In a company’s early days, the difference between C-level executives and the rest of the organization is simple — employees can walk away from a failure, but the leaders cannot. Under these conditions, certain kinds of people thrive in leadership roles and can take a company from ideation to production.

While there’s no magic formula for what works and what doesn’t, successful startups share common traits in terms of the way their foundational leadership teams are built.

We’ve all experienced what it looks like on the negative end of the spectrum — people making points simply to hear their own voice, leaders competing for credit and clashing agendas. When people would rather be heard than contribute, the output suffers. Members of a healthy leadership team are unafraid to let others have the limelight, because they trust the mission and the culture they’ve built together.

An honest self-assessment is necessary and this is something that only exceptional and selfless founders are capable of.

We are all imperfect human beings, founders included. There are always going to be moments that leaders can’t predict, and mistakes come with the territory. The right leadership team should be able to mitigate the unexpected, and sometimes make the future easier to predict. Putting the right people in the right roles early on can be the difference between success and failure — and that starts at the top.

Start by determining who will lead as CEO

Investors love founder-CEOs, and founders are often fantastic candidates for this role. But not everyone can do it well, and more importantly, not everyone wants to.

Startup founders should ask themselves a few questions before they lose sleep over the prospect of handing over the reigns:

  • Do I even want to be CEO? If yes, for how long?
  • Can I maximize the potential of the company if I’m not the CEO?
  • Am I really the best person for this job at this stage?

An honest self-assessment is necessary and this is something that only exceptional and selfless founders are capable of. In many cases, founders decide they need outside help to fill the role. While a CEO may not be your first hire — or even one of the first five — the person you choose will ultimately occupy your organization’s most critical leadership role, so choose wisely.

What to look for: Ambitious vision grounded in execution reality. Your CEO should have hands-on experience that allows them to see around corners, predict pitfalls and identify opportunities.

What to watch out for: Leaders who lack respect for the founding vision or the ability to hire and balance an executive team quickly. A good CEO should be able to manage short-term cash flow and go-to-market needs without compromising the true north, while building a foundation and culture for the long term.

Then, hire a leader for your engineering team

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