The following is adapted from From Simi Valley to Silicon Valley.
The average manager sees their employees as a list of skills and stats on a resume and reigns over their “subordinates” from above. But the most effective managers — the ones who lead innovative, industry-disrupting teams — aim to serve their employees and lead from the ground level.
Caring about your employees’ job satisfaction and treating them as equals does more than provide a feel-good work environment; it can produce measurable business results because workers are more motivated, loyal, and productive. A ground-level management style, where you strive to understand and fulfill your employees’ needs, is the best way to bring out your employees’ full potential.
In this article, I’ll share the best practices I’ve learned as a successful manager and how you can apply them to your own leadership style.
Building a Strong Team Culture
In the early 2000s, I joined a hot new dot-com company called WineShopper as the manager of computing and communications. It was fundamentally a hands-on team lead role, and I was able to hire a small technical team to support the business goals.
In this position, I worked directly under the CIO. It was my first foray into building a team as a new and inexperienced manager. I held weekly “scrum” meetings, where we worked on reporting our updates, assigning new tasks, and debriefing one another on the critical technical issues we were each facing.
I learned from this that the people working under you become an extension of who you are and what you believe in, as well as determining how your IT group is perceived by the organization.
Are they service oriented? Do they problem-solve? Do they take the time to explain what they are doing and why in non-technical speak?
As a manager, it’s your responsibility to define the company culture and lead by example. You can’t expect productivity and collaboration to happen effortlessly. A team needs to be inspired to do their best job and have equity in the key decisions being made on their behalf. Salary and stock options will only take you so far; it’s critical to build a work environment that people want to show up to every day.
Prioritize Your Employees’ Needs
Part of my job at WineShopper was helping to design a new tech support office — the place technicians would call when they needed IT support. In designing this office, I made one of my first big management mistakes: I didn’t consider my employees’ real needs.
I designed the office in what I thought was the coolest way possible. I brought in bar stools and different work stations, along with great technology.
I was incredibly proud of myself for the design, and could hardly wait to show the new space to the team. When the time for the big reveal arrived, I pulled back a curtain like it was a great unveiling, stood back, and waited for them to start applauding. That wasn’t exactly the reaction I got.
“Hey, guys, why the sour faces?” I asked.
“This isn’t how we work,” they told me.
The team then proceeded to explain to me what their day-to-day life looked like. They told me about how they answered phone calls and often passed them off to one another. To do that, they had to be able to turn around and see if the other person was on the phone. Bar stools weren’t exactly conducive to that. Also, unlike their normal office chairs, the cool bar stools I’d been so proud of were uncomfortable.
My team went on and on from there, explaining all of the reasons why the set up made no sense for their situation. In the end, I told the builder I got it wrong and we needed to redo the space.
Aim to Be a Servant Leader
The office-designing experience taught me how easy it is to get full of your own ideas and lose the servant aspect of leadership.
It instilled in me the idea that all decisions should be driven by an understanding of what it is you’re trying to accomplish and creating equity in these key decisions by the very people who will be living with the consequences of the decisions you make. I learned to lead from the ground level and serve my employees rather than lord over them from above.
A key part of being an effective servant leader is caring about the full person you are managing, not just how good they are at their job. What experiences do they want to have at work?
By asking yourself — and more importantly, your employees — these questions, you’ll keep the full person in mind and create an equitable, rewarding environment that empowers people to do their best work.
For more advice on leading from the ground up, you can find From Simi Valley to Silicon Valley on Amazon.
Stephen Gillett is the co-founder and CEO at Chronicle — an Alphabet company born out of X, The Moonshot Factory — and is an executive advisor to the CEO at Google. As one of the youngest CIOs of a Fortune 500 company in history, he was responsible for leading the technological transformation of Starbucks under Howard Schultz. Stephen’s previous positions included CIO at Corbis, working directly with Bill Gates; President at Best Buy; and COO at Symantec. As an avid lifelong gamer, Wired also recognized him as an innovative Guild Master in World of Warcraft. Stephen lives in Silicon Valley with his high school sweetheart and their eight children. Stephen can be reached at SVtoSV@gillett.org.