20 traits of successful startup leaders: Reflections on serving 50+ impact tech startups

Leading with over-the-horizon vision

Author: Eric Schudiske, Founder and CEO

We’re all students. Here at our feisty little PR firm, we spend every day learning about everything from deep science and the environment, to venture capital markets, to startups and business fundamentals. 

Me, I’m drawn again and again to lessons in leadership. And we’ve had ringside seats over the past 5+ years in leadership best practices under extreme circumstances. 

I’ve witnessed how leadership at its most artful execution builds a powerful gravity; Pulling success closer to people, companies, and causes. 

During the first career incarnation I reported the news as it happened, as a TV journalist. I covered the President of the United States, challenged U.S. Senators, military leadership, and CEOs across the country at all levels to explain and defend decisions, and watched as opinion and politics shifted in the wake of displays of leadership. 

Today, it’s the same: Leadership takes root and grows within startup founders at all levels. And recently, s2s PR just crossed a threshold. We’ve now served 50+ life science and climate tech startups, VC firms, and organizations in our short history. 

We’ve seen a little bit of everything serving those 50+ clients: the pressure founders endure, the expectations they must meet, and adaptation to the changing and often unpredictable venture landscape that could determine their future.

Here’s what we learned about successful leadership so far:

There’s an alchemy to success. It’s fluid, opportunistic, and individual. This isn’t a shopping list of traits or a formula for success. It’s 20 raw ingredients, randomly assembled, we’ve identified so far as helping tip the scales toward success. 

  1. Speed: Go fast, but don’t hurry. Excess deliberation and delays are often a symptom of mission or resource misalignment. 
  2. Clarity: The job is to succeed. Define success early. Keep it simple. Keep it top of mind. 
  3. Leadership: Maintain alignment on key business objectives, empowering team members to own and operate their piece of the larger campaign. 
  4. Individual Accountability: Model the accountability you want to see in your team. Leaders who are transparent about their goals and how they contribute to the team will be more likely to see the same from their colleagues.
  5. Perspective: Zoom out to zoom back in. I call it ZOZI (zoom out/zoom in). Your innovation exists within the world, not apart from it or despite it. Seeing the larger picture allows leaders to navigate their unique space more acutely. 
  6. Calm: There’s a certain confidence, credibility, and clarity that comes with approaching problems that might send some into a laptop-throwing rage, with controlled calm. Be the pilot you want flying your plane through unexpected turbulence — measured, reassuring, honest, and serious. 
  7. Luck: Guess a number. If you’re right, I’ll give you a dollar. That’s luck. You put yourself in a position to benefit from chance. Sometimes it works, sometimes you’re on the other side, but the more you try, the more likely you are to find it… and the best leaders try a lot. PS – I’m not giving you a dollar. 
  8. Availability: There are open-door policies, and there’s also an intellectual open-door policy. The best leaders asks questions that matter, and sit back and listen. I knew a U.S. Senator who would fill binders with notes from constiuents meetings, just listening and taking pages of notes. There’s an undeniable connection when someone feels heard.   
  9. Education: Ultimately, a leader is a teacher, and the best teachers display patience and meet students where they are professional and intellectually to bring them along. 
  10. Audience: Tailoring messaging to the right audience is critical. Whether you’re around your family’s Thanksgiving table, or a boardroom table, knowing how to communicate to the right audience and what matters to them, is a skill leaders develop throughout their life. 
  11. Learning: Leaders are also lifelong students. They lead by example in modeling intellectual curiosity and encouraging that in others. Think book club.
  12. Connections: Network trumps net worth. And one often relies on the others. It’s not just knowing the right connections, but continually expanding and interconnecting your networks that enables leadership to develop. 
  13. Reputation: Hard to build and easy to lose, managing reputation by showing up, connecting one-on-one, and giving without taking help elevate your standing and reduce the headwinds of success.
  14. Team: You’re building a living and interdependent organization to achieve a tangible goal, and your best people move your organization closer to its goal. Keep them close.  
  15. Technology: If this were a weighted list, technology would be at the top. But it’s not achieved without elements from every other item on the list.
  16. Financial Fitness: It’s kind of fun to set money on fire. But leave that to Vegas. A quick course in business financial basics, and strong accounting counsel, will help keep leaders focused on building financial wins, and less on managing financial woos. 
  17. Timing: Alright, let’s take back what we said about technology. Timing to market tops the list. Your greatest success as a leader relies on being the right team to deliver the right technology at the right time.  
  18. Curiosity: Companies who aren’t afraid to ask “why”, “what if,” or even just ask a colleague about their weekend, drive deeper relationships and a deeper understanding of their world at large. 
  19. The Magic Word “No”: Not every opportunity is going to be THE opportunity. Revisit your “why” and make decisions based on whether you’re contributing to your greater mission. And “no” also feels good to say sometimes to take things off your plate. 
  20. Marathon Mindsets: In our PR world and the startup world, wins don’t happen overnight. The ‘big wins’ are more often the culmination of a lot of smaller, yet really important wins fueled by the traits above, along the way. 

Each leader holds a fistful of four or five of these superpowers. The best leaders lean on others in their network to fill out the others.  

Then, there’s luck and timing. And we’re all beneficiaries or casualties of both in our careers. 

We’ll continue learning and listening, and you keep doing the work you do, building a better future for human health and the health of our planet.

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