We identify some traits and behaviours of successful Tech and Digital start-up founders and leaders.
It is extremely difficult to pinpoint common traits and behaviours required to lead and grow successful Tech or Digital start-ups. The diversity of founder-leaders is almost as great as the wide range of businesses we are seeing launching in this rapidly growing space. Unsurprisingly, start-up founders also have varying ideas on what success means for them. Subsequently, they follow very different paths to grow their venture and achieve success.
Despite this diversity, I have found interesting themes based on peer-reviewed research and my own PhD research in this area.
Some of the most common traits and behaviours of successful Tech and Digital start-up founders and leaders are:
Knowing yourself and the value you bring
Even the most confident Tech and Digital founders and leaders like Steve Jobs and Mark Zuckerberg acknowledge not only their areas of greatest strength but also their weaknesses. They focus on activities that play their strengths and learn to delegate tasks that drain their positive energy. This, therefore, enables them to build top teams made up of people with diverse and complementary strengths, skills and experience who are well placed to meet the complex challenges faced by their organizations.
In the words of Steve Jobs: “Your time is limited, don’t waste it living someone else’s life…have the courage to follow your heart and intuition, they somehow already know what you truly want to become.”
Passion and energy
Passion is best defined as a “fire in the belly” or positive energy to achieve one’s goals and outperform. Research shows that founders who are passionate about their vision and believe strongly in what they are doing are more likely to achieve breakthrough results. Passion is contagious as anyone who has been led by an inspirational leader knows. Highly passionate founders are often able to infuse their energy throughout their company, something that is particularly important during the early start-up phase.
Passion also ensures founders keep going and put in the ‘heavy lifting’ when things get tough. As one founder of a digital design agency commented: “Doing something you love and are engaged by is crucial as this ensures you put more effort and hours in”.
It is important to distinguish between two types of passion – obsessive versus harmonious passion. The former is characterized by an obsessive preoccupation with the venture which consumes all the founder’s energy, time and capacity. This can lead to unhealthy stress and an inability to “switch off. If this negative stress is left unchecked, it can lead to burnout and stress-related illnesses.
Unlike obsessive founders, the best leaders find harmony between building their venture and other parts of their lives. Their identity is not just linked to their venture. They manage to find balance with other aspects of their life, for example, being a friend, partner or parent. These founders tend to find the work itself enjoyable, fun and motivating over time. They also feel more in control of their work-life balance.
Grit to go all the way
Grit is the capacity to sustain high levels of effort and motivation to achieve one’s goals, even when they are very tough or take years to accomplish. It is essentially a combination of passion and perseverance. Grit appears to predict success in education, but also in entrepreneurship and leadership. Research shows it is linked to important outcomes such as improved performance, resilience and personal career success.
In order to succeed, Tech and Digital founders have to tackle all sorts of tough dilemmas and challenges. These include securing funding, managing investors, hiring the right talent and getting traction for their products. Gritty founders are much more likely to stay focused on their goals, even in the face of adversity. Without grit is it difficult for founders to succeed in a highly competitive, demanding and fast-changing environment.
Agility and rapid learning
Agility involves the ability to learn quickly and adapt to ever-changing and uncertain circumstances. Changes in technologies, regulations, customer preferences and market conditions are just some of the many challenges Tech and Digital founders need to deal with. One founder I interviewed characterized this capability as needing the “flexibility to change the business quickly when things change”. Another described rapid learning as “being ready to be ruthless about throwing things away and starting again when things don’t work out.”
Because the best Tech and Digital founders are gritty and passionate, they remain laser-focused on achieving ambitious goals for their venture. They are better at building a strong performance culture, one where high standards, accountability and teamwork are valued and expected. They put in place effective and scalable management systems to ensure performance is planned, delivered and continuously improved.
It is important to note that some of the traits and capabilities required by Tech and Digital founders will shift as the business scales and becomes bigger. Some founders find it very difficult to make this transition. It is important that they either adapt to learn new capabilities. Alternatively, they can also bring in leaders with different capabilities needed to scale the business. Our experience suggests that some leaders are simply better suited to leading start-ups. Others perform better during the subsequent scale-up stages of the growth cycle.
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About the Author
Founder and MD | Leadership Consultant | Organizational Psychologist
James is a leadership consultant, organizational psychologist and executive coach. He has over 25 years’ experience working with leaders, teams and organizations globally to optimize their performance, talent and future success. He specializes in positive leadership, thriving workplaces, collaboration and influencing, organizational change and transformation, accelerating innovation and coaching executives and leaders in innovative sectors including Tech, Digital, E-commerce and Life Sciences.
Before setting up Plexus Leadership, James held leadership roles in HR and Talent Management in the UK and abroad with companies such as NatWest, Yahoo! and Novo Nordisk Pharmaceuticals. After this, he founded and led several talent and leadership consulting and assessment businesses, including Strengthscope®, an online strengths assessment and development business serving a wide range of UK and global clients. James grew this venture into a global market leader before selling the business in 2018.
James has supported, advised and coached leaders and teams globally across diverse industries and geographies. Clients he has worked with include Allen & Overy, Commvault, Equinor, Facebook, GSK, Hilton, John Lewis, Novartis Pharmaceuticals, NHS, Oracle, Sainsbury’s, Swiss Re, Tesco, Takeda Pharmaceuticals, WSP and Yahoo!.
James has a Master’s in Organizational Psychology, an MBA, an Advanced Diploma in Executive Coaching and a Harvard Business qualification in Sustainable Business Strategy. He is a member of the Institute of Directors, the Association of Business Psychologists and a Fellow of the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (FCIPD). He is currently undertaking a PhD in Organizational Psychology examining the start-up experiences of Tech and Digital entrepreneurs.
James is a regular contributor and speaker on leadership, coaching, innovative talent management and the future of work. His most recent book, Optimize Your Strengths, explores how leaders can create thriving workplaces by inspiring and supporting people to optimize their potential and teamwork to deliver breakthrough results.