Identify Leaders By Giving People Assignments

As the Boulder Startup Community evolved, I started to become inundated with people who wanted to get involved. Some of these were locals while others where people looking to move to Boulder, or who had recently moved here. Some where people known to me while others were new relationships. As the momentum, size, impact, and reach of the Boulder Startup Community grew, I found myself overwhelmed by the amount of requests I was getting to get together, meet, explore ways to work together, and just generally share food and drink in the quest for figuring out ways to work together.

A while ago I came up with an approach where I could separate leaders from doers from everyone else. I’ve been applying this approach to the Boulder Startup Community, and a number of other things I’m involved in, since then and offer it to you as a simple, yet elegant way to triage an overwhelming amount of inbound requests to figure out who is really going to make shit happen.

The trick: I identify leaders by giving people assignments.

Here’s how it works. I’m going to use a really simple example. Recognize that the range of inbound is all over the place, from a wide range of people, with very different degrees of experience. The initial interactions can be complex and my assignments vary dramatically, but with a goal of intersecting (a) what the person is asking for and (b) a result that will be interesting to me in some way.

So, for a simple case (and assignment), assume that I get an email like the following:

“Brad, I’m new to Boulder and very excited about getting involved in the Startup Community. I moved here from New York and have a deep background in devops, being an entrepreneur, and various meditation techniques. I’d love to get together for a cup of coffee to see how I can get involved in things going on in Boulder. My resume is attached.”

I quickly respond with an assignment. It will be something that will take the person less than 30 minutes to do and require no specific knowledge on their part. For example, my response might be:

“Welcome to Boulder. Unfortunately I don’t have time for coffee in the next few weeks, but I’d be happy to get you plugged in to some of the local entrepreneurs who might be relevant to you. Can you look through our portfolio and tell me who you’d like to get introduced to?”

I never hear back from 50% of the people. I kid you not. It doesn’t matter whether it’s email or someone coming up to me at a public event. I give them a simple assignment, with an easy way to focus what I’m going to do for them so it’s more useful from their frame of reference, and then I never hear back from them again.

This is a very good thing. It reduces my workload of this kind of stuff immediately by half and filtered out people who weren’t going to follow through.

25% (half of the remaining 50%) send me an email something like:

“I took a look at your website and am very interested in VictorOps and Techstars. My last company used pagers for tech support and I really want to do something better than that and VictorOps looks interesting. I’ve got a lot of experience mentoring entrepreneurs, so I’d like to figure out if I can become part of Techstars.”

I categorize this person as a doer. They responded directly to the assignment. I respond by making some introductions with context – usually double opt-in, but not always depending on the level of relevance. Quickly, the person becomes plugged into a few other nodes in the Startup Community and their journey has begun.

The last 25% is amazing. They blow my mind. Their response is something like:

“Brad, thanks for pushing me to be more precise. I realized I didn’t need you to make the intro for me, so I’ve gotten together with Todd Vernon at VictorOps, Nicole Glaros at Techstars, and Ari Newman at Bullet Time Ventures. It looks like there might be a nice fit with Todd’s company and we are exploring a way to work together. Nicole explained to me that there was a very long waiting list of mentors for the next program so the most effective thing I could do is find one of the older Techstars companies and help them out. I’m already talking to the guys from Sphero (which I know you are on the board of) since I have a lot of gaming experience. And, given my previous network management company experience, Ari hooked me up with the Distill Network guys. I hope you don’t mind if I write periodically and follow up with what I’m up to. By the way, I tried out FullContact for Gmail per your blog post and so far it’s working great.”

This person is a leader. They simply went out and did shit. They made it happen. They followed up. They did things that had a potential positive impact on my world. They didn’t ask me for more, but offered up plenty, which makes me want to do more for them.

Remember, these are simple examples. I categorize the responses three ways:

  1. 50% of the people vanish
  2. 25% of the people do the assignment
  3. 25% of the people make shit happen well beyond what the assignment was

The folks who capture my attention and energy going forward are the ones in category 3. The leaders.

