Phoebe Hayman, the founder of Seedling, Talks About Leadership as a Support Role

When you think of leadership, is your instinct: critical support role or “passive leadership?” If you are uncertain, one leadership philosophy is transformational while the other is ineffective; which is your swim lane?

Unfortunately, chances are you fall into the passive leadership swim lane. I don’t say this to insult you, but many in the supervisor role are ill-prepared to be transformational leaders, football coach Vince Lombardi makes the point:

Leaders are made, they are not born. They are made by hard effort, which is the price which all of us must pay to achieve any goal that is worthwhile.

Oddly, when you are in a leadership role your primary job is to marshal your team to do the work; to meet those quarterly goals, to achieve those milestones, and to check off the tasks on your project plan. Unfortunately, the To Do List philosophy has little to do with being a transformational leader.

In the Handbook of Work Stress edited by Julian Barling, E. Kevin Kelloway, Michael R. Frone, the team explains:

Transformational leaders exhibit four characteristics in their interactions with employees; idealized influence, inspirational motivation, intellectual stimulation, and individualized consideration.

While interviewing Phoebe Hayman, the founder of Seedling, I quickly recognized the transformational leader characteristics. And then Hyman educated me on what leadership means to her:

Personally I see leadership as a support role — a listener, a facilitator, a translator, a navigator.

I never looked at leadership as a support role but when you think about it; yes in part an effective leader must play a support role to her team.

So, Phoebe what’s your story?

I have a deep passion for problem solving and I’ve always been fascinated by human behavior. As a child, I started to recognize I had these traits when I played with other kids or just imagined games on my own. We often think about play as entertainment but I’ve come to view play as how children process and practice skills and interactions without fear of failure or judgment. Play peaks our curiosity in the areas that interest us the most and allows us to discover our own strengths.

Play is where you discover ‘I’m good at making people laugh, ‘I’m a good team leader’, ‘I’m good at making experiments’ or ‘I’m good on the jungle bars’ or ‘I’m creative’ (or ‘I’m not creative’ as many adults tend to believe due to a childhood art project that didn’t look as good as others. However put a person on a stranded island by themselves and they get creative real fast – I haven’t met anyone yet that would just sit on the beach and starve.)

It’s a lifelong process for me. As a parent, I feel most connected to my kids when we play together. I love that kids bring pure play back into your life as an adult, one of the most unexpected joys of being a parent. This passion has led me here, where I’m fortunate enough to be able work with insanely talented people exploring our relationship with play everyday.

Key Takeaway. Experimenting with ideas is a powerful tool in understanding your strengths as well as the opportunity to build relationships with talented people.

Why should leaders lead, and when they do lead, what is their first responsibility?

Personally, I see leadership as a support role - a listener, a facilitator, a translator, a navigator. I know its common to think of the leader as the visionary, but if you’re a good listener, facilitator, translator and navigator then the leader shares ownership over the vision with the entire team.

Your time to lead is in developing a framework for the team to work within. In order to be successful in executing this shared vision, it’s the leader’s responsibility is to help people understand the role they play and how they can successfully measure their performance. Then you need to take a step back and get out of their way.

The most powerful learnings for me in my journey as a CEO have been about what my job is not – It is not my job to be a judge. My job is to give people the tools and visibility to assess themselves. People are fully capable of self-assessment and although I often give feedback, this is just an input which may or may not be relevant in the problem they are solving.

My job is not to problem solve. I have a natural love of problem solving so my natural instinct is to jump in and try to solve the problem. My true job is to make sure success is clearly defined and then hard as it is—step aside. One person has very limited experiences to draw from and we can only achieve success if everyone is problem solving together.

Key Takeaway. The job of a leader is to define success, then step back and then listen, facilitate, translate, a navigator.

What is more important to you, the traditional hierarchy (director, manager, the boss, etc) or how teams are formed to get the work done?

Hands down it’s how teams are formed.

The definition of hierarchy is often ambivalent and I find it fails to recognize strategists, decision makers, executors and owners. This then causes confusion, assumptions and politics. An effective team in our organization understands why they are working together (what is the collective goal of this group?), understands the role they each play, understands their collective skills and needs and most importantly – agree on how they will work together.

