Taking The Reins

I’m often asked what common patterns of problems and issues I see as someone exposed to lots of different companies. One such problem which is a recurring problem with startup leadership is the tendency to settle on reactivity. Rather than take charge, executives are busy trying to handle all the incoming requests. Because they always start from that request, from the current situation, they fail to view things from a broader perspective. That means they aren’t likely to be making the right decisions.

The Reaction Trap

To help you conceptualize how this reactivity manifests, here are a few real examples, though with some details altered for privacy reasons.

First, there are the leaders whose team growth seems to only happen based on who gave an ultimatum first. One week, they weren’t planning any changes. The following week, they have a new “team lead” leading an engineer or two or a new architect without clarity on why. Valued team members who are assets to the organization should not just get whatever they ask for, right? It seems like it’s easier said than done. I see these things happen almost weekly, and the leaders always have a bunch of good excuses, or so they think.

The genre of these employee requests has other archetypes, such as the “we have to rewrite this in X” or “let’s rethink our process/structure/company strategy” (yes, I’ve seen these all come from ICs offhandedly). It’s great to have teams that speak up and come up to leadership with ideas, but that doesn’t mean we can turn our organization into a playground where each person is off doing whatever they fancy at any specific moment.

A different issue is when it comes to handling poorly performing employees. How tolerant should you be of employees who are clearly not a good match to the company’s culture? I know a VP that has an engineer so flakey, they never even know if she’ll show up. Some days she responds to calls and Slack messages for the first time around the afternoon, “updating” that she was taking a day off or just getting started. In a company with expected working hours and etiquette for taking time off, this is the sort of thing that shouldn’t be happening more than a couple of times, right? Think again. And this is just one example of similar cases.

One last scenario is when executives allow themselves to be mistreated for months or even years. An executive that talks to their boss, the CEO, about once a quarter is being set up for failure. A department that is getting considerably lower budgets even though there’s no business case for it, making a specific organization work much harder than others is another manifestation.

Making a Change

Maybe you just read all that and thought that all these executives are clearly a bunch of poor leaders. I can assure you that’s not the case. They are all smart and capable leaders, often with excellent track records. It is always easier to spot these issues from the outside (a primary reason people work with me). But it’s more than that. Even great leaders end up missing these situations from time to time.

Sometimes, it’s because we plainly got used to things being the way they are. Other times it’s because of fear: what if that employee quits or the CEO gets angry? Some people tell me that they are just “choosing their battles.” And probably the most problematic is when leaders have grown to believe that there’s no other possibility. They view things as set in stone, there are no options, and therefore plainly give up.

The truth is that it is very normal. However, normal doesn’t mean that it’s good. I keep telling my clients that life’s too short to lead a team that’s just average. This is precisely how we become a team that has no spark. We succumb to issues so much that it ends up in a culture of low urgency and poor motivation. I’d much rather be part of a team that cares about its target and its craftsmanship (here’s a great example of one such company)—and I bet that you would, too.

Decide to be proactive as part of your leadership “operating system.” Make regular time to think about the next steps. Help your people consider their future growth in the company instead of waiting for them to surprise you. Set goals and standards that align people. Get fresh perspectives regularly. Otherwise, you’re going to see your organization ossify.