Scott Abel, cofounder of IT community Spiceworks, spent nine years as the company’s CEO, stepping down earlier this year to focus on product strategy and culture. During his tenure, the company grew from a handful of employees to more than 425, and last year was named one of Glassdoor’s top 10 best places to work.
Abel, now chief strategy officer, says that making Spiceworks a company people wanted to work for has been key to its growth and success. “The secret to being a good leader is having your team believe at their core that you care about their success,” he says. “If your team knows that, loyalty, honesty and the good work they’re capable of will follow.”
Achieving a transparent, honest and open workplace culture is easier said than done. Here are four management tips and strategies Abel used to cultivate those qualities, which he says any leader can use to foster a tighter, more productive team.
1. Connect with staff from the start
Making a positive connection with your staff starts before they join the team, Abel says. As Spiceworks grew, Abel met with each job finalist – not to give hiring managers input, but to make an impression with the candidates.
“You’re not going to add anything to the interview process that late in the game, but it’s a gesture that can mean a lot to them,” Abel says. “Put yourself in the candidate’s shoes: Spending 30 minutes with them shows that you care enough about the workplace culture to personally meet with them.”
That first impression, he says, is something employees carry with them when they start. “When people know you care, they’ll do their best work,” Abel says.
2. Schedule one-on-one time
Once an employee had been on the job for six months, Abel took them to lunch. “It was an opportunity for me to check in with the new hires to see how things were going, if their job and the company were what they expected, ask what they liked, disliked and what they would do differently,” he says.
That one-on-one time was key to fostering a culture of openness and trust, Abel says. As the company grew, one-on-one time wasn’t feasible anymore, so he launched a new initiative called “Slices with Scott.”
“When we had to stop doing lunches, employees really missed that,” he says. “So once a month I’d meet with a group of 10 employees for pizza, and open myself up to questions.” Abel encouraged employees to ask anything they wanted, no matter how silly or serious, he says. “How openly and honestly you answer those questions speaks volumes about you and your leadership, and employees really appreciate that.”
3. Maintain an open-door policy
Making yourself available to employees – in practice, not just in theory – is one of the most important gestures that benefit both your team and your role as a leader, Abel says.
“If your door is open and an employee walks in, stop what you’re doing and give her your undivided attention because it took courage for her to approach you,” he says. “If you’re too busy, set a time to meet right then and there.”
Open-door policies help foster trust and openness within your team, Abel says – qualities that are especially important when things don’t go well.
“People never want to give their leaders bad news. But companies don’t succeed on pats on the back, they succeed in finding problems and fixing them. If you can’t find a problem, you can’t fix it,” Abel says.
[Related: How to turn your B players into A players]
His motto – good news fast and bad news faster – is difficult for employees to execute on unless they trust you.
“Trust is so critical. You want to get to a point where employees walk into your office and say something isn’t working. You want them to give you that feedback honestly and openly – and fast so you can fix it. If you team is scared or intimidated by you, you won’t get that.”
4. Fail openly
It’s difficult for employees to fail – and admit they failed – unless they know it’s okay to do so, Abel says. That starts at the top.
“We have a saying: ‘Fail fast, fail cheap.’ But that’s hard if there’s a culture of blame. Your job is to dispel that and show that you can learn from your mistakes. When you fail, you need to fail openly. Stand up and say, this is what I did wrong, here’s why and here’s what I’ll do next time,” he says.
Abel learned that lesson two years ago when Spiceworks missed a number “big time,” he says – a planning mistake that he made. Abel held a company meeting to take ownership of the mistake, discuss what went wrong and asked his employees to question him more often.
“You have to personally lead by example because then maybe they’ll do it,” he says. “No one wants to say they’ve dropped the ball, because we have this illusion that leaders are infallible. That’s not the case. Fail fast, learn from it and move on. You need to set that example.”