“The most important thing I’ve learned” from Lyft’s John Zimmer



John Zimmer, president and co-founder of Lyft, says that sometimes leaders have to let people make mistakes and not always be there for them.CreditJames Nieves/The New York Times

Adam Bryant’s Corner Office column in The Sunday New York Times has an excellent interview entitled Lyft’s John Zimmer on Empowering Others to Help Them Grow.

One of the things I preach to founders is that they need to hire executives and staff who have more experience and expertise than they do. Very often founders find this threatening. After all, they are the founders, aren’t they supposed to be “the smartest people in the room.”? They answer is “no”. First of all, no matter how smart you are, there’s always going to be someone smarter. And as Bill Joy, founder of Sun Microsystems said, “not all the smartest people in the world work for you.”

Plus there’s a confusion between smarts and experience. Your VP of Sales may not be the smartest person on the team, but if she or he isn’t one of the most experienced you are in trouble – sales is not something you want your VP to learn on the job! As founders seem to get younger and younger, with all the university entrepreneurship programs, incubators and accelerators, almost by definition they are not going to have as much experience as needed to run a company.

But I didn’t really have a great answer for founders who would respond to my advice with, “Ok then, how to I manage people who have more experience or expertise than I do?”

John Zimmer has a great answer:

The most important thing I’ve found is to know your weaknesses and hire people better than you. That takes a certain amount of confidence. I remember hiring folks with way more experience than me and feeling very unsure of my ability to lead them. The answer is to lead with values and vision.

Values and vision are a large part of what the founder brings to the venture. No matter how smart or how expert a hire may be they shouldn’t be changing that foundation of the company.

And founders should have confidence in their vision and values, otherwise they are going to have a tough time dealing with the ups and downs of a startup.

And John Zimmer says there’s a trait managers need even more than confidence.

Empathy is the most important trait for a manager. If you’re going to manage people or lead people, you have to be able to walk in their shoes and understand them.

So here’s a good self-test for you: do you have the confidence and the empathy to lead a company? If not, either find a co-founder who does or join an existing startup.

Author: Mentorphile

Mentor, coach, and advisor to entrepreneurs, small businesses, and non-profit organizations. General manager with significant experience in both for-profit and non-profit organizations. Focus on media and information. On founding team of four venture-backed companies. Currently Chairman of Popsleuth, Inc., maker of the Endorfyn app for keeping fans updated on new stuff from their favorite artists.

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