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Great ideas are good, but weak leadership can really drag a startup down | Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

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October 18-20, 2023 / Tucson, AZ
The annual summit for research institution gap fund and accelerator programs, including proof of concept programs, startup accelerators, and university venture funds

The Story

When Crystal Morrison was promoted to a leadership role at Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico, she had a bit of a breakdown.

Most of her career up to that point had been in scientific research, given the Ph.D. in macromolecular science and engineering she’d earned at the University of Michigan in 2003.

She’s extroverted and social, Ms. Morrison said, but going from staff scientist to leading a full team caused her to “straight up hit a wall.”

“I was in a parking lot, bawling my eyes out,” she said. “None of my training prepared me for that leap.”

Since moving to Pittsburgh in 2012, she’s had an idea to create a company completely focused on leadership training for people like her — smart, geeky, and perhaps a bit nervous.

In March 2018, she started EverRise, a leadership consulting firm in Squirrel Hill.

She focuses on emotional intelligence and honing soft skills.

“If you walk into the lab and someone is not doing what you think they should be doing at that moment … do you turn that into criticizing them as a scientist, which I’ve seen about a thousand times?” Ms. Morrison said. “Or turn it into an inquiry where you say, ‘Hey, what’s going on?’ and you may learn critical information.”

Even the region’s startup accelerators are padding out their curriculum with leadership training — something Ms. Morrison said had been notably missing in past years.

Struggling to communicate

There are some common leadership mistakes that young companies make, according to a study on startup failure rates by Statistic Brain Research Institute, a market research firm based in Ladera Ranch, Calif.

Management may have a lack of focus or commitment, according to the study. And startup leaders tend to have too much pride, which, in turn, creates an inability to respond to feedback.

Ms. Morrison knows firsthand how passionate these founders are about the tech they’re building.

“They have devoted all of their time and all of their energy into trying to get their baby off the ground,” she said.

As they scale and new employees come in, though, complications crop up.

“A struggle often arises when the same level of passion and knowledge that the founder has is not translated directly to that next layer of employees,” Ms. Morrison said.

Or, when that communication isn’t exactly appropriate. There’s no dearth of examples of badly behaved tech execs.

Elon Musk has a had a tumultuous relationship with the Securities and Exchange Commission.

The SEC charged the Tesla CEO with securities fraud after he tweeted misleading information about taking the electric car company private.

Then there’s Travis Kalanick, former CEO of Uber, who was eventually ousted from his post in August 2017. He was infamous for his toxic leadership, which included circulating a company-wide email in 2013 setting ground rules about sex and taking illegal drugs at a company party in Miami, Fla. He was also caught on video verbally berating an Uber driver.

In a company blog post, Mr. Kalanick apologized.

“…I must fundamentally change as a leader and grow up,” he wrote. “This is the first time I’ve been willing to admit that I need leadership help and I intend to get it.”

Ms. Morrison doesn’t want to see Pittsburgh-area founders making mistakes like these top CEOs.

No ethics, no work

Innovation Works is a North Side-based early-stage investment program that runs both the AlphaLab and AlphaLab Gear accelerators in East Liberty. Over the last few months, Innovation Works has been thinking about ways to improve leadership practices by partnering with Carnegie Mellon University’s Community Robotics, Education and Technology Empowerment (CREATE) Lab in Oakland.

The goal is to build out ethical leadership training for companies, so founders are thinking about culture and ethics proactively, rather than reactively.

‘You can’t make every little decision for your team … they have to know what you, as a leader, intend,” said Ilana Diamond, managing director of hardware at AlphaLab Gear. “You have to be transparent about it and communicating about it from the beginning.”

She said AlphaLab Gear, which helps product-focused startup companies, will pilot this program with its new cohort, which starts this month. Based on that experience, the team will revise the leadership training for other accelerators.

Ms. Diamond said that if companies don’t learn how to effectively lead from the get-go, they’ll struggle to hire employees moving forward.

“This generation of students care deeply about these [ethical] issues and they want to know that their values are in alignment with the leader and organization and they won’t work for companies without that,” she said.

She notes that large tech firms are experiencing much the same problem, with employees “pushing back” when they don’t agree from an ethical standpoint.

Last November, at least 150 Google employees and independent contractors walked out of the engineering office in Bakery Square to protest the tech giant’s handling of sexual misconduct allegations. It was part of a larger organized walkout for Google employees across the globe.

About 450 Amazon workers wrote to CEO Jeff Bezos last fall to demand the company stop selling a piece of software, called Rekognition, to police forces. It’s a facial recognition technology often used for surveillance purposes.

Meanwhile, Ms. Morrison works with a mix of businesses and individuals to teach leadership skills that should prevent these kinds of controversies among employees.

With startups, she primarily helps founders and chief technology officers who lack direction. All in all, she’s already worked with at least 10 clients.

These are typically six-month programs, Ms. Morrison said. Depending on the number of employees on a team, the costs range from $2,500 per month to $7,500 per month.

And what if companies don’t get leadership training at all? That’s not a good look, Ms. Morrison said.

“The rest of the team is excited. They’re in a startup. They have freedom and they don’t really know if they’re going in a meaningful direction,” she said.

“And before you know it, you add on more employees and you get more funding and you get more people stating to question, ‘What direction are we going here?’”


Source: Great ideas are good, but weak leadership can really drag a startup down | Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

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