So, you’re a leader at a startup. Let us start by saying this role is not for the faint of heart.
Your startup team is the backbone of your organization. Their satisfaction with, and engagement in, your leadership can impact everything from new product features to customer satisfaction.
Your role as a startup leader will set the tone for the company’s culture and direction. A strong leader can inspire and motivate their team to achieve great things, while a weak leader can derail the entire operation.
Whether you’re a founder, a manager, or an employee who would like to advance someday, understanding the importance of leadership in a startup is essential for achieving your long-term goals.
We’ll walk through six leadership strategies to meet startup employee needs and expectations:
- Provide growth opportunities
- Make priorities clear
- Lead by example
- Encourage and seek out mentorship
- Hire people who reflect your culture and values
- Trust who you hire
Your startup team will turn to you as a leader for reassurance about the company’s direction and motivation to keep pushing when they inevitably spread thin.
Not everyone is cut out to take on a leadership role at a startup. But, if it’s something you pursue, these six strategies should be part of your ongoing development.
Related: Building a Leadership Team for Startup Success
1. Provide growth opportunities
Startup employees are notoriously scrappy and ambitious. It’s often implied that by joining a small team at the start, they are looking for a foundational experience that will lead to growth down the road. As a leader, it’s your job to foster more leaders.
Make sure you clarify your team’s growth goals at the start. You might find some of your team is happy to execute while others are motivated by the idea of promotion. Once you know what your team prefers, put structure in place to allow them their desired path.This can look like:
- Tuition reimbursement for continued education
- Matching your team to networking communities
- Noting skills gaps and offering your team stretch assignments
- Paying attention to soft skills on your team and fostering those skills
With day-to-day operations at the top of your mind, it can feel challenging to take a step back and focus on your employees’ development. However, when employees feel dissatisfied with their growth and direction, company morale will decrease, which can have ripple effects across the organization.
Your job as a startup leader is to encourage, provide tools for, and allow growth inside your startup.
2. Make priorities clear
If you’ve experienced it, you might agree: Going to work each day and fearing for your job is one of the worst feelings for a startup team. Even if their job is perfectly safe, they might be so worried about losing it that their performance suffers.
The best way to avoid your team feeling this way is to make it abundantly clear what the priorities are for the company and, in turn, what each employee’s specific outcomes should be.
In doing so, every employee will know exactly what is expected of them, and whether they are meeting those expectations.
This can be done weekly, monthly, or quarterly, depending on the priority or key performance indicator. Whatever you decide, it should be a clearly defined expectation—”We need three new features per month.”—rather than a vague sentiment—”We need you to keep coming out with features.”
You will be amazed at how putting your employees at ease in this way increases their ability to focus and filter tasks.
3. Lead by example
Perhaps one of the worst things you can do as a leader is not practicing what you preach. If you require employees to be in the office, don’t work from home when you feel like it. If you need employees to stay late, don’t scoot out early. If you require employees to submit performance reviews, ensure you are doing the same.
You get the idea.
Whatever you and your fellow leadership team have decided are key behaviors to build and foster your culture, make sure you are embodying these.
4. Encourage and seek mentorship.
It’s easy to get so caught up in your ongoing responsibilities that there is little room for much else. But startup employees often seek a deep, rich work experience that allows them abundant career growth.
Mentorship is an excellent way of providing this to your employees.
Offer them time out of their workday to seek out and meet with a mentor if they so choose. Even better, seek out and meet with a mentor yourself. Your employees will appreciate a top-down ethos that clearly states: I have room to grow and am open to being guided by someone who knows more than me.
5. Hire people who reflect your culture and values
Harvard Business School Professor Howard Stevenson said, “Maintaining an effective culture is so important that it, in fact, trumps even strategy.”
You can talk about culture as much as you want, spend lots of time identifying core values, and update your brand guidelines to reflect what you want your culture to be. But at the end of the day, your culture is your team, and your team is your culture.
If you say your culture is open to feedback but consistently hire individuals who are not open to feedback, your employees will suffer. If you say your culture pursues growth, but the executives you hire are all ego, your employees will suffer. If you say your culture prioritizes work-life balance, but you hire managers who send emails at 11 p.m. and expect a reply, your employees will suffer.
Not only will your employees suffer, but they will also become completely disillusioned by your statements about culture, vision, and values.
Perhaps the most critical strategy we can suggest is hiring people who reflect your culture and values.
6. Trust who you hire
The final strategy for effective startup leadership is to trust who you hire.
Your employees are joining your organization because they want to be entrusted with building something from the ground up.
If you bring in eager employees and then micromanage them to death, you will most likely drive them right back out the door.
Understandably, as a leader, you feel significant ownership over the organization’s output. This mindset can make you prone to wanting the final say on everything that gets produced. Not only is this unsustainable for you, but it will also destroy the morale of your employees.
Related: How to Recognize, Address, and Prevent Burnout at Your Startup
By trusting your employees to do the job you hired them for, you will empower them to take ownership of their work, and they will begin to develop a founder’s mindset.
As you grow in your startup leadership journey, remember that being a leader is not just about achieving personal success but empowering others to reach their full potential. By employing these six strategies, you authorize your team to recognize and pursue their strengths in your organization’s safe and supportive environment.
This blog was written by Roger Naglewski.