When we opened our Austin location the other day, it hit me how much Spade Design has grown. It doesn’t seem that long ago that our digital marketing agency was just a dream, now we have locations in six major cities and clients from all over the world. Someone asked me about the leadership skills that got us here.
I’ve been fortunate to get to work with truly talented team members and clients who are the best in their industry, and I believe that’s a big part of Spade Design’s success. But I’ve also done some thinking about the leadership skills necessary for every business as it goes from startup to something bigger.
When You Start as a Solopreneur
If you’re the only employee that works for your business, you might not think much in terms of leadership skills. It’s just you, so who are you supposed to lead? Even though you work alone, what you do and who you are forms the foundation for what will come with time.
Your leadership skills matter when you interact with clients, advisors, customers and vendors. They’re evaluating whether you’re authentic and trustworthy. What they decide could make or break your long-term success.
You’re also dealing with the toughest to manage employee of all – yourself. You can’t delegate unpleasant tasks. Your boss won’t fire you if you sleep late or extend your vacation, but neither will they write you a paycheck for that time off. There’s no one to balance out your weaknesses, so you’ll have to compensate or find ways to grow.
Top Tasks at This Stage
Be as deliberate about defining important leadership skills as you were about developing your business plan. Identify your goals and what you need to do to accomplish them. Write it down on paper.
When I started on this article, I dug out my leadership skills goals from when Spade Design was in its infancy. Some of them were (and still are) as follows:
- Inspire others – Believe in what Spade Design is doing and continually work toward a high level of success in a way that encourages others to do the same.
- Provide clients with an ethical digital marketing agency. Show respect, honesty, and integrity. Deliver what I promise and take responsibility when things go wrong.
- Understand the competition and find ways to make my business stand out.
- Show gratitude for those who help along the way.
Goals for your leadership skills might relate to your vision, your mission and your values. The document you create is both a starting point and a destination.
At this stage, it’s also a good idea to learn from entrepreneurs who found the type of success you hope to achieve. Join forums and network with other business owners who have been leading for a while. Read, listen to podcasts, find a mentor, do whatever you can to learn from the best. Here are a few titles to get you started.
- Good to Great by Jim Collins
- The 21 Irrefutable Laws of Leadership, by John Maxwell
- The One Minute Manager, a classic from Kenneth Blanchard and Spencer Johnson
From First Hire to Small Team
Every stage of business growth takes guts. This part can get exhausting and terrifying if you let it. You need employees because you’re so good at what you do, you’ve made your business a success in the beginning stages. You’ve been doing everything yourself, and at this phase you have to either turn down work and keep burning the candle at both ends or hire people to take over some of the responsibilities.
It would be much simpler if you could just clone yourself. Then you could be sure you’re getting the work ethic, integrity and skills that have worked so far. You can’t, but if you’ve already been working on your leadership skills you’ll be ready for your first hire.
Knowing When It’s Time
There comes a point when putting off the hiring process is counterproductive. If your workload is getting to be too much, it might feel hard to find the time to locate, train and manage someone new, but you can only stretch yourself so thin before your work starts to suffer. If you find you’re having to turn down new projects, you don’t have what you need to develop new ideas or your customers are starting to complain, it’s time to divert some of your energy, use some of your newly developed leadership skills and get an employee up to speed.
Plus, the administrative, paperwork and daily maintenance tasks suck your time. If you could pay someone less an hour to do those tasks than what you make, you’re free to do the things only you can do.
Hire for Trust
It’s completely normal to fear turning over your business to someone you hire. It’s a little (actually a lot) like leaving your baby with a sitter. There’s no possible way the person to which you’re entrusting your business can care as much, know as much or be as invested as you. You’re going to expect this person to be your right hand and trust them with knowledge and inside processes. You have to be able to trust them.
You can teach someone to use your business software, answer the phone, fill out the necessary forms and communicate in a certain way with clients. You can’t teach them to be trustworthy. Look for candidates who check most of the boxes when it comes to skills, but place a high premium on your evaluation of their honesty and integrity.
Hire for Fit
There are certain personality traits that rub you the wrong way. Skip the conflict and keep looking for candidates who are a better fit. When you wrote out your leadership skills, you also planted the seeds for your company culture. The values you have at the top will trickle down.
At Spade Design, we wanted people who also sought to inspire others, to bring positivity and delight through creativity. We were uncompromising about only hiring teammates who approach others with respect. We listened for candidates with analytic minds, who want to use data to identify why one thing works better than another, then to improve on that. If they fit our company culture, we could refine the little things along the way.
Go With Your Gut
I had an advantage here. I can’t talk about the experience I gained as an Intelligence Analyst for the United States Marine Corps, but it definitely comes in handy when I’m interviewing candidates for a job opening. Anyone can Google industry-related jargon and common interview questions for your field. But when you’re trying to hire your first employee, you can’t afford to be deceived by someone who’s just really good at making up stuff.
