Skip to content

Why the ability to “operate at all levels” defines leadership

In a guest essay for Big Think Business, Pedro Franceschi — co-founder and co-CEO of Brex — explains why deftly navigating between vision and details is crucial for successful leaders.
A man with glasses is smiling for the camera, showcasing his ability to operate at all levels.

Credit: Courtesy of Brex

Key Takeaways
  • Exceptional leaders have the ability to work from the ground up, operating efficiently and effectively “at all levels.” 
  • The most successful leaders are often those who can “context-switch” from strategy to operational details.
  • By instilling this concept of “operating at all levels,” companies can allow people to produce the best work of their lives.

A defining factor of Brex’s success has been its leaders, and the biggest predictor of leadership can be defined as the “ability to operate at all levels.” As we continue to grow the company, expanding our team of 1,000+ employees, all over the world, we maintain expectations for what makes a great team member and what we look for when hiring new talent. 

Like most tech companies, Brex is made up of a diverse team of engineers, design teams, sales teams, operations, and more.And while our talent pool brings a variety of skill sets to the table, the underlying commonality we seek in all of our employees is the potential to demonstrate exceptional leadership. 

We define this as someone whose leadership qualities can permeate an entire team — someone with the ability to work from the ground up, operating efficiently and effectively at all levels. 

While it’s okay in most companies to hire someone that builds a team and delegates work, we don’t have space for pure people managers. Instead, success is defined by leaders who can deftly “context-switch” from vision/strategy to operational details. For example, it should be normal that they could work on a 12-month roadmap and vision while also delving into the details of designing an API, closing a deal, or writing marketing copy in short spans of time. That’s a high bar, especially in a company with 1,000+ people.

To understand why I believe that an ability to switch context is so crucial to successful leadership, it may be helpful to define and unpack what I think it means to “operate at all levels.”

First, it doesn’t mean operating at all levels all the time. It is about finding ways to contribute at any stage. Our best leaders know when to switch from macro to micro. We build teams where merely being capable of writing code, closing a deal, writing marketing copy, or building a financial model — and occasionally doing it — means you’re familiar with the nuances of doing great work at the ground level. This is where all the real work happens.

Second, management alone creates little to no value. Management is just a tool to coordinate a large number of people to work cohesively. However, the creation of real value lies in hands-on tasks like selling, writing code and supporting customers. And not just any selling, or any code. Exceptional sales skills, and exceptional system design, are where outsized value gets created. 

If a leader has no clue what great work is, they can’t lead someone towards it. It’s like a cavalry captain who can’t ride a horse.

For example, we want an engineering director to not only lead the strategy and direction of our AI team, but also simultaneously find the time to write tools that help engineers reporting to them improve their performance and efficiency. We want to build teams of people who know the nuance of what it takes to build a great product, from setting the product vision, down to the details of a particular component. We need management that sets this as an expectation, not an exception, and coaches their teams to do the same. 

By instilling this concept of operating at all levels, companies can become places where people can generate the best work of their lives. But the first step is building management teams full of exceptional leaders to cultivate this work. If a leader has no clue what great work is, they can’t lead someone towards it. It’s like a cavalry captain who can’t ride a horse.

A leader that operates at all levels will naturally earn respect from their team. They lead from the frontlines, and have compassion towards the people actually doing the work. Great leaders value craftsmanship, and inspire everyone around them to understand, respect and appreciate the nuances of great execution. They value all levels of work from a menial task to a defining achievement. Leaders understand what’s uniquely hard and simple about all of it. This perception and recognition of all kinds of work make them better coaches. 

At Brex, we search for leaders like these to have on our team. As we continue to grow, recruiting talent globally, and building out products like our expense management system and Brex AI, we have to set simple expectations for our team — establish this model of operating at all levels and foster other leaders who do the same, so that everyone can create their best work from the ground up, and be exceptional at what they do.

Unlock potential in your business

Learn how Big Think+ can empower your people.
Request a Demo