If you’re a software engineer, used to writing code in a room by yourself, the idea of leading a team, let alone a company, can be terrifying. So many things could go wrong, you might make a bad decision that hurts the company, get fired, or perhaps worse of all, your skills might get rusty.
Our next guest is the former VP at Rackspace and is the author of Replace Yourself. He’s here to tell us that the truth is, you already have all the skills to be an effective leader, even if you don’t realize it.
Robert La Gesse: I’ve worked in the tech community for 25, 30 years, and I got into it accidentally. I was an individual programmer, kept in the dark like a mushroom. After a couple of years, my manager knocked on my door and said, “I need to see you in my office.”
He goes, “I’m going to promote you to manage the team,” and the next day, I was managing a team. I had no training whatsoever in managing people. I just was completely unprepared to manage, especially technical people.
And then fast-forward 20 years, and I saw the same thing happening at my former employer, Rackspace, where people are getting promoted and they weren’t ready to be managers, much less leaders.
We didn’t want managers, we wanted leaders.
If they weren’t prepared, then the outcomes weren’t good either. They became extremely unhappy and left the company on their own volition or they failed as a leader and were asked to leave the company—which is really bad news because then you have to replace a leader and an individual contributor.
So, it’s like a double whammy to the organization.
Or they go back to their leadership and say, “Just put me back in my box and let me be an individual contributor again because I’m just failing at this leadership thing.”
All three are bad outcomes for the employer, all three are bad outcomes for the employee. I thought, you know, maybe through my experience and some of the things I shared, I could just help people cross that chasm a little more painlessly.
Leaders vs Managers
Rae Williams: You said you wanted leaders, not managers. How would you define that difference? What makes you a leader and not just a manager?
Robert La Gesse: Leaders compel people to offer their best work every day. Managers demand it.
It’s a huge difference between the types of employees that you’re going to recruit and retain between those two different styles.
Managers are worried about things like budgets and time clocks. Leaders are worried about work-life balance and employee satisfaction and team affinity. I think leaders are worried about the whole person and not just what’s going on nine to five, Monday through Friday, with that person’s job performance. That’s what the manager does.
Rae Williams: If you had to pick out the one unique idea or the central idea of your book that people can take action on, what would that be?
Robert La Gesse: If you’re promoted to a leadership position, it’s because somebody in your organization sees something in you that they respect and admire. They don’t want leaders that are wallflowers and quiet.
You are promoted because of your ideas, because there’s something individual about you that matters. So, your bosses need to hear your voice, you need to be confident to speak up even sometimes when your opinion is extremely unpopular.
Or, if you see something that the company is doing as a whole that you know is going to negatively affect your team, your morale, your ability to meet your goals and deadlines, you’ve got to be able to speak up and let your managers know that.
That’s what they’re paying you to do—they’re not just paying you to go and do annual reviews on these employees so that they don’t have to do it.
They’re paying you to be a leader and be a decision maker, be part of the process.
Why We Should Share Mistakes
Rae Williams: There is a chapter that you have called Share Mistakes—why is that important for us to do as a leader?
Robert La Gesse: Well, first off, it shows your humanity, right? When you are willing to be open with both your employees and your leadership, admitting mistakes, you establish a greater level of trust with people because they know that you’re going to be honest with them when you screw up.
You’re not going to blame it on others, you’re not going to try to hide it, you’re going to own it.
When I interviewed for my last position in the company. I told them during the interview process, I said, “Look, I’m going to screw up 20% of the time, that’s a given. But 80% of the time, I’m going to be right. That 80% is what you’re hiring me for.”
When I screw up, I’m going to learn from it and I’m not going to make that same mistake twice. Also, there’s so much to be learned through sharing screw-ups. If I screwed up and hid it from my team and didn’t let any of my employees knew it, they would never learn from my screw up.
If I share my mistakes with my team, then they’re learning from my mistakes without them having to make them.
How to Show Weakness
Rae Williams: How can people easily share their mistakes with their team if they’re feeling like they don’t want to show weakness?
Robert La Gesse: First off, what is the problem with showing weakness? I mean, every human being has weaknesses. I don’t understand how not showing weaknesses makes you a better leader.
I think those people who aren’t confident and comfortable enough in my own skins are the type of people who try to hide their weaknesses or pretend that they don’t have them.
Normally, the only person they’re fooling is themselves anyway. We might as well put it out there on the table and use it. It’s not just an educational moment, it could be a motivational moment. I went in front of my teams and would admit that I screwed up.
I over promised, “I’m going to need you to work on Saturday. I am sorry, I own this.” I could have handled that in a completely different way. I could have said, “You guys aren’t working fast enough, so you’re going to work Saturday.”
Which one of those approaches do you think employees would respond better to?
I know, from my experience, they respond better to a more humane and humble approach. Just because I’m the leader doesn’t mean that I’m the smartest guy in the room, I talked about it in the book: hire people smarter than you.
I’ve always tried to do that. If I made a mistake, I couldn’t hide it to these people anyway. They’re smarter than me.
A Drill or a Hole
Rae Williams: The chapter, Do You want a Drill or a Hole—could you explain to us a little bit the question and then answer it for us?
Robert La Gesse: This came from when I was a manager at a Radio Shack, so I’m dating myself. I was young, I was 23 years old when I became a store manager and my district manager was in town.
I only saw him once or twice a year, but he happened to be in the store in this day when a customer came in and asked if we sold drills. I told him, “No, I’m sorry, we don’t but there’s ACE hardware store down the street.”
He said thank you and turned around to leave, and my district manager followed out the front door and two minutes later, he brings him back in and brings him right to me at the counter and says, “This man needs an awl.”