This is unique to each group and is best discussed up front, before any actions are taken. Too often people just start working without ever discussing how the goals are going to be achieved.

Key Takeaway. Focus on your team's formation, more specifically discuss how will goals be achieved.

Are you open to the nontraditional ways that teams can get work done? Can you site one example you are currently fostering?

Always. If we want to be innovative in our products, we need to be innovative in our approach to how we work together.

As an end-to-end company, we often have projects pass off from one department to another - not dissimilar to an additive manufacturing model. We were struggling with departments having different priorities or communication styles and often projects could be stalled at a department level waiting for people or decisions. To try to solve these issues, we implemented a ‘working group’ model where a team of 4 is given one particular goal to achieve. The team was made up of people from multiple departments to create direct ‘flows’ through the company with no gates or battles over priorities (reflecting a direct manufacturing model as opposed to additive).

If you needed a designer, there was one in your group, if you needed a sales person, there was one in your group, if you needed a product person, there was one in your group – the only priority for all members was achieving this goal collectively. They were given the goal and a time limit (in our case 1 quarter), the rest was up to them. They would meet for their first 2 days where they would workshop the plan to achieve the goal. They decided who their stakeholders were, what roles people would play and what the milestones to achievement were.

The only requirement was that after 2 days, they had to present the plan to the stakeholders they chose and the stakeholders had to give the green light. If there were parts of the plan that were unresolved, the team was given a orange light and went back to resolve these areas. Once green light was given the stakeholders role was simply to hold the team accountable to their own plan – nothing else. They required no further approvals to implement their actions.

At the end they ran a postmortem that not only assessed their results but also assessed how they worked together as a team and how they represented the company values in their team interactions. This was such a valuable test of new ways to work together, the learning’s were instant and we saw a tremendous impact across the organization, even with those that were not in a working group themselves. I’m a big fan of small groups engaging in shared goals that encourage quality communication, give space for constructive feedback and celebrate skill diversity reinforcing that we’re stronger together than we could ever be individually.

Key Takeaway. To try to solve these issues, we implemented a ‘working group’ model where a team of 4 is given one particular goal to achieve.

How do you make sure that when you are assessing talent, you are not only identifying the ability to do the job but the talent’s capacity to scale and do more?

I really relate to the way Kim Scott talks about ‘Rockstars vs Superstars’ in her book Radical Candor where she encourages us to rethink ambition and talent. She gets the importance of understanding what the company needs from each role.

The ‘Rockstar’ has consistently excellent performance, is a force of stability but isn’t looking for ‘more’ in terms of growth. Whereas the ‘Superstar’ is constantly looking for growth with a steep trajectory and they need to be challenged constantly to maintain excellent performance.

Both are equally important but it’s critical you map people to roles correctly. Its always tough in an interview, or a new relationship, to get a true sense of the person’s real appetite for ambition. To get past the assumption that ‘everyone should want to be superstars’ (and people telling you what they think you want to hear), you need to get to know the person at a deeper level. Understand their goals but more importantly their true appetite for growth.

As the old adage goes, ‘its not about the talent, its about how you apply it’ and this different for all people at different stages of their lives. You should only put high growth people into roles that have the ability to scale or transition quickly and putting a super talented person, who’s just not in a high growth phase of their lives, into a role that demands high growth creates an astronomical amount of pain both for the person and the organization.

I see my role as understanding that appetite, matching people with the right role and then adjusting as dynamics change. Peak performance (regardless of low growth or high growth) requires a framework with flexibility and a continuous dialogue.

Key Takeaway. I see my role as understanding that appetite, matching people with the right role and then adjusting as dynamics change.

Becoming a transformational leader is difficult work. I recommend taking one of the Key Takeaways and incorporate the strategy into your day to day. Focus on that strategy for the next 30 days and analyze the results, daily.

In my experience, focusing on one leadership strategy and analyzing the results, helps you not on internalize the strategy but it allows you to make tiny adjustments so you can become a transformational leader.

Originally Posted on the Huffington Post.