Leadership and Management Lessons from a Life Spent Learning

From my 30-plus years as an executive and venture capitalist in multiple countries and cultures, I have a pretty good idea of what it takes to succeed, regardless of industry, company size and location, but I also stay humble enough to understand that I always, always have more to learn, which is the beautiful thing about leadership and management. Here are a few of my top insights for leading and managing. 

Know your role

You have only a few primary jobs as a leader: Build your team, with an emphasis on the word team. Prioritize: You, as a leader, have the broadest lens so you’re the best person to prioritize. Decide: Whatever it is, make the decision and move forward. And, most critically, communicate: Do it early and often. And I’m not just talking about conversations in the board room — employees also need to hear about rationales and justifications for business decisions so that they can believe in the mission, and feel ownership in their fates. 

Hire your friends 

By friends, I mean people who you can completely trust. When I hire executive team members, I look for trust first and then performance. As a leader, I know how to improve performance — I don’t know how to teach trust. Good people are hard to find. If you find one, hire them and then find a job for them. A positive personality, ambition, and drive to succeed can be transferred to almost any role. 

Trust in this equation

Trust is not a soft, fluffy thing. It has four specific, very tangible attributes and can be demonstrated in an equation: 

                       Trust = (Reliability + Credibility + Intimacy)

Self Interest

Reliability in this instance means delivering what you promise, consistently. Credibility means you can confidently say you know what you are talking about. Intimacy equates to sincerity in your commitment to the relationship, are perceived that way, and are willing to be vulnerable. Self-interest is obvious and is not necessarily a bad thing as long as reliability, credibility, and intimacy rank higher. 

Engage in True Dialog

True dialog is a key aspect of a healthy relationship and happens when both parties listen with genuine curiosity about the other’s viewpoint. The concept of True Dialogue is derived from David Bohm, a distinguished theoretical physicist who was close with Albert Einstein and who later in his life published groundbreaking work on how people can communicate better with each other.  

Often, whether realizing it or not, people listen to each other out of generosity and not out of curiosity. Listening is good, but the intent has to be curiosity, not generosity. True dialog does not happen when we pretend to listen, and it certainly cannot happen if we are not listening at all. I try to create true dialog between team members by hosting inefficient meetings, such as “red wine seminars”, which start after work and have no agenda and no end time. It can be moderated but it should allow for good open-ended discussion, cultivating true dialog at its finest.

High performance culture is key 

The term “high performance culture” is not a buzzword. I attach very specific, tangible attributes to attaining and then maintaining a high performance culture. First, each team member needs clear goals and clear roles. Second, full transparency from every member is crucial in order to ensure all facts and intentions are on the table. Third, a culture which fosters healthy debate among colleagues is critical, but it must happen before a decision is made, not after. After closing on a decision, team members should only focus on actual execution. Finally, clear accountability and trust is important to ensuring that the execution stage results in success.

Focus, focus, focus

As managers, we often get distracted by the small things or the new things. It’s natural, but it isn’t effective. Staying focused is one of the most critical ways we can actually help our teams make progress. Review your to-do list at least twice a day and your goals at least once a week. Make sure meetings stay on topic. Too often, I see meetings hijacked for irrelevant, low-priority issues. It’s critical to speak only when you have something to say, otherwise, conversation is counterproductive and dominated by those who just want to hear themselves talk. 

Dr. Ajit Singh is a Silicon Valley-based partner at Artiman Ventures, an early-stage venture fund investing in white space companies creating or disrupting multi-billion dollar markets. He is also a Consulting Professor in the School of Medicine at Stanford University and holds a doctorate in Computer Science from Columbia University.