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Learning how to lead through struggle and success
Last updated September 29th, 2022 Google the word “leadership” and you’re likely to see images of a person fronting a crowd. They’re often charging ahead or speaking to a group from above. These visuals are telling. We like to think of leaders as distinct figures. They’re supposed to represent a level of charisma, knowledge, or vision that we aspire to have. That’s why we follow them. We turn that idea on its head at Thinking Machines. Niek Van Veen, Vice President for Growth, believes that managing people is a limited view of leadership. It’s not always about being at the helm. The ultimate goal of leadership is to connect people to a compelling vision. That connection is what propels people to do their best. How does a leader do that? Through values-based leadership, which is making decisions based on core values. These values are common between leaders and their teams to create alignment for better execution and higher productivity. “Values ground decisions on how to move forward,” says Niek.
Learning how to lead through struggle and success
Niek has managed various marketing and sales teams over the years. In that time, he’s faced a series of struggles and successes with leadership. One struggle, in particular, was micromanagement. Rigid workplace cultures will inevitably result in friction within a team. “It’s difficult to let go of tasks as a manager,” he admits. But resorting to micromanagement is also a reflection of one’s failure to “create a framework that allows you to trust your team,” he adds. Eventually, Niek worked for a manager with an inspirational leadership style. “He created compelling visions and gave a lot of responsibility to his direct reports. He was very humble and good at sharing wins,” Niek recalled. Unbeknown to him, Niek’s former manager was modeling values-based leadership. He linked his actions with a desire to empower his team. When leaders create the systems and inputs to help people thrive, they enable teams to deliver. Niek refers to this process as creating good energy at work. Compelling company vision, healthy workplace culture, fair compensation—these elements all work together to energize people at work. Fewer reasons to feel drained or frustrated enable people to be productive.
Link your decisions to values for maximum impact
Leaders often fail to create buy-in into their vision, creating a disconnect between teams and purpose. That disconnect results in low-energy workplaces and low-performing teams. Aligning values allows leaders and their teams to be clear on their goals. This boosts productivity and performance. “Values are linked to explicit behaviors and hold people accountable,” Niek shares. “It’s very easy to work in a place where your professional and personal values align.” For example, a core company value for Thinking Machines is trust and accountability. Aligning with this value made the decision to offer time-flexible arrangements at work an easy one for Niek and the leadership team. The flexibility enabled the company to thrive. We continued to operate, and even started to expand, across Manila, Bangkok, and Singapore in 2020. “Give people trust and accountability, cheer them on, and it’s more likely they will perform well. They often exceed my expectations this way,” he shares with a smile.
Values-based leadership sets a foundation for the future
Values-based leadership is one of the ways Thinking Machines managed to grow from 50 to over 150 people at the peak of The Great Resignation. While many organizations seek talent based on various skill sets and characteristics, Niek says values are a much better basis for hiring. “It’s easy to create and hire diversity. You remove a lot of limits to your hiring net when you hire based on values. It captures a much wider group of people.” A growth mindset is another company value that helps Thinking Machines attract and retain talent. For example, all employees receive a robust personal development budget. Many people use it to develop their skills aligned with their professional goals. Encouraging and enabling this kind of growth provides team members with the necessary reprieve, which is essential for sustainability at work.
Take steps to become a values-based leader at work
Values-based leadership is key to unlocking your team’s potential, boosting productivity, and growing your organization. But how do you start applying it at work? First, identify your values. Ask yourself what kind of organization you want to become. These values will set the tone for your workplace culture, so make sure you are intentional. For Thinking Machines, our values are a growth mindset, trust and accountability, relationships matter, and building for the future. Second, start embodying your values. Start now. Ask yourself, “does this action align with this value?” This makes it easier to determine whether a concern is worth further conversations or consideration. Third, link goals and objectives to those values. At Thinking Machines, we are obsessed with data. We thrive on making things measurable because it allows us to see our progress. Specifying and linking team goals to your company values can help you check how well you embody them at work. Effective leadership isn’t always about gathering and managing people. It’s about propelling people towards a future they want to create. Great leaders know how to do that through two things—creating a vision and executing it based on values.
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