Five habits of a highly successful startup employee

Five habits of a highly successful startup employee

Monday May 09, 2016,

9 min Read

I started my career at a large steel company where at one point I worked as an EA to one of the VPs. The Executive Team met every fortnight to discuss important issues. For one of the meetings, the EA of the CEO wasn’t present and I was asked to substitute. The meetings were held in the board room where the CEO would be seated at the head of the table and the VPs (six of them) were seated on both sides. The senior most of the two VPs, like always, were seated to the left and the right of the CEO. There was never any confusion on who sat where! I had to sit in the second row behind the main row of chairs and take notes. At one point when the discussion was about the sale of a division, one of the VP’s differed with the CEO and there was some argument (but arguments with the CEO never ever got heated). It was very evident to me that what he (the VP) was saying made a lot of sense, but there was no support forthcoming from anyone else. During the bio-break, I overheard one of the other VPs telling this VP, “What you were saying made eminent sense. I wish the boss had understood”. My thought was, if this was so obvious to you (as it was to me), why didn’t you speak up in the meeting? Maybe if you had spoken up, someone else would also have done the same and maybe the decision would have been different. It was proved some years later that the decision taken that day was wrong.


From this large company with the pace of an oil tanker (where I was accustomed to ‘listening’ to a boss rather than speaking my mind), I moved to a startup with the agility of a fighter jet. In my first one-on-one with the CEO, I was in that mode (a note pad and pen in hand listening) and in less than two minutes, the CEO asked me curtly, “will this monologue continue or will we have a dialogue?”

The first habit for being successful in a start up is “Assertiveness”.

Habit #1: Be assertive

  • Assertiveness needs passion. It needs skills to translate this passion into organizational outcomes without breaking too many eggs along the way (but be willing to break a few when needed).
  • Assertiveness is about recognizing the importance of constructive tension. Assertiveness is about perseverance and stamina.
  • Assertiveness is about having a viewpoint. And the willingness to work hard to gather data to substantiate that viewpoint. And the willingness to state this point of view where it matters. A willingness to deal with conflict. A willingness to say “no” when saying “yes” causes greater harm to the team/organization/stakeholders. And above all, having the right conversations with the right people.

Without assertiveness, you can’t create a great product, or provide a great service. You can’t build consensus on a difficult issue, or take tough decisions. You can’t meet deadlines or fight in a tough market place. You can’t have crucial conversations either.

And you need to do all of these in a high growth startup every day! Assertiveness is the foundation for being effective in a startup. It is not impossible to cultivate it even if it does not come to you naturally.

Habit #2: Unclutter

I think it was Einstein who had said, “If you can't explain it to a six-year-old, you don't understand it yourself.”

Persons with an uncluttered mind are always asking questions like:

  • What problem are we solving?
  • Is this needed?
  • Can this be done in any other way?
  • Are we designing for extreme conditions or the most common conditions?
  • Who requires it to be done this way?
  • Who owns this? Who is accountable?
  • Why can’t we eliminate these non-value adding activities?
  • Does the law really require us to do this, and can we check this out?
  • Can we simplify this problem by breaking it up into smaller components?
  • Will this process work on the ground? It looks nice on paper but has too many execution challenges (those with a cluttered mind figure this out only after the beautiful-on-paper process fails in execution)

They cut through the smoke and jargon in meetings. They ask insightful questions that help get to the root of an issue. They cut to the chase and get to the point. They have the uncanny ability to translate the intangibles into dollars and cents. They tend to make the right approximations and ignore the unimportant variables. In the next Habit, we will discuss how great field commanders always prioritize well and work hard on the important things. The outcome is about being able to prioritize but the capability to do so stems from uncluttered thinking.

Habit #3: Manage time

There are 3 components to managing time

  • Prioritize – There is a belief in the German military circles that the Generals who make the best field commanders are the smart-lazy types – because they have a razor sharp focus on the few things that matter in any situation and have supreme disdain for the many unimportant things. The smart-hardworking types make excellent staff officers. In effect, the smart-lazy types prioritize well. The word ‘lazy’ is obviously metaphorical, because they can be actually working very hard on the 2-3 most important things like a Steve Jobs. Prioritizing won’t happen without the power and intellect to discriminate.
  • Create capacity – Creating capacity is about figuring out the capability of your/your function to deliver on goals, proactively identify weak links and shore them up before the cracks begin to show. Leaders of teams (including function heads) are often so obsessed with fixing mission-critical issues that they just don’t seem to spend any time on creating capacity. As a result of this they move from one crisis to another. Leaders who otherwise come across as smart, experienced and mature also don’t seem to get this. This is an important component of managing time. You can never manage time well if you (or your team) lack capacity.
  • Manage monkeys – Monkey management is about consciously or unconsciously taking ownership/commitment/accountability for something that someone else is responsible for. Consciously, and more often unconsciously, we pass on monkeys every day and creating confusion where we should be striving for clarity. This confusion is one of the biggest de-railers in a startup! The reasons why monkeys are created and passed on are many. This is a topic for another day. Develop the habit of avoiding monkeys (passing or receiving). Establish clarity on ownership and accountability.

Habit # 4: Envision

“Envisioning” is not about strategising or dreaming of the Big Picture in a vacuum. It is about being strategic in the context of execution. And that is a BIG Difference.

In a goal sheet, one of the goals of a training head stated: “Audit and Adherence”. This was a goal set without envisioning. After envisioning, the goal was modified to, “Strengthen the quality and consistency of training implementation through appropriate reporting and audit”. With this change in goal definition, the training head would be able to make mid-course corrections in activities that are needed to reach that goal. Too narrow a definition ignores the primary purpose of a goal, or a role for that matter.

One of the goals that the warehousing management was aiming for was having zero overtime (OT) for the quarter. A better goal would have been to optimize the salary costs of the pickers (and aim for a particular number), This would give the freedom to play around with multiple levers and OT would just be one of them – instead of blindly trying to eliminate OT (to the detriment, sometimes, of the bigger objective of salary cost).

Envisioning is not about the big thing. It is about thinking a little ahead every day, every moment. It is about asking questions from time to time like: “What problem are we trying to solve”, “Why are we meeting today”, “I know we need to strengthen discipline, but do we need to use this platform for doing it”, “Aren’t we mixing up two different issues here”, “How will we meet our goal by doing this”?

Habit #5: Anticipate and be proactive

Being proactive is about taking initiative to prepare for, participate in and/or control the events rather than reacting to events.

An example: An important stakeholder has sent an identical request (on a problem) to two different individuals. This problem would take 4-5 days to fix. “A” responds by email within 60 minutes – ‘I have received your request. We will begin working on it ASAP. Our initial estimate is that it would take 5 days to complete. We will keep you updated on the progress on a daily basis’ – and finishes the task in 5 days.

“B” does not send any response but finishes the task in 4 days.

It is obvious who the stakeholder is mad at!

Those that are proactive are not bystanders – they jump in the pond and participate. They engage and contribute. Those that are proactive are not victims – they take things in their stride when they do not receive support. Those that are proactive do not procrastinate – they take timely action.

In conclusion

One typical question or comment I hear often is, “Are these habits not helpful in a mature company?” Of course good habits are helpful everywhere, but like the smart and lazy general, we need to discriminate. If these habits are not demonstrated everyday in a mature company all hell won’t break loose, and the world around you will still be in one piece. In a startup, all hell will surely break loose!

(Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of YourStory.)

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