Sooner or later, most entrepreneurs reach the realization that they can't do it all--at least not alone. While serving as a one-person show may get you by in the early days of your business, you'll need to share the upper rungs if you want your enterprise to reach a higher level of success. You need a group of senior leaders to help shoulder the load of overseeing each critical business area, from operations and sales to finance and fulfillment.

Yet when it comes to appointing your trusted advisors, not just any top talent will do. If you want your teams to truly excel, you need to build a kick-ass executive team. What makes one leader kick-ass and not another? When you have certain types of visionaries in your inner circle, your employees and company will thrive. Here are eight traits to look for when choosing kick-ass officers who can truly lead, and can help shape your culture from the inside-out:

Leaders help their teams. Most companies are structured around a traditional pecking order where employees work to support their managers. But at Pluralsight, we believe leadership is first and foremost about helping the team succeed. It's not about top-down, command-control hierarchy, but about operating from the base of a reverse organizational chart, where the leader is stationed below the team members to provide a supportive foundation. The best leaders know that they are there to bolster their teams and enable them to do their jobs better--not the other way around.

Leaders act as coach and counsel, not judge. Effective, respected leaders recognize that most errors are caused by systems, not people--so they swap their gavel for a coaching clipboard and avoid both pointing out errors and pointing fingers. Instead of judging work style and approach, they guide each individual and team to improve the systems that allowed the mistake to happen in the first place. When a team lacks the authority to improve the system in which they work, their leader uses the authority of their office to go up the ladder and ensure those improvements get made.

Leaders focus on intrinsic motivation. Kick-ass leaders hire people who are self-motivated. Our leaders don't like to talk about "motivating people" at all. That's because companies shouldn't have to motivate their teams. People are intrinsically motivated when their leaders and the systems around them stir their passions and support their growth. Any time you feel like you have to add incentives like a commission plan to motivate people, there's a problem. Providing perks for performance represents short-term thinking, which leaders should try to avoid at all costs. When your exec team surrounds themselves with people who want to do what's best for the company in every instance and solve difficult challenges because they're driven from within to do so, everyone wins.

Leaders give autonomy. Management teams often have more experience than their direct reports; that's why they exist. But it's not the leader's job to tell their teams how high to jump, dangling extrinsic motivators like carrots to get people to follow them. In fact, that type of leadership would never fly at Pluralsight, because it's so against the grain of our culture. We believe that the leader's job is to create an environment where autonomy can flourish. Kick-ass leaders guide their group toward the company's collective North Star, but don't chart an exact path to it. Instead, effective leaders shun micromanagement, because they know their team will take great responsibility when they realize their leader trusts them.

Leaders develop people through education. Part of empowering teams with autonomy involves providing them with a lot of brain candy to fuel wise decision-making. Research shows you can get smarter by working on it. So kick-ass leaders develop people not only through job training, but also by encouraging education that has nothing to do with an employee's current position. They realize that we work in a creative marketplace, and workers who are continuously learning and growing offer a major competitive advantage. The best senior leaders encourage their teams to read lots of books, and they present problems and huddle with their teams to come up with solutions. They make regular use of the Socratic method when they think they may be missing something, asking questions that stimulate truth-seeking and greater knowledge. And they invest in helping everyone in the company gain a deeper understanding of culture and corporate values--which we recently did at PS CultureCon 2014--that can lead to powerful group synergy and business breakthroughs.

Leaders hire people they can learn from. The company culture we have today would not exist if we had limited ourselves to hiring automatons who would do our bidding as founders. Instead, we had the courage to hire people who had more knowledge than we did in certain areas, and as truth seekers we kept our minds open and learned from them. The books that our employees encouraged us to read and the ideas they shared with us led us down the path to discovering a better way of doing business. Every leader on your exec team should be hiring people who are smarter than they are. Every leader's team should consist of people who are even more specialized and more experienced than they are, so that they can actually teach the leader. If leaders are worried about hiring someone who can potentially outshine them, it will hold their company back more than anything else.

Leaders drive out fear. Employees can't act like A-players if they spend the day watching their backs. Kick-ass leaders take the time to imagine themselves in their team members' shoes on a regular basis, and then seek to eliminate their team's sources of fear. Fear dissipates through team empowerment. This gets back to the coach-vs-judge distinction. When the team starts to feel that their leader is not an authoritarian figure but more like an encouraging supporter, fear can't thrive. Leadership can facilitate cultural transformation by helping their team understand that it's the leader's job to assist in their success, encouraging continual systemic improvement and individual autonomy that leads to a fear-free environment.

Leaders model company values. A 2014 study by Towers Watson confirmed a basic principle of sound management strategy: that leaders who avoid "talking the walk" and lead by example have higher-performing teams and more successful organizations. The research also showed that senior leaders who align their decisions with company values create a more intrinsically motivated workforce. As Victor Lipman wrote in his recent Forbes piece, leading by example "makes people want to follow." If you can assemble an exec team that models actions and behavior that reflect your company's core values, you'll be ahead of the game, since common sense doesn't always translate to common practice.

As you prepare to select your management group, your goal should be to flank yourself with a team of leaders who are truly experts with deep experience--but who also believe in empowering and learning from their teams. The leaders you choose can't let their pride get in the way of the company's future. They should boost their teams from below rather than dictate from above, guide people rather than boss them, and give each individual a wide berth and ample leeway to heed their own instincts. These micro-actions can create a culture of continuous learning, autonomy, and intrinsic motivation, where smart people are fearless and leaders walk the talk while dog-earing pages from their own team's playbook. When these things happen, then your whole company can kick ass.

Published on: Aug 26, 2014
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