In a recent interview with my good friend Alisa Cohn, entrepreneurial coach, I asked her for her thoughts on the biggest leadership challenges for CEOs and founders of startups. Alisa, voted one of Boston’s Top 10 coaches by Women’s Business, executive coach and Marshall Goldsmith 100 Coach, taught me quite a bit! Below are learnings from our conversation that I think will help you too.
Marshall: I’ve found that one of the problems with people who have been educated in engineering and math is that they get “lost in logic.” In fact this was my education, so I know it’s true! We can go through life trying to make everything rational and logical and we’re always disappointed when it isn’t. This is one of the classic problems I’ve found in working with people like this.
Another behavioral challenge that many entrepreneurs have is having to win all the time and always wanting to be right.
One of the greatest leaders I know, who started his career as an engineer, taught me what he’d learned about leadership and letting go of wanting to be right and winning all the time in a simple phrase: “For the great achiever, it’s all about me; for the great leader, it’s all about them.”
Alisa, what in your experience is one of the biggest challenges for founders and start up leaders?
Alisa: I believe it starts with hiring the right people who are at the phase where the leader can let go. You can say “let go,” but you have to have the people around you who can pick it up one you do. For this reason, you’ve got to really think about who you want to bring into the organization.
Can they handle the responsibility you want to give them?
Then, give it to them and let go. This is difficult for entrepreneurs for a few reasons:
They are experts in the product or service they’re building.
The project is “their baby”.
They may never have been a leader before, so they may not yet understand that success is about how much you can empower others, not how much you can do yourself.
Marshall: Right! And, there is also the challenge that leaders’ suggestions become orders. I learned this from the former CEO of GlaxoSmithKline, J.P. Garnier. He said, “My suggestions become orders. If the suggestions are smart, they’re orders. If they’re stupid, they’re orders. If I want them to be orders, they are orders. And, if I don’t want them to be orders, they are orders anyway.”
This is a tough lesson for new entrepreneurial leaders whose suggestions are likely going to become orders even if they don’t want them to. I caution them to be careful even when saying things like, “Have you thought of this? or Have you tried that?” Because even if they don’t mean it as an order, it becomes one.
Alisa: Yes, and then they will do exactly what you told them to do. Perhaps you didn’t quite mean it that way, but it doesn’t really matter because they’re going to go do it that way. And you’ve taken away their responsibility for thinking for themselves.
Now, you’re not training and empowering your people or empowering them and creating a culture where they think for themselves. What you’re doing now is creating a culture where people do just what you tell them to do. Not only do you lose creativity and innovation, you also become solely responsible for every success or failure the company has because everyone is just doing what you told them to do! This is definitely not a good place for any leader and in today’s environment can quickly lead to the demise of a company that could otherwise have been very successful.
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