These no-nonsense leadership stories will inspire you

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Many companies claim to have an “open door” policy, where senior leaders are available for conversations, questions, and concerns. In reality, access is limited to short, formal meetings that must be requested weeks (or months) in advance. Decisions are made behind closed doors and communicated in a broadcast, with little or no room for feedback from others in the organization. Plus, information is often guarded or siloed, making it difficult to get full context on how one’s individual work fits into the bigger picture.

Creating an environment of trust and open communication isn’t easy. It’s hard to translate values into practical behaviors each day. At Atlassian, we believe that working open drives trust, communication, and collaboration. I’m lucky to work with amazing leaders who go beyond the full access lip service. I was able to have candid conversations with several (in the kitchen and while walking around the block, no less) about how they manage their teams.

There were two common themes in the approach: teamwork and putting people first. From subtle tweaks to the language you use, where you eat, and how you run meetings, these leaders shared practical ways they help the people on their teams be successful.

Champion the team

“This isn’t a humility thing, it’s just a fact: the team is key.” – Archana Rao, CIO

“It’s a big shift when you first become a manager,” said Atlassian’s CIO, Archana Rao. “In the past, you relied on your own individual skills, but now you’re measured based on what your team delivers. Instead of hearing about my personal contributions, I started hearing five other names of the people on my team.” Archana describes herself now as “the internal head of IT sales” because she goes around telling everyone in the organization about how each person has contributed to the roll-out of a new system or created something new for the organization. “Success is 100% based on my team. Without my team, I can’t accomplish anything.”

Helen Russell, Atlassian’s Chief People Officer, has a similar experience. After meeting with hundreds of candidates interviewing for senior roles, she noticed several differentiators. “The language you use changes as you become more senior. From what I’ve seen, the most successful leaders are also the most humble. They rarely say I, they don’t need to brag about their individual accomplishments. They talk about the team and its impact instead of focusing on themselves.”

Jay Simons, Atlassian’s President, echoed this sentiment: “Early in my career I worked at a company that had a value: never say I. It was powerful to be in an environment where everything was pluralized.” Every presentation or demo was framed as We are working on this feature, and We are drafting this statement to a reporter. He said those leaders shaped him into the leader he wanted to be. “I get so much energy from seeing my team grow their skills,” he said, “and telling others about their impact.”

Empower people

“The role of the leader is to create and environment where each person can reach their full potential.” – Robert Chatwani, CMO

CMO, Robert Chatwani, follows the principles of servant leadership, and strives to be a Level 5 Leader, according to the principles outlined in Jim Collins’ book “Good to Great.” “Humility with fierce resolve,” he said. “First and foremost, I’m committed to the outcome we can achieve as a team. I’m focused on the shared purpose, but agnostic about who plays which role or how the work actually gets done.”

The key is to empower each person to do the best work that they can do. He constantly thinks about how he can help his team learn and grow so they can have a bigger impact. Robert keeps his ear to the ground for opportunities to connect people across his organization in a few different ways. He stops for random chats in the hallway to hear about what individuals at all levels are working on (the key here is actually listening). He eats lunch in the communal kitchen and makes himself available for walks to talk about the long-term vision of the organization. He also sends out a monthly note with comments on the strategy of the marketing team at large, highlights of various team wins, and recommended reading from his personal book list.

Sri Viswanath, Atlassian’s CTO, talked about how he opened up his leadership meetings to the entire engineering organization. “Everyone from junior developers to heads of product are welcome to listen into the call,” he said. “We found that we were answering similar questions from multiple teams, and that people felt disconnected, depending on their level. So why not just open up the meeting?”

In those meetings, the team talks about product roadmaps, organizational changes, and trends in the industry that can help everyone do their jobs better. He added, “People feel more connected to each other, to leadership, and to the work now that they’re able to attend the monthly leadership meeting.” The big takeaway: it’s possible to communicate the final decisions in a quarterly all-hands meeting or a monthly email. But by allowing people to hear and contribute to the journey – during the journey – creates deeper buy-in, and equips people to make better decisions.

Archana also gave some insight into how she helps her teams thrive. “IT used to be a back-of-house business enabler,” she said. “But now we’ve moved to actually being a revenue-driver. So as I think about the future of the business and how my team contributes to company success, I’m constantly trying to find the most impactful projects and up-level their skills.”

She talked about bringing in talent and growing talent as a key component to her job, and how she loves to bring in people who are different from her. “I ask, ‘What skills are missing to help this team to its best work?’” Then she attempts to explain the problem or work through potential solutions to make sure everyone’s on the same page. By tailoring her approach for each team and each project, Archana delivers bottom-line results and happy employees. “It’s a win-win!”

Share your values

“Companies should over-communicate their values to attract and retain people that believe in what they’re doing.” – Helen Russell, CPO

Helen encourages people to focus on shared core values versus just following the rules and rituals. “We have a tradition that when a new employee starts at Atlassian, they write an intro blog about themselves. It’s become kind of a required task, and as we’ve expanded globally, we’re seeing that some cultures feel really uncomfortable with it.” She tells a story about visiting one of Atlassian’s offices and how everyone was happy, engaged, and open, but in the vital signs survey (an internal check-in survey) she noticed some oddities around the responses related to bringing your whole self to work.

“When I dug in I found out that this tiny thing that has become a ritual was really tripping people up. They felt so self-conscious about writing the intro blog and talking about themselves because of the bigger cultural norms outside the company.” She says it’s important that when we think about our values around being open and fostering belonging, we have to be careful to let people truly show up in a meaningful way as opposed to turning the values into a series of hollow rituals.

Sri shared a similar sentiment: “The culture of the company definitely attracts and shapes the people and leaders. I’ve had really great leaders throughout my career who put people first, and I’ve learned a lot about what that means in practice.” He recalled an eye-opening observation during a team outing.

“Years ago, when I was first starting my management journey, my manager took our team to see the new Star Wars movie. He realized that one of our colleagues hadn’t come to the theater, and he called to remind her that it was movie time, not working time. By this point, the movie was about to start, and she didn’t want to hold us up, so she said she’d just stay at the office. He skipped the first 20 minutes of the movie to go back to the office to make sure she could join the team. I realized he valued each person as an individual.” His former manager was committed to making sure that all of his team felt included, which really influenced him. “I’ve tried to bring that mindset into my own management style.”

Feeling inspired to take your leadership to the next level to help your teams thrive?

This article first appeared on Atlassian