Being a Good Leader: 11 Management Lessons for Entrepreneurs

Busting workplace myths, IIM-A alumnus and management professional Abhishek Sareen lays out 11 management lessons for entrepreneurs and being a good leader. 


You can find thousands of books of and unlimited advice from people on leadership. However, most books and people talk in analogies and seldom mention how we need leadership in daily life so as to start our own team for a business or entrepreneurship venture.

11 Management Tips for Being a Good Leader

The following are my learnings from team-leading and the mistakes that I have made over my corporate career and the leadership lessons I have learned with my wife when she was creating her startup.

1. Avoid mass-hiring early on

In order to build a team, you need to attract talent. Yes, you may attract talent by paying them well, but sometimes, it’s not good enough, as you need to keep to startup’s financials in check. In the initial period of a startup, I would not advise to hire people rapidly, as in the beginning the vision and direction are evolving. So a lot of effort that is initially put is unlikely going to give as much dividends as it will do in future for the same amount of effort that is put in.

I would advise you to start small, and keep refining you vision and product strategy on a weekly basis. A lot of effort is needed here, you need to ask yourself a lot of difficult questions again and again, and so starting out small with a talented pool of individuals is advised.

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2. Every business needs company rules and regulations

It’s often believed that working in a startup is chaotic and it’s okay. There are no set rules, but there’s lots to learn. However, the truth is that these are the first signs that the startup will not last very long. The media often likes to glamorize crazy CEOs with reckless business practices. So generally, people feel that breakthrough startup companies are a little eccentric in how they operate. In fact, I have been part of a startup where they hired rapidly. There was little clarity of work, and that made employees demotivated.

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3. Constantly work upon & document work culture

A good startup needs to have a work good work culture, and that needs to be driven from the top and constantly worked upon. I would advise the leaders to think about all their experiences in order to create suitable working environment. Remember the things they disliked when they were a part of another company and also things they appreciated in other companies. Creating a work culture is a collaborative exercise and should be documented as much as possible, as it will play a very important role for a startup to retain and attract new employees.

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4. Don’t compare your team members with yourself

Now for being a good leader, it is very important to manage your team. Often when you are in a high performance work environment, managers expect their reporting team members should work as efficiently as them. Young managers often start judging their team members and start comparing themselves to them. For example, “If I can do the job in 5 minutes, why can’t they.” It’s very important to understand that your reporting staff is not you.

5. Be empathetic towards subordinates

No matter how technically skilled a person is, managing a team is a completely different ball game. Often employees are promoted to team manager roles based on their technical work performance, and not based on their team leading skills. For a manager to lead a team he/she needs to be empathetic towards his/her subordinates. When I say empathy, I mean that a manager should be able to see the world through the eyes of their subordinates and other team members.

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6. Learn to manage people according to their skill and motivation level

If you’re planning on being a good leader or a team manager, you need to understand that all his/her team members are not equal. You need to manage different types of people differently. One of the most common management theories is to categorize employees is based on skill and motivation. We can classify them as follows:

  1. Team members with High skill and High motivation; let’s call them Stars
  2. Team members with Low skill and High motivation; let’s call them Floaters
  3. Team members with High skill and Low motivation; let’s call them Problem Child
  4. Team members with Low skill and Low motivation; let’s call them Clockwatchers
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Yes, every organization or start-up would like all its employees to be ‘stars’, but that is seldom the case.

How to Manage Different Types of People

A manager needs to identify and assess skill and motivation levels on a timely basis and work accordingly. Although there is tons of literature defining this on various websites and videos, here is the gist:

  1. Stars have high skill and high motivation, so encourage them to take up more responsibility and partner with them.
  2. Floaters have low skill but high motivation, so provide adequate training for them, encourage them to ask questions and help them gain skills.
  3. Problem Child has high skill but low motivation, so be careful with them. If their motivation isn’t raised, they may demotivate other employees too. So motivate them by giving responsibility and ownership, reward good work and help them find a role they are excited about.
  4. Clockwatchers have low skill and low motivation. Initially, it may just seem that they can’t add value to your team and you may be compelled to fire them. However, different types of employees complement each other, so they are all important. In fact, over time, they may become some of the most valuable members of your team. One of my wife’s team members was a clockwatcher, and she almost fired him at one point. However, with patience and training, he became really good at certain tasks the other team members found ‘boring’ or repetitive. “I let him start with simpler tasks that were well-defined or repetitive, so there was less scope for mistakes,” she says. “I took his feedback on what he enjoyed doing, and eventually, I trained him and even began giving him larger projects and targets. When they started bringing in results, he felt motivated, too.”

