10 reasons why you’re failing as a startup CEO

(from a startup employee point of view)

Congrats, you’re making at least one of the following mistakes. Chances are you are not really aware of it, but you could seriously be undermining your team. In a startup, the most important thing is not your customers, it’s your employees. This may sound weird or counterintuitive to some of you. But think about it this way: if you want to grow, you are certainly not going to achieve this on your own. Take care of your employees who in turn are going to take care of your customers. It’s time to get slapped in the face by the truth!


1. Blurry vision & values

Employees join a startup because they feel in line with its vision and values. Vision is like your northern shining star. It is the reason why you and your employees come to work every morning. Values will define your culture, the people you should hire, promote and fire and it is specially useful when you or your employees have hard choices to make. As a CEO, it is your responsibility to clearly formulate and explain your vision and values. You should constantly ask yourself how you can make it clear why what your employees do matters. If you fail to provide a strong vision and embody your values or you suck at communicating them, your employees will feel lost. You will have a hard time to focus and scale. You and your team will have the feeling that you are working your ass off for nothing. And there is nothing more demotivating than not being able to see the light at the end of the road! Besides that, there are high chances that this will be perceived from the outside. You are probably going to have a hard time recruiting and your clients will have a hard time to understand who you are, where you are heading and why they should follow you. After all, vision and values are the foundations of any startup.

2. Poor leadership

Startups need leaders, not managers. Leaders inspire the people they work with. Leaders don’t treat their employees as little soldiers who merely execute orders and then report back results. They neither exploit their teams, nor put them at a distance. As a leader, you should show the example and be ready to make the same sacrifices you ask your employees to do, if not more. Lead by example, not fear. Work hand in hand with your team and nurture a collaborative approach. Leaders also don’t try to control everything, because they know how important it is to promote an environment where employees feel safe and confident enough to be able to decide for themselves. See your team as a football team. If you want to build a kick-ass team, more than micro managing and supervising what each one of your team players is doing, your priority should be to identify their strengths and understand what motivates each one of them. Emotionally connect with them at a personal level and understand their needs. Let them know you trust them, learn to delegate and give them big responsibilities. You will be amazed by how much they can do. If you are not fully convinced, you should get familiar with the concept of “pygmalion effect”. As a startup CEO, your responsibility is not to empower them, because everything people need to be motivated, they already have it inside them. Your responsibility is to focus on creating the best environment possible to allow your employees’ intrinsic motivation to come to light. The key to your success depends on your ability to be a leader and not a manager.

3. Not giving feedback

Your employees need feedback as much as you need feedback from your customers. Not giving enough feedback might be interpreted as a lack of interest and recognition for your employees’ work. As a startup CEO, your main responsibility is to help your team grow, develop and attain their goals. Feedback, whether done formally or informally around a casual beer, is part of your team’s development process. Ignoring this could compromise your team’s evolution and success. No matter if your employees are doing it right or wrong, you should take the time to point out what they are doing correctly and work out with them to learn from their mistakes. Please celebrate success as much as you focus on failures (French people specially suck at doing this…). By the way, have you ever asked yourself if your team has the feeling their work is not recognized? Make yourself a favor. Start by saying thank you. And if you say it, mean it. Of course you pay them for the work they do. But hey, a simple “thank you” or “congratulations” doesn’t cost anything and it may mean the world to them.

4. Failing to listen

Listening is often an overlooked skill. As a startup CEO you are probably overbooked. You don’t have the time — or you probably don’t want to take the time. Are you the kind of CEO that is on the phone or doing something else while in a meeting? Are you the kind that cancels meetings at the last moment without apologizing or giving a valid reason? Let me tell you something: your time is as valuable as theirs. Sitting at a meeting without actually being fully engaged is one of the best ways to devalue your employees’ efforts, kill engagement and promote a blasé attitude. Being a good listener is hard. Indeed, it takes a lot of humility, open-mindedness and empathy to listen. Listening entails being able to accept to hear things that are hard to acknowledge. It means being able to ask the right questions, and show gratitude for the time and sincerity of the opinions shared. Failing to do so will break communication between you and your team. They will perceive you as the know-it-all CEO, unable to accept criticism and challenge himself. In a startup environment where everything is permanently changing, this attitude could kill you.

5. Over promising

Don’t make promises you won’t be sure you will be able to keep. Actually, don’t make promises at all. By definition a startups is fragile and everything is uncertain. Making promises in such an unstable environment is counterproductive. As a startup CEO and leader, your word is taken as a fact. However, promises in a startup context mostly depend on external factors that you cannot control. Best case scenario, you will be able to keep your promises and your team will take it as granted. Worst case scenario, you will not be able to keep the promises and they will feel betrayed. People will feel like they were fooled and will start to doubt about all the promises you made them, which will lead to disappointment. Expect trust to take a pummeling.

