Learn to say “no”

Perhaps to most empowering thing we can all learn today, is how to say “no”.

Too often we agree to things because we don’t want to offend, or come across as uncooperative.

But even though in the short term you risk offending the other person, in time they will see that you are strong and have your own principles and priorities. And they will learn to respect you.

Say no to friends that are a bad influence.

Say no to partners that want to win while you lose.

Say no to colleagues that take advantage of you by asking you to prioritize their work over your own.

Speak up and tell people what you want. Take back control of your life. Guard your time like it’s the most precious resource you have. Because it is.

How often do we see nice people get taken advantage of because they can’t say no?

Don’t worry about the people who will abuse your company culture

Perhaps one of the biggest concerns businesses have when I talk to them about building a good company culture, is that they think SOME of their employees are going to abuse it.

I get that.

The business world is tough and unforgiving. If your employees start abusing your culture and become less productive, your clients don’t care, your investors don’t care and ultimately if your company can’t deliver, the market will punish you for it.

But stopping yourself from creating the best culture that MOST of your people are going to love and thrive in, just because you’re worried that a small handful of people may abuse it, is not a good strategy.

Your good people are not going to abuse it, in fact, it will energise them and make them more productive. And the bad ones only make up a small percentage (maybe 10%) and are going to find a way to do bad things, whether or not you try to have a good culture.

I’ve made the mistake of introducing rules (that “damaged” our trust-based culture) just to control bad behavior but in the end, only the good people get punished, and the abusers still found different ways to bypass those rules.

Create and defend your company’s culture for your good people, do what you can to help them succeed, and those who abuse your culture will soon find that they don’t fit in.

It all starts with your people

As an entrepreneur, starting a business with just one person (me!) and growing it to almost 50 people now, I can confirm one thing that’s always been talked about, and so true, is that people build businesses.

Not strategy, not product, not marketing. All these things are created as a result of your people.

Good people = good strategy

Good people = good product

Good people = good marketing

And the list goes on.

As the company grows, it becomes less about how good I am, and more about how good our people are. Because I can’t do and decide everything.

So if you can invest millions in product and marketing, you should and can invest in attracting the best people.

The power of your inner voice

Last week, I was almost late to an important meeting, so I rushed to my car, got inside, but realised the engine wouldn’t start!

In a moment of agitation, I thought to myself:

“I can’t believe this is happening now!”

“I have so many issues to deal with, now I have to deal with my car!”

“I need the car this weekend!”

This went on for about a minute.  But my conscious mind quickly caught myself spiraling into a negative state. That’s when I decided to change my mind’s voice. I decided to practice gratefulness instead of feeling like a victim.

“I’m so lucky that I can grab a taxi so quickly using an app. Now I’m not going to be late.”

“It’s a good thing that I have a second car at home, not everyone is as lucky to have a second car.”

“I’m grateful that I can call my family for help, so I can focus on my work.”

I immediately created a positive emotional state, and was back in a productive mood, ready to take on challenges again.

We have more power over our emotional state than we realise, and can choose how our inner voice speaks to us. Had I stayed in a “victim” state, it would have had a negative impact on my work for the rest of the day. But I chose gratefulness, and you can too.

I promise this choice will encourage the world to react positively to you too.

Networking – is it important?

Coincidentally in the last few weeks, five different people asked me about the “importance of networking”.

And I told them – if you think about your activities as “networking”, you probably got it wrong. Going to gatherings and shaking hands with influential people is not networking. They won’t help you because they are surrounded by people who want to network with them ALL THE TIME.

I go to very few gatherings. When I meet people, it’s about discussing a common goal together, never small talk. All my “network” was not from me trying to meet influential people. I was just driven by my work, and the right people showed up because they were interested in the work that I do.

And if we contacted each other, we will genuinely try to help each other out, even though we’ve not known each other for long.

That’s because to build a real network, there needs to be trust and mutual respect. Trust is built because they know I am not meeting them for the silly reason of “trying to network”. I am meeting them on equal grounds, discussing how we can add value to each others’ goals.

We shouldn’t try to shake the hands of influential people for the sake of networking. If you want a real network, focus on being driven by your work, and the right network will appear.

My 10 Rules for Life

Was thinking recently about whether there are certain guiding principles that have brought me to where I am today. And took me a while to summarise them into this list. Here are my Top 10!

1) Treat your loved ones like it may be the last time you’ll see them

Most people will leave this world unexpectedly or with very little warning. Be kind to your loved ones, don’t assume you will have time to tell them you love them. And don’t live with regret only when it’s too late to do anything about it.

2) Only spend time with people you like

Life’s too short to be socially polite. And stay away from those who like complaining. They are sucking energy from you to keep themselves going.

