Starting Your Business

Google Research Reveals 7 Traits of Highly Effective Startup Leaders

Jeff Haden Inc. columnist and small business management expert 
Two people look at a laptop

You started your own business so you could make a living doing what you love. Subject matter knowledge? Skill? Expertise? You have those. 

But what about leadership skills? Many small business owners have little experience, much less training, in supervising and managing other people.  

That’s a problem, since research shows over half of startups fail not due to the usual suspects like lack of financing or product/market fit, but due to leadership and people problems. Common examples include: co-founder conflict, poor hiring and retention, and a reluctance to make tough decisions regarding team members. The list goes on.

Google surveyed over 900 startup founders in order to identify the qualities of effective startup leaders. As it turns out, effective startup leaders tend to share seven key traits. 

1. Treat people like volunteers

Money, benefits, and perks matter. But what matters most of all for attracting and retaining great talent? A sense of meaning and mission. Great startup leaders get others to share the same vision and purpose. They inspire, rather than leading through command and control.

They also help each employee understand what they will personally gain from helping the startup succeed. Again, it’s not just money. It’s skill development, career development, the chance to make a substantial contribution and to be a meaningful part of a team. These qualities enhance future career prospects—and it makes the work more than just a job. 

So why should you “treat people like volunteers”? Since the best employees have options, your goal is to create an environment where they choose to work with you—not just for you.

2. Protect employees from distractions

According to Google’s research, nearly half of startup founders are seen by their employees as being easily distracted by new ideas or projects. The most effective startup leaders invest their time in what really drives results for the business and help keep their teams focused on high priority initiatives and deliverables. 

This doesn’t mean hanging up mission statement posters or constantly repeating certain goals. Effective leaders know that employees can inadvertently magnify a passing suggestion or minor complaint. When you say, “We really need to fix that inventory problem,” you might just be venting or remarking on an issue that, in terms of importance, actually lies well down the list of priorities. But an employee might think, “Oh no. I better jump on that right now.”

In a broader sense, effective startup leaders see their job as providing resources, clearing roadblocks, and eliminating as many things as possible that make it harder for employees to achieve high priority initiatives. They serve their employees.

3. Minimize unnecessary micromanagement

If you just launched a startup, you’re likely to be a new manager—and research shows new managers tend to hold thirty percent more meetings than experienced managers.

This is a problem. In fact, extensive meta-analysis of a number of studies not only shows nine out of ten employees describe meetings as costly and unproductive, but also that employee productivity increases by over 70 percent when meetings are reduced by 40 percent. 

Fewer meetings means fewer distractions and more time to get important things done. And here’s the kicker: employees feel less micromanaged and more autonomous. Fewer meetings allows people to “own their own to-do lists,” both of which result not just in greater productivity but also greater job satisfaction.

According to the Google report, “Our data suggests micromanaging can be a major derailer, especially for CEOs. Recognize which teammates need to be closely supervised, and which you can empower to make good decisions and operate independently.” 

Also recognize that employees who need to be closely supervised require more training and mentoring—because when you’re growing your business, you just don’t have the time to micromanage.

4. Invite disagreement

Sounds odd at first glance; if your goal is to create a sense of shared mission, why would you invite argument or debate? Perhaps that’s why only three percent of startup founders surveyed felt “invite disagreement” was an important element of effective leadership. Yet, Google found that effective startup leaders value the perspective of others, even if (possibly especially if) they differ from their own. Eight out of ten actively invite others to disagree. They want to hear other people’s opinions and contrasting viewpoints. They want to have the difficult discussions.

Keep in mind those disagreements should involve ideas, not personalities. Also, inviting disagreement extends to co-founders or business partners. Google recommends discussing, and frequently revisiting, its 25 Tough Questions for co-founding teams. Having those conversations before a potentially contentious situation arises is much more conducive to open, candid exchanges of perspectives and viewpoints. And that means you’re much less likely to experience co-founder conflict.

5. Preserve interpersonal equity

According to the Google report, “Unmet expectations cause the majority of co-founder conflict. Our data suggests that many founders keep track of their co-founder’s duties but have a major blind spot when it comes to their own.”

For example, when founders evaluate themselves, they equate effective leadership with just one trait: inspiring others. But when they evaluate their cofounders, they equate effective leadership with 17 different traits: inspiration, collaboration, mentoring, focus, productivity… among others.

The result? Eventually one or more of the co-founders decide the partnership is unfair, and then things really fall apart.

The best way to avoid problems with perceived effort, commitment, and workload is to check in consistently. Ask what you’re doing well and what you’re not doing well. Recalibrate expectations. If you or your co-founders don’t feel the partnership is equal, talk about what needs to change, and then actually change it.

6. Keep pace with expertise

As the authors of a study published in Harvard Business Review write, “If your boss could do your job, you’re more likely to be happy at work.” Maybe that’s why nine out of ten of the most effective startup founders were found to have the technical expertise to effectively manage the work of others. After all, a great boss doesn’t just make their business better. They make the people they work with better, too.

The Google report also shows that the vast majority of effective startup leaders not only identify opportunities to develop their employees’ skills and career potential, they invest significant time and resources into actually helping them develop those skills.

They hire for skills, but also for attitude. And then they work hard to help their people grow, both professionally and, as a result, personally.  Notably, this is another way to treat people like volunteers.

7. Overcome feelings of discouragement

Oddly enough, the most effective startup founders are actually less confident than less effective founders. 

This is a prime example of the Dunning-Kruger Effect, a type of cognitive bias in which people believe they are smarter or more skilled than they are—or, on the flip side, where highly accomplished people tend to underestimate just how skilled they are. Successful people (in this case, successful startup founders), often underrate their relative competence, assuming tasks that have become easy for them are just as easy for everyone else. As a result, they are more prone to feeling discouraged. 

The most effective startup founders tend to overcome feelings of discouragement by seeing the good in people, situations, and events. They’re honest about their own weaknesses, but also their own strengths. They ask for help in challenging situations. 

They often help others, not just because it’s the right thing to do, but also because it helps remind them of just how far they’ve traveled along their own path to expertise and accomplishment.

If you’re a startup founder, every once in a while, take a break from considering what you need to do and think about what you’ve done. While you might feel you have a long way to go, looking back will remind you of how far you’ve come—and give you the confidence to know that with time and effort, you will go a lot farther.

Jeff Haden Jeff Haden is a writer, speaker, small business management expert, and Inc.’s most popular columnist. He's the author of The Motivation Myth: How High Achievers Really Set Themselves Up to Win.
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