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I was a control freak. Here’s how I let it all go and became a better leader

This cybersecurity startup cofounder lays out 5 ways to trust your teams and stop obsessively controlling every detail of your business.

I was a control freak. Here’s how I let it all go and became a better leader
[Source photo: Kinek00/iStock]
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One morning, I sat down in our company conference room for what was to be an hour-long meeting with several colleagues to discuss a product-related matter. Since I had strong feelings and also had overheard a few corridor talks about the issue, I was sure I had the right solution. So I didn’t intend to stay long.

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“Listen, everyone,” I said. “This meeting shouldn’t be any longer than five minutes. Here’s what we need to do.”

Spoiler alert: The meeting didn’t end happily. As the cofounder and chief technology officer of our cybersecurity company, I figured I had all the answers, and so I thought I was being helpful by cutting to the chase and saving us all time. But did I seem open to other ideas? Did those in the room feel empowered to express them? Did they leave the meeting feeling motivated?

Of course not. As I now know, I was suffering from a syndrome common to company founders (especially first-time ones like me) and that I had a particularly acute case of: a tendency toward controlling behavior. Though many are loath to admit it, the jokey meme that says “I do things by myself because no one else can meet my ridiculously high standards” rings all too true for many of us.

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But I realized my know-it-all act had to change. Not only is that behavior not cool, but you can’t build a company without getting over yourself and entrusting your people as full partners in the journey. I didn’t always understand that; I do now. I looked in the mirror and saw a guy with the best intentions but who too often stepped on people.

When you think about it, it’s no wonder many of us become so hands-on. We have a powerful sense of ownership (until we see that our job as leaders is to help others feel the same sense of ownership). We have a strong desire for things to be done not only right but fast (until we understand this needs to be a shared ideal across the company, not something we can make happen by snapping our fingers).

And in the startup’s earliest days, we truly do have our hands in everything, from product strategy to marketing to sales and support to office management and bookkeeping. Many entrepreneurs are caught off-guard, and they have trouble adjusting when company growth means getting out of the middle and enabling others to autonomously lead these functions.

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The feeling is much like what a parent experiences when watching their newly licensed teenager drive off alone in the family car for the first time. You know it’s a vital step in the child’s evolution toward independent adulthood, but it’s scary nonetheless.

All of this has been one of my biggest surprises as a first-time startup founder. I thought my approach was fine, until it wasn’t. But I’ve worked hard on changing, and continue to do so. Here are five lessons I’ve learned and that I’d suggest other recovering control freaks think about:

Accept you have a problem 

Startup founders should acknowledge that many of the Type A, hard-charging traits that spurred them to take the entrepreneurial leap in the first place could also, if they’re not careful, stand in the way of developing more collaborative leadership styles. Truth is, a collaborative style comes more naturally to some people than others. It didn’t for me.

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As I did, every founder should perform a gut check and, if necessary, actively work on becoming more comfortable in spreading decision-making influence around the organization. Get a coach. Meditate on the topic. I read books like Extreme Ownership: How U.S. Navy SEALs Lead and Win by Jocko Willink, one of whose lessons is that all team members must be brought into the mission, or Founders at Work: Stories of Startups’ Early Days by Y Combinator cofounder Jessica Livingston.

I recognize that embracing a new style usually involves a learning curve – so I treat it that way. And I let others know about what I’m doing. News alert: It’s ok to show vulnerability.

Let it go! 

I used to think that getting lots of stuff done quickly was what mattered most at our company, and that it was on me to make sure that happened. As the company grows, I’ve come to understand that what really matters is building our teams with great people and empowering them to move the business forward.

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Perhaps that sounds obvious, but the importance of making others feel safe to be creative, take risks, and exercise their intuition can’t be overstated. I got to do that when I started the company; now it’s their turn.

Imagine you’re out of the picture

In our company’s 2021 planning, we did something we never had before: We left out people’s names. A phrase such as “Tzury to lead this” appeared nowhere. Instead, the planning focused squarely on the company’s overarching strategies, rather than defining roles and assignments for specific people.

A company scaling for growth needs to adopt a mindset that anyone, even a founder, is fungible and that the company is bigger than any individual. It may not always be an easy concept to grasp, but it’s reality.

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Learn from others

Role models are everywhere. Board members. Founders and top executives at other companies. Managers down the reporting chain in your own company. I’ve even taken inspiration from the collaborative way in which my 14-year-old son treats others.

Exercising your power of observation can go a long way in making you a better leader.

Recognize the consequences of not adapting

When a founder hoards control over everything, I now realize, they do damage in a number of ways. They stifle independent thinking and action. They frustrate and intimidate. They hog not only responsibility but knowledge that others need to do their jobs well. And, ironically, they end up becoming bottlenecks – they think their way of doing things helps the company move faster, but in fact it hits the brakes.

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Startup founders are better off emulating the principles of open-source software, which is based on the idea that innovation is best served by contributions from a large community of coders. This model has allowed all kinds of software to be developed better and faster, and it seems a wise example to follow in leading a company.

As these five tips show, overcoming control freak tendencies is a tough journey that requires intentional effort. I’m not thrilled about my dictatorial past, but I am excited about the changes I’ve made and continue to. I suspect the people at our company are too.

This is one of the most important things I’ve ever done.

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Tzury Bar Yochay is cofounder and chief technology officer of cybersecurity company Reblaze.