadian Armed Forces to a career in tech. This article originally appeared in the fall print edition of Techopia.