3) Think with your head, act with your heart

In modern society, sometimes being emotional is portrayed as a weakness, but realise it is a great driver of action. Nothing is more formidable than someone who can make decisions using their mind, but is obsessed and driven by their heart.

4) Realise that you’re wrong about many things, especially about yourself

Self-awareness is a gift, and even those that remind themselves to be self-aware know so little about their biases and own personality. Understanding this helps you listen to others better, develop empathy, and opens up your mind to have a deeper understanding of yourself.

5) If you want to grow, don’t get offended when someone criticizes you

“When a student is ready, the teacher will appear”.

Too often I see those that get easily offended or defensive when others criticise them or their work, and at the same time, start complaining that others do not want to mentor them. We need to respond to feedback well, in order to encourage others to continuously want to help you grow.

6) Remind yourself that the world owes you nothing

Do not fall into the entitlement trap. You’re not a victim. And life is not fair. While you envy others, realise that there are those that envy you too. This understanding helps you live life happier, with more gratitude, and encourages everyone to work hard to pursue what they want.

7) Speak less, ask more

It’s always better to learn what someone else knows rather than trying to impress them with what you know.

8) Don’t try to fit in and be normal

Normal usually means average. Be extraordinary.

9) Know that it’s a privilege to have the responsibility to tackle big problems

The bigger the problem, the bigger the hero. If you feel overwhelmed by your problems, remember that it’s a privilege to have the responsibility to take on big problems. Who is in a bigger position, the Prime Minister of a country who is facing problems that will affect the lives of millions of people, or a university student whose biggest problem is trying to hand in their homework on time?

So don’t feel overwhelmed. Take on your problems knowing that you’re lucky to be facing it because you’re doing something important.

10) Be as curious as a toddler

Look at new ideas like how a toddler looks at a new toy. With intense curiosity and excitement, and be willing to experiment. A closed mind will lead to a life of stagnation.

 

Happiness

Happiness = Reality – Expectation

If reality is worse than your expectation, you’re unhappy. If reality is better than your expectation, you’re happy. And guess what? You can’t control reality but you can control your expectations.

People who are constantly unhappy probably imposed some expectation on themselves or on others that are not aligned with the reality of life.  I always find the easiest way to get through a rough patch is to tell yourself “It’s supposed to be like this, it’s not about easy or hard, it just is like this.”

And you can accept this, find ways to improve and be happy. Or you can constantly fight an emotional battle that you will not win.

Adjusting our expectations changes our emotional state.

It’s not about giving up and not doing anything to make your life better. In fact, it’s the opposite. You can’t improve your life if you’re not seeing clearly and burdened by unhelpful emotions.

How cheating as a student taught me a lesson that I carry with me today

I heard a familiar voice whispering my name. I was in the middle of an exam. And my friend Joe, who was seated behind me, kept trying to get my attention.

“Shhhh… can you pass me your answers?”, said Joe, quietly.

I was a naive, 13 year old student then, not aware of the lesson I was about to be taught. Joe sits beside me in class, and was always chatty and playful. I knew he was not the academic type.

Being a good friend

“What?”, I replied to Joe, even though I knew exactly what he was asking for.

“Help me out man. Look, the teacher isn’t looking now, pass me your answers, quick!” Joe spoke with haste.

Should I give him my answer sheet? That’s cheating, so surely this can’t be the right thing to do. But I didn’t want Joe to fail his exam, perhaps loyalty and friendship was more important.

As our class teacher looked away, without thinking further, I quickly handed my answer sheet to Joe.

I didn’t want Joe to fail his exam, perhaps loyalty and friendship was more important

But what I did not realise, was that my Math teacher, Mrs Nora, was standing right outside our class, silently looking in from the back.

I did not see her when I passed Joe my papers.

I continued working on my exams. Ten minutes later, Joe tried to slip my answer sheet back to me.

As I turned to take my paper back, I caught a glimpse of Mrs Nora, still standing outside the class… and caught her looking right back at me!

My heart dropped. My first thought was that she would walk in screaming and tried to interrupt the exam.

But no. Instead, she gave me a disappointed look, smiled and walked away.

The conversation with Mrs Nora

I didn’t hear from Mrs Nora for the next few days. Maybe I got away with it?

That did not last long, as Mrs Nora walked into my class one day and asked me to follow her to her office. Without Joe.

I thought, “Oh no, what will she do? Will she call my parents? What do I tell them? And…. wait, why didn’t she ask Joe to come along, isn’t he also part of this?”

We stepped into her office, and she looked up at me.

“Derek, I saw you passing your answers to Joe. Why did you do that?” Mrs Nora said. “You’re a good kid. Did you know that you scored an A for this paper?”

I was nervous, and looked at her quietly without a response. I have always been a shy boy, following the rules, and never liked conflict.

