Aidi — Startup leadership

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In the last blog post (team building), we talked about building the right team and how to do this. Now that you’ve begun the journey of building an exceptional team, how do you ensure that you, the founder, lead this team right knowing that having a great team cannot be separated from great leadership?

This blog post will help you understand the needed skills and criteria for leading a startup team. Before we dive into the skills needed to lead an exceptional team, it is imperative to define who an authentic/true leader is. In the words of Matt Blumberg, an authentic leader is one who exhibits the strongest character, the best behaviour and is the most caring about all their companies’ stakeholders, especially their employees. 

One of the skills needed to lead a team effectively is transparency. Founders are prone to think that the issues that bother them will upset their employees more. Some think that the problems the company may experience are theirs to carry alone and therefore, try to shield their workers from the not-so-shiny aspects of the business. While you may be unable to share every problem with your employees, it is important to share the ones you can. If the product isn’t being used by customers, let them know and get to meet with the team to discuss what will and should be done going forward. This will be of tremendous help to you; the team will be more willing to figure out the problem alongside you and dedicate time to do what is necessary to rectify the problem. Moreso, volatile times call for more transparency through having open, company-wide conversations. Endevaour to not keep your team in the dark; people want to be a part of something. Telling them about certain issues informs them that they have buy-in on the company's decisions, shows that their feedback is valued etc. When a leader is transparent, employees who are determined to build alongside you will roll up their sleeves and ensure that issues are tackled. In the words of Ben Horowitz, a company that discusses its problems freely and openly can quickly solve them. For founders, build a culture that rewards people for getting problems into the open where they can be solved. You know what this means; that culture begins with you. 

Compassion is another quality that every founder should possess. This is the ability to show empathy for the people you lead. Compassionate leadership inspires loyalty, makes employees feel seen, heard and valued and helps deepen relationships. When you care and your team feels it, there is a high chance that they will love their work and company. Compassion also creates room for employees to care, making them better leaders. To cultivate compassion, create time to have 1 on 1s with your team. This may be weekly, bi-weekly or monthly depending on your schedule. This should not be forced or done for the sake of looking good as people can tell when something isn’t genuine. This should come from a place of empathy, of kindness, driven by the desire to learn about your team and the possible challenges they may be experiencing. Research has shown that being compassionate has tremendous benefits for professional success. 

When leading a startup team, the founder must possess unwavering resolve. Most have also defined this quality as ‘tenacity’. This is the sole determination to do what needs to be done to make the team and company successful/ great. This quality entails being driven by the sheer will to produce results. For founders who are concerned with their team producing tangible results, you must first be someone who is result-driven. Unwavering resolve is the quality of settling for nothing less. This is especially true and demonstrated in hard times. Founders who lead exceptional teams must stay true to principles, beliefs and culture in hard times and ensure they do all that they can to achieve team goals. This way, employees are inspired to deliver results in spite of obstacles having seen a worthy example in their founder. 

The last trait we’ll examine is discipline. Entrepreneurs who lead teams must stay true to the processes, culture, mission, goal and objectives of the company no matter what. Discipline may mean setting your objectives for the year and staying true to them. Plans set at the beginning of the year might change due to new occurrences but a disciplined founder will not change the metrics of measurement. Disciplined leaders adhere exactly to what they say they are going to do/ make happen. They do not get to adjust set rules or standards to make themselves appear better or look better. They stick to procedures even if the plans are changed. When a founder becomes this type of person, the members of the team are willing to go to extreme lengths to fulfil their responsibilities seeing just how you fulfil yours. Bear in mind, discipline isn’t tyranny. Discipline is staying on a course regardless of challenges even if plans change. Tyranny is insisting that things be done a particular way, your way even if the method is old, obsolete and unneeded. Disciplined founders build a startup with great constraints but also give employees freedom and responsibility within the framework of the established system. 

The list isn’t exhaustive, but these are important qualities most successful startup founders possess. Remember that no one suddenly gets to the apex of leadership in a day, so give yourself time to build and develop these skills. In the next article, we’ll take a look at management principles for leading early-stage teams.