Meadow CreekNews

Leadership and the Solopreneur

Filed under Venture Capital and Start Ups on April 5, 2010

Leadership may seem like an unusual topic for solopreneurs. An individual working alone may not appear to be a likely candidate for leadership training. Leadership is, however, a necessary component of an entrepreneur’s skill set.

First and foremost, they are managing the most difficult employee ever, there self. What could possibly be harder than inspiring, teaching, correcting and managing a person that knows you inside out, is free to take advantage of your weaknesses and knows the answers before you even ask the question?

Second, more so than in bigger businesses, solopreneurs must view the people around them as part of their team. Working with, listening to, guiding and coordinating advisors, suppliers and customers is vital to the success of their business.

Third, the successful solopreneurs will someday become an employer and have a staff to lead. Bad habits die hard and a solopreneur should develop good leadership skills early in order to be prepared for the task ahead.

Leadership Skills

A Duke University survey of CEO’s of large and small businesses identified leadership skills in order of importance. The following is the top half of the list.

Skills Rated as Most Important

  • 1.Promoting an ethical environment
  • 2.Acting with authenticity
  • 3.Understanding and interpreting the competitive environment
  • 4.Developing trust in relationships with other employees
  • 5.Demonstrating optimism and enthusiasm for organizational objectives
  • 6.Demonstrating dedication and effort
  • 7.Promoting a sense of responsibility for the whole organization
  • 8.Creating cohesive teams within my business unit
  • 9.Communicating strategic frameworks
  • 10.Engaging other employees in the strategic vision
  • 11.Understanding and interpreting changes in the economic environment
  • 12.Acting fairly towards others
  • 13.Developing strategic frameworks
  • 14.Promoting teamwork
  • 15.Serve as a role model

The study found a very distinct differentiation in the ranking of “sense making” skills. They describe an executive’s ability to assimilate, interpret and communicate internal and external factors affecting the business. The external sense making skills (in bold) were more highly rated that internal sense making skills. In fact, all of the internal sense making skills ranked in the least important category.

In this and related studies, the skills most correlated to increased financial performance of a firm are those relating to:

Inspiring others

  • 5.Demonstrating optimism and enthusiasm for organizational objectives
  • 10.Engaging other employees in the strategic vision
  • 17.Inspiring other employees to raise their goals

Leader responsibility

  • 1.Promoting an ethical environment
  • 7.Promoting a sense of responsibility for the whole organization
  • 29.Helping other employees balance their personal interest and responsibilities with their professional interest and responsibilities (the lowest ranked skill)

Let’s look at the skills relating to inspiration and the responsibility as they relate to solopreneurs.

The inspirational skills speak to knowing what you’re doing, believing in what you’re doing and being committed to a high level of success. Demonstrating optimism and enthusiasm for your objectives implies that you do have a clear set of objectives and you are personally convinced they can be achieved. That suggests that there is a well thought out plan in place.
The same is true with engaging other employees in the strategic vision. The direct implication is that there is a vision and a strategy to support it. This gets to those external sense making skills that were ranked so high in the survey. Understanding the economic and competitive environment, the ability to create a strategic framework for how your business will create value and competitive advantage in the context of that environment and the ability to engage others in the vision.
The solopreneur may not have a board to convince or employees to engage in the strategic vision, but there are other stakeholders that do need to internalize the plan and support if not rally others to its cause. Those people vital to the success will need to believe in you and your business. Your advisors, bankers, suppliers and customers which each have a need at various levels to understand your plan.
Nothing is less inspirational than settling for good enough. Lofty goals are infectious. A solid strategy, a well thought out business plan with aggressive goals cannot help but inspire. Too many entrepreneurs set modest goals and as a result, they and their business never reach full potential. Big fish eat little fish and with only one-third of small businesses surviving 10 years, it’s best to try and be the big fish, even if it’s a small pond.
The skills identified as relating to leadership responsibility embody keeping your own house in order. Some entrepreneurs are willing to do just about anything to ensure the survival and success of their business. Again, bad habits die hard and usually grow over time. The corners you cut in the early years will likely define your style and your brand for a long time to come.
Promoting a sense of responsibility for the whole organization means taking care of stakeholders. Your family also depends on the success of your business. Keep them in the loop and don’t forget your responsibilities to them as well. Remember the people and companies that helped you along the way. You may out grow them, but they should always be treated with caring and respect. Successful entrepreneurs are skilled at building relationships with people that are vital to the success of their business. Ask yourself if you are building relationships or just using people.
It’s hard as an entrepreneur to have a rational conversation on work-life balance. The average successful starting entrepreneur works a seventy-hour week. That doesn’t leave a lot of time for anything else, but eating and sleeping. This is one that you will have to wrestle with yourself.
Leadership skills are not the domain of CEOs of large corporations. Solopreneurs need the same skills to be successful. The ability to interpret the economic and competitive landscape, develop a sound business strategy and a plan to execute the strategy transcends company size. The need to inspire is perhaps even more critical for solopreneurs as is taking responsibility for those around you.

Richard Gabel

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