As a CEO of a search software company for the last 6 years, I’ve discovered some unexpected similarities between building a good search engine and being an effective leader. In both roles I have opportunities to create a great experience, whether it’s making it easier for customers to find what they’re shopping for or providing a transparent and empowering work environment.

Good search and good leadership are based on four core pillars:

  • Cut through the noise
  • Curate delightful outcomes
  • Adapt to communication styles
  • Be the source of truth

I share my experience in case it helps you craft great experiences for your employees using the same framework.

Cut through the noise

Good search pushes the most relevant results to the top. It bypasses articles that maybe have the same keyword you punched into the search bar but aren’t contextually the same. For example, on many sites when I search for leopard, I get results about the animal, when I really wanted to shop for the clothing print.

Organizations also have a lot of noise to filter out. Say there’s a situation where another department isn’t responding to a perceived crisis with the sense of urgency we think it deserves. We can easily start crafting stories in our head about how little this department cares, or how hard they work, or whether they even know how to do their jobs! These stories are counterproductive noise that creates an unhealthy work environment.

Let curiosity win over your commitment to being right

Just like a search engine uses algorithms to rank relevance and context, leaders must develop their own algorithms to empower teams to separate facts from opinions. When there’s an issue with a colleague, department or decision, I encourage my team to get curious. Curiosity is a way to keep conversations moving forward, instead of becoming defensive.

Assume good intentions

This simple formula will allow you to shed some of the opinions that cloud judgment. In the case of our misaligned urgency, a way to handle a situation could be to ask yourself “Why they aren’t responding?” or “Is there a process missing?” or “Are departmental goals misaligned?” Such questions lead us to facts. And facts are much easier to drive toward a resolution than the elaborate narratives we create in our heads.

Curate delightful outcomes

When developing search and data-driven applications, domain experts craft an experience for each user by building highly curated workflows. These workflows act as guides, helping the user complete a task in an efficient manner and providing context to aid in decision making.

As leaders, it’s easy for us to imagine the experience we want to provide for our employees. But pointing to the end goal isn’t enough. We also have to plot the course, provide supplies and develop contingency plans to lead a successful expedition.

Don’t assume consistency

This year our company grew from 100 employees to more than 250 in just six months. We all could see the culture we wanted to create, but had taken for granted what had become consistent at a smaller size.

Two of the processes we set up were bringing on a chief people officer, who’s overseen the deployment of an HR system and championed cultural values, as well as monthly all-hands meetings to keep people informed.

Lead people to the next best action

In search, giving people what they’re looking for is just the first hurdle. To be great, you’ve got to show them what’s next. For ‘next best action’ to work in a people role, you have to understand the reality of the people you’re supporting and create the best space for them to perform. For example, when junior/mid-tier people have a clear path to progression and feel valued by senior leadership, retention increases dramatically.

Adapt to communication styles

The goal of any search application is to capture users’ intent regardless of how they interact. Maybe they type highly specific keywords; maybe phrases; or now, with the advent of voice interfaces, they ask questions as if there was a human at the other end. These interactions challenge us to interpret the user’s intention through the style they choose to communicate with.

Leadership coach Mark Murphy explained to FastCompany, “No one communication style is inherently better than another … Learning to build flexibility around your preferred style allows others to more successfully hear the important things you need to communicate.”

Prepare yourself to take on diverse ways of thinking, speaking and working

Different primary languages, cultures and communication styles means we have to be ready to receive all kinds of inputs and return relevant results. Take the time for new employees to share their work styles and preferred communication methods during on-boarding. You’re asking them to self-reflect while laying the groundwork for staying open to new styles.

Learn as you go

Creating a smarter search engine requires processing content for understanding as well as adapting to and learning from the ways users interact. As a leader, you should actively solicit feedback on the effectiveness of all-hands meetings, mass email updates and Slack conversations, and adjust accordingly.

Be the source of truth

Back in the old days if you didn’t know how to get a stain out of the carpet, you’d call up your mom on a landline and ask her for the remedy. Now your mom’s (and about 10,000 others) secret stain remover is searchable from your smartphone. People expect online news outlets, Q&A forums, and review sites to be the source of truth.

As a leader, you have to serve as a source of truth for your business. I have employees looking at me to solve problems, be the gatekeeper to the plan, and answer unanticipated questions along the way.

Listen to lead

In the book The Three Laws of Performance, Steve Laffron and Dave Logan talk about how performance is tied to the realities that people perceive. As leaders, we must always monitor the user experience of our employees. Like any good search or reviews engine, listen for complaints and other indicators that describe the reality people are experiencing. Then, like any application, find the bottlenecks, flaws and gaps, and design a plan to address them.

Lead by example

I’ve felt most successful as a leader when I lead with humility. Leadership coach Dawna Jones said in a LinkedIn article, “Your relationship with your ego is the fulcrum … to create workplaces that work for employee engagement and to reduce the risks created by decisions that come from a poor relationship with the ego.” Don’t assume you know the question or concern before it’s asked, and get to the facts before you make decisions.

Keep searching

Start with the goal of delivering the most delightful experience for your users and work backward to build out the proper framework to make it happen.

This year, adding more people increased the chances of collaboration and learning, but it also increased the chance for conflict, roadblocks and obstacles. I relied on these four pillars to guide, stabilize and delight our growing team.

They help me create the space to provide a wonderful experience, and I hope they’ll be useful for you as a leader, teammate and human.

The original version of this article can be found at MarTech Advisor. 

About Will Hayes

Will Hayes

Will Hayes is the CEO of Lucidworks, the leader in AI-powered search. Hayes has over 20 years of experience in

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