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4 minute read

Leadership

How To Handle Clashing Personalities On Your New Leadership Team

Playing ringleader to a bunch of people who've never worked together is a big challenge for startup founders.

How To Handle Clashing Personalities On Your New Leadership Team
[Photo: © Marie-Lan Nguyen / Wikimedia Commons / CC-BY 3.0]

Picture this: You’re an entrepreneur ready to get your startup off the ground, and you have just the right people in mind to build your team. A friend of yours, a former CEO at a publicly traded company, has agreed to be a partner. Another friend, also a former executive, is excited to sit on your board.

Before you know it, you've got a team of former execs on your hands, and you’re beginning to wonder how they're all going to get along when none of them is the sole person in the driver's seat.

Getting Team Composition Right

A lot goes into building the perfect leadership team for a startup. You want someone who’s motivated and doesn’t let the small failures discourage them. You want someone who has the resources to commit to your business for the long term. You may also want someone with past entrepreneurial or leadership experience and knows what it takes to run a successful enterprise.

It would be great if everyone you bring on board checks off all of these boxes equally, but that's far from likely. Instead, chances are that each of your new partners covers one or two of your bases and not others. And that's just when it comes to experience, not personality.

All this is fine—even if it does mean your team ends up looking like a mishmash of former executives and C-level managers. The truth is that having a variety of backgrounds and experiences in different industries can be an asset. And while it's sometimes a bad idea to hire too many people with executive experience into rigid corporations, seasoned employees who can fulfill a multitude of business roles can generally give a huge boost to a startup.

"The most successful businesses result from the marriage of different skills, backgrounds, and personalities," Jon Smith, CEO of Pobble, tells me. "You'll have different opinions and ideas. However, invariably, those are the tough conversations that catapult you forward."

The Entrepreneurial Challenge No One Tells You About

But just because an employee used to be in the C-suite at their old job doesn’t mean they're guaranteed the same position in your startup. Making that transition isn't always easy. As the founder, you face a big challenge you might not have counted on: To get your very first handful of employees—your startup's leadership team—to work with you, not for or against you. Setting the tone and ensuring your whole team is on board with your vision and business concept is the prerequisite for getting anything done together.

That starts by recognizing that while you may have recruited a bunch of execs to join you, they're all entrepreneurial-minded in one way or another—otherwise they'd never have come on board. That's potentially a major factor in any personality clashes you may have to mediate. Entrepreneurs are largely defined by their innovative spirit and passion for trying new things. Your first step should be to identify your new team members' individual passions and plan how to use them to your company's advantage.

So while keeping everyone focused on the piece of the business you've hired them to cover is an organizational challenge—the marketing expert as CMO, the data wonk as CTO—it doesn't stop there. A successful founder needs to keep egos from clashing as well. Chances are that your new marketing head, especially if they're someone with C-level experience elsewhere, will have opinions about more than just your company's marketing strategy. That can be either an asset or a problem, depending on your approach as ringleader.

Don't Tamp Down Differences

So how do you encourage a group of individuals who've never worked together before, let alone in a new startup, to communicate with one another and work as a team?

The key to uniting a group of diverse individuals is to play on each team member's passion for your business—even when that leads to different perspectives on it. Coax out their individual entrepreneurial instincts rather than try and suppress them. If these folks have agreed to work with you, chances are they already agree with your overarching vision for the new company, its goals, and your shared values. As long as there's agreement there, differences of opinion on more tactical and strategic issues can still be productive, even if they get occasionally heated.

At team meetings, explicitly outline how each of your team members, with their different backgrounds, will help accomplish the goals you set for the company. Clarify—explicitly and repeatedly—how each person's job function is as important as the next. Especially in the early days, when a single person fulfills a role there will one day be an entire department to cover, this can be particularly useful.

Finally, it isn't overstepping to tell your team members to bring a positive attitude and smile on their faces, because you’re all working together. It was their accumulated past experience that made them experts in leadership roles at established companies, not the titles they held there. It's skill sets and mind-sets that you need more than impressive CVs. After all, that's what separates a successful team of entrepreneurs from the pack.

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