After 50 Years in the Tech World, I've Found These Are the Most Important Leadership Lessons for Tomorrow's Entrepreneurs
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I've spent the last 50 years of my life immersed in the high-tech world, building four successful businesses along the way. As you might imagine at age 74, I've seen a lot of things, done a lot of things, worked with a lot of different people and learned some invaluable lessons over time.
A recurring misconception among the entrepreneur community that has withstood the past five decades is that only the "idea generators" are successful entrepreneurs. It's true that despite the fact that products, markets and customers evolve, behind every business is the foundation -- the "big idea" that serves as the spark for building a company. But, it's also equally true that businesses need more than an idea to succeed.
Throughout my career, I've never been the "idea person." I am far from it. But, I know how to shape and morph ideas into successful strategies, products and companies. The most important thing I've learned is that you need both the idea people and the business people to make a company successful -- and they both need to sing from the same leadership songbook.
Here are the three most important tips for both types of leaders as they work side by side to build and lead their business for long-term success.
Leave your egos at the door.
It's OK to not be the smartest person in the room. I've found that hiring employees who are smarter than you and have diverse skill sets can create long-term success. Leverage your leadership skills to push your team to grow from smart people to smart leaders. The ability to manage future leaders is a skill set within itself. Build your executive team and guide them with sound advice and counsel, being respectful and listening along the way.
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I first learned the value of checking my ego when I started working with a certain gentleman at Q1 Labs. At Q1, I was responsible for building a strategic leadership team that could drive the business forward. Within two hours of meeting this person, I recognized he was bright and technically skilled -- and much smarter than me. He excelled at discerning technical problems and hiring top talent to solve them. His intuition, coupled with my mentorship, helped form a dynamic team. Before I knew it, I was promoting him to VP of marketing and then three more times until he ultimately became CEO.
The strongest leaders will recognize their own weaknesses, identify people who can help complement them -- and will not be threatened by others' talents. You simply can't do it all. Entrepreneurs must remember that it's okay to seek support and guidance at every stage of the company's development. Surrounding yourself with accomplished professionals and leadership will result in a strong, creative team that can generate new ideas and continue to challenge you to be a better leader.
Build relationships beyond the boardroom.
Yes, every business owner needs to establish strong working relationships with company leadership and other employees, but getting to know one another outside of the office walls is just as important.
Since my first leadership position, I've made it a priority to take a personal interest in my employees. Understanding their backgrounds and experiences helped deepen my understanding of how they think, what motivates them and how they view success. By understanding backgrounds and motivations, business leaders can help idea generators shine and bring their vision to life.
Getting a glimpse into a person's life outside of work can provide important insight into a person's work life, habits and strategy. For example, Tom Turner is BitSight's CEO. I've always said I would love to be Turner's neighbor, as he is a great father and husband. I've known Turner for 18 years, and I respect him thoroughly both in and outside of work. And the way Turner acts in his personal life matches his personality as CEO.
By taking the time to get to know one another outside of the office, entrepreneurs can establish a deeper bond with their leadership team and investment in the success of the business.
Demand respect, transparency and fairness at all times.
I won't sugarcoat it. At times, leading a business will be stressful. Not everyone will agree on the next go-to-market strategy. You'll go through growing pains and rough patches where sales are down or an important person unexpectedly leaves. The challenges are many. Critical to getting your team through these trying periods is working together to establish a foundation of unrelenting respect, openness and fairness.
This goes beyond being kind. For example, all employees deserve a second chance -- except when crossing ethical boundaries. I make it known I have an open-door policy and that employees are welcome to give me feedback. We have a low attrition rate at BitSight, and it's important that employees enjoy coming to work.
Consistency and fairness are also paramount. For example, avoid being inconsistent with policies such as pay, promotions, vacations and benefits; and avoid promoting someone to a higher title from the outside. This instills trust and respect within your team. Businesses thrive when the people who make up the internal team work hard and earn a move to the next level.
Sharing these lessons
Over the past five decades, I've seen it all -- the good, the bad and sometimes the ugly. Since beginning my career in 1969, I've kept mental and written notes on the high-tech industry, the companies where I've worked, and have kept these lessons close to heart along the way.
While I never considered myself to be the idea generator, I'm now coaching young entrepreneurs to find their own successful idea. I encourage them to check their egos and not be afraid of others' talent, to truly get to know their colleagues, to establish an environment rooted in fairness and respect -- and most importantly, to work extremely hard at whatever they do.
If I've truly succeeded, in 2068 at least one of these young leaders will be reflecting on 50 years in business and passing these and their own lessons learned onto the next generation of serial entrepreneurs.