  • I’m betting that the post won’t make the percentages budge much if at all.

    • Probably not. And that’s just fine with me.

      • I figured as much. Rational people don’t generally try to break their barometers.

  • Thank you for writing this. I learned from it. I like the way you put it “They didn’t ask me for more, but offered up plenty, which makes me want to do more for them.”

    • Yup. Simple concept in the “Give Before You Get” category.

      • You are one of my heroes. I am mentioning you in my blog tomorrow. That is all I can say.

  • LV

    I’m impressed that you get 25%. I would have guessed 10% at best.

    • I’m more surprised by the 50% who never respond.

      • No kidding. In 2006 I saved a lady who was stuck in the worst of the two center lanes of an extremely dangerous six-lane highway and her car got hit and utterly demolished approx. a minute after I pulled her out.

        The next day I got interviewed by the local TV news and newspapers and the prevalent question was “Why did you stop to help her and risk your life?”

        My answer was “Actually, the real question to my mind is why hasn’t anyone else stopped to help her at all?”

        IMO, you are completely right in this post in view of your backlog and of your “give-before-you-get philosophy.

        The backlash you’ve received in the comments of this particular post by a couple of individuals exemplifies the difficulties encountered by anyone in trying to get anything meaningful done in our society.

        A lot of pushback from a percentage of the population whose true intentions are hard to elucidate on the part of those who are genuinely trying to push the ball forward.

  • Love your concept of ‘project-based networking’ to assess quality players. Do you use this approach in hiring as well?

    • Yup, although I’m rarely on the front lines of hiring at this point. But I offer it up to many of the CEOs I work with as an approach.

      • Thanks for all you do sharing your insight in these types of discussions. You embody the ‘Give First’ mantra.
        Best in 2015~

  • What a great coffee-sippin’ read this morning. Surprised at the distribution.

  • Rick

    Good post! Too bad you are mixed up.
    First – Leaders don’t take “assignments” well. Every leader I’ve read about in history has always fought taking orders (assignments) from others. When looking to fund expeditions the explorer or team leader didn’t like people dabbling with the plan or changing the objective! People who take assignments are followers not leaders.
    Also many times leaders are not doers. They are thinkers. Big time thinkers. They don’t do because it gets in the way of thinking about what’s next for the followers to do. Leaders plan and they plan well. They foresee problems and plan ways around them. They plan for the worst and hope for the best. There is no way a leader can do the work and do all the planning and guiding. I’ve done that before. It’s called independent consulting. You are the leader of yourself. Which is bad because you learn nothing of leading others.
    “I never hear back from 50% of the people. I kid you not.” That’s because most of those 50% are leaders and they don’t take orders well.
    “This is a very good thing. It reduces my workload of this kind of stuff immediately by half…” That was probably your true objective but you haven’t realised it.
    “The last 25% is amazing.” They are leaders or followers. They’ve stumbled across what they were looking for.
    All in all what you are thinking about is being in a position on the board of directors where you want everyone even the founders/CEO to do as you say. That means *you* are a leader not them. The reason is leaders always think that way. They always look at others as followers. It’s lonely at the top. I imagine the only person you have tricked is yourself. You’ve tricked yourself into thinking someone is a leader when they are really a follower. Following suggestions from someone they respect.
    This was definitely a good post. It’s provides great insight into yourself. Remember one thing. People who are leaders think things through because they have the experience to know things can go bad. People who og off half-cocked do so because they are not yet ready to be leaders. That’s why many times the things the run of and do are bad things.
    Just my 2 cents.

    • Rick

      Oops forgot…
      “By the way, I tried out FullContact for Gmail per your blog post and so far it’s working great.”
      That’s a shameless plug for FullContact and I LOVE IT!!!

    • solongsucka

      Great hypothesis. However, it looks at the traditional method of leadership in an organized and hierarchical org. That is when traditional leaders thrive and can direct people to get things done.

