Work will never be the same again. Actually, the workplace began changing quite a while ago, as flexibility and remote work became more feasible in the digital age. Today, there may be remote teams halfway across the world from the “home” company; employees may live in an entirely different state than their supervisors.; and even those who were once “tied” to an office and set work hours have moved into at least partial remote work. The pandemic has simply moved this new concept of work into the fast lane.
Established companies are re-thinking the need for the brick and mortar space they have traditionally held, with all of its overhead costs. And new startups are foregoing such setups altogether, opting for combinations of co-working spaces and remote workforces.
Still, within this new environment, someone has to lead. And leadership in a post-COVID startup environment will come with both standard and unique challenges. There are some key leadership traits that all startup founders must possess, and they must be analyzed in light of how work will occur now and in a post-COVID world if we should get there. Let’s unpack these traits in light of this.
It’s natural for founders to begin building their team as quickly as possible. For one thing, tasks get completed faster. But just as in pre-COVID times, founders must first be confident that they can manage themselves. Because their self-management and self-awareness must come first, founders must make sure that they can manage their time, set priorities, and get the “dirty work” done as necessary, before they can think about finding the right team members.
Once you are certain that you can be focused and attack the prioritized tasks in an organized fashion, it is time to look for a team. In these COVID and post-COVID environments, there are some advantages. Companies have cut staff or even gone out of business. This means that there is a pool of talent out there looking for new job opportunities. How do you sort them out? Here are a few pointers:
• Lots of job-seekers at this point are looking for a paycheck. But unless they can demonstrate passion for what you are doing, they are not a fit. They need to communicate this to you. Are they willing to swallow a lower paycheck because they share your excitement and mission?
• Is the potential team member’s history that of a “doer?” What are their actual accomplishments?
• How can you determine flaws that might impact your success? Many potential employers simply ask the question, “What do you see as your biggest flaw?” A lot of candidates have prepared for this question. If they give you a specific answer, explore it more deeply by asking for examples and what measures they take to address it.
• There is a tendency of many founders to employ team members who are new to this startup environment because the founder himself is. Take a step back. You need a team with a balance, and that balance means that you find people who have been in a startup environment, have functioned successfully in that environment, and who are aware of the challenges and how to meet them. Startups are chaotic and fluid, and team members must be able to thrive and perform within that context.
So, your first leadership role is to gather that right team. Understand this: you need a balance between startup veterans and newbies; you are not necessarily looking for people who will be with you forever. Once the mutual value has ended, they will move on, and you will wish them well.
The post-COVID environment will be more virtual than not for startups. And just as leaders have worked with remote teams for several years, leadership of a startup founder will involve both structured and unstructured communication. There must be several purposes for communication:
1. Team members must come to know one another intimately. This means that group meetings (via Zoom or whatever) give lots of opportunities for team members to interact, to get to know each other personally, to speak about their personal lives, their challenges, their families, their outside interests, and hobbies. The more “social” environment a leader can create, the better these members will work together. Never consider meetings for social interaction a waste of time.
2. Set a schedule of regular “business” meetings too. There are projects and tasks that must be completed. The effective leader has assigned and delegated specific duties to each of his team members. These regular meetings allow for individual updates on progress, for challenges that each member faces, for members to offer ideas and assistance to each other, and to outline what must happen next and who will be responsible.
3. Set time for individual communication with each team member. If there is no personal connection, there is no trust. These individual connections will allow team members to be honest about their challenges and their personal crises, which may impact their work. Especially in this environment of COVID, these challenges and crises can loom large – children at home for schooling, family members sick, etc. Leaders must plan for these issues in advance and plan how they will provide the support and assistance that their team members may need.
Productivity comes from employee happiness and satisfaction. With a startup, especially during these times, this can be a huge challenge for leaders. But here are some things that will contribute to this positive environment.
• Hold virtual social events. How about a pizza party? Provide each team member a coupon for a free pizza, set up a time for the event, and hold it virtually- a great synchronous method for just kicking back and socializing.
• Embrace flexibility. Not every team member can work the same hours. Some are better in the morning; others in the evening after children are in bed; still, others prefer weekends to weekdays. What effective leaders do in these instances is assign tasks, provide deadlines, and then refrain from micro-managing their team’s workdays and times.
• Refine Written Communication. Every piece of written communication must be very carefully constructed. It must include praise, encouragement, and enthusiasm, even when things are not going so well. Startups have peaks and valleys that established businesses do not. It’s easy to craft written communication during the peaks. It’s a challenge to craft the right communication in the valleys. But craft it you must, laying blame at no one’s feet, having solution proposals, and asking for solution proposals from your team. They need to feel that they have a “leg in the game” and that their ideas and suggestions have merit in your eyes. This is not specifically related to the COVID crisis but is a standard and critical leadership trait.
And written communication should be clear and concise, focusing on only one item at a time. Remember, you are not in college or grad school writing a dissertation – you are a business leader speaking in the plain, frank language.
If you struggle with written communication, maybe a writing advisor should be called in to provide pointers. At all costs, you want to avoid negativity of any kind and make certain that there will be no misunderstandings.
• Show empathy for the specific challenges of working remotely – distractions, staying motivated and productive, trying to “unplug” after work hours, etc. Be the leader who has experienced those too, and offer solid solutions.
• Be specific about praise. Don’t just say, “Good job, John.” Tell John exactly what he did that was a “good job.”
Isolation was a big challenge for remote team members even before the pandemic. It is more so now. People are cut off from friends and family. And now they are also cut off from the camaraderie of a physical workplace. Bring the group together more often during these times will probably be more important, especially for personal and social interaction. And if it seems that one or more individuals are having a tougher time than others, spend more time with them. Tell your own stories of isolation and how you are overcoming the challenge.
Encourage some healthy behaviors, such as eating right, getting physical exercise, and staying in touch with friends and relatives via video conferencing. Amy Greene, a supervisor of a large team of remote writers for the writing company, Best Writing Advisor, often deals with employee isolation: “My writers are having an especially tough time now, given the further isolation of the pandemic. We spend a lot more digital time together if only to share our challenges and frustrations and pump each other up. These are tough times.”
Again, this is something that should be standard leadership behavior for any startup founder. But it cannot be repeated enough. Your team members need to be reminded of your vision and your enthusiasm for it. If you don’t do this, their energy and enthusiasm will wane. Keep it alive with energy.
All of the above traits of good startup leaders during these challenging times involve the ability to truly listen, not just hear. From interviewing team candidates to soliciting input for problem-solving, there cannot be a more important trait for startup leaders. If you don’t believe you have solid listening skills, get some professional training – you won’t regret it.
Launching a startup during these times is a challenging and daunting task. The failure rate of startups is well-researched, documented, and known under normal conditions. But in this era of COVID, the challenges are even greater. Founders must have all of the standard leadership skills that we know are essential. But now they have to enhance those skills even further in these times. These six traits of startup leaders are ever so much more important now if success shall be achieved.
Helene Cue is the HR director for an online dissertation help service that has an almost 100% remote workforce. She understands the challenges of remote leadership and writes about them often. When not on the job, Helene can be found in her local Yoga studio where she is an instructor.
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