In running or managing a business, what are the most important things you can do as a leader? originally appeared on Quora - the knowledge sharing network where compelling questions are answered by people with unique insights.
As the leader of a group or business, you set the culture. Culture is the framework within which everyone at the company operates. It's the structure that guides them, and what they use to make decisions. It determines how they act, how they work, how they treat coworkers and partners, and what the ethical standard is. Great business cultures are Airbnb, Google, and Facebook. Individuals and teams at these companies have the framework, tools, and support to move forward and succeed.
Great leadership's most salient result is ultimately success of the company. This comes from setting the right culture and creating an environment where each individual can contribute their best work. You can fail with great leadership, but it will often be due to external factors not because of poor execution. Poor leadership is just as easy to spot. A company can have a great idea, but with poor leadership, can fail in executing it. It manifests itself in in-fighting, poor communication, focus on the wrong priorities, unhappy employees, and generally poor execution.
Great culture is the extent that people are motivated and supported to do great work vs feeling obligated just to do work. Culture isn't a ping pong table and Hawaiian shirt Fridays. Culture isn't figuring out a way to get the team to work late; it's the inspiration that motivates the team to put their best work in. If you have enough people at your company just punching the clock, you'll end up with complete mediocrity. If you're a startup, mediocrity is the death knell.
Here are things that great leaders do:
Move the needle. Your job is to do the things every day that most move your company forward. You need to focus and implement your strategy, and you need to inspire your team, but you can't and shouldn't get involved with the things that you don't need to be involved with or can delegate. Leading means ruthless prioritization to focus your best time on the things that most matter as well as deciding what not to do. Failing to prioritize is the death from a thousand cuts. You'll feel busy, but you won't be doing the right things. Failure will come slowly, and usually by the time you spot it, it's too late to do anything.
Share your vision and goals. You won't achieve greatness unless you start doing great things. You can't inspire your team to achieve your goals if they don't know them. People want to feel like they're a part of building and striving toward something great. Set the bar high. You don't have to aspire to be the next Google; you can aspire simply to be the best company in your category and set the goals for getting there.
Recognize and celebrate your team. At one of the media companies I worked for, the company had just launched and was doing well. We kept closing bigger and bigger deals, but no one really acknowledged the incremental successes that were adding up. The founder would tell us that as soon as we closed a really big deal he'd do something special for everyone. Well that deal happened, and then another and another. We just kept grinding away. Not surprisingly, most on the team felt under-appreciated and became burned out. Acknowledging and celebrating accomplishments doesn't have to be a trip to Disneyland, but don't count the annual holiday party as a thank-you either. You can announce the accomplishments, note the team members and take them out to lunch, and thank them individually, but credit everyone publicly and find a way to thank them.
Value your customers. Your customers are why you exist. If you're a B2B business and you provide exceptional value, you'll be finding them referring other customers to you. If you're a consumer business and they love your product, they'll tell their friends. Focus on working for them continually. Solicit feedback and ways to improve. Make sure you don't ever take your eye off the ball of what the business is out to do every day - provide value to your customers. As a leader, you'll have a dozens of tasks to do every day; don't get distracted from what's most important.
Listen. Contrary to popular belief, leadership isn't about talking. It's often about understanding. Understanding comes from listening. Listening to others, listening to the market, and listening to your employees. You can't intuitively set the right course of action. You have to listen to and understand the factors involved in determining that course of action. If you've hired well at your company, everyone will have a strong point of view on any number of things: the work environment, their team, the management, execution of the plan, and new opportunities. Talk with them and listen. Listening will make them feel validated and each will be impressed that the leader they work for listens because so often leaders don't.
Don't be reactive. This is as important as listening. In a demanding work environment, it can be hard to temper back reactions. Stress and being busy conspire against calm and mitigated responses. Calm and poise are two of the mind states that best foster well thought and tailored responses. Being reactive is in almost all cases the worst way to respond. Being reactive leads to curt responses, poor communication, misunderstandings, and ultimately, a team that learns to avoid bringing up issues, ideas, and suggestions. Often, being reactive is the one of the only sources of issues in the workplace environment.