      The inconvenience associated with democracy and free will although is that, this approach has become obsolete.

      Today, a leader, is any one who can get things done at all levels of the organization without real power. They dont have the leisure to sit around and think. They act. This is what drives results.

      Loved the writeup.

      And yes, I am trying out FullContact for Gmail too. 🙂

      • Harsha G

        “They dont have the leisure to sit around and think. They act. ”

        That seems to be a flawed definition of a leader. Anybody who just acts without thinking can’t be a good leader, in fact that goes against one of the most basic traits a leader must have.

        @Rick, your definition of a leader is way off. Remember the post talks about people who decided to make the initial contact. Are these “leaders” just hoping their cold email should result in something substantial or they move on?

        • Rick

          It’s difficult to come up with a short definition of a leader in this context. The one here isn’t that far off.
          The original post is what’s a mess. It’s easy to see Brad’s actual objective was to remove work from his plate. He’s busy and that’s an OK thing for him to do.
          The leaders in this situation were trying to assign Brad with a task. The task was to have him *provide* the information they needed. Brad himself is a leader so he didn’t take well to being given orders. Not because he is stubborn but because as a leader he knows that his time is better spent doing other things.
          Of course those leaders where wanting something substantial. They want the people they assign to a task to come up with a great result. More than the leader expected.

          • RBC

            I haven’t dealt directly with Brad, so can’t comment on his objective in giving tasks, however qualifying the intent of people before spending time with them is great. Answering an inbound email question with a question is a practice I use regularly. Even doing this with important/busy people is good, it is frustrating if they don’t reply – however it is a good indicator of how much work they want to put into making things happen.

        • solongsucka

          Did I say that the action should be devoid of thought completely?

          The sentence distills my experience as well as my observation of great leaders present and past.

          Actions are results of decisions. Please look up the origins of the word “decision”. A good leader must make decisions and often. Good or bad is always in retrospective and hind sight is always 20-20.

          Did I claim that the sentence quoted defines leadership? Not at all!

          That is merely your inference.

          • Harsha G

            The statement leaders don’t have time to sit around and think, clearly under emphasizes the value of thought in a leader’s decision making process. That’s what I disagree with.

            I believe great leaders spend a lot more time thinking and understanding the pros / cons of the various approaches they can take. BTW, this doesn’t have to be mutually exclusive with faster actions.

  • Awesome meme seems that seems like an off shoot of the Pareto Principle: The Feld Fundemental 🙂 Its also seems useful in designing products. Whether its capatilizing on the meme (how a 3000 square foot gym can have 6000 members) or seeing it as an painpoint in search of a product.

    • Cute, but the world definitely doesn’t need anything new named “Feld X” at this point.

  • Michal Karmiński

    Great reading. Just added your blog post to so other founders can learn more about VCs and how they work. Now it’s obvious for me you don’t have time for a coffee with everyone who are mailing you. I need to admit that some time ago I was also in 50% you are describing above

    • I’m always up for another email and another try…

  • SandraG

    Excellent Advice. I learned this running a political campaign for a friend. Volunteers were abundant but few wanted to do the hard jobs that required leadership. As an entrepreneur I understood that sometimes leaders have to do shitty jobs. Nobody stepped up to clean the toilets in the campaign HQ so I did it twice a week. Leaders do what it takes to get the job done — my candidate won.

    • Good job. Yup – taking out the trash is sometimes the job of a leader. If the leader can’t be bothered to do it, your organization is going to suck.

  • Saul_Lieberman

    Great approach. You might also consider offering the “doer” a “leader” assignment. Not as telling as those who independently create and take on the “leader” assignment. But you might be helping a “doer” realize their potential to grow into a “leader”.

    • solongsucka

      Not all doers are leaders. There are a quite a bit of soldier ants. Leadership assignments are not given, they are taken. That in the very sense is leadership.

