A Startup Leader’s Path Towards Action-Based Mastery

Standing out as a deliverer in your startup leadership career

Adel Hameed


Photo by Brad Barmore on Unsplash

One of the most prominent challenges CEOs find in hiring top-level executives is finding experienced leaders who are both strong at critical analytical thinking and excel at delivering effective results. This rare breed of leaders seems rare everywhere around the world. The smaller the company, the more critical it is to have such qualities in these leaders because they have fewer resources to waste while building a profitable, self-sustaining operation. To simplify, let’s refer to this executive type as an Operating Executive.

In this article, we’ll explore one of the SAUS tools, the ABM Startup Leadership Framework, a thinking tool that aims to help you become a more effective operating executive and a startup leader.

What’s the capability of a startup leader?

These top-level leaders are the role models for the rest of the company. Selecting them to fit the culture of delivering results and cultivating teamwork is critical to building a scalable operation.

Some of the capabilities and skills these executives must have include the following:

  1. They’re experts in one field but have some experience in other fields, or are at least curious to learn.
  2. They have a personal style complementary to their peers and their direct reports, as opposed to the same styles. For example, if everyone is social but bad at documentation of plans, the team will be in trouble. I share more about this subject in my book, Skill Up as You Scale Up.
  3. They control their ego, working as a team instead of being bosses and using their titles. In a startup, these leaders need to bring in new leaders to take on more operational responsibilities, who can also hire other leaders in the following management layer.
  4. They have both startup and corporate experience, with some success in both roles. The corporate experience would teach them what a mature operation in their specialized function looks like. The startup experience would teach them how to prioritize suitable projects and initiatives with their limited resources and information and maximize the benefits gained.
  5. People who would act as partners, not just employees.

The list can be longer, but I’ll limit it to these points, which serve the purpose of this article.

In other words, these leaders need to be operating executives who can build the operation and grow with their roles as they achieve their growth in valuation milestones. An operating executive is a senior business leader with many years of experience building scalable business operations. They deliver results by building systems that enable functions to deliver value to the customers, partners, and internal stakeholders in harmony. Their expertise includes their ability to employ tools such as software, hardware, checklists, and other tools that will create a self-sustaining operation that runs as a well-oiled engine.

Why do most executives struggle to deliver tangible results?

When the CEO asks you, as a startup leader responsible for the customer success function, to reduce customer churn and complaints, what will you do, and where will you start? Most executives struggle and fail in these situations because they’re not trained to think in a structured scientific manner to list the potential causes, verify them, prioritize them, and pick the ones to focus on solving.

They’ll make the list and go with their assumptions and gut feelings without talking to the customers or conducting exit interviews. While working with startups as a cofounder, employee, and mentor, I’ve seen many executives with great corporate resumes fail miserably in a startup environment.

Most executives struggle to balance between strategy, tactical, and operational activities, where they start losing sight and having blindspots in their functions. As human beings, we like stability and tend to let our guard down, assuming if we hear nothing, that means everything is running well. While in reality, it’s the opposite. In most cases, startup leaders are so passionate about their function that they become defensive about their work. As a result, people worry about sharing feedback. So, if something isn’t working well, people will stay quiet until things start falling apart. It will be too late once the function leader finds out about it.

What’s the ABM Framework, and how can it help them become focused deliverers?

ABM stands for Action-Based Mastery, an approach I developed to help me focus on delivering results by balancing my time and effort between strategic, operational, and tactical activities and adjusting them as needed depending on the priorities of the situation. Another trap many startup leaders fall into is designing a maneuver in case they fail to deliver, which is typical for leaders from highly political corporate environments. There are more mistakes that I won’t be able to cover in this short article. At each stage of the evolution of a startup, your priorities and depth of engagement will change, as illustrated in Figure 1.

This is also inspired by the way inventors and scientists work in solving problems. Inventors, when they try to solve a problem, don’t get a master’s degree in electronic engineering to solve an electronics problem. Instead, they’ll look for quick ways to find the answers they’re looking for and hack their way through building the prototype solution, building on an existing product, or bringing an expert to build that component. They’ll research, brainstorm, and talk to peers and colleagues to quickly build a solution without falling into the trap of perfection.

Operating Executives in startups are like inventors and scientists; they are doers and have a way of scoping nested problems that will solve the bigger problem and focus on delivering fixes to each nested problem, choosing the critical path to achieve the objectives. By following the critical path philosophy, operating executives aim to build solutions through the least number of tasks requiring the least amount of resources. Determining which critical path is optimal for you depends on the situation at that specific point in time. If you have an urgency to go to market with a solution, then you need to increase the spending by hiring more resources to do more work in parallel to achieve the faster timeline you’re aiming at

To learn more about the ABM startup leadership framework and other tools in the SAUS startup leader’s toolbox, make sure you follow me on my profiles and sign up for my newsletters.



Adel Hameed

Helping Startup/ Scaleup Leaders implement incremental operational excellence through the SAUS (Skill-up As You Scale-up) System.