Jacinda Ardern, Derek Henderson, Vogue, March 2018

I’ve been interviewing a lot of people for leadership roles lately, and one of the questions I like to ask is: “What are your values as a leader? What are your foundational beliefs about how you want to lead a team?”

It’s admittedly a big question, but one of the most important ones I ask potential leaders. Being a manager or in a leadership role where the careers of multiple humans are in your hands is an enormous responsibility. Bad leaders can degrade trust and quash enthusiasm resulting in low impact, demoralized teams and great people leaving. Strong leaders can motivate people to step up and do more than they thought possible. The biggest privilege of my career has been the small role I’ve played in helping individuals shape careers and make confident use of their super powers.

“People who have a sense of who they are and what matters to them are better positioned to lead with conviction and help their teams weather the inevitable storms.”

One of the best ways to separate weak leaders from strong leaders in the speed dating like interview process is to ask about values. The conversation that ensues reveals how well the candidate knows themself. People who have a sense of who they are and what matters to them are better positioned to lead with conviction and help their teams weather the inevitable storms. Strong leaders have a sturdy foundation to build on. They aren’t afraid to be opinionated about what they think is important because they know organizations that aren’t aligned to their values won’t be a good fit for them. Interviews are a two way street — savvy candidates and interviewers assess one another.

When I ask about values, one of these things often happens:

  • Uncertainty: Some people just haven’t thought about their values or at least not enough to articulate them. This may be because they’re inexperienced or because they’ve approached their careers incognito—by adopting the values of whatever environment they’re in.
  • Generic response: Values are an expression about what someone cares deeply about as a leader. Often when I ask about values, I get high level responses that sound fine, but the candidate has little ability to go deeper, sketch their ideas out, or draw personal connections about how they would apply their values in practice.
  • Aim-to-please answer: The worst response is when someone is clearly trying to give the “right” answer instead of a real one. This is usually in the form of responding with some version of what they think the company they’re interviewing for wants to hear.

These answers don’t point towards bad people, but to a worrying lack of introspection and self-awareness, two traits that are critical in a strong leader. Although, of course, I want to hire leaders whose values align with the company, role and team they would be joining, I’m most interested in whether they have invested in thinking about the kind of leader they want to be.

I haven’t always had a firm grasp of my values as a leader and it’s only been in the last few years that I’ve been able to get specific about them. I’ve been fortunate to have access to some wonderful coaches at Shopify and through communities like Mia Blume’s Within that have nudged forward and challenged my thinking. The book Principles by Ray Dalio has also influenced me.

I feel confident that these four pillars are foundational for me, though I’m often fine-tuning the details and reflecting on the principles and practices they inform. I refer to this list often and it helps me make decisions about how to run my team, the direction I give to the leaders who report to me, and when I feel stuck or unsure about the right path, referring to them can help ground and direct me. I also believe that these four pillars lead my teams to the best outcomes and to releasing experiences we can all feel proud of.

Here they are:

Value: Meaning

Principles:

  • I care deeply about the “why” and believe in sharing my understanding of it widely with my team
  • One of my most important responsibilities for a leader is to ensure contributors understand how their work ladders up to a bigger picture
  • I choose work that is grounded in a mission I believe in, adds value to real people, and makes a positive mark
  • I balance support and direction with giving people enough trust and scope so they feel ownership, responsibility, and pride for the work they produce

Value: Fairness

Principles:

  • I treat people as inherently valuable and worthy, and not as a source of leverage or as a resource (I believe companies live and die by their people)
  • I believe that structural inequality exists and I will counteract it by hiring, making space for, and amplifying diverse voices
  • I am subject to unconscious bias just like everyone else, which is why I insist that opinions about people be rooted in recent specific experiences rather than intangible impressions or feelings.
  • I advocate for people with the highest context to have the most direct influence on decision making and will challenge strict hierarchies to make that happen

Value: Creativity

Principles:

  • I believe that room to explore, learn, have fun and be playful results in better business outcomes and healthier teams
  • I will cultivate curiosity and make it safe for people to experiment with fresh ideas and approaches—we will learn from our missteps but will not fear failure
  • I am terrified of improv, but I will cultivate a “yes and” culture especially during the exploration phases of a project
  • I embrace constraints because I believe they fuel and focus creative thinking, they don’t hinder it

Abundance

Principles:

  • I will advocate to give everyone what they need to succeed within available means and default to systems based on trust over bureaucracy
  • I believe that a rising tide lifts all boats and will encourage and champion the advancement of others because scarcity mindsets breed secrecy, siloing, and unhealthy competition
  • Highlighting and recognizing what’s going well is a critical and often overlooked tool of performance management that I will practice with intention
  • Feedback, even when imperfectly delivered, is a gift and I will seek it out like water in a drought

There are lot of things I care about that haven’t made it into my values. For example, last year one of my personal goals was to be more present, which I put into practice by closing down Slack, email, and avoiding distractions while in meetings to focus on the people and problems in front of me. This also meant saying no to meetings that didn’t feel like the best use of my time. Just like with how I apply my values, I was imperfect in achieving this goal, but it’s something I continue to work on.

Great leaders know who they are and what they care about, and they try to live by their values. Knowing what kind of leader you want to be is half of the journey to getting there. If you are or aspire to be responsible for the careers of other humans or for building effective and healthy teams, I humbly recommend that you spend some time figuring out who you want to be and how you want to show up. Without a North Star, you’ll never be able to recognize your destination or have much hope in leading a team there.

Writer and reader. Director of UX for Store Management at Shopify. Formerly designed with words at Facebook. Based in Toronto. http://amythibodeau.com

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