      There is a huge difference between a manager and a leader.

      You missed the point.

      • While what you say is true, @Saul_Lieberman:disqus has a good suggestion that I often see play out. Some of the doers keep coming back for more assignments, so helping them learn how to be leaders can be an effective way to develop more leaders. It often takes an investment of energy, but that’s worth trying if the person is interested.

        • solongsucka


  • I really like this approach and do something similar. A close friend used to do group “coffees” at 7am once per week, which automatically dropped 80%-90% of the group and got him up early that day. I am not sure about the group meetup, but I liked the approach.

    I call this type of thing the coffee equation, which is simple; have the person justify the time they want to spend with you by providing something up front. Its a little selfish, but makes sense as lots of people want to “pick your brain” and if you said yes to all those no other work would get done! (blogged about it in a longer version but thats the gist of it)

    • I like the group early morning idea.

      I’ve contemplated using my random days in a similar way. Rather than schedule things, just declare a random day and hang out somewhere public – a coffee shop or a co-working space. I think I’ll try this the next time – thanks for inspiring the thought.

  • Preet Anand
    • Great post – super solid approach.

      • Preet Anand

        It’s time intensive on our behalf, and occasionally flabbergasts candidates, but so far we’ve been extremely ecstatic on who has come aboard. Glad to hear it’s working for you too!

  • Blake

    It’s important to highlight the underlying message… being situated at an intersection that produces many interested in-bounds can be fraught with frustration. These in-bounds require attention and committing time to someone (no matter how small) opens an emotional pathway. When/if the person doesn’t follow through there is a tendency to become negatively affected.

    Offering simple advice and applying an approach to “screen-in” the most thoughtful individuals (self-selection mechanism) – helps to disconnect from the initial interaction while being able to apply an increased amount of energy to a focused set.

    • Well said. I know many people who get angry at high profile people who don’t respond to random inbound. I used to find this bizarre on the part of the high profile people, but at some point the amount of inbound overwhelms what you can actually respond effectively to AND still be proactive about what you want to do.

      I’ve made it a point to try to respond to all my inbound email. I’m sure I miss some, but by using the approach I describe above, it helps me manage the emotional dynamic you so well describe.

  • monfit_boulder

    So basically, the people you want are ones that you have added no value to. You did no work and helped them in no way whatsoever. They went ahead and went around your self important attitude of “what can you do for me” because you chose not to help them.

    I think this article speaks volumes about the start up community in general as much as it does for you personally. A lesson for us all. No one is there to help you. Do it yourself or don’t do it at all. If someone seems to be trying to help you, expect an invoice, there is no charity or even good will here.

    • I think you missed the point of what I wrote. Or maybe you don’t have any historical context.

      The reason I use this is because I’m already well beyond my capacity to “give before I get.” I do that constantly and the amount of energy I put into others in advance of getting anything is substantial. So, this is an approach to help focus where I’m investing my energy given the number of people approaching me for something.

      I encourage you to read my Startup Communities book to get a better sense of both the Boulder Startup Community as well as me. If you don’t want to pay for it, I’d be happy to send you a Kindle version if you give me an email address to send it to.


        NOT BOTTOM 99.9999%.

        • Rick

          Start ups have a shortage of leaders who can get the bottom 99.9999% to become the best they can be! Leaders don’t do everything their self. That’s someone who can’t let go of control. A leader *wants* to help others perform and achieve. Yet another reason leaders are thinkers and planners and guides.

      • Tilie

        hey l have a copy if you can find the time to email it

      • True investors (not merely VCs) seem to invest more than money and do this naturally. The generosity of spirit I observe in people like you, Fred, Jerry (ex-VC but still an investor), Suster, et al, is inspiring. Yet it is still investment which implies an expected return but the return is not always direct.

