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What makes a leader?
On a recent Between the Bytes podcast, we spoke with Joe Bird, general manager of the Seattle office of Executech and a leadership trainer, about his approach to leadership, corporate culture, and what it takes to make a good leader.
Joe is a professional with global experience. Originally from England, he spent 8 years working across the social sector in India, which culminated in becoming CEO of a travel company in Mumbai and Delhi. As he notes,
“There’s nothing like becoming the boss to find out what you don’t know about yourself.”
After becoming “a bit of a nerd” and devouring every leadership book he could find, Joe got his MBA from Berkeley and began searching for work that was aligned with his values. A call from an old friend landed him with us, even though he’s admittedly not a tech guy. Now, with Birkenstocks and Doc Martins firmly in place, he shares some of the leadership lessons he’s learned along the way.
Learning about a new field
When Joe came to Executech, he was new to IT. What he did bring is a quality that’s essential for any leader – curiosity.
“My leadership style has always been that of a servant leader – to get in front of things and lead by example… I am never going to ask [my team] to do something I’m unwilling to do myself. I couldn’t do that here because getting in front of the team would mean getting in front of the technology…The first thing I had to do was accept my limitations and reimagine how I would lead this team.”
He started by asking the IT professionals lots of questions:
- Why did you do that?
- What were you thinking when you did this?
- What does this do?
- Why do we have to do that?
That demonstrated both humility and a willingness to learn from his team.
In the long run, Joe believes that not having a background in an industry that you are leading has some benefits. It prevents a leader from micromanaging or taking too much on themselves because they simply have to trust the experience of their team.
Living company values
All too often, company values are just words on a wall. Those values should be so much more. They should become a shared language that an organization uses to give feedback, exchange perspectives, and focus on what it’s trying to achieve. However, values are only effective if employees have bought into them. The organization has to walk the walk. They have to make values a part of daily conversation, and incorporate them into things like annual reviews, quarterly development reviews, and assessing performance. The best organizations use values as metrics and as a means of guiding how they think about what they’re doing.
How do you develop core values where none exist?
He says to begin with what you’re trying to achieve. Link the values to your mission and to a cohesive sense of identity for your business. That takes time.
“The temptation for leaders who want to go 100 mph to get things done; to scribble some stuff on a piece of paper and stick it on the website,”
he notes. What’s critical to the success of those values is buy-in. Facilitate conversations with employees about what they would like to see represented in your corporate values. Listen to what they feel is important. The best way to get people bought into anything and particularly something as large as values that will run through the core of the company for many years is to give people an active part in the process of creating and developing them.
Ultimately, Joe says, it’s about action.
- How do we enact company values?
- What are the best practices for communicating them?
- How do we make them a part of our everyday language?
At Executech, it starts with a senior leadership retreat and we’re looking at building a leadership academy.
“So many of the people who represent our organization are our techs,” Joe notes, “so it’s very important that they are empowered with these values and aware of them and I think that comes through their immediate managers.”
Those managers should embody the corporate values, and they can’t do that unless they are trained on what they are and how to communicate them – not just in words, but in actions as well. That’s why the concept of a leadership academy is vital. As employees step up into leadership, they move from being an individual contributor where they should hopefully be grounded in the values. However, they are not representing the company management and value amongst their colleagues until they move up. When they become managers, they are suddenly the embodiment of the leadership team and its messages. Instilling those values through leadership training becomes essential.
Taking on a leadership role
We asked Joe what he would tell someone who is stepping into a leadership role. He mentioned the authenticity paradox, which talks about two ways of communicating. One is being true to yourself irrespective of both environment and audience. The second, a high self-monitor, will be authentic but will be aware of who they’re talking to and they will frame their message accordingly.
“I think so often the challenge of stepping into leadership is to start to monitor yourself more. Working through the training at Executech, we came to an understanding that maybe it’s not a dichotomy of being one or the other, it’s recognizing that there’s a sliding scale. As a leader talking to your peers, you know you can be your authentic self a bit more, warts and all. When you’re representing the leadership team to folks you manage, you have to think more about monitoring your behavior. For example, maybe you’re pushing through an idea that you voted against, but it passed. Now it’s important to get on board with the team and represent more than just yourself. As a new leader, getting your head around that is quite tricky.”
“I think the second thing is really to ask for feedback and to find out a way of asking for feedback which doesn’t put someone on the spot. It can be intimidating to give feedback to your boss. One of the productive things that I found was using a phrase like ‘is there anything I should be thinking about differently,’ because that leads with the assumption that there is something.”
Joe has gone into outward-facing IT meetings and asked his customer success team to give him feedback at the end, saying that he is new to these types of IT meetings. That helps employees feel comfortable giving feedback and it also helps his growth as a leader.
Unified yet unique?
At Executech, as with many other organizations in this age of remote work, there are multiple offices across the country. We asked Joe how he creates a unique culture in Seattle that is still reflective of overarching corporate values.
“You want to build an ‘us’ but in building an ‘us,’ you don’t want to create a ‘them’ and have this concept of us being different or separate, because that can create tension and resistance to folks outside of your region.”
Frequent interactions with senior management – whether in person or remotely – give the team opportunities to come together. Joe’s Seattle team has a remote happy hour on Thursdays that allows team members in Oregon and overseas to get to know each other.
“There’s some magic in coming together. There’s some kind of alchemy in getting people in the same room. We try to build that sense of camaraderie.”
We asked Joe who or what has had the biggest impact on him in terms of leadership.
“I think the founder of the organization that I ended up managing in India was big for me. It’s hard coming in with a founder still being present in a company… it’s kind of like looking after someone else’s child, isn’t it? He was the opposite. His go-to phrase was” ‘I got things going, and now I’m handing it over to the professionals.’ We had some very big decisions to make very quickly at a very high strategic level that would impact the organization for many years, and he empowered us to make them. We were given free rein and given the trust to go forward and do it. Everybody I’ve met in leadership has that sense of doubt, that imposter syndrome, at times. To have someone who believed in you that much was a really nice way of ironing that out a bit.”
Joe was offered the role of CEO and initially turned it down.
“I said, ‘Put this out to the universe and let’s see what comes through and maybe then consider me as a candidate.’ He said. ‘This is why I want you to lead the company, and I don’t need to look any further.’ Having someone believe in me like that was empowering. He welcomed and encouraged me to stretch my leadership muscles and that had a huge impact on me. It really was a springboard to give myself permission to think of myself as a leader and to continue to pursue that at higher and higher levels.”
Moving forward, Joe believes continuing to learn from others is vital to leadership development.
“I’m very lucky to have a group of peers of other general managers who do things differently, that’s incredibly valuable. We differ a lot in our experience as leaders, so we bring a lot of different perspectives. Meeting those people with humility and curiosity allows me to absorb ideas. Similarly, I’m still a nerd. The only reason my apartment building echoes a little bit less is because it’s now full of books. I do take a lot of time to read. One of the things I’ve tried to do is read more articles and fewer books, because I think you can get the gist of many ideas in a shorter amount of time. I think just being exposed to new ideas is really important.”
Joe recommends an app called POCKET for articles, which allows him to tag articles for future reference and recommends articles based on what he has read in the past. No matter where you are in your career, as Joe notes, curiosity and a desire to learn is what it takes to make a good leader.
This article was written from one of our Between the Bytes podcast episodes. There are many more leadership tips than we could fit in this blog on the complete podcast. You can find all of our episodes here!