Notes from a talk on leadership by Karl Westvig

Posted: March 10, 2015 in Team
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leadership definition Karl Westvig, founder of RCS, recently came to chat to the company where I work about his leadership experiences as a ‘serial entrepreneur’. I liked some of what he said, so here are my notes:

1. Build an organisation that is content-rich and process light

For me, this aligned nicely with the agile value of “people and interactions over processes and tools” as well as the lean start-up principles of fast feedback. Many of the agile ceremonies are more about getting people to talk to each other and share content than anything else. If everyone is aligned and information is shared, then there is less need for formal processes. This is also why Scrum recommends keeping teams to a certain maximum size (more people means more communication channels to manage).

2. The three Fs

One of two pieces of advice he received from his out-going head prefect at school (who seems to have been very wise for an 18-year-old) was to always adhere to the three Fs when interacting with others: be firm, fair and friendly. Firm in standing your ground and being confident and decisive; fair in the decisions you make and how you treat others; and friendly in your interactions.

3. Don’t wear your blazer for the first two weeks

In South African schools, prefects often receive special blazers so that they can be easily identified and as a badge of ‘honour’. This second piece of advice is around earning respect from others based on your behaviour and not as a result of your ‘badge’ or ‘blazer’. As a Scrum Master, this is a challenge we deal with every day; however it is great advice for someone who is in a position of power too.

4. Discover your inherent group culture

Karl described an interesting exercise he did with a group of about 50 employees to identify their inherent culture. The group met in a room with a pile of children’s toys piled in the center. Each person then had to pick a toy from the pile and describe what attribute of the toy, in their personal context, had made them pick that toy. As each person spoke, their comments were captured on a big whiteboard, and certain trends emerged. When these trends were grouped together, the team were able to identify four main values that they all inherently possessed, and those values were then adopted as the core values for that group and the organisation it was to become.

5. The job of a leader is to create certainty

Basically, be able to provide a plan for if something changes and do not keep changing your mind. Make a decision and stick to it (within reason). Having previously worked with a CEO who seemed to regularly change his mind on a whim or forget what had previously been agreed, I cannot say how important it is to provide a certain level of consistency for people to rally around.

6. Emphasise demonstrable behaviours over values

Values are cool but often they get printed on posters and promptly forgotten. Also how easy is it to provide feedback on if someone has integrity? Or is trustworthy? Typically, unless there’s something fundamentally flawed, most people will be struggle to provide a rating on a person’s values. Karl recommended rather focusing on getting feedback on demonstrable behaviours. Is the person friendly towards others? Do they behave in a polite and professional manner? Do they contribute in meetings? Or whatever behaviours would result from your organisation’s desired values.

7. Vision-led, values-driven

This was around why start-ups do what they do. Largely it isn’t about financial incentives but more because people have a common goal (vision) that they believe in (due to their values). Karl conceded that this becomes more difficult as companies grow and stabilise, but is still an ideal to strive for.

8. You cannot control the pilot

You can train the pilot. You can plan the route the pilot should take. However, once the pilot is up in the air, there is nothing you can do from the ground to control how they react to the conditions that they encounter. As a leader, you eventually need to let go and let people get on with the job that you hired them to do – without interference.


Finally, Karl left us with an observation and a tough question. His observation is that most successful companies have autocratic, not-very-nice leaders (e.g. Apple and Steve Jobs). Does this mean that a leader cannot create a great culture without sacrificing some element of performance? My gut feels that this cannot be true, but he did make a good point. What are your thoughts and/or observations?

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