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.

 

employer brand

How to speak to your CEO about employer brand

I’ve attended so many HR events where HR leaders talk about the importance of building a great employer brand, treating your employees right, and about investing in attracting Gen Y. At the end of the event, everyone feels so inspired, people are patting each others’ backs, telling them what great ideas they have, and what an amazing job they are doing.

And then these HR folks go back to the office to share some of these ideas with their CEO and guess what? Their CEO doesn’t care.

To their CEO, all this sounds like HR fluff. “Just try to hire the right person with the least costs”. That’s all the CEO cares about.

So while it’s great we are talking about these things at HR events, it’s important to realise that we don’t want to be in this little bubble that we have created for ourselves, talking about the importance of a good employer brand, when their CEOs are not even listening.

Will your CEO care about employer branding?

So now I am going to attempt to answer a question I get asked most commonly – “How do I get my CEO to care?”

As someone who is running his own business, and also passionate about having great talent, I can share with you some ideas on what your CEO might care about and how you can position employer branding in a way that he or she can relate to.

1) Money

“How does this help us make or save money?”

Let’s face it, it’s easier to get the attention of your CEO if they can relate it directly to whether this helps the company make or save money. So let’s start with money.

Does building a great employer brand help your business make money?

Well, if the nature of your business requires a strong sales and marketing team, then you could say attracting the best talent in sales and marketing helps the company make money. That reasoning, though, may not work for many companies, and may feel like a bit of stretch.

But building a great employer brand would definitely save your business money.

With an attractive employer brand, backed up an aligned recruitment process, companies are able to recruit the right talent, make less hiring mistakes, get better people that fit the culture and ultimately creates an environment that these talents will thrive in. Your staff retention will improve significantly.

What happens when staff retention improves? You’ll spend less time and money on recruitment, less money on headhunters, and less on training and onboarding new employees (not to mention, having less stress and more sleep!).

And the “returns” you get on your employees will improve immensely the longer they stay with you. Employees that stay long will start to have a sense of belonging, become more dedicated, and the momentum they create while being in a job for a long time will mean that they spend less time learning, and more time contributing back to the business.

They spend less time learning, and more time contributing back to the business

2) Competitive advantage

“How does this give us an advantage over our competitors?”

Some companies greatly rely on the quality of their talent to succeed, and creating a company with great culture will give you such a huge competitive edge. This is especially true in these situations:

  1. When you work in an industry where there are only a handful of key competitors. In situations like this, companies aggressively compete with each other for the best talent, and so it makes sense to build a great employer brand to attract the best talent.
  2. If you’re in a service based industry, then there is a direct correlation between the quality of your talent and the service your customers receive. This is also an industry where customers don’t choose companies, they choose the people they want to work with. This includes audit firms, law firms, management consulting firms etc.
  3. If you’re in the creative industry where having the best creative talent helps generate great ideas and is key to your company securing customers and projects.
  4. If you’re in innovation and technology, where your products are intangible and you rely on your talent to design, develop and deploy your products. Having the best people will translate directly to the quality and innovation of your products.
  5. If you’re in a heavily regulated industry with complex products, such as financial services, where you need great talent who understand these products and also keep the company compliant.

In many cases, your CEO may be able to relate to how building the right employer brand to attract great talent will give your company a competitive edge.

3) Organisational transformation

“How do we get our people to be more productive?”

There are also situations where your CEO is frustrated at the productivity of the existing team, and is constantly trying to drive this productivity with the existing workforce, with little results. Some will soon realise that organisational transformation is what is needed, and that will involve rebuilding the team from scratch and hiring the right people, while allowing some of their existing poor performing staff to leave.

For this to succeed, your CEO may realise that having a clear employer brand and building the right culture is the key ingredient as the company goes through this painful but much needed organisational transformation process.

4) Fear of failure

“How do we future-proof our company?”

There are many companies out there who have been in business for many years, had a core group of people that successfully built the business with them. They never used to have talent issues, but for some reason, are noticing that they struggle to attract and retain new younger talent.

And this is a huge concern for some CEOs because they are starting to notice their aging workforce and realise they need fresh talent to keep their company going and that business will fail if they do not solve this problem soon.

This is a huge concern for some CEOs because they start to notice their aging workforce and realise they need fresh talent

Not every CEO can relate to this because they  are just thinking about stability and keeping things as they are. This is clearly a mistake though, as not wanting to change to adapt to the new reality is exactly what will cause the business to fail.

What you can do now

Often, because your CEO may have achieved their success without having to think about talent too much in the past, some may not understand why this is important now.

So I hope this post can help make your job easier, by giving you ideas about the issues that will catch the attention of your CEO, and how you can relate this back to the importance of investing in employer brand, which will ultimately help you attract and retain the best talent.