How Unique Experiences Shape Your Leadership Style


First published via Inc by Peter Economy

We are products of our environment and our experiences. They shape us into the people–and leaders–we are today. I invited 4 leaders to share the unique experiences that shaped their lives, and their leadership.

How have your own experiences shaped the person–and leader–you are today?

Sandy Rubinstein, CEO of DXagency

My grandparents and great-aunts escaped Nazi Germany with nothing, and knew failure was not an option. They went on to forge beautiful lives in Chile and raised wonderful children. A generation later, my parents came to Miami and had to make their way without speaking the language. My father was off to work and my Mother and I would learn English while watching Sesame Street. I asked her, “Why do we have to learn English?” and, she said, “Because no one is going to give you anything you have not earned, and to have a great life here you need to know the language.” I believe in self-reliance because the women in my family made it happen for themselves, and their families, and that is the key to my success.

I have been blessed with the opportunity to work for some of the best and some of the not so best. You remember fondly those who were good to you, but you learn the most from those who were not. Those experiences defined the type of manager I wanted to become. I have seen firsthand how demoralizing and deflating a manager can be whether by design or by accident. The key is that the perception people around you have is more powerful than your intent. Especially when working in a youthful industry, it’s important to manage each person in a way that brings out their individual best, encourages creativity and maintains a professional work environment for all.

Joel Holland, Founder of VideoBlocks

I was approaching burnout fast. Like most entrepreneurs, I was my business–involved in everything, having a hard time letting go of responsibility, and unwilling to choke up top dollar to hire much needed management firepower. But I was a machine, I told myself, and I could hustle better than most. I was a businessman!

Then one morning I hit the snooze button. Soon I was hitting it ten times. Eventually I just stopped setting an alarm at all, and would eventually peel myself out of bed in time to see the sun disappear into the afternoon sky. But it didn’t matter, I was just moving to the couch to turn on the TV and tune out the increasingly tough time I was having getting motivated to care about work.

It was an unbelievable transformation, from high performer to burn out almost overnight. I realized that I had no choice–it was time to build out an executive team to help let some air out of the balloon. It can be hard to see the light until the darkness swallows you, but take my advice–it is never too early to hire great people.

As a leader, you need to be thinking about strategy for the next 3 to 5 years. The moment you are too busy focusing on anything else, you must hire. I started with a COO to focus on day-to-day operations so I could get back to what I love–building a product that would make premium creative content accessible to everyone. Then I hired a CMO to take our message to the mass creative class. He helped skyrocket us to over 130,000 paying subscribers by the end of 2015. Finally, I hired a CFO to build a finance team and help us raise funding that took us to $18M raised, in good hands.

Today, I don’t have to set an alarm clock–I wake up early, excited to work with my incredible team to help the creative community win.

Alex Ontra, Co-Founder of Shufflrr

I’ve been studying ballet since I was about four years old. I still take class every week. I have an inspiring dance teacher who always asks his students to describe the trouble spotin their dance combination. He says that by making students verbalize the problem, they must first identify it, and then describe it. The ability to describe a problem means you understand it, and if you understand, then you are well on your way to solving it. That’s problem-solving applied to a performing art. And I thought, “Wow!” If he can do that with ballet, then I can certainly do that with code. I run a software company, but I do not write code. I do, however, know what our customers want, and what the final product should look like. So when a developer gets stuck, I sit with him and ask questions, using a curious tone, never confrontational. I try to get him to identify the issue, break it down, and then verbalize it. Through that process, he achieves a better understanding of the issue and will therefore be that much closer to solving it. Understanding the issue is 75% of the solution. And, that’s what I learned in ballet school.

Joseph Ram, Founder of verykool and InfoSonics

Serving as a Communications Officer in the Army gave me my technical start to make a path for my future in the telecom space. The most valuable lesson that I’ve learned through my life was shaped by my military service that instilled leadership by example. I believe that people will follow you based upon the example you set, your work ethics and your actions. In leading a company, what you ACTUALLY do is more important to me than what you SAY. Your morality, the way you treat others–this is the true testament of my leadership. Don’t ask someone to stay late, if you’re going to quit midday. I never want any of my employees to feel as if they are unequally measured. I believe people will follow in the footsteps of hard work when they see it and feel motivation from the top on a daily basis.

As an immigrant, I remember telling people my dream of moving to the U.S. and starting my own business. Everyone said I was crazy. “You can’t do that. You have 3 kids. You can’t start your own business.” Well in 1989, I did. I left a very stable business in Israel and used my knowledge of the industry to flower my own dream. From this, I learned to trust my gut in accordance to numerical and empirical evidence. You need guts, but you can’t always just act on them. You need evidence to back it up. You need to use your resources. Guts-only could lead you in the wrong path.

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