by Layla Sabourian
When first I realized I wanted to be a leader, I spent a lot of time scorching my retinas with blue light as I scoured news outlets and blogs for some foolproof path to success—The Five Best Leadership Practices of the Decade, 7 Major Mistakes New Business-Owners Make… If you’ve ever pioneered a start-up, you know all the article archetypes. I tried to practice what the internet preached, but I quickly realized that most of the articles I read were authored by young, ambitious (white) men. The comments section bursted with praise for their methods, and I tried them, but they didn’t work for me. Every avenue proved impossible, which landed my company in jeopardy.
Many of the articles I read during that time were boiler-plate pieces that listed all the same problems, characteristics, and qualities. Advice included practicing empathy and humility, people-pleasing, striking a balance between inspiration and accountability, and navigating the boundaries of lasting critique. Others offered more practical solutions regarding delegating, micromanaging, timekeeping, communication, and mediocrity.
This was the advice I took a little too well.
I exercised empathy in excess (something I was already naturally adept at) and it almost caused the downfall of my company. Toeing along the fine line between liability and creativity cost my company three thousand dollars. My employees took advantage of me because I let them. I became obsessed with pleasing people. The lack of respect from my male employees was nauseating. I practiced humility, but as a woman, it proved to be my downfall.
Confidence is key. Always.
Striking a balance between guidance and criticism doesn’t come easy, nor does entrepreneurship in general. I’m blessed with a team of passionate individuals that genuinely believe in our mission as a company, but I’m still challenged on an hourly basis to maximize efficiency across the board. While some of my employees have big dreams that align with my start-up’s mission, our volunteers and interns tend to use the opportunity to work with us as a step towards their dream careers.
Of course, it’s no shock that everyone is built differently, nor that there are many challenges that come with varying needs and preferences among team members. We all have different learning, working, and researching styles, so finding an employer-employee balance requires patience. It takes a lot of effort to keep team members motivated to complete the job at hand, and positive reinforcement isn’t a uniform solution. All of my employees need specialized praise and specific help, depending on their needs.
Delegating tasks was difficult for me. I had trouble trusting my employees to do quality work because I could complete them better by myself. After I received some advice from a business coach, I came to understand that I was not only shouldering more work than I could handle, but preventing my employees from learning; I was inhibiting their career skills in the process.
My solution? Communication. Because my employees couldn’t (and can’t) read my mind, I learned to be specific. Timekeeping was the best advice I came across. I honed in on my employees’ strengths and weaknesses and was soon able to determine who was wasting company time, and who weren’t as proficient in certain areas where they’d previously claimed fluency. Breaking tasks down into smaller steps for my entry-level candidates proved to be a necessary evil.
My greatest challenge as a company leader has been reconciling the discrepancy between what I envision for my employees, and what they actually accomplish during their immersion in my workplace. Cultural differences vary as well, which can create a variety of issues. For example, most Americans weren’t taught humility like I was as I grew up in Iran. There’s a lot to be said for clear directions.
One morning at breakfast, as I was sitting across from my daughters, I was pondering on my leadership skills. The retention rate of our emerging talent was laughable, and I understood that many of the mistakes I made were negatively affecting employee satisfaction. It was that moment, over pancakes, that I realized my most terrible failure yet—my many misgivings as a boss were the very same mistakes I was making as a mother. I was a helicopter parent: Marlin, from Finding Nemo. There had to be some point at which I could trust my girls to achieve their own dreams, too. I couldn’t do it all for them, forever.
So I asked my eldest to do the dishes. She put up a fight about it at first, but now she cleans the sauce pan better than I do.
Moreover, it’s never easy to start a business, especially when you’re trying to learn to lead by way of example, too. One thing is for sure, though: that sure-fire, fast track to successful leadership doesn’t exist. The reality is that it doesn’t get easier, even after you find a leadership role that works for you (and in turn works for your employees). Eventually, though, you’ll start to reap the rewards. As your employees (or daughters, for that matter) begin to flourish, so will your company, and with it, you.
Layla Sabourian Born into the tumultuous Iranian Revolution, where women have been systematically oppressed for decades, Layla flipped the script to fuel her inner fire. Relentless in her quest to accomplish her mission, Layla strives to build safe, inclusive environments for all. She is the co-founder of FairFunders, an advisor at the Women’s Startup Lab, and the founder and CEO of Chef Koochooloo, an educational software platform that encourages interdisciplinary, intercultural STEAM learning for children through cooking lessons. She’s proud to share her brilliant energy with the world in a valiant effort to educate, enlighten, and inspire others to be their best and make a positive difference.