Don Draper was a Jerk: Why Good Leadership Matters Today

“Mad Men” is over and you’re not likely to see a rerun in today’s office environment. It’s not only the tipsy lunches and antiquated gender politics that have changed. A more inclusive style where leaders manage from the bottom up is gaining prominence. There is a strong business reason for this: you want to attract great talent and need to retain them. Good leadership now should be “others-focused”, keeping a sharp eye on the needs of people important to the organization’s success. We would like to think that leadership has evolved from the hierarchical old school…but has it?

Good leadership should be others-focused, keeping a sharp eye on the needs of people important to the organization’s success.

We think of the “Mad Men”-era organization as highly-stratified, command and control, where a memo is issued and employees jump to execute on the higher-ups’ plan, which they had no or a very limited role in helping devise. This top-down style of management is thought to be a relic of another era. I’m not so sure. Leadership can be much more cordial today than in Don Draper’s days, but it can still be hierarchical.

Top-Down is still with us.

One place this can happen is in the startup world. Many founders begin with a great idea and build a business from there. They are thrust into leadership positions because they have a great idea. They are so involved in that great idea, they’re not really leading. They are on the hook for the investment and they have to show results quickly. Leaders can feel too pressed for time to extract themselves from the minutiae and let their employees do their job autonomously. When a startup goes from a good idea to 100/200/500 employees in a relatively short time, a leader who is involved in everything can slow growth and impact morale. Given the grueling pace of most startups, it is easy to understand why leaders can fall prey to the tactics of launching a business and neglect strategy.  But scaling up requires a capable manager to transition from a do-er to a leader.

Scaling up requires a capable manager to transition from a do-er to a leader.

Leaders need to spend more time on strategy.

Leaders should be spending at least a third of their time on strategy. The big decisions on company direction are what defines a leader and drives growth. Another third should be spent coaching and training your people. A good leader creates other good leaders. The last third should be spent on operations, ensuring the outcomes you want and holding your staff accountable for execution based on the goals you’ve set. Obviously these are back of the envelope equations and your allocations may vary, but the key point is: get out of the small and start thinking big.

“It doesn’t make sense to hire smart people and then tell them what to do; we hire smart people so they can tell us what to do”. -Steve Jobs

Today’s effective leaders are decisive and set direction. They hire good people to work with them. Steve Jobs famously said, “It doesn’t make sense to hire smart people and then tell them what to do; we hire smart people so they can tell us what to do”. But yet, a lot of managers can find it hard to break out of the trenches and are down there fighting shoulder to shoulder with their employees. That is an admirable way to show your employees you have skin in the game, but leaders lead. I challenge all leaders to utilize what should be your best asset: your employees.

Good leaders empower all employees

To get the best out of employees, a good leader truly understands them. You need to understand more than their kids names or their favorite football team, but know their background, how they think, how they approach a problem and opportunity.  Your people are not widgets. You may find they have an unknown skill that can really be an asset to drive your business. For example, you may think that millennial is “just” a 24-year old recent college grad with entitlement issues and an ironic haircut, but do you know that she actually started a company in college? Do you know that her entrepreneurial spirit stretches back to starting her own lawn care business at 12? Can you leverage that experience to support your company? A good leader wants that 24-year old to seize the initiative.  The goal is to empower and support her to charge forward, not merely command her to execute your strategy. Failing to empower and hear your employees risks squandering a precious resource.

Being “others-focused” can help you recruit and retain the best talent, be magnetic to your best customers, and help deliver (and often exceed) your expected financial results.

It is critical to teach this next generation of great entrepreneurs how to be great leaders. While the office of today’s high tech gold rush can appear light years ahead of the hidebound offices of 1960s Madison Avenue, command-and-control still has a foothold today. Even if you are an entrepreneur or work for a small business, there is a rock solid reason to learn the principles of good leadership. A venture capital firm invested in a startup wants to see results. If that business is not developing their talent and has huge turnover, support dries up. Money spent on leadership training will help make that business more successful.  In fact, being “others-focused” can help you recruit and retain the best talent, be magnetic to your best customers, and help deliver (and often exceed) your expected financial results.

I want to hear your stories about good leaders that have made a difference in your life, or about leaders that may have missed the opportunity.

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