Who’s on Your Team? How Leaders Build Dream Teams… Or Blow It Big Time

“Do you hate all people or just your employees?”

I spoke this mid-conversation with a business owner who was complaining about his team. Other CEOs were murmuring in sympathetic agreement with all the complaints.

After listening to the litany of everything that was wrong with his team, I couldn’t help but interrupt.

His laundry list of complaints just reinforced what I already knew.

Poor team performance is nearly always due to poor leadership.

I’ve watched more than one business continuously struggle, and even crash and burn, because of poor leadership.

Every single time we have an issue with someone on our team I trace it back as far as I can go. I keep digging to find out if poor leadership is the root of the problem. That’s nearly always the case (and, yes, that often means it comes right back to me as the root cause).

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I failed to provide the right leadership at the right time in the right way.

If you’re constantly frustrated with your team, it’s time to face facts. You have a leadership issue, not a team performance issue. The poor performance is the symptom, not the cause.

I’ve interviewed thousands of potential employees in my life. That includes hundreds over the last year. Right now, we’re in a rapid growth phase at LeadPages, so we’ve recently been hiring many people (and we still are).

Because it is so common, I’m no longer shocked when I hear about the workplace environments that many employees are trying to survive.

Does This Sound Like Your Team?

Here’s just a glimpse at the employee horror stories I hear on a regular basis…

“I worked over 70 hours every week, exceeded all of the goals set for me. Not only was I never compensated for the above-and-beyond-results I produced, but I was never even thanked—not once. I gave up.“

“I’m afraid to switch jobs because I know how catty people are when you start at a new company. They see you as a threat and will sabotage you every chance they get.”

“My last workplace didn’t allow me to have any other clients, but the position was only 10 hours a week (with some of those hours falling on the weekends), paying $12/hour. The irony is that the owner was teaching others how to make money online and find ultimate financial freedom, but I wasn’t allowed to make more than $120 a week!”

“When I made a mistake, which I owned up to and apologized for, my boss screamed at me in front of the entire team I managed. This went on for over 20 minutes. He called me an imbecile, among other words I won’t repeat.”

“Everyone hates working at XXX because of this one toxic woman. She’s the CEO’s right hand, but she gossips, backstabs, lies, takes credit for others’ work and makes life miserable for everyone else. But the boss won’t do anything about it – I think he’s afraid of firing her.”

Those are all quotes taken from conversations I’ve had with candidates for open positions here at LeadPages (used with permission as long as I kept them anonymous).

Statue Resized Version 3After the first handful of stories I heard like these, and after hiring several employees who came from these toxic environments, I started to feel like the Statue of Liberty:

“Give me your tired, your poor, Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, The wretched refuse of your teeming shore. Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me, I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”

One company’s “wretched refuse” is another company’s shining star. I’m holding our lamp high.

So many employers force their employees into a highly dysfunctional relationship, usually because the employer is trying to “tame” the employee.

It reminds me of the stale marriages I see, where one partner has completely domesticated the other.

We don’t want domestication. We want wildness that gives birth to genuine innovation, ingenuity, and absolute disruption.

But. We blow it. A lot.

I feel extremely reticent about writing this post because I’m so very human and imperfect. I make mistakes with our team. Weekly. If you think this is false humility, just ask the wonderful LeadPages team that I’m privileged to work with. They can confirm that I’ve got a long way to go.

Maybe the only difference is that I know it. I own my mistakes, apologize when I’ve missed the mark, and strive to do better next time.

The LeadPages team will also let me know when I’ve blown it because we’ve created a safe environment where we encourage that kind of open communication. Our team knows it, and they don’t hold back. Their honesty with me is stunning, and I value it deeply.

