Learning Leadership: Exceptional Leaders Share 5 Top Secrets With Foundr Readers
Learning how to be a great leader is a pretty hefty can of worms. It’s something of a minefield for young and new entrepreneurs, in terms of knowing how much you should learn by doing, and how much to dig out of books.
It’s also tricky in that everyone seems to have a take on the subject. There are tons of leadership styles detailed in popular theory. According to a landmark study, Leadership That Gets Results, published in Harvard Business Review by Daniel Goleman, there are half a dozen primary leadership styles, including the Pacesetting leader, who walks a walk others are expected to follow; the Democrative leader, who prioritizes collective buy-in; and the Affiliative leader, who fosters a culture of belonging. Plenty of leaders naturally dip into a few different styles, depending on the scenario.
Whichever style resonates most with you, one thing is for sure, there are almost as many leadership quotes kicking around on the internet as there are cat videos. But taking steps toward becoming a quality leader requires more than just sticking a few choice phrases to the wall of your office.
The reality is, once your business is up and running, you will invariably need to bring in more bodies. More people means more responsibility, not to mention a sharp increase in the number of emails and questions flung in your direction. It’s easy to be overwhelmed. Unless you’ve been so single-minded about getting things off the ground that you’ve given zero thought to what kind of leader you want to be.
If that’s the case, don’t worry. You’re not alone, and we’re here to help.
Since Foundr launched, we’ve interviewed more than 100 of the world’s greatest entrepreneurs, and learned an epic amount about starting and running a business. In this post, we distill what we’ve learned related to this tough topic. Think of it as a mini-masterclass, as taught by some of the founders we’ve come to admire most.
We’ve scoured several hours of incredible wisdom, as told to Foundr Magazine during our entrepreneur interviews, and extracted five golden pieces of advice from some of our most epic guests, all of whom just happen to be awesome leaders. Here’s what they had to say, all in one neat little package:
1. Hire people who are smarter than you
The single most repeated bit of advice we hear from the world-class entrepreneurs is that a great leader needs a kickass team, pretty much above all else. It’s a theory backed up by some weighty research—according to Deloitte’s Human Capital Trends 2016 report, building a high-performing “network of teams” is one of the best ways to boost performance.
We have a ton of admiration for the late Dave Goldberg, former Survey Monkey CEO who tragically passed away last year. Goldberg once told Foundr that hiring people more intelligent than yourself is at the heart of building a great team, along with giving yourself time to learn the ropes:
I’m not good at everything and I don’t expect the people I hire to be good at everything, but I hire people who are good at the things I’m bad at, and who like doing the things I don’t like doing. I hire people who are smarter and more talented than I am. My job as CEO has three parts: to have the overall strategy, to hire great people and motivate them, and to help them do their jobs. I’ve learned how to do a lot of those things. I wasn’t always great, but over time, I got better.
These are sentiments echoed by fellow billion-dollar startup founder Rod Drury of Xero, who says great teams should be an amalgam of skills, styles, and personalities:
It’s not about hiring people just like yourself, it’s about trying to build diversity. High-performing teams need a whole range of skills, so build that unique collection of people who together can be awesome.
And Justin’s Peanut Butter founder Justin Gold says talented people should also be given the opportunity to lead for themselves:
My approach was to hire people with great experience, who knew the industry and knew how to grow my company in ways that I never could. I brought on people smarter than I was, and I let them lead. I gave them guardrails, because I had a vision and knew where I wanted to go, but I let them lead.
2. Trust them to execute their roles
“You don’t lead by hitting people over the head — that’s assault, not leadership” – Dwight D. Eisenhower.
It’s funny because it’s true. Being a control freak is a surefire way to get people sprinting out the front door of your business, never to return. Although it is an easy trap to fall into, especially when, as founder, you’re used to being involved in every decision.
The truth is, you’re no good to anyone if you’re stretched too thin. Also, if you’re giving a cursory glance to 100 little things a day, chances are, you won’t be giving the big stuff enough airtime.
Then there’s the human impact of micromanaging. Being given room to stretch their legs creatively, and having challenges to tease their minds is what really gets people out of bed in the morning—that’s especially true for all those smart folks you just hired.
When we spoke with Teachable founder Ankur Nagpal, he explained to us how trusting people to make decisions preserves his sanity, while allowing his employees to feel empowered:
What I tell people in the first few days, is, “I’m hiring you because I think you’re very smart, and because I want you to reduce the number of decisions I have to make. Part of your job is making decisions on my behalf, and in return, I’m going to allow you to make the wrong decision 20-25 percent of the time, as long as most of your decisions are correct.” I think this has been massively helpful. Initially, it’s hard to do, but you need to find smart people, empower them and be good to them.
