You could spend years learning just one small subsection of your duties like SEO, analytics, customer development, copywriting, design, fundraising, product development, development architecture or simply great coding, but the demands of startups says you need to become competent and relatively adept at all of those and more. Amongst all those hard skills, I didn’t even mention leadership, which I think is the most underrated skill to develop as a young entrepreneur.
Leadership is a bit different, because it’s a soft skill; it’s not as easy to measure as the success of your marketing campaign or the elegance and functionality of your code. However, it’s an immensely important skill and one with more long term value than becoming an expert in any one of the aforementioned hard skill areas; if your goal is to build a company with more than yourself as an employee, then you’re going to be leading others. As you grow, you’ll be leading more people and spending less time on any of the individual skills you used in the early days and much more on communication, vision and goal setting and coordination across teams.
As I’ve learned through my own errors and in talking to other young entrepreneurs, I’ve noticed there are 2 major concepts most of us don’t recognize that are absolutely critical to leading your team even when you only have one or two employees:
1) Your employees don’t work for you; You serve them.
Having employees means that you’ve been able to convince others to work with you on your idea. Appreciate the incredible feat that it is.
However, do not think that because they work for you that they are now enlisted to your dictatorship. You need to involve them in core discussions, listen to their ideas and feedback and cultivate a culture of appreciation and shared passion. A happy, engaged employee is 5x as productive as a frustrated, stymied or sad employee. This ebbs and flows, so you really need to watch for it on a daily basis.
Showing appreciation for those that work for with you is not optional; you cannot over-recognize their best efforts. At the same time, it is a balancing act. There are times for the carrot and other times it is best to lead them with a stick. Each employee will respond differently, so it’s a skill that requires fine tuning for everyone you work with. Personally, as much as I love a good reward, I value constructive criticism significantly more; I’d much rather hear how I can do even better next time than dwell on what went right. Unfortunately, what I, you, or anyone else prefer is completely different than the next person you hire.
I constantly feel humbled by the fact that I have a team helping me make Greenhorn Connect a success today. I do everything I can to make sure Pardees and Ian know that and have learned well the power of having excited, motivated people helping you fulfill your vision. An hour spent cultivating your employees will pay you back exponentially.
2) Uncover and fix problems when they’re small.
With all the hustle and constant activity buzzing around a startup, it’s easy to overlook small problems. Don’t.
When problems are small, solutions are small as well. When problems grow up, then it takes big, dramatic solutions to overcome them. If it’s an interpersonal issue or a major team issue, then suddenly that small issue can lead to someone having to be let go.
Catch problems when they’re small by reading your employees; look at their face and posture, and if an employee seems down or upset…asking them if something is up and if you can help has huge immediate and long term benefits.
Conflicts and small issues are often simple misunderstandings or honest mistakes. Tackling them head on breeds a culture of accountability and openness to healthy criticism. When you get your team in this habit, it becomes much easier to avoid major problems, because they never get that big. Having a discussion about firing someone is a much more dramatic discussion than talking to an employee about a minor issue that may have caused conflict or hurt the company. Nip problems in the bud and encourage your employees to do so as well.
This post may seem like stating the obvious, but theory and practice are two very different things. Just like hard skills require practice and active use to become sharper, leadership skills like the issues above require active diligence to become adept at them. Ask yourself how your team is doing at managing these issues; I bet there’s times you’ve noticed your team’s mood affected productivity or a problem grew larger than it should have and caused trouble.
Have you learned these lessons the hard way? What key leadership skills do you think first time entrepreneurs need most?