Don't play politics. Playing or tolerating office politics sends the message that it's things other than hard work and individual performance that enable people to move ahead in the organization. That's a bad message to send and a sure way to lose your best employees. Don't play favorites, don't talk behind people's back, don't be catty or gossip. This is prevalent in a huge number of workplaces, and it's toxic. Don't indulge in it or tolerate it.
Create a meritocracy. Promote the all-stars. Find out what they want to do and find a way for them to work on those projects. If they want to be managers, then put them on an accelerated path to management. This isn't the 50s where everyone had to put their time in and climb the corporate ladder. Everyone knows who the people are that kick ass in the office environment and why; and when you reward the right behavior, you're encouraging it and letting everyone see the clear path to success within the company. Employees that aren't happy with a meritocracy are usually the ones you don't want anyways.
Don't complain. Complaining is a cancer that spreads. Complaining suggests the problem is outside of your control and that there's nothing you can really do about it. That's a bad message to send to your team. Re-frame challenges and speak in a way that talks about solutions and not problems.
Work smarter, not harder. Working long hours in the start up environment has become a badge of honor. It's assumed to be the norm and what works best. However, many studies have shown that working long hours is ineffective for anything but very brief periods. Focus on making your team the best, and enabling them to be at their peak and doing their best work every day. Ruthlessly cull workplace inefficiencies like meetings and anything that gets in the way of your team producing their best work. Elon Musk has a policy that if anyone doesn't know why, believes they don't need be in a meeting, or has a more important project or task, can simply not attend or leave the meeting. One hour of your employee's best work is worth endless hours of garbage work. Long hours also lead to burnout and high turnover, both of which will have very real costs to the business. By requiring and encouraging long hours, you're encouraging busy-ness instead of focus and output.
Provide the right resources. In both of my media sales jobs, the sales leaders didn't hire account managers. The sales team (myself included) were expected to sell, close the deal, and then manage the implementation of the deal. They did this to save costs. It might have saved some money in headcount, but cost massively in missed sales opportunities. It's a pennywise and pound foolish approach. Having the sales team manage implementation of deals ensured that for that period they're not selling. As a leader, you should always be evaluating and going after the biggest opportunities. As such, you should be balancing and looking at the size of the opportunity and not the cost of the team. That's your controller's job. You should be fighting for resources proportionate to the size of the opportunity. Then your job is to give your team the right support, training, and tools.
Take care of yourself. This was one of the hardest ones for me to learn. If you're driven to succeed in business, then finding the ways you can separate from work will be one of your hardest challenges. There will always be more to do; 5 minutes of evening email will lead to answering emails for two hours nightly. Start-ups and business are far from synonymous with work-life balance. Working long hours or without breaks can be productive in spurts, but in anything longer it can have slow, eroding effects on your energy, motivation, relationships, mood, and creativity. If you're burned out, you will be far from your best. Work shouldn't substitute for what's meant to fill your life outside of work. Family, friends, exercising, and downtime are all important for keeping us mentally and physically happy. Last fall, I ended up so stressed and overworked that I was bedridden for 10 days. You can imagine my productivity when I couldn't walk. You can't lead your company if you're not healthy. Nothing about being a leader says you should sacrifice your health to lead. Your obligation is to be at your best for the time that you're there. When you're well rested, engaged in healthy activities and relationships, and taking full breaks from work and email, you'll be at your best, your most engaged, your most creative. Make healthy habits a routine, an absolute. I now meditate nightly, get 7-8 hours of sleep, exercise regularly, and eat well. This has all vastly improved my concentration, mood, and focus.
Commit to learning. You can't be good at everything, and you shouldn't, but no matter how good or experienced you are, you can improve yourself and improve your odds of success. There's over 10,000 books on business written per year. If you search "business" on Amazon, you get over 15M results! How many have you read? How many have your competitors read? You can't ever know everything, but you can commit to being a lifelong learner. Your career could span 50 years. Someone's already gone through almost everything you will go through, and in all those cases, someone's written about it. Carving out time every week to continually read, learn, grow, and improve is an unfair business advantage. Capitalize on it.
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