The good advice that is actually toxic

“Don’t be stupid and work hard for the company. The company doesn’t care about you. Do the minimum required and look after yourself first.”

This is dangerous career “advice” because it puts people in an adversarial relationship with their own company. It’s you vs the company.

They subconsciously believe that if the company is winning, it must mean they are losing. And for them to win, the company has to lose. That they are not “on the same team”.

This couldn’t be further from the truth.

Because, think about it:
How could our career flourish if our company is struggling?

Our relationship with our company is symbiotic.

If the company does well, it reflects well on us. And the reverse is true also. If the company dies, people will see that we were partly responsible for it. After all, a company is only as good (or bad) as its people.

I’m not suggesting we should sacrifice other important parts of our life for our work. But I am suggesting that we should value our employers better and how our work contributes to the company’s success.
So the next time someone gives you this toxic advice, realise that this mentality is one of the most damaging mindsets for your long term career.

Our company wants us to succeed. Because that’s the only way the company succeeds. Our goals are aligned.

Find the hidden gems

We all know people who interview well but are bad at the job.

And people who would be great at the job but don’t interview well.

And part of being a great interviewer is to find these hidden gems.

Because you will not only hire someone who is skilled, they will also be motivated that you saw something in them that others did not.

And the key to identify this person in an interview is to focus not on what is wrong with this person, but instead on what “could be right”.

So whenever you ask a question and their answer falls short of a good answer, ask again. Ask it in a different way. Don’t jump to conclusions that this person is not suitable.

Example:

You: “Why did you decide to join company X?”

Interviewee: “Because it was a better opportunity.” (Boring)

You: “Why did you see it as a better opportunity?”

Interviewee: (2 min long answer about their work, but not selling themselves)

You: “What did you achieve there that you didn’t include in your CV?”

It’s easy to forget that our goal as an interviewer is to find the right talent, not to test if someone has good interview skills. There’s a big difference.

Hope this helps you identify hidden gems and a wider pool of talent.

Maybe you need a room

Last year, something surprising happened when I shifted from an open desk to working in my own room.

“Modern” thinking says that a leader who sits in the open is an approachable leader, and a leader that sits in a room is an unapproachable one.

But since moving into a room, I have had more meaningful conversations with our people. Big problems were resolved faster and communication became more transparent.

Why is that?

In the past, when I was sitting in the open, many people found it difficult to have deep conversations, because they found it awkward to shift to a room to speak privately. Others would start to wonder what the conversation was about.

Now that I am already in a room, they can walk in at any time, and jump into deep and transparent conversations immediately.

Therefore I don’t think it’s about whether we can judge whether a leader is approachable or not based on whether they sit in the open or in a room. All this is superficial.

It’s about the leaders’ actual personality. An unapproachable leader who sits in the open will remain unapproachable. There are many who sit in the open and say they are approachable but employees don’t feel welcomed when speaking to them.

So if you are approachable, perhaps working in a room actually helps your employees communicate better with you.

Something for companies who want to adopt open cultures to think about. Don’t do something because other companies are doing it.

Have to consider whether it will actually work for your culture and leaders personality.

We are not trying to be a fun place to work

I’ve been criticised before about why I would create a fun work environment at WOBB and then contradict myself by not wanting to hire people who want to join us because it’s fun.

This is a big misunderstanding.

We are not trying to be a fun place to work.

We are trying to build a successful company. And to do that, we need the most talented people to come together, unite and work towards a common goal.

But something magical happens when you put together a talented, positively driven team who energise each other.

You start to notice laughter. You see smiles and people build friendships. Friends that encourage each other.

The “fun” is simply a by-product of this unity towards a common goal.

Someone who wants to join a company because it’s fun will actually disrupt this unity because they are here for the wrong reason. And in a strange way, take away the “fun”.

Also, companies that try too hard to be fun may be missing the point. We can’t force people to unite by throwing parties.

Focus on hiring talented people who want to join us to do great work, and unite them through common goals and shared values. Then watch as they make the culture become “fun”.

