Advice to New Leaders

There will come a time (unless you are very lucky) when you are staring disaster squarely in the eye. In fact, because you are a person who wants to lead, and leading generally requires other people, you will be staring it squarely in the eye in the form of telling actual people who work for you, “Hey, everyone, we appear to have a disaster.”

You will imagine in that moment the thought balloons hanging over their heads, and those balloons will say, “you have failed us and you are the worst and we wish we hadn’t listened to you.” (Unless you are one of those successful psychopaths they keep writing articles about whom I rarely meet but I am assured are, like, everywhere.) It is totally normal to fear disaster because — beyond the financial ramifications — you fear the personal recriminations of your team.

If the day of disaster ever comes, you definitely don’t want to be thinking, “yeah, fair enough. You probably shouldn’t have followed me.”

I genuinely hope you, new leader, never have to shut down a company or a big project. I’ve had to do it and here’s some some advice: 1) work every day like your endeavor will be a rousing success and b) treat your people in such a way that you will not be ashamed if it isn’t — and neither will they. In my experience, people who have followed you will not hold failure against you. They will hold feeling deceived against you.

The advice, therefore, is super simple: act with integrity and do not deceive your people.

Seems fairly obvious, eh? Riddle me this, then, and be super honest:

Have you ever, in order to get key talent to join or stay on your team, told a team member what they wanted to hear rather than the absolute truth?

Have you ever used the phrase, “We’re like a family” when talking about your company or team?

Have you ever, in order to get key talent or retain key talent or even just to motivate key talent, made promises you didn’t know you could keep? (Note: I didn’t say, “that you knew you couldn’t keep”; rather the stricter standard “that you didn’t know you could keep.”)

If the answer is “no” to all three, go watch a cat video; we’re done here and you’re the BEST! Otherwise, some more detail and some actionable advice.

Find your spot on the graph

Every company and team is going to have a unique culture of expectations, both on the leader’s part and on the team’s. Whenever I start with a new team, I very explicitly speak to my expectations from the members, starting with this graph:

Made with my fingers using “Paper”; pardon the ugliness

The X axis: what the employees think of the company. The Y axis: what the company thinks of the employees.

If you’re cultivating an environment in which you are constantly telling your team, “we’re just like a family” particularly in the hopes that it will motivate them to work harder or get them to turn down another offer or work on the weekends (e.g. treat the job as if it is their life), you may actually be running a cult.

Remember back to that time when you were a kid and Mom and Dad called you all together one morning to say, “well, kids, we’ve been analyzing your performance and we’ve decided to put Suzie on a performance improvement plan. And, uh, as for you, Timmy… sorry. We’re going to have to let you go.”

A family — or at least the kind one would be holding out as an exemplar in uttering “we’re just like a family” — does not have performance reviews, paychecks or layoffs. If the day of disaster ever comes, you will deeply, deeply regret having told people you were a family and they will regret having believed you.

You are not a family. Don’t tell people you are, nor promote an environment that encourages the “we’re just like a family” vibe. It’s a cheap stunt that will end in pain (and you will deserve the pain).

And if you got everyone in the door by making them promises like “you’ll be rich,” when the day of disaster comes, man are you gonna feel like an ass. And they will feel like asses for having believed you.

Don’t make promises you don’t know you can keep.

What to Do?

Rather than taking the expedient route to winning over talent, which is to assume everything is going to work out great, so you can paint beautiful pictures of the future all day long, instead do the hard work of treating your talented people like professional adults. Find your place on the graph. Tell them what you expect from them. Be clear that this is a job and what their relationship to the company and/or team is — and what it isn’t. You are unlikely to regret it later. You will lose some people who have been told (and believed) prettier stories elsewhere. You are unlikely to regret it later.

It is surprisingly rare for people to be explicit about the nature of the employee/company relationship. Many talk about culture and benefits, and then distribute employee handbooks where they’ve hidden all the scary “at will” language because, I suppose, it will frighten the children. Talented people know what’s up. They will respect real talk far more than any other path.

I use the graph above to set expectations. I put a star in the upper right at about .4, .4. I am very clear with people that a job in video games requires more commitment than some other work. It demands passion and creative fire and often very hard work. But it also requires people who are tuned in to fun and joy, which means people with lives and families and things to do outside the office. In return for their passion and fire and work, they can expect that any organization I lead will view them as talented humans, not interchangeable cogs. We will invest in them — in training, in career development, in getting to work on projects that are not a waste of their creative talent. It is not a lifelong commitment in either direction, but it is a serious commitment.

The most important promise a leader can make and keep is “I will endeavor never to waste your precious time and talent. I ask you never to waste mine.”

I try to set expectations up front. It’s a job, and a good one; it is not a guaranteed ticket to heaven, enlightenment or wealth.

Want some practice?

I promised something actionable. If you’re early in your career as a leader and particularly if you are thinking of starting something up — or have an early startup already on the boil — I highly recommend making the time in your life to work on the board of directors for a non-profit.

I know this is an insane thing to suggest because time and entrepreneur and TIME.

However, you are almost certainly a person who cares about some things beyond your business aspirations — art, human rights, religion, education perhaps? You hopefully have talent, perhaps some money, and a few connections. You are a person who could benefit a non-profit. They would likely love to have you as a donor and a board prospect, particularly if you are passionate about their work.

Find a non-profit in your community focused on a sector you care about. Find one run by an experienced non-profit executive director (0r managing director, or chairperson, or whoever is running the show). That leader will be dealing constantly with tough financial and talent issues (because this is a non-profit) in which you will be able to participate, observe, advise and sometimes even coach. This volunteering on your part will give you a constant window into issues of governance and grant you direct access to mistakes and successes from which to learn.

Most importantly, non-profits (in my experience) have a painfully direct relationship with everyone who works for them. The salaries are often disclosed in grant applications. Everyone is clear on the rules of advancement and how the organization is tracking toward financial goals. In brief, they’re usually organizations where very little time is spent blowing sunshine up the asses of the employees and there’s not money or stock to give people big raises if their eyes wander. Retention of talent has to be handled through entirely different tool sets — generally autonomy, mastery and purpose.

Watching a skilled non-profit administrator make miracles happen on a shoestring can be a fantastic education for anyone in the for-profit world.

If you are a new leader, the best thing you can do is spend as much time as possible studying other people’s leadership. This is a direct path to real-world case study work, and you get to improve your community while doing it.

Most importantly, you’ll see people working very hard and with great passion without being told it’s because someday they’ll all be in the “tres commas” club. And when days of disaster come for non-profits (and they do all the time), people rarely regret their time.