Questions to ask a mentor
It feels presumptuous to be writing about leadership and team development, given the breadth and depth of distinguished research and commentary that exists on the subject, but perhaps there are useful learnings and insights to be gleaned from my experience as a mentor, part-time CEO, non-executive chairman and founder of entrepreneurial creative businesses. And, tangentially, from my experience of yoga; I often bore and perhaps baffle business leaders with the statement by the great teacher Sri Krishna Pattabhi Jois that yoga is 1 per cent theory and 99 per cent practice. The formula applies equally to leadership.
So, when people ask 'how can I be a better leader' where can they start?
To start with, it is worth revisiting a well-worn distinction - between leadership and management. It's a real issue in early-stage companies, not least because the size of the team frequently means these two functions have to be performed by the same person. A founder may drive the business strategically - but also give instructions to a small team of developers or designers, who are necessarily too young and inexperienced to manage themselves.
Plus, there is no-one else to do it. Even when there's more than one business owner, the usual scenario is that sometime early on in getting the business going the question was asked 'who's going to run this thing' and the others took a pace backwards, leaving the most organised and numerate one in the frame. I call this person The Reluctant MD and they are everywhere in creative businesses.
This awkward hybrid, the leader/manager, can helm a fledgling creative enterprise only so far along the path of growth, until it reaches a point in size and complexity where leadership and management add up to more than one full-time job. One common solution is for the person to work the hours of one-and-a-half people; again, we all know people like this. We also know that it is not sustainable. Stress, exhaustion, botched home lives, tattered relationships, anxiety, indecision and errors at work are the recurring symptoms of this state.
So leadership must be separated from management, sooner or later, for the sake of everyone's sanity and good health. My own prescription for this malaise is to develop the more capable and mature people on the team to run the business, together as a team, day-to-day. Generally, they are already there, invariably being held down in positions that are unequal to their abilities; held down by 'flat' organisational structures, by control-obsessed founders and reactive short-term thinking. The most demanding task is always to get the leader/manager to trust their team; to learn how to delegate, empower and let go. It's a massive emotional wrench for many owners, convinced that they are the only person who can run the business.
So, if it is possible to free up a founder to become a leader, what do they need in order to play that role? It's a long list, so I'll focus on three things that I think are essential; Vision, Self-Management and Getting Out of the Way.
There's an old adage that you cannot lead if you don't know where you're going. Correct. Yet it is surprising how many entrepreneurs have no image of where they want to get to. They often have numbers - for turnover, net profit, staff numbers, how many international offices or whatever - but no real sense of what the destination looks and feels like.
I get them to draw pictures, which some find surprisingly difficult. Vision is, literally, an image - however crude - of the thing you want to create. Most leaders could, if they chose, get a secure, comfortable well-paid full-time job. So they have chosen this much harder path for a reason. They're heading somewhere, and I work with them to make them aware of it.
Vision doesn't only give the leader a sense of purpose, meaning and direction. It is crucial in defining a differentiated offer and positioning for the business. It is essential to motivate and inspire the team. And it leads to road maps and business plans - the practical instruments for organising the realisation of Vision, the getting-there.
How do I build and develop the best team? Start with managing yourself.
Self-Management might seem an odd thing for a leader to focus on. But you soon see its importance when a leader lacks it. The Greek Stoic philosopher Epictetus kicked off this line of thinking two and a half millennia ago, but it's best summed up in this 19th Century version: "Who is fit to govern others? He who governs himself." You cannot lead others effectively if you are not aware of, and actively managing, your own emotional state. If your internal workings tend towards insecurity and anxiety, you will be a autocratic controlling and un-trusting leader who repeatedly slips back into managing others' work for them. If you are needy and insecure your leadership will be distorted by wanting people to like you and your desire for approbation will engender weak decision-making and indulgence of under-performing favourites. The individual variations are infinite, but the core principle remains the same.
Finally, the necessity of Getting Out of The Way. I'm indebted here to the influential business philosopher Peter Koestenbaum, who has stated that a key function of a leader is to develop the individual freedom of the others. When working as a business leader, it is my goal- and I fail, frequently - to never tell anyone what to do. That's a manager's job. The leader ensures that the conditions - organisational structure, processes, infrastructure, clarity of roles and responsibilities, training and personal development, culture etc - are all in place to enable the individuals on the team to do, to their highest ability, what they are here to do. There may well be some upfront work needed to help those individuals see clearly the thing that they are here, in this business, to do; that in itself is a job for the empathetic leader.
But once all those conditions are in place there is absolutely no doubt about the leader's next action. They have to get out of the way. And find the next challenge for the business, the next steps on the journey, the latest iteration of the Vision. Once the team really get going, it's back to the drawing board for the leader.
Steve Taylor is part-time chief executive of The Neighbourhood and a Nesta Creative Business Mentor Network mentor