Don't be a Chief Janitor

As an entrepreneur I have always prided myself on a philosophy of servant leadership, the inverted pyramid that puts me at the bottom and in service to others in my organization.  I will always jump in where you need me.  I’ll make sure to help you out.  I can do the presentation.  I can take that call with you.  I’ll order the food.  I’ll take out the garbage.  I’ll be the Chief Janitor so that everyone else that I have employed can thrive in their roles.  It felt good.  It’s selfless.  But in my first start-up it failed on so many levels.

It should have worked except for one major flaw.  My intention as a servant leader was less about helping my organization succeed and more about not feeling worthy as a CEO that I could, in fact, be the CEO.  I needed to prove my worth and do whatever was necessary to help others be successful but in the process I enabled poor performers and bad behavior (because heck, I’ll be there to make sure you don’t fail).  When I “saved” a situation it allowed me to feel worthy even if I had created the problem in the first place.  It’s a dangerous spiral but difficult to see in the moment.

For those with children, the parallels are striking.  When you save to protect kids from failure, or do work they are otherwise responsible for completing, they will happily let you.  And then they will get used to it and expect it.  And then you as a parent will start to feel resentful that they expect it.  You will get upset with them when you are in fact upset with yourself.     Now you’ll want to fire them (but you can’t).  But that employee you will typically let go but it is really just a reflection of your own performance projected on their work.

The story I want to tell goes something like this.  I took a lot of risk to found a company with a vision.  We secured early financing to make important hires that can get us to the next level.  These roles were created because I built the company that enabled them.  I expect high performance so that I can focus on what I need to do uniquely in my role as CEO.  I am committed to helping employees succeed but I am not an enabler.  I will not do your work for you.  I will not save you.  But I will be your greatest cheerleader. 

By adopting the “Chief Janitor” moniker, it set me up for a position that I was not ready yet to take on.  I was not clear enough on my worth to understand that “Chief Janitor” does not mean you pick up everyone’s crap when they aren’t performing to expectations.  It means that you knock out the obstacles so that employees can perform, but they are still accountable for doing so.  

Maybe this is a rite of passage for a founder and a CEO.