Failure is the best teacher. I’m not against “focusing on the positive.” But I am convinced that having a safe space to talk about “the negative” is actually an important part of being a happy and healthy community. So I’m beginning a series of reflections on how I’ve failed, learned and grown while leading Spark these last six years. My hope is to ask questions and weigh in with my perspective, but also to spark (pun intended) a conversation with you on those questions. Today we’re diving right into it - how friendly should you be with people at work?
In the business world there’s a big debate over this question. Last year I sat in a roundtable discussion at the GrowCo Conference in New Orleans and watched two extremely successful entrepreneurs argue passionately about it. Tom Gimbel, founder and CEO of LaSalle Network, told us that his management team were the groomsmen at his wedding, and that the closeness of their relationships was key to their business success. Greg Harris, CEO of Quantum Workplace, was adamant that you can be friendly at work, but not actual friends. They’ve both been wildly successful. So who’s right?
When I started out, I thought the same way as Tom. I thought I could be best friends with my leadership team. I didn’t see the need to set any boundaries. My thinking was “if we’re real friends, we’ll succeed at this”. And that approach seemed to work really well for a while. Until one of those friends left.
To respect her privacy, let’s call this friend Amy. When we hired her, I felt like we’d nailed it. She was passionate, outgoing, funny. She exhibited so many of the traits we value at Spark. She’d been through the kind of personal challenges that many of our clients go through. She could empathize with them. People regularly told us that her phone screens were the best they’d ever participated in.
We invested a lot in her. I rewrote her job description to push it in the direction she wanted for her career. I sent her to professional development events and world class conferences. I connected her with mentors outside of Spark. She fit in so well in the office and had a good relationship with everyone.
When you’ve built a BFFs workplace culture, having one of them walk away is painful. When Amy told us she was leaving, I was shocked. I was hurt. I felt resentful. Betrayed. I lost sleep. I woke each morning with a pit in my stomach. I thought I was doing everything right. For the first time, I began seriously questioning my ability as an entrepreneur. What did I do wrong?
After a lot of thinking, talking to the people I trust, reading, podcasts, time passing and more thinking, I realized some things. My general leadership principles were solid. But some of them needed some nuance, some evolution. “Brad as boss” needed an upgrade, if you will, rather than a complete overhaul. The software update has 2 important changes:
Brad 1.0: Be Brad. → Brad 2.0: Be Brad. To a point.
The traditional approach to management is to basically have a “relationship” with your staff that is task-based and transactional. There is no “personal.” So, manager or staff, you have to be on, always. Professional.
My approach was essentially the opposite. I was a wide open book with my team. That kind of vulnerability matters. It’s been essential to how I’ve built trust with clients and staff over the years. So I stand by it. But.
I mentioned that Amy was friends with everyone at work. But she also began carrying the weight of the struggles some of us (myself included) were having in our personal lives. And that had made work much more stressful for her.
I needed to better model how much we share at work. I’m still honest. I still make myself vulnerable. But I’m much more aware of the weight that talking about my personal information can carry. I share more selectively now.
2. Brad 1.0: Spark is your family. → Brad 2.0: Spark is your family, if you want it to be.
I mentioned I was shocked when Amy told us she was leaving. It was a shock because she hadn’t told me how stressed and unhappy she’d been at work. She didn’t feel comfortable telling me that she was thinking about leaving.
Why? Because of the way I constantly preached “Spark is your family.” It turns out, that’s an unrealistic standard to set for everyone at work. Because most people don’t stay in the same place forever. And because I expected people to stay, to hold to that standard, they couldn’t be totally honest with me when they were unhappy at work.
Spark is my life’s work. But, not everyone is destined to work at Spark for life. People will come and go. At every stage they’ll have shifting needs and priorities. The reality is Spark can’t meet all those needs. And that’s OK. Now, you can opt in to “Spark as family.” Not everyone will. And that’s OK. Spark can be a stepping stone for people. A meaningful stop on their journey where they became more passionate, empathetic, inspired.
I’ve stopped worrying about people leaving, and learned to be grateful for what they’ve done and been while they were here. Now I actively open doors and help people get other jobs. I write references and brainstorm with them how they can get where they really want to be.
Because of that shift, people at Spark now come and talk to me about their futures. They tell me if they’re unhappy, if something is pushing or pulling them to leave. Saying things like, “I love this part of my job, but I hate this part of my job.” “I think I may need to quit.” “I don’t really see myself here a year from now.” They understand that they can communicate without consequences.
I honestly still consider everyone on my team as a real friend. We go out together, play softball together, have BBQs together. But, we also understand that we’re accountable to our roles, and to what the organization needs from each of us to thrive. I could tell them that the work isn’t where it needs to be. They could tell me that they want a change. That stuff is separate from our relationship.
The culture at Spark includes business and personal, with a clear distinction between the two. And people understand the distinction. That even when they get or give bad news, we can still have dinner together on Saturday.
One last thing. My biggest mistake in all this is how I behaved after Amy told us she was leaving. I was cold. “All business.” I stopped treating her like a friend. I wish I could do that part over.
So, if the rest of you will pardon a moment of inside baseball, this part is just for Amy:
Here’s to you, my friend. Destiny said it - you gotta get up and get it. I’m proud of you for getting it, and grateful for the time you gave us.
We’re rooting for you.