Shaping Leadership through Self-Awareness

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Today’s business landscape is complex.

Running a company, managing teams, and raising the profile of a business isn’t easy, and so, leaders need to be conscious of how their behaviours impact those they lead as they go through the scaling process.

Inward clarity, emotional intelligence and cultivating self-awareness are essential for leaders to be effective in outward actions and to lead others effectively. 

In fact, self-awareness has been cited as the most important capability for leaders to develop, according to Ginka Toegel (professor of organisational behaviour and leadership at IMD), and Jean-Louis Barsoux (professor of organisational behaviour and leadership at IMD), authors of “How To Become a Better Leader.”

According to the excerpt published in the MIT Sloan Management Review, successful leaders know where their natural inclinations lie and use this knowledge to boost those inclinations or compensate for them.

We spoke with Aneesh Varma, founder and CEO of Aire about the importance of self-awareness and self-reflection as a leader of a scaling company.

Practicing self-awareness

Aneesh is an advocate for practicing self-awareness, and says it’s equally as important to undertake personal reflection as it is for self-reflection on a professional level.

He says: “On the professional side, I carve out time on my calendar where I refuse to take meetings unless extremely urgent.

“I have a block on Tuesday morning and a block on Friday morning. I sit and think about various business information or choices that have come our way.”

Aneesh recommends forming routines and spending time thinking about different eventualities and scenarios by forming your grid in your head.

Putting aside deep work hours and blocking out time for self-reflection works for Aneesh, however, there’s no one size fits all approach to reflection. Leaders in our community recommend physical activity, conversing with friends and being in nature as activities to decompress and reflect.

The importance of self-awareness for leaders to thrive

According to Aneesh, leaders need to be self-aware to identify the impact they have downstream and evoke self-awareness in the people they work with.

He says: “ Think about leadership as a cascading flow. I think about it from a CEOs perspective, but then you have leaders at different levels too, so if you set the right tone at the top (extremely important for leaders), you can help see that effect going downstream.”

Employees will model the behaviour of leaders, especially the CEO, and so Aneesh notes you have to work extremely hard to be aware of what you're doing.

“What's the way you're leading as you move through? How are you making decisions? Are you explaining to people why you made certain decisions? How do you behave in various meetings? How are you interpreting information?

“That ultimately is part of what your role is. It needs to be done in a way that you're aware, and you project the right kind of self-awareness to the rest of the organisation.”

“People respect that, people learn from that and it's okay to put up your hand and say, ‘Look, these are areas I'm learning so please bear with me.’

“People see the person who's investing in improvement and self-growth actively as a leader, and they want to get behind that. Nobody's supposed to be perfect on day one, but they will get there. I think that's exciting.”

Lessons learned to take forward 

One of the most important lessons Aneesh has learned during his time as a CEO is the need to make timely decisions.

Aneesh says: “It's hard sometimes to make a decision because you start overcomplicating it, but just about every leader I've talked to has always said whenever they had a new people issue, delaying it has not helped.

“They just need to make the decision and move on and the company is far better for it and so are the people.”

Aneesh acknowledges that it’s hard for people in the middle of it to sometimes see they're delaying decisions because you trick yourself into believing that's normal.

“You might need a couple nights of sleep on it or whatever, that's fine, but it shouldn't be things which are dragging on for months or years. Some of the best lessons I've learned have come from that area.”

The evolution of scale-up leadership 

All companies will evolve, and leaders are required to have different areas of focus at different stages.

Early you’re focused on building the initial team, getting publicity, and raising capital - especially if you’re trying to be a venture-backed company.

But as you grow, there will be a couple of inflection points that come along. 

He says: “It’s usually a couple of years into the journey, especially when you start raising your first few large rounds of venture capital.”

“You need to understand the company is becoming an institutionally-backed company, and as a result, you need to see if the current management team can move up the spectrum and be ready for that level of complexity.”

Leadership will likely need to rotate, and as a CEO it’s important to help your leadership team in the process. But not everyone can play at that complex level - even you as a CEO may struggle.

“So, get help through coaching, and if they're still not able to get there, then you need to make hard choices,” he says.

Aneesh thinks people rotation is one of the most important things, especially as a CEO.  Employees will look to you as you lead the most important and expensive team in the company, but are those team members really the best in class for the work that needs to be done? Have you got the best 5/6/7 people sitting around the table leading those respective functions?

Realising this as a CEO, ensuring the best people are in positions of leadership should be at the top of your decision making processes as you reach the different stages of your scale-up.

Understanding how you give back decision-making power to various people across the company should also be high up on your self-reflection to-do list.

When there’s a tough decision it’s common that decision-making powers are pulled away from employees.

Aneesh says: “Because of nervousness, people think, ‘We need to have all these decisions made centrally’, which is almost the worst thing to do.

“While that is a temptation, you want to make sure as a company grows, it becomes more complex. You are devolving decision-making to people who are closest to the problem.”

For example, staff in data science functions are the best at understanding which data science problems they have to deal with and the decisions required to deal with it.

Aneesh adds: “It is hard, but it is really important as a company grows during different stages that you constantly check how far you have pushed out decision making and how many people you have empowered.”

And last but not least, communication. You need to think about different ways and forums to communicate the company's purpose; certain business and strategy choices made; why you're doing X and not Y.

Aneesh says: “Some might be written communication, some might be verbal, you may have casual catch ups. You might have to repeat yourself a lot and that's okay.

“It’s important that everybody in the organisation understands why the big choices were made, and why the new direction is chosen. As the company grows you will need to evolve your communication style, level of communication and type of communication too.”

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