Prioritization as a Superpower
The ability to prioritize well is a trait of the best leaders.
Welcome to issue #41 of next big thing.
As a venture capitalist, I find myself constantly evaluating founders and CEOs on their superpowers and blind spots. Whether for a new potential investment, or when working with a portfolio company, it’s critical to understand the key reasons a leader may be successful in their role, and also the areas where they may need support.
A lot has been written about what it takes to be a great founder, or what qualities VCs look for in founders. One of the first pieces I think I ever read on this topic was Paul Graham’s essay Founders from 2010, where he lists five traits: Determination, Flexibility, Imagination, Naughtiness, and Friendship. Entrepreneur First lists four qualities they’ve seen over and over again in successful founders: Smart, Skilled, Insightful, and Committed. At Footwork, there are three core elements we love to see in a founding team:
Hungry and humble. We believe that founders who are a combination of hungry — driven, gritty, resilient, relentless — and humble — self-aware, intellectually honest — are good fits for us to work with, given our styles, and have a higher chance at building a special company.
Know their business inside and out. When a founding team has a deep understanding of their product and business model, unique insights on the market and the opportunity, can answer questions with brevity and rigor, it shows up in better execution and competitive advantages on the field.
Magnets for talent. In today’s war for the best talent, it’s more critical than ever for a founding team to be able to recruit dream people to the cause. We look for founders who are demonstrating their ability to do so from the early days.
What is hard, however, about the exercise of documenting what to look for in founders, or what it takes to be successful, is that, by definition, the most successful leaders and companies are outliers. They break all the rules. They don’t fit a bunch of patterns. So to cut through the noise when I’m evaluating a founding team at its core, there’s a fundamental superpower I try to unpack: how well do they prioritize?
Especially true in a startup, prioritization is everything. There are many things to do, with limited time and resources to do them. Figuring out what to say yes to, what to say no to, the timing and sequencing of jobs to be done, and then actually doing them, can be the difference-maker between ultimately building a good company vs. a great company vs. an exceptional company.
The best leaders I’ve watched in action are seeing around corners to constantly prioritize. To them, prioritization means sensing the right time to tack, change courses, and re-prioritize. Prioritization means communicating with the team to make sure everyone understands the what and the why, especially in times of change, and is aligned with clarity to move forward. Prioritization means operating with serious urgency to get something done when it’s at the top of the list. Prioritization means delicately balancing what matters in the near term to what will matter in the long run. Prioritization means knowing what needs to be perfect to be “done” and what is fine leaving imperfect to move on. And strong prioritization means, at the end of the day, achieving or exceeding the goals that were set.
Your ability to prioritize well may be one of the most important skills for you to build the next big thing. What are you doing to hone it, today?
I started next big thing to share unfiltered thoughts. I’d love your feedback, questions, and comments!
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Great summary here, thank you for sharing. On the topic of prioritization, i fully agree, but I would also suggest those priorities may shift over time. A constant 'revisit' based on changing business conditions is needed to keep everything directionally aligned and sharp. In my experience, the prioritization is usually never a 'one and done' exercise. Thanks for the opportunity to share as well.
Very well articulated, completely relate to it as a founder.
My take is that not having clarity (whats the core pain you're solving, who the user is ...) is the root cause. And finding out the unknowns is the most important prioritization problem for founders, and can mean the difference between life and sudden death, smooth execution vs constant firefighting.
My first stint was a lot of firefighting (fake it until you make it), kept pushing for more and more numbers every week with short term tactics. A cannon pointed in the wrong direction.
Thankfully at some point the realization dawned on me that I need to critically evaluate the offering and fix the direction its headed.