Bad News, Founders & Entrepreneurs: The #1 Obstacle to Your Teams’ Success Might be You
There’s a saying in Silicon Valley about leadership you may have heard before. It goes something like this:
If you want to scale successful leaders, hire the right people and get out of their way.
Put another way: As a leader, your job is to create more leaders. It’s your responsibility to inspire, motivate, and enable your teams to take full responsibility and ownership over their roles in the company.
Why? Because this is not only the path to becoming the most effective leader possible, but is also the best way to tap into the value, expertise and potential your team brings to the table. At the end of the day, successfully leading a company is all about getting as much leverage as possible; and one of the best places to find that leverage is in leaders who think and act independent of you, but in alignment with the vision you’ve created together.
So what does this look like in practice? Imagine literally managing yourself out of a job instead of being the front-line combatant many CEOs are. Imagine the freedom of knowing your teams will lead your business to success with or without you.
A lot of people talk about this style of leadership but, in my experience, few leaders seem able to truly master it; and for good reason.
While the concept of stepping back and letting your team lead may be simple, it isn’t necessarily easy. But in many cases, it is worth it. In fact, I believe the freedom this style of leadership creates is necessary to reach your full potential as CEO.
I recently met Jason Gardner (@jmgards), a leader who has pushed the envelope on this methodology further than I’ve ever seen before, so I asked him to share some of his experiences. This is what I learned.
Employees vs Business Partners
Jason is the founder and CEO at Marqeta (@marqeta), a 100-employee payment innovation platform “powering prepaid, debit and credit cards for the world’s leading commerce innovators.” Last year, Marqeta grew its revenue over 5x, powering card programs for some of the more prominent players in Silicon Valley, including Square, Affirm, DoorDash, and Instacart.
Prior to Marqeta, Jason co-founded PropertyBridge, a leading rent payment platform for property managers (eventually acquired by MoneyGram International), and the IT management company Vertical Think.
At Marqeta, Jason doesn’t have “employees.” Instead, he refers to those who work with him as “business partners.” But that’s more than just a title; Jason views, treats, and trains his people as partners, too. And the way Jason sees it, he’s there to help his partners succeed; not the other way around.
The result? Teams who think, plan, and act on their own, without any dependency on Jason; people who take ownership and responsibility not only for themselves and their team, but for the business as a whole.
If you think this approach is something your company might benefit from, read on to learn about what this leadership style looks like in practice and how you can begin to implement it in your business.
Step I: Get out of the Way
In Jason’s experience, the cornerstone of this leadership style is trust: You must be able to trust your teams to succeed without constant involvement or supervision.
For many, this will be a challenge. If you’ve never managed your teams this way, you may not have developed this level of trust simply because you never needed it. And, unfortunately, there’s no “hack” to gaining trust. You actually have to let go.
As Jason points out, the only way to build real trust is through experience. And at first, that takes a leap of faith. You’re going to have to give ownership and responsibility to your team even if you aren’t sure they’re ready; then step back to watch what happens.
That said, you can’t just disappear on your team and hope for the best. You need to make sure they understand and accept their new responsibilities within the company. To do this, spend time with leaders up front to ensure everyone is aligned on the following three points:
- Alignment (ensuring everyone is on the same page about where the company is going, how each team contributes, and how together “we are going to get there”),
- Their responsibilities (leveraging their knowledge and expertise to make the company successful), and
- Your responsibilities (providing resources and support to make them successful)
Here are a few snippets of how this conversation might go. Note that this isn’t necessarily a word-for-word script; think of it as an example of the overall tone, and use whatever words feel most natural for you.
- “Let’s get aligned on what we want to achieve here. Do the goals we’re setting and approaches we came up with align with what you think we should be doing?”
- “This is your team. Your part of the company. I hired you because I trust you to be able to handle this, and now I’m going to let you handle it; entirely.”
- “I don’t expect perfection; especially not at first. You’re going to make mistakes. Don’t be so afraid of them that you fail to act. And when you do make a mistake: Own it, fix it, and move on.”
- “If I have to step in and solve your problems and make decisions for you, there’s a much bigger problem at hand.”
- “I’m still going to be around, contributing resources and support to help you succeed. So what do you need from me to be as successful as possible?”
This may be a dramatic shift for you and your people, so it’s important to take the time to make sure everyone understands what’s expected of them.
Step II: Stay out of the Way
Getting out of the way is one thing. Staying out of the way? That’s something else altogether.
At some point, probably early on, something is going to go wrong: Someone’s going to drop the ball, make the wrong call, or come to you for a decision they should be making on their own. And when that happens, your first instinct will probably be to try to fix things.
In the beginning, you’re training yourself just as much as you’re training your team; and, as with any new habit, consistency is key.
When someone comes to you with a problem, trying to fix it only perpetuates the conclusion called “I have the answers and you need me to give them to you”. Instead, remind them of their new, empowered responsibilities and task them with fixing it. For example:
“This is your department, your team, and your responsibility. You are the most qualified person to make this decision; you have the most context and authority here, so I trust you and your team to make the best decision you can. Let me know what you decide.”
Your people are going to struggle sometimes; especially at the beginning. The most valuable thing you can do for them isn’t to jump in and solve their problems; it’s to let them find their own solution (even if that means letting them fail a few times).
