6 Tips for Managing and Leading People

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This week I was asked to talk to our local university’s management club and I thought I’d share what I did with them here.

My background in management

In January 2008, I started iThemes in my home. It was just me. Four years later, we now have 20+ employees (spread through the world from the Netherlands to San Francisco but mostly based in Edmond), with hundreds of products, four major brands and thousands of customers worldwide.

Before I started iThemes, I had managed only a part-time person. So I was a total newbie to management. A year into the business and I woke up one day to the realization I had to become a manager and leader FAST.

Here’s what I’ve learned (the overview) …

Managing and leading is about people and going far together with those people. My personal mission statement for our business is to “lead our tribe to go far together.”

In April last year, we held our annual retreat to discuss our strategic plan for the year. In that meeting, I explained that our business is like a mountain climbing expedition. We are teethered together and on a journey. We are a small team, on a mission. We march together. Everyone on the team must pull their own weight. When someone lags or falls, we need to figure out how to help them get back into the pack.

As a small team, climbing towards our summit, each person must contribute something of value to the completion of the mission.

And as the leader, the manager, my job is to point the way. To resource the team. To check on the health of the team. To communicate. To care for our team.

Almost every day I ask myself these questions:

  • Where are we going and who do I need to get there?
  • How do I lead, rally, inspire, focus people to go far together?
  • How do I maximize their time and talent for the mission?

So here are my 6 tips for managing and leading people that I have gleaned in four years of going from 0 to 20+ employees:

1. It’s all about people

First, second, third … it’s all about people. If you leave with one takeaway from this post, remember it’s all about people.

Bad managers abuse people. They misuse people. Good managers CARE.

And trust me, people know when you ultimately care about them and their future. They will work harder, longer, better for you if you do. And by the way, you’ll be a better human being for having done so.

To me, management is about you, your team and your customers.

The key is to always do right by people … even when it hurts.

You must give your team the vision, resources, mentoring, training to soar using their time and talents for maximimum benefit to the mission at hand. At iThemes, we seek to give our people guardrails to use those talents wisely. We seek to give our team a safe and creative place to play, develop and use their talents for the mission of the overall group. To “belong and contribute” to something bigger them themselves.

But it’s always about people. Whenever we have let that slip is when we have encountered some very painful moments in our history.

2. Communicate, communicate, then communicate some more. Oh and then, yeah, communicate.

Leadership is about communication. Going far together means you have to make sure everybody is on the same page

Thus, I end up repeating myself often. I’m a broken record. But I communicate and recommunicate often to ensure everybody has heard vital details of where we’re going.

Think about it …. like everybody else, you want to be in the know. You want to feel like you’re a part of the plan. Some of my biggest pain points came when I assumed people knew things or didn’t even want to know them.

Now I give lots of FYIs, especially as we’ve grown, even about my daily schedule and when to expect me in or out of the office. At iThemes, we have in-office people and remote people (scattered throughout the world) so it makes communicating quite challenging. So we started an internal communications channel to help with it. It’s kind of like an internal blog for our team. And we require everybody to use it actively (almost like Twitter).

I use it to keep up to. It’s one of the first things I check in the morning and throughout the day I’m continually seeing the activity on our comm channel.

By the way, the best way to learn how to communicate better is to start honing your writing skills. If you know how to write well, it has a profound impact on everything else. I highly recommend two things to improve your communication initially: read On Writing Well … and start a blog.

3. Know yourself

As a leader-manager, you must know your unique personality, strengths and passions.

This could sound like rainbows and unicorns … but really knowing who you are at the core, how you work best, what your strengths are really makes a difference.

If you know who you are, you can recruit and build the RIGHT rockin’ team around you.

I like and seek diversity. I like to have people with complimentary strengths around me. People that think differently and bring something unique that I don’t to the table. I don’t want everyone to be exactly like me – that would be boring and we would fail fast.

This often means finding people that have strengths in my weak areas. It also helps me to avoid the things that I’m not good at or will drain the life out of me.

Knowing yourself helps you BE yourself.

Here are some resources I’ve found extremely helpful to knowing who I am and what I am best at:

4. Hiring rocks, firing sucks.

It’s a fact of business. Get used to it.

One of my favorite parts of leadership is finding and recruiting new people. I love to find good talented people and find ways to get them connected to our purpose and team. I love the hiring process and finding an opportunity to give people a place to fit in and contribute to our purpose.

We hire for initiative, drive and fit. All three are extremely valuable we’ve found. If you don’t have initiative or drive, you’re probably going to sink in our business. If you don’t fit, it’s not going to be happy for anyone.

But sometimes you have to breakup. Breakups suck, they hurt bad. And breakups happen – even in the BEST businesses. With each hire or fire we try to do better the next time.

Word of caution: If you take too long to people go, it will cause major problems within the right “fit” people on your team. And I’ve heard it said … by delaying it, you pause your team’s potential and the individual’s who could be a better fit (and much happier) elsewhere.

5. Take care of yourself.

You need to be happy – or NO ONE else will be.

No one else will take care of you … that’s why you need a support group. Get mentors and advisers and friends and meet with them regularly.

It’s one thing I neglected and didn’t think about until last year.

Having a supportive, encouraging spouse or significant other is key to all of this of course. Your spouse is your partner – make sure that person aligns and supports your work. Career happiness dominoes to other areas of wellbeing.

Be happy at work; be happy at home. Be happy at home; be happy at work.

Find whatever recharges your batteries and do it, schedule it. Make it happen. My way of recharging is silence and solitude. I like to read. I like quiet reflection. One of the things I’ve been doing for the last couple of months, especially as our office has grown, is to work from home on Fridays. It has had amazing results for me personally but also our business. (And by knowing myself – as an introvert – I can make the moves necessary to do so.)

6. Always be Learning and Growing …

At iThemes, we say: Learn and Grow Then Teach and Share.

If you’re not growing, you’re dying. You’re flatlining and that’s sad.

The best and most affordable way to continue learning and growing is to always be reading. Start reading now. Set a goal to read one book a month. It’s a great start. But always be reading.

Graduating from formal education doesn’t mean you stop learning. That’s dumb. Just because you learned for one period of time in your life doesn’t mean you’ve magically arrived and can just put life on cruise control.

At any given point during the week, I’ve got at least one or more books I’m into (and if not, I’m looking for a new one!). And I’m not talking about pure fiction either, as I don’t read for entertainment, I read to learn something new and to expand my perspectives.I would not be where I was if I hadn’t eaten so many books over the years.

Dead trees are cheap but invaluable consulting!

Buy a Kindle and keep it loaded with fresh insights and solid wisdom …. (here are 5 ways to maximize Kindle reading)

And by the way, the best way to learn is to teach. Share what you’re learning with someone or do a blog on the subject. You’ll further crystalize what you learned.

OK, those are my 6 tips as I reflected on four years of managing and leading people.

But in the end … it’s just about this really:


Good leaders and managers simply care about people first and foremost.

Have a pulse on who your people are and what they need.  Put people first and do the right thing. And you’re already ahead ….

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