This piece has originally been published on Startup Iceland blog.
I have recently interviewed Hjalmar Gislason, the founder of Reykjavík-based GRID, about his journey as a leader. It was insightful to hear which responsibilities Hjalmar sees as his major ones as the leader, what he believes are the crucial factors for building a thriving company culture, and which challenges and mind shifts a founder should be prepared for on the way. Here is a part of our conversation.
What is leadership for you?
A lot of things can be leadership. Pretty much everyone working as a part of a team is a leader in one way or another. And oftentimes some of the best leaders don’t even realize that they are leaders. People are naturally drawn to them and the way they articulate their ideas and how they motivate people.
I’ve gradually come to understand that whatever you’re trying to do in business or in life has mostly to do with the people that you get on board. And that means that pretty much every problem you have is a people problem in one way or another. So by extension, most solutions are also people solutions. I’ve been in a product business for pretty much my whole life, and I gravitated from the product being the first and foremost thing to the team being the first and foremost.
I try to be as much a part of the team as I can and get people to understand, buy into and take part ownership of the vision. We put effort into forming the vision together, instead of coming up with something ourselves in the leadership team and then trying to tell our people to make it happen.
So, maybe the strange answer to your question is: good leadership is being good at teamwork.
You said that for you as a leader nowadays, it’s important to be as much part of the team as possible. How does that work? You are running a company that is now 20 people and keeps growing. You have a lot of responsibilities. What does it mean on a daily basis to be part of the team?
It’s a great question. It’s something that I’m learning every day, especially because we’ve grown quite a lot recently. I’m navigating how to properly earn that trust and earn people’s confidence in that an idea from me is just an idea and it needs to be scrutinized and should be looked at in the same way as an idea coming from anyone else. We have a structure in place to filter out the ideas and prioritize the things that we’re working on. It’s not only me deciding on priorities, giving input, etc.
I think another important part is to be approachable and have empathy, to make sure that those real human connections are made. When you connect to people on a personal level, it just makes everything else so much easier.
I’m always trying to steer things more through having a common vision and then talking through what are the priorities and what are the tasks that help us fulfill that vision fastest, rather than telling people what to do.
So where do you draw the line between being a part of the team and being the decision maker? You are responsible for everyone’s salary and the product – responsibilities that your team doesn’t have.
It is hard to find that middle ground, but it is there. I think that as long as there are no politics involved, as long as everybody’s sincere in their motivation, people will accept the outcome. I was actually super proud when a former colleague of mine said that in our team, it wasn’t about who was right –it was about what was right.
In our team, people are willing to explore an idea no matter who is putting it on the table. We are ready to discuss it and come to a conclusion on what is right. It is important that even if someone on the team is not fully aligned with the decision, they trust that everybody within the group came to that conclusion with the best intentions.
I am a big believer in the concept “disagree, but commit”. You can disagree, but you understand what the outcome is not “my way or the highway”. Once a conclusion has been reached we all have to commit to actually try to make the decided solution as successful as possible, even if it wasn’t the way you preferred.
You did a very interesting exercise before starting GRID, related to the future company culture. Can you tell us about it?
I’ve been an entrepreneur more or less my whole life. GRID is the fifth company I started as a founder. My last startup was sold to a larger organization in 2014. I knew, and I think everybody around me, including the people that bought the company, that eventually I would leave to chase another idea.
When it was time to move on, I had several ideas, with three main competing ones about what my next company could be. But before deciding on any of those, I sat down to understand why do I want to do this. What’s the motivation and what do I want to get out of starting a new company? And then secondly, how do I want to build the company regardless of what it is doing. I removed the subject and just thought about what does this as-of-yet unnamed company that doesn’t even have a mission, look like regardless?
I ended up writing a small booklet with some lessons. It was about anything from atmosphere and culture to ways of working, to processes and tools and I would then be able to take that and apply it to pretty much anything that a company would be doing. Granted, I was already thinking it would be a software company, as all my companies have been software companies. I also knew it would probably be a subscription business. But even that didn’t matter so much, you could probably have taken that little booklet and applied it to any kind of software business.
Hjalmar, what are your three pieces of advice to the readers about how to lead from their zone of genius?
Team first is the first one. Think about how are you going to achieve your goals by empowering and motivating the team that you have more than anything else.
The second advice I would give is being approachable. As a leader of a startup company, you will know more, you will have thought more about the product you’re building, the space you’re in, the business model, and so on – more than anyone else on your team. So your input into decision-making at whatever level is very important. Try to make yourself available for those conversations, because you are adding a lot more value by being there and taking that two minute conversation that helps or guides someone towards what they are trying to achieve, than spending those two minutes on writing an email or working directly on something else.
Thirdly it’s important to realize that you will not always be a hands-on part of the team. In the beginning, you may be writing code, you may be writing copy, you may be deploying the website, and so on. But then gradually over time, your life becomes about guiding and empowering others more than it is about doing things yourself. It’s important to let go of things and make sure that you have trained people well enough that they can run with things. You also need to realize that as you let go, the way people do things will differ from yours. And what they are doing, most likely isn’t wrong, it’s just different.
For the full interview, tune into the Genius Leadership: Overcoming Everything podcast wherever you listen to podcasts. To connect with Hjalmar, follow him on Twitter at @hjalli, or try out GRID by signing up for free at https://grid.is/