Developing and learning new skills can benefit individuals at all stages of their careers. Taking the time and initiative to focus on new skills can be pivotal when looking for a new role, a promotion, or taking on new responsibility within an existing role. For leaders, developing specific leadership skills is critical to succeeding in a leadership role. While some people are born with more natural leadership skills than others, dubbed “natural leaders”, many qualities of highly effective leaders can be learned and practiced. Leadership skills, unlike the hard skills that are needed within most job skills, extend beyond that. Leadership skills are soft skills that aren’t as easy to quantify and develop in a measurable way.
Most career paths see folks that develop and consistently practice and refine their soft skills rise the ranks and jump into leadership roles. If leadership is something you aspire to or is something you’re stepping into now, focusing on developing leadership skills should become a part of your weekly routine and habits.
At Visible, we work with a fair number of leaders in the startup and venture capital space. Based on our insights, we’ve compiled an overview of top resources to develop your leadership skills, and what those specific skills are as well as some key methods for developing them.
Key Skills for Startup Leaders
There is no shortage of ideas on what skills are critical for leaders to develop. Thinking about the specific leadership skills that are critical for startup leaders, a few come to mind. While many skills are important for startup leaders to develop, for this specific guide we’re going to focus on 5 specific skills that are key. The five areas of skills that are crucial for startup leaders to master include communication, open-mindedness, critical thinking, trust, and conflict resolution.
Leadership communication spans both internal communications as well as external. Additionally, leadership communication is way beyond the verbal. The non-verbal signals from a leader can be almost more impactful than the verbal. At the core, leadership communication is a philosophy, a vision that leaders should use as a compass that guides their entire leadership style. Strong communication skills allow a leader to articulate new ideas, inspire their teams, share positive and negative information with broader teams, investors, and customers in a way that keeps things moving forward. Strong communication skills can make or break whether a leader inspires folks to action. A leader with bad communication skills can struggle to get anyone to actually follow. Master communication is a key leadership skill for startup founders to master early so they can continuously articulate their vision, inspire their teams, and share ideas in a way that grows the business up and to the right.
As a leader, it’s almost natural to adopt the mindset that your decisions are the ones to be followed and guide the way. While you were put into a leadership position possibly to lead the way, the best leaders demonstrate the leadership skill of open-mindedness. Smart leaders hire even smarter people to join their teams. Developing a mindset to accept new ideas, create an open environment where ideas can be shared, and showcasing a desire to learn and change towards what’s best even if it means it wasn’t your idea are critical leadership skills. Open-mindedness in startups is especially critical because testing, ideation, and sprinting to new outcomes and test new ideas can make or break a business. YOu only have as much time as capital in the bank so a willingness to be open and pivot quickly, and foster an open-minded culture, is crucial.
In a startup, especially one where you are a founder along with holding an executive leadership role, emotions are running high. The funding time clock is ticking and you have a very limited runway to produce major results and keep the business alive. Due to these high-pressure circumstances, it is extremely important for startup leaders to develop the leadership skill of critical thinking. By informing your thinking with facts first, stepping back to analyze, and making a judgment and decisions from there, you will avoid making emotional decisions that may feel right in the short term, but in the long term aren’t smart business decisions. Thinking critically about your business and leadership decisions as they come allows you to base decisions in reality and in a way that makes sense to all involved instead of taking the emotional, passionate, and probably biased view you might have as a leader with a heavy stake in the success of the business.
All around, trust can build up or totally destroy a business, especially a startup. As a leadership skill, trust needs to be developed in a number of ways. Trust needs to be developed in a way so that your employees trust you as a leader. It also needs to be established in the way the organization runs, so peers and teams have trust in each other. That type of organizational development and trust starts with the leadership. As a leader, developing a leadership style that embodies trust and sets the standard of trust in your team to get things done will affect overall organizational success and functionality.
In any organization, conflict arises. In startups, that conflict can sometimes feel magnified, especially when teams are small and there is pressure to move fast. As a leader, developing strong conflict resolution tactics and skills is absolutely essential. Learning to resolve conflicts in a way that embodies critical thinking and trust as well as understanding and empathy will push the outcomes of conflict in a positive direction and allow your team to build on and grow from conflicts together, rather than conflicts tearing the team apart.
10 Resources to Develop Your Leadership Skills
Now that we’ve outlined the key leadership skills we believe are most imperative for startup leaders to focus on right now, we wanted to pull together a few resources to get you started. You’ll notice there is a book recommendation in almost every category. Reading continues to be one of the most powerful ways leaders can sharpen their skills and develop their minds. Outside of our recommendations below, check out our post on The 23 Best Books for Founders.
Based on our observations working with VCs and startup founders, we put together a straightforward guide on leadership communication. These 7 principles are actionable and a good starting point for developing this specific soft skill.
This book outlines a possible leadership philosophy around communication, focused on caring personally while challenging directly. This approach is a good one to learn and adapt in your organization, playing into the authenticity of good communication while still learning to deliver the information, feedback, and decisions in a way that is clear and to the point as a leader should. Practicing Radical Candor at your startup from the beginning is a great way to develop strong communications skills.
SIGMA is a consulting, leadership development, and talent assessment group. Their guide to open-mindedness for leaders provides a number of practical articles, techniques, and tangible steps that one can take to move towards developing a more open mind as a leader. Specific plays such as learning to practice gratitude and ask for feedback are explored.
Developing an open-minded approach to new ideas is critical in a startup. However, time is money, so testing new ideas is important to do before executing and this testing should be done quickly. Sprint provides an easy framework to solve problems and run new ideas through a testing structure to determine if they are worth spending more time on. Implementing Sprint methodology into your organization can help build a culture of open-mindedness and testing and show that you as a leader are open to new ideas and visions.
Critical Thinking has its own soft and hard skills that need work to build up the ultimate skill of critical thinking. In this list, explore some of the characteristics that serve as building blocks to developing a critical thinking muscle.
Think Big, Act Small by Jason Jennings
A great read for general best-practices when building a business, this book dives into the type of soft-skills that go into big thinking but the fact-based, analytical mind needed to process that big thinking and make small, sustainable changes for the business.
Building trust in an organization and developing a muscle for trust as a leader starts with understanding what makes a good team and who you are hiring to do great work. Taking the PI assessment or even working it into your interview process is a great way to build trust in the hires your making early, take a step back to understand your own strengths and others strengths, and pair folks to roles and tasks that best suit them, knowing the best people are in place to get the job done. It can also be a way to understand the why behind your own decisions as well as your teams, breaking down misconceptions and building up trust too.
Plain and simple, trust affects alignment in an organization. A lack of trust can completely change the alignment and cohesiveness across an organization. We put together our own guide to help with building organizational alignment, critical for building trust.
Diving into some of the largest, most well-known organizations like Pixar and the Navy’s SEAL Team Six, Coyle breaks down what makes these organizations tick and how leaders pushed through to resolve these issues. Learning from success stories is a great way to develop conflict resolution skills in your own organization.
To really master something as crucial as conflict resolution, investing in a more formal educational approach could be a route to take. Cornell offers a certificate in the art and science of conflict resolution that can be done entirely online.
Visible for Leadership
Interested in learning more about how Visible can improve your team’s communication around updates and tracking, foster trust in your organization, and help you capture data to make critical decisions? Learn more here.