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Lessons from Ada: How to be an interim startup leader

Harpal Singh has held dozens of C-suite startup jobs over the years; he gives us his tips on being an interim leader

By Amy Lewin

Harpal Singh

There aren’t many interim CXOs out there — but there is Harpal Singh. He’s currently interim CPO at healthtech Ada Health where he’s helping the team figure out their long-term product strategy. He’s had loads of interim gigs — and he thinks heaps more executives, from CMOs to CEOs, should consider becoming career “interimers” too. He gave our Startup Life newsletter his advice for anyone taking on a short-term executive role. 

Set expectations with the rest of the C-suite when you join

In my first couple of weeks, I do a product health check. Everyone has a different perspective, so the aim is to see what’s really going on. I’m figuring out what the areas of concern and opportunity are, and I use that as a starting point to align all the other execs around.

Pick out one meaty problem to solve

And take complete ownership of it. That might not involve actually building anything for a while; one company I worked with thought they needed product executors to just come in and build — but they actually had a product positioning problem.

Say no to a lot of things

That will upset a lot of people — but you can’t do everything.

Get your hands dirty

I’m a consultant, but I don’t think of myself as an outsider, and I don’t behave or work like that. By default, there will always be people who are like, ‘Why the heck [is this person being brought in?]’ People think we’re paid a lot more; some people take it personally, as though they’re not doing a good enough job. I have to address those clichés; for the first two weeks I have lots of conversations and have to prove my value at this point.

Be selective in who you manage

I tend to stay away from direct line management of mid-level PMs or any sort of mentorship that requires consistent time; it wouldn’t be the best use of my time or that person’s time. Those relationships require a long time to nurture and build.

Set the team up for success when you leave

Often that means hiring your replacement — but that takes a long time, and many people have three-month notice periods. At Ada, there’s an element of hiring in my role, but it’s also about building the product organisation and function so that as the company evolves, it will have the right structure and processes. It’s also important not to be a blocker — now, or when you’re gone.

You don’t need domain knowledge

When [robot tech startup] Automata brought me onboard, I had zero robotics knowledge. But the founders knew that they needed someone to apply the right product thinking to hardware cycles. All you need to know is your own limitations — and then you can rely on domain experts in the business to get that information.

Only go into this if you have thick skin

You need to be comfortable being challenged all the time. You’re going into new teams, new places, and trying to prove yourself over and over.

Don’t stay for too long

I think 9-10 months is the sweet spot.

Amy Lewin is Sifted’s editor. She tweets from @amyrlewin

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