Advice / Succeeding at Work / Management

The Simple Shift That Will Change the Way You Lead

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Historically speaking, a boss was someone who was to be respected and feared. He or she was often a distant figure whose office was apart—literally and figuratively—from the rest of the staff. For some lucky employees, the boss was also someone to admire, even if from a distance.

I’ve always thought about things a little differently when leading my small company. I view my role as more of a mentor rather than the person in charge—an advisor who’s there to guide the company in a certain direction, but also to encourage leadership and decision-making among the staff. Yes, I sign the paychecks and definitely have a vision for the business, but in my view, we all work together and have the same goal: to make the product better.

I realize that with a staff of 15 I’m in a somewhat unique position to be in the middle of everything that goes on, but most of these ideas can be applied to teams from five to 500.

If you’re at, or near, the top of a business, here are five reasons to consider thinking of your job as a mentor instead of a boss.

1. It Allows You to Be Both Productive and Part of the Team

One of the problems with a traditional management structure is that it pulls people who are good at something (e.g., programming, graphic design, PR, writing) away from producing and into managing other people. Most people aren’t only good at managing other people. But seeing your role as a mentor allows you, “the boss,” to also keep doing whatever it is that you’re good at and produce tangible work.

Not only does this mean you get to keep helping the company succeed on the ground level, it’s likely to earn you higher respect from your employees—giving them more incentive to do their best work for you. The person who comes in and delegates tasks and then closes his office door generally isn’t someone employees want to work hard for. But the person who’s getting his hands dirty while also being an effective leader absolutely is.

2. It Gives You the Opportunity to Coax Ideas Out of the Team (Instead of Forcing Everyone to Implement Yours)

As a boss, it’s easy to feel like you have to come up with all the new ideas for the company and then use your employees to help you implement them. While it’s true that you should be the one leading innovation and encouraging new projects, it’s a smart idea to tap into the brainpower of your team. And thinking of yourself as a mentor gives you the freedom to collaborate with them rather than simply delegate to them.

At ShortStack, we keep an ongoing list of ideas on our company Wunderlist that anyone is free to add to. The ideas range from complicated feature updates and customer service requests to infographics or ebooks and even to entirely new software products. While I might be the one who prioritizes the ideas and occasionally has to say “no” to them, no one has to go through a complicated process to get ideas seen and heard. I’ve found that encouraging employee ideas—and ultimately using a lot of them—makes everyone feel like their contributions are valuable (not to mention gives me a whole slew of ideas I never would have come up with on my own).

3. It Means You Can Avoid Being an Annoying Micromanager

I’m guessing that most people have worked with or for someone who was a manager to the extent that he or she was suffocating. When you think of yourself as the one in charge, it can be all too easy to fall into that trap—after all, your employees’ work reflects on you, so you want to make sure they’re doing it in the best way! And while it’s understandable, it’s a terrible way to lead.

It sounds super cliché, but if you don’t allow your employees the space to learn and grow, you’ll ultimately have a problem with stagnation. When I started my first graphic design business, I quickly realized that I could only bill 40-50 hours a week, so my income was fixed. I wanted to focus more on bringing in new business, but to find the time for that, I had to hire a few graphic designers. I brought in some help, but immediately started micromanaging them to ensure they did things the right way—my way. The result: my billable hours went way down!

I learned a lesson that I had to hire people and not look over their shoulders all day. I needed to share my vision and my expectations with them, but let them do the work their way. I still demanded excellent work, but it didn’t have to be exactly as I would have done it. Thinking of myself as a mentor rather than a boss has made it easier for me to give my employees the help they need, but then also to give them the space go off and work on their own.

4. It Means You Can Let Other People Shine

When you think of yourself as the man or woman on top, the idea might start to creep into your head that you always have to be the one producing the best work. But as a mentor, you want your mentees to succeed—even if it means they’re outshining you.

I have a hiring practice that some people might think is foolish: I look for people who are smarter than I am. Maybe I should be threatened by them, but instead I trust them to do what they are best at, on behalf of the company. Having smart people around you is the key to a good product and continued growth. If you’ve been in charge of marketing at your company and you’re not making progress, hire someone who is better at marketing than you are. This is not a sign that you are incompetent. It means that you recognize your weaknesses.

5. It Gives You a Chance to Have Fun With Your Team

You’ve probably heard it before: It can be lonely at the top. Even if people respect—and like—you, it can be harder to get close to your team if you hold yourself a step above them. By thinking of your role as that of a mentor, it can be easier to allow yourself to step down, get to know your employees on a personal level, and even socialize with them!

For example, everyone at ShortStack eats lunch together every Friday on the company’s dime. It’s always been important to me to encourage outside-of-work get-togethers, and I really think it makes our team stronger (and makes my job more fun). Plus, learning about what people like to do outside of work can help me figure out how to make the most of their strengths in the office—ultimately making me a better boss.

Here’s another way to think about it: Consider managing your team like you’re planning a huge birthday dinner for yourself. Sure, it’s your birthday, so you get the final say, but it’s going to be a better party if you think about how to make it a good time for everybody. In the end, your team will be more productive and your business more competitive.