Leadership is a skill that everyone should learn. Saying “everyone is a leader” sounds like a platitude, but it’s true: you don’t need to be a manager to be a leader. If you do manage a team, however, being an effective leader is even more important.
Good leadership is probably the single most important skill in business. Companies exist because people working together can achieve more than individuals can alone. And yet despite both the prevalence and the importance of leadership, most of us probably learn leadership skills by accident.
I started my first company while I was in high school. I did well at school, but I quickly learned that being a Straight-A student does not make someone a good leader. There are plenty of heart surgeons, rocket scientists and lawyers who are excellent at what they do, but wouldn’t necessarily make effective leaders.
Describing myself as an effective leader today, I feel, would be premature. I am definitely still learning. I have made many mistakes and learned from them along the way.
Part of the leadership journey is learning to listen. It is a critical skill for leaders for two reasons. First, it’s fairly obvious that having an accurate understanding of an issue is important for making an effective decision. But secondly – counterintuitively – it’s harder to get an accurate understanding as a leader. You may have access to teams of people, to dozens of reports, and to much more information, but leaders often receive a very biased perspective.
That is because we often tell someone what we think they want to hear. It causes less tension that way. People understandably might not want to share all their problems or concerns with “management”. It’s also often easier to share good news rather than bad news. But these tendencies are dangerous and as a leader you need to seek out dissenting voices and really listen to understand their perspective. It’s hard to try and empathise with someone who disagrees with you, but those are the opportunities to learn.
We have tried a number of ways to promote honest and critical conversation at GO1. Candor is inscribed as one of our company’s values. We work really hard to ensure that people are comfortable voicing their opinions and, by doing so, helping improve what we do.
For example, we have a weekly whole-of-company meeting where any staff member can ask anyone else a question. It’s a great opportunity to share what’s new across the business and for people to share what they think needs to change. Guess how many questions or suggestions for change get posed to me each week?
It’s almost always zero.
That doesn’t mean we’re excelling at everything or that there’s no need for improvement. What it means is that we’re not yet very good at asking questions.
Fortunately, another strategy has worked much better. Every few months we run an anonymous internal survey. We typically get close to full participation across the business, and through that survey we get really good honest feedback that helps us improve. The next challenge is how we create a culture that makes this an everyday occurrence.
Of equal importance to listening is a leader’s ability to communicate. The role of a leader is to take people on a journey, for example when defining the company’s strategic vision. Communication is critical for leaders, no matter whether they are a manager or not, and no matter the topic being considered.
For a very long time I thought that defining a vision or mission, or articulating our company values, was a wishy-washy exercise that held little benefit.
How wrong I was. A company’s purpose may be clear to the founding team and early employees, but as we grew we took far too long to clearly share our mission and update our strategies with the wider team. We are not alone with this mistake. When Facebook was two years old a large amount of the company quit when Mark Zuckerberg turned down an acquisition offer from Yahoo. Why? Because the team didn’t share Zuckerberg’s conviction and belief in what they were doing.
As a founder, communication is critical and there are a number of different audiences that you need to consider. You have to communicate to staff and potential new hires – creating a shared vision for the business. You have to communicate to customers. And you might have to communicate to investors.
While communication sounds easy, it can be particularly difficult. Effective communication should be measured not by how well you said something, but instead by how well someone understood your message.
This can be made even more difficult because some of the best ideas sound so counter-intuitive – they can be even harder to communicate. Ten years ago, it was common wisdom to never meet people from the internet or hop into a stranger’s car. Now we literally summon strangers from the internet to get lifts in their cars. Or think of the Airbnb founders pitching their idea of a marketplace of air beds to potential investors. Explaining the benefit of cheap air beds to crash on to a venture capitalist used to staying in 5-star hotels would have required incredible communication skills.
Effective communication is critically important for leaders at all stages of an organisation’s life: from startup to scale up.
For anyone rising into a leadership position it is important to continually seek out ways to challenge not only yourself, but your team and your goals. An effective leader doesn’t just set goals to achieve them, they constantly seek feedback and inspire those around them to do the same.
About the author
Andrew Barnes is the co-founder and CEO of online onboarding, compliance and professional development platform GO1.com. He is a Rhodes Scholar, studied education technology at Oxford University, and holds a PhD in Business Management at the University of Queensland. Barnes and his co-founder secured $4 million in funding from Shark Tank’s Steve Baxter, Tank Stream Ventures and Blue Sky Ventures enabling them to continue expanding their offices across the world. He previously wrote Diversity can be a double-edged sword when businesses don’t have systems to harness it and Entrepreneurial success is impossible without creativity: ‘zig when others zag’ and more tips.