The most important lesson I’ve learned about leadership didn’t come from a boss or CEO. It didn’t come from a leadership guru. It came from a someone I was interviewing for a job.
Our now Senior Team Lead, Don Bagnol, was applying for an assistant team lead role. Our company was less than a year old. We were building a new team for a big client. I don’t remember what I asked in the interview. Maybe I asked him to explain his approach to leadership. Maybe I just asked why he wanted the job. But I clearly remember his answer: “A team doesn’t work for a manager. The manager works for the team.”
It’s a very simple idea. I’m sure that Bagnol wasn’t the first person to say this or something similar. But it resonated with me in a way that no book or article on leadership ever has.
The manager works for the team. That means my team doesn’t report to me. I report to them. My job is to make sure my team members have the direction, tools, training and resources they need to succeed. My job is to maintain the stability and growth of our company so my team members can feel confident that their jobs will be around for the long term.
This simple idea has changed my attitude about what I do each day. I used to get frustrated when I spent too much time in meetings or simply chatting with team members. I lamented the fact that I didn’t have time to get “actual work” done — to dedicate a few hours to strategy, planning or sales. Now, I realize that those meetings and conversations aren’t distractions that keep me from doing my job. They are, in fact, some of the most important things I do.
Yes, I need to block off time for strategy and planning because my team members need to understand why they’re coming to work each day. And I need to block off time for sales because my team members rely on me to drive the growth of the company. But I also need to block off time to focus solely on ensuring my team members have what they need to succeed.
Based on this idea, I developed a simple framework that helped me define my role as a leader and CEO. The way I see it, my job is to GIVE my team members four things:
I need to set ambitious but achievable targets so they know where we want to go. These include organization-wide goals and individual goals, long-term goals and short-term goals. If we aren’t clear about where we’re going, we can’t work together to figure out the best way to get there.
I need to give them the infrastructure and tools they need to do their jobs. That could include creating clear processes, providing adequate training and support and having transparent, competitive and reliable compensation.
I need to a create strong, values-based culture to guide team members in making good decisions. Every one of our team members makes dozens, sometimes hundreds of decisions each day. We can’t micromanage their work, but we can create a strong culture that helps light the way.
I need to empower my team members to share their ideas and contribute to the growth of our company. I need to ensure they feel that their voices are heard and that they are trusted and respected by leadership.
I sometimes I fall short when giving my team members everything they need. This year, for example, I looked at this framework and realized that our headcount has grown more than 50 percent in the last year and our systems needed to catch up. So we’re adding new trainings, tools and processes to help us manage this growth. In fact, Bagnol is now leading our organization-wide Quality Assurance team, one of the key investments we’re making to support our team leads (and our clients) across the organization.
This framework works as a guiding light. If I ever feel overwhelmed (and as the CEO of a fast-growing startup, I feel overwhelmed quite often) it helps me step back, take a deep breath and focus on what matters.
This article was first published in Inc.