“I am going to give you a C to teach you a lesson”, she continued.

Tears started flowing down my face. I felt a deep sense of fear and regret. And before long I started sobbing.

In an introverted fashion, no words would come out of my mouth, but my mind started racing, “WHY? Why are you punishing me? I didn’t cheat, I was only helping out a friend! Why isn’t he also getting punished??”

Almost as though she could hear the voice in my mind, Mrs Nora said “Did you know that Joe failed anyway? Even though he copied some of your answers. In the end, after helping him cheat, you didn’t manage to help him at all, and instead did something that makes me think that you do not have any integrity.”

Mrs Nora said, “Did you know that Joe failed anyway?”

“Even if you succeeded to help him pass his exams by cheating, how many times can you do this for him? Eventually he will still fail, because he didn’t actually get better. If you really cared for him as a friend, you should have encouraged him to learn to do the hard work in order to pass his exams. I want you to remember this.”

Still crying, I remained silent and accepted my punishment.

The lessons I carry with me

Joe knew what had happened. But he never stepped in to take responsibility, because why should he? He failed anyway. And needless to say, we stopped being friends after that. In fact, he eventually left the school without finishing, and I never knew if it was by choice.

It’s been 25 years since this happened, but it’s left such an impact on my life. Even though Mrs Nora said it in a way a 13 year old could understand, these are lessons even many working adults could use.

  1. If you really want to help a friend, sometimes you need to say to their face what is hard but true. Even if they don’t want to hear it, they need to learn to succeed themselves. Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime.
  1. If you want to progress in your career, you have to work hard and be genuinely good at your job. You can get away with shortcuts by playing politics to get promoted, or taking credit for other peoples’ work, but over a long period of time, you’ll eventually be found out and the market (invisible forces) will adjust you to your true value. The reverse is also true – if you feel you are not progressing fast enough compared to your peers, as long as you have a great attitude to work, time will adjust you to your true value, so keep going.
  1. If you’re a boss that thinks being nice to your team is being a good leader, you’re much likelier to hurt their long term career. Teach them the value of hard work, or they will go through their career thinking they are better than they actually are, and struggle in the long term.

And perhaps the most important lesson of all:

“Good intentions” can never justify cheating.

 

5 Leadership Lessons from a First-time Startup Founder

As we look forward to the new year, I have been pondering what are some of the biggest leadership lessons I’ve learned this year. WOBB has gone through significant growth, starting from just me (one person sitting at home in my pyjamas), to a 25 person team, with some of the most talented employees in the business.

I’ve definitely made many mistakes and learned a lot from them, but here are my personal top 5 leadership lessons.

1) The team doesn’t live inside your head

I’ve met founders who said that they were frustrated when the team doesn’t seem to be able to deliver exactly what they’d would hope for. “Sometimes if you want to get something done right, you have to do it yourself.” Admittedly I’ve had this thought myself too.

But what I’ve learned over time is that poor communication from the leader can cause a lot of these problems. When leaders don’t communicate with clear instructions and specific expectations, it causes the team to try to figure out what they think you are looking for, based on that they know, and of course, they are not going to get it right. Because they are not mind readers, they don’t live inside your head.

I always try to remind myself that as the founder of the company, I have access to information from other founders, investors, clients and competitors etc. I’ve been in the company since the beginning, and have clear context of everything that is going on in the company, because every team reports to me.

I can see the full picture. The full picture that individuals in the company do not have access to.

It is therefore our responsibility as leaders who have all the information, to see that your team can’t see everything you see, unless you make that effort to show them clearly what you need, or give them access to the information that will help them. Be clear and specific about your expectations.

Because if you don’t make that effort and just expect them “to know”, it’s your fault that they are not delivering good work, not theirs.

2) Be quick to weed out the “show horse”

(To be kind, I have changed some details of the following story to keep the person anonymous, but the essence of the story is here.)

Jim joined our company full of enthusiasm. Every time I spoke to him, he was incredibility helpful, looks so engaged and was always willing to do everything that I asked. He was also a very bright kid, someone I could ask a question to, and he’ll somehow find an answer.

I really liked Jim, and was thinking of promoting him.

Then one day, someone came to me and started sharing his concern that he caught Jim spending his time watching Youtube during working hours, and sometimes even during meetings, when I’m speaking at the front, he would be watching a video on his laptop instead of paying attention to the meeting.

I was surprised to hear that. There’s no way Jim would do that. Not the enthusiastic Jim that I know.

Then over time, I started hearing other concerns from other people in the company. Uncollaborated, totally independent stories.

“Jim doesn’t go for any client meetings, his calendar is always empty. He spends more time trying to talk to you than get any meaningful work done.”

