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Leaders: Your Job is Context

There are so many jobs that are the responsibility of a strong leader; recruiting and hiring talent, setting organizational goals, measuring performance, motivation, building products, keeping customers happy, to name a few. That said, I have often felt that as a leader, your most important job is developing and sharing context with your team, and across the teams that you work with. The power of context is magical; as a founder, it is that context that sets your vision, mission, and values, but also your product roadmap, go to market plans, and passion for customers. Too often, the job of developing, managing, and sharing context is forgotten in rapidly growing organizations.

It goes something like this: A founding team joins forces together, perhaps a technology leader, a go-to market leader, and a business leader. A shared vision and mission are developed and translated to a product offering. Execution begins, and execution is relatively seamless because the context of the business is well understood by every player involved.

The team then grows; the founders recruit subject matter experts in the industry who are aligned with their vision and mission. Experts in engineering, sales, marketing, and business operations from competitors, other upstarts, or customers join allowing that context to remain intact across the teams being grown. Like earlier, execution remains relatively seamless, as goals, missions, and objectives (or rather, context) remains shared.

In my experience, this is when the context starts to breakdown unless founders and executives actively step up to counter the natural forces at play. One key factor is the nature of who can be recruited to the team changes. Assuredly, excellent engineers, go to market staff, and other professionals are brought onto the team, many of whom are likely have more experience in business, growth, and scale than earlier team members, and will help the business grow. However, something is missing; the context of the business isn’t there, this layer of new recruits hasn’t experienced the problem space firsthand, didn’t build the original product, or more likely, choose to work in their professional silos. Specialists in their job function, yet generalists in the core context of the business, don’t deeply understand the customer problem space, the solution set, and product/market fit.

In our days at Dyn, we felt this shift in the business around the 50-person mark. We could hire excellent software engineers, network operations staff, and support personnel, but not everyone joining were experts in the domain name system (DNS), and nor should we expect them to be. There’s a classic story of me handing Kyle York a technical book on the DNS, written by our good friend Cricket Liu. Did I expect Kyle to read the book cover to cover? I probably did. But that was not reasonable. However, it was packed with context that allowed Kyle to deeply understand our customer, our problem space, and our solution. He says he didn’t read it, but secretly, I think he did.

I recently had the honor to spend time with a founder who completely overhauled his business in light of COVID-19. Knowing the core business was at risk, this founder made a massive pivot, required him to invest much of the money the business had in its bank account and started anew to execute a revised business plan. The founder told me that it made some of his team members nervous (changing business plans and investing so much hard-earned money), but he knew it was going to work out. He asked the team to trust him, which they did, and it worked out. The difference between the founder and his staff: context. The founder had a plan, knew the pieces to assemble to make it work, and formulated a path to execute. The staff had a leader they trusted, but admittedly (stated by the founder himself), lacked the context of the plan, the pieces, and the execution path that the founder had in mind, creating uncertainty. With uncertainty, comes anxiety; of no use to us in a rapidly growing and changing organization.

How can we combat this as leaders? We have to make this our everyday job to work on and improve in our organizations. It can come through formal training efforts, brown bag lunch and learns (over Zoom, I suppose), all-hands meetings, and one on one conversations. It comes from knowing that not everyone in an organization can come in the door knowing all things about your business, but that everyone can learn something about the business every day, regardless of job function. We can combat that lack of context that creates uncertainty, anxiety, and disengagement by sharing, at all levels, every day.

As founders, CEOs, and even as managers, it is our job to define, share, and educate our teams about the context of our businesses. We are placed into positions of trust and power to absorb, interpret, and share context with our teams. When we take the time to develop and share our context, we empower others in our organization to understand our customers, products, and solutions. It allows the entire organization to align to common goals, missions, and values, as set and agreed upon by its leaders. Context is massive power.

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