One of my favorite parts of writing a weekly leadership column is getting to talk to and interview the world’s best execs and founders making it happen.
My aim is not self-serving. Collecting anecdotal evidence of what effective, real-world human leadership looks like has been a labor of love in a sincere effort to help change the world, one leader at a time.
This piece is no exception. Over the last few weeks, I’ve retrieved some fantastic wisdom and advice from four executives demonstrating remarkable leadership in the trenches of their respective companies:
Ajeet Singh, Executive Chairman and co-founder of ThoughtSpot
I was clearly impressed by some of the human-centered strategies and approaches they employ to engage and motivate their workers’ hearts and minds.
So what does real leadership look like? Here are the results of email exchanges and conversations I’ve had with these exceptional leaders.
1. Real leaders treat every person like he or she matters.
Ralf Jacob runs one of the biggest media arms in the world — Verizon Digital Media Services. Under his leadership, Verizon DMS has grown rapidly, expanding into Latin America, the Middle East and Africa.
Jacob learned early on from playing competitive sports that every single person on the team matters, no matter their role or responsibility. This philosophy in practice means leading by listening, or what Jacob calls his own “open door, open ear” policy.
“I’m available to discuss anything with anyone — whether a direct report or not — and I actively practice listening more than I talk,” Jacob told me. “It’s not always easy to have this type of policy. It means that sometimes, I must place my own obligations on the back burner to ensure someone else has the space to freely express what’s on their mind.”
As with most positive cultures rooted in authenticity and transparency, strong emotions in working relationships are par for the course. While it can be downright distressing at times to deal with personalities, at the end of the day, “you have to create a company culture that’s rooted in respect and trust from the beginning,” says Jacob.
He shared another practice not commonly found in traditional management circles: “I frequently hold small roundtable discussions with employees to get a pulse on how everyone feels. Within these meetings, I encourage everyone to express their thoughts and concerns. I want to create a safe environment where employees know they’re heard and their opinions are valued.”
Like all exceptional human-centered leaders, this is in Jacob’s DNA. He says he wouldn’t change these strategies for the world, as it has given him the opportunity to learn more about his team, their needs, and the business he leads.
2. Real leaders rally everyone to serve their customers.
Kristo Ovaska, co-founder and CEO of Smartly.io, the leading Facebook Performance Marketing Platform for agencies & performance marketers, has created a whole culture of service where every single person does customer support, himself included (for several hours every week).
Ovaska says it’s a practice any company can benefit from — to innovate, keep up market fit with their product, help people do their jobs better, and create collaboration internally.
Dedicating everyone to customer support helps Smartly.io to “walk the walk” of being customer-first; they can translate feedback into new software features that much faster. Rotating people through customer support also creates cross-department and -office collaboration where marketers and engineers work as a team.
Don’t excuse this “all hands support” strategy as some short-lived fad reserved for a 10-person startup working in one room. Plenty of successful companies — Basecamp, Slack, Stripe, Olark, Zapier and others — are committed to having every person, regardless of job title, spend some time talking directly to customers and solving problems for them.
For Smartly.io, Ovaska credits their financial success in part to this approach. In just a five-year period, Smartly.io has grown to nearly 200 employees across 7 countries and has racked up 600+ customers, including Uber, eBay, Fabletics and Hopper.
Ultimately, for this customer support strategy to work at any company, leadership has to believe it’s valuable, and be willing to get their own hands dirty too.
3. Real leaders strive to create a culture of meritocracy.
Jim Whitehurst, CEO of Red Hat, the world’s leading provider of open source enterprise IT software solutions and services, has found a cultural sweet spot in the practice of meritocracy.
At Red Hat, the most influential voices aren’t necessarily a reflection of any person’s title or longevity within the company.
“The most respected individuals tend to be those who not only have a track record of being authentic and hard-working, but also have a reputation for voicing unique, successful ideas and earning the respect of those around them,” says Whitehurst.
Smart “Red Hatters” will readily act on smart input from other smart Red Hatters, which not only makes the business better, it generates a huge side benefit: “Thoughtful people who like to be engaged want to work for companies who listen,” says Whitehurst.
A culture of meritocracy also guides potential and future leaders of Red Hat to forge their own path and gain influence based on their own merit, regardless of their rank or title.
4. Real leaders foster an environment of “selfless excellence.”
Ajeet Singh, Executive Chairman and co-founder of ThoughtSpot, a leading search and AI-driven analytics company based in Palo Alto, CA, built a culture founded on the value of selfless excellence.
Sounds squishy but in practice, Singh finds that it has a competitive advantage. It’s all about the team “W” absent of rock stars looking for the spotlight. There is also zero tolerance for company politics; the focus of selfless excellence is truly on the impact one brings to the company. Here’s Singh in an email response:
“We strive for excellence in everything we do, not for personal gain or glory, but because we want to win as a team. It’s a culture we live every single day in the company, from the way I run my executive meetings down to how we address technical product issues. That said, I am not and should not be the only enabler of selfless excellence at ThoughtSpot. Everyone is expected to do what they can to fix problems, capitalize on new opportunities, and drive the business forward because they want ThoughtSpot to succeed, and not because they want individual recognition.
This means that on any given day, you’ll see engineers jumping in on a project that isn’t theirs in order to meet a deadline; customer success managers will work together to implement a new product or feature for a customer.
Singh’s team reinforces selfless excellence through various means, like a Slack channel where any individual can give a public shoutout for a colleague who demonstrated selfless excellence; a quarterly “selfless excellence award,” given to an employee selected by a jury of their peers for embodying selfless excellence; and cash prizes and equity in the company.
ThoughtSpot’s dedication to selfless excellence not only drives a sense of teamwork and partnership throughout the company, Singh says, “It also prevents barriers from arising between departments, teams, or individuals that can throttle innovation and kill a fast growing company like ThoughtSpot.”
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