“Jim is rude to me and doesn’t take feedback well when the team asked him to work harder.”

I started to wonder… wait, is Jim behaving differently in front me because I’m the boss? I paid more attention to his actual work and how he spends his time in the office.

And it turned out to be true. Jim spent most of his energy trying to appear to be doing a great job rather than actually doing it. He had the lowest activities, and delivered the least results. Everything that he touched either stagnated or became worse.

Jim spent most of his energy trying to appear to be doing a great job rather than actually doing it.

It was so easy to be blinded by this “showhorse” had I not made the decision to be unemotional about this and looked at it objectively without any biases.

Suffice to say, Jim didn’t stay long in the company after I started paying more attention to his actual performance rather than appearances.

Remember to watch out for the showhorse.

3) Embrace your “followers” as equals because they make you a leader

As single founder, people always ask me whether it feels lonely not having a co-founder I can share my worries with, or to bounce off ideas. And when I tell them that I can do all these with my core team, it always surprises them that our team is so engaged.

In fact, the team is so passionate about the performance of our business, that I often find them seeking out to do more for the company, seeing problems that worry them and proactively figuring out how to fix these problems, and sharing a lot of the stress that I share as a founder.

But what’s the secret? There no big secret. Just pull them into your world as an equal. As someone that you genuinely value, with opinions that you value, with actions that you trust.

Of course, some of you are now thinking “but not everyone in my team is at the level where I can trust and empower them in such a way”. In which case I would ask you to either:

  • Try anyway, because are you sure you can’t empower them? Or is it because you don’t have the courage to let go?
  • Start thinking about your talent attraction / employer branding strategy so you hire better people

Either way, this video from Derek Sivers reminds me all the time how your followers make you a leader.

4) You dictate the culture of your company

Leaders play a critical role in influencing the culture of their teams. After all, you decide that is acceptable behaviour and what is not. You decide what behaviours get rewarded, and what gets punished.

So if you’re ever in a situation where you’re frustrated that your team is “lazy”, or always late, or don’t openly share their ideas, very often you’ll find that it’s you (the leader) that made the culture what it is.

Whether it’s because of your decisions to hire the wrong people (that ultimately influenced your team’s culture), your inability to publicly reward the right behaviours or punish the wrong ones, or because you do not lead by example, it really all comes down to you to dictate the culture of the company.

Your inability to publicly reward the right behaviours or punish the wrong ones… it all comes down to you to dictate culture

If you don’t want others to be late, then you shouldn’t walk in late just because you’re the boss. If you want your team to share ideas and act proactively, then don’t get annoyed whenever you hear an idea you don’t like (how are they supposed to know what ideas you don’t like, over time they will just learn to speak less).

At WOBB, we even went as far of building our own 9 core values that are specific and actionable to give the team clear guidelines on what is expected behaviour. We obsess about these values, and it’s what drives a lot of our business decisions.

WOBB’s Wall of Values is situated in the middle of the office and takes up an entire wall, as a clear visible reminder to the team about expected behaviour in the company.

5) You should pay more attention to your star players, not less

A common mistake I find many leaders make is that they tend to leave their best people alone, get out of their way. In their mind, if they have a star player that has earned their trust, they should leave their star alone. That’s called “empowerment”.

These leaders then tend to focus their time and energy on their weakest players in their team, which they believe needs “fixing”.

I believe that’s not a great strategy. Because not only will you find that spending time with your weak players doesn’t guarantee they will perform better, you will also soon discover that your star players will also start to get demotivated.

Your star players will soon feel that they are no longer growing in their role, or no longer getting a lot of recognition for their achievements. After all, they are star players, they are always expected to perform and deliver, and over time, it just becomes “normal” and no longer celebrated.

They are no longer coached, because how do you coach someone that is already at the top of their game? And this adds on to your star players feeling stagnated.

I’ve always believed that a better strategy would be to focus your time and energy on your star players instead. These are your best people. They are the most engaged. They have high will. They want to keep growing and they care deeply about their performance and your business.

Give them recognition for their achievements, no matter how many times they keep hitting their goals (that’s a good thing right? Celebrate!). Spend time strategising with them, supporting them, working on making them better.

Paying attention to them is not about you not empowering or trusting them. In fact, very often, high achievers want attention, because that’s what drives them, and it’s a mistake to stop doing that.

And how about coaching? How do you coach someone that is already a star? The real question is – why are you making it so easy for them? They are your star players! Give them bigger tasks, challenge them to do more. Make them uncomfortable.

That is your opportunity to coach them so they keep growing and pushing boundaries. Celebrate whenever they raise their standards. And support them when they need help.

And other people in the company will look to them as examples of how to excel in the company.

In short, investing your time building your best people is a much better long term strategy that will produce a high performance team.