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Being the founder of a startup is a lot of responsibility. Not only do you have to navigate your product, the market, and the investors, but you also have to lead and manage your team and the relationships and culture that push your team to success. Leadership doesn’t just come with having a management role, but it comes with experience and practice. To get you headed down the path to being a great leader for your company, we’ve laid out a few essential aspects of leading a startup.

Leading Culture

If you’ve read the lesson on Defining Culture, you’ll have heard us say this before: many people can be responsible for something, but only one person can truly be held accountable. For the culture in your startup, you, as founder/CEO, are responsible for establishing and reinforcing the culture.

Culture comes from the top (1)

Culture comes from the very top, and it begins to be formed as soon as you bring on a second person to your venture. From there, every individual you hire will be an extension of your culture, and it’s essential to lead your company’s culture, or else it may get away from you! Check out another Startup Secret below: culture is modeled by leadership, and valued by consistency.

Modeled by LEadership (1)

We want to emphasize here something that we shared in that lesson on defining culture: you have to build a culture that you can truly live every day. Don’t write down a list of fancy words that aren’t true to who you are! Everything should be consistent, even when you’re pivoting your business or making acquisitions. Especially in those times of change, your team will look to you and your leadership to continue modeling those cultural values you set forth from the beginning.

Remember: every single action you take, every word you speak, every gesture and facial expression will reflect the culture of the company when you’re the founder and just getting started. It’s critical that you always be aware: you ARE the culture! How do you treat your vendors? When you’re out for a cup of coffee with a member of your team, do you say please and thank you? Are you courteous and respectful? Even the smallest things get magnified when you’re in the leadership position. It’s particularly exhausting if you’re trying to present a front that’s not really who you are. So your culture, and the leadership you exhibit, must be integrated with your core values, who you are in every aspect of your life!

Defining Culture - 2


Here’s a bold statement: without good communication in your startup, you will fail. Communication is the lifeblood of your startup! Don’t assume that communication is good even when you have a small team. As a leader, it’s important that you facilitate active communication between your team members so that everyone can be on the same page.

Think about how you will facilitate conversation in advance, both inside your company with your employees, and outside your company with your customers, partners, suppliers, and investors. How formal or informal do you want to be? How will you encourage consistency? Just like culture, communication in your startup has to be modeled consistently by you, the leader.

Here are some ideas on how to keep communication on track in your startup:

  • Hold weekly stand-ups
  • Keep doors open, or have an open floorplan
  • Meet with key individuals on a regular basis
  • Reach out to customers frequently for feedback
  • Respond positively to failure and criticism
  • Open Slack channels (or other online messengers) for different topics, or just to chat.

Leadership Capital

As we said in the beginning, entrepreneurs aren’t automatically leaders just because they’re the founder/CEO. Leadership is built up over time, and in tandem with your entire team. When you’re running an organization, you’ll build up what we call leadership capital. Just as human capital is essential to your startup, leadership capital will allow you to lead your company with strength and grace.

So what is leadership capital? Leadership capital is a reputation and set of relationships that you build with your team members by modeling your cultural values and communicating well within your company. It’s a measure of respect that allows you to make difficult decisions unilaterally when needed. If you’d like to read more about leadership capital, check out The Leadership Capital Index by David Ulrich.

Let’s look at a hypothetical situation: there’s a big decision in your company about whether or not to change something about your product. None of your team members agree on how to handle it, even though you’ve all heard every argument. This is the time to make a tough decision as the leader of your company. If no one respects you as a leader, they won’t respect your tough decision. But if you’ve built up leadership capital, they’ll respect your decisions and carry them out.

Here’s the thing: you build leadership capital, you don’t just have it! You rely on everyone else in your company every day, and your leadership needs to reflect that. You can’t just walk in and lead people to greatness. Instead, build up that leadership capital every day with making positive decisions. Your employees are watching how you behave, how you make decisions, and how you treat people. If you handle this well, you’ll build up the leadership capital you need to run your company.

If you’ve ever worked at a company where you didn’t think that management was great, you’ve probably thought, if I ever get to run things, it’ll be different. We all know about leadership from our relationships in school, in the workplace, and in society as a whole. What you need to remember is how you felt when you weren’t a leader, and then implement that now that you are a leader.

Leadership in a company is difficult, and it can be one of the factors that really makes or breaks your startup as a whole. Model the leaders around you that you respect, and work on having positive communication. Internalize the criticism you’re given, and work on making improvements to yourself. We’re confident that you can be a great leader if you put some thought and effort into building up that leadership capital that’s so necessary.

If you have any questions on how other people build their leadership capital, head over to our forums! Check out the resources below for more information on how to be a great founder, and how to lead your company to success.

Keep track of your progress in Startup Secrets!

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