Leadership Evolution: Knowledge Gained Along the Way

In a blog post from The New York Times.com, author Adam Bryant eloquently depicts a recent Corner Office interview with Anne Berkowitch, co-founder and chief executive of SelectMinds. Berkowitch co-founded the Manhattan-based social networking company with three others and eventually became C.E.O. of the organization. She shares some of her thoughts on leadership learning lessons and the importance of a working as a team. Bryant asks Berkowitch about the keys to effective leadership. “It’s really being able to listen to people,” she said. “So much of leadership, I’ve come to learn, is about getting a team to work together. It’s not about being smart. It helps, but it’s not about that.”

But to Berkowitch, the evolution of her leadership style comes from her “back of the boat” mentality.

If you think about how you steer a boat, it’s always from the back, and I’ve moved toward the back of the boat. Initially, my sense of leadership was to be the military general out in front of the troops and the first one rushing into battle. People have to know you’re in charge and that you’re leading the charge, but I think it’s got to be almost more of a support role.

Before Berkowitch founded SelectMinds, she held a 10-year management consultant position. The culture in her previous job was much bolder than her leadership culture roles with SelectMinds. She realized that she didn’t have adequate leadership experience. “It just took a lot of false starts to learn that being smart isn’t the same thing as being a leader,” she said. “We were going down the runway but the plane wasn’t taking off.”

Berkowitch says that the team and her leadership style are two sides of the same coin. “If you’re not clear on how to lead a group, you’re not bringing the right people on,” she said. Her theory entails that you attract the right people if you can convey a sense of leadership, confidence, and vision.

The good people are going to join you for good reasons. If you’re not clear on what you want to do with the company, I think you get B players, and B players attract B-minus and C players. A players attract A players.

Bryant asks the next question that comes to mind – – So how did you recruit A players? Berkowitch said, “I said, “I need partners in this business,” and I was very transparent about everything – about the good, the bad and the ugly in the company. I said: “Here’s where we are. This is what I want to do with the company. There’s an opportunity for you to bring all of your expertise. I want to hire you for what you know and what you can do, and I’m going to let you do it”.

The C.E.O. explains her desire for people to be mini-C.E.O.’s of their areas. It allows an opportunity for growth and personal impact. This builds a stronger team, and a greater employee satisfaction rate for executing and achieving goals. Berkowitch said she has come to understand a few other keys about her leadership style success.

Ask a lot more questions and make a lot fewer statements. Leadership is really about asking questions and letting people answer them. I think it’s the only way you get your team to think. If you’re constantly talking at them, they don’t have to think. So, it’s the way to put them on the front line. My job is to get the questions out and have people answer the questions.

It’s important to ask questions and reduce statements, but Berkowitch says you also have to make the decisions, and faster. If you take too much of everyone’s input, you get into what she calls “analysis paralysis”. Too much info, too much analyzing, when all you need to do is trust your gut and make the decisions. “It turns out my gut has actually been right more often than I had given it credit for,” she said.”Experience teaches you to do that. I think your team needs you to do that.”

When hiring the right team, Berkowitch suggests that your selection should be based on more than just background and education. It’s necessary to continue to hire people with the skills and experience needed. However, Berkowitch said, “Who they were as a person played a much bigger role in what I looked for.” She said that the people she looks to hire are smart, problem-solvers, they’re good at what they do, and most importantly, they’re honest to themselves.

If you’re not honest with yourself, then too much of your energy goes toward managing what you’re saying to everybody else, rather than what you should be doing.

Berkowitch’s ideal hire is also curious and wants to do things outside of their comfort zone. This team member is passionate and wants to be part of a group to build something. During the hiring process, Berkowitch’s interview tactics include saying as little as possible to see what the candidate will willingly divulge on their own accord. She starts with simple, open-ended questions. She goes about the conversation in this way because she is curious about what they will put out there and how candid it sounds. If she could only ask two questions during an interview, she said she would choose “What do you think you’re really good at?” and “Tell me about a challenge you’ve overcome, and don’t tell me a work challenge – in life, what’s a challenge you’ve overcome, either as a child or as an adult?”

The reason I ask both of those is I want somebody who is humble and honest enough to tell me what they’re really good at, without any attitude. I want people who are good at what they do and who have confidence to tell me, without it coming across as egotistical.

I want to hear about a challenge they overcame somehow because I don’t want people who have had it just totally easy their whole life. There’s something about their life that’s difficult or was difficult. You don’t get the best of yourself until you’ve overcome something.

Bryant asks the C.E.O. one last question and was supplied with a romantic response. He asks, “But what about people who think they have a clear idea about what they want to do?” Her response is to be as honest as you can with yourself about what you like to do and what you don’t like to do. “So, if you want to be a writer, whatever it is, be honest with yourself because you will excel if you do what you really want to do.”

Berkowitch pretty much sums it up when she said, “The last thing you want is to spend 10 years of your life doing something you think you should be doing, and then think, “Shoot, I missed the boat on this other thing.” Following your heart and learning to listen are leadership lessons that have contributed to Berkowitch’s new mind set. To read the full interview, you can access the article by clicking here.

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