Dan Tocchini, founder of The Grid, shared similar sentiments about how you need to put faith in the people you bring on board:
We give people control over their domain and a lot of freedom, which is really important. I know for myself, if I had a really structured environment, I wouldn’t thrive. I would break the rules. So we look for those kind of people. We also give them really difficult problems and tell them to just go and figure it out. They can employ whatever they want to, as long as they figure it out. You need to let people just run with it.
Collis Ta’eed, founder of online marketplace Envato, also believes that how well you delegate and what kind of hours your team works ultimately comes down to trust:
In the early days, delegating for me was much more about giving directions. Now, as Envato has gotten bigger and the team more senior, I delegate better. I say, “Here’s the context, now how do we get there?” It’s also about flexibility. I used to believe the hours a person worked was really important, which is a bit of a trap. Results and outcomes are actually more significant – not just how busy someone looks.
3. Lead from the front
This one might sound a bit Captain Obvious, but no one is going to follow a half-baked leader. Adlai E. Stevenson II alluded to it in his leadership tidbit: “It’s hard to lead a cavalry charge if you think you look funny on a horse.” In other words, unless you’re confident about what your team is working toward, and you’re sending that message to the people around you, it’s impossible to lead the charge.
As a serial startup founder, Xero’s Rod Drury is used to being out in front. He says that owning and reinforcing your company vision is the best way keep people on point:
You have to lead by example, and set the values of how you’re going to play. Create the charter your business will operate on, because there are so many decisions, you need to have a framework. What works really well at Xero—and why we have so many evangelists—is we have a really clear vision and we incrementally deliver to that vision. People get used to the flywheel of success as we keep having the courage to move in a direction, and executing on it. I’m always sharing and reinforcing where we’re getting to, and just showing them that someone really owns the success of the business.
Dave Goldberg shared similar sentiments:
Having a mission I really believe in is what motivates me. If I can convince people to come and work with me then I’m doing a good job. But I’ve gotta believe in what I’m telling them, and in the mission—that we’re going to have a lot of fun and we’re going to learn things.
For Darrell Wade, co-founder of one of the world’s most successful travel companies, IntrepidTravel, respectful leadership also goes a long way towards keeping your employees happy:
A group of people need respect above everything else. If you have that, it’s really easy to lead, because you can work things through, and that team will be reasonably happy deferring to you. You do it a few times and people get more and more respect for your style. You start to work well together because you’re harnessing their brains in a constructive, forward-thinking way.
Then it becomes a reinforcing, self-fulfilling prophecy, because you’re working with a group of people who have confidence, faith in themselves, and faith in you as a leader. But really, it’s an internally built faith that starts to propagate the future, and it works.
4. Be visible
As an entrepreneur, top-notch communication skills will prop you up in just about any scenario, be it pitching to investors, making sales or chatting to employees. However, when it comes to leadership, the latter should be done as a matter of course and not just a few token words at monthly meetings. The simple act of talking to people day in, day out, can have a huge impact on their productivity and morale.
Drury advocates this open style of leadership:
I’m a “walk around” manager. I’m 24-7, but I’m pretty unstructured. When I get to work I go to my meetings and make sure I’m reinforcing the vision—always watching what’s going on, or jumping in when someone needs a hand or seeing that people are working on things that put us in the right direction.
Collis Ta’eed agrees—even if, for you, this isn’t something that comes naturally:
For a long time, I didn’t really understand that it’s a good idea to talk to everybody, and often. Which seems obvious now! When you are six people in a room it’s much simpler in terms of communications. Talk to your staff, check in with their goals and unblock things for them. Early on, I was really focused on what I wanted us to accomplish. But as a leader, I think a lot of your time should be spent on just clearing a path for your team to execute.
5. Say yes
We turn to Drury to close out this leadership lesson with a very simple yet powerful piece of advice: Say yes.
Be the kind of leader who tells people to go for it and encourages them to think outside the box. It’s generally outside these realms that the truly game-changing stuff happens:
It’s my job to say yes because—as you get big—corporates want to say no. So I think “How can I say yes to things?” to encourage people to think big, to take ownership, and run as fast as they can. I’m always trying to unblock things and keep the urgency up as much as I can. This is why I tend to bounce around the business—because I’ve got such great people running it, it frees me up from being too prescriptive about my day.
What has been your experience with leadership? Has it come naturally, or been a learning process? Tell us about your experiences!