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What Are You Doing Wrong As A Leader For Your Startup?

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Niraj Ranjan Rout

What does it mean to be the leader of a startup? Does it require a special skill-set, and if so, can those skills be developed?

Being a leader requires having a vision for your company, finding employees who are aligned with that vision, and maintaining alignment over time. Leaders guide their companies towards growth and set the framework for the culture. They do all of this and more, while simultaneously doing right by everyone including themselves.

Taking leadership of a company is certainly an arduous task. Not all startup founders have prior leadership experience and hence, it is not surprising that they make mistakes. In this article, I list five common mistakes that leaders make, in the hope that I can help you avoid them.

1) Throwing unwarranted challenges at employees

Are you Han Solo, quick on your feet and always rising above every challenge?  Chances are many of your employees do not fit this archetype.

I have seen startup leaders throw challenges at a new hire hoping that he or she will stumble their way up and that once they meet the challenge, any other work will be simple.

By doing this, you are ignoring the impact that the mistakes will have, both on the startup, and the newbie. You must understand that everyone goes at their own pace. Some employees are slow in the learning stage, but once they get the hang of things they can do better than anyone else. Others may learn fast, but are not necessarily that efficient as performers.

If you want to keep the employees you cherry-picked, you must understand who they are, and give them responsibilities accordingly. People want to grow in their roles and that requires challenge. When you don’t know your employees, you might keep throwing what you think are doable challenges at them and they fail to do them. When that happens they get frustrated and their self-confidence takes a hit.

As a leader, your job is to boost everyone’s self-confidence, not the opposite.

2) Focusing on individual targets rather than team goals

A leader must not set targets for individuals, he or she must set targets for teams.

Here’s why – if your salesperson doesn’t know what the overarching vision of the team is, or what the long term goal is, how can he go the extra mile and do beyond what is expected of him? How can he make a decision when you’re not available.

By setting individual goals, you are helping them ignore the team goals. Not a very good message to give. It is important for a leader to build a ‘WE’ team and not an ‘I’ team.

Don’t set targets for each of the team members, give the team a target and leave it to them to figure out who will contribute what and how. This way, you will foster strong stewardship among all team members.

This strategy definitely worked for my startup, Hiver. We don’t have ‘employee 1 goals’, ‘employee 2 goals’…etc… Instead, we have marketing team goals, sales team goals and product team goals, and we let each team figure out the dynamics for themselves.

3) Blatantly ignoring the competition

I have heard many young startup founders say things like, “if my product is good enough and my marketing is good enough, I will succeed”.

Not true!

Competition is a crucial factor in the success and failure of your startup. You cannot encourage yourself and your employees to live in the world of blissful ignorance – not if you want to succeed!

Competitive analysis is an important step in formulating your startup’s success strategy. It’s not enough to do well, you must out-do your competition.

Okay let’s try this: Name a successful company which had/has no competition? I bet you can’t. But, it’s amazing how many startups claim that their idea is unique and hence is the key selling point.

Good startup leaders:

– Analyze and learn from the mistakes of their competitors

– Work on understanding the successful aspects of their competitors and try to match up to them

– Work on differentiating themselves in the marketplace

4) Justifying failure, or saying that it’s okay

In personal life, it’s okay to say ‘it’s okay’ every time someone screws up. But, this is business and you often only get one shot at that deal.  Your employees will get the wrong impression about accountability and expectations if you always let people off the hook for their failures. Justifying failure sends the message that poor performance is acceptable.

Here are some tips:

– Set crystal clear expectations from day one.

– Don’t say “that’s okay” when people fail, but do give a pat on the back when they succeed.

– Try to understand the real reason why a person failed, and don’t stop until it is resolved. You can use failures as an opportunity to coach people into a place of regular high quality performance.

5) Inflating your star performer’s head

You are a leader, not a cheerleader!

A leader who acts partially towards one or two people while ignoring others (no matter how justified the reason), sets a poor example and sends the message that they are biased. As a leader, you are creating discord on the team by fattening one person’s sense of pride.

Your words and actions have a powerful impact on the whole team, so it is of paramount importance that you spread employee feedback and recognition evenly.

Here’s what is bad about cheerleading at work:

– Everyone starts trying to win individually and not as team anymore, because everyone wants to be a rockstar rather than just being on a rockstar team.

– People stop sharing information within the team. Team collaboration takes a hit.

– Others may feel unappreciated and lose respect for you.

What’s my advice? Reward performers modestly and reward them all! People who are recognized and appreciated perform better.

Leading a team is not for everyone, which is why there are so few coaches relative to the amount of players. Not all leaders are born to lead, but they can all become successful at it. Inspiring great work, collaboration, and innovation from employees is possible when you act intentionally and continue to learn what it takes to lead and lead well.

Image Credit: Jim Bauer

Niraj_HeadshotNiraj is the founder of Hiver, an app that turns Gmail into a powerful customer support and collaboration tool. Find him on LinkedIn and Twitter.