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A subtle yet essential skill a successful startup founder must have

Setting the culture in your startup is more gut than science

I was running a session on leading and managing startup teams with a group of startups from Gaza, when one astute participant raised the point that my methods might be ok for the U.S. or the U.K., but that they may not work in their culture.

This got me thinking about what it means to have a strong startup culture within your local culture, and how a startup’s leader should go about navigating the two things so that they can co-exist successfully.

There is a startup culture which is not the same as corporate or public sector or even SME (small to medium enterprises) culture. I would argue startup culture is a global phenomenon, and when you are acting and competing on that global stage, you need to be able to understand and engage with that above and beyond your local norms.

Trying to impose your local corporate ways, such as very hierarchical management structures, or rigid adherence to rules and protocols, or not including all team members in decision-making, means your startup may not have the agility and flexibility it needs to be competitive with other startups.

This can be disastrous for a company that has only a few team members, a very limited budget, and that is trying to find its place in a global market.

Startup culture has developed the way it has around the world for a reason. The more nimble a brand new small company is, the better able it will be to weather uncertainty and external challenges. The more involved all the team members are in the everyday operations of the company, the more vested they will feel.

This is especially important when people are working on less-than-market rate or no salaries, or are having to put in exceptionally long hours to get a new product launched. People go above and beyond when they feel they also have something at stake in the success or failure of the brand, and feel part of the company family.

They are much less likely to do so if they are kept at arms length, running in the hamster wheel and kept in the dark about how the company is progressing and understanding what important decisions are being made and why.

These factors play a big role in setting the culture.

But there is a more important message that came out of this discussion for me than whether my leadership methods were right or wrong for these startups operating in this particular environment.

And that message is that startup founders must be able to “read the situation” and be highly adaptable to it in order to keep the wheels on and keep moving their companies forward.

Only those startup founders in that room will know what is best for their teams and for their companies to give them the best chance for success. This includes “feeling out” the right management and leadership style for the place and stage of their startup at that time.

This is not an exact science, or one that you can learn from a book. This is about using emotional intelligence, being engaged with your team, and thinking carefully about the goals you need to achieve next in your startup.

So while the discussion about which leadership and management style is right for a startup depending on where you are in the world, the more important question is whether your style is right for your startup for a certain point in time. As a founder and a leader, hone your emotional intelligence, engage with your team, set your goals, and adjust your style accordingly.


techie, over-40 female with no entrepreneurial experience, and all I am learning along the way. You can see more here. If you think this might be helpful for others on their entrepreneurial journey, please recommend and share.

This story is published in The Startup, Medium’s largest entrepreneurship publication followed by +367,690 people.

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