How to Successfully Lead Your Team When You've Never Been an Employee Yourself

More and more of today's startup CEOs have never had the employee experience. Here's how to be an effective and empathetic leader if that's the case for you.
How to Successfully Lead Your Team When You've Never Been an Employee Yourself
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CEO of MessageBird
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Traditionally, to become CEO of a company, or even to rise through the ranks as a manager, you have to put in plenty of time working for others, building up a resume of leadership positions and a proven track record of managerial success. Yet, as technology advances, innovation is happening quicker and quicker -- enabling entrepreneurs of all ages and backgrounds to strike out on their own, wherever and whenever they'd like. And that means, these days, we're seeing more and more CEOs and team leaders without much experience in being employees themselves.

Related: 50 Rules for Being a Great Leader

As a serial CEO myself, I know what it's like to lead a global team of employees without having been an employee. The last time I worked for someone else, I was a teenager selling newspaper subscriptions over the phone. Since then, I've launched two businesses -- first ZayPay and now MessageBird. Each time, through trial and error, I've learned that understanding and appreciating the triumphs and challenges of the employee experience is a conscious choice that starts with empathy, active listening and a whole lot self-reflection.

Whether you're a first-time CEO, a first-time team lead or a new project manager, here are a few lessons I've learned along the way to help the outcome of your efforts scale as the business does:

The business scales. You don't.

For founders making the transition to CEO, or employees climbing the ranks to management, it's hard to shake that nagging feeling that you have to be everywhere at once. The reason people end up in those positions in the first place is because of their can-do, take-charge attitudes, and their willingness to do it all. Then, suddenly, it hits you: As the company gets bigger and bigger, there's still only one of you. And that's OK.

Being involved in every decision, especially as you scale, can actually slow the business down: Your growth isn't going to accelerate and the people around you won't be able to learn effectively. Splitting responsibilities helps you scale and more importantly, it is necessary to help those around you reach their full potential.

Related: 22 Qualities That Make a Great Leader

Get out of the way.

Whether you've built a company from the ground up, or you're the owner of a specific task or project, a "full-steam" ahead approach is good. Just be careful it doesn't turn into a "my way or the highway" edict. One of the primary roles of any leader is to develop the people around you, so that your vision for the future can become a reality. Part of that means easing up on the reins, and giving people room to run. Will they wind up doing it exactly the way you would? Probably not. Could they uncover an innovative new approach that you might not have thought of? Probably.

Share ownership by creating co-owners of your business. Set clear goals and objectives, put up a few guardrails if needed, then get out of the way and let your team build their business within your business.

(Gut) check yourself.

When you've only been the CEO, what you lack in outside work experience, you make up for in instinct. Maybe you don't have the wisdom of years, but there is wisdom to be found in intuition. That's why it's important to go with your gut, but hire people who will gut-check you. Be honest about the qualities you lack, and find people who have the skills you don't. It will prevent you from developing tunnel vision and keep you from existing within your own echo chamber.

Related: 15 Ways to Lead With Effective Communication

Raise the bar, starting with yourself.

It's easy to fear feedback, especially when you're a young CEO or manager. Hiring people with resumes longer than your own can allow imposter syndrome to creep in. Just make sure it doesn't give way to an "ignorance is bliss" approach to understanding your strengths and weaknesses. Criticism is hard to hear, but it's necessary to become the type of leader that evolves along with the business, instead of stagnating your growth and slowing down the business by getting stuck in the status quo.

Keep it casual.

Even when you're the one leading the way, you don't have to know all the answers. But, you do have to know how to find them. And usually, the answers lie within your own team. Learn to appreciate the perspectives of your employees and customers by listening to them. Host a brown bag session or an "ask me anything" chat. At MessageBird, our entire workforce tends to eat lunch together at the same time every day. When I can, I try to sit and share a meal with a new group. If I can't, I make a point to do a lap around the office, stopping at each workstation for a quick chat. I'm often surprised by what I can learn during those casual conversations.

The shift from founder to CEO, or individual contributor to manager, is a big transition for anyone, no matter how long your resume is. By getting out of your own way, and being open to outside perspectives, you'll rev up your growth as a leader and build an entrepreneurial workforce that will take your business to the next level.

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