Leadership 101 for First Time Founders


Imagine you are a brilliant undergraduate student. With a few other students, you came up with a medical device that will completely transform how patients with certain chronic conditions can monitor themselves at home.  You decide to start a company.  After a few months of hard work, you landed a substantive seed round. You are now ready to hire your first employee.

Here’s the problem. You’ve never actually worked for someone, or has had someone work for you. (Internships don’t count). You have never hired or fired, promoted or demoted. You will end up supervising people far older than you (and will need to win their confidence). How would you learn all this while running a company?

Common newbie problems for first time managers

Becoming a first-time manager is hard enough even if you have a fabulous boss who is coaching you through tricky situations. Making this transition as a founder is far more difficult. The founder will run into typical newbie issues. Some common problems:

  • The founder doesn’t delegate. They can’t let go of the work they used to do. So they take on too much implementation work because this is in their comfort zone. Strategic stuff is left on the shelf while the staff is given make-work to keep them busy.
  • The founder has to be the smartest person in the room. They may feel a need to dominate the conversation. They may dictate solutions without drawing out ideas from his/her team.
  • The founder burns out due to overwork. The first two issues combine into a perfect storm where the founder works more and more and can’t keep up.  Chronic fatigue impacts their ability to make good decisions and forge good relationships with their team, and everything starts to go downhill.
  • The founder de-prioritizes professional development. Since the founder is so overworked, he/she starts to deprioritize everything that is important but not urgent. Professional development activities for themselves and their employees fall off their radar screen. The team is stuck in the here and now and can’t find time to grow and learn strategies to get out of their current bind.

Getting help

The good news is that it is easy to get help. Here are a few ideas:

  • Talk to other founders
    • Find other founders who are 1-3 years ahead of you in their startup journey. Talk to them about how they managed their leadership transitions. How did they deal with each situation? What worked and what didn’t work? What would they have done differently if they could do it over?
  • Interview great people managers
    • Talk to people in your field who are great managers (and great managers of great managers) to learn how they do their magic. Look for people whose employees follow them from company to company. Find people who have grown tremendously in their jobs, and ask for an introduction to their boss.
  • Work with an executive coach
    • I am a huge fan of this approach. An executive coach can fill the role of your non-existent boss-mentor. They can help you spot patterns in your own behaviors, and help you learn and improve. With the right coach, you can dramatically accelerate the rate of learning, and smooth the bumps in your leadership transition for you and your staff.
  • Read up on leadership and culture

Leadership development is a participation sport. You can read all you want, but the real learning comes when you put it to practice.

Leadership transitions are one of the most important journeys a young founder will undertake.  Ultimately, a founder’s ability to grow and develop in this area will have more to do with their startup’s success than the founding idea or the core technology. Invest in yourself and your team – it’s worth it.

dea or the core technology. Invest in yourself and your team – it’s worth it.

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