The Founder's Paradox: How to Treat Everyone Differently and the Same
"Who do you love most?" It is always said with a smile. I hear it from my kids sometimes when they want something that might impact one of their brothers. As the father of three sons, I can say unequivocally that my wife and I love each of them fully. But I definitely support and interact with them differently. Each is at a totally different spot in their journey and each needs something different from the adults in their life.
You care for each individual equally but guide them uniquely. Workplaces carry some of that same familial structure — from how managers lead to how colleagues support.
Recently, this paradox of treating everyone the same — yet different — came to mind. The leadership team at Aha! was grappling with who should lead a new group. This is one of those tough decisions common in any workplace. A few people were interested for different reasons. Some wanted to keep growing their career and saw people management as the natural next step. Others wanted to explore whether it was a challenge they would enjoy.
But not everyone who was interested had the same experience or skills. And they had contributed in different ways in the past. So we did our best to talk with each person with the utmost respect. We explained why those skills were needed and why one person was being promoted to fill the new role. And in going from peer to manager, it was easy to see how the new manager was being treated differently based on those new responsibilities. Not only did they have more leeway in decision-making, but they joined a leadership program for new managers.
It is up to a founder to establish values that apply to everyone while engaging with people differently. It is not a question of being fair.
To build a lasting business, you need exceptional people with team spirit who are committed to the company vision. Everyone should receive the same level of respect. Offer the same kindness paired with different leadership.
Proven contributors will frequently get more independence on the journey to success. Some people may need more mentoring and to touch base frequently as they gain confidence. Others may need to be pushed a bit harder when you know they are capable but they are not sure yet. Finding that balance is not easy.
We have all been in situations where we felt the rules did not uniformly apply to everyone. And while it might not have felt good at the moment, the decisions were made for the benefit of the business and the team. Sometimes individuals need to come second to what is best for the whole. I have not always done this perfectly but I strive to get it right by holding true to the following:
Anchor on values
Ground yourself. Goal-orientation, transparency, dignity — what are your values? Your priority is to do what is best for the organization. You must know exactly what you stand for and why. Have the chutzpah to not deviate no matter who you are interacting with. This is the part where you must treat everyone the same no matter the time, situation, or place.
Every human deserves to be treated with respect. That is unquestionable. There should be no contradictions in how values are applied or how people behave. Beyond that, teammates should understand processes, have clear pathways to be their best, and know their opinions will be genuinely considered.
Notice the details
If you are fortunate, your organization is full of people who are continually growing and willing to invest more energy into your business. Everyone is motivated differently. The best leaders are interested in getting to know teammates personally. Take note of people’s communication styles, work habits, and personal goals so you can guide them effectively. Over time, you will start to see growth potential they might not see themselves.
Avoid people pleasing
We like to make others happy. This is where a lot of people stumble whether they are managers or individual contributors. Your focus should typically be on the success of the team — not an individual’s needs. Be transparent about the necessary intersection of business needs, real skills, and a consistent pattern of achievement. That is how decisions are made. When this is made apparent, it may feel less like tough love and become simpler to explain why others receive more leeway.
You will not always get it right. But the team should be able to see a steady pattern of rational decision-making from you that is in line with company objectives. This applies to who gets to work on what and how decisions get made. This can help depersonalize any perceived discrepancies because they trust that your actions are aligned with the company's.
Leaders are responsible for putting each teammate in a position to achieve while keeping the sustainability and success of the company front-of-mind.
A successful business is a collective effort. Every person is important and has a role to play. Roles change over time, which is important for everyone to keep in mind. This is the essence of the paradox: How to treat everyone differently and the same.
The guidance I shared above should help. But there is one crucial element that the entire paradox hinges upon. Make sure you continue to ward off any hint of favoritism as you grapple with this challenge. Otherwise, you will undermine your own kindness and leadership. Lift up where you can and spotlight hidden work that others might not see. You never know where and when the next high-performer will emerge.