This might sound like you’re hanging them out to dry, but you’re not. You’re still going to be present to answer questions, give advice, and lend your expertise. The only difference is that you’re going to leave the actual decisions and execution to your teams.
When to Step in
That said, Jason is quick to point out that this new leadership approach doesn’t excuse you from all involvement. You’re still the CEO and still your teams’ leader; it’s just that your role changes from that of a “director” to more of a “supporter.”
This support usually comes in one of two forms: Tactical support and morale support.
- Tactical support simply means making sure your team has the resources they need to succeed. For example: Do they need certain tools? Better equipment? More funding? Additional team members? Approval from the board?
- Morale support means creating an environment where people want to take ownership and responsibility because they love their job, their company, their team, and their leader. It also means reminding them from time to time that they have everything they need to be successful. Build their confidence and they will perform.
And sure: There will still be instances where you need to step in and make a decision. The difference is that you’ll now be free to focus primarily on the most important, proactive decisions; those decisions that determine the vision, strategy, direction, and alignment of your business.
Step III: Expose Your Teams
As you move forward with this leadership approach, you’re likely going to notice a sharp divide amongst your people: Some will step up and take ownership, others won’t; and it’ll be obvious who fits into which category.
As Jason points out, this style of leadership exposes people, giving them nothing to hide behind but their own performance. Some will love the transparency and pressure, others will hate it.
But the unfortunate truth is, not everyone is cut out for this amount of responsibility, ownership, and pressure; and it likely won’t take long to discover who is equipped for their new responsibilities and who isn’t.
As this becomes evident, you’re going to have tough decisions to make. After all, the velocity of the team leader sets the velocity for the rest of the team. And if the leader is struggling under the weight of their new responsibility, you’re going to have to choose: Do you …
- Invest more tactical and morale support in them, hoping they’ll eventually take ownership and lead? Or do you …
- Make the incredibly hard decision that this person’s abilities, goals, and mindset might not be aligned with the future of your company?
Neither of those decisions are necessarily easy, but keep this in mind: When everyone else is taking 110% responsibility for their work, those who don’t will often do more than just stick out; they’ll probably hold the rest of the team back as well.
At the end of the day, how you handle these situations is up to you; just make sure whatever decision you make is aligned with your North Star Objective.
What to Look for in New Candidates
The best way to incorporate this leadership culture into your business is to hire the right people from the start. You want people who naturally take ownership and responsibility, rather than needing to be trained to do so. And luckily, each new hire doesn’t have to be a huge gamble.
Through years of experience, Jason has discovered three core personality traits that act as strong indicators someone will succeed under his leadership style:
- A grand vision: Someone who knows what they want and is prepared to do whatever it takes to make that happen. Someone willing to consistently sacrifice short-term success for long-term gain.
- An attitude: Someone with a strong personality who doesn’t like being told what to do. Someone who will accept your support but doesn’t want your constant involvement.
- A growth mindset: Someone with what Carol Dweck (@mindsetworks) describes as a “growth mindset,” rather than a fixed mindset. Someone with a naturally thick skin, who seeks criticism, craves feedback and learns from their mistakes.
The three traits above are what Jason needs for his company, but that doesn’t necessarily mean they’re right for you. The point is to know what you, your company, and your teams need to succeed; and to settle for nothing less.
As for actually hiring these people, there are already a number of great articles on this topic. Instead of rehashing what others have already said, let me share a few links I think you’ll find valuable:
- Whom Should You Hire at a Startup? By Mark Suster (@msuster)
- The Person They’ll Become by Jason Fried (@jasonfried)
- Startup Recruiting: Play the “Game of Weakness” by Steli Efti (@steli)
Under this leadership approach, the success of your company is tied more closely than ever to the success of your teams; and you want people who do more than just acceptthis. You want people who are excited by it.
How Far Will Your Teams Take You?
At first, this leadership approach might feel unnatural and will probably require conscious effort on your part. So here’s the question: Is it worth it?
Ultimately no one can answer that but you, but let me share a quick story of Jason’s that really illustrates just how far he’s taken this concept, and how valuable it’s been.
After experiencing the growing success and independence of his self-driven teams, Jason brought together business partners from each part of Marqeta to create an Extended Leadership Team (ELT).
The goal of this team? To make decisions about the future of Marqeta and take the lead in execution. That’s right: Jason trusted the judgment and experience of his people so much that he entrusted them with the very future of his company.
During a recent end-of-year review, Jason gathered the ELT in a room together and said, “For us to succeed in the next 12 months, all of you need to be in sync. At the end of the day, this doesn’t involve me. I don’t need to be here. In fact, I shouldn’t be here. So myself and the rest of the executive team are going to leave, and we want all of you to get on the same page. When we come back, you tell us what we need to do to be successful in the coming year.”
And when they came back some time later, the ELT actually kicked Jason and the other executives out so they could wrap up. That’s what taking ownership looks like.
By the time they finished, the ELT had created such a comprehensive plan for the coming year that Marqeta has since adopted 95% of it; all without Jason’s direct involvement or supervision.
Moral of the story? If you allow them, your teams will not only drive your company’s success; they’ll lead it.
But keep in mind: Much in the same way this approach isn’t right for every team member, it’s also not right for every leader. You’ve got to ask yourself: Am I comfortable handing the future of my company over to my team?
If you are, follow Jason’s example. Give his methodologies a try. And if you have any questions, comments, successes, or challenges, leave them in the comments below.