Every company approaches leadership differently. Some lean on empathy, others value commanding managers. But one thing we've noticed here at Inc. is that the leadership qualities guiding most of the CEOs of America's 2021 Best-Led Companies are actually learned behaviors. Which means you can learn them too. These executives have seen strategies work and they've watched them fail, but whatever the outcome, they always draw a lesson from the experience.
Here are the leadership tactics that have passed the test, again and again:
Keep Minding Your Business
"I have learned that my mental health is just as important as my team's, and I must lead by example when it comes to taking care of my well-being," says Michael Acton Smith, co-founder and co-CEO of Calm, the $2 billion maker of an app for sleep, meditation, and relaxation that has four million paying subscribers. Acton himself subscribes to the mindfulness adage "We are human beings, not human doings," and says, "This perspective shift is valuable [to me] as a leader and entrepreneur."
Become a Better Version of You
"What I have found to work in creating common ground with my team is leading with vulnerability, compassion, and honesty," says Whitney Wolfe Herd, founder and CEO of the female-first dating app Bumble. "Leadership is not about perfecting any one single trait, but instead about being committed to bettering the behaviors that serve your team and the company's overall mission."
Commit 100 Percent of the Time
"We have a saying here at DocuSign: Every employee deserves a great manager, and every manager deserves the tools to be great," says Dan Springer, CEO of the cloud-based e-signature provider. "And you have an obligation, as a manager, to think about your job as making 100 percent of your reports do the work of their life. I know I will fail to get to 100 percent, but if I get up in the morning and I don't have it as my goal, then I'm not really committed, as a manager, to the craft and the discipline that people deserve from leadership."
Hire for Good Humor
"I always find it easier to work with people who have a sense of humor," says David Rosenblatt, CEO of luxury e-commerce retailer 1stDibs. "That suggests intelligence and the ability to evaluate questions from multiple perspectives--especially if one's sense of humor comes occasionally at one's own expense, which shows a sense of modesty as well."
Don't Fear the Failures
"For us, there's no such thing as fear of failure," says Michael Mente, co-founder and co-CEO of Revolve, a fashion company that's been a forerunner in influencer marketing. "Because the data that we gain from failure also ultimately helps us improve and assess, it ultimately makes the algorithms better."
Lean In and Listen
"I host listening sessions and regularly survey employees to check in with their remote-centric experience, mental health, and how we are living our values," says Bill Wagner, CEO of remote-access software maker LogMeIn. "You could say that as a result of employee feedback, we have evolved our culture to focus on what means the most to our employees, both in and outside of work."
Believe People Come First
"Culture comes first," says Amy Errett, founder and CEO of beauty brand Madison Reed. "Even before tubes of color were put into boxes, we had already written our values and our mission statement from a cultural standpoint. Because if you believe that people come first, as I do, your team's experience should be equal to your customers' experience. Unhappy teams are typically not great with customers."
Do the Work
"I believe in leading from the front, meaning I am determined even now to outwork anyone on the team--staying up late, grinding out difficulties, and being a leader willing to get my hands dirty," says Matt Ehrlichman, co-founder and CEO of Porch Group, a home-services software platform. "It sets the tone. It's hard to establish that throughout an organization if it doesn't come from the top."
Find the Right Balance
"I have a system I call my Happiness Matrix, which is all the things in my life that need to be humming for me to be humming professionally: being in a good place with my family and kids, eating well, exercising, hanging out with people I enjoy being with, fishing, thinking about my spirituality," says Jim VandeHei, co-founder and CEO of digital news outlet Axios. "I try to do a self-inventory each week, because if I haven't been paying enough attention to one of those buckets, then I'm just not going to be as effective a leader."
See Positive in the Negative
"I believe in looking at raw feedback," says Jason VandeBoom, founder and CEO of marketing software maker ActiveCampaign, which has nixed product features-based customer responses. "A lot of the magic is lost in summaries that just say, 'People give us an 8 out of 10,' for instance. Every day, I look at our Net Promoter Score feedback, especially the negative stuff, which helps me better understand my own company."
Cultivate a Thick Skin
"I like to find people who have grit," says Ryan Petersen, CEO of supply-chain- management company Flexport. From hurricanes to dockworker strikes to a global goods backlog, "bad things happen in logistics every day, so we need people who can get knocked down and not just get back up again--but bounce up higher."
Be a Problem Solver
"My Myers-Briggs personality type is ISTJ [introversion, sensing, thinking, judgement], so I'm wired to be decisive," says Brent Bellm, CEO of e-commerce software provider BigCommerce. "What that means, as a leader, is that anytime there is a problem that needs a resolution, I tackle it immediately. It's always more efficient to stay on top of things than to play catch-up."
Set the Example
"We view mental health as one of the defining problems of our day," says David Ebersman, co-founder and CEO of mental health care company Lyra Health. "The single most powerful thing that drives engagement is if a senior leader at the company is willing to get up and talk about mental health and really make it OK--not judgmental and not scary--for someone to seek help."
Get Ahead of Bad News
"I would recommend other leaders think about how they authentically communicate with their teams," says Julia Hartz, CEO of event-ticketing business Eventbrite, which took a major hit when venues were shut down when Covid struck. "In the earliest days of the pandemic, we increased opportunities for our Britelings to both hear directly from leadership and connect with one another, which helped Eventbrite retain a sense of community and ensure that everyone felt informed as the news cycle evolved rapidly."
Give Yourself Some Space
"The key to setting Marqeta up for success is giving myself the room to focus on the things that I can control with my skill set, and hiring people with the skillset to help me with the things that I can't," says Jason Gardner, founder and CEO of payments company Marqeta.
Trust Your Gut
"Of course, experience matters," says Gail Becker, founder and CEO of Caulipower, a maker of veggie-based comfort foods. That said, she's a firm believer in the adage Hire the person, not the resume: "You can't read invaluable traits such as passion, commitment, and fearlessness on a piece of paper."
Aim High in Everything
"Your organization will be much more successful if you drastically narrow your focus, raise your standards, and pick up the pace," says Frank Slootman, CEO of cloud-storage firm Snowflake, which netted a record-breaking $3.4 billion from its 2020 IPO. "Snowflake is where we are today because we run at higher velocity, with higher standards of excellence, and a narrower aperture."
Inspire Your People
"My job is to inspire the team to come up with crazy ideas," says Heather Hasson, co-founder and co-CEO of Figs, a startup that makes fashionable health care scrubs. "If I come up with something I love, I push my product team hard to 'up' me to make it better. That's their job."