Google is famous for its love of data, not just when it comes to designing its products, but also when it comes to designing its business. The company has conducted much-discussed internal research into what makes for a successful manager, a successful team, and even a successful job interview process.
Now Google for Startups, the arm of the search behemoth dedicated to supporting high-growth startups, has turned its attention to founders. Given that more than half of startups fail because of people problems, Google wanted to know what makes for an effective startup leader.
To figure this out the company’s researchers talked to more than 900 startup leaders in more than 40 countries. The results of the massive data gathering effort are now out in the form of Google for Startups’ new Effective Founders Project report. The in-depth document is well worth a read in full, but the essential takeaway is that all successful startup leaders share seven essential traits.
1. They treat people like volunteers.
If you want to attract and retain the best talent, rely on mission rather than compensation or perks alone, the report suggests. “Whether they’re fresh graduates or experienced, world-class talent, the best people want to do great work for a challenging, meaningful mission,” claims Google in a blog post summing up the findings. “For example, many talented engineers want a unique challenge, rather than another old project that just wants to crowd out the market.”
2. They protect the team from distractions.
Is finding your focus easy in the wide open, rapidly changing world of startups? Absolutely not, but Google insists that if leaders want to be effective, it’s a skill they have to learn. “While CEOs are often seen as distracted by new ideas, the best ones create focus and clarity on what really matters,” says Google. “Set clear goals and priorities to build momentum for your team. This in turn fuels better performance and morale.”
3. They minimize unnecessary micromanagement.
It’s no shock that micromanagement isn’t good management in a great many contexts, but Google’s new research underlines the point: “Our data suggests micromanaging can be a major derailer, especially for CEOs. Recognize which teammates need to be closely supervised, and which you can empower to make good decisions and operate independently.”
4. They invite disagreement.
On this point Google is in alignment with a whole host of super successful founders. “Our data suggests founders consistently undervalue inviting opinions that are different from their own, while co-founders and teammates rate it highly,” Google notes, highlighting that “disagreement among diverse teams actually leads to more effective outcomes.”
5. They preserve interpersonal equity.
Successful co-founder relationships, like successful marriages, are built on open, clear communication, so make sure you discuss expectations in advance with your co-founders and stick to whatever you’ve agreed on.
“Violated expectations are the main source of conflict among co-founders,” Google cautions. “Our data suggests many founders keep track of their co-founder’s duties, but unknowingly define expectations for themselves more minimally.” Ensure you check in regularly with each other to make sure you feel your duties and rewards are balanced.
6. They keep pace with expertise.
People skills are essential for success but don’t be lulled into thinking technical chops don’t matter. Google found they do. A lot. “Ninety-three percent of the most effective founders have the technical expertise to effectively manage the work, and make time to stay ahead of their industry,” the research found.
7. They overcome discouragement.
Good news for aspiring founders who fear they don’t have the self-confidence to make it in the startup game: The most successful founders feel the exact same way. Everyone (who is not delusional or wildly misinformed) struggles with self-doubt. The best founders just use their self-doubt as a prompt to learn and try more.
“Our data suggests the most effective founders are not nearly as confident as the least effective founders are,” Google says. “This observation aligns with what is known as the Dunning-Kruger effect, where overconfidence at the start of the journey helps founders get started, but discouragement and self-doubt set in soon after. That in turn can give you the inner challenge you need to reach further.”
What do these findings boil down to? A quote from VC and former Google SVP Bill Coughran in the report sums it up nicely: “Engineering is easy. People are hard.”
This new Google research reaffirms just how important so-called “soft” skills are to startup success. Founders should master those above unless they want to see their company among the half of startups that fail due to “people problems.”