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Startup Leadership Advice: 3 Insights from Sports Legend Joe Montana

One of the perks about working for a Series B startup is the opportunity to meet and learn from investors.

During my first month at Unit21, I had the chance to watch Joe Montana, iconic football hero turned venture capitalist, answer questions about startup leadership during an intimate conversation, hosted by Joe and his team at Liquid2 Ventures for our benefit as a portfolio company.

Sports teams and startup teams aren’t so different at the end of the day, so here’s a quick rundown of some of the things we covered, and three key pieces of advice that I want to share with the RevGenius community.

Let’s jump in!

Startup Leadership Advice from a Sports Hero Turned VC

How to Build a Successful Team

One of the first questions for Joe was on the topic of building a successful football team, and how this concept can be applied to startups.

As someone who has been a part of a winning sports team and a successful investment firm, Joe had a lot to say on this topic.

And when it comes down to what drives success for a team, Joe points out that there is more to it than just natural talent. The collective work ethic of the team and the willingness of individuals to check their ego at the door is paramount to building success.

Joe also notes that goal alignment and collaboration between everyone on the team is critical. When an individual wants to do things their own way without considering how this decision will impact the rest of the team, this can cause challenges to team cohesion, which negatively impacts productivity and output.  

Without this consistent investment into alignment on goals, process, and the overarching mission, even the best group of individuals won’t necessarily perform well as a team.

What Makes a Great Company Culture?

The second question weighing heavy on everyone’s mind is related to culture. Culture plays an important role in both a sports team and a startup, and Joe was quick to share the lessons he’s been able to take away from his unique professional background.

Piggy-backing on what he discussed about building a successful team, culture plays a large part in aiding team cohesion.

But even for a winning football team, building cohesion is a continuous process. This concept must be built into the company culture. When individuals understand the culture of the team, they can understand from the get-go whether it is the type of place where they will fit in and excel, or not. It also becomes very clear to everyone else on the team when someone doesn’t fit in.

As such, cultural goals must be defined early and reflected upon often. This is because culture isn’t something you can “implement,” however, it is something that can and will evolve with or without your input. As a founder, you may be able to control it at some level, but if left completely unchecked, it can transform from positive to negative and you might not even be able to pinpoint what caused the shift if you aren’t involved in guiding the cultural architecture.

So, depending on what your vision for the company culture is, this must be baked into everything from the recruiting and hiring process, to the onboarding, and the continuous setting of the vision and mission from leadership to the rest of the organization.

How Great Leaders Think

The last topic of interest from the group was how great leaders think: What makes a great leader and what were the elements that made them successful? Having worked with many strong leaders and mentors, Joe reflected on the different leadership styles he experienced during his time with the 49ers.

He gave the example of Ronnie Lott, who in his rookie year in 1981, recorded seven interceptions and helped the 49ers to win Super Bowl XVI. According to Joe, while Ronnie may have been a loud voice in the locker room, he brought that same energy to the field, and everyone on the team respected that enthusiasm, and the team was better as a result of it.

On the contrary, Joe spoke about his teammate Jerry Rice, who played with the 49ers from 1985 to 2000 and holds the record of scoring more points than any other non-kicker in NFL history. Joe notes that Jerry was a quiet contributor—he was even nervous when he first joined the team. However, his work ethic spoke volumes. Instead of returning to the huddle after a catch during practice, Jerry would run the ball to the end-zone every time. His work ethic was contagious, making him a great leader by default.  

What it really comes down to for Joe, is that no one can really be a leader without leading by example. If you aren’t producing and showing others what you are capable of, you are not leading.

Great leaders don’t have to be loud, but they have to be committed, and they have to work hard.

Startup Leadership Insights from Joe Montana: Final Thoughts

Joe Montana’s experience as an award-winning football player and as a thriving investor has put him in a unique position to provide value to those who are interested in leading or working at a startup.

At their core, his insights are a reinforcement of business best practices that you may have heard or experienced before, and from what I can gather, what it really comes down to is a continued investment into alignment, even at scale.

Alignment in performance goals, in how the team works together, in what great leadership looks like, and in the company’s cultural norms—even how you deal with failure at your startup—is crucial to building a successful business from the ground up.

And there will be failures along the way. One last piece of advice that Joe shared was on the subject of how an organization can address the discomfort associated with failure.

He says, “Failure is going to happen—it’s how you respond to that failure that dictates how things are going to go…We’re all going to fail—we’re all going to make mistakes, but teams need to find ways to help each other in order to get better.”

A startup that allows people the freedom to make a mistake without condemnation or ridicule is a startup where teams are empowered to lift each other up, which is the final key ingredient to a strong, engaged team and business foundation.

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