On Leadership and Management While “Waiting for the Right Leader to Be Hired”
The other day, I was meeting with a team member when an interesting question came up. This bright, talented young woman, eager to make an impact and drive results, is our first hire for a new initiative within Labs. Among her many tasks is finding the right senior leader for the initiative. She asked, “There are actions and decisions I feel are right, but should I pursue them now? We’ll be hiring someone to lead the project soon, and they may see things differently. What would you advise?”
At WeWork, and particularly within WeWork Labs, our answer to this question is almost always to encourage the employee to forge ahead. But the answer will vary by organization and is deeply rooted in a company’s culture. Some are empowering places, some are diminishing, but most fall on the wide spectrum in the middle, where situational context plays a big part. As a high-growth organization encountering these types of decisions every week, this question is familiar to us. I thought it might be helpful to share how we think through it.
In a world where we make thousands of decisions a month, and where there are no absolute truths, leadership principles help us think about our decisions in a coherent way. Here are a few that guide us.
- Acting now is normally better than acting later. The most valuable resource we have is time, and every day we don’t learn something is a day wasted. In most cases like this one, the potential downside of acting now is smaller than the potential downside of waiting (when accounting for time wasted and opportunity cost). One of the most influential thought pieces I’ve ever read, one that evolved my perception of acting with speed, was by Joichi Ito of the MIT Media Lab, and to quote him, “[I]t is now usually cheaper to just try something than to sit around and try to figure out whether to try something.” You should not be reckless, of course, and thoughtfulness is always helpful, but you should also make the most of the time you have today. In other words, be thoughtful about your level of thoughtfulness.
- Future leaders aren’t a guaranteed short-term solution. New leaders take time to onboard, and the evolved ones usually take a bit of time before passing judgment or taking extreme actions. Some new leaders are excited about the work that was done before they joined, while others think everyone who worked in their area before they started was an idiot. Make sure you hire the first kind. Truly evolved leaders appreciate past actions and the context in which they were taken. They understand that progress matters and won’t expect an organization to grind to a halt before they join, anticipating that they’ll know all the right answers. They know that acting in their absence doesn’t hurt them. On the contrary, it’s one of the best strategies to set them up for success because it helps them learn more about the issues at hand, and provides them with insight into what works and what doesn’t.
- Trust is a powerful tool, as are fresh perspectives. We believe it is a smart bet to hire brilliant people with fresh perspectives, educate them about the company’s culture, set up guardrails, and let them run, whether key leadership is in place or not. When you are working on one hundred things, some of them aren’t going to work out. There is no guarantee for success when aiming far, wide, and at scale. There are many possible approaches, and we believe empowerment wins at the end of the day.
The employee’s point of view
As the person wondering if you should be taking action, knowing that a new manager will join soon, you’re in a sensitive position. Primitive impulses come to the surface, like protecting yourself from being wrong and not getting yourself into a situation where the new manager could point at you as someone who made mistakes. Defensiveness is the death of creativity.
If the actions you take are clear-cut successes, there’ll be no need to worry about your new manager’s perception of them. But what does “successful” even mean in the context of a new leader with a fresh set of eyes, or when the choices you’ve made are open to scrutiny? What if the new leader thinks an action you took was ill-advised or the direction you’ve chosen is incorrect? How do you mitigate that? Here are two suggestions.
- Align with your current manager on your mission and objectives. If you do this, then you have the litmus test of whether or not you’re doing a good job. There are two types of failures. One is a failure to achieve objectives, and the other is having the wrong objectives. Having consensus with your current manager creates a healthy framework if and when a future leader decides to change those objectives later on.
- Balance humility with courage. I would advise you to act in line with two opposing philosophies. The first is doing the best you can with what you have, knowing that things would probably be different, possibly better, if the future leader were here now. When the leader arrives, your attitude can be, “This is the best I could do without you. I hope it was good, but I’m so happy you’re here because now we can do better.” On the other hand, you’re also in a position to channel great self-confidence: “I will bring my best self into this and it’s going to be great. No one can do a better job than me, here and now.” You are the protagonist of this story. You are not a side character waiting for your future manager to come in and save the day. And remember, the new leader may never come. So try to think through what they would do if they were here and channel these thoughts into actions that create maximum impact. Be your own boss.
A word of advice for the current manager
To those who are managing an employee when there’s a manager missing in the middle, my recommendation is to remember that there’s a protagonist in every story. Always think of the employee as the protagonist and then decide what your role is in their story. Are you the empowering mentor? The Gandalf to their Frodo? Or are you the diminishing, know-it-all boss? (And if you haven't watched Office Space please stop what you're doing and go watch.)
The right choice is obvious: Be the manager and mentor who helps them on their path to self-fulfillment. Instead of focusing on being the star of your own blockbuster, do everything you can to make your employee’s starring role successful. Be a multiplier. Celebrate others’ successes. Trust your team to make smart decisions. To quote Gandalf, “for even the very wise cannot see all ends.”