    • solongsucka

      noun: entrepreneur; plural noun: entrepreneurs
      a person who organizes and operates a business or businesses, taking on greater than normal financial risks in order to do so.
      synonyms:businessman/businesswoman, enterpriser, speculator, tycoon, magnate,mogul;dealer, trader, dealmaker;
      promoter, impresario;
      informalwheeler-dealer,whiz kid, mover and shaker, go-getter, high flyer, hustler, idea man/person

      • Rick

        Nice. I’ve also heard: “A person who applies resources to higher risk opportunities with the expectation of higher returns.”
        Key there is – apply resources. The work of a leader is different than what, I think, most understand. Leaders in small teams many times perform various roles. But when in some of those roles they are not acting as leader. They are filling a void. If they could they would assign resources to perform those tasks because the leader knows they should be doing other things but *must* do this *required thing*.
        Which is one of the ways a company is weakened. Doing the – long hours, many different hats, putting out fires, etc. – thing in a biz gets the adrenaline pumping. But it makes the business weaker and decreases the biz performance as a whole. Having the proper amount of resources – funding, people, etc. – is what makes a biz strong and performing.

        Look at how big biz does it. They have major funding. They come in with low prices until small biz is destroyed. Then they raise prices. Now you pay $5 for a hamburger sandwich that just 15 years ago was $1. Did wages go from $60K of 15 years ago to $300K?
        Leaders plan the strategy and apply the resources needed to accomplish the task!!!

    • A few thoughts to consider:

      1. When someone is cold-calling a highly visible leader in an industry, they’re invading on that person’s already stretched time and attention. Getting a reply at all should be huge validation. They owe strangers who cold-call nothing, and anything they give is generosity, not obligation.

      2. When you cold-call via email or any other mode of communication someone you think can help you, don’t forget you’re the one asking to get without first getting. And it has to be that way, because at first you have very little, if anything, to give in return, but it should cause you to approach with gratitude, not entitlement.

      3. When someone you cold-called actually responded with a personal response and a suggestion that you do something specific, there is a reason – whether you can see it as anything more than you not getting what you asked for. And it is a huge opportunity to actually give before you get – something you couldn’t do before the request was made.

      4. Rarely is the request something that benefits the person you contacted. It is for you to either learn something about yourself or your goals.

      5. Getting your nose bent out of shape for receiving an email that didn’t give you exactly what you wanted is like getting offended at being invited to the White House and refusing to go because they won’t let you in the specific door or time you decided you wanted to go. Take what is offered with gratitude, run with it and prove you can be trusted with more. It really is how it works, whether someone is as transparent about it as Brad is or not.

    • Not my experience at all. At least not your last sentence. One limitation might be that people in the startup world are stretched way thin and can’t give as much as they’d like.

  • Great post. The essence of Doerocracy:

    I have used the early morning filtering approach, but filtered with a 6:30 AM hike, which at the very least, gets me and Parker some exercise.

    And I only do that when it’s not -20F 🙂

  • alimoeeny

    Phew, such a relief. If 50% of people who email Brad don’t follow up, I should be ecstatic with the engagement I get from people I communicate with.
    Brad, thanks for sharing.
    Although, I am not sure if I understand the distinction you make. To me it looks like the difference between the two 25% groups are that one group is more creative and more motivated than the other group. It this the same thing as leadership?

    • It’s not the same thing as leadership, but it seems to correlate nicely with it.


        • Truth, that.

        • Tilie

          too true

  • Eli David

    Great post, loved this section in the book as well!
    25% leaders is actually quite high. I think the funnel begins even before that, by who is sending the email (that’s the first step of the funnel). I think that 50% of the relevant people for the community will not bother send the email at all, which means that all those % are cut by about half.
    Also, would be interesting to check by rough estimates how many of the people who approach are “Leaders” and how many are “Feeders” and then see how those guys segment. My guess is that the entrepreneurs/leaders will actually have a much higher answer rate than the service providers in disguise.
    Giving an assignment as initial filtering is a great idea, can’t wait to try it out.

    • Yup – way more Leaders than Feeders in the 25%.

