In a 2017 essay, Morgan Housel makes the point that great, timeless businesses are built on top of assumptions that never change. He gives Amazon as a prime example, and quotes Jeff Bezos saying that customers will always care about vast selection and fast delivery. The opposite, after all, is absurd: no one wants little choice and slow delivery. This is not to say that Amazon is not an innovative company – rather, that its raison d'être is rooted on things that don't change.
If you work in the technology space, and particularly in a tech startup, you know how "change", "disruption" and "innovation" are on the tip of everyone's tongue. It's ironic, then, that building the teams that build disruptive, innovative products largely rests in doing things that are not innovative at all. It's about nailing the things that never change, and it's absolutely the leader's job to ensure they are largely in place.
What never changes when it comes to people working effectively and happily together? I can think of a few things.
If you can't trust your teammates, you won't be effective and you will eventually feel miserable. Google has done a lot of research on what makes great teams and managers and, as it turns out, an environment where team members feel safe to take risks and be vulnerable in front each other came out at the very top. Great leaders don't mistake vulnerability for weakness. They know that showing their humanity, along with their failures (and what they learned from them) is essential for others to feel permission to fail and learn as well.
Can a team be successful if there's no clarity of purpose, plan and responsibility? For any serious and meaningful definition of success, hardly so. Sure, you can churn out tons of code and ship lots of features. But if you don't know what you're actually trying to achieve, roughly how to get there, and who's responsible for what within the team, chances are slim you'll do much more than tread water. The best leaders see themselves as bringers and champions of clarity, looking to maintain as much shared context across the whole team as possible at all times.
VC-backed tech companies have an incentive system in place rooted in the need for fast growth, which often defaults to a top-down command and control structure. But without self-direction, there's no real engagement, only compliance. That may work for a while, but you never get the best out of people. Successful companies that operate this way churn through a lot of people along the way. The best leaders know that giving folks autonomy, coupled with crystal clear expectations, while being there to coach them through mistakes and improvement, is what actually drives long-term bottom-line impact.
Provided a meaningful goal exists, any driven individual wants to see progress towards it. Any given day can be particularly challenging and make you feel like you don't know what you're doing. But in the grand scheme of things, on a long enough timeline, a sense of progress is what keeps us going, giving us the energy to keep pushing and over the finish line. By taking in the bigger picture, leaders help the team realize the progress made, while remembering to stop and smell the roses every once in a while.
Learning and improvement cannot happen if you don't stop to think about what and how you've done. Reflection alone won't make you a top performer, but you can't be a top performer without reflection. Great leaders intuitively understand that 1% better every day compounds into unbelievable growth and results. And because they are deeply self-aware and reflective themselves, they intentionally carve out the time and space for their teams to retrospect.
We live in the most prosperous time ever, a golden age brought about by technology and the human inventiveness. But with everything at our fingertips, it also means we live in an age of instant gratification, constantly seeking the shiny and new.
Human nature, however, hasn't changed. We still operate based on our inner programming developed many moons ago. So as long as humans come together and collaborate to build anything – be it atoms or bits – creating an environment where great collective work can happen will remain paramount to lasting success.
And that is the leader's job.
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