In our extremely fast-paced environment where you have to make judgment calls faster than a shopaholic runs to black Friday specials, it’s far too easy to:

  • make a wrong call
  • write an email too quickly, and not realize the tone can be misinterpreted
  • fail to get input on a decision when we should have
  • make assumptions rather than ask questions

But if a team member calls us out on these mistakes, we don’t snap at the person. We apologize. We don’t make excuses, we make a plan to prevent it from happening again. We talk it out, apologize, and make things right.

Heart, Not Perfection.

We don’t do things perfectly. But we care passionately, fiercely about our team, our work environment, and our culture.

We want every person to know that they are deeply respected and valued. We want a culture where we encourage supporting each other, where mutual praise flows back and forth between departments and team members, and where we acknowledge the beautiful humanity we are privileged to work with.

Resized Heart
I’ve witnessed levels of encouragement and sharing of praise between team members that leave me breathless and humbled.

During interviews, I’ll often tell candidates about our amazing team, quite frequently with tears in my eyes. I feel a state of wonder that I get to work such amazingly brilliant, talented people who out care any other team I know.

Our team is so amazing, that I feel very protective of them. If we ever make a hiring error and bring someone on board who ends up making life miserable for the rest of the team, corrective action would be taken surely and swiftly. I would never want to subject our team to a toxic co-worker. They deserve better than that.

I say as much during almost every interview. As you can imagine, most candidates don’t really believe me. So it’s always a joy when they write to me a few months after they’re hired. (Here are a few of the emails I’ve gotten recently from my team, used with permission of course.)


Our team is happy, motivated — and most of all, excited to come to work every day.

You Want Warriors…Not Drones

If you’re starting to see that you have some issues with leading your own team, then it’s time to take action. You’ll need to be very intentional. As a business owner, you want wild warriors working for you — and not the domesticated drones that so many other businesses settle for.

That means changing the culture of your business. The work, the humility, and the time it takes are more than worth it. What we’ve accomplished with LeadPages in our first year with a small team demonstrates how much a beautifully untamed group of people can accomplish.quote-01

Also, our team is super happy… even though we are far from perfect and are still learning and growing with every passing month.

Here is a small sample of what members of our team have written to various leaders across all departments in our company. None of these were solicited—they’re just random snippets that were shared in the midst of everyday conversations and email exchanges:

“I am literally giddy in the evenings because I am so [bleeping] excited to get up and work the following day. Hardly anybody has that feeling these days. So I am extremely grateful. The team has been very friendly and accepting. Sometimes that doesn’t happen with developer nerds.”

“This company just keeps getting better and better! Let me just stop and say THANK YOU again for hiring me. I absolutely love it here and wake up every day energized to do and be my best because that is what my team deserves. I pray I never start taking the wonderful things you do for granted.”

“Seriously, I’m SO excited to be with this company. I can’t adequately express how thrilled I am to be working with everyone on this team. And on top of that –, I feel inspired every single day. That’s so awesome! Thank you again for making my year by taking a chance on me. :)”

(That’s just a glimpse. See the sidebar below for more…)

I feel embarrassed (and deeply vulnerable) sharing these quotes because I’m not here to sing our own praises.

However, I feel absolutely compelled to disclose these quotes so you’ll know that this kind of work environment is absolutely possible. If you currently lead a team that brings you nothing but frustration, I want you to see that there are real-world benefits from making a change to your company’s culture.

I can trace our success in the past year directly back to an awesome team who will push boundaries, take risks, and often do the “impossible.” It’s fantastic to work with wild warriors who give their all, day after day, loving what they do.

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Leadership Lessons from a Start-up

If you want the kind of team who will deliver amazing results year after year, you need to take time to honestly look in the mirror, roll up your sleeves, and start making changes right now.

