10 Things I’ve Learned About Leading People
At Cambium, all of our leaders value learning deeply, whether it’s from a personal growth standpoint or helping students excel at reading.
At Cambium Learning Group, I’m grateful that I can put my personal experiences from the past 27 years to use as a leader, as well as continue to learn from my exceptional peers. I’ve learned that my biggest impact comes from supporting everyone around me: my team, my peers, my boss, and our partners, and that leading stems from supporting everyone’s well-being. We all want to do exceptional work, get paid well, and get recognition for what we contribute, but we also want to feel something at work — to feel like we’re safe, we belong, and we matter.
With that in mind, I’d like to share some things I’ve learned during the last three decades that serve as the framework for how I manage and lead at Cambium.
- Be of service to build trust: As a new manager, I thought my job was to make sure everyone did their jobs. I also thought I had to be involved in everything in case I was asked by my boss for details. That led to me taking on things I knew I could do well, insisting on regular updates and one-on-one meetings to get updates. What I eventually learned was that my job wasn’t about micromanaging. Rather, it was to hire amazing people and then help them do the amazing work only they can do. When people feel valued and not second-guessed, they do incredible things.
- Your hidden superpower: This is one that took me many years and many experiences, both personal and professional, to understand. If I’m willing to really look at who I am, and then accept what I find there, I suddenly don’t have to have all the answers. I could finally exhale and trust the people around me to make their contributions. I suddenly felt less stress and less pressure. I also felt like I was feeding my integrity because I was being honest with myself and everyone else.
- REALLY listen: It’s easy to have your brain take hold of your attention, running through your lists. It’s also easy to have your ego take hold of your attention, wanting you to show how smart you are, how important you are, how valuable you are. First off, both of those things are natural — you’re a human being. One way I find my way back to sanity is to just pause and listen. Listen without solving, listen without judging. And when someone has a question, even if I think I have a great answer, I try to step back and say, “That’s a great question. What do you think?” Again, trust can’t be built if people don’t feel seen and valued.
- It takes a village: Sometimes you have the wrong person in a role. There’s a big difference between being honest about what you see and failing to see beyond yourself. In other words, if you find yourself thinking, “I could do their job so much better” or “If I only had different people, I could have such a huge impact” or other “I” focused things, you should pause and look at yourself. Are you being fair? Are you being honest? Whatever you find, you can’t escape one fact: you need your team. So make sure you do the work to make that happen, even when it’s hard or uncomfortable.
- Don’t stop waving the flag: Years ago, a mentor of mine used to always give the same advice whenever I or someone like me was interviewing for a new job. He would raise up his arms, look at the sky, smile and say, “Enthusiasm!” When hiring people, I always look for people who want to be here. Not just because they need a job, but because something about the company, the role, or the team makes them enthusiastic to be here. The same goes when leading a team. If you aren’t enthusiastic about your team, your work, and your impact, how can you expect the team to be? That enthusiasm also extends to how you set and articulate your team’s goals. If you don’t set goals and enthusiastically support them and your team in pursuit of those goals, it will make it hard to say no to the ideas and requests you’re sure to get from others. Being clear and enthusiastic about your team and your plan makes it easier to say no when you have to.
- Your energy matters: When I joined one of my earlier jobs, I was suddenly leading an international team of 20+ people. Almost immediately, people wanted me to change things. I felt a responsibility to do so, not only because I had a large team, but because I was more experienced than most and had just moved across the country with my wife and three young kids to be there. If I walked into that situation today, I would’ve met with the senior leadership right away and had the uncomfortable conversations right then and there, not run by emotions and a mix of truths and half-truths. I would’ve focused on bringing helpful energy to the situation and trusting the process.
- Lighten up to unblock creativity: Creativity isn’t just for “creative professionals.” Everyone and every team needs to tap into their creativity to do great work. But here’s the thing about creative work environments — they can’t happen if people don’t feel safe to take chances and try new things. It’s easy to think you know everything and you have all the answers, but you don’t, and you never will — and that’s okay! You will make mistakes, just like everyone else does. So lighten up and focus on helping people feel safe to be themselves. There’s a line often attributed to Oscar Wilde that goes like this: “Be yourself. Everyone else is already taken.” Encourage that of your employees, and don’t forget to remember it for yourself!
- Turn it over: As an early leader, I often found myself focusing on the things I felt most confident about. That resulted in two things, both unintended and not helpful: 1) The people we hired to do those things didn’t feel empowered and supported — they spent their time trying to make me happy. 2) Focusing on the trees kept me from seeing the forest. And the truth was that seeing the forest, and helping my team make sense of it, was what my new job was really all about. That scared me to death because I had never done it before. It’s easy to stick with the things that make you feel good about yourself, but if you want to lead people and if you want to grow, you have to be willing to trust your team to do as much of the work as possible.
- Push people where they’re already going: Once when I made a company move, it all happened rather suddenly and unexpectedly. I had just built a large team, launched a new brand, and helped the company through the initial stages of a merger. I knew the team needed a new leader and told the CEO that one of my new directors was up for the job. The first six months were rocky, but she finally started to see herself in the role I had already been seeing her in for six months. If you’re really listening, you can trust a feeling you have about your team. Sometimes they just need someone to believe in them — and give them an uncomfortable nudge.
- ALWAYS take the call: Don’t mistake this for networking. This is about really caring for other people and being willing to be of service to them, even when you don’t work with them anymore. Because here’s the thing — the benefit flows in both directions. And yes, benefit can sometimes mean an opportunity. But it’s not just about who you know and what it can get you. It’s about being of service to people and trusting that you will benefit from it. How? Because your own view of yourself and your own integrity is what matters most of all. If you begin to believe you’re the kind of person who always takes the call, always listens and tries to help, always shares honestly and is willing to learn, you will be that person. And trust me: if you are that person, everything is possible for you.
At Cambium, all of our leaders value learning deeply, whether it’s from a personal growth standpoint or helping students excel at reading. I hope these tips are helpful as you grow in your own career, or serve as reminders when leading teams.