We recently hosted a webcast conversation where Elliot Susel, Lean Startup Co. Faculty Member, spoke with Aaron Levy, Founder and CEO of Raise The Bar. They discuss the need for better leaders, unlocking potential, and psychological safety in today’s shifting marketplace.

Don’t have time for the full webcast now? Catch the webcast highlights and tips from their conversation in our companion blog below.

If you’d like to read the full transcript of Elliot Susel’s conversation with Aaron Levy, you may download it.

A Marketplace of Untapped Potential

Aaron Levy has always been intrigued by human behavior. Specifically why, when we [as humans] know better, why don’t we do better? “People don’t go from knowledge to action,” Aaron says, “and that’s always baffled me.”

This observation led Aaron to study the science of behavior change and how it applied to the world around him. In work and in life, he constantly observed and studied people, both leaders whom he had an opportunity to work with and his friends — that is to say, millennials — who were figuring out their career paths in their respective industries. The latter group led him to notice a curious trend; no matter how much money they were making or how cool their company or office culture was, his friends were all either thinking about leaving their jobs or had left already.

After speaking with as many of these people as he could, Aaron got down to the “why?” of it all: that individuals aren’t achieving their best potential despite the fact that both they and their companies want them to excel and succeed. So even though there was an aligned vision between company and employer, there was a big gap, and it all came down to leadership.

“The core point of leverage in any organization is your manager,” Aaron says, “and unfortunately most managers suck.”

“Two of the biggest skills that we talk about developing are listening and asking powerful questions.” Click To Tweet

Leaders are Made, not Born

The major problem with managers is that “most of them are promoted because they’re good at what they do, not because they’re good at leading people.”  In fact, a recent Gallup study found that only one in ten managers have the skills to lead. But, Aaron points out, that doesn’t need to be the case because “you can train someone on the skills to lead people.”

It was these combined observations that eventually led Aaron to launch his company Raise The Bar where they work to “empower managers with the tools, skills, and training to be better leaders of people {so they] can get the most out of their employees.”

Leaders, Aaron says, can be made through the consistent, deliberate practice of the right skills over time. “The only ingredient that companies [or individuals] need to have is the desire to do it,” Aaron states, something that he puts into practice on his continued quest to develop and improve his own personal skill set.

“Two of the biggest skills that we talk about developing [at Raise The Bar] are listening and asking powerful questions. Those are skills I sucked at, and I’m better now. [But] that came after hours and hours of practice.”

The Importance of Learning Before Doing

Even though Aaron saw the need for a company to provide leadership development, it took him awhile to take the leap to actually launching his company.

Instead, Aaron took time to observe what he felt were problems in current work environments. Things like developing an understanding of what people want out of a boss as well as noting that the current generations hitting the marketplace — millennials and beyond — are, more and more, seeking purpose, connection, and growth in the work that they do.

With these observations under his belt, Aaron started putting together a business plan but was all too aware of his personal shortcomings as an entrepreneur, like his lack of experience in sales and backend finance. So instead he went to work with someone with experience in sales and leadership who shared his vision in solving “this millennial turnover” problem. Aaron saw it as an opportunity to learn and grow from someone whose strengths were his weaknesses.

After a year, Aaron had expanded his skill set, but they hadn’t made any headway on the problem they’d set out to solve. So while the experience allowed him to learn what he needed to learn, he realized that it was time to dedicate his full energy into his vision.

“I didn't develop it until I sold it.” Click To Tweet

Sell First, Build Later

Even when Aaron began pursuing Raise The Bar full time, he didn’t dive in blind. He took the time to test his idea before he officially launched it. This meant a constant hustle of networking, meeting with people, sending out cold emails and going to networking events. It put all of his newfound sales skills to the test, further developing them in the process.

“In the first year and a half, I think I met with 300 different businesses,” Aaron says. He was listening to people and hearing what resonated with the marketplace which allowed him to constantly refine and revise his product, learning from the data he was constantly collecting as he worked to sell his idea through.

“I didn’t develop it until I sold it,” Aaron says, pointing out that, “the product that I would have built on day one was very different than the product I have today, which is very different than the first product I delivered.” By taking the time to test the product, he could develop something that the marketplace really wanted and needed rather than something based solely on his lone observations.

Finally, Aaron took the time to examine his client demographic and psychographic, and that’s when action really started happening.

Originally, he sought out people in charge of HR and training departments. But he soon realized that in order for people to be better leaders, change needs to come from the top. To see a positive change, CEOs, COOs, and company founders need to lead by example and be active participants in development and transformation in their people. This shift in target buyer was the change needed to see action actually start to happen.

“It made an impact on my business and how fast [and] much more efficiently things moved. And it made an impact on their businesses because you get the senior level buy-in.”

Emotional Safety Begets Success

At the end of the day, change can only be achieved if it takes place in an environment of emotional safety. That means creating an environment where it’s clear what actions are acceptable so employees aren’t afraid to misstep and, therefore, feel empowered to act in ways that would enable them to live up to their potential.

This requires, first and foremost, the need for establishing clarity from the top down. “You only create psychological safety when you give and deliver open, honest, and direct communication to your people.” CEOs have to be clear on who [they] are as a business and what their purpose is in the marketplace. These values and measurable goals are the foundation which everyone in the company can ascribe to.

But, Aaron points out, setting a firm foundation is only effective if it’s consistent and followed up by action. “People will do what you do, not what you say,” he says, so communication and ensuring your actions are in step with your words is key. Once your values, intentions, and actions align, positive change can happen.

Ultimately, Aaron thinks that no matter where you are in your life — whether you’re an individual or an organization, a CEO, a manager, or just starting out — you get to decide what difference you want to make. Everything comes down to choice and opting to intentionally take action as opposed to letting things just happen to you.

“You get to decide what choice you want to take, what choices you want to make, and what difference you want to have.”

Thanks to Shannon Lorenzen for contributing this piece. If you seek to bring the entrepreneurial spirit to your organization, Lean Startup Co. can help.

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