I’m often asked for specifics: “What do I need to do to turn my situation around?” Frankly, I could write an entire book on the subject. But if you’re struggling to be the leader that your team needs to succeed, here’s a good place to start…

  • Listen: Your team knows what’s happening in your business. So it’s in your best interest to stop what you’re doing and really listen to them.
  • Admit your flaws: Nobody likes the boss who can’t own up to her own character flaws and foibles.
  • Be honest with your team: Sounds simple I know, but honesty goes a long way.
  • Keep your word and do what you say you will do: Again, this should be obvious right? Yet many bosses expect their employees to keep their word when they rarely do.
  • Cultivate humility and apologize when you make a mistake: Your team is far more likely to help you fix errors (and prevent them next time around) if you own up to them.

Those are just the basics. Now let’s dig deeper into four areas that usually need a course correction.

Four Ways to Fix Your Business – Starting Now

There are dozens of things that may be awry in your business. But overall, the problems I see generally come down to four main areas. If you can fix these four areas of your business, you will be on your way to building your own team of warriors.

Just one note of caution before we jump into the details: you need to have all four of these areas working at the same time to create a team that loves what they do — and who they work with.

1. Stop Managing. Start Leading.

When I speak with poor managers or clueless CEOs who call me for advice about their “terrible team” I’m always happy to tell them my approach. They almost always respond the same way: “I can’t go soft like that. These people will walk all over me.”

Comments like these hit on a key misunderstanding. Caring deeply about the people who work for you isn’t being soft, and it isn’t letting people “get away” with anything.

At LeadPages, we have extremely high standards and expect outstanding results from every single person on our team. We ask our team to give us their very best every day. Our customers count on it.

This backward thinking that says you can’t treat people extremely well and have them deliver stellar results is far too widespread…and it’s just plain wrong. (Equally wrong is the belief that just because you treat people well they will give you their peak performance, but that’s a topic for another day.)

In fact, it’s because we have such deep respect for the people we work with, and we’ve earned their trust, that we can ask them to give us their A-game every single day.

I’ve had employees thank me for pushing them past the limit of what they thought they had to offer. This road is not necessarily easy, but the rewards for both parties go far beyond satisfying when you see someone break out of their comfort zone and start delivering work they never thought possible.

Awe-filled versus Awful

So what differentiates a true leader from someone who is just managing the team?

True leaders…

  • don’t like “keeping the status quo.” It makes them deeply uncomfortable.
  • want to be disruptive and change both their industry and the lives of their customers.
  • need real-world results and won’t settle for anything less.
  • get excited when their team takes risks to innovate and deliver above and beyond what they’d asked for.
  • encourage their team to truly push the envelope, and not just do what they’re asked.

The above mindset enables leaders to inspire their team. You can’t be apathetic when you’re working with genuine leaders – their enthusiasm and vision are contagious.

Contrast that with managers (not in title but in attitude) who:

  • want to maintain the status quo.
  • don’t want any mistakes. They just want a smooth ride.
  • have little to no desire for radical innovation that requires risk.
  • reward solid performers, but penalize risk-takers when they fail.
  • are threatened by bright, shining stars on their team.

Managers don’t elicit awe from their team, especially if they’re filled with self-importance and like to micromanage.

True leaders are determined to make a huge difference in the world, and this shapes the vision that keeps the team highly enthusiastic and engaged.

The team can see through the eyes of the leader that the goal isn’t to hit “good enough” or even “great.” The goal is to radically change both the landscape of the industry they’re in and the businesses (and lives) of their customers.

Yawning or Yelling

When you go over your product roadmap with your entire team (you do have regular meetings with your entire team to share your vision, right?), is your team left yawning in boredom or yelling in excitement (no, not literally, though maybe!)?

When our team hears about the vision and goals we have, I usually get a few calls afterward with sentiments like, “This is as exciting as it is scary!” and, “How the *@$# are we going to do this? I can’t wait to figure out a way to make this happen!”

That’s hitting the mark. If it doesn’t seem like a stretch, it’s not much of a vision and it won’t inspire anyone.

quote-02From the very beginning, we built massive vision and aggressive goals into the DNA of our company so we attract people who are bold and fierce, who are excited about changing the entire lead generation and conversion rate optimization landscape. As a rule, we just don’t see complacent underachievers. (They aren’t drawn to our kind of company.)

