Investing in Leaders

by Dave Parkinson
Central Illinois Angels

There is a set of characteristics that most successful entrepreneurs seem to have in common.

Since September 2009, the 40-plus members of Central Illinois Angels (CIA) have been investing in entrepreneurs. With two additional investments likely to close in the fourth quarter of 2013, CIA will have invested just over $5 million in 15 companies in just over four years.

But to say that CIA is investing in entrepreneurs only tells part of the story. CIA is investing in leaders—along with their accompanying ideas, innovations and teams. These entrepreneurial leaders are charged with being effective at creating and building scalable businesses that reward investors for the risk they are taking. However, the ability to create and build a business is not done by a single entrepreneur, but rather a leader who can build trust and confidence with key stakeholders and effectively communicate with partners and team members both internally and externally.

As noted by Martin Zwilling of Startup Professionals in his June 2, 2013 article on, there is a set of principles and characteristics that entrepreneurial leaders from the most successful startups seem to have in common. I agree with Mr. Zwilling that entrepreneurs should look for and nurture these characteristics in their own context to improve their odds of success. I also believe these characteristics are true for leaders across the spectrum—not just for those categorized as “entrepreneurs” or involved with startups. The characteristics noted by Mr. Zwilling are:

  • Clear vision and expectations. You must be able to communicate your vision and your goals along with your objectives in a clear and concise manner. Be able to tell people who you are, what you stand for, and what the expectations are for your team and stakeholders.
  • Willingness to make decisions. Investors are looking for leaders who make good decisions quickly. Although it is understood that business decisions almost always involve risk, smart leaders balance the risk with available facts.
  • Experience and knowledge in your industry. Leaders must be able to clearly show they have the knowledge, insight and skill to make their company better than the very best competitor. 
  • Commitment and conviction for the company. Leaders need to be passionate enough to motivate and inspire the people around them to do their best work and be committed to the venture. Leaders should also have an appropriate business model for today’s market and the accompanying determination to stay the course when setbacks occur.
  • Open to new ideas and creativity. This relates to committing time and resources to new ideas and finding innovative ways to produce results, beat the competition and improve customer service. Leaders will be role models in this area and guide those around them to excel.
  • Courage to acknowledge and attack constraints. Effective leaders determine ways to remove obstacles that stand in the way of the firm’s success and constraints that inhibit individual team members.
  • Reward continuous learning. Learning and growing should be a normal and natural part of business. This includes allowing for lessons to be learned from failures and looking for positive opportunities for training and advancement.
  • Self-discipline for consistency and reliability. Effective leaders are predictable, calm and confident—even under pressure.
  • Accept responsibility for all actions. Every person and every company makes mistakes. Good entrepreneurs do not want to be seen as perfect, and they have to be seen as willing to accept responsibility without excuses such as the economy, competitors or team members.

Although exhibiting and nurturing the above principles is not an easy task, they are learnable. And I believe that Mr. Zwilling sums it up nicely when he says, “Don’t assume that success as an entrepreneur is only about great presentations, killing competitors or having insanely great ideas. It’s really more about leadership, understanding the needs of your prospective clients, and communicating your solutions with clarity.”

CIA is excited to be entering its fifth year as it continues to grow its membership and look for great leaders at exciting startups. The group would also like to congratulate this year’s class of 40 Leaders Under Forty, and wish you much continued success as you hone your leadership principles. iBi

Dave Parkinson is president of Central Illinois Angels.