Some of my worst bosses have been my best teachers.  In fact, when I think about how to make some decisions, I refer back to those employers that had me walking around with post traumatic stress syndrome long after we ended our working relationship.  I have facial tics I attribute to old bosses.

I take some flak from my friends for the way I talk about Clockwork.  I have a friend who posts facetious comments on my Facebook page about the ‘nirvana’ that is our workplace.  I happily take it in the chin and not personally because, to be honest, I know what it’s like out there at your average workplace.  I have friends who talk about what they endure working inside of large, organizationally challenged companies, and even in small businesses (run by the small-minded) and I really feel for them.  Controlling supervisors.  Unclear expectations.  Politics and backbiting.  Coworkers willing to throw each other under the bus for the slightest infraction.  It’s stunning what people put each other through in the workplace.

Recently I talked to a group of psychologists and organizational development consultants about how Clockwork won the psychologically healthy workplace award from the Minnesota Psychological Association. There were other presenters before me talking about perks in their work places and the audience was wide-eyed as they listened to stories of foosball tables and employee satisfaction surveys and new showers for bike commuters.  I found myself sitting there waiting for my chance to speak thinking back to an all-company meeting I’d attended about 10 years earlier.  The owner of the company stood in front of the room and thanked the audience for all the money they’d made for him in the previous year.  I was in the back of the room looking around at the other faces, all of them trying to hide their incredulousness.  Now, ten years later, I was listening to business leaders celebrate foosball and showers.  Don’t get me wrong, I think play and perks make a huge difference in the health and spirit of any company.  But business has a tendency to focus on the wrong things when we start talking about progressive culture.  A culture that thrives on good energy and good work didn’t get to be that way because of the beer in the kitchen or the Wii in the staff lounge.  It starts with a vision of leadership and extends to every facet of the business.

Clockwork is currently hiring for a variety of positions and in the interview process I often field questions about my style of leadership.  I always respond the same way – first and foremost, my business partners and I started out intending to create a place where we really wanted to go to work. It’s true, we started out with a vision and the hope that we could build a business where we actually looked forward to coming to work every day.  Beyond that, though, I subscribe to the idea that leadership is service.  I’ve never read a book that fully aligned with our approach, nor have I had a mentor that completely shaped the way that I think.  I know there are others who share similar values.  But we are in the minority.  It just makes the most sense to me – my job is about finding and supporting the smartest people in doing their best work.  I can’t just talk the talk – I have to believe in empowerment and autonomy.  I have to believe that everyone deserves to be heard.  And I do.

Let’s face it – it’s hard to put your ego aside and really hire smarter than you.  It’s not kosher to say that out loud.  But work place leaders need to admit it.  It’s hard and people don’t often have the courage to do it. Leaders make the mistake of thinking that ‘to manage’ means ‘to control’ or to ‘force people to do things my way.’  It takes some real humility to consider that ‘your way’ might not be the best way.  In addition to trying to support and empower my coworkers, I am also committed to learning from them.  If I really live this desire to find teachers in my every-day experience, then I needn’t be threatened by the smart people around me.  Instead I should relish the opportunity to continue to learn and evolve and challenge myself because of what those people bring to the work experience.

I know that my industry takes a lot of heat for being what some might call a ‘lifestyle’ business.  Any good business needs to be a numbers business, right?  I have colleagues who push their people to embrace the numbers.  And yes, productivity and billings are critical to the health of the company.  But I think too much emphasis on that way of thinking puts unnecessary burden on your people and distracts them from the work.  If you want clock punchers, keep making time and money the priority.  At Clockwork the priority is the work and the clients – always.  Are we delivering on our promises?  Are the deliverables on time and on budget?  Have we solved problems for our clients?  I would argue that this IS a lifestyle business, absolutely.  The difference though, is what kind of lifestyle?  If the lifestyle you’re thinking is foosball and tequila shots, then no.  This is not a ‘lifestyle’ business.  But if what matters to you is real talent, intellectual curiosity, a passion for developing solutions that work, a hunger for knowledge, a genuine interest in each other and the work, then yes – this is a lifestyle.  That is the lifestyle.  And it happens all the time – not just between the hours of 9 and 5.  It’s not just what we do, it is who we are.  When you focus on the things that really matter most – the people AND the work – the positive energy is palpable.  I completely believe that.  I live it daily.

So many people are responsible for the Clockwork brand story.  Our brand is our people, our culture, our energy, our attitude, our work and our dedication.  Our brand is not one stand-out on Twitter, or one superstar strategist or one rockstar developer.  Yes, we have those people.  Our brand is not me.  It’s not one person.  I like to say – I can shine a light on myself and keep preaching the good word.  But after a while that will get boring.  Then what?  It can’t be about one person.  It has to be about the collective energy.  That is something that is scalable.  Yes, people bubble up.  But anything good that happens to me happens because of the effort of a whole team behind me.

My son is 3 years old and he has a book about bravery that we read to him often.  It’s a simple little board book with a simple little message, really.  Each page presents an example of bravery. But they don’t depict dramatic acts of bravery.  Bravery is who you are every day if you make good choices.  You’re brave if you’re kind.  You’re brave if you share.  You’re brave if you’re polite.  I think good leadership requires bravery. You’re brave if you can really commit to hiring better and smarter than you.  You’re brave if you decide to really learn from them.  You’re brave if you can get out of the way and let them shine.  You’re brave if you can support those people in doing their best work.

At the end of my life I guess I’d be happy if people said I was a good manager.  But I can’t help but believe I will have really succeeded at something if instead they said I was brave.  I guess I’d rather be brave.