How to Be a Better Leader

great leadershipOver the course of my career, I have learned a lot of things about myself, my bosses, my employees, and various company cultures, and all of these elements and perspectives have contributed to the culture of I have been given a tremendous opportunity to be a part of something fantastic. I would like to share some of my thoughts on the people we work with and how we are able to have a great time doing what we love.

Let me say this: I have made a ton of mistakes in business over the years. Everyone has. It is how we learn and get better. I look back and think about some of the things I did, and I am thankful that I now have the opportunity to keep evolving and keep making better opportunities for the people that now work for me. And hopefully, they will not make the same mistakes I did in the past. My mistakes, and mistakes I saw from others, are what I learned from the most. Self-reflection and admitting when you are wrong are the hardest things to do, but it pays off if you are always looking to improve and not make the same mistakes again.

The reason that I, as a manager, get more frustrated when employees have done something incorrectly is that I see it as a failure on my part. Especially if I have made the same mistake in the past when I was in their shoes.  Of course, people need to make mistakes in order to learn from them, but I feel I could have guided or directed them differently in order to see better results in the end.   With that said, I have learned more from the things that I didn’t like in the past to drive the way I want to do business in the future. Nothing that happens in your life or business is 100% in your control, but how you react to it most certainly is.

One of the things that I have always found humorous is how people think that because you are an owner, or manager, or the “BOSS”, that you are not a real person with the capability to make mistakes. Well, I can tell you first hand, you do make mistakes… a lot of them. Just because you had the ability to start your own company doesn’t mean that you have all the answers. There is no manual for starting a business or how to deal with people. Everything is different, and you need to adapt. Having the ability to understand that it is O.K. to say, “my bad” or admit you need help is no longer the taboo it once was. People want to do the right thing. People want to be part of something great. People want to have fun.

That is why I’m breaking down in this article, not only what it takes to get the most out of your employment, but also how to be a better leader. Lets face it… in our industry, it is hard to find awesome talent. Once you get it, don’t let it slip through your fingers. There are far more jobs available than there are qualified people to fill them.

Employees are people too.

working as a teamI like to think that any rule that applies to managers or the big “boss” applies to everyone. Why should we have different sets of rules or guidelines to follow? If we are going to go through this journey we call life and spend the vast majority of it with the people we work with, shouldn’t we all have a common understanding that we are equals? Yes, you pay people to do their job. There is no reason to treat them any different than you do anyone else in your social circle. I think that one of the things that have carried me the farthest in business is treating people the same way they treat you. It isn’t more complicated than that. You should always do more for people than you would hope to get in return from them. You don’t do things to show your appreciation to get something back. A gift is a gift, is a gift… so don’t expect compensation because you decided to give a gift. Show people your personality and passions. Employees want to do good work and work hard for you. If you put up a wall, that draws a line in the sand. Expect most people to do the same in return to you if you don’t open up. Letting your guard down is O.K. and people will identify more with someone they understand versus someone they don’t.

Benefits of working with, not against, employees and the work/life balance…

Everyone thinks working from home is the best. Well, it is, if you can handle it and manage your workload without it interfering with your personal life. Life happens, and when you work where you live, you need to be very disciplined to know when to work and when to, well, live.  The way we have handled this is to allow people flextime. Yes we have our core hours that we operate, but there are times throughout the day that people need to take care of their lives. Allowing people to break away for a few hours during the middle of the day isn’t a bad thing, unless you work for an antiquated company that believes we are all working in a factory and need to be in the office from 9-5 with an hour lunch and breaks. That isn’t the way our industry or clients work. People expect work done at all hours of the day, so our company really has made a shift of understanding that we are not going to have people work around the clock all week. Rather, have them understand their client’s needs and work around their lives and our client’s demands. This has worked really well, and our employees are happy with this approach. It allows people to work more when they are “ON”. Some employees are more productive at different times. Work around that, not against it.

It’s all about the money, money, money… Well, not so fast…

not all about the moneyIt isn’t all about the money. I don’t care what anyone says. Yes, you need to get paid for your level of work and skills, but honestly, there are a lot of fantastic ways to “PAY” people. The culture and creative freedom you provide can pay off far beyond a bump in their salary. People want to be creative and learn new things. One thing we have done is to allow employees to express their creativity on a paid “free day” to do anything they want for that day – learn something new, test out new programs, explore the wonders of the Internet! After their free day, they then teach or tell their colleagues about it. This has been a great experiment for us, and we have developed some fantastic tools and ideas that we would never have done if we would just keep hammering our employees to work on the same projects over and over. How else can we honor the promise to our customers and employees to develop the most up-to-date sites? There is no way we could if we didn’t allow for our employees to innovate on the clock.

