Although CEO and founder of tech company TINYPulse David Niu is considered a successful serial entrepreneur, things weren’t always smooth sailing for him.
On paper everything seemed to be going smashingly with Niu’s first startup, BuddyTV. He was even able to secure $10 million in VC funding for the company. But Niu quickly realized that he was burning out; he simply wasn’t passionate about his work anymore. Around this time he also got married and had a baby girl in quick succession.
Niu told his team he was going to step down. He decided to sell everything he owned and take a trip around the world with stops in numerous cities.
He had two goals:
- Have great quality time with his wife and daughter
- Interview as many successful entrepreneurs as possible who were not in the tech space about leadership and workplace cultures
The results of his journey around the world included great memories with his family and a world-class education from successful entrepreneurs.
Here are the top four lessons he learned as the result of his unlikely journey:
Although we certainly want to bring talented people on our teams, it is even more important that we find people who share our values. If values aren’t aligned, the relationship we have with someone is almost guaranteed to be a rough one, and will likely end quickly.
It can be quite costly to have someone on the team who does not share the team values. Such a person can be like poison for the other team members, costing us productivity. Eventually, we will likely have to replace the person and incur the cost of rehiring.
Niu learned a great tool for ensuring values alignment of new hires from a CEO in Seoul, Korea. This CEO uses very precise interview questions to ensure that a new hire shares the same values as his team.
His team asks every candidate to explain situations where they lived the team’s core values. If a candidate is unable or unwilling to answer each question satisfactorily, she or he is not offered a position, regardless of how talented she or he is.
Once we’ve got people on the team who share our values, we need to ensure that they understand our values well enough to actually use them to make decisions.
When team members know our values and the behaviors associated with those values, it becomes very easy to empower people to make decisions on their own. We can give them a great deal of autonomy in decision-making by letting them know that a good decision is the one that’s most in line with our values.
Niu learned a simple, fun way to get team members thinking this way from the CEO of an agency in Australia. She takes time each week to give her employees a chance to role-play the different values when facing different real-world decisions. Thus, some decisions actually get made during this time, and the employees get more experience seeing how they can use the core values to guide decision-making.
Oftentimes the best ideas come not from senior leaders, but from the people on the front lines. A CEO of a consulting company offered Niu a great way to help elicit ideas.
This CEO takes time to ensure that he meets with people on his team each week in a nice setting and has a personal conversation that has nothing to do with work. He takes the team member he’s meeting with to dinner, and simply makes the conversation about the team member.
If you don’t have the budget to take an employee out for dinner each week, you could simply go for a walk outside. The point is to have some personal, quality time with each of the members on your team.
In addition to building rapport and showing that we truly care about the people on our teams, this can also provide a great forum for getting candid feedback about our organization, since the environment is so non-threatening.
At the end of each conversation, the CEO asks, “What’s one thing we’re not doing here that we should be doing?” The answers to this question might be some of the best ideas we get for improving our organizations.
At the end of each of the interviews that Niu had with the various entrepreneurs he met, he always asked, “What’s the biggest pain point you have in your business, which, if I could remove for you, you would gladly pay for?”
The most common answer was, “Our biggest pain point is when an employee that we thought loved working for us suddenly quits. Then we’re left in a tight spot and we’re wondering if this is an isolated case or if our culture is not as strong as we think it is.”
Niu came up with a great solution for this problem. Instead of doing big surveys on the state of the culture once a quarter or once a year, as many companies do, he realized that it’s much more effective to do small surveys every week.
By asking only one question, it’s much easier for team members to provide sincere feedback on the culture in just a few minutes. It’s also much easier for leaders to understand the results and take action because they are not overwhelmed with data as they would be on a large, quarterly survey.
By getting feedback every week, it’s much easier to spot problems in the culture before they get to the point where people start becoming unproductive or decide that it’s time to leave.
Also, asking for frequent feedback and consistently showing team members that their feedback is heard and valued is an easy way to serve team members and show them that we truly care about them.
Showing people that we truly care about them is perhaps the most important thing we can do build and sustain a great team culture.
To see the full interview with David Niu, click here.
—Matt Tenney is a social entrepreneur, an international keynote speaker, and the author of Serve to Be Great: Leadership Lessons from a Prison, a Monastery, and a Boardroom.