The key thing to note here is that a true leader needs to have empathy and understand his or her team members really well in order to lead them.

7. Try to improve, not fire

The role of a leader is often glamorized and picturized as a ruthless boss, who job is to hire and fire people. When you have employees whose skill and motivation is low, firing them seems like an ideal solution. Firing an employee is easy, but that is no solution to any problem in real life. A good leader invests effort in motivating and grooming his/her team members so that they become good managers in the future.

When my wife was building her team, she initially used to lose patience with a certain Problem Child who seemed to create some trouble or the other every now and then. “I used to contemplate if letting him go would be an easier solution, but the truth is that even a replacement would come with their own set of setbacks, as no employee is perfect. So I became more patient, trying to understand his concerns. I started listening more so I could figure out what work would motivate him, and gave him more responsibility accordingly. This added work made him busy and happy too, as it gave him ownership. With encouragement and positive feedback, I truly feel he now has the potential to achieve great heights in the organization.”

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8. Make job descriptions and responsibilities very clear

There’s a common saying, “managing less is managing more”. A good manager doesn’t need to manage much if he/she defines every team member’s roles and responsibilities very clearly. Often organizations don’t lay much emphasis on clearly defining job descriptions and responsibility. These are often kept purposefully vague, so that if ever a need arises, a manager can assign out-of-job-description task to a subordinate, and people should not say no to a job.

However, I believe the contrary. When an organization or manager defines roles and responsibility well, team members take ownership and thus little intervention is needed. Ideally, this should be the primary task when being a good leader, a clear job description keeps the employees focused and motivated at all times.

9. Build an environment of teamwork & honesty

As long as members’ roles are clearly defined, and made according to their skill and motivation level, it will become easier to create an environment that promotes teamwork. It’s a good idea to encourage team members to take interest in each other’s work, and provide each other positive feedback. Team bonding activities like lunch outings or coffee breaks also help.

As far as honesty at workplace is concerned, there are always certain members of every team who will be dishonest. However, the manager should keep being honest to their subordinates as much as possible, and give everyone the benefit of doubt. If there’s a concern, try to understand it through respectful discussion rather than jumping to the worst conclusion.

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At the same time, if you have evidence that someone has been dishonest, try to straighten it out subtly instead of being angry. This will help them understand that you watch everything but are still patient. Over time, these practices will help your employees be honest and trustworthy.

10. Be a leader, not a boss

Young managers sometimes lack patience and feel they should become a bossy boss. Sometimes they even emulate angry boss figures they may have encountered in their life or seen in media. However, being a good leader is about earning respect through hard work and clarity of thought.

Good team leaders respect their subordinates and encourage healthy discussions instead of running away from tough talk. They motivate their team members, reward professional habits and give due credit for everyone’s hard work. They lead by example. They also understand every individual has different strengths and deal with them accordingly.

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11. Manage feelings at workplace

It’s a big myth that a corporate workplace needs to be devoid of any feelings, and that a good employee should leave their feelings at home when they go to work. However, in reality, people are people, not bots, and some feelings are inevitable at the workplace. And being a good leader is all about recognizing these issues.

Sometimes, your criticism may make an employee feel hurt, or another team member’s actions may have a negative effect on their mental health. Sometimes, something completely unrelated to work (like a family issue or health issue) may affect their feelings adversely to the point that it reduces their productivity.

When being a good leader, it’s a good idea to encourage them to speak up in a safe environment. You don’t need to become their friend or therapist, but let them know they can trust you, and keep their secrets safe. Let them take some time off if required. If your criticism or management style hurt them, try to take it in your stride and be more empathetic instead of getting defensive.

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A Good Work Culture…

One of the most important qualities you need for being a good leader is that they create an atmosphere for team work and honesty. In order to do so, a leader needs to reward the right things. In management schools, we are taught what gets rewarded get repeated. To create a good environment, a leader continuously needs to reward and recognize good team work behavior. In the end it’s a good work atmosphere that makes people highly productive, not long work hours.

Written in collaboration with Shilpa Ahuja

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