Leaders shouldn’t sit in their office room

I’ve observed for a while now that some leaders just sit in the office with an empty schedule, stare at their computers and think they are being a good leader? Often just busy being an overpaid administrator looking at reports.

They would argue that it’s because they are delegating and empowering their teams. I think they are just making excuses to be lazy.

And there’s a difference between empowering teams and ignoring them. Especially in core activities that are important to the business.

Leaders should be out there where the action is, where value is being created for the business.

In a manufacturing business, the place to be is the factory floor where the products are being built. In a professional services or sales orientated firm, leaders should be out there on the field meeting their clients. In retail, it’s the shop floor where customers experience the company’s products.

Be around all the real action that is creating value for the business. Support the team. Observe what issues they face, see what they cannot see. Give input that will improve the value creation process of the company.

Leading means being at the front, not at the back.

The best leadership advice

Many years ago when I was in Silicon Valley, someone asked one of our mentors what was his one most important advice for business leaders to succeed? He replied:

“Too many people want to be Steve Jobs and believe behaving like an a**hole will help them build a billion dollar business. So here’s my advice…. You’re not Steve Jobs, and nobody wants to work for an asshole. So don’t act like one.”

I sometimes meet “leaders” who are rude for no obvious reason at all, to show dominance over other people, as though they are afraid that their position as the boss will be threatened.

That is not a sign of strength, it’s a sign of weakness and insecurity.

Leaders with true strength feel secure knowing that others count on them to lead. That’s the only path to a loyal and motivated team.

Don’t promote someone based on how well they speak

Don’t promote someone based on how well they speak or how they carry themselves. Promote people based on their efforts and the results they produce for your company.

When we promote someone based on our “gut feeling” rather than actual results, we create situations where office politicians who don’t achieve much for the company (and just have good relationships with the boss) can get ahead, and your real contributors get side lined.

Before promoting someone, ask ourselves “What did this person actually achieve for us? Is my decision based on my emotions or facts?”.

Don’t get distracted or blindsided by people that speak eloquently. And remind yourself that just because someone speaks well, doesn’t mean they are a good leader. Because leadership is more than just being able to “sound capable”. You actually have to BE capable.

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.

good boss

What’s a good boss? No, it’s not the nice ones.

“Derek, how do I know if someone is a good boss during an interview?”

A young, eager graduate asked me this question during one of my talks.

“What do you mean by a good boss?”, I replied.

“Well, I want to avoid those horrible bosses I read about where they are always unreasonable and don’t care about their employees. I want a kind boss that can be my mentor.”

I paused for a moment.

This made me think about all the thousands of articles I have read about “leadership”, which paints the ideal boss as a kind, inspiring mentor, that will empower and trust their people. And I imagine this young graduate asking me this question is conflicted between how these articles describe a good boss, with the actual bosses that are out there.

It’s a valid concern because choosing the wrong boss can be damaging to your career, sometimes permanently.

So I started thinking about all my previous bosses that actually made a positive impact on who I am today. To my surprise, none of my previous bosses were one of these “good bosses” that those articles described.

My first boss was horrible but I owe him my career

“Derek, I want a cup of coffee on my desk every morning, black with no sugar.”

Michael drinks too much coffee. I probably make him at least five cups a day. He runs an accounting firm in London, and he decided to hire me to be a junior accountant which was great because I needed some income while I did my professional accounting papers.

He was one of these “horrible bosses” described by these leadership articles today.

“Why is this taking so long Derek? It’s already the second day I don’t see much work done. Were you doing any work yesterday?”, Michael said sarcastically.

“I have been working hard on this. It took five days last year and now you only gave me three days, there’s not enough time”, I complained meekly.

None of my previous bosses were one of these “good bosses” that these articles described

Michael had a bad temper, and even though I felt it was unfair, I tried my best to control my emotions because I really needed this job.

“The client is pressuring us on fees, so you will do the same work in less time. If I don’t see it completed by tomorrow morning, I am going to be very disappointed”, Michael replied.

Michael never bothered to sit down with me to explain how I can work faster and better. No “mentoring” the way these leadership articles say a mentor was supposed to be. He just let me figure it out myself, and at the end of every assignment, he would be sure I would receive the criticism I deserved.

