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People-first leadership

Over the last few weeks, many people in tech have been following a set of policy changes announced at Basecamp, a company that many of us have admired and emulated. As the changes culminated in a mass exodus, leaders within the tech community found themselves in a state of profound reflection and introspection.

I’m not here to debate policy. I want to talk about what heavily influences the policies:

Leadership. Particularly leadership for companies that consider themselves people first.

Wildbit is one of many organizations that are working to establish a people-first approach to business. I don’t believe there are “good” or bad” businesses, just like humans are not good or bad (although their behaviors could be good or bad). There is no binary switch for humans, for businesses, or for defining what is or is not people first. That’s a false dichotomy. There are many flavors of people first: Small companies and big companies do it differently, as do private and VC-backed companies.

There are some root similarities in people-first behaviors that we all try to live by, and there are different stages of a people-first journey. Leadership, in a lot of ways, drives all things people first.

Owning who you are

Culture, like humans and businesses, is not good or bad. I'd never want to work 80-hour weeks at a law firm, but many folks choose that environment and thrive within it. The problem is a lack of honesty and transparency.

What is bad is when a team member is led to believe that things are one way and discovers they are not.

Every business is beautiful and unique because every business is a collection of individual human beings. Just as every person is beautiful and unique, so is their take on leading or working within an organization.

There’s a place for apolitical companies in business. Some folks really want to go to work and leave the politics at home. I hear this is the rule in many government agencies as well. I don't pass judgment on their experience. Paraphrasing my friend Wil Reynolds, I respect companies for saying who and what they are. This way, employees and customers now know where they stand and can make up their own minds.

But lying about what and who you are is not people first.

Policies prohibiting individuals from sharing their experiences are disappointing and embarrassing, especially when so many of our colleagues have found their entire existence has become politicized. They don't have the luxury of leaving their experience at home. Some of those individuals have articulated the impact of those behaviors on their ability to feel safe and productive at work.

Founders vs. leaders

It is often the case that being a founder doesn’t automatically make you a leader. Founders, generally speaking, are dreamers and doers. Folks who like to tinker, push for ideas to be visible, and "get shit done." In many examples, founders can "do it themselves."

At some point in a company's life, founders need to become leaders. They need to hire folks who can help the business grow and scale: People that will share in the work, the successes, and the failures. When that shift happens, a founder needs to ground themselves in this new role as a leader. And with it comes a hell of a lot of responsibility.

It is not uncommon for founders to hate this work.

The most significant shift happens when founders realize their job is, most simply, to create a safe, fulfilling environment for others to do the work. You are no longer doing the work yourself. Your leadership is required to make daily decisions on where the company is going and designing an environment that supports getting there.

And while this is incredibly exhilarating, for many, it's exhausting. It’s uncomfortable. It can feel, at times, like you're not getting anything done. You're just dealing with people. And people are messy and hard. Code is easy.

This is why, so often, venture capitalists and private equity firms replace founders with hired hands. Because for founders, the passion dies when they stop "getting shit done."

But herein lies the crux:

People-first leaders do not give up when it gets uncomfortable. They don't run away from the messiness, the difficulty of working with people.

They know, deep in their hearts, that the people are the magic. That "getting shit done" only works when your folks are safe, fulfilled, and supported in being their authentic selves, whatever that means for them.

When your principles and values are weak, reach for policies

Wildbit recently updated our principles and values. Not for fun, but because we knew we needed to evolve our thinking around what we believe. These are our "no matter what's" and define the behaviors that we reward.

When you have solid principles and values, you need fewer policies. Policies are necessary for consistency and clarity: Like a PTO policy or how to reimburse expenses. But a policy to police behavior is a direct symptom of poorly articulated or non-existent principles and values.

Policies are the easy, and frankly lazy, way out of doing the hard work. They are often band-aids for unaddressed issues or superficial solutions for much deeper problems. To avoid being a lazy policy-maker, seek to determine a root cause and understand the perceived problems the policy would address.

Dustin Moskovitz pointed out the false trade-offs between companies that encourage political conversations and those that ban them. Both of these policies are the easy way out. Honing your ability to consider the loudest voices while also making room for the quiet to be heard is hard work. We have to consider these voices equally.

Leaders work with their team to establish core principles that reflect the organization as a collection of people. That doesn't mean that theirs is the right home for all. But it means creating an honest, ever-evolving environment where folks can lean on the principles and values to challenge decisions, evaluate direction, and move forward together.

People first means trust and transparency

A people-first company relies on a core foundation of trust. Each employee comes on board to bring their skills and individual talent to support the organization in its mission and goals. People-first leaders view these folks with respect and trust and therefore move obstacles out of their way to do great work.

People-first leaders do not believe they can do it alone. They do not think they have all the answers.

It is not people first to announce company-wide policies publicly without an internal heads up. It is not people first to announce policies that impact your team without first letting their managers know. How can leaders expect to support their team if no one understands why or even saw it coming?

Again, we must remember that not all founders are leaders. Founders are allowed to have strongly-held beliefs for their company. Those beliefs don’t have to be mainstream or even palatable to the general public. But to be a leader in a people-first company, you must be open about aligning those beliefs against that of the entire organization. You must listen to others and understand their experience.

Leaders have the biggest gaps

This brings me to the most important point. The higher up you are in the org, the bigger the gaps in what you see and understand. This is a known business theory, of course. But it extends much further than how you manufacture your widget or how well you know the customer.

These gaps are very closely tied to our own lived experience. It’s common to make assumptions that these experiences are universal and can be applied to other people or even our business operations. For example, every leader has their own personal experience with money. They will bring that experience to the financial strategy of their organization. In many cases, this leads directly to failure. Boards and VCs look to understand this about their leaders and help them see past their own experience, so they don't sink the ship.