6. Negativity and lack of recognition

You see the worst of everything. You assume your people always make bad decisions, ask silly questions or take poor initiatives. Have you asked yourself if maybe you recruited the wrong person, didn’t set up clearly your expectations and their objectives? Of course not, it is never your fault! If you fail to reward initiatives (good or bad), don’t be surprised if your team starts doing the minimum required and stops taking risks. You will gradually undermine their morale, kill motivation and boost disengagement. If when someone makes a mistake, a deadline is missed, or a plan goes wrong, you look for scapegoats and lay the blame on others, don’t be surprised if you have a high turnover. No one wants to work in such a poisonous environment. Negativity is the enemy of all working relationships. You will earn a reputation for intimidating your teammates and evading your responsibility. So please start by recognizing your employees’ efforts, no matter how well they are performing. Create a positive working environment and promote a culture where people are grateful with each other. Let your team know you value their work and teach others to do so as well.

7. Indecisiveness

In a startup time is money. As a startup CEO, you certainly have a million things to do, and failing to act quickly could be the difference between life and death. If you are paralyzed by the inability to find solution or delay in the hope a magical solution will appear, you are dead. You keep looking for excuses — you are too busy, it is not the right time, you lack information, etc. — and you keep finding them. You are certainly afraid to make the wrong decision but your inability to make up your mind will send the wrong message to your team. And your indecisiveness almost always comes hand in hand with your lack of consistency. One day you decide one thing, the next day you decide the contrary. Your team feels lost and trapped. People will start talking behind your back. You will be perceived as someone weak, who doesn’t know where he wants to go. And no one wants to be led by someone who seems to be lost. So please stop losing your time and money. The faster your make a decision, the sooner you will know whether or not it was the right one. Most of the time you will fail. It doesn’t matter. You will learn, adapt and correct.

Remember what Thomas A. Edison said, “I have not failed. I’ve just found 10000 ways that won’t work.”

8. Bad communication

Keeping an important amount of information in the hands of some privileged employees is wrong. It leads to distrust and defiance. Transparency may not be your thing but it is key in order to keep speculations and gossips away. Avoid playing Chinese telephone. Give you a chance to explain the motivations behind your decisions before your employees learn this from someone else. What’s worse than one of your sales team member learning from one of his colleague that you have decided to put in place a new remuneration system for the sales team? “Why? When? How come I’m not informed? Am I not important enough to be taken into consideration?” Learn to involve people by keeping them well informed. Trust them enough to give them important information that directly affects their work. If you don’t trust them, what are they doing here? Of course you cannot control every single exchange that takes place between your employees but you have at least the responsibility to clearly establish the boundaries of what kind of information is acceptable to share and what is not.

9. Inability to clearly define your employees’ scorecard

If you are not explicitly defining and documenting the scorecard of each role in your startup, there are high chances you are dealing with misunderstandings, project overlaps and ultimately jalousies within your team members. In Who: The A Method for Hiring, defining a scorecard for each position in your company is the blueprint for success. Scorecards define the individual objectives of each employee for the purpose of the startup’s common strategy. It will allow you and your team to clearly outline the job mission, the expectations and the skills needed to do this. Having clear roles and scopes will keep politics away (and trust me, you really want to keep politics away from your startup as long as possible!). It will help your employees to feel ownership of their work and responsibilities. It will avoid your startup losing time because two people are working on the same project and will ultimately boost collaboration since they will exactly know who they can rely on for certain type of projects.

10. Hiring mistakes

Hire fast, fire faster. Does that sound familiar to you? All CEOs have done a hiring mistake. One of the most common ones is hiring by skill, not by team and culture fit. On paper the candidate looked great; top education, solid track record, good technical skills. But once it’s time to get to work, you realize how expensive that hire really was. Expensive in time and effort, for you and your entire team. Your team needs to evolve in a culture of mutual blind trust, where they can rely on each other. They don’t have to worry about ego battles, free riders, gossips, politics and so on. Remember that a negative attitude can spread very quickly among your team members. Don’t underestimate the damage of a wrong hire. Even the six-month intern you decided to hire must be totally aligned with the startup’s culture and values. Your responsibility as a CEO is to quickly identify and fire that toxic employee if you don’t want to hinder your team’s dynamics. The longer you will wait to fire them, the higher the cost, and one of the biggest costs is regret.

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