Why the best founders lead from the back


Founders like to think that their business lies at the centre of the universe.


Yet all people – and especially the people that founders should be building their company around – are always looking beyond the present. The top performers at any company, and in any industry, always have one eye on the next step of their professional journey.


Once you accept that fact, you’ll manage your team in a totally different way.


The traditional idea of ‘leadership’, for example, leaves no room for the motivations or goals of anyone not doing the leading. We are taught to think of a ‘great leader’ as someone who leads their team in a singular direction, to the exclusion of all other destinations.


The best founders or CEOs, we are told, are the ones leading their company towards their single vision, heroically pulling the rest of the company along with them.


I don’t think that’s effective leadership… it totally ignores the most powerful motivator that you have at your disposal – the personal goals and dreams of the people running your business. Instead of pulling your team in the direction you want them to go, align your business objectives with their direction of travel, and let them pull your business up with them.


Leading from the rear and letting your team steer can be a difficult thing to get your head around, let alone put into practice.


Here’s a few steps to get it started at your company:

1. Have honest and realistic conversations about careers

It’s important to create a working environment where it’s okay to be honest and realistic about career goals. Unless your team feel comfortable talking to you about what they want to achieve professionally, you’ll never be able to align their goals with your business.


You can help create this environment by opening up in the office about what you want to work on in the future. Even if you’ve just founded a business and can’t think much beyond that, talk about how you see your own role developing within the company. This gives everyone permission to be honest with themselves  – and their team –  about what they really want and what that next step could look like.


2. Does your team care?

People who take personal fulfillment from their work are more effective and successful than those that don’t. Great teams are made up of individuals doing the things they love – and as a result they’ll do them well as a whole.


So ask your team – do they enjoy the work that they do? Is there anything you could do to make their work more satisfying, more enjoyable, more fulfilling? You’ll be surprised how often you are able to put your team’s job more in line with their career goals, and still keep their work within the scope of the business. (If you’d like to get better at having good one-to-one conversations with your team, you can find a guide to that here).


3. Learning to swim

I’ve consistently found that young, hungry and ambitious team members far outperform those with the exact experience their role requires. Taking a step into the unknown has a way of getting the absolute best out of people, and much of the time their performance far outstrips the performance of someone who believes that they’ve ‘been there, done that’.


Of course, it pays to align your business objectives with the personal goals of all your staff, no matter what stage they’re at in their career. But I’m a firm believer that you reap the largest benefits of all when you trust that scope to people at the beginning of their careers. So make this part of your hiring plan – optimise your team for potential, and then let that potential carry the business forward.  


4. Let your team lead

There’s an old saying that goes, “don’t tell people how to do things, tell them what to do and let them surprise you with their results”. I think there’s so much good sense in that idea. Firstly, because as a founder you simply can’t cope with telling everyone exactly what to do all the time – you’ll simply burn out.


Secondly, there is a real and undeniable productivity benefit to letting people take ownership of their work. No one gets excited about following instructions – but being trusted with a project, to own and steer in the direction they see fit… that’s a very different story.


5. Make a point of being wrong

Many people won’t be used to taking charge of their own work. If you want to encourage a culture of initiative and ownership, then you might have to do some groundwork first.


You need to create an environment where people aren’t scared of making mistakes – and the easiest way to do that is to admit your own, in the office and in front of everyone. If your team sees you owning your own failures, it gives them permission to do the same.


To finish…

People think business leaders exist in order to tell people what to do – but in reality, we’re here to serve. We’re a stepping stone on our team’s professional journey, so they can go on and achieve their dreams. The sooner you realise that, the sooner you can crack on making those dreams a reality… your team will take your company with them.

By Ben Gateley, COO at CharlieHR & Co-founder of The Workspace blog

Alan Wanders