BL&T No. 011: Creating a Culture of Leadership

Company Culture

This post originally appeared in my newsletter, Borrowed, Learned, & Thought. BL&T is sent weekly on Mondays. In every edition, I share lessons learned in agency leadership, life, and e-commerce. This post does not include all the details shared in the newsletter sent via email. Subscribe here.


"I used to think it was an Australia thing ... like, come on, all the Americans always have, you know, therapists, psychiatrists ... but it’s a little arrogant to think you’ve got it all sorted out. Why wouldn’t you want the help? Like Roger Federer is the greatest tennis player of all time, and he has a full-time coach. Right?

… Pavarotti had a singing teacher to the end of his life. Why wouldn’t we invest that in the art of living? And so certainly with me with Lauren Zander, [she's] changed my life in the last four years, big time."

Hugh Jackman discussing his life coach on The Tim Ferriss Show (#444)


When I first started managing a team, I would often leave conversations with my direct reports feeling exhausted. When they came to me with a challenge, I would do what I thought was right: provide them with a solution or take it on myself. I soon found that this was not an effective or, frankly, sustainable management technique.

During these early days, I read a book called Turn the Ship Around by David Marquet, a former Commander of the USS Santa Fe. As Commander, he recognized the limitations of having one point of command for the crew. The book documents Marquet's approach for turning the worst submarine in the fleet around to become one the most successful. By employing the phrase "I intend to..." among the crew and vowing to no longer give orders, he was able to empower a group of followers into active leaders. “I intend to...” was a shift in language that focused Marquet’s subordinates on crafting vs. seeking solutions.

This story stuck with me. As people say, it takes two to tango. It wasn't enough for me to stop solving the problems of my direct reports; I also had to guide them to come with solutions.

Years later, last Wednesday, one of our Senior Designers* (who joined us as a junior a few years back) messaged me following a big presentation. They let me know how beneficial our one-on-one that day was and how it helped them better engage with the client. As the day went on, I kept thinking about this earlier conversation.

To keep up an open dialogue with our Senior Designers on their development as leaders and projects, I recently implemented a weekly meeting on Wednesdays. If I hadn't done that, my conversation that day likely wouldn't have happened. Why? This designer hadn't come to me in search of a solution. They came with a list of recent experiences to get perspective on.

  • Example: "I think the way we're approaching this project feels bloated. If we do it X way, I feel like we can come under budget. Does this feel right to you?"
  • Example: "For today's presentation, I'm thinking that I'll start with X and then do X. Given recent events, I feel like this will give the client space to share thoughts. I'm curious to hear your thoughts."

As I recounted our conversation, I realized that this Senior Designer was coming to me with their version of "I intend to..." A concept I hadn't forgotten but one I hadn't realized was driving my work all this time. My mind started racing to many conversations over the past several weeks and months. There was a trend. Not only is some version of "I intend to..." used daily among my team, but conversations with my direct reports are energizing.

I'm a big fan of creating change through action vs. grand announcements or new guidelines. As Barrel has grown over the past few years, I've been heads down doing just that, focused on building a self-sufficient team to support that growth. It hasn't been easy; there's still a lot of work to do, but the vision remains clear.

This week was a welcome reminder to take a step back and recognize the progress. It's funny how sometimes a simple Thank You is all it takes.

Lesson? The best managers are coaches. The best coaches create a team that doesn't need them but is better with them. Coaching is not solving your team's problems as your own. Coaching is helping your team succeed by guiding them to the right solutions.

*While designers at every level lead in some capacity, our Senior Designers are unique in that they do not manage; they oversee other designers and work autonomously on projects (see here for more on this model of staffing).

Thought Starter

Where am I defaulting to solving other people's problems vs. listening and offering guidance?

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