Let them do their jobs and stay out of their way.

One thing that has always blown my mind when talking to people in interviews and as new employees is how they can’t believe the autonomous nature in which we work. My response back is always the same. “Why would we want to micro-manage what you are doing? We hired you because you are better at it than we are. Do your thing!” If you hire people to do a specific job for your company, let them do it. Get out of the way! There is no need to micro-manage their every move. If you need to do that, then they are not the right person for you. The key to this way of managing is to allow for the understanding between you and your employees that they can come to you if they want to bounce an idea off of you. Then you are collaborating, not directing them. Give people the opportunity to succeed, and it is amazing what happens. Another aspect of this point is ownership. Yes, the company owns what is produced, blah, blah, blah… but you need to have people that own the idea or initiative. Because if you don’t, it will sink, die, disappear. It is amazing how many times in my career we have had our “future of the universe meeting” (that is what we call our executive meeting) and come up with something big, creative and super exciting. If we are assigned to get it done, it always takes longer than if we express our ideas to our employees and let them run with it. Does it always end up how we envisioned it in the beginning? No, but is that a bad thing? Absolutely not. If we had not tasked it out, it would still be on the list of things to do. My point is this: if you don’t let people do the jobs you hired them to do, why do you have them in the first place?

Don’t have people in meetings if you don’t want to hear their honest opinion or ideas.

Have you ever been in one of those meetings where you knew that the people running it really didn’t want to hear your ideas or thoughts? If you answered yes, you were invited to a “strategy-discussion-pat-yourself-on-the-back-look-how-great-I-am” meeting. In our field, there are endless ways to achieve the same outcome. If you want to collaborate, then go in with an open mind and think 100% of the time about what is best for the client. If you focus on the goals and not the path you are going to take, the collaboration will be easy and not get railroaded by misguided approaches. Let everyone talk; create a culture that everyone has the ability to contribute. Invite people that will contribute. A strategy isn’t valuable if no one contributes his or her thoughts.

Work should be enjoyable.

have fun at workNobody likes an A#$*!#LE, so just because you are a manager you shouldn’t be one. Work should be fun. After all, we are in a field that allows us to develop new stuff every day, and we get to learn about new industries almost on every project. I personally get that feeling of serious accomplishment on just about every project we do because I love to learn new things. That is what is fun to me and why I have continued in this business for this long. The other aspect of my enjoyment is the people I work with. The people you work with make all the difference in the world. It is O.K. to use those two heavily underutilized words… “Thank You”. Showing appreciation for work well done is needed. Do it!!!! It sounds simple, but why wouldn’t you? What negative could come from showing your appreciation for work from your employees? I bet that 9 out of 10 times, they worked more than what was planned for by the project management team. Everyone likes to be appreciated, especially when they put everything into it.

The other end of the spectrum is telling people when they didn’t meet your expectations. All too often people are in the dark and don’t know what your expectations are or make assumptions as to what they think you wanted. If you never tell them, they will never meet what you expect. How can you get mad at someone that doesn’t know what you want out of them? That leads to very unhappy employees. Even if the news that you give them isn’t positive, the way you handled it is. They know what you want and you know what they intended. There is a clear line of communication, which leads to a better working relationship for everyone.

Open microphone all the time for thoughts, ideas, and stress points.

Employees should always feel they could talk about anything with you. Not because you want to create a false sense of security, but because you are truly invested in them, and they are in you. If you allow employees to give honest feedback and thoughts, you will always move forward in your business. Listen. The most important assets of managers are their ears. If you don’t hear what people are saying, you can’t assess the correct course of action to take to move the direction of your operation. Sometimes that means to do nothing; other times that means there are serious ways to improve.

The flip side of this is for managers to talk back to employees. Tell them what is going on with the company, what your goals are, and what you hope to achieve in the coming year. This will create an inclusive environment for employees versus being told what will happen. Many times, they have a fantastic perspective as to what can be done. At the conclusion of every one of our company meetings, we have an open discussion for new ideas, points of interest, and improvements. This allows everyone to have the opportunity to contribute.

Let’s wrap this up…

The biggest thing I have learned is that employees and people, in general, want to do the right thing. Give them the ability to do so, and they will amaze you every time. Ironistic would not be where it is today if not for the people that work for us. I hope that this bit of insight into our thinking will help someone at some point down the road with their business or dealing with their boss. This line of work has been a passion of mine for many, many years. Keep on developing!!!

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