If we all believe this to be true, how can we not also believe that our lived experience as a human will produce areas of weakness and introduce risks in how we make decisions.

People-first leaders surround themselves with diverse voices and lead with curiosity, an open heart, and an open mind.

They surround themselves with folks who will tell them they're missing something and point out their gaps and areas of weakness.

People-first leaders don't bend to a single tweet or moment in time, but they are frequently curious about how they interpret those moments. They stop and ask themselves why they have strong reactions, feel uncomfortable, or find themselves getting defensive. Because a people-first leader knows that their path towards commercial success is directly tied to building a safe, inclusive, fulfilling place to work.

Lead with the humility to know that we don't know it all

Read the room. Internalize this moment as one inflection point of many over the last 15 months. The message to white founders and leaders should be loud and clear: We are living through a critical point in history. It's hard to define what it is while we live it, but we recognize the weight of this moment. As we asked other people-first leaders to reflect on the significance of this time, Bridget McNulty, COO & Partner at Alley, quoted Alice Walker:

Some periods of our growth are so confusing that we don’t even recognize that growth is happening. We may feel hostile or angry or weepy and hysterical, or we may feel depressed. It would never occur to us... that we were in fact in the process of change, of actually becoming larger than we were before.

Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who often spoke of the importance of maintaining an open mind and heart, said that societal change is incremental: "Real change, enduring change, happens one step at a time."

As white founders, it's unacceptable to forbid the discussion of politics and societal issues. Geoff Roberts, Co-founder at Outseta, pointed out the missing empathy in statements like, "Business is hard enough as it is; we don't need this additional distraction."

It's alarming to me that more leaders aren't able to see the privilege in that sentiment—yes, I agree wholeheartedly that business can be hard. But have you stopped to consider the day to day lives of so many minority groups in this country? Let alone their experiences in the business world itself?

Navigating the politicizing of human rights and challenging the loud rhetoric with the equally loud voices inside our heads is uncharted waters for some of us. And it's hard, emotional work. Inclusivity and equity are critical pieces to changing the dialogue around business as we acknowledge that each organization is a collection of human experiences. This work isn't as easy as Twitter may make things seem.

But that doesn't mean you abdicate your job as a leader and take the easy road out.

It is time for leaders to step into it, not step out of it. We will stumble through this work together.

It's okay to have a foundational perspective to build off of, and equally important to know that you are just one person with one experience. It is impossible for that experience to be universally, unequivocally right.

At the end of the day, Wildbit's purpose is to be a safe place to do fulfilling work. We will walk this journey together, tripping up periodically, but always with that mission as our north star.

We are living through a moment in time when leadership is being tested, and the people-first leaders who are curious and focused on creating a safe environment are those that will come out on the other side.

People first is not the easy way

In a lot of ways, being people first will always be harder. Leaders are taught the theories of economics, not conflict resolution or emotional intelligence or the neuroscience of how we function as humans. We have, once again, proven that management theory is dramatically behind.

Being people first doesn't come with a playbook, so it gets interpreted in various ways. Employees see it one way; employers often see it differently. This is inevitable because it's subjective and touchy-feely, not something you can measure on a spreadsheet.

But, the world is slowly changing. Leaders are emerging that understand the secret sauce has always been the people. Employees are pushing their leaders to step up, to be better. Challenges will always arise between the two groups. Not everything can be democratically decided in a company. Not everything will make everyone happy. Leaders must find balance, compromising in some areas and holding firm when it comes to doing what's right.

The future of more ethical people-first businesses is navigating these messy waters together: Embracing the hard work, opening our hearts and our minds, and standing up for what we believe. We must do this while facilitating dialogue between the humans within our organization, embracing all their backgrounds and experiences.

A business is simply a collection of human beings. It's a community, one that is worth fighting for.

Editor’s note: Wildbit is the company behind People-First Jobs, of which Basecamp is a member. After a lot of consideration, we decided to remove their listing from the site. Our hearts go out to the team that remains, and we'll stay in touch as they work to resolve the concerns raised by their staff.

Thank you

This post was published with the support of the People-First Jobs Community. We invited leaders at these companies to share their perspectives:

Bridget McNulty, Partner & COO, Alley

Alley logo
In our internal DEI Working Group, we often talk about the concept of sitting with our own discomfort. Being willing to have potentially uncomfortable conversations is hard, but it is ultimately what drives us forward.

Resisting change and discomfort gets us nowhere. Companies that choose to resist changing with the times will stagnate and fall by the wayside.

Leaders need to embrace the discomfort. Sit with it. And be willing to grow as a result of it. Our teams are counting on us.

Geoff Roberts, Co-founder, Outseta

Outseta logo
There is so much talk in the mainstream media about the advantages of building a truly diverse team (and rightfully so), but so little about the benefits of bringing the diversity found within ourselves to the workplace. The business world has long expected and rewarded an overly masculine, rational, and assertive version or ourselves—often asking us to leave the gentler, more vulnerable, and more inquisitive parts of ourselves at the door.

That's a huge missed opportunity. You can't encourage your employees to bring their whole selves to work, then tell them that a huge part of their identity and lived existence isn't welcomed. The message that only a fraction of yourself is welcomed at work is problematic for me.

The team at Seer Interactive

This speaks directly to our values as an organization and addresses so many different elements of leadership and what being a people-first org looks like. It 100% aligns with who we are.

The team at Knack

Knack logo

Knack founders Brandon and Eric emphasize their people-first mentality toward leadership on the company website:

We’ve been intentional about incorporating the best of every new hire into our team and operations. We’ve never thought that we’ve got it all figured out—we need to be continuously questioning and improving.