I have had the fortunate opportunity to have had great mentors and people I look up to throughout my life so far. From my observations, great leaders are individuals are people who are grounded in some kind of fixed principles that include unforgiving work ethic, mentorship and a desire in the work they do is making a bigger impact to the world than just the company’s bottom line.
These are leaders who have made enormous sacrifices to their personal lives and dedicated their time to the aforementioned principles for the betterment of others, in what I like to refer to as ‘scaling good’. Their belief is that if you can ‘scale good’, then everything will work out in the end, most of the time. All the turmoil and stressed experienced in-between would be worth it. In so much I have observed, these individual’s personal lives have suffered, relationships have deteriorated, they have lost friends and their own personal health has deteriorated in some ways.
Sounds awful. Why would anyone sign up for this torment?
I think it goes back to the old age argument that leaders are born and I believe while you can “teach task leadership” those who aren’t born with it, the best ‘trained leaders’ can rise to is ‘task managers’. These individuals are extremely useful, and needed in organizations, but are not the leaders people are looking for.
In every organization I have been part of, firstly I would not have applied unless the company was working on something worthwhile. Secondly, I join companies because of the leader(s). Jobs are a dime a dozen, and I’ll outline situations where leaders leave and organizations crumble.
So what does an unforgiving work ethic look like?
Companies are like military units, I’ll admit I don’t know much military leadership other than some of the books I’ve read or the movies I have seen. Particularly in sales but can apply to any other role. The people you lead need to respect, trust and understand their leader completely understands all the pain points of their jobs; they need to be able to genuinely show empathy and just not say it. The military wouldn’t parachute in a leader who isn’t from that unit or division, and companies tend to make this mistake often.
Leadership is hard earned. It’s earned from doing the same job/tasks/processes; slaving away with the same gripes as the people you want to lead. Leaders need to rise from the teams they lead (if it’s organic or at the very least a leader who has the exact experience from the same industry with the same operations/processes).
For example I worked at a company where they parachuted a “call centre” executive to lead one of our teams. Well, just because you have “call centre” experience does not mean you can relate to a complete different industry. First mistake. The leader did not want to do the work of the individuals they lead, which created an atmosphere of resentment and distrust. The results were disastrous, it created cross-functional team friction and ultimately lead to an erosion of the business, because of this bad hire.
On the other hand, there was another individual, Darren, who did not want to necessarily do sales, but that’s the role he started in. He worked hard and eventually lead their team. When he earned more responsibilities; he continued to go out with the sales team, and was in-service to them, instead of his team working hard to produce results for him to gloat about in-front of management. They worked very long hours (not fake work either, legitimately working), scarified personal relationships and outworked everyone in the room, so that despite not being ‘the best salesperson’ he did whatever he could for the team he was representing.
A leader who has an unforgiving work ethic, even their worst enemies would not disagree about their contribution. While many people did not like Darren, many thought they could do his job, it was without question they respected the work he was doing for them.
Leadership is about building great products and services, but also building organizations that outlive the leaders.
We all need to make money. Money is perhaps the majority of why people get up every morning and slug it through a two hour commute in disgusting public transportation or mind numbing gridlock traffic so you can have food and shelter for yourself and your family. Completely legitimate and part of the human condition.
Great leaders are individuals who just want to build great products and services and are indebted to the lives their work touches. They believe the best way to build great products, services and organizations is through mentorship, building the human capital within their organizations, preparing individuals they lead to overtake their roles at some point in the future.
These are leaders who are not fixated on titles, have low self-esteem or are insecure in their roles and are constantly worried about “threats” to their leadership. Great leaders are confident and assured of themselves that they are free to not only show weakness but willing to build up their team so that one day they can be replaced.
I owe a lot to my mentors over the years that include individuals like Richard, Samantha, and Matthew.
Richard was quite the experience. More like shell-shock in my first real job. My first dose of reality came from the first interview where he ripped up my resume, called it garbage, and scolded me for a singular spelling error. In truth I have no one to blame, after all I did make the spelling mistake. Fortunately I have a thick skin, and left the interview feeling disappointed but overall neutral, and just thinking, well if I don’t get this job, at least I’ll never make a spelling error ever again on a resume.
Richard has been my compass in everything I want to be in a leader. After I got the job the first thing he told me is “your word is your bond… I don’t care about anything else” — it has been the credo I have lived by since. What he wanted to instill is do not make a promise unless you are willing to fulfil it, he said ‘when I make a promise, no matter what it will happen’.
