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Entrepreneurs have some of the hardest jobs in the world. At an established company and with a competent team, leading is mostly a matter of keeping the rudder straight. At a startup, it’s another story entirely. Entrepreneurs wear many hats: the role of marketing, sales, day-to-day operations and more all fall on your shoulders. And once you begin hiring employees, the all-important role of leader.
What does a solid leader look like?
For startup founders, the following leadership traits are key
It’s incredible just how large problems seem at small companies. A missed product deadline or vendor miscommunication isn’t actually a big deal, but it can become one if you react the wrong way. Do you listen to the person who made the mistake and help him improve, or do you start pointing fingers?
Empathetic leaders understand others’ perspectives. That might not sound like a serious business advantage, but it is if you’re hiring or marketing to Gen Z.
Young consumers vote with their wallets, and young workers aren’t afraid to jump ship for employers who treat them like equals. Given how quickly word spreads in the startup community, you can’t risk earning a reputation as a “me first” founder. The same applies if your target audience is a younger demographic.
Just like your employees, you’ll make mistakes. One of the worst examples you can set as a leader is to sweep it under the rug. You might not get called out directly, but those around you will notice. And when they do, they’ll take it as permission to act the same way.
Small teams simply can’t operate that way. If you’ve got three employees, one person hiding problems from the others could be enough to bring the whole company down. Set the example by owning up to your mistakes.
Another nonnegotiable trait for leaders of small teams is commitment.
If you come across as uncommitted to your own company, how can you expect others to buy in to your vision? This applies at the project level as well: Even if it’s a one-in-a-million sales proposal, you should be the most gung-ho person in the room. Anything less sends signals of uncertainty to your team.
Look for daily opportunities to demonstrate your commitment. You don’t have to work the most hours, but do set a positive example in other ways. Be the one to take those early-morning or evening calls from other time zones. And, of course, use your own product or service.
Start building trust at the outset of your business. Once your teammates understand you’ve got their back, they’ll work harder and take more creative risks than they otherwise would.
One of the best tactics for building trust? Delegation.
Not only does delegating enable you to accomplish more than you could alone, but it indicates that you believe in your team members. You hired them, after all, so recognize that you can’t do it all. Hand them the reins, and accept that their approach may be different than yours. If they deliver something totally unexpected, take it as an opportunity to improve your empathy.
Creativity might not sound like a leadership trait at first, but remember: Entrepreneurship has no road map.
Developing a product or service itself is an act of creativity — never mind figuring out how best to market and sell it. If you can’t come up with creative solutions, you might as well find a new line of work.
The keys to creativity are confidence and curiosity. Instead of treating something you’re curious about as an indulgence, reward yourself for taking the time to explore. Build confidence by developing your subject matter expertise. Even when challenges outside that area come up, you’ll be able to face them with a growth mindset rather than a fixed one.
Entrepreneurs wear more hats than anyone, but none is more important than the leadership cap. Found a company without bothering to develop your character or judgment, and you’ll discover just how difficult that role can be.
Originally published Sept. 8, 2019.