10 Leadership Lessons From 8 Years at SoundCloud

David Noël
Jun 27, 2017 · 6 min read

One of the hardest things I learned from 8 years at SoundCloud was to transition from being an individual contributor to becoming a manager and eventually a leader in the senior management team of a company of 350+ employees.

Here are 10 things I learned from 8 years at SoundCloud (hint: #10 is my personal favorite):

#1 Build a system, not an empire

Empires need control, expansion, and defense. Systems, when built correctly, can sustain themselves, run autonomously and evolve through the contribution of its… well, contributors. My role as a leader was to build a system, not an empire.

Building a system meant to identify the pieces needed to fulfill a certain purpose, to assemble all the parts necessary (standards, people, processes, policies, etc) to fulfill it, and then to remove myself from the system I built as fast as possible to see if it can outlive me without falling apart. If it could, my job was done and I could move on to the next purpose. If it couldn’t, I had to step back into it and make sure all the right pieces were in place and make some adjustments.

#2 Your company values do not mean a thing unless your leaders fully embody them

I am a mission and values-driven leader and I believe that the right set of values can be a powerful instrument to consult for guidance. The important (and often hardest) part about company values is to break them from an aspirational level to a practical level. When lived properly, you will witness a behavior and be able to link it to one of your company’s values.

At SoundCloud, I had the privilege of being involved in developing our first set of of values and then recently of leading the effort to refresh our values and I’ve seen first-hand how powerful values can be as a leadership tool.

Effective (and successful) leaders, I’ve found, embody all of your company’s values entirely, and then model how those values are lived day in, day out, on a behavioral level. You don’t badge values, you live them.

#3 “Be impeccable with your word”

This is a sentence borrowed from the book ‘The Four Agreements’ by Don Miguel Ruiz and describes what is referred to in a work setting as accountability. Do what you say you will do. Say something, commit to it, communicate it, do it, report back to close the loop. It’s an obvious trait of great leaders but is often easier said than done.

To be a great leader, find a process that works for you to hold yourself (and others!) accountable. What works for me, for example, is to use my calendar as a reminder and to add follow-up notes. Super easy and low effort once you get into the swing.

#4 Become a context-gathering and context-distributing machine

In a fast-paced environment, context trumps control. If you invest heavily in hiring and retaining the best talent–and expect them to do their best work–equip them with all the context and information you have. If you entrust your people with all the information they need to do their job, it will enable them to do their best work autonomously.

Provide your people–consistently and continuously–with context and information about strategy, priorities, decisions, changes, and resources and they will go and deliver great work. From One-on-Ones to company All Hands meetings, use every opportunity to provide context.

#5 Practice radical self-inquiry

Jerry Colonna is a coach we have worked with at SoundCloud and who helps leaders, executives, and founders unlock their full potential. In working with leaders, Jerry uses the term called “radical self-inquiry”, a deep exploration of self. This — often scary — journey requires the leader to be open and transparent, to be self-aware, and most importantly, to be honest to themselves.

The leaders I have seen being successful all have demonstrated the willingness to be or become aware leaders–aware of their strengths and styles, their weaknesses and fears, and able to verbalize them in a productive and positive way.

#6 Don’t solve problems. Instead, enable problem-solvers

As a contributor you contribute, you solve problems, you’re the doer. As a manager or leader that suddenly changes and it can be the most counter-intuitive transition you face. Suddenly your job is to stop doing and instead, to enable the doing. The reason this is counter-intuitive is because you associate much of the value you create as an employee with what you do. And when you become a manager, the value suddenly shifts to a different kind of doing, which feels more detached from the actual work. The faster you can transition through this dynamic, the better it is for your team.

Great leaders don’t just sit on the sidelines and point to the problems, great leaders step up and mobilize their people to find and implement a solution.

#7 Ask great questions…

Great leaders ask great questions. Most often, people have the answers inside them, they just need someone to help them get to them. Instead of telling people what to do, they ask questions to help people think through a problem. In other words, they coach people through a situation rather than prescribing a solution. For example:

  • What would you do?
  • What do you think are our options here?
  • What do you want to achieve?
  • What would be the fastest and cheapest way to solve this problem?

The best book I’ve read that teaches a framework to use the coaching method as a leader is called ‘Quiet Leadership’ by David Rock. This is the book I have gifted most.

#8 … Then shut up and listen

Listening is not waiting until the other person is done speaking. Great leaders not only speak with intent, they also listen with intent. They are active listeners. Good listeners not only hear what is being said, they understand what people mean. And they have developed a way to play it back in their own words without altering the initial meaning, or by adding their own opinion and filters, or by putting a judgement on the person. For example:

  • What I heard you say is…
  • Am I getting it right that…
  • The three things that I take away from what you just said are… Am I missing anything that is important to you?

One of the most powerful listening exercises I did during a leadership training was to listen to the other person speak for 10 minutes. This is a long time. The rules were to not interrupt, to not “mhm”, and to maintain eye contact. After completing the 10 minutes, I remembered all of the key things the person shared with me and could mirror them back. I had been fully present and attentive.

#9 Be a people- and dot-connector

Similarly to #4 in gathering and distributing context, as a leader you must connect with people, connect people with one another, and help people connect the dots. Successful leaders reach beyond their teams and organizations and establish healthy relationships across the business (aka break through the silos). They become relationship brokers, connectors, internal community builders. For example:

“Diana, I was just speaking with Lucy in Marketing about a campaign that she is developing and I think you would find value in connecting and discussing this with her. Do you want me to ask Lucy if she’s open to connect with you about it? Perhaps there is a way for you two to collaborate.”

You don’t need to identify as an extrovert to be a good connector. In fact, I’ve witnessed leaders who identify as introverts often to be to more thoughtful connectors and relationship builders.

Connecting people with one another is particularly important when integrating new employees. A great tool to use is to map out the new employee’s internal network and then broker introductions to help your new team member establish and foster healthy work relationships.

#10. Find and use your personal fingerprint

This lesson is one of my favorite ones because you can get creative and add a personal touch: pick your signature leadership fingerprint. My personal fingerprint as a leader was to extend small, meaningful, and honest gestures whenever I had the chance to.

For example, whenever one of my team members’ parents would visit the office, I would stop for a moment, say “Hello” to introduce myself, and then tell their parents about something great their son or daughter had done for the company, and that they can be proud of them. Another one is that I used to send someone on a different team an email and thank them for something they did, completely unexpected. Often I would forget about these gestures and someone would tell me years later that it made a huge difference for them and they never forgot. Small, meaningful, and honest gestures can have a huge and long-lasting impact.

Leadership is hard, and it can be scary. But what every company needs (and the world right now, it seems), are people who are willing to lead.

You don’t need permission to be a leader.

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David Noël

Written by

Former VP at SoundCloud, I currently advise startups on culture, communication, and community. Co-Creator of the @rolemodels events and podcast host.