The most counterintuitive leadership tip? Leaders, stop doing what you’re good at.

Playing to your strengths as a leader doesn’t make you a good boss – in fact, it can make you a bad boss. Here’s why.

Of all the leadership tips to be a good manager, “leaning into your strengths” has got to be one of the most frequently cited.

“Do what you’re good at. Focus on your strengths.” That’s the conventional advice we all receive. There’s no shortage of StrengthsFinders assessments and personality tests urging us to triangulate which strengths we should zoom in on.

However, I recently had a conversation with Peldi Guilizzoni, CEO of Balsamiq. His insight on this topic turned my head sideways… in a good way. Peldi asserted:

“Doing what you’re good at hurts the team.”

Huh? Let me explain.

Peldi admitted to me that he’s good at getting stuff done. He makes things happen. He thinks he’s killing it. But as a CEO, 10 years in, should he really the one doing all the doing?

After a decade running his business, Peldi noticed he’d created an environment where his coworkers were depending on him to get things done. If he takes a vacation – he leaves them hanging. If he has to be out for a week – they’re stuck.

Peldi conceded:

“What I realized is that I should stop myself from doing things I’m good at  —  which is so counterintuitive  —  and instead, focus on delegating training and making sure that everybody gets good at doing those things.”

Doing what he was good at was hurting his team, not helping.

I could relate.

I’m good at communicating. So I do it internally. A lot. I write-up about what we’re doing, why we’re doing it, a new approach I’m thinking about, a new concept we should try… But, when I take a step back, it’s a bit too much. We’re a tiny, two-person company. For our size, all that communicating is overkill. I could easily spend some of that same time somewhere else in the business and have it be more meaningful.

For both Peldi and I, our predisposition became a preoccupation. We’re good at it, so we automatically assumed it was good for our team.

Whenever you’re good at something, you don’t objectively assess its effectiveness as you should. You apply less of a discerning eye. You know you’re good at it, so you figure the more you do of it, the better.

But as with anything, repeated actions without rigorous judgment become lazy and reckless. And naturally, they have unintended consequences.

Now avoiding this pitfall, and actually internalizing this counterintuitive leadership tip, is hard.

No one is going to stop you. Rarely do others have the temerity to stay, “What you’re good at is bad for the team.” Plus, doing what you’re good at is fun. It’s inherently satisfying to flex your strengths. Who wants to not feel that way?

So, you have to ask yourself: Are your actions feeding your team, or your ego?

Focus on what you’re good at, and the team never becomes good at it themselves. Focus on what you’re good at, and you never see things for what they really are.

Resist viewing your strengths as the only way to make the team strong. Resist falling in love with the short-term results of doing what feels good to be doing.

Pause. Don’t be so busy. Take stock. Why are you doing those things? Because you like doing them? Because you’re good at them? Or because it’s the best way to move the team forward?

Find someone who will tell you the truth. Your co-founder, your coworkers. Ask them if what you’re doing that you’re good at is really helping move the team forward.

This truth-seeking takes 10 minutes to do. Start today. And stop doing what you’re good at, all the time.

Big news: Know Your Company is now Know Your Team 🎉

After four years, we’re launching a new product, business model, and company name. Here’s why.

We’ve always been a bit weird.

We’re a two-person company serving 15,000+ people who use our product in over 25 countries. We’ve generated almost $2MM in revenue to date, have been profitable since Month 1, and every year since. We’ve never raised money from investors, or taken out a bank loan. (And, we started out as a tiny prototype that Basecamp spun-off.)

Today, we’re doing something weird, again.

We’re launching a new product, business model, and company name.

We’re now Know Your Team software that helps managers become better leaders. We give you educational guides, tools, and a community of support to help you avoid becoming a bad boss.

Know Your Team costs $65/month per manager (or $600/year).

You can check out the new Know Your Team here.

Here’s why we decided to make this change.

Quick background, first.

If we’ve never met before, hello! I’m Claire, CEO of Know Your Team. It’s nice to meet you, albeit virtually.

Our original software, Know Your Company, used to be focused on helping business owners with 25 to 75 employees get to know their company better. We charged $100 per person, one-time, for life.

We generated $1MM in cumulative revenue in a little over two years. We helped tens of thousands of people at companies like Airbnb, Medium, Kickstarter. And not just at tech companies, but law firms, marketing agencies, retail stores, and even a few churches.

When we surveyed customers, 94% of employees said Know Your Company helped them feel more connected to their coworkers, and 85% of CEOs said Know Your Company positively impacted their company culture.

