Neeraj is a proud Dad and coach, weekend warrior and COO of Auvenir.
We have all worked for great bosses and some that are well… not so great. The common trait I have found in great leaders is not only a desire to be great but to make others around them great. The best leaders take a keen interest in, and truly enjoy, developing talent. Like parents and coaches, they take personal pride in seeing their team do well, helping them accomplish more than they ever thought they could, and grow professionally and personally. Selfishly, as a leader you also look really good when you have a great team!
Developing great leaders isn’t just about supporting team members, it is really about challenging them to succeed, which usually means facing adversity or asking someone to operate outside their comfort zone. The best way to grow is to be uncomfortable and fall down a few times and realize that you are capable of picking yourself up. As Rocky Balboa said, “Every champion was once a contender who refused to give up.” In that sense, accountability, which at first is scary, becomes a motivation to succeed. Great leaders are accountable to themselves, but also to everyone around them, and understand how to instill that ethos in their team members.
It sounds cliché, but building a great team starts with finding great people. I am a firm believer in a company’s core values, and if a person doesn’t align on those values, it would be very difficult to be successful within an organization. For example, you could have a top performer, a true subject matter expert with a strong track record but they don’t treat people with respect or aren’t team players. They may have short term success but in the long term would not develop or grow within the company, unless they made changes. If your goal is to develop great leaders, you need to think long term and make sure your team members have strong skillsets but also fit into, and enhance, the company culture.
While it is imperative that, as a leader, you are supportive of your team, your most important job is to provide straightforward guidance and feedback to help your team become better leaders. Now, that doesn’t mean being openly critical or embarrassing team members when they make a mistake (which will happen to everyone) but it does entail having meaningful, and regular, one on one conversations to ensure that team members are learning from their experiences and getting better. A great way to handle feedback is to play back the situation and say “here is how I would have handled it” and then discuss whether they agree with that approach. Ultimately, your team members need to own their approach but they need to know that you are always there for them and are supportive. One of the most difficult things to do as a manager is to step back and allow your team to make mistakes. But that is the only way they can grow. As a manager you have to find a way of being well informed of all the details but not micro-manage, a very difficult balance to strike.
Bottom line, great leaders cannot become great unless they are empowered and that requires a confident manager who is interested in developing talent. As a manager, you need to provide a soft landing and support at all times, but ultimately, team members need to be empowered to make meaningful decisions. Early on it is imperative that team members dive in and learn the product and how the business works, as well as establish relationships across the organization. Often times growing leaders try to make too many decisions too quickly before they truly understand the business. For that reason it is imperative that expectations are set early – great leaders cannot develop without a solid foundation and there is no shortcut to learning a business – the time needs to be put in at the start. But once someone shows they have the foundation they need to be put in situations that are challenging and force them to stand on their own. A great leader is always there to provide guidance and a helping hand, but just as importantly, is able to create space for someone to operate and forge their own path.
Developing great leaders takes time and patience. Like raising children or coaching a little league team, it is very fulfilling to see team members grow flourish as they take on more responsibility. It’s good for business and just feels good – and if you check both those boxes, then that makes you a great leader as well.