The last seven years working on Ashoka U have been a rollercoaster, but I have to admit that I loved every minute. Over the years, it has been fascinating to observe (and tackle) the changing nature of the challenges that have arisen through the course of building a team and growing a global program.
Looking back, it always seemed that as soon as we would start to figure things out in one domain or successfully fight a fire, another would erupt elsewhere. And just as we would settle into our groove as a high-performing startup team, there would be an infusion of new ideas that pushed us to grow to a new team size, budget or level of ambition.
As I look back, there are some fundamental shifts in operating, thinking and leading when you compare the first few years of a startup to the later years of a maturing organization. Here are Ashoka U’s top 7 areas of change:
1. Mindset: Moving from an invincibility mindset to a risk management mindset
To get things launched, you have to entirely believe in your vision when no one else does and not be afraid to take big chances.
Once you’ve gained some maturity and started to experience progress, you need to spend more time making sure to not undo the strong foundation you have already build. It is important to foresee any potential problems and manage risks to ensure on-going success. In the beginning you have more to gain than lose from taking risks, but at a certain point, you are successful enough that you start worrying about losing what you have created.
2. Energy: Moving from sprint to marathon
Energy is king in the beginning. You are doing a lot, learning a lot, experimenting a lot, and hustling to convince a lot of people to believe in you.
As you grow, wisdom is increasingly relevant. Rather than trying to talk to everyone and do everything, it’s about doing the right thing. You must learn to spend more time analyzing opportunities and making decisions to say no. Energy starts as a seemingly infinite and cheap resource. Over time, it shifts to being a precious resource that should be deployed in service of judgment, coaching and strategic relationships. It becomes a marathon, not a sprint, and pacing how much energy to expend over time is key.
3. Confidence: Moving from Believe in Me to I believe in You
Confidence in yourself and the idea in early stages is key. All there is for a nascent idea to survive is the confidence of the founder or co-founders. This confidence needs to convince early team members to join and put in a huge amount of time and energy to get it off the ground. It also magnetizes early funders, partners and advisors.
Over time, leaders need to shift their energy to demonstrate confidence in the growing team. The team is the real source of impact and getting things done. A track record speaks for itself. If leaders are able to move beyond themselves as the main focal point and can build pride in the excellence and competence of the team, it is going to have a shot at on-going success.
4. Skills: Moving from Figure it out to Find Your Niche
In the beginning, the founding team is almost always all-hands-on-deck. They do whatever needs to be done – everyone is manager, executor and intern. If you need to get something done, first you try to beg, borrow or steal it, or you just learn how to do it yourself. That’s the fun part—and the hard part—of the early phases.
Over time, as your team grows and as you are focusing on efficiency and scale, you can specialize on what you are uniquely skilled at. It becomes increasingly important to become aware of where you are strong, and it’s even more important to know where you’re weak. That way you can actively value and surround yourself with people who possess complementary strengths.
5. Budget: Moving from Covering it to Aligning Incentives and Transparency
Our budget has gone from being a source of anxiety to a source of power. In the early years, it was all about staying alive. It was everyone’s responsibility to hustle 100% of the time to ensure we made our annual budget. It was constantly stressful, and we had a lot of close calls.
As our sophistication grew, we revised our business model, our philanthropic strategy and also restructured our budget. We built a new, decentralized leadership model that dispersed accountability across the team. Now everyone is responsible for raising a certain amount of money (through a combination of revenue and philanthropic approaches), and we monitor progress through a monthly dashboard the whole team sees. We can each support each other while also seeing progress on all fronts.
6. Managing Stress: Moving from Stress as a Driver to Stress Less
I was a stress case through the first four years of Ashoka U. Stress during the day, stress at night, stress on weekends. It was a constant state of affairs. It was an exhausting process, but it also kept a state of constant adrenaline going, which powered many long hours for the team to achieve our outsized goals.
We’ve now survived so many different kinds of stress that few things make us upset. We have more perspective on what’s actually a big deal and the team is better able to keep each other in check. Rather than staying in constant states of fight-or-flight, we now check on each other and problem-solve proactively
7. Leadership Role: Moving from Doing Work to Future-Oriented Strategy
Frenetic action characterized the first several years of building Ashoka U. Now, my co-founder Erin Krampetz and I have shifted our roles to focus on creating a competitive advantage and maximum impact through our programs and team. I am able to spend more time thinking and not just “doing” all the time. Our leadership roles increasingly include mentoring others, synthesizing lessons learned to write articles like this one, and thinking about the next three-to-five years of Ashoka U.
Operating in a startup mentality offers many benefits and has many advantages, but only if you are actually a startup. As an organization that is now seven years old, I feel confident stating that Ashoka U has survived its startup years and is now looking forward to tackle the next wave of challenges and achieve maximum impact.
Editor's Note: This article first appeared on our Ashoka U blog.