Yet as 2017 was winding down, we noticed our sales becoming flat.

“What’s wrong?”

I remember thinking this around this same time, last year, in December.

As I reflected on 2017, I noticed three things:

  1. Our online community for leaders took off. We’d launched our Watercooler community in October 2017, to help managers learn from each other. More than 200 people signed up for it in the first month. (Today we have almost 1,000 members.)
  2. Our writing about leadership took off. The writing I’d been doing on our blog increased our organic traffic by 3X in a month’s time. It would go on to increase by 20X over the next six months.
  3. Our software sales went down. Our sales, however, did not increase. Not 20X. Not 3X. In fact, sales were fairly flat in 2017, if not dropping during some months.

Seeing the discrepancy between our audience and our sales, we scratched our heads.

Yes, Know Your Company was helpful as a piece of software. But for who?

When we got started back in 2014, we focused on selling to business owners. But by the end of 2017, our audience had evolved. After some digging, we learned that our 20X increase in traffic were mainly managers at companies of all sizes.

We had a mismatch. Our audience was managers, but our software was for business owners.

Our audience was asking the question, “How do I become a better leader?” But our software, Know Your Company, wasn’t answering that question.

In fact, no one was doing a good job of answering that question, “How do I become a better leader?”

Sure, you can read books, but they lack practical application. Trainings are expensive and one-time. And man, making mistakes and learning trial by fire is awfully painful.

I searched high and low for a good answer to, “How do I become a better leader?” I couldn’t find one. So we decided to build our own.

The result is Know Your Team.

Introducing Know Your Team: The new product.

To answer this question, “How do you become a better leader?” we re-imagined our product.

We pulled together research from working with 15,000+ people over the past four years, and discovered that the best leaders do three things exceptionally well:

  • Trust: If you don’t build rapport as a leader, nothing moves forward.
  • Honesty: If you don’t speak the truth to your team, problems fester.
  • Context: If you don’t get everyone on the same page, confusion sets in.

Because of this, we designed Know Your Team to help a leader develop these three skills of Trust, Honesty, and Context.

You can read more about our methodology here.

The best way to learn anything is to go do it. The second best way is to practice doing it. So with Know Your Team, we combined theory with practice. You can’t become a better manager by just reading books, or just by using software tools, alone. We built Know Your Team to include 3 complementary resources, to be used together:

  • Guides — Written guides on leadership, based on data, with 50+ chapters on topics such as one-on-one meetings, giving honest feedback, building trust, and more.
  • Toolbox — Dead simple software tools to help you run effective one-on-one meetings, ask for feedback, get high-level team updates, foster rapport, and more.
  • Community — Online support from 1,000 other managers from all over the world, where you can discuss tough situations like firing, hiring, and more.

You can read more about our resources here.

And, we’re not done! We’ve got loads of ideas for more guides, more tools, and more resources that we’ve already started working on creating. There’s so much to be done to help people become the leaders they’ve always wanted to work for.

Changing our business model.

For new customers who sign up for Know Your Team, we chose a new business model. Know Your Team costs $65/month per manager to purchase. As a monthly subscription, this makes it easier for managers to swipe their credit card without having to ask for permission from their boss.

Previously, our one-time pricing model had been useful to get us to profitability quickly. For example if you had 19 employees, we charged $1,900 one-time. We were essentially collecting the lifetime value of the product upfront.

But over time, we noticed our one-time pricing model becoming a big barrier to sales. A business owner had to justify a $2,000 or more expense to their finance department, to their investors, and to their leadership team.

Now that we’re selling to managers, there was no way a $2,000 product was going to feel accessible to them, even if the cost was only one-time. We wanted Know Your Team to feel like a “no-brainer” purchase for folks who might not have access to the company’s budget. So we moved to a monthly subscription model.

Building Know Your Team with two people.

We spent six months building Know Your Team. This meant designing and coding new features, writing 50+ chapters on leadership for our guides, and constructing a new billing system, new onboarding system, and new marketing site… All with just two people.

Every piece of copy, code, and illustration you see is something our CTO Daniel Lopes or myself created. (We did this while maintaining our current product, doing customer support, writing blog posts and pursuing other marketing projects.)

This is a big move for us. As a bootstrapped company, we don’t have piles of cash stacked up, in case it doesn’t work. We don’t have investors to run to if we get stuck in a bind. (In fact, we have $140,000 in the bank, to be precise.)