During the time I worked with him; he ensured I learned all the knowledge that took him a lifetime to build.
Samantha, was another one of those experience where you hate and love your boss at the same time. Samantha overworked me, set unrealistic expectations, and expected me to fail. This is where the hate part comes from, no one likes failing, but we learn a lot from it. Samantha wanted me to fail, she would put me on projects or thrust me into situations that I had no previous experience in. All sounds sinister, but the way she reacted when I did not meet her unrealistic expectations, was what made her a great leader.
The goal to this madness was to get me outside of my comfort zone (I apologize some people really hate that term), controlled trial and error. When I did not meet her expectations, instead of reprehend me, we would discuss why I chose to do specific things, what she would have done and the types of problem solving steps needed to avoid future failures.
The key here is the difference between how some leaders set-up others to fail to secure their roles, and how other leaders purposely set-up others to fail as a learning experience.
In all of this, Samantha showed empathy, when a project lead to late nights she would put a hard stop to leave the office by, communicated clear feelings on my progress, and reassured her support in me. Samantha during one of our annual reviews told me, ‘I would not have given anything I knew you could not handle’.
Firstly, she would get attacked by her superiors for my failures; but she vehemently defended me and shielded me from direct criticism. This is what leaders do, protect their teams, not throw them under the bus like I have seen so many times. Coward leaders.
I do not make many promises to people, family or friends (to the complaints of many), but when I do, I will show up, and move heaven and earth to make it happen. This also feeds into the unforgiving work ethic. If you make promises to your superiors and more importantly your team, you need to deliver, without question.
Words are worthless. Your friends, family and the people you lead expect results. Your friends want your attention, your family wants your comfort and your team wants a leader that will communicate and defend their interests.
Order takers, talkers and people who do not want to do the work, are the most corrosive people in an organization. These people will always exist, they’re like cockroaches, you cannot get rid of them. When you are building a team, it’s important to build a culture that does not reward these individuals.
If you want a job, McDonalds is always hiring. We are on this earth for a very short period of time, and you will spend most of your time at work. Do you really want to spend this time pushing paper? I certainly have never wanted too.
I have been really fortunate to have managed to find leaders that I admire. I join companies mostly based on who I would report to than the company. The last company I was with, if someone else was in that interview room, I would have walked out and never come back. The company intrigued me enough to apply, the job was a hard no, but I stayed because I realized the value I could extract working with such a talented leader.
There was a time where I was tricked into a job, because the manager I would report to was amazing, but unfortunately the company was not, which I found out after I started working there. As soon as she left, I felt like I was pushing paper and had to find an exit.
I have always tried really hard to find a company that is working on something innovative and looking to make a difference, in trying to making people’s lives better. When you align your personal beliefs with what the company is working on, it makes coming into work so much easier.
In my last job, I was working over 96 hours per week, 7 days a week, 365 days per year. When I started at my last role I was actually working part-time because I was with Toronto 2015, so I was working around the clock, but I would literally race over to work in the evenings at this company. Never did I ever get tired, or burnt out, because I worked with the best team I have ever worked with, the work was challenging and rewarding and we were building an amazing product.
Then came a time, where I was working the same amount of hours, with the same team, but I was exhausted, and could barely get into work. One of my friends asked me ‘what’s changed’ I said ‘nothing material, I guess the business has changed slightly, but I am still working with the same awesome team’. I started to realize the culture at the company was starting to become toxic, the vision for the company had changed, and subconsciously I could sense all of this, and it was my mind and body telling me it’s time to leave.
One person at this awful company once gave me advice, during salary negotiations with my team ‘if people like what they do and are challenged, then how much money they make isn’t important’. I believe this but it was disingenuous for her because she only believed it because it was a way for her to justify not paying people well. Scam, warning sign for terrible leadership.
Work for companies that are ‘scaling-good’, whether that’s charitable organizations or for profit businesses that are innovating to make a difference in the world we live in.
You need to interview the people you will be working with more than they interview you. Your time is valuable. It is the most precious commodity you will ever own. Once you use up time, you never get it back. You can always make more money, but you can’t make more time.
The key to all of this is leadership. I will never work for sub-par leaders, and neither should you. It’s a waste of time.