Learning to Lead

Up until some time in October 2014, Octane was the figurative and literal one-man-band — fighting the good fight, but nurturing an ambition to grow. Then, over the course of the following November, I was an employer for the first time.

I had intended taking on a single employee to help me with a nascent internal project, the Under Cloud, but given it was — for the most part — both a new experience and a complete leap into the dark, I took on two employees, both acquired via (and from) the University of Sheffield.

How not to be a boss!

Perhaps more important to me at that time — at that moment of becoming an employer — was to avoid becoming the boss I had so long ago.

I had a terrible experience as an employee, and at the time of that acrimonious departure, I made a promise to myself that I would never become like the person I worked for. But it was a learning process, one that taught me that in spite of the terrible experience, we had followed a similar path.

What separated us was the application of those experiences and the value we derived from them.

In the end, it was a choice: choose to be broken by those experiences; or break the cycle and turn those experiences into a blueprint for something positive.

I chose the latter option.

Lessons in leadership

A trick I use is to step outside of myself and look beyond the bubble of ownership and management, because sometimes the passion I have translates as frustration when things aren’t moving fast enough, or despair when those I engage with lack the same zeal as me.

So it’s about remaining human, humane, grounded, real, focused, trusted — a windswept, rugged island of calm in the teeth of a raging storm. I know, that last part is a bit dramatic, but it’s apt, because while I have several decades of experience to draw upon, those who work for me do not, and I must be that singular point of calm to their storm.

Personal experience aside, I am a relative newcomer to this employer thing! Yes, I have mentors to turn to, such as the wonderful Karen Guile, the owner of Tobook Limited, a client of Octane’s. But in the end, it’s a path I — and anyone else in my position — has to walk alone.

I get it, don’t allow employees to become too familiar. I see the argument and I understand the logic, but it’s not me, and it’s not how I was as an employee, either, because I questioned (and continue to question) almost everything.

Questions are good!

I’d rather be the target of a barrage of pointed, reasoned, logical questions, than a participant in an awkward silence emerging from a lack of action, resulting in a poor performance.

Projects live and die by three things:

  1. Planning;
  2. Communication;
  3. Execution.

While we keep doing those 3 things, we won’t often go far wrong.

Which brings me to performance, and it also ties in with the lack of (but fast-growing) experience I (don’t) have when it comes to employing people.

Role reversal

Now, for some of you reading this article, imagining yourself as an employee shouldn’t be too difficult because that’s what you are!

But think for a moment:

  • Those things you do which you wish you didn’t have to.
  • Or those things that get foisted onto you when a little sharing would have been a big help.
  • Then there are those who get nudged out of position, a bit like Wayne Rooney playing out on the left wing; why squander the striking talent of the lad when he was born for the forward position? Play people to their strengths!

You get the idea.

I don’t want — or need — to be that boss who hands down from on high things with an avuncular scowl of pre-emptive disappointment.

However, at the same time, I need to know what else an employee is capable of doing. Stress is a revealing environment, which might forge a metallic edge to a person, or make them shrink like a flower in the shadows. I got florid again, didn’t I?

So it’s a balancing act: place them in a stressful environment, or under pressure (not quite the same thing), but be there for them. In either instance, I ask if it’s something they want to do.

Failure isn’t such a bad thing until we stop learning from it, or we become afraid of it.

Leading by example

We know from personal experience that finding enjoyment in what we do is vital. But not everything we do is a rib-tickling festival of mirth and merriment.

So how do I mitigate this?

I share the entire strategies I have with the team, which is sometimes overwhelming, but at least the journey is known.

It’s rare that I might withhold something (perhaps financial), because I believe that censorship of information is often (but not always) more harmful than sharing.

Then we talk about activities, and I ask questions such as:

  • “Do you want to do this?”
  • “Does this make sense to you?”
  • “Here’s how I do things, but what would be best for you?”
  • “Would it help if I gave you a hand?”

Sometimes, it’s about maintaining momentum, understanding the terrain, and knowing when to lead by example.

In short, I sometimes get stuck in and do the horrible things, freeing the team up to do the things I’m paying them to do.

Then I’ll do something which some might find unusual — I conduct a reverse performance review by asking: “How am I doing?”

I don’t often make demands, but I demand an honest answer to that question, and I make a point of teasing out the observations and drilling down to the specifics. Sometimes, it’s about them, but then sometimes it’s about me, and if I agree and it makes sense, I fix that.

Everyone has to be engaged, and feel part of the journey and not an incidental passenger, or a mere cog in a machine.

Look, I make no claim to be the perfect boss, nor am I aspiring to be that (perfection is impossible, but that’s for another time). Instead, first and foremost, I’m attempting to be boss that I’d work for and then build from there.

Got questions? Ask!
Speak to me, Wayne, for a free, no-obligation chat.

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