Startup Life/Analysis/

Startup managers: the good, the bad and the ugly

We asked Sifted readers about their experiences of bosses at startups. Here’s what they had to say.

By Kai Nicol-Schwarz

“We were lied to, we were ignored in meetings, our work was not valued and we were disrespected in front of other colleagues,” one Sifted reader tells us, about her experience working under a particular manager at a startup. 

She’s not alone. In our recent community survey on startup bosses, 83% of the 138 Sifted readers who responded said that a minority or none of their bosses were equipped to manage. 

67% told us that they had been micromanaged in the past, while 48% felt like they’d never had a manager at a startup who’d given them clear goals. 49% also said they’d been bullied, harassed or discriminated against by their bosses, and 50% of readers thought they hadn’t been given the right emotional and personal support from their managers.

Here, we share their stories — and their advice for how new startup leaders can do better.

 

Micromanaging

67% of Sifted readers told us that they have been micromanaged by a manager at a startup in the past. For many, bosses who micromanaged were awful at setting work-life boundaries — to the point where they were invasive. 

One respondent told us that while they were working remotely during lockdown there was a “Zoom call everyone had to join to ‘prove’ they were actually working”, meaning their camera had to be on for the entire day.

“Micromanaging erodes your confidence over time,” another respondent said. “It really affected my mental health.”

While micromanaging is a common trait among startup managers in general, it’s particularly rife in solo founders, one Sifted reader said. “They’ve built their startup their way,” he added. As the startup grows, and requires different processes, “solo founders often struggle to let go of the way they do things regardless of inefficiencies”.

“I have experienced the horrors of ‘founder syndrome’ a couple of times,” said another. “After a while, they start to feel they don’t have a tight enough grip on the day-to-day running of the startup and small things will be regarded as existentially insurmountable. It’s exhausting.”

Managers who gave their employees freedom in their role, on the other hand, were lauded.

“If I wanted to learn something, I was given the freedom to do so,” one respondent said, and the job was the “perfect training ground” for his career.

“Good managers hire good people and then trust them to get on with their roles,” another told Sifted. “They accept that [their team members] may be more expert in their individual business areas and give free rein.”

Harassment and discrimination

Nearly half of the respondents to our survey told us that they’d been bullied, harassed or discriminated against by their manager.

One female respondent’s boss was “openly sexist” and asked if she could “handle managing a team of men and tolerate their poop jokes” when she took on a management position.

Another Sifted reader told us that their manager wouldn’t take any action when they faced misogynistic abuse in the workplace. She told us she was called a “slut” by a male engineer, and when she reported the incident to her manager and the all-male leadership, nothing was done. 

Some Sifted readers also experienced racial discrimination from their startup managers. “I was told ‘office banter is okay’ when I raised a concern about a racist joke,” one said.

One woman’s boss asked if she could “handle managing a team of men and tolerate their poop jokes”

Not all discrimination was so direct. “While there have never been outward displays of discrimination, it certainly feels like it bubbles under the surface,” one woman of colour told us. “Many senior roles at startups still feel like they are reserved for an elite few. This is my personal experience, as well as that of other women and people of colour I know in similar companies.”

Another respondent told us that a manager she had would often belittle her past experience and laugh at her suggestions and ideas. “I couldn’t figure out what I’d done to make him think I was so incompetent, until I spoke to other female colleagues and realised he treated us all like that,” she told Sifted.

Others said that they’ve been publicly humiliated by a manager in the past. One respondent’s boss would “drill into them” during meetings, “ridiculing” her in front of others. “I’d often leave a meeting and break down,” she added.

Clear goals

In a fast-moving startup environment with shifting priorities, Sifted readers said that failing to set clear goals was one of the biggest mistakes a startup manager could make. 

At a company one reader worked at, the lack of clear goals or KPIs led to a “huge blame culture” that was “toxic throughout”. 

“The worst manager I had took on a CEO role he was ill-equipped to do,” another said. “He managed his feeling of inadequacy by micromanaging those around him and changing targets at the last minute so failure could be attributed to missing goals rather than poor strategy.”

While “startups are ever-changing so have to be flexible”, one respondent told us, “you need a clear direction at least”.

And that’s exactly what some of the best managers gave their teams, our readers said. “We didn’t have time to not have clarity around our short and mid-term goals,” another reader told Sifted. “We celebrated small wins along the way and it was clear when you had done a good job through verbal praise and [our manager’s] mannerisms.”

Personal connections

For some, developing a personal connection with their managers was the key ingredient for a successful relationship.

This meant that “when times were tough we could have some real talk and go beyond the usual workplace performance of superior and subordinate”, one respondent said. “A workplace where you can be authentic makes it easier to push through tough times.”

“The line between colleague and friend can blur, sometimes in a bad way”

Another reader agreed, but warned that “the line between colleague and friend can blur, sometimes in a bad way”. One Sifted reader said that they’d seen teammates who were friends with their managers get better financially rewarded than those that weren’t.

One of the biggest mistakes managers can make, according to another, was “being too close to the team personally”. A lot of managers “don’t understand that you can be empathetic and professionally distant at the same time, and let emotions guide hiring”, he added.

Lack of experience

Often young managers are promoted to management positions they’re not ready for at startups, one respondent said. All the managers at startups he’s worked at were in their 20s and “lacked significant professional experience”, he said.

“They’re doing a lot of things for the first time and no matter how good or skilled they are, they often fail just because they’ve never been in similar positions — as an employee or a manager,” he added.

Lack of management experience was a common complaint from our survey respondents. Bosses without managerial experience often “fail to communicate in healthy ways” with their team, said one reader. “Instead those [inexperienced] managers tend to become toxic and aggressive.”

“I have encountered many 30-year-olds who have C-level titles because they’re original employee hires, yet have zero emotional quotient or management skills/training,” another respondent said. “It’s a dangerous cycle, because these types of people scare away valuable, experienced employees, and prevent more qualified people from becoming management.”

What to do if you’ve got a nightmare boss: Sifted readers’ advice

“Schedule a meeting and tell them how their behaviour makes you feel. Prepare lots of concrete examples of situations where you’ve felt treated poorly. If the situation doesn’t change or the manager is not open to improving, leave. You are not responsible for changing a toxic culture.” 

“Speak up, don’t take it. If feedback doesn’t change them, leave.”

“Quit.”

“Look for another role, you can’t force someone to value you and you cannot do your best work in an environment that is toxic.”

“It is so important to document everything. My manager never ever commits anything to email, and this can lead to a culture where you feel like you shouldn’t email either. But it is very important both for good governance and to diffuse situations before they escalate.”

“Find an ally in the business and talk about what you are experiencing. Work out what part of the situation you are responsible for, and work out whether there are any steps you or an advocate can take on your behalf. Sometimes the culture dictates that things will not improve, but more often than not, diplomacy goes a long way.”

“Speak to HR as fast as you can.”

“Speak to your manager about it first. Try to understand if other people on your team have similar experiences. If nothing changes after confronting your manager, speak to HR. If they don’t take action to help you either, leave that toxic workplace.”

“Resign. No job is worth your mental health.”

Want to be part of out next community journalism project? We’re looking into the economic downturn and how startups are responding to rising uncertainty.

Kai Nicol-Schwarz is a reporter at Sifted. He covers healthtech and community journalism, and tweets from @NicolSchwarzK.

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