Five lessons learned on leadership in an Open Organization

December 7, 2020

I have been working in the IT business for over 16 years now and during that time I had the pleasure getting to know rather different companies. In the beginning I was part of a small 12 employee internet agency named Kingmedia, just before jumping into the enterprise world with IBM (which had about 300.000 employees) and the Open Source company Red Hat. Two years ago I also gave a real silicon valley startup named Docker a spin, where we had been around 500 people.

I feel extremely honoured to have worked with such great companies and talented people. At the same time these companies were so different: not only when looking at the sheer number of employees, their vision or product portfolio. More importantly they were completely diverse from a leadership and cultural perspective.

Now you might ask why this matters for me? – Well, two years ago I took the decision to take over my first leadership position after being an individual contributor for almost two decades. And it was an absolutely conscious decision to start this journey with an Open Organization (namely Red Hat).

Here are my key lessons learned & tips

Think about your personal WHY

  • Why are you here? And why does it matter?
  • What value will your work as a manager bring to the table to drive your company’s success?
  • Reflect upon the impact you can have on your associates success
  • Write down your personal prioritized agenda (5-7 items max.)
  • Share your agenda with your direct associates and also your wider community

Engage with your (new) team early and often

  • First and foremost, take time to get to know each member of the team; especially from a personal perspective.
  • Honest interest in people’s feelings and beliefs are the seeds for trust. Whereas trust is a prerequisite for success. 
  • 1:1 meetings with your associates are top priority (even more important than a customer meeting!). Don’t skip them!
  • Rethink your relationships when joining a management role. Peers may become assignees and people from outside the company might see you from a different angle now.
  • Rebuild your network inside the company (since you now work for your team)

Establish a feedback culture

  • In the first place, feedback will be less direct in a management role. (I had to realise that this is a hard one)
  • Ask for feedback on a regular basis. If you don’t ask, you will most likely never get some.
  • Ask other people for their opinions and show interest in what they feel or believe. This actually does not mean that you have to agree with them everytime!
  • Be vulnerable to your direct associates and tell them your concerns or weak spots. Ask them for guidance!
  • Openly tell people when you were wrong or made a mistake. Reflect together with your associates on failures and share what you have learned.
  • If you establish a culture of mutual trust, the feedback will follow automatically
  • Be patient with yourself… this takes some time!

Trust your team that it will take (the right) decisions

  • When becoming a manager, you will no longer be the expert. Accept that others know more than you.
  • Empower and encourage your team to take their own (business) decisions. At the same time make them feel accountable for the results.
  • Change your role to a facilitator when it comes to decision making. Help your team to take measured and conscious decisions.
  • Always assume good intent.

Explain the WHY behind everything

  • Always give as much context as possible, when you make a decision. Why have you chosen that path? What other options have you considered? Be as transparent as possible!
  • Be prepared that not all people will agree with you and accept that diverse opinions are OK.
  • Purpose will create intrinsic motivation (which I truly believe will lead to success in the end).


After having moved over to the “dark side of management” as some people say, I can tell you the following. Switching roles is always challenging! – Especially in the early days of my new role I felt a lot of uncertainty around how I was doing. After one and a half years the journey into leadership still feels like a marathon.

Anyhow, I am more than confident to share the observed impact of my lessons learnt:

  1. High level of (intrinsic) motivation within the team – including myself
  2. The team is constantly having a positive impact on our organization and even more importantly – on our customers
  3. Autonomous team players taking initiative
  4. Feeling of personal freedom, as time is invested better into value generating tasks (such as writing down my thoughts)

Coming back to my initial point: for me personally it was the perfect step to take! – And I absolutely encourage you to take your own very first steps creating an Open Leadership culture in your organization!

Further Reading

[1] The Open Organization, Jim Whitehurst
[2] Reinventing Organizations, Frederic Laloux 
[3] Open Management Practices 
[4] Putting open values into management practice

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