We’ve been talking and thinking a lot about company culture recently – how to get people excited, and some different ways on how to keep them engaged. But company culture starts from the very top: with company leaders who set an empowering example for their employees.
What makes people great leaders? It sounds like a cliche, but it’s harder than most people think. There’s a reason bitching about the boss is a lot of people’s favorite pastime. And it is – hard, we mean – as a leader, it’s easy to misstep, get flustered, lose your cool and lose your path. We’re not saying leaders should know the answer, always. That’s foolish. What we are saying is that leaders are the type of people that learn from their mistakes, that use them as learning experiences. This, in an of itself, is hard too.
One thing we don’t discuss often enough about leaders is that many don’t start out that way. Everyone loves the story of the janitor turned CEO, but how can said ex-janitor learn the leadership skills she needs to succeed? How can they promote the company culture they’ve envisioned?
Think of it like a player transitioning into a coach
Let’s set the scene: choose a sport – we’ll choose soccer – and imagine a stellar player. Truly extraordinary – they know how to pass, when to hold back, how to lead their team to victory. But this player is getting older, and they want to use their knowledge in a new field: as a coach. After all, they gained valuable knowledge from playing competitively for so long – so they know everything there is to know, right?
Well, kind of. It’s true that this player’s experiences will inform almost any decision they make. It’s also true that they likely have an intimate connection with and understanding of the game. But the truth of the matter is: not everybody transitions into coaching when their playing days are over, even less do it successfully. Some of the greatest ever (soccer players or otherwise) tried and failed, because it takes a completely different skillset.
As a coach, you aren’t making the plays anymore. Instead, your job is to make a plan based on your experiences so you can set your players up for success. Your job isn’t to be a superstar on the field, but to find ways to motivate your team and rally them.
It’s the exact same in the business world. You’re not in the proverbial trenches anymore, and you can absolutely draw on those experiences to set your team up for success. But you also have to practice letting them prove and show off their own strengths, which you can only do by giving them the business world’s version of the X’s and O’s. Having said that…
Don’t think. Do.
The biggest part of being a respected leader is trusting the self-confidence that got you where you are. There will be countless voices chirping in your head about any number of things at any given moment, but the most important one should always be your own.
There are numerous examples of famous leaders, from a more authoritarian Steve Jobs to the more laissez-faire style of a Richard Branson. The one thing they all have in common, regardless of personality or management style: is they’re not afraid to act on their gut emotions. In turn, their employees are more open to doing the same, creating a company culture of success.
It means you can never be satisfied.
People at the top need to be hungrier for success than they ever were, to stay (metaphorically) hungry. After all, you can’t inspire your people to produce amazing work if the person at the top is happy coasting on what they accomplished in the past. The most famous and successful companies are always looking to constantly improve, striving for ways to innovate and inspire. Some of the most famous cautionary tales are actually stories of leaders who were scared to buck the status quo.
One of the most famous examples happened way back in 2000. Netflix was prepared to sell their company to Blockbuster for $50 million – Blockbuster’s CEO said no. They were the kings of renting content; so the line of thinking was, “Why pay a competitor when we’re already number one?”. We know what’s happened since then. Netflix paved the way to the future of media streaming, and Blockbuster… well apparently there are still a few around. It’s a good story to remember any time you feel content with where the company presently is.
Despite the cautionary tale, embrace failure.
Nobody bats one hundred. But the ones that don’t take risks stand to lose it all like those in our last example. Having the confidence to continually challenge what you and your team is doing, and to listen to others who have out of the box ideas… that’s the only way to keep people invigorated. To give a company the chance for continued success. To cultivate the company culture that will make your employees thrive.
You may not know who Shigeru Miyamoto is, but you know his work – and the risks he’s taken. In the 80s, he revitalized a fledgling video game industry when he created Mario for Nintendo. He could easily have skated by for the rest of his career. But he always strove for innovation, which led to the Wii. Everything was going well, so he led Nintendo towards creating another console: the Wii U. Ever heard of it? If not, there’s a reason – the Wii U vastly undersold and became a financial concern for Nintendo.
It would’ve been easy for Miyamoto to avoid radical innovations after that disappointment. So what did he do? Created another revolutionary gaming console, the mobile-console hybrid called the Switch. Instead of playing it safe after the Wii U’s failures, he learned what didn’t resonate with consumers, expanded on what he did create, and paved the way for the hottest console in the world.
Let people know when you mess up.
You know what they say – nobody’s perfect. The simplest way (yet scariest) way to encourage your employees to learn from their mistakes? Let them know when you’ve miscalculated, don’t try to bury your mistakes. Beyond this, taking the blame for the inevitable hiccups is a great way to build morale. Going back to the sports analogy, oftentimes you may have heard people say “it’s the coaches fault when they lose, and the players’ when they win.” In a business setting, that line of thinking can invigorate everybody there – if you’ve seen the guy who signs the checks take the blame you’re more willing to go to bat for them.
Beyond building camaraderie and loyalty, being willing to take blame demonstrates that you’re committed to outside-the-box thinking. It demonstrates that you’re not afraid to take the risks that all ascendant companies do. And it pays off. When employees know the higher-ups are willing to take chances, they are as well. Leading the way to ensure the play it safe culter method doesn’t infect your business.
Be clear on expectations at every level, yourself included.
Outline clearly defined goals, and let everybody know what those goals are. Big picture, little picture, everything in between. It’s a simple task, but one that’s easy to forget or forego due to the business of life. Yet taking the time to do so results in a more efficient you, and a more efficient team. Breaking huge projects down to the most micro of levels can make them seem more doable. And when everybody knows your big picture vision, there’s a sense of unity, a commitment to accomplishing it together.
Experiment with company culture if you have to.
Businesses are a lot like the people who work for them – they all have their own unique company culture. They all respond differently to different stimuli. They grow and change. Your leadership style should reflect and adapt to what’s resonating and what’s not. In order to do so, you’ve got to know your people as much as possible, so you can figure out the best ways to allow them to flourish.
When you get to the bottom of things, success always starts at the top.