Over the years I’ve learned that success is about more than taking charge. It’s also about creating an environment where people want to succeed. To do that, you have to build a culture of honesty, accountability and shared vision.
And that starts with knowing your people.
I think it’s a myth that leaders can’t be close to their employees and that familiarity can get in the way of making tough decisions. In my former career as a co-CEO, we had around 300 employees who had been with the company for 30 years, some of whom I once reported to as I was rising through the ranks. So when I was steering the company through the Great Recession and trying to execute a very difficult initial public offering, I knew I was fighting not only for my employees but also for my friends. And I believe that made me fight even harder to succeed.
If you are going to build a great organization, you have to build it the same way a coach builds a team. All of the employees should know their individual roles and should believe in the overall mission of the group. They have one another’s backs, they are committed to winning, and they know you are with them on the field. The closer people are, the more they fight for everyone in the group.
To build that kind of team—and that kind of shared vision—you need to know your people, their interests and their families. You need to make personal connections with each of them.
It is a fallacy that you have to maintain a safe distance to be effective; it is exactly the opposite. Some people think that kind of familiarity is bound to get messy, but life is messy—everything is messy. When somebody is your friend, it’s tough to discipline him or her. If someone’s life goes off the rails and you have to let that employee go, it’s very, very hard. But the positives of being engaged with your employees far outweigh the negatives. It’s simple: People are willing to get things done if they feel they’re part of a family, if they feel they have a connection rather than just a job.
There are three basic ways to create this kind of connection, one where people know you are in charge but accessible as well as committed to steering the company toward success:
- Create an atmosphere of open communication and honesty so when there’s a problem, people don’t hide it—they address it. They know you are going to be fair and will reward them for telling the truth.
- Create an atmosphere of fun. If you aren’t having fun, you’re done.
- Foster a performance-driven organization in which people are expected to do their jobs.
Finally, you have to advocate for the larger “cause”—in this case, the success of your business—which is bigger than any one person. People like to be involved in a cause, and people like to be on the winning side of one. When leaders have constant communication and daily contact with their employees, they can create an environment where people feel they are part of something special. Again, it’s all about building a team—not an organizational chart—and that separates true leaders from those who are only bosses.