An awl is a hole punch. It’s a piece of metal that you hit with a hammer and it will make a hole, like sheet rock. You know, it’s like a $1.19 cent item or something.
After I took care of that customer and he left, my district manager said, “You didn’t ask the right questions. The customer told you he needed a drill, but he didn’t need a drill. What he needed was a hole. We got plenty of things that makes holes.”
I kept that lesson—because it was embarrassing to me at the time and it should have been. At 23 years old, what the hell did I know? I thought I knew everything of course. So, from then on, anytime even when I was a VP for a publicly traded company, when people would tell me they wanted something I would always dig deeper to find out what they needed, not what they told me they wanted.
Rae Williams: Who do we want to build allegiances with and why are those important?
Robert La Gesse: You want to build them with as many people as you can, of course. But certainly, the people that your team depends on, and for other external deliverables from team A to my team B and then people that I need to deliver things to on team C—if we are working at odds, speaking on a leadership level, if those three leaders of those three teams aren’t in sync and don’t have allegiances to each other or at least understanding of each other…Team A, who is providing something of resource to my team, they may have absolutely no idea what my stressors are or what my limitations on my team are. They are being driven by something potentially totally different than what my team is being driven by. The same for the people that we’re delivering to.
I found that just by meeting with those other people, maybe it is five minutes a week just to establish enough of a relationship that when you need something you run into trouble, or if you have questions, you’ve got an allegiance, you got a friend to reach to instead of somebody you are competing against.
In big business especially, you are competing with a lot of the same resources. You are competing for the same budgets; you are competing for the same headcounts. It is much better to work together to reach those goals than to try to do it in a silo.
Rae Williams: What are some examples of people who have gotten the most out of your ideas that you present in this book?
Robert La Gesse: My last team I had at Rackspace, there were 14 of them. Nine of them are out running their own businesses right now and in a wide variety of different fields. Some in marketing, some doing event management, but they all have built up a level of self-confidence that they are going out and they are trying their own thing.
I think that is so remarkable, and half of those are probably going to fail. I mean that is just the law of averages. But I know every one of them will try again. Because I know the caliber and quality of people we are talking about.
But first off, you have to build a team that doesn’t need you anymore.
That’s always been my goal as a leader, to replace myself. If I can put myself out of a job at a large company, that means I have done a really good job for that company. They are going to find another job for me to do, which generally means a promotion.
That is exactly what happened to me at my last company. I was promoted to VP 18 months, two years before I finally retired. So, I guess that is the answer.
Rae Williams: What have you seen happen when people aren’t able to replace themselves when they are not operating in this mindset?
Robert La Gesse: Well, they become lifelong employees. There’s nothing wrong with that. Believe me, the world needs tons of lifelong employees. But the type of work, and their work environment that I was in, we were in a highly dynamic space. Everything was growing quickly.
The business was growing quickly, we were hiring 100 people a month for two years or something. I mean the growth was nuts, so we needed to raise leaders.
Hiring leaders externally, especially if most of your leadership is being hired externally, is almost always bad for a culture. You are diluting your culture by bringing in external influences that weren’t raised in your culture and don’t understand.
In our company, we think and treat everybody like friends and family, from employees to customers. You would hear people say it in a meeting, if somebody brought up something that was not customer friendly or not employee friendly.
Somebody might say, “That doesn’t sound very friends and family to me.” And if you were raised within the company through the leadership rank, you knew exactly what that person was saying. But if you are a leader that was brought in from another company, you would have no idea of how important that statement was that is basically calling somebody out and saying, “You’re going against our core values.” So that is a big deal.
I think hiring people that are not necessarily aggressively wanting to climb the corporate ladder, but people who are curious and knowledgeable and hungry to learn are already decent with other human beings, right? They already treat others well. You are naturally going to find them moving up into those leadership roles, and they are going to surprise themselves when they do it.
A lot of times, when I promoted people, they told me, “I never thought I would be a director. I never even dreamed that I wanted to be a manager.”
A Challenge from Rob La Gesse
Rae Williams: If you had to issue a challenge to people reading your book, to people listening to us, to people who may aspire to leadership, what would that challenge be?
Rob La Gesse: My challenge would be for them to always be very, very open with themselves. To understand themselves, their own weaknesses, and allow your team to know what your weaknesses are and hire people that fill those weaknesses.
Me hiring clones of me makes no sense.
So, the challenge would be to hire people that are different than you are, smarter than you are, but their fingers still fit in the glove that you are building with the team.
We don’t hire brilliant assholes, because who wants to work with a brilliant asshole?
Hiring good people and showing that you are a good person—there’s a chapter in my book that is called Be Helpful that would probably be the title of my next book. But, “be helpful,” has been my mantra for over a decade now.
I apply that to everything, to the way I interact with my employees, “How can I help you? Oh, you just had twins, okay you are going to need two weeks off.”
You know, “How else can I help you? Can we bring you food? Can I have GrubHub deliver food for a week?”
With customers it’s the same thing. How can you go above and beyond of what they expect? I even do it if I have a plumber out working out in the yard. I’ll bring them a bottle of water on hot days.
It’s just simple things that help people that over time are noticed and recognized. It establishes a level of trust and bonding that you get with humans on a human level, and not, “Because I am the boss and I told you to do it dammit.”
Rae Williams: How can people contact you if they would like to learn more?
Rob La Gesse: I’m pretty easy to find. On Twitter I’m @kr8tr, and my phone number and my email address are on my Twitter profile. The same on Facebook. My phone number is area code 210-845-4440. My email is .