5 Personal Growth Skills Every Startup Founder Needs, Like Yesterday


By Carina Biddle

6 MIN read

Have you ever let your personal life affect your behavior in the workplace? Have you ever unwarrantedly berated an employee or colleague or vented your displeasures against him/her in a professional setting? If you’re afraid to answer yes to either of these questions, it might be comforting to know that many entrepreneurs are guilty of exhibiting these behaviors. Startups are challenging and uncertain environments in which to work. Tensions run high, and those tensions can taint other areas of your life. You may, at times, find it hard to find a balance between your personal and professional life and when you do, like it or not, you wind up carrying your emotional baggage to the office, setting the stage for a toxic work environment.

So how can you keep your emotions from tampering your company’s growth? According to psychologist and author, Daniel Goleman, one of the best ways to prevent your emotions from getting the best of you is to develop the skill set of Emotional Intelligence (EI). You’ve probably heard of this term before, but what does it really entail? Here we look at each component of Emotional Intelligence and explain why founders need every last one.

Emotional Intelligence Breakdown--The Skills You Need And Why

Studies show that startup founders who practice EI are more likely to keep their talent, and for longer than founders who tend to flounder in this area. Additionally, the field of research conducted on the benefits of EI in leaders and across organizational teams suggest that leaders who have high EI perform better, generating more value and growth potential for their organizations. According to the findings of a study by renowned psychologist and science journalist, Daniel Goleman, the importance of EI skills in the workplace was double that of cognitive or technical skills--a finding that was true for employees at all job levels. While technical and cognitive skills are no doubt essential, neglecting the importance of EI within your leadership and within your team, will create a cost to you and your organization that you probably cannot afford to take on.  

While many people refer to these as “soft skills,” I assure you, there is nothing soft about them. Practicing these skills is a test of patience, and is demanding work. However, if you want lasting and long term growth for you and your company, it is oh so very worth it. Here they are, one-by-one.

1. Self-awareness. The first component of EI is self-awareness, and you can think of it as the bedrock of EI. It’s the ability to recognize and label the emotions you feel while also understanding the triggers that could be eliciting your emotional response. Without it, it’s nearly impossible to know where you need to go, let alone how to get there. Self-awareness (which, by the way, is different from self-consciousness) not only helps you understand yourself, but it can give you a better idea of how other people might perceive you, making it a tremendous asset for moving and leading people effectively.

"Being aware of and acknowledging your emotions but not being bound by them is the goal here."

2. Self-regulation. Once you learn how to recognize your emotions, you can then manage them so that they work for you and not against you. Being aware of and acknowledging your feelings but not being bound by them is the goal here. As renowned American educator, Stephen Covey, suggested, everyone has the “response-ability” to choose their response to any situation, meaning that whatever emotion comes your way, you hold the power over how and if you choose to act. In its essence, self-regulation comes down to not letting your emotions hook you but instead acknowledging them and deciding not to let them drive your behavior. This is a highly useful skill to have, and it allows you to recognize and transform stressful situations into opportunities for growth and learning for you and your team.

3. Social skills. After learning how to regulate your emotional responses, the next step is to use EI to influence others to be emotionally empathetic and responsible--think your team members, future investors, and business partners. The ability to influence other people's’ emotional responses and channel them towards more productive avenues is what makes up good “social skills.” I’ll talk more about these in other posts, but for now, here are just some of the critical social skills every founder should have and be practicing:

-Communication skills

-Conflict resolution skills

-Persuasion skills

-Change management skills

-Team building and collaborative skills

“The key to effectively utilizing social skills is to find common ground with others and to connect with them on a deeper level.”

Of course, social skills go far beyond these. They also include a founder’s ability to recognize social and emotional cues exhibited by employees and not only respond to them appropriately but direct teams to respond appropriately towards these cues as well. The key to effectively utilizing social skills is to find common ground with others and to connect with them on a deeper level. Here's where the next skill will help

4. Empathy. This is a big one and one that is often confused with its “cousin,” sympathy. Where sympathy creates a distance between you and another person, empathy drives connection and is the difference between an intellectual understanding of a person’s situation and an emotion-based experiential one. Empathy makes us better people, better employees, and better leaders, and studies show that 90% of the top-performers in organizations not only have very high Emotional intelligence, but they exhibit the highest level of empathy.

Empathy creates an atmosphere of trust and openness, which allows employees to approach their leaders for help. As founders, displaying empathy and fostering an atmosphere of empathy is essential to ensure that no negativity builds within the tension-filled startup environment.

“Where sympathy creates a distance between you and another person, empathy drives connection…”

As a startup founder, empathy will make you more understanding of the ground realities of your team and will help you find solutions to problems that you may not face yourself, but of which your organization suffers and would benefit having addressed. It will also help you understand your teams' unspoken emotions helping you identify and address your employees’ internal conflicts.

5. Motivation. Motivation might seem like an obvious and straightforward ability, but different kinds of motivation are worth looking at. Motivation can be extrinsic (like monetary rewards, certificates of recognition, gifts and so on) or intrinsic (personal satisfaction of a job well done, innate curiosity, the joy of mastery, pride through responsibility, etc.).

People who display high Emotional Intelligence tend to have the following four types of motivation, all of which are intrinsic:

-Personal drive to achieve/improve

-Commitment to responsibilities

-Proactiveness to find opportunities

-Optimism and resilience

While these are by no means the only methods of motivation, because of their intrinsic value, they tend to be better suited toward the challenging endeavors that startups demand. Imagine trying to motivate yourself and others in a startup environment to maintain persistence and grit through all of the uncertainty with only the extrinsic motivation of a daily cup of free coffee. While I doubt anyone will argue that even the thought of coffee is motivating and that free is an added delight, it doesn’t quite rise to the level that will take anyone to the finish line. Challenges of the startup variety require deep motivations from within. Founders who explore their own intrinsic motivations and learn how to draw them out of their people will be the ones who ultimately reap the rewards.

As the leader of your organization, your responsibility is to guide your team and focus on your people, but don’t forget--you’re one of them. Remember that when you work toward developing broader emotional skills and abilities, you are setting an example for your team, which will help you implement a growth and development plan more successfully for everyone within your organization. And when you’re building a plan to engage your people in that growth and development, keep in mind that the most effective EI training programs should be ones that cater to the specific needs of employees across all levels of your organization and that are driven by solid research and data.

If you’ve found this to be useful, please let us know and share it with someone who might also benefit from reading. And if there’s something specific you would like to read about, we’d love to know! Just send an email to [email protected].


You can read more about what it takes to be an effective leader here, or learn about proven ways to cultivate leadership qualities in your team here.


Carina Biddle, M.S., is a Founder and Co-CEO of Upward AI. Upward AI develops innovative and forward-thinking solutions for helping companies reach all of their people development goals. Upward AI relies on science-driven information in Organizational Behavior, Neuroscience, and Psychology and technologies like artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning to help people do better, feel better and be better. More information can be found here.


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