The only constant in an entrepreneur’s life? Change.
When you first start your venture — maybe as a side hustle, maybe as a team of one — you’re doing everything at once. But as you grow and expand, hiring employees number 1, 2, 50, or 100, your responsibilities as a founder evolve with the business.
To ensure you can keep up with your company’s needs and be an effective manager in the long run, founders need to leverage transferable skills to meet the new demands of their customers, teams, and partners.
The classic growth trajectory for small businesses looks like this:
- Existence: This is the beginning of a new business, where you’re still determining product-market fit, customer demand, capital, and logistics of meeting that demand with your products or services. In this stage, the founder is the business.
- Survival: You’ve now established that your business can work, but this stage is about generating enough cash flow to sustain that business. You likely don’t have formal systems and processes and are focused solely on developing economic viability.
- Success: The business is stable and profitable. It’s at this stage that founders must decide how involved they wish to be in the business as the company expands in size, adds systems and processes, and seeks out additional sources of funding.
- Takeoff: It’s time to grow, baby, grow. This phase focuses on financing and rapid growth to meet new business demands, scale into new markets or products, and increase profits as quickly as possible.
- Resource Maturity: As growth slows down and the company stabilizes, this stage is about consolidating and controlling financial gains, expanding management, and professionalizing the company’s systems and processes to handle its larger size and scale.
It’s uncommon for founders to stay on as CEOs once a company hits a certain spot in its growth trajectory. A recent Harvard Business Review study benchmarked 6 years as the life span of a founder-CEO for a high-trajectory growth company, before they’re better off in another role or leaving the business entirely. There are only a few major exceptions like Jeff Bezos’ 20-year run at Amazon and Mark Zuckerberg’s dominion over Meta.
The reason? What makes a great entrepreneur — the willingness to try anything, an appetite for risk-taking and big ideas, a strategic mindset — isn’t what makes a great CEO. The scrappy, can-do attitude that got your business off the ground won’t necessarily translate to running a multimillion dollar enterprise with hundreds of employees. Often, it’s because founders don’t realize their transferable skills.
As your company scales, your skills need to scale, too.
What are transferable skills?
Each stage of a company’s life cycle brings its own challenges that require different skill sets to solve. However, most people carry a set of transferable skills — skills you can harness across multiple contexts and disciplines. These tend to be fundamental strengths, superpowers that make you integral to the organization as a founder.
Transferable skills take 2 forms:
- “Hard” skills: Functional, technical, or technology-based skills that may come from your training, certifications, or background, such as coding, project management, or financial analysis.
- “Soft” skills: Personality traits, social and interpersonal attributes, and aptitudes that come from your years of experience or your upbringing, such as leadership, teamwork, communication, and a positive attitude.
Honing in on your transferable skills gives you a base to operate from as your venture grows — and will help you build a team that balances out your strengths and weaknesses so your business continues to thrive.
How to identify your transferable skills
Identifying transferable skills starts with listing your key strengths. What are you great at?
If it’s easier, think about your hard skills first. What do you create or build quickly and easily? It can be anything. Prototypes, UX designs, website or software codes, copywriting, graphics, dashboards, you name it. This can be as specific as the tools you use (such as Adobe or a coding language like C++) or the methodology you’ve established as part of your strategy.
Reflect on when you get into a flow — that mythical state where you’re so immersed in an activity that time slows down around you — or when you feel most alive and passionate at work. Even if you weren’t trying to start a business, what kinds of activities would you do every day? These are some of the skills that are fundamental to who you are as a founder.
Then, think about those soft skills. This is more about who you are as a person than who you are as a founder. Personality tests like Myers-Briggs, DiSC, StrengthsFinder, or Enneagram can help paint a picture, but this is a great place to pause and ask your team, or notice patterns during your next group meetings. What are you like to work with? What’s your decision-making or management style? Traits like patience, empathy, flexibility, creativity, or perseverance are all transferable skills that serve you well regardless of your company’s growth stage.
