It is much easier to believe in, be inspired by, and follow a leader who really and honestly is into what they do for more than just making money. (Photo: Shutterstock)

I used to think that the hard part about leading a company was understanding the market, figuring out the product to build in all its gnarly glory, building, and then selling and delivering product. I have changed my mind. The hardest part of building a company is building out the full “factory” behind it—the people, the processes and the culture.

Related: Is your company culture undermining employee productivity

Tesla may build cars, but in fact once the basic innovation was done, there are two main problems that still need solving:

  • The obvious ones: building the production line, the supply chain, the engineering, the design, the sales and the marketing
  • The harder ones: the team, the internal processes and the underlying cultural tenets that will make it continue to succeed. As a leader that’s the harder part of the work one has to do every day, “after all the hard work is done.”

Here are some of my experiences in trying to build and be a part of teams that have worked out well and ones that haven’t—the things I believe can be taught through demonstration, repetition, and results:

1. Work on things you believe in: It is much easier to believe in, be inspired by, and follow a leader who really and honestly is into what they do for more than just making money. As a leader it’s hard to fake it if you are working on things you don’t care about.

It doesn’t have to be big missionary causes. For example some leaders really just love problem solving and it shows in how they approach problems, break them down, get into the detail, structure and create options and then make thoughtful decisions. Even if money IS your product—say as an investment banker or a financial advisor—you can be the type of leader who personifies greed as the person ready to screw every client out of the last dollar of fees, or be someone who others want to emulate because you really demonstrate you care about ways to make your clients better off. Same job, huge difference in how you behave as a leader.

2. Build an “obsessed soccer team” culture: Pick your favorite team sport, and go follow some games, especially at the amateur level. Say high school soccer or volleyball. There are soccer teams that run without the ball, volleyball teams that “call” for it, fall back and pick up the load that supposedly should fall on another team member’s shoulders. Without a single complaint. Why? Because they are obsessed about one thing—doing what it takes to score a goal, win a point, whatever the objective is.

My daughter has been on two volleyball teams—this year’s resembles such a positive culture and they win games they really shouldn’t based only on skill. Last year’s was a skillful team as well but they would occasionally point fingers, built internal cliques and fiefdoms, “people I like and don’t,” curried favor with the coach. Even at age 13 they exhibited some of the same cultural failure points that creep into organizations, and they didn’t live up to their potential.

3. Hire well as a company, but it should feel like a “coconut”—hard to get into but fluid within. Don’t hire until you are convinced it’s the right person and then back your team up with all your might.

4. Always be learning—so you can solve problems with and for your team. As a leader you are like a parent. When your kids make mistakes it’s likely you share the blame somewhere along the line in what you taught them, or the expectations you set, or the behavior you modeled. So help them fix it. Making loud speeches gets you to fake leadership, solving hard problems and working through difficult situations beside your team builds “followership.” Make your team successful and they will trust you. Independent of my title, if I am not constantly learning, there will come a time in the not too distant future where I won’t be able to help solve real problems because I am so far removed from reality. That’s a dangerous situation for any leader.

5. Build on strengths and challenge your team, don’t just judge them:

  • Hire people who are curious, like to grow and love a challenge. And give them a job they are likely to succeed at if they work hard. But by definition challenges are hard. So when they fail, as we all do, work with them, inspire them, motivate them or teach them – whatever place on the “skill-will” spectrum they are on.
  • Give your team positive and candid constructive feedback. But don’t constantly evaluate them. Nothing they see or hear in their formal reviews should really be a surprise because you have taken the time and effort to create roles that make sense for them and given them the time and push to succeed if they make the effort

6. Inspire, point, delegate… but don’t abdicate: As the man said, don’t hire great people and tell them the last detail of what they need to do—if you did hire the right people for the right job and if you listen they will often surprise you. Sometimes they will tell you a whole lot better way of doing what needs to get done. So listen, ask, get them to tell you their plan, point them to other resources, people and experts, and then let them loose. But be there for the right drill down conversations once in a while that are meant to solve problems they are facing and make sure they are on track. Because delegation of responsibility is very different from abdication—at the end of the day you are as accountable as any of your team.

7. Reward fairly and with an open heart: Don’t say “good work” if you didn’t mean it. And back it up with facts and the corresponding reward structure. And don’t be shy about candidly telling your team what needs to improve.

8. Be fair and good, not just nice: I don’t call my team my family. The reason is that in my family if I am that cousin or uncle no one likes, they still have to put up with me at least at Thanksgiving. In my professional team, if I don’t produce, I don’t deliver and I don’t fit, I don’t belong. You will make hiring mistakes sometimes. Being compassionate can mean sometimes letting people go—it’s the best thing for everyone. Don’t do it easily but if it’s the right thing to do—for performance or for cultural reasons, let them go, do it fast and do it with dignity and compassion.

9. Be a player coach—teach by doing: I have had bosses who “told me what to do” and others who “showed me how to do it at least once”. For example model a behavior you care about like “Never ever give up”. Teach your leaders and your team this by demonstrating that your “trampoline index”—how fast you jump up from a fall is the largest potential indicator of your future success.

Above all, always remember, you are nothing without your team.


Sanjeev Agrawal is president and chief marketing officer of LeanTaaS, a Silicon Valley-based innovator of predictive analytics solutions. He works closely with dozens of leading health care institutions including Stanford Health Care, UCHealth, NewYork-Presbyterian, Cleveland Clinic and MD Anderson.