But, the change feels right. Since I’ve been running the company in 2014, this launch, today, is the most energized I’ve felt.

Why the weirdness?

Admittedly, our approach is weird.

You might be wondering, “Why are you making things so hard on yourself, Claire? Why not raise some money to make this change? Take out a bank loan or open a line of credit? Hire more people? Buy yourself more time?”

Those are not bad ideas. We considered them. And who knows, maybe we’ll pursue them in the future.

But for right now, the short answer is: I don’t want to.

When you run your own business, you have to remember why you wanted to run it in the first place. What you want. Not what others want.

In business (and in life), we’re addicted to pattern-matching. We snuggle into where the grooves are carved, where the tracks have been laid — not necessarily because we want to — but because they’re just there.

For me, I got into this whole starting-a-business thing because I wanted to do it on my own terms: Small in headcount, big in impact, independent, profitable. Life is short. Why build a business any different from your vision for it?

Of course, you shouldn’t mindlessly listen to your own din, in isolation. You should carefully choose who to listen to. The only people I want to listen to are our customers, current and prospective: Employees, managers, leaders, CEOs.

The minute you take on investors, accept money from a bank, put people on your board — you change the people who you’re listening to.

I don’t even want to listen to Jason and David, the founders of Basecamp (and Know Your Team board members) 🙂 We’re lucky that Jason and David want us to do things our way, too. We disagreed on some of the strategy of the roll-out of Know Your Team, but they were very supportive of us choosing to ignore their advice. (I’ll write more on this perhaps another time…)

If you have the luxury to choose who to listen to, choose intentionally.

Is Know Your Team for you?

You might be one of those people I want to listen to.

If you’ve spent late nights googling things like, “how to be a good manager” or “how to run a team meeting” or “how to delegate well”…

If you’ve bought carts of leadership books on Amazon, desperate to avoid beginner manager mistakes…

If you’ve ever thought to yourself, “I have no idea what I’m doing as a manager”….

Know Your Team is for you.

I’d be honored if you gave Know Your Team a shot.

If there is anything else — truly anything — I can do to help you become the leader you always wished you worked for, I’m here. Feel free to email me at claire@knowyourteam.com or ping me on Twitter at @clairejlew.

I look forward to hearing what you think. I’ll be listening to you.

On the journey with you,
-Claire


P.S.: If you did indeed enjoy this piece, please feel free to share so others can find it too. Thanks 😊 (And you can always say hi at @clairejlew.)

The surest sign of a bad boss? You don’t listen.

You’re likely making these 4 leadership mistakes as a leader. Here’s what to do instead to become a better listener.

You’re not listening, as leader. You think you might be — but it’s highly likely that you’re not.

Think back to your last one-on-one meeting. Be honest: What percent of the time did you accidentally zone out during your direct report’s answers? Were you distracted by an impending meeting with an unhappy client? Were you trying to guess your direct report’s motives, and running through past one-on-ones with them in your head?

I don’t blame you, quite frankly. As leaders, we’re trained — and rewarded — to multi-task, rapidly context-switch, and think in parallel. We’ve got a firehouse of tasks, team dynamics, goals, customer requests that we’re juggling… How else are we supposed to weather the storm?

However, listening requires an opposite motion. Listening lives in silence. In stillness. You need to focus purely on the person you’re listening to. Not analyzing the response as they speak, not anticipating the next sentence, nor brainstorming ourselves what we’ll say next. Not thinking about the next meeting, the next phone call, or, hey, lunch is in 40 minutes.

The only way we’ll truly understand what the other person is trying to say is if we’re zoomed in on listening, in that moment.

When we do, listening becomes a powerful lever. A great listener gains knowledge that’s overlooked. They hear the tone of disappointment in an employee’s voice and discover that person is not happy on the team. They recognize that an employee has been having revealing conversations with a customer, and they finally understand why a customer isn’t satisfied with a particular part of the product. It’s knowledge only found in the nooks and crannies — you have to pay attention closely in order to spot it.

Not to mention, when you listen well, you show empathy and build trust in a way that’s more genuine than any office perk or team social event.

So how do you know if you’re a good listener — or a terrible one? Here are the 4 most common mistakes leaders make that reveal they’re not a good listener. Read on to see if you’ve been unintentionally committing any of them…

Mistake #1: You keep your phone on “just in case.”

