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2 minute read / Aug 21, 2013 /

The Fundamental Challenge of Your Startup’s First Hire: Leading and Learning at the Same Time

A team of founders who had just made their first their first hire asked me about culture and on boarding. How do they go about managing people? How do they maintain the values of the business?

The underlying question of successful management is: How can founders lead and learn at the same time?

I think a bastardized version Tolstoy’s well-worn refrain is apt:

Happy teams are all alike; every unhappy team is unhappy in its own way.

Anna Karenina on Startups

After that conversation, I reflected on the culture at Google and why I thought it was great. These are the values I found there:

Listening: the sine qua non of collaboration. Listen, absorb, reflect and respond. All communication starts with listening.

Shared Learning: Some of us are experienced in one area. Others are learning from the first time. But we can all teach each other along the way and we must help each other particularly when chasing new ideas.

Freedom to Whiff: Notice it’s not freedom to fail. Freedom to whiff means working in a team that allows you to take a big swing and miss. But the next time, you’d better hit the ball. Abject failure without subsequent success isn’t acceptable.

Community Building: Caring about your people is the most fundamental part of management. Inquiring about their daily lives, lauding their successes, supporting them through their struggles. Employees aren’t resources; they’re people first and foremost.

Obligation to Dissent: Peter Drucker wrote the story of Alfred Sloan, the former CEO of GM, who entered a board meeting to discuss an important issue before the company. Sloan asked the opinions of his directors. When everyone agreed without comment, he immediately stopped the board meeting and said something along the lines of, “Since we’re all in agreement, it’s clear no one has considered the issue. Let us reconvene tomorrow after giving the matter appropriate thought.”

Empowering Leaders at Every Level: Leaders pull the organization forward toward big hairy audacious goals. But leaders don’t just exist at the C-level. Every team, every group, every project. Being a leader doesn’t mean knowing it all, but reinforcing the values above.

What values do you believe let teams lead and learn at the same time?

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