Many companies — with so-called “managers” who fail to be real leaders — inadvertently teach their employees to play it safe. The philosophy of “mistakes must be avoided at all costs” is fuel for mediocrity.

To be a real leader, you need to encourage your team to push past the “feeling safe” point. You want people to stretch and grow, to take risks. At times it can feel like you’re a bulldozer, plowing through wreckage so that you can reclaim dormant land. But trust me: it’s worth it.

It’s uncomfortable to take risks and color outside the lines when you’ve previously been penalized for doing so. It takes time for people to get past their self-imposed “I want to feel safe” limits. But when they do, magic happens. I’ve seen it happen first-hand at our company:

“Thank so much for kicking my a** so hard. I really needed it and I truly appreciate it.” 

“I’ve never had anyone care enough to push me to give my all. I’m so grateful – look what we’re doing now!”

It’s thrilling to watch someone on your team go from being afraid to take risks to pushing all the boundaries and encouraging others to stretch even more. You’re literally watching them go from fearful to fearless. Now we can move mountains, together.

2. Be Fierce.

True leaders are fierce. Not in a domineering, controlling sense, but in their determination and laser-like focus.

If you’re not intentionally fierce about creating the culture you want, you’ll have the default mediocre-to-poor culture that is so prevalent in the workplace today.

Commit to fiercely protecting the people who work with you and to lovingly but firmly lead your team. That means pushing your team to move beyond their fearful boundaries into a place where they are comfortable pushing you to grow, pushing the product to new heights, pushing the team dynamic to greater levels.

In the beginning, this isn’t comfortable, but let’s face facts here: great leadership isn’t for the faint of heart.

That Means Fiercely Caring

If you don’t care about the people you work with, fiercely care, then you shouldn’t be leading your team. Period. At the very least, put a buffer (in the form of a caring person) between you and your team so you don’t subject them to your true feelings (or lack thereof).

If the culture doesn’t matter to you, if you really are not interested in how your employees treat each other, then hire someone who does. Tell this person to fight you every step of the way if need be. Don’t add one more toxic company to this world. That quota has been filled.

If you can fire people without shedding a tear or feeling terribly unsettled, something’s not right. You’ve just altered someone’s life in a significant way. Get a heart, give a damn—or hire someone who does.

Know this: if you don’t care what your company culture is like, you’ll have a hard time keeping stellar people on your team. Frankly, that’s good. You don’t deserve them, nor do they deserve you.

This will cost you, though: industry experts estimate that each time someone leaves your company, it costs you between 16% and 213% of their annual salary.1

If you’re driven solely by the bottom line, do some research on the cost of employee turnover (some estimates are far higher than the above numbers). Hopefully, you’ll be stunned into changing your mind about the importance of company culture.

A real leader should lose sleep over their company culture — when something is not right. I’m often up in the middle of the night, wrestling with cultural issues, examining where we’re failing, and struggling to find what we need to change.

I don’t have all the answers…yet. But I am deeply unsettled and will wrestle over these issues for as long as it takes.

When we blow it in the culture department, I usually have a good cry over it. I’m not ashamed of those tears. I want to care that deeply over the happiness of our team and I won’t fight to feel the pain when we miss the mark.

It takes humility to be a great leader and to build a great culture because you are going to make mistakes. You’ll need to pick yourself up, apologize, and try again.

It Also Means Fiercely Respecting

Want warriors on your team? Then start with deep respect.

Want warriors on your team? Then start with deep respect.

One of the most important values I have is upholding the dignity of all people. This translates into always treating people with deep respect, even when they’ve blown it.

Even difficult talks can be held while upholding the dignity of the person. I’ve often had people thank me after having a difficult conversation with them, occasionally even someone that I’ve just had to fire.

Whether that conversation is about a performance issue or whether I have to let them know it’s time for us to part ways, I want to deeply see their dignity, and do my best to not violate that when we talk.

