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When starting a business, you can hardly find time to think of things such as “leadership”. Most startups are struggling to survive and raise money to run a company, to fuel stuff and office. As a beginner, you will need to find professionals and assure them to work for your green company while they may have better options. 

 At first sight, it seems that you can reflect on leadership only when having a strong financial position and dozens of millions, but – there is one but – your startup success often depends exactly on your leadership skills, so in most of the cases these two things are entwined. Considering this, it won’t do you any harm to take some time thinking of your leadership style. 

Here are some guidelines on what it takes to build a sense of leadership:

1. Keeping purposefulness

In the beginning it is easy to concentrate on purpose: you have a strong sense of what to achieve. You hire initial stuff and everybody has a sense of “mission.” But the longer you’ve been around the harder it is for newcomers to truly understand what that mission is and over time a sense of purpose can drift. That’s why it’s important to revisit your company’s mission from time-to-time. It’s important to codify it on paper in simply format and without trying to sound overly intellectual. It’s important to get buy in.

2. Belief

Codifying what you believe is one thing but sticking to your plans is another. The world is filled with people who will second-guess you, including your own team members. There are always flavors-of-the-month strategies or markets that are in favor in the tech startup world. The industry runs in lemming-like packs. But if you’re simply running to the latest tech trend you’re reading about or if you’re constantly “chasing shiny objects” you’re bound to be mediocre.

Know what you stand for. Know what you believe is important, because great leaders have always deeply held conviction in their strategy and plans.

3. Relationships

 So it is believed, that “Great Leaders are Respected More Than Loved’. It has to be true; being a leader means that you often have to make tough decisions. As a leader you live in a world with limited resources. You can’t just overpay every person’s salary. You don’t have unlimited equity to dole out. You can’t let every team hire as many team members as they want. As the boss you are “chief adjudicator” and at times that doesn’t make you loved. People who fudge are “loved.” They try to make everybody happy but the leads to ineffective decisions.

That is where personal relationships are important. 

To be respected people need to understand why you made your decisions. They need to understand it’s not personal. They need to know you don’t play favorites. They need to know you care about the right answer more than rewarding people you like. To be respected they need to know – in short – that you’re a leader.

People will accept being overruled or will accept compromises or will live through cut-backs and downsizing or whatever else is thrown their way when they trust and respect you. And this comes from hours and hours of investing in personal relationships.

4. Team Building

Along with relationships, great leaders build teams. They build teams with the team they have on the field. We all want to hire more senior people and to build bigger teams. But when you have limited amounts of money it happens that you hire somebody to run marketing who had never done so before. Your employees may not have an experience so you watch and see if they can learn and scale with the position’s needs over time.

The hardest thing as a leader of teams is to know when it is time to “hire above” your existing team and when it’s time to let your team members try to develop into the next role. This is a hard topic worthy of its own post but great leaders put much time and thought into this. And I am a big believer in loyalty and rewarding those who have executed alongside you in good times and bad. At times you must still hire above them but you owe it to them to find the right and respectful role in your new org or to help them to level-up somewhere else.

But one big mistake some leaders make is that they believe they can solve all of their problems by hiring people who look great on paper to the determinant of the known players on today’s team. These leaders value achievement elsewhere over hard work and effort internally. Of course it’s great to bring in outside experience to complement your team but it must be done judiciously. 

5. Communications

Great leaders tell people what they’re doing and why. They are clear about the goals and objectives of the organization and they’re willing to tell people how the company is doing against those goals. A team that knows where you’re winning or where you’re falling short can come up with ways to help.

Great leaders communicate early and often with boards and investors. They are clear about what is working and what is not and how the board and investors can help them.

6. Empowerment

You may have a strong sense of purpose, a great and differentiated product or service and a great team surrounding you but if you don’t learn to empower your team you’ll never be as effective of a leader as you should be.

Empowerment is hard for most startup entrepreneurs. Almost by definition leaders are control freaks. They think they know better than others and they don’t take direction well. Leaders want absolute perfection and that often means “we want what we want.” And when you hire outsiders often they take time to know your playbook and wouldn’t do things exactly how you would do them.

But empowerment is exactly what leadership is: It’s about setting the direction for the team, assembling talented players and then letting them execute to their fullest abilities. You can continually check in and spar with your team to make sure they’ve thought through their plans but eventually you need to let them own the results. You have to accept that others will do things differently than how you would have done them but different isn’t always worse. If a team member fails you need to work with them on why and what could be done differently. Failure is a normal part of progress. Of course continued failure means it’s time for change. Being a great leader is about knowing the difference between experimental failure versus a pattern.

Most leaders are talkers. At board meetings, at management meetings in conferences – they like to hear themselves speak and believe that the way they word things is better than what was said by their team members – big mistake. Let your team members have air time. Let them say what they say. Even if it is different than what you would say. If you don’t like the results then next time spend more time with them preparing but on the actual day give them their air time. The test of a true leader is that he or she understands that a leaders is defined as much by the success of his or her team than on what the leader himself actually says.

7. Presence

And finally, Great leaders are doers. They don’t assign tasks and then whisk off to Aspen or to Hawaii or Miami or wherever else tech gatherings are happening. The truth is that great leaders are present. They show up in the office. They respond to email. They get involved in laborious staff meetings. They get involved in hard product decisions. They give good news and bad news personally. 

Yes, great leaders need to travel more than programmers or finance directors or attend some leadership events which is good for executives because that’s how you build relationships with the industry. But in between they spend all their spare hours in person, with the team, in good times and bad. Because that’s what leaders do.

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