Leading your startup to success

Building leadership, company structures and a culture that scale


Laura Warden

May 29, 2023

Leadership is the cornerstone of any winning startup. As a founder, you possess a unique opportunity to shape the direction, structure and culture of your company from day one, as well as instilling strong leadership practices and principles within your leadership teams and the wider team. 

In a recent learning and development session for our founders, we were joined by Nic Hopkins from Up & to the Right Consulting (former VP of People with Webflow) and Dianah Ward from Dianah Ward Consulting (former Head of People with Eucalyptus & Canva) to take our founders through establishing strong leadership and company structures and building a culture that scale.

If implemented, these practices and principles can lay a strong foundation that enables growth, adaptability, accountability, and ultimately, the success of your startup. 

Building your leadership team and company structure

Consider organisational design principles from the outset of building your team and company. But, wait, what is this? In short, how you structure and run a company. This will then enable your company to achieve its strategy, flexibly scale, establish accountability and have productive leadership.

How do you do this? First, consider leadership structure: How many C-Suite, Heads of, direct reports, do all leadership (including you as a founder) have to accomplish the above points? Then consider the below for your org structure:

  • Agility of roles - adaptable/open vs. structured/defined job descriptions
  • Decision making - autonomous vs. centralised
  • Collaboration - cross functional (generalised teams) vs. departments (specialised)
  • Hierarchy - flat vs. vertical

What else should you consider as you scale? 

  • Founder’s span of control - what do you need to have decision-making power over and what should you hand down. Here it is critical to think about delegation and building your leadership team (whether coaching or hiring the right people) to be able to handle tasks you are handing down to them, and then trusting them.
  • Leadership team’s span of control - avoid “too many cooks” with clear lines of ownership and accountability to avoid duplication and critical (often complex) leadership issues made more complex by assumptive ownership. Additionally, be conscious who you hire in C-Suite/lead roles as you may need to scale these teams and add levels above them.
  • Like with the above point on leadership roles, be intentional in company structure and design to reduce risk of overlap in roles and business areas.
  • Ensure transparent communication and decision making within leadership and consistent communication is filtered to the whole organisation. How? Implement leadership meetings. It may sound small but, as with having consistent and thorough 1:1s, this is critical and hugely impactful if done right and if this habit is started from the outset.
  • Over communicate the strategy. This prevents goal silos forming, ensures teams and individuals tie their work to these and feel purpose on an individual, team and organisational level.
  • Execution will slow down as you scale. Ask yourself the “5 why's” to get to the root cause and take action. Be transparent to the team and communicate why you are seeing this and what you are doing about it.

Scaling culture

This is hard, but not impossible. Culture is a sum of behaviours and therefore scaling means more behaviours to manage and align to your company’s culture. 

So, how can we go about planning and executing a successful scaling culture?

  • Ensure people belong and have purpose. Looking at Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, it is essential people have a sense of survival and security for cultural engagement, but to ensure culture is strong and you differentiate your company as you scale, you need to think about instilling belonging, importance and self-actualisation to the day to day. How? through processes from hiring, onboarding, team management, performance and development management, values and how you show up and communicate as a leader in the firm. 
  • Create strong, intentional communication norms that will scale, starting by aligning on what best practices you want embedded in your culture. Consider how you use meetings, ensuring you don’t become the meme “I survived another meeting that should have been an email”, assess your remote/hybrid setups to ensure this is actually what works best for your business, and assess the tools you use and why. And on that note, we loved the phrase Nic and Dianah’s used “no agenda, no attenda” for meetings! 
  • Decide and frame the culture you want in the form of your mission, vision and values. Over communicate these in your processes and strategy. Create a safe and inclusive environment, development and opportunities, clear, transparent and consistent communication, and ensuring a sense of purpose to all. 

Instilling leadership and cultural practices takes time and intentionality. As a founder or leader, you owe it to your team and company to take the time to do this as it is not just for the culture, but the overall success of a business. 

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