Whether you’re just starting your career or you’re a seasoned professional feeling stuck, startups can be attractive because they offer a much wider field where you can do something bigger, find your zone of genius, and build on it.
The most valuable companies today had humble beginnings (think Apple, Amazon and Airbnb). Many people on the ground floor didn’t come in with Harvard MBAs and years of experience in corporate jobs, and it’s likely that involving leaders with traditional business backgrounds would have impeded the ability to grow these companies.
You may feel intimidated by those who went to better schools, worked at bigger companies or have more experience at higher-level positions. However, if you possess and develop that elusive entrepreneurial spirit, then you have an advantage, because startups need you.
Based on my 30-plus years working with hundreds of amazingly talented startup entrepreneurs, I’ve identified six leadership traits that can transform the trajectory of your career.
1. Realize there’s no substitute for hard work.
There is only one way to the top, and that is through hard work. There simply is no substitute for rolling up your sleeves and getting your hands dirty – frequently. No great achievements are possible or sustained without hard work. Hard work is the price you will pay for the success you desire.
2. Regularly challenge the status quo.
We have all heard people say, “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it,” or “That’s the way we’ve always done things around here.” The status quo is strong. It represents a bias that can permeate the culture of a company for keeping the current state of affairs in place. It’s comfortable, predictable and perceived as less risky. But growth requires change.
Most every person and organization that wants to become great had to challenge the status quo at some point. The pace of change is incredible, but our ability to keep up with it isn’t. You simply can’t achieve and build on success if you continue to do the same things.
3. Summon the courage to make tough decisions.
Are you daring enough to make tough calls? Do you have the guts to make an unpopular decision? Strong leaders are able to quickly assess a situation and decide while others stand idle.
Many people fear making the wrong decision, because most decisions are not cut-and-dried. Decisions can be very hard to make, because the world does not exist in black and white. The most difficult part of making a decision is having the courage to know that you might be wrong when the outcome is unclear – but decide anyway.
4. Acknowledge the elephant in the room.
Have you ever been in a business meeting where things seem to be going great? You’re getting stuff accomplished. Yet there is that one big issue hanging over everyone like a cloud. This is the issue everyone is thinking about but no one wants to discuss. It’s the big issue everyone tiptoes around.
“The elephant in the room” is this big, obvious problem that no one wants to bring up. These are the topics that are uncomfortable, the topics people usually want to avoid. And why not? It’s easier and less stressful to avoid the big problems. But unlike fine wine, elephants don’t get better over time. They rarely vanish. They must be addressed head-on.
5. Open up to the audacity of accountability.
I’m sure you’ve heard these questions before: “Why can’t this person just be more accountable?” “Why do things seem to be falling through the cracks?” “Why doesn’t he seem to accept responsibility for his projects?” “Who owns this?”
Accountability takes guts. It’s one of the most important traits that people have in successful organizations. Accountability is all about being responsible for your decisions, actions and results. It’s about taking ownership. Accountability sets the stage for high performance. Without accountability, execution suffers.
The problem is that not every organization has a culture that fosters accountability, and not everyone is hard-wired to be accountable. This causes frustration and makes A-plus talent leave. On the flip side, accountability is empowering and contagious – there just needs to be more of it.
6. Exude positive energy and optimism.
Winston Churchill said it perfectly: “A pessimist sees difficulty in every opportunity; an optimist sees opportunity in every difficulty.”
Do you see the cup as half full or half empty? Do you focus on the upside or the downside? What’s the vibe in your office? Who are the kind of people you would rather be around – the person who smiles and is full of optimism, or the person who blames others and feels like their lot in life is outside of their control?
Positive, optimistic people are the ones I choose to surround myself with. They are more fun, more resilient, and make better decisions under stress. They put negative events into perspective. I’ll go out of my way to avoid negative people – they will drain you.