Taja is Founder and CEO of Pulp+Wire, an award-winning, full-service consumer packaging, branding, and marketing agency in Portland, Maine.
2020 was all about survival. As the leader of a full-service consumer packaging, branding and marketing agency, I remember having to make a split-second pivot from working in the office every day to communicating with my team on Zoom. During this time, agency leaders like myself were focused on keeping their teams intact while doing whatever they could to stay afloat.
Over the past year, having my team prioritize their own individual growth was the key to their engagement, deeper trust and (believe it or not) a year of growth during a pandemic. When everyone advocated for their own needs, we saw not only personal growth but business growth as well. We rallied together and came out better than the prior year.
Ultimately, our success stemmed from reinventing the old school mentality that your boss should be responsible for telling you how to grow by giving you structured, black and white goals. Instead of saying, “You need to check these boxes in this order if you want to advance,” I’m asking my team, “What do you bring to the table and how are you going to grow it into something even bigger?”
The following are a few key strategies I’ve adopted to encourage each and every person on my team to fuel their own exponential growth.
Establish a new level of trust.
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As someone who has always been self-directed, I don’t believe that a boss should be a teacher or a parent. It’s not my role to babysit or micromanage my team. No one knows what you’re good at better than you. It’s not up to me to tell you how to be better at being you.
This paradigm shift requires a whole new level of trust between boss and employee. I recently completed internal reviews with my team where I asked, “What have you done to learn and grow this past year?” Because even though we were living and working through uncertainty, there was still an opportunity for each person to chart a new course and find better ways of doing things and showing up for the team as a whole.
I try to steer my team away from asking questions like “What should my goals be?” or “Where should I grow?” Instead, I want them to tell me “This is what I learned. This is what I did, it was awesome and here’s what I want to do next!” I want to see my team run with their own opportunities. Instead of relying on the owner of the company to be the savior who pivots everything single-handedly, each employee should pivot in a way that maximizes their own unique workflow and creativity.
Focus on growth over fiscal goals.
2021 still presents a lot of uncertainty. Rather than focusing on quantitative goals, such as “We’re going to make this amount of money and sign this many new clients,” leaders should shift emphasis to more qualitative, holistic goals or emotional KPIs that encourage self-reflection and individual growth, ultimately yielding a whole much greater than the sum of its parts.
As a leader, it’s important to recognize that not everyone grows at the same rate or in the same manner, and that’s OK, as long as everyone is still growing towards their unique goals. This year, everyone is going to work a little differently; the important thing is that each person advocates for what they need.
Ask forward-thinking questions.
This level of empowerment must stem from serious self-reflection. In order to empower your employees to determine their own “why,” ask them questions about themselves as you would interview your clients.
Instead of coming to internal reviews with a whole year’s worth of documentation about the boxes they checked or didn’t check, I ask people to look at the year in retrospect with a host of forward-thinking questions. “What did you gain?” “What did you do differently?” “Where was there growth?” I want people to tell me where they want to be this time next year, how that’s going to be amazing and exactly how I can support them with education, guidance and opportunity.
Lead by example.
It’s up to my team to advocate for what they need, and it’s up to me as a leader to support them in those values without judgement, because we are living in a time when one size is not going to fit all. A silver lining of 2020 is that it was a wonderful opportunity to change my own personal perspectives and cultivate greater empathy and compassion. Leaders should understand that work doesn’t always have to look the same for every person.
As I’ve undergone my own work-life balance shift from 12-hour office days to working from home, I’ve had to fundamentally change my thought process about what it means to be present for both my family and my team. This means leading by example and advocating for myself first by setting boundaries and blocking off my time for what matters most. Instead of trying to be everywhere and everything for everyone, I’ve focused on being the best version of myself and encouraging everyone on my team to do the same.
The past year has been a wonderful chance for me to unravel years of preconceived ideas about what I’m supposed to do and be, especially as the leader of a female-owned business. Ultimately, no one taught me how to find my own success; I arrived at this place from years of pivoting and taking risks. Being a leader means encouraging my team to also take risks, because risks can yield beautiful rewards. At the end of the day, I want everyone on my team to take ownership of their work, and explore a healthy risk or two, so we all bring our “A” game to each other.
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Author: Taja Dockendorf, Forbes Councils Member