Yes, emergencies do happen. But keeping your phone on during a meeting and having it buzz is enormously distracting for the other person. Countless of employees I’ve spoken to have mentioned how disrespectful it feels for their manager to have their phone go off — or worse, to be texting during the meeting. A recent study revealed that smartphones are distracting, even when we aren’t looking at them. So, what’s the solution? Just put it away for the meeting to be present as much as possible. If you do have to take a call or are expecting an important message, simply let the other person know so they’re aware, or reschedule the meeting.

Mistake #2: You assume people want your two cents — so you give it immediately.

As a leader, you’re often looked to as the expert. And, well, you are the expert most of the time. So it’s common to want to jump right in and help your team by providing the answers, or share how you’d attack a challenge. However, that eagerness to lend a hand can backfire. Rushing in with your opinion can crowd out any room for your team to share their opinion. I’ll always remember my interview with Laura Roeder, founder and CEO of MeetEdgar. One phrase Laura rigorously used with her team was: “Make this decision without me.” This gave her team the space to figure things out on their own, share their honest opinions with her — and helped her listen, not just tell.

Mistake #3: You only ask one question, before moving on to the next topic.

How many questions do you typically ask a direct report? Just one, then on to the next item? Or do you try to follow-up each topic with at least two, three, or more questions? Whether it’s during a one-on-one meeting, a Zoom video conference, or in a Slack message, the best managers frequently ask follow-up, clarifying questions — both about themselves, and their colleague. They ask, “What isn’t clear?” or “What am I not explaining enough?” Additionally, when their team members speak, they ask questions such as, “What do you need to make X happen?“ or “What can I take off your plate to help you do X?” The more clarifying questions you ask, the more listening you’ll do.

Mistake #4: You rarely ask yourself, “What’s my mood right now?”

We all have bad days. It’s inevitable. To make sure you can listen to someone well, it’s important to be aware of your current emotional state and to optimize for it. Not a morning person? Schedule your meetings in the afternoon. Just got out of some crazy traffic, or rushing to get all your tasks done before the weekend? Consider rescheduling — not avoiding — a tough conversation. The other person will be relieved that you asked if they don’t mind chatting with you once you’ve had time to take a breath.


If you’ve found yourself thinking, “Oh man, I’ve definitely done a few of those recently” — no need to get down on yourself. We all have been guilty of them, myself included. My hope is that in pointing them out, they no longer float under the radar. With awareness comes a small change in actions. We can all lift the veil that we’re all not as good listeners as we’d like to be. If we want to be better leaders, it starts with knowing what work we have to do 🙂


 

P.S.: If you did indeed enjoy this piece, please feel free to share + give it ❤️ so others can find it too. Thanks 😊 (And you can always say hi at @clairejlew.)

To be a good manager: 8 ways to avoid your opinion swaying your team too much

A good manager knows their opinion can influence their team sometimes TOO much. Here’s how to compensate for that.

When you’re a manager, something interesting happens: You mention an idea off-hand, and all of sudden, it becomes a priority. You casually ask a question out of curiosity, and all of sudden, everyone scrambles ASAP to get you an answer.

As a leader, your opinion matters. But sometimes, it can matter too much. You can unintentionally sway team members by stating your opinion prematurely. Or, you can accidentally quell perspectives that are critical for you to hear.

How do you keep this from happening? One of the managers in The Watercooler, our online community with almost 1,000 leaders, kicked off this conversation recently. Below is a summary of the insightful, practical replies.

Here are 8 ways for you to compensate for your opinion weighing too much, as “The Boss”…

Assign others the task of disagreeing with you.

Force the hand, and create a safe space for someone to disagree. For example, in a meeting with ~5 people, a good leader might pick someone and say, “The four of us seem to be saying the same thing, and I’m making it your job to disagree with us regardless of how you actually feel. So if you’re forced to play the role of the disagreer, what’s your argument?

Give someone less experienced a chance to speak first.

This helps prevent folks from just shutting down and saying, “Yep sure, what that person said.” Even if the person is way off the mark in their opinion, it either signals you should spend more time working with them, or it causes the team pivot on the original idea after hearing others. One Watercooler member mentioned how he was recently listening to Great at Work and a high performing example company followed this practice: Most junior employees shared their thoughts first, most senior shared their thoughts last.

Have the person with the strongest opinion speak last.

A strongly-held viewpoint can drown out any potential for diversity of thought to emerge. So have the person who has already thought about an issue and formed a strong opinion speak last. This is also helpful because they’re the least likely to be biased by what everyone else says.

