People Leaders — It’s not about you.
Scaling great companies is about building great leaders, so why do we focus so little time, money and attention in this area?
As a people leader in any company, your team is looking to YOU to help them succeed. You need to spend time focusing on building the confidence and competence of your team and the people around you. That is your job.
When you sign up to be a senior leader in an organization, your job is to develop people and help them align to the business objectives. However, most companies do not seek out this skill set when they hire — and many people in leadership positions do not have the mentality that it is their job to help their team learn, grow and succeed. This impacts how companies scale, how effective an organization can be in reaching their goals, and how the employee-company relationship develops. Ultimately, it impacts employee happiness, engagement and business results.
It is an ubiquitous problem in fast growing companies. Knowing this, you realize first line managers can have a great impact — they touch so many people and often have a large team. Yet they are frequently are in their role for the first time, and are often reporting to managers who are in their own position for the first time. New managers who don’t have experience leading and are given the monumental responsibility of hiring and managing people are often not set up to be successful. Companies need to support new leaders and help them, so they can in turn, help their teams. The CEO and his/her team need to feel accountable and responsible for making sure new leaders are supported.
According to the findings of Culture Amp, people are more likely to leave companies that don’t provide them with good development opportunities and leadership. So, it is not just about having a good manager, but it is about developing and sustaining a culture that provides opportunities to learn, and leaders who believe this is the way to scale a company.
What are the warning signs of leadership focused on the wrong areas and how can you avoid them?
Self-focus and hubris.
There is too much of this — as a long time senior leader, I see it every day — and it is not unique to high tech and Silicon Valley. Let’s face it — the company does not revolve around a single person. People should want to be at the company first and foremost to do great work; because they believe in the product, the leaders, and the mission. If you use perks, money, and “we are going public soon” to hire people, you will not attract the right people and this will impact your culture significantly. What happened to being at a company because you wanted to be part of something bigger than yourself? Because you wanted to do something great with people who could challenge you, help you be better, and you could help them? If you are seeing too much “I have nothing to learn” from your leadership team, or in your own leadership style, you need to take a step back and reflect. Everyone has something to learn. Most people, if they get out of their own way, also have a lot to teach. But leaders focused solely on what is in it for them will not benefit the company in the long run, and will build self-focused, ineffective teams.
The Promotion/Title BS
Over-promoting people is a tool for weak leaders. It is so much easier to give a person a title than to help them build their competencies and skill set. A title, without the competencies to go with it, eventually will catch up to someone. Anyone can get a title. Few companies and leaders offer the ability to actually learn, stumble, grow, and then do it all over again. Focus on promoting people when there is a business need, an increase in scope and responsibility, and when their accomplishments say they are ready to do the job. People reporting to someone who has been over-promoted always know it and it impacts the overall productivity of the group.
Reward planning, not firefighting
How do you reward leaders and individuals — what do you value? What does a success story look like? And when was the last time your company recognized someone for being a great people leader? I often see people rewarded for working overnight for fixing something that should have never been broken, rather than someone who planned their work, was accountable, and did the right thing. How do you reinforce and model that leadership truly matters — that building a great team and developing them — will be rewarded? Rewarding small things, both good and not so good, really impacts culture. Think about the set of leadership behaviors you want to have in your company and reward them publicly and privately.
How does a lot of effort and investment go wrong?
When you really think about where you have had setbacks in your company, what has caused them? In my experience, it usually has much more to do with people than with the product or the external market. So then why is so little time, money, dialogue spent on talking about what you do with people once you get them in the door? Recruiting has become a commodity. You can get people to come to your company, but then what? How do you keep them, make sure they are engaged and productive? A lot of money is spent on beer and “fun” but not on resources to develop people.
The CEO and the leadership team could start by reinforcing that people development is truly critical to the success of the company and then hold themselves and their teams accountable. The responsibility for managing is on the manger and the individual, but the culture needs to support it. Career paths and employee development have been often relegated to the People / Human Resources function, which isn’t the correct alignment. While I believe the People function should provide tools, coaching and partnership in this area, it is ultimately the direct manager who needs to take on this responsibility, with the support of the company culture. If you do not want to manage people, that’s completely acceptable. There should be a ton of great opportunities at companies for amazing individual contributors. Don’t force people into leading if that is not their path. Dual career ladders absolutely exist in every great organization and people should feel encouraged to pursue either path. Companies need both skill sets to thrive.
Think about this: if you are part of senior levels of leadership, how are you TRULY testing leaders for their ability to grow, and develop other leaders and individuals? This should be greater than 50% of their jobs. Do you hold leaders accountable for development? If your people do not scale over time, how are you going to scale? What questions are asked around this? What references are checked to see if this is a pattern in previous positions?
If you think you are ready to take a senior leadership role at a fast growing start-up, it is time to check your ego at the door. Your primary focus cannot be on building your “brand” or how this role will propel your career. If that is your aim, be honest about it — your team will respect you more for it. But if you want to be truly successful, allow the people you are leading to shine. Their light will also shine on you and allow the full organization to thrive. Helping the people in your organization succeed is the greatest gift you will have in your career. Be grateful you have this opportunity.