Starting and leading new companies can have founders feeling like they're falling through the sky. Workplaces are busy environments, and connecting teams -- especially the cross-generational teams becoming common -- is a tall order. When successful leadership requires active listening and connection as well, it can overwhelm even the most prepared founder.
For many founders, it's a scary process to confront these challenges and be open with their employees about the struggle. To overcome this, Steve Jobs asked leaders to consider their own deaths to develop their leadership perspectives. But one founder's empowerment plan asks if Jobs meant that to be a team exercise.
Sarah Bird, CEO of Moz, a search engine optimization platform, tested her hypothesis when she and some folks from her team skydived. After the jump, the Mozzers, as they're called, returned with a fresh perspective, took on new projects and challenges with enthusiasm, and uncovered courage they didn't know they had.
Bird shared with me lessons she's learned from her skydiving exercises and what leaders can do to build a company culture filled with people willing to jump from planes:
1. Having a 10,000-foot business perspective.
Many company founders begin with a grand vision only to end up entangled in the details. When they're starting, founders should likely be involved in a great deal of their company's operations. Over time, however, that grand vision fades away without proper maintenance and introspection.
Bird challenges leaders to stay curious about their company's vision. Much like how a skydive gives the jumper a larger view of the world, it's important for leaders to draw back and examine their work from higher perspectives -- even if it scares them.
"When you're in the air, your body is terrified. But you're experiencing incredible views," said Bird. "You get this perspective of the world that you'd never have if you let fear keep you from taking the leap."
2. Embracing vulnerability.
There are perhaps few other moments as vulnerable as when a skydiver is in open air. With the ground far below and open sky above, it's easy to hide in fear instead of embracing the full experience.
Growing companies face many open-sky moments. Bird acknowledges how uncomfortable and scary they can be. But rather than shy away from moments of discomfort, she encourages leaders to open up and embrace them. They present learning opportunities to improve leadership, and Bird says that when leaders open up, their teams do, too.
3. Trusting those around you.
Naturally, there has to be a lot of trust within a team in order to skydive together. Clear communication and honesty matter when people are hurtling through the air. While companies may not encourage that much adrenaline in day-to-day operations, trust lives at the heart of the work companies do.
Bird has several core values she uses in her professional and personal lives and notes that transparency is an especially important one for her. Leaders being open about leadership challenges allows for trust to form throughout the organization. With clear dialogue about what's happening in situations, leaders can extend trust into decision-making processes.
4. Facing fears and making big decisions.
Making the decision even to take the leap from the airplane requires special courage. Some company decisions can feel as nerve-wracking as a skydive. With so much at stake, leaders grapple with fear and might even hold back on making key decisions because of it.
Fear is something Bird knows and has faced down in the business world. She feels that, for her and other women, part of that fear originates from how society perceives them as decision-makers.
"Maybe the toughest lesson I've learned in business is that not everyone has to like you," Bird said. "Our culture has set expectations for women, and it can take serious deprogramming to get more comfortable asserting yourself in a business environment. You need to acknowledge it and then will yourself to take the leap."
Leadership requires courage, vulnerability and a willingness to take terrifying leaps. But strong leaders empower those they lead by exhibiting trust and openness.
Whether it's from an airplane or into the boardroom, empowered teams will leap together and accomplish more as a cohesive unit.