I've been privileged to work with many business managers with exceptional abilities. I have worked with sales aces, financial savants, fund raising gurus and technology wizards. I've worked with many managers with great abilities but I can't say I'd pick many of them to be in trenches with me.
I've worked for several tech startups over 15 years and in a phrase, "it's never easy". There is a special pressure of trying to "figure out" technology, markets and sales methods at the same time you're "juggling" the funding time bomb (article on that here). When you're flush with a new round of funding everything seems achievable. That's when you move into the "hiring binge" and all sorts of new characters enter the company. You've run out of "known quantities". The people you know and trust. So now you're defaulting to "qualified people with great backgrounds". In other words you're relying on abilities.
I know recruiters will argue with me but it's easy to hire people with good talents. But the real test of someone's metal is when the fire turns up - when the product is delayed, when a key business partner breaks a deal, when money is tight, when sales don't meet expectations and when investors grumble. It is amazing at this point how many people duck and cover, or worse still, start throwing others under the bus. For those who stand with you constructively while others buckle, those are the people you want to reward and keep in the trenches with you. Those are the people you want to recruit to your next endeavor. Those are the people you trust.
All the others? I recommend looking for opportunities to move them out. It sounds harsh but it can be the difference between success and failure. It can also significantly reduce future stress for you personally. If you're "lower on the food chain" then you should consider looking for a new place to work quickly. This way you control the timing of your exit.
Of course by the time you and your company is stressed it might be too late. But I can tell you that the signs of "weak metal" pop up all the time. You just need to open your eyes to the situations and make note. At some point "all the signs" will start pointing to trust issues and you have to ask yourself, "Do I want them in the trench with me?"
Here are some of the things I've noticed over the years. There are many, many more. I invite you to post your own examples (please no last names).
Irrational demands. I worked for a CEO that wanted a technology that we just could not build. It was not an issue of technical expertise. It was not an issue of resources. It was an issue that the data set we would need to accomplish the goals did not exist and could not exist unless the largest software vendor of that technology in the world changed, fundamentally, how they databased their sales information. We were just a small company with no influence over that giant. Also, because of network PCI security restrictions, we couldn't write and implement custom code on the protected servers. At that time, with the constraints, the strategy could not be implemented. That CEO found the conclusion unacceptable. He would not listen to any logic. He would not consider any alternatives. He wanted what he wanted, and he refused to listen or consider otherwise. Irrational demanders - out of the trench.
Stories of the past that don't sit well. I'm a much better listener than a conversationalist. Most managers go on social meals with other managers on business trips. I've found this to be an excellent "getting to know you" time. Most people are bored by other people's revere. I find it fascinating because I listen to what they say, how they say it and the context by which they present themselves. I've found that aggressive personalities tend to say a lot and sometimes probably say too much (if they ever thought about what they said). This tends to especially be the case if they have a couple glasses of wine. In that regards, I have the advantage, I don't drink.
I remember a senior executive telling me of the large tech companies he'd worked at and how he'd ingratiate himself with the founders and directors. He then used those relationships to tear down and destroy the careers of people he didn't like. He could tell by the reaction on my face he'd said too much and he tried to cover his statements. He said, "Oh, I don't do that any more." Yeah, right. I made mental note and in the end he proved to be both a tyrant and a traitor to others. Braggarts and bullies - out of the trench.
How partners are treated. I'm sorry to write that I think most companies treat their partner vendors like step-children. These are your outsource tech companies, parts suppliers, distributors, outsource manufacturers, etc. These companies are vital and import, well, until the money is tight. At that point they're not "really part of the family". Startups have peaks and valleys with cash flow so there are times when you'll need to pick and choose who you pay in a given month. That's just part of business. How your company handles it is a big part of building trust.
Good managers will own the problem, inform the partner of the situation, answers their questions and create (and honor) a payment schedule. You'd be amazed at how well this open and honest policy can work.
Bad managers will hide the situation for as long as possible, blame the vendor for some made up issue to deny payment, require them to go through unnecessary administrative hurdles to delay payment, not schedule payments and not make payments if they are scheduled. If this is how part of "your business family is treated" it's certainly feasible this is how you'll be treated if the money gets even tighter. Disingenuous treatment of vendors - out of the trench.
The blame game. Everyone has seen the blame game. Everyone steps up for kudos when something goes right but everyone cringes when something goes wrong. I don't expect people to be happy when things go wrong but I do expect people to own the situation collectively, consider how they contributed to the situation and offer solutions to improve the situation.
And then there are the blamers. These folks always point to other people. A "blame gamer" will do this all the time. Oh, at first you may not even catch the blaming. They have it down to an art. Subtle hints of someone having "trouble" or they have "concerns" is usually how it starts. But, turn up the heat and the "kettle whistles loud and clear". Blame gamers - out of the trench.
I'll stop at three examples. I could go on and on. I've probably worked closely with 50 experienced senior managers by this point in my career. Almost all of them had excellent hard skills. But when I think about it, I would probably only bring about a dozen of them into the trenches with me.
Look for the signs and head off those you don't trust. Life is too short to settle for less.