Basecamp: Leadership Lessons

Basecamp: Leadership Lessons

May 20, 2021

By: Catherine Saar 

Despite good intentions, leaders have blind spots. Perhaps the most recent glaring example of this may be observed with collaboration software creator Basecamp. A few weeks ago, roughly one third of their staff departed following a situation in which senior leadership responded to employee dissent by shutting down staff committees on DEI, and by banning dialogue on politics, religion, and race on their internal communications systems. The event was triggered by the discovery of a “Best Names” list, and the questioning of senior leadership about the existence of white supremacy culture at the company. For more detail on the events themselves, you can read this.

I find it interesting that the values espoused in the employee handbook posted publicly on the Basecamp website seem incongruous with the actions that leadership took in response to the inquiries. Values such as, “We encourage independent thought and original thinking” and “Be fair and do the right thing,” seem to be empty promises in the face of this particular challenge. Or perhaps, it is not the commitment to values that is lacking here, but rather the awareness and skill required by leadership to incorporate and address Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) within those values.

While we can conjecture about this particular situation, perhaps the more important work is for all of us on the leadership journey to consider what lessons we might take away from Basecamp so we can become more awake and skilled in our own workplaces. Here are some thoughts to consider:

The world and the work of leadership have changed dramatically over the last decade. We have been awakened as a country to the vast racial inequities that most institutions and organizations have been complicit in for hundreds of years. Now these conversations are present (and needed) in our hallways and our meeting rooms, and they must be met with a willingness to be engaged openly and with compassion. This is not just the right thing to do. It is good for business, and here’s one of the big why’s: the labor force has changed.

As of 2020, 50% of the global workforce is comprised of millennials aged 25 to 40 years old. This is no small matter. A recent research study by PWC, reports that ”Millennials tend to be uncomfortable within rigid corporate structure and turned off by information silos. They have a willingness to move on quickly, if their expectations are not met.”

If you understand that your organization is only as good as the people who work in it, you also realize that it is critical to find ways to help them to be their best by creating trust and engagement. The PWC study goes on to say that “Millennials are looking for a good work/life balance and strong diversity policies, but feel that their employers have failed to deliver on their expectations.” When you consider these factors and Millennial willingness to move on quickly, not addressing these issues with skill and persistence can result in high turnover and/or a disengaged team.

While awareness can be grown, and skills gained, there is no magic bullet. Leaders must continue to self-develop. Here is some guidance on what may be helpful:

  • Courage and Willingness. Courage is required to have difficult conversations as well as the willingness to mine productive outcomes from those conversations.
  • Transparency. Rather than recoiling from the efforts that will make space for more diversity and equity, we must practice leaning into them. We will not always “get it right,” but showing up with a commitment to continuous learning and presence goes a long way.
  • Walk the Talk. If your organization espouses values, the culture must live into them. Processes, policies and structures that underly the organization need to be aligned or reworked so that they do align, otherwise old (and often dysfunctional) ways of doing things will persist.
  • Accountability. I remember in the 80’s coming up through the corporate ranks and being taught to never apologize or admit mistakes. Because I personally could never embrace that guidance, I am pleased to say that these days, when there is an issue or a problem, taking responsibility and looking for ways to do better is more the norm than the exception. My experience is that it often results in better outcomes and builds trust.
  • Human-First. The lines between personal and work life have become blurred. The pandemic has helped us to see this very clearly with the advent of Zoom cameras inside of our homes. With exposure to our co-working pets, families, and housemates, this has never been clearer. The old concept of leave your emotions behind and show up to work being “professional” is fading fast. The fact is, we are human-first, and being treated otherwise is not a winning formula.

In the past, it was believed that human-first, inclusive and transparent approaches to leadership were not productive for moving organizational success (and profitability) forward. That thinking is being disproven by countless studies that show that diversity, inclusion, and human-first approaches are key to improved growth and performance – and I believe, makes for a more fun working environment! We have also learned that good intentions are no longer enough. As leaders, we must show up and continue to evolve our skills and become aware of our blind spots so that we may be the architects of the future of work that is needed now.