Joshua Penning, CEO at AllThingsBusiness, 5 min read
6 things to keep in mind as a CEO…
“This is somewhat terrifying.”
I vividly remember thinking this when I became the CEO of Landtek Solutions in January 2011. Sure, I’d built companies beforehand — but these were sideline businesses with friends, and others was by myself. With Landtek, it was the first time I was to lead a team of people who weren’t friends of mine.
At the time, I hired two land surveyors part-time to help me out at Landtek. And while they were just “two direct reports,” it was imperative to me to be the best manager and leader to them; as possible.
The first thing that became apparent in this process was that: Being a manager was different to being an employee. And, it feels very different than working by yourself.
Your words set direction and carry more weight than before. Your actions are watched more closely and your behaviours are mirrored. You are no longer accountable just for your own results, but also the results of others. How you handle tough decisions sets the tone for “This is How We Do Things.”
It can be a bit terrifying. If you’re currently a manager, you know what I’m talking about. If you’re a new manager, brace yourself 🙂
Now, I share this not to overwhelm you! Rather, it’s to underscore how hard this is for all leaders, whether you’re new to the role or not. Personally, with almost a decade as a CEO under my belt, I still consider myself a “work-in-progress,” and constantly aspire to be a better leader.
Where to start? Over the past few years, these are six things I’ve learned from observations and conversations with hundreds of managers and CEOs. It’s what I try to keep in mind each day as I lead, and what I believe the best managers do…
Know the purpose of your role: It’s NOT to manage.
As a manager, you may think your job is to manage others. Sounds straightforward enough. However, the word “manage” is misleading. By definition, it means to “run, control or supervise”… which isn’t what I see as the role of a manager at all.
I believe the best managers focus on doing one thing: They try to understand what intrinsically motivates people, and create an environment that allows people to tap into that intrinsic motivation themselves. You’re not telling anyone what to do. You’re not controlling anyone or exerting influence on anyone. You’re not even trying to empower anyone.
Instead, you assume that people already have innate talents, gifts, and capabilities within them. Your job as a leader is merely to provide an environment for those inherent qualities to come to light.
How do you create such an environment? Read on…
To create the best working environment for your team, you must create clarity. Do people know what needs to happen, why the work is important, and what success looks like? Do people know how their work fits into the bigger picture? Do people know what standard of quality needs to be met before their work is shipped or goes live? The best managers constantly clarify these things — in meetings, in emails, during one-on-ones. They also ask their team, “What isn’t clear?” or “What’s confusing?” or “What am I not explaining enough?”. Without clarity around the work, the work can’t get done well. There is literally no one else on the team whose job it is to create this clarity. It’s is solely up to you, as a manager, to make things as clear as possible.
Once you’ve made it clear what needs to happen and why, you must make sure your staff has enough training, historical background, tools, and understanding of the stakeholders to make informed decisions. In other words, they need context. If you don’t give them context, you’re leaving them out to dry. As an employee, there’s nothing more frustrating than being expected to execute on something when you don’t have enough context to execute it well. As a manager, asking the question, “How am I getting in the way?” or “What do you need from me to be successful?” can help you uncover what context you need to give your team so they feel supported.
Ensure psychological safety.
Your success as a manager is contingent on how honest people are willing to be with you. Without people shooting you straight as a leader, you won’t be able to course-correct should things start to go wrong. For example, if a project starts to run behind, will someone bring that up proactively to you so you can take immediate action? Or will you only find out about it when the client is furiously emailing you after business hours?
Creating a safe environment for your team to speak up starts with going first and showing vulnerability as a leader. For instance, do you admit when you’re struggling with something as a manager? If so, that will give others permission to admit where they’re struggling too. Or, when an employee points out a mistake, do you thank them for being forthcoming and commend their honesty? If so, you reinforce that you want to hear the truth. Consider how every action you take as a manager is an opportunity to show your team that it’s safe to say what’s on their minds.
Respond within 24 hours.
About eleven years ago, I was an employee at another company. During that time, my co-worker vented to me one day: “I asked our boss if I could take a 3-day vacation this summer…. It’s been several weeks, and I still haven’t heard back from him.” I’ll never forget how livid she was. For her, it was a sign of disrespect for her manager not to respond. Take note of this. Your team’s engagement is directly tied to how responsive you are to their ideas, comments, and requests.
In fact, a recent Gallup study shows how much responsiveness matters. They found that the most engaged employees said that their managers returned calls or messages within 24 hours. Keep this in mind the next time you receive an email with a question from an employee, or a suggestion that an employee mentions to you in-person. Let it disappear into a black hole without any response and it will feel maddening to an employee — whether or not you intend it to be.
It might be easy to ask employees to expense only up to a certain dollar-amount during conferences… but then make an exception for a friend on your team and cover more of her expenses when she asks about it. “It’s a one-time exception,” you say to yourself. Bullshit. Acting inconsistently — applying different rules and standards to different team members — sets a dangerous precedent for how you’ll behave in the future. While seemingly harmless, that inconsistency bleeds into other areas, and it will be picked up by someone else on your team sooner or later. Regardless of how long someone’s been at your company or what relationship you have with them, treating employees equitably is important. You want to be a fair, just leader. That only happens by being consistent in how you treat all members of your team, all the time.
I’ll be the first to admit that I don’t flawlessly practice each of these 6 things as a leader every day. It’s hard! Just last week, I realized that I should do a better job creating more context for our team, and giving clarity. But, in writing these 6 things here, it helps me commit to doing each of them better. Hopefully, it is equally helpful for you.
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