5 Principles of Sound Startup Leadership

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As your startup team begins to grow from you and your cofounder to a founding team of intelligent individuals, it’s critical that you, as the CEO and owner, have the ability to lead.

The leadership of the company stems directly from the precedence that the owners and CEO sets for the organization. If you’re not well equipped to take the leadership responsiblities of the startup by storm, you will reach endless roadblocks along your startup journey. You will lose the following of your team and it could eventually lead to your downfall.

In this column, I will share 5 key principles of startup leadership that I’ve learned and honed over my entrepreneurial career. Find a way to incorporate them into your personal philosophies and watch as your team thrives, in the best and worst of times.

Principle #1: Establish Regular Forms of Communication

One of the most important aspects of startup leadership that you must understand is that people (1) want opportunities to be heard and (2) they want to hear regular updates on how the company is performing.

One of your first jobs as CEO and owner is to establish these regular forms of communication between the leadership team and the rest of the team. At Portlight, we established the precedence early on and it made the team more and more engaged in the growth of the company as we continued to expand.

We hit communication roadblocks along the was as our team grew over 60 people, but we always made sure that open and honest communcation was an important aspect of our leadership strategy. Here’s a few ways that you can make it happen:

  • Weekly email updates on all areas of the company
  • Weekly goal setting and review meetings
  • Regular anonymous employee surveys
  • Quarterly 1 on 1s with employees
  • Yearly retreats to discuss company wide goals and vision
  • On open door policy –> instilling the attitude that employees can always ask questions.

Principle #2: Build a Values Based Culture

As you begin to add employees to your team, it’s critical that you create a set of values with your cofounder that will guide decisions and the attitude of your company. It is your job to take those values that define the beliefs that you share with your cofounder and instill them into new hires.

If executed correctly, you will build a team of loyal employees that are all motivated by common beliefs. This characterizes an extremely strong team that will be able to endure the toughest of times and will love every moment of the celebratory times in the company.

When we started hiring employees past our initial founding team, we reserved an entire interview round for the culture of our company and the cultural fit of the applicant. We look for belief in our values in the applicant and we let our values guide how we ran the growth of the company.

Fast forward two and a half years later when we had to make the difficult decision of laying off over 30 people from the company. The values based culture that we had worked so hard to build brought together an eclectic group of peple with similar ideals and beliefs that were committed to the long term goals we had set for the company. Instead of upheavel and angst, the news of the layoffs triggered a reaction of sadness and disappointment that they would not longer be able to work with the Portlight team. There had been a bond that was created by the values that we allowed to guide our decision making within the company. True leadership flourished.

Principle #3: The Quietest Person in the Room Is the Best Leader

It’s my belief that the quietest person in a group or individual setting tends to be the most mature, wise, and capable of leading others. Don’t get me wrong…leaders need to have the ability to talk and inspire, but the best leaders listen and think before they speak or take action. When they speak, their words resonate and mean much more than the person that can talk just to talk.

To be an influential leader for your startup, you must first learn to listen. Listen to your cofounder. Listen to your employees.  Listen to your mentors. Pull it all together and make a real impact on your team by inspiring them with answers to the words that they first spoke.

When you are a leader that is open to listening before talking, you hear information that would have been otherwise lost. That information can sometimes allow you to take your company to the next level or avoid big problems that may be stirring within your team.

Principle #4: Lead by Example

Be an inspiration for those around you. The best leaders that I have ever met have a keen focus and understanding of the power of leading by example. They aspire to be the leader that they would want leading them. They use that vision as an inspiration for the way that they treat their team and how they present themselves every day.

A major aspect of startup leadership is establishing trust and respect within your organization. It’s not an easy task and can plague your company if not formed with your initial team.

When I started leading Portlight as the CEO of the company in 2014, I made a promise to myself. Every day, I would come into work with a positive attitude ready to work hard with my team. I promise to serve as an inspirational figure for the team to drive energy from. I promised not to bring negative energies into the workplace that could potentially push the team down.

I understood the importance of leading by example and always had it as a focus of my role. That understanding and strict approach to the workplace allowed me to instill confidence in my team and develop a mutual respect for each other as we built the company.

Principle #5: It’s “we”…not “you”

Some may that it is semantics, but the language that you lead with can make a significant impact on your organization. If you communicate that “you” made a huge breakthrough with a new client, the team will view is as exactly that…you were the hero. Can you expect that to motivate your team?

However, if you communicate that “we” just signed a huge client and it’s all an impact of each person’s hard work, the team will view it as a compay wide victory. Your job as the leader of the company is to motivate your employees. You can’t do that by being an individual…you must adapt to be another cog in the machine.

At Portlight, we made it a point to lead through “we” instead of “you.” When people asked questions using the word “you” or “you guys” referring to the leadership team, we quickly took the second to correct them. We would say that “you” and “you guys” does not exist as “we” are a team that succeeds and fails together. Over time, the language became an aspect of our culture that everyone on the team understood and passed along to future hires.

By slightly altering your approach to the language used in your startup, you can instill the belief of team accountability within your organization. When your employees feel that the work they are doing every day is contributing to the greater growth of the company, they will be motivated to make extra strides for the company. That all is a direct result of how you decide to lead.




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About Connor Gillivan

In the past 10 years, I’ve started 7 businesses & built two to $10M+ in annual revenue, teams of 30+ & an exit in 2019. Today, I run SEO & growth for my 4 B2B companies while teaching millions how to make SEO simple.

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