A good friend called me from Austin last year to talk about a work situation. He was contemplating separating from his employer because of what he described as his boss not letting him do the job he was hired to do. As we discussed the situation, it sounded to me like his boss (the founder of a startup) has reached a point where he is afraid of losing control of the enterprise. The longer we talked, it sounded like the boss did not trust his direct reports. It also sounded like he, himself wasn’t trustworthy – he had put his directs in a trick bag, and when they called him on it, his response was not appropriate.
From the employee perspective:
I was hired to do a job. Now this clown is crawling up my rear end, second guessing every decision I make. My recommendations are not heard or implemented. He hired me because I had capabilities that he did not. Yet he continues to try to do things himself. Things that he hired me to do.
He has hired several “A” players to take on leadership roles in his organization, yet he refuses to accept their input. He makes commitments to customers without our input, placing all of us in a trick-bag. We scramble out of the bag, and talk to him about “the way forward” that would prevent us from getting back in the bag, but he doesn’t listen.
When I got here, I demonstrated my capability for delivering results. I helped bring order to this chaotic mess – yet his actions continue to lead back to chaos. I thought he trusted me, but now he second guesses my decisions, and makes decisions that make it harder for me to accomplish the mission that I thought he trusted me with.
If he would listen to what my peers and I are saying, this company could become really great,
From the founder perspective:
I hired him because he was good. He did a great job at first, but now he points how how my decisions are part of the reason we are in trouble. I wanted someone who would partner with me to help me do great things – but I find myself on the defensive. He insists that we need to change how we do things, but I am the one who established how we do things.
I feel like I hired all these great people, and all they do is tell me how to run my company. They quickly identified a bunch of problems, and implemented some quick hit solutions. Things are better, but they continually want to spend energy (and money). Sometimes it feels like all they do is tell my how much the stuff I built sucks. They are probably right, but that doesn’t mean I like to hear that. Sometimes it simply feels like I am being attacked.
What’s a fellow to do?
As I have said in other posts delegation requires trust in both directions. Securing trust requires courage and tact. Especially with a founder. Staking your claim to a leadership role in a start-up or any entrepreneurial venture may involve taking a piece of leadership away from the founder. You may need to rip that “piece” away. There is risk involved, so you need courage. You may need to make a stand. Alternatively, you may need to reassure the founder that you are not simply being critical of whatever he built – but genuinely trying to help him move forward into a position of sustainability. That reassurance requires tact. It is harder to do when you feel threatened, or when you feel unappreciated or untrusted. In many ways it is a paradox. When you can’t work from a position of trust, then you can work from a position of risk.
Perhaps the best thing to do is to stake your job on it. “I’m going to do the right thing, and if he doesn’t like it, he can fire me!” My friend did exactly that. He said it was freeing – because it allowed him to focus on mission, rather than politics. The situation is still playing out, but he is completely energized by his decision, and focused on mission. He may still separate after the mission is accomplished – but he is now fighting for the company instead of against the boss. Mentally, it is a much better place to be.
I realize that his commitment to doing the right thing is exactly the thing that I have done over and over. And it hasn’t always worked out, but I have always felt energized by it, and that risk, that commitment has always made me work harder and better. It has put me in a sweet spot of leadership where I am working “like my job depends on it”. As a leader, every one you work with knows when you are phoning it in, and they know when you are crushing it; when you are “balls to the wall”. When you are there, they will follow. It is the difference between leading the charge, and staying back on the battlefield.
[I hear many of you saying] “So you are telling me in a blog post about trust between boss and employee that the best move is a bold move. Effectively taking the position that we should “undermine the bosses authority” and go against his wishes?” Right. That is exactly what I am saying. Why? Because to earn his trust, we have to believe our own BS enough to stake our reputation on it. He is the founder of a startup explicitly because he believes his own BS in that same way. Trust is about earning enough respect and credibility to be given the freedom to operate autonomously. Trust is not about continuously backing down when challenged, and “knuckling under” when pushed. He won’t trust you more when you do what he says, he will ultimately trust you less. It is about “putting your money where your mouth is” and letting your results speak for themselves. When you take ownership of your work product, your results, you put yourself in that sweet spot, and allow your passion and energy their full head. You are operating at the peak of your abilities. You become a force to be reckoned with… This puts you on even footing, and then you can also begin to trust your boss. That is the most important thing. If you are always backing down, you cannot have a trust relationship.
If you are not working in an entrepreneurial venture, and/or your management chain is risk averse or bureaucratic, this approach may completely backfire – because leaders of that ilk are not happy to delegate risk in any form. Their issue is not trust, it is simply fear and cowardice. They are not fighting you because you want to change something they like, they are fighting you because your idea is risky. In this case, find a different leader in the organization to sponsor the risk and let them handle the politics. With bureaucrats, it is not better to get forgiveness than permission…
If you want to kick it to the next level, be prepared to make some bold moves… you may want to read more in my recent post about CreationParticipationInvolvement.