Ask others what they think before jumping in with your own thoughts.

One Watercooler member shared that he’ll often send people a link to a story, article, idea, etc. and ask people, “Thoughts?” to see what he gets back. This helps provoke thoughts from other people, in an unfiltered way, before you insert your own.

Ask everyone to explain their thought-process, not tell you their opinion.

This keeps the people with opinions — but perhaps more trivial reasoning behind them — from dominating the conversation (and wasting everyone’s time). In addition, understanding how someone is coming to a conclusion is sometimes just as valuable, if not more, than the conclusion itself.

Use phrases like “you’re the expert.”

When talking to people about areas that they’re a specialist in, affirm that they are the person who has the required knowledge and expertise. This helps make it clear that your view isn’t any more correct than theirs.

Ask for advice.

When you say to someone, “I need your advice,” you can open the door wide to getting useful feedback from your direct reports. The statement both indicates openness to fresh ideas, as well as a clear request for that person’s personal viewpoint.

Admit what you’re unsure about or struggling with.

Try saying something like, “I’m pretty sure I know the direction I want to go, but I want to be sure I haven’t overlooked something important. Will you review this with me, and poke holes in my idea?” Or “I’m having a tough time figuring this out…” Good managers understand this leads to a very different dynamic. Even if you end up sticking to your original plan, people are more likely to feel respected for being asked to help vet the idea. You’ll get valuable input, regardless.

If you want your team to be making the best decisions, making sure your opinion isn’t driving all the decisions is important. You want people to be honest, to bring up what they think could be better, and to point out what they think is wrong. Try one of these 8 ways to help foster that openness in opinions. Your viewpoint may unintentionally sway others, as a leader — but it doesn’t have to.


 

P.S.: If you did indeed enjoy this piece, please feel free to share + give it ❤️ so others can find it too. Thanks 😊 (And you can always say hi at @clairejlew.)

From The Heart(beat): Leadership lessons I wished I’d learned earlier

Here are a few of my favorite leadership tips from CEOs, founders and executives featured recently in our Heartbeat interviews.

Every two weeks, I ask one question on a leadership lesson to a founder, CEO, or business owner I respect and share it on The Heartbeat ❤️, our bi-weekly newsletter on how to become a better leader. The question I always ask is, “What’s one thing you wish you’d learned earlier as a leader?” Here’s what some of our recent interviewees had to say…

Leaders don’t need to know it all.

Rob Walling is the co-founder of Drip, an email marketing automation software company that we in fact use a Know Your Company. What does Rob wish he’d learned sooner? That it’s okay for leaders to ask questions. He says:

“I wish that I had learned that I didn’t need all the answers as a leader. [I hire] people that are better than I am at something, and then when a problem comes up I can look around the room and say, ‘I don’t know. What do you think?’” — Rob Walling, co-founder of Drip

Embrace failure.

Aynn Collins is the Director of Talent Strategy at MailChimp, the world’s largest marketing automation platform with more than 900 employees. Aynn’s advice to her younger self is to understand that failure is part of growing as a leader.

“Embracing failure and understanding how you learn and grow from those failures is what I would tell people to learn early in their career. They can own failures, talk about them, debrief with your team on…and not try to just make everything shiny and pretty. Because we know business and leadership is not always perfect, and shiny and pretty.” — Aynn Collins, Director of Talent Strategy at Mailchimp

Forget the org chart.

Dan Mall is the founder of SuperFriendly (a design collaborative that’s worked with clients such as Apple, Time Magazine and ESPN) and CEO of SuperBooked (a software application that helps people find creative work). For Dan, he wishes he’d known that an organizational chart isn’t the end-all, be-all of business.

“The leaders aren’t the ones at the top. They should be the ones at the bottom. They should be the one supporting everyone else…They need to be able to see everything. They need to be able to support people. So, I wish I would have learned the idea of servant leadership, which is becoming more and more popular now.” — Dan Mall, founder of SuperFriendly and CEO of SuperBooked

 


 

P.S.: If you did indeed enjoy this piece, please feel free to share + give it ❤️ so others can find it too. Thanks 😊 (And you can always say hi at @clairejlew.)

11 must-read books for new managers

New to the whole “manager” thing? Get your feet wet by checking out these 11 most-recommended leadership books.

Congratulations on your role as a new manager! You’re likely feeling 80% excited… and 20% terrified. That’s completely normal 🙂 Becoming a first-time manager is intimidating. You’re about to start flexing skills you might never have had to use before.

