Adam Drake

Leaders Eat Last

Introduction

When leading teams, one of the most important things to keep in mind is to lead from a perspective of wanting the team to grow and improve in order to achieve a higher goal. The biggest part of that is taking care of the people on the team. This can mean things people may typically think of, like supporting and encouraging someone on your team while they pursue their career goals. It can also mean things people typically don’t think of, like firing someone from the team when they aren’t performing since you must continue to look out for the team’s overall welfare and advancement.

It’s not unusual for companies to offer to reserve a conference room for me to use as an office and meeting room during a site visit. While this is a very kind gesture, I always decline such an offer for a wide variety of reasons.

First, conference rooms are always in high demand. Executives blocking an entire room for an extended period for an external advisor is more than just an administrative task. It gives the indication that the advisor is more important than the other people who may need that conference room. This does not serve the purpose of helping the advisor to become accepted by and to rapidly develop a rapport with employees. It’s almost like an auditor were visiting, and that isn’t conducive to the kinds of site visits I find most beneficial.

Second, it’s simply not practical to expect employees to speak openly in a more formal setting. It’s great for the executives to spread the word that I’ll be in the office, but I avoid having them give me any special treatment that wouldn’t also be afforded to any employee. In fact, I typically have all of my introductory discussions with people outside of the office entirely, if it is possible to do so.

The biggest, and arguably most important, reason I decline to have a conference room reserved is that it directly contradicts my leadership philosophy.

Put yourself before others

The term servant leadership gets thrown around a lot these days, but from my observations it’s more talked about than acted out. Some people will go through the motions with selfish intentions, and with predictable results.

If people know that you genuinely have their welfare at heart, and you will do what you can to support their efforts and advancement, that probably does more than anything else to build trust. You don’t have to be right all the time, but if you’re knowledgeable about the job and you genuinely look out for people’s welfare, they will usually respect, trust, and follow you as a leader.

However, you must really want that kind of situation. You must walk the walk, so to speak. You must genuinely want to sacrifice your own comfort for the betterment of the people on the team and the team itself. You must live this at all times.

I don’t mean that you should never seize opportunities to improve yourself if you are a leader. In fact, far from it! Improving yourself and your situation may be an ideal way to provide a better environment for the team. If you have more political capital with management, you can lobby more effectively for budget and raises. If you are more prominent in groups in your industry, you can attract more business in order to support and grow your team. But you should ask yourself, objectively, if the benefits of an action are driven more by selfishness or or by a desire to be a better leader for the team.

Concrete Examples

There are many ways you can put yourself before the team, and these are some that I employ or have employed on a regular basis over the years. The goal of doing these things is not just to be seen doing them in order to make a statement. The goal is to make sure that your people have what they need, and that you are always allocating resources in a way that most benefits the team and the people on it. Usually, this allocation means giving little or nothing to yourself. Your reward is the improvement of the people and the team.

To start with, leaders eat last. Whenever there is a company function or event, do not stand in line for food. Do not make your way to the kitchen area when some free-food type of email comes into your inbox. Let everyone else go first, and you can take what is left (if anything). If nothing is left, go hungry. This isn’t to say you should not be present at social functions or events where food is served, but if you’re at a company function and there’s a line, just wait until the line has passed through before you start taking things. Or, at least wait until the line has finished growing and then you can stand at the back.

Most departments have a fixed budget, if any at all, for conferences and travel. If you can send someone else to a conference or event instead of going yourself, then do that. There may be cases where you need to go to conferences in order to increase business or support for the team, and that’s fine. But if you’re going to a conference to present some kind of work or result, could it make more sense to send someone from the team to present their results instead? Who will benefit more from the experience? Whose career will reap a bigger benefit? Would you really get more out of presenting the team’s work than someone on the team would get from doing the presentation? Also, allowing someone else to go in your stead is a great way to groom and support potential future leaders of the team. Don’t be selfish with the conference and travel budget.

Does your company offer referrals or recruiting bonuses? Usually, companies don’t pay the referral bonuses to someone hired directly in your department, but you may be entitled to the same referral bonus as any other employee for referring someone who is hired into another department. If you hire someone from your network (and if you’re a senior leader, you probably do this often when working with a company), instead of taking the referral bonus for a new hire, consider asking if you can allocate it to a bonus or bonuses for people on your team. If not, see if you can use that money in a different way for the betterment of your team. It could supplement a conference, a training and education budget, or even just fund some team or department events. Find ways to redirect that referral money away from yourself and towards your team.

Sometimes companies fall on hard times and cash flow becomes an issue. This is especially true in startups where funding processes may be ongoing. It may become necessary to choose between keeping the lights on and making payroll. In this case, consider halting some or all of your salary before having to do the same to a person or people on your team. If you’re a very senior leader, it may be the case that your salary is triple, or more, the average salary of your team. If that’s the case, halting your salary for a period could lead to being able to avoid laying off multiple people from the team. Furthermore, if you are a leader with no family to support, consider the personal and family situations of the people on your team. If most of the people on your team have families to support, then who needs the money more? Lastly, if a temporary reduction in salary isn’t an option, make it clear to the leadership of the company that if people have to be laid off, that you should be the first to go before any of your team. If you’ve been doing a good job as a leader, your team is already lean and you’ve ensured there is someone who is primed and ready to take your place as a team lead. If people have to get cut, volunteer to be the first and communicate that desire to higher management.

Most technology departments have some kind of on-call or support system and process in place for critical systems. If you are a technical person, you should be doing regular on-call shifts just like everyone else. This assumes, of course, that you have sufficient technical ability to handle any problems that arise and that you wouldn’t create more problems for the team than you’d solve. This also gives you a chance to actually live out the policies and procedures for the on-call rotation. If, as a leader, when you are prescribing and setting policy, you demonstrate that you are willing to roll up your sleeves and experience the results of your process decisions firsthand, the team is far more likely to trust you.

If you have a kitchen area in your company or office, keep the dishes washed and the trash serviced. I don’t care if you have cleaning staff that do this as well. I don’t care if you can rationalize that your time is worth more than their time and therefore you should leave messes for them to clean up because it’s a better use of company funds. That’s short-term thinking. If you did that, you’d be building horrible long-term habits, not to mention showing everyone who notices that you don’t mind having other people clean up after you and deal with your problems. Always clean the dishes and take out the trash.

Conclusion

Even if you think your ideas are great, and even if they are in actuality, it’s impossible to get people to trust and follow you if you do not genuinely have their best interests at heart. The best way to demonstrate that fact is through your actions.

So clean up messes in the kitchen, redirect funding to people on your team, and always, always eat last.