How to be a remarkable founder

In the past few months, we’ve heard countless stories of startup founders behaving badly. It seems the rub for many is that success is unrelated to good behavior. As a friend, colleague and advisor to many startup founders, I disagree. Let’s celebrate and encourage remarkable founders, who are both successful and phenomenal human beings. This list is my take on what it takes to be a remarkable founder.

  1. Embrace problems without clear solutions. Don’t create a culture where all problems must be accompanied by a proposed solution. Focusing only on problems with known solutions is a recipe for mediocrity.
  2. Allow emotions. Behind remarkable founders, there are individuals with emotional buy-in. They take their work personally. Denying emotions, or worse, countering emotions with logic, will alienate those who care the most.
  3. Don’t tolerate the back channel. Period. Google Chat and IM are for improving office communication, not for gossip or slamming colleagues. If spreads. Don’t let it.
  4. Require that employees address disagreements one on one before escalating issues to a manager. If you don’t follow #3, this will be close to impossible.
  5. Don’t avoid difficult conversations. If you have to fire John/Jane/Joe, do it yourself whenever possible. Afterwards, discuss it with your team. Secrets breed paranoia and kill productivity.
  6. Don’t pretend ex-employees did not exist. John/Jane/Joe may no longer be with the company, but are not dead. Nothing good ever came from erasing history.
  7. Empower decision makers. When in doubt, encourage employees to ask themselves: Is [insert decision] good for the company?
  8. Remember the little things. Rinse out your coffee mug. Throw out your trash. Remember the name of your receptionist. (Astounding that this is so commonly overlooked.)
  9. Over delegate. You may think no one can do it as well as you, but allow others to prove you wrong. Learn your team’s strengths and weaknesses by letting them drive.
  10. Screw up royally. But always own it, and realize you may have to work to regain trust. There is no “get out of jail free” card for founders.
  11. Have a life outside of the office. If you don’t take time off, no one else will. If you don’t pause from checking email, no one else will. Catch my drift?
  12. Laugh at yourself. You will do stupid, absurd things. Take a moment to appreciate the humor of the situation, learn the lesson and move on, but not without a monstrous belly laugh — at yourself. It’s a survival skill to avoid going insane.

It’s not a comprehensive list, but it’s a start. Do you know remarkable founders who don’t do these things? I can’t think of one, and I have tried. Hard.

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