With your team playing by the rules, you, as a leader, can’t just go off-piste

Before Netflix offered its streaming-only plan, my team at Digital-Tutors ventured into the little-known world of streaming video. The months flew past in a flurry of long hours, bug squashing and improvements to the platform. Finally, we made the nerve-racking decision to fire all our customers and ask them to join our new platform.

The hard work had paid off as we saw our subscriber numbers start to skyrocket. We were on a path to becoming more successful than ever. I decided to thank my executive team with a relaxing offsite event to celebrate. On our first evening, we found ourselves sitting at the popular Bottega restaurant in Yountville near Napa Valley. For a few hours, the usual happy chatter continued. Then Dana, one of my most trusted employees, stood up and made an announcement: She couldn’t take it anymore — she quit.

Understanding the rules of your game

The Winter Olympics this year were a universal reminder of the hard work it takes to play at the highest levels. Beyond the dedication, though, is a common thread we see in all Olympic athletes that can be applicable to leaders: The rules of the game.

Skiers know exactly what’s expected of them when they step onto the slopes. A figure skater’s routine gets perfected through countless hours of practice. Their coaches are there each step of the way, making sure there is a thorough understanding of the rules of the game.

In the business world, the rules of your game are your core values.

While the rules of the Olympic games are known by millions of fans, the same isn’t always true for your company’s core values. It’s rare for new employees to understand them on the first day. Even long-time employees need them to be repeated.

One of your key responsibilities as a leader is to be the coach for your tribe. Your role is to help ensure your employees understand the rules.

Sticking to the rules of the game

Imagine the confusion if one of the coaches insisted that their competing figure skaters venture out onto the ice with a hockey stick. The skater would probably start with confusion before winding down the road of frustration as the coach continued to push the new rules. That’s not the sport they agreed to play. It’s not the game they want to play.

As a leader, when you lose sight of your core values you push your employees down that same path of confusion and frustration.

Dana’s announcement in Napa Valley blindsided me. Our company was more profitable than ever before. The future for our new subscription-based business model looked bright. On top of that, we’d established our core values years before. As far as I could tell, everything was going great.

That evening, I asked Dana if she’d be willing to help me understand why she wanted to quit. We had a heart-to-heart. As our conversation unfolded, she was painting the picture of my company in a different light than I had seen.

As Digital-Tutors grew, so did the weight on my shoulders as the owner. We had to hire more people, which meant more people relied on my leadership to feed their families. The most dangerous change doesn’t happen overnight, and this was no exception. Slowly, our core values took a back seat to a new set of rules that centred around profits. I had become the coach that was sending a mixed message to my employees. On one hand we had the rules of our game, but I was leading with a completely different set of rules.