All of this extra time at home got me thinking: what are some of the most important things I have learned over my career? Then I thought, with over 200 employees at SemanticBits—and collectively at least 2000 years of experience from which to learn—I wonder what amazing life lessons we could share. So, this is my attempt at sharing some knowledge that I’ve gathered, observed in others, read about, or discovered on my own along my journey.
It hasn’t always been easy. There have been a lot of failures. I don’t always follow my own advice. But the following are some concepts that have really meant a lot to me.
1. Leadership vs. Management
We often hear these two words thrown around without considering what leadership and management actually mean. I think there’s room for both methodologies—as sometimes you lead and sometimes you manage—but the challenge is to really think about which tools are appropriate depending on the situation.
Aha Moment: One of my earliest mentors said, “Alex, you are focusing too much on managing people. As you continue to grow, start thinking about leadership.” He shared the following chart and it just clicked with me. Just knowing the difference has helped give me perspective.
|Develop vision and strategy||Develop policies and procedures|
|Motivate and inspire||Direct and control|
|Explain where we are going||Explain what we have to do|
|Ask questions||Give direction|
|Doing the right things||Doing things right|
2. Trust is Everything
We’ve all had experiences where we work with teams that either trust or don’t trust one another. Take a moment to think about that team who didn’t trust one another. Everyone pointed fingers and blamed others. Work was always delayed, low quality, and it was frankly not a fun group to work with. You spent more mental energy protecting yourself than building a great product. Simple decisions that should take minutes would often take weeks and require a paper trail suitable for an IRS audit.
Now, contrast that with an experience you had where the team trusted one another. Everything just kind of worked. People were excited and you could really feel that sense of energy and passion. You never questioned anyone’s motives, and criticism was taken as an opportunity to grow instead of a reprimand. In my experience, trust is the number one indicator of whether a team and project will be successful.
Aha Moment: At some point, I learned that every interaction is an opportunity to either add to or subtract from the team’s sense of trust, as if trust is a bank account where maintaining a positive balance is critical. I worked with a team where literally half of us didn’t get along with the other. We couldn’t get anywhere. It took three months of us learning to trust each other before we could work as a highly-functional team.
3. Do What You Promise
Make sure you actually do the things that you tell others you will do and proactively follow up with them once the action is done. I can’t tell you how important this is as it adds to your reputation, establishes trust, and gives others confidence in your ability to get things done.
Aha Moment: I remember when I realized that it’s okay to not know the answer to a question, and respond, “You know, I don’t know the answer to your question but I will research that and get you a response as soon as possible.” Seeing that look of gratitude when I followed through—hours or days later and without them having to remind me—was incredibly powerful.
4. Think About The Next Step(s)
Good pool players can make a shot; great pool players make the shot and set up their next turn for success. Always think about what the next steps should be, whether it’s a follow-up meeting, decision, research, etc. Does everybody have a shared understanding of who is doing what and when?
Aha Moment: I had a great manager and mentor who would always ask for my assessment of a situation and challenge me by saying, “That’s great, but what are the next steps?” I learned over time that he would not be satisfied with my response unless I put thought into the follow-up actions. I gradually started adopting a similar mentality and saw firsthand how it improved my workflow.
5. Define the Vision
What is the team’s overall purpose? What direction are we going in? How does everyone on the team fit into that vision? Regardless of the team or product, the vision should give others confidence and motivation. It should show people that they matter and provide an outlet for creativity. It’s important that people buy into the vision and feel a shared sense of responsibility and accountability.
Aha Moment: I noticed how much happier, energized, and more productive I was when one of my early managers would define the vision and explain how I fit into it. It was like the vision was a catalyst that empowered me to be successful.
6. Focus on the Important, Non-urgent Activities
I can’t take credit for this one, as it comes directly from Stephen Covey’s The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, but this is definitely one of the most important lessons I have learned. We all know the feeling of fighting fires, constantly running from one disaster to another, and ultimately feeling that we don’t have enough time to get things done. I think this stems from too much focus on the immediate task at hand and not enough thought and planning for the future. The only way to get out from the fire is to spend more time thinking about the really important things that matter. And once you do that, some amazing things happen. You solve the problems that actually need to be solved. You create better processes. You and your team think clearer.
Aha Moment: It was eye-opening to see firsthand how much extra time I could gain and the positive feedback loop created when spending less time on non-urgent tasks and more time planning to prevent future fires. For example, spending time to create a team charter where everyone comes up with norms and rules of conduct can really save time down the line when the team gets stressed during deadlines.
7. All the Other Things
Other important lessons I’ve learned over time
- Be accountable to the team
- Get a mentor/keep learning
- Praise publicly, criticize privately
- Communicate early and often
- Don’t be afraid to admit failure and take the blame as long as you’re willing to get back up, learn from your mistakes, and try again
So that’s it. It may not seem like much but those bits of advice have made a world of difference for me. And now I’m curious what life lessons you’ve learned along your journey.