Folks who were once your peers are now reporting to you. You’re now included in more high-level leadership meetings. Your entire focus in what you do has shifted, too: Your ultimate responsibility is no longer to just get your own work done. It’s to ensure the success of your team’s work.

So, how do you start getting into the mindset of a good manager?

I asked almost 1,000 leaders in The Watercooler, our online community in Know Your Team for managers, what helped them transition into their first managerial role and the majority of them said reading has helped guide them into the leader they are today. Here are the top 11 must-read books that have helped them become better managers and leaders for their teams:

  1. Managing Oneself, by Peter Drucker
  2. Mindset: Changing The Way You Think To Fulfill Your Potential, by Carol Dweck
  3. High Output Management, by Andrew Grove
  4. Drive, by Daniel H. Pink
  5. Radical Candor, by Kim Scott
  6. Peopleware, by Tom DeMarco
  7. The Manager’s Path, by Camille Fournier
  8. How to Win Friends and Influence People by Dale Carnegie
  9. The New One Minute Manager, by Ken Blanchar
  10. Google’s Re:Work
  11. Unintuitive Things I’ve Learned about Management: Part 1 and Part 2, by Julie Zhuo

Big caveat here, though: Becoming a good leader requires much more than just reading books. Much of what you’ll learn is through experience: Trial and error, talking to your own team, and talking to other leaders who’ve been in your shoes before. Books are merely a primer to give you a foundation for what it takes to be a good manager. These 11 books are a good start.


Do you have any books missing from this list that helped you transition into a managerial role? I would love to add it to our must-read list. Let me know in the comments or on Twitter at @clairejlew.


P.S.: If you did indeed enjoy this piece, please feel free to share + give it ❤️ so others can find it too. Thanks 😊 (And you can always say hi at @clairejlew.)

The leadership mistake you’re likely making? Being nice.

Why being nice as a leader backfires — and what to do instead.

Leaders, stop being so nice all the time.

I don’t mean to sound like an asshole. But when it comes to leadership, it’s true: Prioritizing “being nice” keeps us from being good leaders.

Now I’m not advocating for us to be mean. Disrespectful or dismissive leaders help no one. Rather, I’m calling for us as leaders to loosen our grip on “being nice.” To stop wanting our team to like us all the time. To let go of the expectation that every single interaction with our team should feel good.

Truth is, our team isn’t going to like us all the time. Our team isn’t going to feel good all the time. And trying to be nice to everyone all the time isn’t going to change that. Nor is it actually helpful for your team.

When we’re preoccupied with seeming popular instead of fair, when we optimize for pleasant conversations instead of honest ones — we hurt our teams.

I was reminded of this most recently while I was reading The Watercooler, our online community with almost 1,000 leaders in Know Your Team. One manager revealed he was facing this exact dilemma. He was seen as “The Nice Guy” in his company, always complementary, never critical. As a result, he was struggling how to start giving his team difficult feedback — and his team was floundering.

He’s not the only one.

Have you ever found yourself in one of these situations?

  • You avoided giving tough feedback to a coworker… and now the person has made even bigger mistakes than you previously imagined.
  • You didn’t tell someone that you disagreed with them… and now you have to figure out how to course-correct without blindsiding the person.
  • You postponed firing someone… and now have to do damage control for the low morale they infused throughout the team.
  • You said something was “great!” even though it actually wasn’t… and now you have to fix the level of quality for what was produced.

Many of us focus on “being nice” as a leader more than we should. And we pay a price for it.

Hiten Shah, founder of Kissmetrics and Crazy Egg, emphasized this point to me, in a recent interview. He warned that when you’re concerned with being nice all the time, “there’s a level of toxic culture that develops that’s hard to see, especially on a remote team.”

Prioritizing “nice” as a leader is an easy trap to fall into. Being nice fits into our desire for belonging and companionship as humans. We’re social creatures. We want to be liked. Inherently, there is nothing wrong with that.

But “being nice” becomes problematic when it becomes your rudder as a leader. It leads you astray. You lose sight of your purpose as a leader: To help your team accomplish a specific mission. Your barometer for success as a leader morphs from “Are we accomplishing our mission?” into “What does the team thinks of me?

Over time, “being nice” becomes your crutch. It’s a convenient rationalization to avoid hard decisions, uncomfortable conversations, and controversial actions. It’s easier to “be nice” than it is to have tell someone to their face that they’re rubbing a client or colleague the wrong way.