Deep respect means you’re willing to have really hard conversations when needed because you care enough about the person to want to be open and honest with them about what’s going wrong.

It’s easy to run away from hard conversations. You have to go willingly into those talks, even if your palms are sweating and your heart is pounding the whole time. You don’t need to soft-soap the problem, but you do need to treat the person you’re speaking with the utmost respect while addressing the issue head-on.

Again, if you’re not able to have these difficult talks, hire someone with a heart who is willing to enter this territory for your team.

If you’ll take up the fierce roles, as described above, you’ll end up with an amazing team like ours. The beautiful part? They reflect that fierceness back to us: they are fiercely unstoppable.

3. Pay Up.

Too many leaders are looking to pay the least amount they possibly can to the members on their team. If you care about the people working for you, you won’t want to pay the lowest amount you can get away with. It’s the opposite: you’ll want to pay the most you can while still keeping the company financially solvent and secure.

I find the discussion of salaries during the interview process to be fascinating.

quote-04Some people try to take advantage and will make ridiculous salary requests. We don’t hire those people. We want to be generous, but not to the point of stupidity. We know what market is for the position and we know where we’re at financially as a company.

But far more often I find that when it comes to salary discussions people undervalue themselves. We refuse to take advantage of that, and will offer them more than what they request if we know they’re undervaluing what they have to give.

We wrestle with when and how to give more, not with how to squeeze the most out of our team for the least amount of money possible. We want to be as generous as we can within the confines of staying profitable.

Why would you not want to share the success of your company with the people who have helped you get to where you are…and who are still on board to help you take your product to the next level?

If you’re not able to pay generously, then give in other ways. For example, you can offer more paid time off than is expected, give bonuses when you’re able to, thank people profusely, and acknowledge to them that you know they should be earning more.

Also, let your most valuable team members know that you will increase their salary as soon as you can afford it. Then keep your word.

4. Always Check-In.

The CEO I quoted at the top of this post later asked me what he could do to get his “poorly-performing team” to “perform better.”

I answered with, “The wrong question. The correct question is: ‘What is so poor about my leadership that is causing my entire team to perform so poorly (if, indeed, they truly are performing poorly)?’”

If you’re looking to improve the culture and work environment of your company so that you can improve your team’s performance, you’re starting at the wrong end of the problem. You have to genuinely care about your team, not just use people as a means to an end.

If you don’t genuinely care, you’ll never earn the trust of your team. Without trust, they won’t feel safe enough to be honest with you. And without your team being able to give honest feedback, you’ll never have an amazing work culture.

Here’s one simple way to improve your leadership skills that will lead to an amazing culture: check in with all the individuals on your team that report directly to you. And have any managers that report to you check in with their team members in the same manner.

Do this individually, and on a regular basis.

If you’ve been a jackass as a boss, you need to start by apologizing. Be specific in your apology. Tell them what you’ve done wrong, admit where you’ve made mistakes in how you’ve treated them, and ask them if they would forgive you and give you a second chance.

You won’t have earned their trust at this point, but most people will soften a lot when a boss will admit his or her mistakes. That’s especially the case if you ask for another shot at being a great person to work with.

Can You Handle the Truth?

Your employees may not tell you the whole truth right away if you haven’t spent time and energy earning their trust. They may rightly be thinking that you can’t really handle the truth.

If you really care about your team, you’ll want to hear the whole truth, even when it’s ugly, even when it’s all about you.

One of the things I most frequently ask is, “Are you happy? What can we do to make you happier?” When I check in with people and ask what else I can do to make them happy, they often say, “No one has ever asked me that in a work environment.”

Not only do I ask this question, but I take notes when they answer, implement, and then check in again down the road to see if we’ve made progress.

Working with a team is not a zero-sum game: an employee being happier doesn’t mean a loss to the company. There are almost always ways to improve the happiness level of your team without having to harm the company or productivity.

