Connected leadership isn't touchy-feely, but it does go right to the heart. This means that connected leaders must understand what it's really like to be an employee at any given moment, and, more specifically, how they can help the struggling, hard-working people in their organization triumph in the end.
All of this is easier said than done. Being part of an early-stage company is a glorious challenge. You have to construct everything -- the business, organization, product and technology -- out of nothing. So, as a leader, you might be exhausted by the time you start to even think about how you can help your people. But the truth is that by investing in your people first, all the other problems can get more effectively solved together by the team.
Empathy -- One of the Most Undervalued Leadership Traits
Connected leadership is about empathy, which, in my opinion, is one of the most undervalued traits in great leaders. Empathy inspires us when we feel understood, when we feel that someone is deliberately making choices to grow us or create opportunities that will expand us. Empathy also bolsters us. When connected leaders see a team member who is struggling, they try to understand the person's negative situation or unhappiness and build empathetic rapport and support.
If a leader is disconnected and fails to display empathy, on the other hand, there's generally a lack of trust and collaboration among team members, which usually spells trouble for an early-stage company trying to find its way in the marketplace.
So, to me, the most powerful thing great leaders can demonstrate today is empathy for the people that work with them. The reason I use the word "powerful" here is that connected leaders who are empathetic can mindfully and deliberately help people to exceed themselves, to do more than they thought they were capable of. As a result, people leave the company better than when they joined the team.
Gratitude, Appreciation and Recognition -- Creating a Sense of Belonging
One way that we raise people up at Ivy Softworks is by regularly acknowledging them for what they contribute. We call this the "Badass of the Month" award. It's anonymous. People in the company elect each other. They can vote for someone and say, "Hey, I think they really killed this."
At the end of each month, I get up in front of everybody with a Chuck Norris bobble-head (Chuck was the original badass, as we all know) and read out all the anonymous praise that everyone gave each other. Whoever gets the most praise is the new winner of the Chuck Norris bobble-head. Then, I give them $100 right out of my pocket as a gesture of gratitude, appreciation and recognition.
Interestingly enough, I think the thing that gets rewarded the most in our company culture isn't a skill, a product or an effort, but, rather, a way of being. Recently, we had one "Badass of the Month" award go to a person who had an idea, and, without anyone else's help, spent a bunch of extra time on it. He designed it, drew it beautifully, and then just put it out there for the rest of us to see. And, with no guidance or direction, he basically nailed it on his own.
Transparency and Trust -- Giving Everyone an Opportunity to Be Seen and Heard
We also have something we call "Debug and Debrief." Also known as "D&D's," these bi-monthly company-wide sessions provide our team with a safe place for self-reflection and transparency. Given the power dynamics of most organizations, and the common negative experiences of them, it's generally hard for people to share their opinions openly. But that feedback is vital, and so it's important for connected leaders to listen intently to team members, and to help them vocalize their views.
At each D&D, we pick a topic and give everyone an anonymous voice through the CEO's mouth. We focus on what went well; what didn't go well; and what we can do better. Everybody fills out stickies with this information and then I read them aloud. This stimulates an honest dialogue about how we're doing; it also allows us to observe before fixing. And it builds trust, because the CEO is listening, leading and really responding to others in the room. In so many companies, if employees have a point of view -- critical or otherwise -- they're told to discuss it with their manager. Connected CEO's don't delegate this in early-stage companies. They embrace it in front of the full team.
A third way that we see and hear people is through "Fireside Chats." Unlike the D&D's, where the topic is selected beforehand, the one-hour Fireside Chats encourage team members to ask anything, out in the open. Again, in too many companies, people have questions, concerns or criticisms, but they're too nervous to air them in public -- and certainly not with the CEO. This, too, is part of being a connected leader, because it shows that the person in charge really cares and is willing to subordinate himself or herself to the team's overall cohesion and well-being.
Helping People "Sing" and Feel Inspired
I embraced this leadership approach because it's what I always wanted when I was starting out in my career. I remembered what made me "sing" and feel inspired. And I remember how the energy, excitement and enthusiasm would just well up inside me and my colleagues at the time.
Drawing on that, whenever I build a culture in a company, I'm really thinking about how I can connect to all the people we've hired. In many ways, I think of these folks as my family, or more accurately, my community. I care about them. I don't want to let them down. I want to do my best for them. I work hard for them, and that in turn inspires them to work hard for me.
As a leader, I try to create an overall sense of belonging. Great teams can endure all the crazy things life and work throw at them when members are bonded in sensitive and sharing ways to each other. We all want to belong, to feel connected -- myself included. When you belong, when you feel connected, I believe you can accomplish exceptionally great things that you never expected before.