Ultimately, being nice as a leader is selfish. It doesn’t serve the team. It serves your ego. The team is looking to you to help them achieve a goal. And instead, you’re looking to have your decisions, actions, and yourself perceived as positive by them.

A leader is the only person’s whose sole job is help a team achieve the outcome they want to achieve. When you care about “being nice,” you’re essentially saying, “The needs of my team as a whole don’t matter as much as their perception of me as an individual.”

Instead of seeking to be nice, we should seek to be honest, rigorous, and consistent.

Or even better, we can seek to be nice and honest, nice and rigorous, nice and consistent. One of my favorite books, Crucial Conversations, discusses how being nice and being honest are not mutually exclusive. You can be both. The best leaders embrace this duality.

Let’s just stop being so damn focused on being only nice.

 

P.S.: If you did indeed enjoy this piece, please feel free to share + give it ❤️ so others can find it too. Thanks 😊 (And you can always say hi at @clairejlew.)

The 3 best uses of an effective leader’s time

What makes a good leader? Look at how you spend your time.

Time is the one constant we are all given. No one gets more or less of it than anyone else. As leaders, it’s how we spend our time — what we choose to prioritize, and what we choose not to do at all — that reveals what’s important to us, and determines our team’s outcomes. If we want to figure out how to be an effective leader in the workplace, we must start with examining how we spend our time.

As a CEO myself, I’ve personally wrestled with this. I’ve had weeks where I’ve had fires to put out, meetings to show up to, business development calls to make, interviews to hold… Before I know it, the week is over, and I’m looking back at it thinking, “What the hell just happened? Where did my week go? Is that really where I wanted to spend my time?”

As a result, I decided to pose this question, “What’s the best use of a leader’s time?” to our online leadership community in Know Your Team, The Watercooler, with almost 1,000 leaders from all over the world. The answers were remarkably consistent. Based on Watercooler members’ responses, there seemed to be three areas that leaders should focus their time on…

Recruiting + Hiring

Your team’s success hinges on the people you choose to hire. Surely, this is an obvious statement — and yet we forget about our role as a leader to drive these efforts. As a leader, you should be thinking strategically about who you want to contribute to your culture and help get your company to where you want it to be. What kinds of non-negotiable values must they have? What diversity of ideas and backgrounds should they have? Then, you should actively work to attract and recruit those folks to your organization. How are you showing that you run a company worth working for (e.g., your company’s marketing, you speaking at conferences, etc.)? How often do you meet new people outside your network, to connect and passively recruit folks who may be great to work with in the future?

As a leader, you also set the standard for what matters when hiring: the skillset, the values, the experience. You say when it’s time to hire — and when it’s not. Naturally, depending on the size of your company, you may have a hiring team helping you out with this. But regardless, your voice in this process as the leader is essential. It’s too important for you not to be spending your time on it.

Considering your team’s long-term strategy, vision, and culture

Admittedly, focusing on the long-term view of the company is hard to do. Especially, when there seems to be so many immediate needs for the company to take care of…and, when we’re not so sure about the long-term view of things, ourselves! But thinking about the long-term strategy, vision, and culture of the company is critical because, well, no one else is doing it. Literally, it is no one else’s job in the company to be thinking about the long-term, be it six months, a year or two out, or ten years down the road — other than you, as the leader. In particular, considering the long-term vision is paramount, because a company’s vision is where the most fundamental source of motivation for your team is derived. If you’re not spending time designing and adjusting a long-term vision — a picture of a better place — people won’t be motivated to do work to help get the company there.

Communicating the direction to everybody all the time

Communication is the easiest thing for leaders not to do. After all, it’s quite a repeated, draining slog to keep saying the same thing over and over again. Despite this, many members of the Watercooler emphasized that you cannot communicate enough as a leader. Why? You can’t expect your team to know anything unless you communicate it. And, depending on the size of the organization, it usually takes some time for a message to sink in or a for a decision to be thoroughly explained. Knowing what’s going on and where a company is headed is how people do their best work. People can’t perform well without the context and information to do so. If you’re not constantly communicating what people should know, the context isn’t there and people can’t do their best job.

These three areas are what our Watercooler members said are the best use of a leader’s time. But how about for you? Do you find yourself spending time in these areas as a leader… or not?

Sharing these three areas prompted even one member of the Watercooler to reflect and write about how she plans her week. I encourage you to do the same.

Our capacity to improve as leaders expands when we evaluate how we spend our time.


