Leaders can become more successful if they do less rather than more, at least according to David Graham. He’s the cofounder and CEO of Code Ninjas, an after-school program that teaches children ages 7 to14 in the United States to code using popular games like Scratch, Minecraft and Roblox.
Graham founded the business in 2016. Before that, he ran Coder Camps, a program for adults who want to learn coding. Based in Houston Texas the company has taught more than 40,000 students.
In 2016, Graham worked alongside a marketing executive, customer support rep and a software developer. As the company grew, he hired employees to replace him. Today, Code Ninjas employs 50 people.
“I knew if we we wanted to scale…fast…I couldn’t be the one thing holding up progress,” he says.
New CEOs often find it difficult to hand over key areas of their businesses. An advocate of lazy leadership, Graham describes his approach as an effective strategy that helps him run Code Ninjas “at most efficiency with the right person doing the right job.”
It took Graham some time to refine his approach. After spending twenty years working as a software developer, Graham found it difficult to hand over the company’s technology stack.
“That wasn’t an effective use of my time. I wouldn’t have been setting up people to be in leadership positions within our company, and it would have been shortsighted to do that. So I handed that off to our CTO,” he says.
These days, Graham begins a project, figures out what success should look like with his team then fires himself from the role. He’s an advocate of Steve Jobs’s approach to hiring–hire smart people who’ll tell you what to do.
“I talk to the team and see who has the best skills and resources to do [that task],” he says. “I give the early hints of where my brain is at on certain things. Then, we’ll bring in somebody else to finish it out and make sure it gets done properly.”
Code Ninjas has grown rapidly since 2016 and is opening franchises in Canada and the United Kingdom. However, Graham avoids taking credit when an initiative works out or when the company succeeds.
“If somebody says, ‘You built this amazing company,’ I always say, ‘I didn’t build this. My team built this. I just had a great idea.'”
Graham believes the CEO isn’t always the right person to reach a final decision either. Instead, the lazy leader should delegate authority to more experienced team members.
For example, in the early days the company’s marketing team often came to him with questions about their strategy. He asked them, “Who has more knowledge about this marketing thing than me?” he says. “Almost everybody in the company is probably better at it than I am. How would you have handled this, more importantly, without my input? What do you think the next steps are?”
Once the head of marketing or another business area is empowered to reach final decisions, Graham advocates for rewarding success appropriately.
“You need to reward people when they do something well. You need to call it out and say, ‘Hey, you did a great job. You made the decision. You executed the work. You followed up with a customer and made sure everything happened.'”
Delegating authority frees a CEO to focus on big-picture projects like setting the company’s vision, cultivating the right work culture and monitoring the competitive landscape.
“Look at the long game, so the 12- to 24-month cycle, and direct the ship,” he says. “Talk to everybody and make sure everybody feels like they’re an important part of the team.”