If an activity, task, or element of your day-to-day comes naturally to you, it’s probably on the short list of your transferable skills. Remember, your transferable skills are just as much about what you like to do as what you’re good at.
Key transferable skills for founders
Not all of your strengths are going to make sense at each stage of growth for your business. But you likely have more within you than you think in terms of transferable skills. For entrepreneurs, these skills can take you from start to finish, no matter what you turn your attention to:
- Communication: Understanding how to talk to different audiences, whether that’s in a marketing or sales capacity or through working together as a team.
- Project Management: Having a keen attention to detail and the ability to multitask and corral stakeholders. Keeping projects organized, prioritized, and on time whether you’re working on a single email campaign or a companywide initiative.
- Problem-solving: Never taking no for an answer, thinking creatively and strategically, and being willing to try anything once is exactly what makes an entrepreneur a great leader.
- Research: Part of leadership is knowing what you don’t know. Digging into a problem from every angle — through critical thinking and synthesis of multiple points of view — then making a decision is what a leader needs to do at every stage of growth.
- Delegation: This is one of the skills that makes or breaks a company’s maturation. At a certain point, you become the bottleneck slowing everyone down. Knowing how and when to effectively hand off the reins is a key skill for scaling your company to the next level.
- Collaboration: Knowing how to work together to solve problems, and how to build teams that collaborate effectively, is no small feat. This is where personality traits like patience, empathy, and flexibility come into play.
- Listening: The biggest measure of leadership isn’t awards or achievements, but a willingness to listen and listen well — to the market, to your customers, and to your team.
How to use transferable skills as your business grows
Once you’ve identified your transferable skills, you can look ahead to the next phase for your business and determine what you’ll be able to take with you — and what mindsets you’ll need to leave behind.
At each stage, you need to bring different assets to the table.
The biggest change as companies expand in head count and revenue is structure and process. As a founder, you have to go through 3 key phases of growth as the company does: Doing, Managing, and Leading.
In the beginning, the business is all about what you can create, and what you can build, as fast as possible. You’re literally doing it all, or at least most of the work. A customer calls? You’re the one to answer. You’re also in charge of hiring, selling, marketing, accounting… whatever needs to be done to get the show on the road. Collaboration, flexibility, and problem-solving are essential at the beginning. Depending on how many co-founders you’re working with, you might be using hard skills like graphic design, coding, writing, or data analysis.
When you morph from a solopreneur or a team of 2 or 3 to the head of a hundred, thousand, or ten thousand-person company, you’ll need to learn when to step aside and let your team shine, and make sure you eliminate any roadblocks to doing so.
Whereas adding processes only slows down a budding business, it’s often the opposite at a larger firm — the lack of formal processes can sow confusion and chances of duplicate work across the organization.
At this point, you’re less likely to lean on hard skills like coding or graphic design, as you would hire employees to handle those tasks. Instead, hard skills such as negotiation or project management can be useful as you focus on coordinating a widening team. The better you get at delegating, research, and analysis, the easier it will be to navigate the “messy middle” of company growth stages.
Once your company reaches maturity, it’s all about setting a strategic plan and communicating that vision, building a culture, and focusing on people and processes over performing or managing specific tasks yourself.
You may feel further away from the day-to-day operations of the company as you build a network of team members (“doers”) and managers while you focus on the bigger picture. Communication and listening matter much more in this stage than in previous ones. Hard skills like data analysis and decision-making can definitely come into play, but your soft skills become increasingly important at this juncture.
Yet the biggest transferable skill that you probably already have? A willingness to try something new. As your company grows, you’ll need to learn new skills and flex into new versions of your role. While it may not feel like the same entrepreneurial magic that comes from pouring your heart and soul into something that might not get off the ground, it’s exactly that spirit that will carry you through as you find the right transferable skills for each stage.