P.S.: If you did indeed enjoy this piece, please feel free to share + give it ❤️ so others can find it too. Thanks 😊 (And you can always say hi at @clairejlew.)

Delegate outcomes, not activities.

When it comes to delegating, invite your team into both the thinking and the doing.

Do you consider yourself “a doer”?

That person who enjoys doing the work, fine-tuning the details, meddling in the weeds of how it’ll all work? Then you probably have trouble delegating as a leader.

I know I do.

For so many managers and leaders — especially those of us who are used to be the person doing the work and are now handing off the work to others — learning to delegate is, well, tricky, if not painful.

The good news is that we are by no means alone. I recently happened upon some helpful advice from leaders who similarly have a tough time delegating in a few conversations on The Watercooler. And they were incredibly generous with their advice.

Charlie Elliott, Director of Product at Shopify and Watercooler member, chose to be very honest with his struggle to delegate to others:

“My tendency can be to either take on work myself, or dive into the details and hand over a to do list 🤦‍. Both don’t scale, and both behaviours underutilize the incredible people on our team.”

However, Charlie then shared this bit of gold that his coach had offered on delegating well:

“Invite your team into both the thinking and the doing.”

That is, involve your team in co-creating what success looks like — instead of purely asking them to execute and get you there.

Many of us, like Charlie, have a habit of inviting the team into the doing after we’ve done the thinking. We want to know what we’re asking people to step up to, before asking them to do so. Or we’re so worried about the outcome, we don’t trust others on our team enough to take part in the thinking.

Sean Conner, another Watercooler member and VP of Creative at Guerrero Howe, related to this struggle. He admitted how he’d recently experienced the power of Charlie’s advice to “invite your team into both the thinking and the doing” when a coach he was working with said:

“Delegate outcomes, not activities.”

This means to clear a path for a team member to achieve that outcome however she’d like — because it’s the outcome you truly care about after all.

Now, this is much harder to do in practice. It’s hard to give up control and allow someone to approach an outcome, particularly when we see pitfalls in the approach. We think, “Oh boy, that’s going to take a long time…” or “Ah, they really shouldn’t be doing it that way…” But what Sean pointed out is:

“Delegation is about letting your report learn, and if you believe their approach has a fair chance to get to the outcome, then you must get out of the way.”

Keep that in mind. Not only is delegation a means to getting something done in the here and now — it’s a means for helping your team get something even harder done the next time around. You’re giving your team the opportunity to take in what works and what doesn’t, observe, stumble, fall… and then figure it out themselves. How else will they figure it out if you don’t even give them the chance to try?

When you delegate the outcomes and not the activities, you help employees not just execute for the task at hand, but equip them for every future task after that. You’re giving true ownership to your team.

Thank you, Charlie and Sean. As I divvy up work here at Know Your Team today, I’ll be keeping your advice in mind.


Don’t “empower” anybody: The biggest leadership mistake you can make

I hate the word, “empowerment”. It’s often inhibits us from becoming a good leader.

I hate the word “empowerment.”

I never think I should “empower” anyone — especially our team. It’s often a leadership mistake, in my mind.

Why? The definition of the word “empower” is:

to give power to (someone); to make (someone) stronger and more confident.

The key words here are “give” and “make.” Empowerment means you’re transferring power to someone else. You think someone else needs you — your permission, your influence, your talents — to do something. And I don’t ever believe that’s the case.

Our employees don’t need me to do anything.

When it comes to motivation, everything people need they already have inside them. Each person has something unique, special and important to offer the world. And as a leader, it’s my job to merely create the best environment that allows them to come into that themselves.

As Frederick Herzberg, a well-known American psychologist, once wrote:

“It’s the job of the manager not to light the fire of motivation, but to create an environment to let each person’s personal spark of motivation blaze.”

Instead of thinking about how you can empower people, here’s what you should consider:

How can I get out of our employees’ way?

How can I better understand what our employees really want?

How can I make it clear why what they do matters?

How can I uncover what makes meaningful, interesting work for that person?

How can I illustrate what “good enough” looks like?

How can I show what trade-offs we value as a company?

How can I consistently treat each person with respect, patience, and kindness?

How can I seek out dissenting viewpoints, and be open to new ideas?

How can I be clear and inclusive about the vision we’re all working toward?

How can I create opportunities for connection and a sense of belonging at our company?

You don’t need to empower anybody. Don’t succumb to this leadership mistake. Focus on creating an environment for people to be their best selves.