What We Learned This Year About Company Founders and Leaders

This past summer, our team was comparing and contrasting - from an operational perspective - the three Junto cohorts we have had. My business partner, Catherine Jelinek, and I were reflecting on how much the Junto "product" had improved over the three years, as any business typically experiences over time, and how much we learned particularly from the first program.

Upon hearing our reflections, our colleague Caroline Rafferty summarized that initial cohort as aptly as anyone could have. "JuntoI was like a first pancake," she remarked. "It's overcooked or undercooked, and sometimes you don't want to serve it." Catherine and I broke into laughter and the "first pancake" metaphor became part of Junto lore.

As I personally think back to that conversation, I realize how much we learned this year, not only about our product and operations but also about the founders and leaders of high-growth companies. It was humbling for me, given that I've been around entrepreneurs for over 20 years; I thought I already knew so much about them. Alas, it was just another example of "the older you get, the more you realize how little you know."

So in the interest of sharing these lessons learned so that others may benefit, here they are, in no particular order. 

  • It's lonelier at the top than we thought. Many of the JuntoCompanies enroll in our apprenticeship program because they want to be around peers and learn from their shared experiences. In addition to the program, we offer multiple social and networking opportunities for that to happen. But this year, we discovered that the JuntoApprentices, who interface with their peers almost weekly, crave even more interaction with fellow entrepreneurs. We also heard how much they and our alumni want to meet those across the three cohorts and that everyone wants to leverage the power of the larger Junto community. 

  • "Shiny object syndrome" is, in fact, a syndrome. This subject matter came up periodically during our second cohort in 2014. But this year, it came up regularly at Junto during forum sessions, classes, and mentor meetings. Yes, we always hear seasoned entrepreneurs and investors talking about the need to stay focused. But I believe it might be easier if we position it as the need to not get distracted by shiny new objects. From my experience, that positioning seems to resonate more than simply "focus, focus, focus."

  • Those that learn together perform better. One of our guiding principles is that of aligned learning: when people learn alongside each other, they are immediately aligned, learn more through their conversations, and execute faster. We witnessed that this year with several companies that were diligent about bringing the same team to virtually every class and mentoring session. Those companies seemed to perform at a higher level than other companies have in the past, and had the results to show for it. Going forward, we will strongly encourage companies in Junto to keep the full team engaged as much as possible throughout the program.

  • Most entrepreneurs struggle with vision, mission, and values. Company founders are, by nature, visionary people. They tend to know why they're building what they are, what motivates them everyday, and what they believe in. But when they must articulate a vision, mission, and core values to their team - or collectively create those - many struggle mightily. We observed and heard that several times this year and are now exploring how we can integrate those topics to a greater extent at Junto.

  • Leadership team conflict is normal, and a part of becoming a better company. This year, many of the JuntoCompanies experienced a challenge of some sort within their leadership team, whether they were co-founders or not. We're now able to share these experiences with future Junto companies and explain how the conflict actually helped some of them, not to mention make introductions to those who went through it.

I'm confident that, as we turn the page on 2015, there will be additional lessons I realize that we learned about the people we serve. What I'm most excited about is how we use those next year to make the pancake batter for the fourth Junto cohort even better.