  • Chris Yeh

    I have advised hundreds if not thousands of entrepreneurs to start a blog in order to become a thought leader. I have publicly stated that I owe my career to blogging. And yet, to date, I can only recall one entrepreneur who actually followed through…and he was able to use his blog to successfully transition from Wall Street to VC.

    • Tilie

      Thanks that is the 2nd time in24 hours l have been recomende to start blogging. Me thinks it is time l start.

  • tim_shisler

    Brad, how many emails do you get that start where the top 25% end up? And how does that change the conversation?

    • Somewhere between 1 and 5 day.


    • Well summarized! The brilliance of FG – say in one line what Feld just said in 30…

      • IT WHAT ME DO.

        • michael

          If you were a “leader,” FG, you would have posted that comment before Brad posted his blogpost

          • michael


  • Jason Mark

    Do you think it matters if someone *knows* what you’re doing? I’m Mr. Transparent so when hiring I send applicants to my blog where I have articles like yours (yours is now linked from there). Do you think that skew’s my results? Does it encourage people to “fake it”? Does it matter if they fake it, if they do it?

    • I think the more research someone does in advance of an interaction, the better.

  • Love this! Thank you.

  • Great story. A little push back can go a long ways!

  • Harsha G

    Great post, what a simple and effective way to funnel! It’s amazing 50% of people don’t follow-up at all.

    On the distinction on the other 50%, completely understand the filtering is needed just because of the volume of requests coming in. But, is it possible some of those who respond to the assignment do so because they hope to get a more credible intro and not due to lack of initiative? After all, most people are not as thoughtful as Brad in helping out or even responding to cold emails.

  • Rohan

    I am third

    • Anon

      you’re Indian gypsy

      • Rohan

        what is gypsy!

        • ColeusQueen

          Hello, Rohan! ColeusQueen here. Do you know what a Coleus is? Well, moving on….I am a Retired Teacher of ESL so I am GLAD to help you!

          In answer to your questions, a Gypsy is……
          Gypsy – a noun – (jĭp′sē)
          1: a member of a traditionally itinerant people who originated in northern India and now live chiefly in south and southwest Asia, Europe, and North America
          2 (not capitalized) : one that resembles a Gypsy; especially : wanderer
          : a member of a group of people who originally came from northern India and now live mostly in Asia, Europe, and North America
          ◊ The Gypsy people are known for moving from place to place instead of living in one place for a long time.

          Helpful?????!!!!! I LOVE to Teach

    • ColeusQueen

      Rohan! Third from Left or Right?
      On which Row? Bottom row? Middle row? or Top Row?
      Who are those people in the picture with You?
      Thanks for the image – PLUS I LOVE BATMAN! I shall send you a link to a New Year’s Card you will LOVE!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!
      Ah, A New Friend on This Big Beautiful Planet! Thank You, God!

  • Evan

    Brad, once an individual in the top 25% (category 3) has proven his/her leadership abilities, what happens next? How do you typically engage with that person moving forward? Do you wait for that person to provide an update or make another request, or do you make a point of finding a way to support him/her?

    I ask because I imagine a high-profile individual like yourself can’t create a personal relationship with every leader that steps forward. So, what’s the tipping point that moves you from merely being impressed by those leadership qualities to actively bringing that person under your wing? Does that even ever happen?

    • It varies all of the place. There is no specific way – it’s pretty random.

    • leadership ability can learn from experience and wisdom other people, we can follow the type

  • Hossein Rezaei

    Hello Brad,
    It’s an insightful text and a very good approach. Thanks for sharing your knowlegde with me.

  • Glenn

    Brad, I really like your comments about identifying a leader. These are very true and what most senior level individuals look for. There is a difference between those to take initiative and “those who take THE initiative.” This is especially true in the sales environment. Very good commentary.

  • Love the expediency of this approach. You will miss a few, but given the volume that’s a risk you have to take.

  • great ideas…thx man. I agree