Starting up? – Rev up your Leadership Skills

Starting up? – Rev up your Leadership Skills November 5, 2014

Most entrepreneurs are task focused – let’s get it done. Add the fast paced environment of a start-up into the mix, and the intense desire to succeed and you often have a recipe for failure. Not being aware of how you are coming across, not taking time to listen to others and putting your agenda first can backfire.

Take Sam for example – not his real name. When I met Sam we talked about his joining a start-up peer group that I facilitated where entrepreneurs come together to discuss their challenges and opportunities; he joined but only for a short time. It became obvious that he wasn’t a good listener. He got some great advice from the group, but felt he knew best. Sam and I agreed that participating in the group wasn’t the right fit for him or for the other group members. The best entrepreneurs like skillful leaders are open to feedback, they want to be better and they also care about the success of others. I wouldn’t put Sam in that category.

I lost track of Sam until one night after a very long day, I sat down on the couch to watch Shark Tank. To my surprise, there he was pitching his company. He did a good job pitching. He did a lousy job interacting with the panel. One of the potential investors told him blankly: “I was interested, but now I’m not, you don’t listen. You think you know it all. It will never work.”

Leadership starts from the inside out. The first key to success is self-awareness.  Self-awareness is the capability to recognize, understand and monitor your thoughts, feelings and intentions. When you are self-aware, you understand yourself and how your behavior affects others. I coached the incoming president of a company. He very much wanted to succeed in his new role and was puzzled about why he wasn’t getting the response from his team that he wanted. So I attended one of his staff meetings to observe. He talked at length about his ideas and finally asked a question. As people attempted to respond, he would either cut them off by starting to talk again or start tapping his finger – the entire time they were speaking.

After the meeting we went back to his office. “Surely he realizes what he was doing to cut off any real communication,” I thought. I almost fell off my chair when I asked him how he felt the meeting went and he said, “See what I mean, they don’t participate, they’re not engaged.” Have you ever had that experience where you think surely this person is aware of what they’re doing, and you realize they don’t have a clue?  When I shared my feedback with him, he was surprised; however, he was willing to work on his communication. After five years he’s successfully still running the company and gets good feedback on how he listens. He became self-aware and worked hard to improve his communication skills, not everyone at his level would.

The second key to success is self-branding to attract the right people. Your brand is the promise you are making your customers. It’s what you’re known for. In a start-up, the founder is the brand so building a personal brand is all about knowing your strengths and applying them in what you do, consistently. Your brand becomes your reputation. If you are looking for investors or hiring a key person, your brand or reputation gets around.

I’ve seen it a lot. Some of the entrepreneurs I worked with early on have become very successful and they become investors. One call to someone who knows you or of you can make or break a deal. The sad thing is you usually never know what happened. One woman I coached who has a mobile app company operated on the principle that her word was her promise. Unlike many who make promises, if she couldn’t keep one for some reason, she always gave people a heads up and re-negotiated what she could do. This built trust with others and her personal brand took off – one of the reasons her company is growing today.

Beyond the reputation for yourself, investors want to know that you have a great team. It’s hard to attract the right talent if you don’t engage others or follow through with them. Some of the entrepreneurs that I’ve worked with embrace adding talent that exceeds theirs. Others are threatened by it. Just as important as it is to develop a great personal brand, you can’t extend that brand to your company without the ability to attract and retain others.

The third and last key to start-up success that I’d like to share is the importance of building a network that supports your growth. The best leaders seek out peers they can learn from and in turn give back. You can do this in a variety of ways. For the past fifteen years, I have facilitated and coached peer groups of 8-12 CEOs click here. The group helps each other get clarity on pressing issues and weigh choices that individually, none of the CEOs would see in the same way. The proverbial switch goes off when the CEO presenting his or her issue understands the situation from a new perspective. I recall one time when the CEO presenting a business issue was projecting growth to be flat over the upcoming year. He was about to go onto what he thought his bigger issue was when one of his peers said, “Wait a minute – why are you assuming that your company won’t grow? Your intention will dictate what happens so if you plan to have a flat year, just give up and play golf.”

Self-awareness, self-branding and building a network are among the top factors of start-up and entrepreneurial success. Start your engines!

Mary Key, Ph.D. is an executive coach and trusted advisor to organizations of all sizes. With over 20 years of experience in helping leaders and companies grow, she heads Key Associates, Inc. which specializes in leadership development and building high performing teams. She is the author of several books, most recently, CEO Road Rules: Right Focus, Right People, Right Execution. Learn more at