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Tips From The Top: One On One With David Graham

I spoke to David Graham, CEO of Code Ninjas, about his journey and best advice

Adam: Thanks again for taking the time to share your story and your advice. First things first, though, I am sure readers would love to learn more about you. What is something about you that would surprise people?

David: I am a product of third generation entrepreneurship. From my grandfather’s mortgage companies to my dad’s racetrack training facilities, whether they saw success or failure, each struggle helped form me into the businessman I am today. Through my grandfather, I learned to create strong relationships. Through my father, I learned that you will make mistakes, but taking a risk can be worth it in the end.

Adam: How did you get here? What failures, setbacks or challenges have been most instrumental to your growth?

David: I’ve been a software developer for more than 20 years and have played a role in building successful software and businesses. From Coder Camps, offering adults a curriculum to learn how to become professional developers to Code Ninjas, offering kids the opportunity to learn how to code using video games. Today, Code Ninjas has grown to more than 500 locations across three countries. But it wasn’t always smooth sailing. 

I fail every single day. When I was doing software consulting in the early 2000s, I once told a potential client that their idea for a website that would bring all the world’s wholesalers together in one place wouldn’t work because of logistical, data, and performance issues. They ended up passing on the idea. Amazon proved me wrong. Epic fail. From this experience, I’ve learned to always hear out what people have to say, who knows – maybe they could be the next Amazon!

Adam: In your experience, what are the defining qualities of an effective leader? How can leaders and aspiring leaders take their leadership skills to the next level?

David: Hire smart people and let them do their jobs. Forgive honest errors. Fire consistent excuse makers. This should always be a rule of thumb when building your team. 

An effective leader has the unique ability to build up their team, not their own ego. An effective leader must know how to give credit to the people doing the work so that their team wants to keep helping your brand succeed.

Adam: You have shared in the past that your leadership style follows Hlade’s Law, which states that “if you have a difficult task, give it to a lazy man – he will find an easier way to do it.” Why do you believe that the key to being successful is being lazy? 

David: Your role as a leader is to have to time to think about growing your business, not to get wrapped up in the nitty gritty details that your employees are well-equipped to handle. When you delegate responsibilities to individuals who are experts in their respective fields, you open yourself up to the opportunity to be a visionary for your brand and to drive innovation, while instilling reciprocal trust in your employees. At Code Ninjas, we’ve accomplished the unthinkable over the course of just three years – reaching 500 locations open and under development in three countries, forming exclusive partnerships with key players in the STEM education space, developing our own non-profit organization for the greater good and so much more. This has all been done with the help of the incredible employees and franchise partners throughout our system working in tandem and striving for growth and innovation of the brand.   

Adam: What are your three best tips applicable to entrepreneurs, executives and civic leaders?

David: 

  1. Stop ad hoc communications from your franchisees to your employees ASAP. Designate a single person to schedule outgoing announcements and a team with a single point of access to handle all franchisee requests and inquiries to streamline the process and create a sense of leadership and accountability.  
  2. Step aside and trust your qualified employees to take your ideas and put them into action. This will allow you to have time to think about and focus on growing your business, while the work is being taken care of. This way, I am able give my employees the opportunity to step up and help drive the brand forward with their ideas.
  3. To ensure that team members and franchises don’t defer to you for everything, hire smart individuals to take over. You should give up your right to make the final decision. If you’ve hired smart, your staff who works in your company each day is qualified to make final decisions.

Adam: What is the single best piece of advice you have ever received?

David: I have two pieces of advice that I try to live by as a leader: 

  • One thing I learned as a developer was, “Don’t be afraid to break something. It can always be fixed.”  To a certain degree, that’s true in business too. Take risks, do the unexpected. By doing so, you will be a leader in front of the line of your industry.
  • Another is “Fail often but never the same way twice.” Use every mistake and failure as a learning experience to continue evolving as a professional. 

Adam: What is one thing everyone should be doing to pay it forward?

David: Hiring a stay at home mom that’s returning to the workforce. In many cases, they sacrifice their career development, or at the very least their momentum, to stay home and raise healthy children. The least we can do is give them a chance to get back into the work force. Often you will find they work twice as hard with half the complaints, as an added bonus.

Adam: What are your hobbies and how have they shaped you?

David: I love to travel with my family. Seeing new cultures and the ways that people interact differently really intrigues me. There are so many different ways that people can react to a situation or event and seeing how people in other parts of the world handle these things gives perspective on our team and how we can become better at what we do and who we are.

Adam: Is there anything else you would like to share? 

David: If you don’t love coming to work on Monday, you’re doing it wrong.

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