Created, Not Born: The Mistakes and Learnings Of Becoming a Leader
I messaged the office again –I’d be “working from home” that day.
What I did not tell them is that I’d be stuck on the couch while thinking about shutting down the business. I just couldn’t go on like this.
Jakt (my company) was going through its lowest point. In a matter of weeks, more than half the team decided to leave and jump ship. I guess they thought we were sinking, and I don’t blame them.
Why is everyone leaving us? –I kept on asking myself.
No matter how much it hurt me to see everyone leave, I knew there had to be a deeper, underlying issue to it.
My conclusion: I was not a leader. Not a good enough one, at least. My team was falling apart. I had not set a clear, inspiring vision for the company that they wanted to contribute to. I had not created and fostered a great culture, and I never offered them the growth opportunities they craved.
Honestly, I was just trying to keep my head above water and make sure to keep everyone paid. I couldn’t spend time on those other things — or so I told myself.
I didn’t even know what doing those things really meant. Culture? What is that even? A vision for the future? Ya, sure, I have some ideas but I have no idea if it’s right or if I’m just crazy. So I’ll just keep those to myself. Helping people grow? How the hell do I do that?
Just a Job
Everyone just had a job, but no one was part of a company together.
That was the final breaking point, and it was clear as day I needed to find a way to change and grow.
Now, almost three years later, I still won’t ever say that I am a great leader. Being the CEO of a $4M/year company is, opposed to what many people would think, a very humbling experience. You make a lot of mistakes –and they cost you money, time, and relationships. I still have a hell of a lot left to learn.
But I am much better than two years ago.
These are the two key mental shifts that have helped me in this ever-evolving transition towards learning to become a better leader:
From Transactional to People-Centered
I started selling on the Internet when I was fifteen. I would buy designer bags from a physical store, resell them on the Internet for a higher price, and cash in on the difference.
My product was inanimate objects –not a person with feeling emotions, desires, and needs. I bought them, sold them, and made money off them –no personal feelings attached.
Even during my first year at Jakt, everything was still simply transactional. I did not have to manage and lead people (there were none) –I just had to do the work for my clients.
As I started hiring people, I kept treating them like they were the purses I sold –not realizing that a service delivered by people to people is much different (this wasn’t so obvious as a 23-year-old). I would get business coming in, they would do it, and I’d make some money. It sounds call, but the truth is that I was just applying what had worked for me –without realizing that the context had changed.
And trust me, that’s a HUGE difference in being the CEO of a company. It’s one thing to do the work yourself, but it is a much different thing to lead a team of people to do the work.
It’s About the People
I now understand the importance of (and working daily to get better at) setting an inspiring vision, promoting a positive culture, and helping the people on my team grow both personally and professionally. How can I instill trust in my people if they don’t know where the company is headed or how their actions help us get there? That’s something that I try to keep top-of-mind by making an emphasis on culture, vision, and values during our weekly meetings.
Hiring the right people is another important leadership element. Here’s how I see it: I want high-performers like myself to work for Jakt.. Would I want to work for someone that micromanages what I do and doesn’t trust me? Or for someone who doesn’t hold me accountable to a high standard and pushes me to be better? Absolutely not.
To bring out the potential of your team, you need to set an exciting vision for the company’s future, foster a great culture, hire the right people, and then just get out of their way.
I used to think of people as money-making assets. Not because I didn’t care, but because that’s what I learned from my eBay days. I was not empathetic enough of their needs and I didn’t effectively communicate with them –and I still wondered why they left!
Now I understand that truly connecting with people on my team, supporting them as individuals, and caring about their professional career and growth is not only important to do, but I also enjoy it tremendously! Managing people is challenging but, if you are truly genuine, people will feel like they belong to something bigger than themselves.
From Emotional to Accountable
Not being able to make it to the office because you are paralyzed by anxiety and depression is not a good look, trust me. No hero story was ever written about the war general that ran away from the battle when it mattered the most. But how can you fight through the tough times and come out on top?
Being willing to eat shit (quite graphic, I know) is an underrated leadership quality. A CEO is like a goalkeeper in soccer. You are the last line of defense and, when everything else fails, people look at you to save the day.
I struggled with having tough conversations with people for a long time. It didn’t matter how much I expected from myself, it still was hard to let people know they were not performing at the level I needed them to be. But leaders simply can’t afford to do that.
You have to lean in into difficult conversations and deal with the rough stuff. Otherwise, you’ll find yourself with a team that accepts mediocrity as the new standard because everything starts at the top. Which means you have to walk the talk and be accountable yourself. People believe actions over words, and you have to set an example.
Finally, I’ve learned that leaders have to be emotional counterparts. When things go South, I must be their rock and take all the blame –it’s on me. There’s no place for shifting blame, and if the Company is failing, it’s on me as a leader. I have to take full responsibility –while still holding people accountable– and give them the genuine reassurance that we’ll be okay (here’s a more in-depth article on blind confidence as a leader).
And when things go well, I give all the credit to the people on my team who make it all happen.
A Final Word:
There have been thousands of books about what makes the perfect leader, but most of them miss out on something:
Being a great leader will always stay on the horizon. What matters is the process of becoming a leader. It’s a skill that needs to be crafted and perfected daily –something you have to work on. I have learned that every experience adds another layer to what leadership really is. But moving from being a transactional manager to focusing on having the right people and culture, communicating my vision and becoming more accountable has helped me take a big step forward on this journey.