I don’t think I’ve worked so efficiently before this. I was always kind of relaxed during university but the real world felt harsh. Nevertheless, despite what I felt was unfair, I worked really hard and completed the work the next morning.

good boss

Michael looked my work, and as he was going through each page, his ears started to turn red and I knew this was not a good sign. He looked up, and instead of praising me for being so efficient, he started berating me for all the mistakes I made in my work.

“I expected more from you Derek! These mistakes shouldn’t be made by you!”

Doesn’t matter if I had to work tirelessly to complete the work in record time. Michael will never allow me to have a single excuse for producing mediocre work.

This was just one of many similar experiences I had working with Michael.

I believe many people today visualise a mentor as someone that patiently guides them through your work, almost spoon-fed like they’re in a class. But I learned a lot from Michael not because of any “mentoring”, but through all this direct, transparent criticism I get from him every time I made a mistake.

And I got better and better at my work, and always held myself to high standards, because I knew if I didn’t, Michael would not hesitate to remind me of my shortcomings.

The Right Intentions

After many months working for Michael, one day, something unexpected happened.

“Derek, I know you think I’m being horrible to you, but this is the only way you’re going to learn fast. I want you to know that I will always hold you accountable to a high standard even though you are only a junior accountant. This is how my first boss coached me, and this is how I am coaching you.”

He said this in such a calm manner, and it took me by surprise. I felt his sincerity in his words and intention to teach and help me grow. Don’t think it ever crossed my mind that he was trying to coach me.

While I don’t agree with him on his style completely, I feel fortunate that he set such a high bar for me as my first boss.

He was never an “understanding boss” and his uncompromising attitude made me into a professional with high standards and strong work ethics. A attitude that I carry with me today as a business owner.

The “nice boss” will hurt your career

“Does Alex know that he shouldn’t be doing that again?” I asked one of our senior team.

“Yes, I mentioned it to him a few months ago”, said John.

“But why is he still doing it?”

“I wasn’t too direct, I kind of said it my way, in a better way so as to not sound too harsh.”

“It’s clear the message didn’t get through to him because he has not changed. It’s been a few months, and now when this person is not performing, you’re telling me that you sugarcoated the message and haven’t made it clear to him that this a serious problem?”

This is a typical conversation I have with a “nice boss”, who struggle to clearly criticize the work of their team because either:

  1. They misunderstand being a good boss as being an understanding boss
  2. They don’t like conflict
  3. They are vain and care too much about what other people think about them and want to be seen as a “good boss”
  4. They are afraid that their staff will leave them so they are nice, but realise that they are only thinking about themselves and not you

A clip about Jony Ive describing why Steve Jobs is so direct with his criticism

If you report to a nice boss like this, unfortunately you’re never going to grow.

Because you will always think you’re better than you actually are. And when you’re frustrated as to why you’re not growing in your career (the market is never “nice” and will always adjust you to your true value), you’ll be trapped feeling like a victim.

You won’t realise that it was your boss’ unwillingness to clearly and transparently criticize you that made you stuck.

Think about your current boss. Is he or she like this? If they are, I encourage you to have an honest conversation with them and demand for real feedback. Make them feel safe that you can take this feedback.

“Tough” is better than “Nice”

Sometimes I hear people complaining about their bosses not being understanding and have unreasonable expectations of them.

But ultimately, it’s a question of comfort vs growth. If you’re thinking “why can’t growth also be comfortable?” then I would say growth = change and all change is naturally uncomfortable. So if you want a boss that is easy on you, then you’re probably going to to be in your comfort zone and grow slower than those with a tougher boss and higher expectations.

Assuming you’re serious about building a strong foundation for your career, and you had to choose between a nice boss that won’t criticise you and push you out of your comfort zone, and a tough one that can be stressful to work for in the short term, I would ask you to choose this tough boss over the nice boss.

People often don’t reach their full potential without high standards and expectations imposed on them.

Don’t let a nice boss keep you in your comfort zone and hurt your career, with their misguided concept of what a good boss is.

A tough boss is contributing more to your career growth than you realise.

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.