Start by saying: “Thanks for sticking with me when I was being such a jackass. I appreciate your loyalty.”

Start by saying: “Thanks for sticking with me when I was being such a jackass. I appreciate your loyalty.”

Look for the win-win as often as you can. Many times these conversations will lead to innovations we would never have discovered apart from a brutally honest conversation.

Part of your check-in should also include telling them where they’re doing a great job.

Checking in isn’t only about finding out how they’re doing and what they may need help with, but it’s also a time to tell them what is outstanding about what they’re doing.

When you start this process, you may not even know what they’re doing that is so great because you’re so out of touch with all that they do.

You have to start at a very basic level: “Thanks for sticking with me even when I was being such a jackass. I really appreciate your loyalty and I want to turn things around.”

(No, I’m not kidding here. You have no idea how meaningful a statement like that can be to someone who has put up with your shenanigans for months or even years.)

You can’t afford to not have a sense of wonder over the greatness of the people on your team.

If your attitude is: “Why should I tell them they’re doing a great job – it’s what they’re getting paid to do, isn’t it?” then you can just stop reading now. Seriously, if you truly don’t care, you should just accept the reality that you’re doomed to have a poor work culture.

Two Must-Have Tools for Checking In

It’s also a great idea, if your company is large enough, to have people check in from time to time with those that are not in their department to see how happy they are.

They may feel more comfortable telling someone else about an issue they’re having with you, rather than saying it to your face…especially while you’re still building trust with them.

There are also some fantastic tools you can use to gain regular insight into how your employees are feeling about their work. These shouldn’t replace check-in calls, but are great supplements. Two tools we use are:

  • 15Five: This enables you to weekly track how each team member is feeling about his/her work.2
  • TINYpulse: This is great for anonymous feedback. It lets you ask difficult questions, and your team can give you honest, anonymous answers.

Finally, one of the most valuable “check-ins” you can do takes place after someone has checked out. If you don’t conduct exit interviews3 you’re missing out on a wealth of honest feedback.

Not everyone will agree to an exit interview and there are times when you shouldn’t ask for one, but overall exit interviews are a great tool to learn more about your company’s culture and work environment.

Time to Get Started

Enough. These are only the basics, but there’s still enough here to get you started.

Keep in mind: If you really dig in and start making changes, your team will start to shine. They’ve just been waiting for you to give them a platform to do so. It’s time to free the domesticated drones and turn the wild warriors loose.

As one last boost of inspiration, I’ll close this post out with a few quotes from a recent anonymous TINYpulse survey that I sent our team…

“You care about your employees’ happiness. That’s hard to find.”

“The family-like atmosphere + everyone’s friendly attitude & positive energy makes me look forward to a new working day, every day :-)”

“Very fun group to work with. People are always happy to lend a hand in order to support each other.”

“From an employee standpoint, you do a great job of making us feel appreciated. You recognize people for being good at their job and encourage people to do so by trusting us to do our job without micromanaging every aspect of our work. This is truly a great company and I enjoy every day that I work here….also you hire great people and you’ve done a great job of making sure personalities mesh well.”

“The company’s culture is something I’d fight to preserve! The positive vibe and positive environment. I don’t ever want to lose that. Everyone is friendly and helpful.”

Again, this was an anonymous survey. In a few months, after you’ve begun to implement some of the suggestions in this post, I’d love to hear your own results.

Footnotes: To learn more…

  1. Run a quick google search for “cost of employee turnover” and you’ll find more amazing statistics on the high cost of losing people from your company. (Here’s a quick example.)
  2. Asking questions about their stress level, company morale, what drains them of energy, and what projects they’re finding the most exciting to work on give you a well-rounded view of how each person on your team is doing. There’s also the opportunity to ask them for suggestions on how things could be improved.
  3. Do a quick google search for “exit interview.” There you’ll find best practices and what questions you should ask.