The Best Managers Aren’t Control Freaks

June 4, 2014

9:05 am

This post includes extra content from Startup Mixology, my upcoming book on starting up – including how to prepare yourself for the harsh reality and celebrate positive moments along the way. Go here to pre-order the book (due July 8) and subscribe to updates!

Employees often join startups for the same reason that founders do: to get away from the command-and-control mentality of larger corporations. If you’re a founder, that’s something to keep in mind when you have the urge to tell them what to do.

The best managers know how to “get out of people’s way.” Give employees autonomy, decision making power, and freedom, and then trust them to get work done – and own their projects.

That means, for most tasks, there’s more than one way to do it. (For the developers out there, you might remember this as the Perl programming language motto, but that’s not what I’m referring to.) When it comes to managing teams, you should communicate that it’s okay to do things differently from the way the CEO would do it. Mistakes are bound to happen with this approach, but it’s just part of the process.

“Effectively managing a team … requires a fine balance of authority and autonomy. Leaders need to know when to direct, when to teach, and when to just sit back and keep quiet. There’s a time to manage and a time to lead. Leading is a much more subtle art that involves teaching over directing and discerning the right approach in any given situation,” says David Hassell, founder and CEO of 15Five.

Damien Patton tries to embrace failure at his company Banjo with his team of engineers. He recalls walking into a meeting after one of his engineers had made a huge mistake, and the team was talking about putting procedures in place to prevent that from happening again. But Patton interrupted them. He recalls:

“I said, ‘You know what? I don’t want you to change a thing. . . . I want you to learn from this, but I want you to keep moving forward as fast as possible because that’s the only way that we’re going to stay competitive … Shit’s going to happen, and you just have to realize when it happens not to panic.'”

Along with autonomy, startup employees often crave flexibility. Rather than force people to be in the office from 9-5, many startups decide to focus on results rather than hours. If you’re getting things done, it doesn’t really matter when or how. Kurt Elster, cofounder and creative director of Ethercycle, says, “If one of your team members works best sitting on the couch on the lobby, works best in two-hour sprints listening to dubstep over their headphones, why not let them?”

Leaders should lead, but not necessarily the way you imagine. Sometimes leading means guiding, mentoring, nudging, clarifying, and empowering.

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Frank Gruber is the cofounder, CEO and Executive Editor of Tech.Co (formerly Tech Cocktail). He is the author of the book, Startup Mixology, Tech Cocktail’s Guide to Building, Growing, and Celebrating Startup Success. He is also a startup advisor and investor to startups. Find Frank Gruber online and follow him on Twitter at @FrankGruber.

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