Ask open-ended interview questions and read body language while you listen for answers. Don’t just ask about what they can do, find out who they are when no one is checking up on them. Ask them to give examples of how they handle difficult or uncomfortable things. What caused a disagreement at their last job and how did they handle it? What’s the motivation that led them to apply with your company?
If you get a gut feeling about the candidate, listen to yourself, even if you can’t connect that feeling to something they said, did or wrote on their resume. It’s always better to ask more questions, schedule another interview or do more digging than to hire the wrong person.
Leadership Skills for Startup Growth
As your team starts to grow, continue to focus on culture and integrate foundational values into everyday decisions. Expect conflict. Just because you’re the boss doesn’t mean they’re going to do everything you say. Ensure continued growth with leadership skills like these:
- Give more. Never settle for just the basics, model what it means to go above and beyond in business relationships as well as products and services. When your customers, vendors, employees and subcontractors know this is your default, it inspires them to reciprocate. Also, when you provide greater value than what the competition offers, you win.
- Always look for creative solutions. Don’t stick with the same strategies just because they’re comfortable. That means trusting your employees when they think outside the box. At Spade Design, as long as a solution is specific, measurable, attainable, realistic and time-based (SMART), we’ll consider it. Collaboration is at the heart of all we do, because I believe we’re stronger and more innovative when each team member looks at things from their unique angle.
- Refine communication skills. Be ever more clear and concise. Whether giving instructions, critiquing work or praising for a job well done, a key leadership skill is being able to convey exactly what you mean. If you miss the mark, make sure employees know when to ask for clarification.
- Practice active listening. You should listen much more than you speak. You’ll encourage employees to share their insights and best efforts, and you’ll catch things you might otherwise have missed about clients.
- Balance work and personal life. At every stage of business, if you’re the owner, it’s what you live and breathe. If you don’t take time for relationships, outside interests and relaxation, you’ll burn out. Find what replenishes you and make time for it regularly.
Strong Teams With Multiple Locations
It was a major turning point when Spade Design started to open digital marketing agencies in multiple locations. Owners and stakeholders just can’t be everywhere at once. That’s when it’s time to hire the right managers. Take the same approach to hiring management as you did to finding your first employee. Hire for trust and for fit, listen to your gut and weave core values into the fabric of everything you do.
Make your original leadership skills goals and everything you’ve added to them part of your management training. Just because they’re highly skilled and intelligent doesn’t mean they automatically absorb the same skills you possess. If you allow each manager to set the tone for his or her location, you’ll end up with a mix that complicates brand messages and consistency.
If you can promote from within, that always helps. Someone who has worked with you as their direct boss already knows your expectations and communication style. Hiring externally might get you skills that weren’t available from within, but you also might end up with management whose philosophies conflict with your own.
Keep Researching, Reading and Developing Your Own Leadership Skills
At this point, I have to really be deliberate about this. It’s not that I think things are going so well I must have it figured out, it’s just the continual distractions that come with growth. There are still fires to put out, they’re just different ones.
When it’s just you, it feels like there’s more than one person can get done in a day. You’d think as you develop competent teams and implement streamlined processes, everything would go like clockwork. Probably at some point everyone envisions at this stage watching their bank account grow while they relax at the beach. But each level of business growth brings new challenges.
More locations means more potential for problems and more overhead. Issues that weren’t even possible when you were small come out of nowhere. The stakes are higher, and so are the expectations of what you’ll deliver. Your leadership skills must continue to evolve.
There’s always someone who has gone before. Keep reading and seeking advice from people you can trust. Research what’s working for top firms in your industry. Communicate that to your managers so you grow together and pass on those practices with consistency.
Working With Remote Staff
It doesn’t work for every type of business, but at Spade Design, the nature of what we do allows us to often work remotely. It’s great, but it also creates challenges. There are times when team members aren’t even in the same country, let alone the same time zone. We’ve found these leadership skills make it work.
- Strong communication – Remote workers in every field report feeling disconnected from their employer. It’s natural, when they might go for days or weeks without interacting with them. It doesn’t have to be that way. We use technology to stay in touch, and we communicate frequently. We use email, video conferencing, phone calls and real-time messaging to collaborate and troubleshoot.
- Respect – I trust my employees to get their work done. If we need to have an unexpected conversation, I respect their time and try to schedule ahead. They do the same. If something goes wrong, we’re conscious of the fact electronic messages aren’t the same as ones delivered face to face. We prioritize courtesy and teamwork.
- Clear feedback – Remote employees don’t want to feel like the work they submit goes into a bubble and forever disappears. They want to know it matters. We seek to deliver encouraging feedback when it’s due, and also communicate clearly when work doesn’t meet expectations.
- Consistent planning – We could probably handle most of what we do by email and instant messaging, but we still make a point of regular video conferences or phone calls to plan the next phase of a project or assignment. That keeps everyone connected and on track.
Solve Your Business Challenges
Spade Design offers business coaching to help your business grow in spades. No matter what stage your business is in, we’ll help you create a digital strategy to achieve your organization’s goals and objectives. It all starts with a conversation, why not schedule your one-on-one conference call today?
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