Do you remember when you were a kid, walking around in your Jelly shoes, rocking the slap bracelets, just trying to fit in? Your playground friend would pop her gum and say, “I love ‘N Sync so much.” And you’d nod your head vigorously for fear that rocking the boat might get you shunned from the lunch table. But secretly, you did bedroom karaoke to Sugar Ray and Jon Bon Jovi. You pretended to be like everyone else because who knows what would happen if you risked being yourself.
That insecurity was understandable when you were, you know, in pigtails. But there’s a point where the things you love in private are the things you should love in public, where you realize it’s more fruitful and rewarding to be yourself than it is to be a carbon copy of someone else.
And this isn’t just wisdom for your 11-year-old, socially awkward self. It’s sage advice for any business leader. Why? Because you’ll never get anywhere new by simply following in the footsteps of those before you. Those trails have already been blazed.
In today’s world, it isn’t the heads down, zipped lip, cookie cutter leaders that dominate. It’s the bitches, the oddballs, the “crazies” who create amazing cultures and teams. Their cultures are rooted in the acceptance of opposing opinions, honesty and the celebration of ideas — no matter how quirky they may be.
Stop Trying to Recreate Success (You Can’t)
You will never have the exact culture Buffer does. You can share your employees’ salaries, you can post your quarterly income online, you can have a team that’s spread across the globe. But you’ll still never be able to recreate that exact culture. You’ll never be Leo Widrich and Joel Gascoigne.
Trying to simply recreate someone else’s success is lethal to modern leaders. It’s a breeding ground for mediocre ideas, cautious employees, and inevitable failure. You’ll never accomplish anything ground-breaking if you’re not willing to, well, break ground. If you do exactly as those before you did, you’ll end up exactly where they did – invariably.
There’s something unique about you. You have the ability to create a culture that’s unlike anyone else’s. Don’t be afraid to explore your options or get creative just because it’s uncharted territory. Maybe it’s establishing a work-from-where-you’re-most-productive policy (that’s our mandate at Onboardly) or taking the time to create a culture manifesto (like they did at Holstee). That’s what makes your culture unique, that’s what makes you worth joining.
To figure out what makes you unique, as a founder, start by asking yourself:
What kind of work environment do I want to create?
Is our company results-based or are specific work hours important?
What shared beliefs or values does the core team have?
Does the team share common interests outside of work?
How would the team handle someone who brought negativity into the company?
How are we going to inspire others to stay innovative / ahead of the curve?
Answering questions like these will help you define the core culture of your organization. Be purposeful about creating a culture you’ll love. But here’s the thing: make sure it’s unique to you.
Otherwise, people would just go work for Buffer. Or Holstee. (Or Zappos… Or Moz…) They were practicing their specific breed of leadership style and culture first — and they’re doing their thing better than you ever could. And that’s ok. It’s their thing.
I say go ahead — draw inspiration from the best, but focus on creating something special and unique to you.
Most Leaders Want to Hear Their Opinions in Another Voice
Bill Cosby once said that women don’t want their husbands’ opinions, they just want to hear their own opinions in a deeper voice. (Ew, right?) Well, sexist reference aside, when it comes to leadership — this is often true.
The fastest way to build a “me too” culture? Employ a bunch of yes men. Even worse, employ a bunch of intrapreneurs, give them the illusion of autonomy and then shatter it whenever they happen to disagree with you. You’d never do that though, right?
Unfortunately, most leaders don’t know that they’re doing it until it’s too late. When we ask for opinions, we genuinely believe we want to hear them. And then we throw out phrases like, “I was thinking about that, but…” or “Yeah, along those lines, except…” or “That might be too out of the box for us right now…”
Hire passionate creatives, tell them your story, sell them on the problem and get the hell out of their way. Or hire passionate creatives, tell them someone else’s story, sell them on the problem and make sure you’re as obtrusive as possible. You’ll lose top performers faster than Yahoo lost its work from home policy.
If you want to encourage a culture of collaboration and open dialogue, you need to lead by example. Make 1-on-1 time for every employee that reports to you. When you’re still a small team, you have the luxury of doing this frequently. During that time, always listen more than you speak.
Ask how they’re doing personally and professionally. What are they struggling with? What are they working towards? What have they done that’s amazing recently? Are they happy? Do they have any cool side projects or new ideas for the company? Ask questions and really listen to the answers.
Your role as a leader is to set the vision and empower your employees to be the best versions of themselves. Get to know them as people, understand their goals and their motivations, and work regularly to help them succeed. Once they know that you care, everything changes (in the best way).
“Me Too” Cultures Are Easy
I get it. Really I do. Running a company is no breeze and it’s much easier to hedge your bets by dipping into a well that’s already been tapped rather than striking out on your own. But if you really want to have a culture that’s truly unique — you’ll need to dig your own well.
It’s time to let go of those playground insecurities. As a leader, you want to be shunned from that lunch table. You want people talking all about how you’re rocking out to Sugar Ray and Jon Bon Jovi.
Remember, you can’t blow an uncertain trumpet. Don’t quietly tell your story at career fairs and to your closest friends. Pick up a megaphone and start screaming!
It’s easy to fit in. It’s easy to be a top-down leader, to establish a culture of “me too”. It’s easy to hire people who will agree with you 100% of the time, who will never argue because you’re the boss. It’s easy to keep your head down and push pencils. But nothing easy is worth doing. Mediocrity is the price of easy.
You deserve better. Your team deserves better. Your company deserves better! You could be so much better than average… if you just let yourself be. The world is your stage and it’s karaoke night. Just please don’t sing another rendition of Bye, Bye, Bye.
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Heather Anne Carson is the President & Co-Founder of Onboardly. The ultimate ‘people person’ and feisty redhead, Heather’s focus is on cultivating relationships between brands and influencers and translating client goals into actionable campaigns through PR and influencer marketing.
Dedicated to client success, Heather pours passion and insight into every client project, inspiring her team to deliver exceptional results. Her leadership philosophy is simple: inspire the people around you and anything becomes possible.
She believes that results are all about hard work and genuine relationships. As a result, she’s helped Onboardly’s clients secure coverage in publications like Inc, Entrepreneur, New York Times Magazine, Forbes, The NextWeb, TechCrunch, PandoDaily, TechCocktail, Mashable and many more. Follow her @heatheranne.
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