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This is how leadership is like driving and can make teams sick

Drivers don’t get carsick because they know where they are going and can see the road clearly. Gainsight’s CEO explains how leaders can make sure their teams don’t need Dramamine to get work done.

This is how leadership is like driving and can make teams sick
[Photo: Alex Holyoake/Unsplash]

I don’t get carsick much, but the rest of my family does. Or so I thought.

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Our little ones are regularly so green during road trips that we either need to feed them Dramamine or bring those handy airplane bags. Did I not pass on my iron stomach genes to my kids?

But recently, I rode in the back seat of an Uber with a driver who spent the entire two hours with his hand on the top of the steering wheel, constantly weaving a few degrees left and right. And by the end of the trip, I was as green as our kids would have been.

It turns out that a big part of carsickness is related to the fact that the driver knows where they’re going (and therefore doesn’t get sick) while the passengers don’t. Since I’m rarely a passenger, I don’t get sick—not because I’m somehow different but simply because I’m in the driver’s seat.

And it got me thinking, that’s kind of how leadership works as well. I realized a while ago if I “drive” my companies recklessly, it can easily make the teams sick as well. Even if I’m making good decisions, the fact that I can see where we’re going but my team can’t may have them reaching for the Dramamine.

As a leader, your team is in the passenger seat or backseat. They assume the company (car) will keep going in the same direction. Every change—big or small—feels like nothing to the CEO (driver) and like a roller coaster to the team (passengers).

This is why so many employees say things like:

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“We make changes all the time without thinking.”

“We lack focus.”

“I don’t know where we are going.”

These aren’t hypothetical statements. This is real feedback—real sentences uttered by employees at my company over the years—from when I was driving with a junior license. When you’re a new CEO, you tend to focus all your attention on reading signals and making decisions. This is doubly true if you’re in a startup or a competitive market. You want to be agile, to cut faster than your competition, find new markets.

But even at a young company, you’re not alone in a race car. You’re driving a bus full of people. That’s why it’s never going to be enough to just make the right business decisions.

After getting enough critical comments like the above from my team, I came to realize that two critical parts of my job are:

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Figure out where to go on the “road.”
Make sure the team knows where we are going and why.

The first part is the hardest, of course. Make good decisions.

But the second, making sure the team knows where we are going, is equally important. And it’s something I know a lot of professionals personally struggle with. So I wanted to put together a super-tactical playbook to help leaders—not just CEOs–to avoid making their teammates carsick.

Directions

Your teammates need to know the road map. I know this is a closely guarded secret at plenty of companies, but I think it’s better to be very transparent with the plans and strategy for the future. Put together a shared vision and the rationale behind it for where the company is headed over a three-year time horizon. We have a strategy document outlining those goals that we share with the whole company.

Navigation

Do you follow your turn-by-turn navigation? Or do you swerve in and out of traffic? Rerouting is always on the table, but there needs to be defined criteria to do so and a process to verify your decision. We go through a disciplined goal-setting process on an annual basis (we use the One Page Strategy Plan), and we’re now adding Zone to Win as a way to evaluate the various route options.

Pit stops

You can’t expect to get all the way to your destination in one long sprint. I recommend putting together an organized cadence of strategy reviews based on learnings from your execution. We finally, like most, have annual plans with quarterly goals. We are also getting better at knowing what types of pit stops we need for different strategic efforts.

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Dashboard

The way you’d check your speed, your odometer, your check engine light is similar to gauging which concrete signals you would use to measure your progress and to ensure they are visible to everyone in the car. We have well-defined Key Performance Indicators (KPIs) that everyone can see to track our current health as a company on a regular basis.

P.A. system

Every bus has a P.A. system. Likewise, it’s important to broadcast your strategy through constant communication on an annual (kickoff meeting), quarterly (goals written on a double-sided laminated page), monthly (Monthly Business Reviews), weekly (weekly email to the team), and daily (Slack) basis.

It all comes down to transparency. It’s not a virtue to obscure your strategy from your team. As leaders, we need to do a better job of letting everyone know our goals and tying all of our turns to where we are going. It empowers our teammates to own the direction and enjoy the journey together without getting sick.

You can still get lost as a company and end up backtracking. But at least your passengers will feel good about the trip.

Nick Mehta is the CEO of Gainsight.

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