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Midstage Founders' Frequently Asked Questions | See all

What a Midstage Startup Leader Should Focus On: Why and Who

Journalists’ six standard questions

“I keep six honest serving-men\ “(They taught me all I knew)\ “Their names are What and Why and When \ “And How and Where and Who.”

— Rudyard Kipling

Kipling’s quote is famously taught to journalists. If you can ask and answer all of these questions about something that happened, you have the basis of a good news story.

Also a good guide for who should focus on what

But in the midstage startup companies that we work with, we also employ this to kickstart momentum in delegation as well as true leadership:

  1. Top leaders should focus on the “why” and the “who”
  2. Middle leaders should focus on the “what” and the “where”
  3. Contributors and frontline leaders should focus on the “how” and the “when” questions.

Closely linked to the policy-process-procedure triangle

The foundation for this division of responsibilities is the key perspective each level of leadership brings to the table, as expressed in the policy-process-procedure triangle.

Focusing on the Why and the Who

“Why” provides context and sets criteria for the solution

“Why” questions are really questions about the context of a problem or decision, the reason behind it being problem:

This is especially important when discussing wicked problems that may not be so straightforward for teams to grok and/or where teams might get into endless discussions in trying to agree what the problem is and which solution is most important. Top leaders try to answer why questions proactively to:

  1. focus their teams on the bigger picture
  2. get teams to understand the problem that needs to be resolved
  3. get teams to agree to the criteria that the solution needs to fulfill to be evaluated as good

For example, a CEO/founder could just ask for a new sales plan. Or they could ask for a new sales plan, reasoning that other startups in their field have been growing faster, investors are piling on pressure in the board and the new products launched last quarter have yet to show strong traction. Which sales plan would be more effective to drive change in the company?

“Who before What” delegates solution design to appropriate teams

The other question top leaders should answer is the “Who” question:

  1. on a tactical level, as in “who on the team is going to resolve this issue?”
  2. on a strategic level, as in “who is the right person for this leadership position?”

Founders/CEOs have invariably become successful by taking tight control of solution design and implementing products, in other words, the “What”. But as their company scales, it becomes important to leave the “what” to specialized teams and just decide who is on these specialized teams.

That is why we often implore founders and CEOs to impose on themselves the “Who before what” rule: whenever an issue comes up, never even start talking about what could be done. In stead, ensure that one person (or, in case of a conflict, the two people on either side of the conflict) are in charge with finding a solution. If you do want to provide guidance, then provide guidance around the “why” questions (see above).

As a top leader, are you staying in your lane?

Example issue Wrong focus Right focus
Sales Director hiring <p>“Here is the job description”
“How are they going to work with the VP?”</p>
<p>“Why will their role make an impact?”
“Who is leading the hiring?”</p>
Annual budget <p>“We need to cut 5%”
“Why are your travel costs so high?”</p>
<p>“We need to be in the top 25% of startups to get funding”
“Who is in charge of the budget?”</p>


[1] Contingent: when the opposite decision could also have been taken and could have been equally valid in other circumstances. Excuse the long explanation, but for example: who should be responsible for upselling to current clients? Should it be sales or should it be account management or should it be customer success? Teams can argue eternally in either direction but the fact of the matter is that there are good reasons for each solution, and different successful companies have followed different models. What leads to constant confusion and friction, however, is if within one company, the decision is not clear. So even if the decision itself is contingent, it still must be made one way or the other and it must be above contention. That is why only top leaders/founders can make it.

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