Grown, Not Born
5 minute read

Grown, Not Born: Jonny Slater on Leadership Lessons from the Startup Trenches

In this installment of our "Grown, Not Born" series, we sit down with Jonny Slater, a serial Founder, Mentor, and Angel Investor now dedicated to guiding emerging startups. Jonny opens up about his transition from an autonomous entrepreneur to a responsible manager, sharing candid insights on the initial struggles, the importance of leading by example, and the critical role of personal wellbeing in effective leadership. Discover Jonny’s practical advice on building a results-focused team, maintaining strong relationships in remote settings, and navigating the challenges of balancing individual and team needs.

Sarah: Can you tell me about your experience transitioning into a managerial role? What did you find most challenging initially?

Jonny: I was an Entrepreneur & Co-founder with a vast amount of autonomy when we first started. When we made our first hires, suddenly I had direct reports who relied on my leadership and direction. Going from Entrepreneur to Manager, It’s a different type of responsibility and it takes up a fair amount of headspace. I don’t think I particularly enjoyed it at first. You have to turn up every day, be there when you said you would be, there’s no option to get an extra hour's sleep if you need it, for example. For myself, it wasn’t easy to adapt to that in the early days of being a Founder. Looking back, I think personal wellbeing and health are most important to taking on this responsibility successfully. Good sleep, regular exercise, good food habits. These all play a part in being able to turn up every day, they help to shift your mindset from ‘un-negotiable negative responsibility’ to ‘I want to be here to help this person‘. Top tip: Get a fitness coach. They’re less than £100 per month. Find one who will guide you and keep you accountable across sleep, exercise, and diet. Oh, and also get Waggle :D

When we made our first hires, suddenly I had direct reports who relied on my leadership and direction. Going from Entrepreneur to Manager, It’s a different type of responsibility and it takes up a fair amount of headspace.

Sarah: Can you share a significant learning experience from a mistake or failure as a manager?

Jonny: An earlier company I founded failed because of poor leadership and management. It stemmed down to asking direct reports to do things I didn’t want to do myself. I was visibly not contributing to the goals I was asking of my direct reports, and I had a low work ethic. Recipe for disaster. Well, more like a recipe for slow painful decline. Appearances are important. Direct reports want to see their Manager contributing to goals and they will often see their Manager's work ethic (or output) as the baseline to emulate.

An earlier company I founded failed because of poor leadership and management. It stemmed down to asking direct reports to do things I didn’t want to do myself.

Sarah: How do you assess performance within your team?

Jonny: I love the concept of a results-focused work environment. Identify a small number of core KPIs and use them to measure the effectiveness of your business unit. Give employees a fair amount of freedom to be able to achieve the necessary outputs and to be able to test new processes/methods. When people are given autonomy to solve a problem or achieve a goal, they’re often very innovative. Make sure your metrics are not ‘vanity metrics’. Choose the ones which really matter, which really move the needle. Revenue is top (profitable revenue that is), and anything which sustainably leads to revenue is next.

Sarah: What unique challenges have you faced with remote or hybrid work settings, and how have you addressed them?

Jonny: Team relationships. Remote working can lead to more distant relationships. Our entire company was remote, including our product delivery being online only. There are a couple of easy wins here. Get people together in person a few times a year, have a big team retreat at Christmas. We also had a regular weekly online meeting where people could relax and weren’t allowed to talk about work. That was helpful in maintaining connection.

Sarah: How do you balance the needs of individual team members with those of the team as a whole?

Jonny: I only managed small teams (up to 6 people) and they were fairly aligned in what they needed. The company's core KPIs were publicly known and we were always transparent about company progress. We had flexible CPD & home office improvement budgets which they all spent in different ways.

The company's core KPIs were publicly known and we were always transparent about company progress.

Sarah: How do you recognize and address signs of stress or burnout in yourself and your team members?

Jonny: As a start-up, we were always near capacity and things often felt frantic in the early days. Awarding share options always helped! Setting and managing expectations at the point of interview is important and strictly maintaining employment contract working hours was helpful. If the contract says 37.5 hours, managers should advocate that's never exceeded. Fortunately didn't see any significant cases of burnout in my team, but I'd go back to the benefits of having a health coach and getting your sleep, exercise, and diet into a good place.

Setting and managing expectations at the point of interview is important

Sarah: How do you ensure that your team's work aligns with the broader goals of the organization?

Jonny: Managing up is important. The organization needs to be transparent with its important goals/KPIs and managers should communicate them across the working matrix accordingly.

Sarah: What strategies do you use to prioritize tasks when everything seems urgent?

Jonny: Any tasks which affect the performance of other team members would be done first. If everything is urgent and contributes to the company's core KPIs equally, I guess I'd start with the easy wins and the ones which take the least amount of time :D

Sarah: In the next 12 months, what manager related goal do you want to achieve? (can also be a development area you want to work on)

Jonny: I'm working with my health coach to get my sleep, exercise routine, and diet into a long-term sustainable place. These aspects of my core wellbeing have already begun to improve the professional aspects of my life. Love yourself, and you'll be better able to help others.

Love yourself, and you'll be better able to help others.

Sarah: What tools or technologies have you found essential in managing your team effectively?

Jonny: There weren't too many tools focused entirely on improving management performance during my time, but I liked the following:

  • Asana for PM
  • SeedLegals (as a Founder, this made aspects of employee onboarding and contract legals super smooth)
  • Slack for comms
  • Google Workplace > MS Office
  • Miro for collaboration & process map development.

There weren't too many tools focused entirely on improving management performance during my time

Sarah: Are there any tools you wish you had access to or you wish existed?

Jonny: AI-enabled management co-pilot, of course! Something which could help me deal with the un-negotiable responsibility of people management!

Sarah: Finally, what animal would you compare your management style to?

Jonny: Ha, maybe a Cheetah. Roaming free, focused on fast growth, and making mistakes (Entrepreneur). Maybe don't enjoy being in captivity at first (Manager), but become at ease with it over time and with practice.

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