One week in, I thought I was going to fire him. My first engineer, a friend from high school, was wearing my patience thin. Sure, he was just a second-year computer science student. I couldn’t expect him to know everything. But I was getting tired of playing professor. We needed to move nimbly to grow the little company. And he was dead weight.
It’s not that his tasks were Herculean. He just didn’t have much experience. Combine with a classic student’s bias towards learning instead of impact, and you’ve got a real problem. There’s never a spot for that in my early teams. I move fast. Validate or invalidate quickly. Focus on results, not satisfaction. But he didn’t get the memo. Sure, he was just a week old. But I couldn’t keep up my end any longer.
But as I was trying to figure out a polite way to send him off, something happened. Suddenly, he saw the light. Tasks got done faster than I could break them up. He even started taking load off my plate. And within a few short days, we got a good system going. We became a decently competent little team, the two of us. What changed? I simply stopped bugging him.
I mean, I thought we were about to part ways. Why would I care about his tasks? So I just let him do his own thing. And strangely enough, that was the unlock. He started going through the task list and picking off things he could do. The first few were just his own experiments that didn’t go very far. But eventually, he found a subset of things he could do effectively.
Nowadays, we each have our own domains of proficiency. Some tasks automatically go to him, some automatically go to me. We’re good at different things. So we roam in our own pastures. There’s some overlap — that’s where we communicate — but we’re quite comfortable.
And that’s the secret to leadership: Making people comfortable. People can really shine when you let them be themselves. This is especially the case with thorny problems such ours. I mean, we’re a little tech company in 2021. We’re always racing against the world. And everyone on the team must feel comfortable to pitch into this race fully. Ultimately, that’s what success in a small team comes down to.