Friday, June 12, 2015

Deep Impact

I wrote recently about the way that a leader shapes an organization in his own image, whether he realizes it or not.  I received some good feedback from that article, so I thought that the topic deserved some more attention.  I don't think we fully realize the effect we have on those around us, especially those with whom we spend a lot of time (like, say, 50% or more of our waking hours).  We're eager to talk about our company culture, our benefits package, our dog-friendly policies, but we fail to recognize something even more important: our company's personality.

When choosing a spouse, few people would make their decision based solely upon the facts and statistics surrounding their potential partner.  Sure, we might look at how much they make, where they grew up, or their hair and eye color, but for the most part we don't decide to spend the rest of our lives with someone because they possess the right statistical makeup.  In fact, the kind of person who would make that decision probably only exists in the early stages of a romantic comedy, before they find themselves inexplicably attracted to someone who's the exact opposite of what they're looking for and are changed forever by the true power of love.  No, when we look for a mate, we decide based upon the intangibles: how they make us feel, whether they make us laugh, whether there's any chemistry.  Facts might start the conversation, but personality closes the deal.

So why do we choose a new workplace -- or decide to stay in our current one -- based upon facts and figures?  Does 401(k) matching trump likability?  Is your commute time more important than how you feel once you arrive?  Can a company have a personality, and do we respond to it as we would to a person?  I think it can and we do.  I also think that the leaders in every company determine that personality, starting at the top and flowing down from there.

Someone once told me that you could tell everything about a company by looking at their website.  If the site was coherent and flowed smoothly from one section to another, with a consistent story throughout, then you could trust that the company was the same: everyone on the same page and sharing the same vision.  If the site was a mess, with broken links, poor organization, and a melange of different voices speaking on different pages, then you could assume that's what you'd find once you walked in the front door: everyone working their own agenda and defending their own department, with no one talking to anyone else.  I don't know if that's always true, but I've certainly seen some strong supporting examples.  In the same way, if you look at a company's leaders, you'll have a good idea of how that company will feel to you once you've been there for a while.  You can't hang around with someone for long periods of time without picking up their mannerisms and you can't follow someone's lead for long without starting to see the world as they do and reacting accordingly.

The idea that a leader defines a company's personality isn't exactly revolutionary: Steve Jobs was the face of Apple, not just because he was the source of its innovative ideas but because he defined how Apple's employees saw the world.  Jack Welch's obsession with measuring everything made GE the company that it is, for good or ill.  Bill Gates's "take over the world" mentality took Microsoft from scrappy startup to monopolistic giant, and the company's personality changed as its stock price -- and Bill's ambitions -- grew.  We choose CEOs as the avatars of their companies, not just because it's easier to put them on the cover of a magazine, but because, in many ways, they truly are the personification of their company's zeitgeist.  They both shape it and embody it.

Of course, this isn't always a good thing.  Every person is equal parts light and dark, and every leader brings their good and bad qualities to work with them every day.  Interestingly, while I've observed that leaders are quick to brag about the positive impacts they've made on their organizations, they're often blind to the negatives.  This is human nature to some extent -- we're all inclined to think the best of ourselves -- but when we do this we're missing an opportunity.  If I can understand how I affect the people around me, in both good ways and bad, then I have a much better chance of improving my company's personality.  As a side benefit, I might also become slightly more self-aware and balanced in my approach to life.

The very qualities we praise in our leaders -- intelligence, forthrightness, dynamism, a drive to succeed -- have powerfully negative flip sides that often come out under pressure.  If I've been rewarded all my life for succeeding against all odds, then I'm unlikely to quit even when it's the right thing to do even if it means I'll take my team down with me.  If I've built my identity on always being honest, then I may create a culture of rudeness and conflict in the name of "honest discussion."  Intelligence can become arrogance, dynamic energy becomes relentless drive, passion becomes presenteeism.  Even less dynamic traits can sour under stress: the team player becomes a group thinker, the careful planner is paralyzed by change, the servant leader builds a fortified bunker around his team to protect them from "bad influences."  Every leader can guide his team to the heights or bury them in the depths, and in the process he can create a company that everyone loves or twist it into something hateful that even he doesn't even recognize anymore.

Looking back on my career, I can see every one of these tendencies, both good and bad, in myself and the people with whom I've worked.  So as a leader, how can I decide which of my tendencies are shaping the people around me?  As the story says, it's the one you feed.

When you're in charge, you're responsible for more than just yourself.  Your every action causes a reaction, your mannerisms become other people's habits, your ideas become other people's assignments. The higher you go, the broader your impact, and the more important self-awareness and self-control become.  When I'm alone in my cube, I can throw a tantrum and only disturb my neighbors.  When I'm responsible for hundreds or thousands of people's careers, a frown can ruin someone's day.  A good leader doesn't just glorify his impact on others; he respects it.  Here are a few thoughts on how to do that well:

Leader, know thyself.
If you were in and interview and they asked you, "What are your greatest strengths?" what would you say?  What do you prize about yourself?  What qualities have gotten you this far?  If someone has placed you in a position of authority, then you must have done something to earn that trust. Consciously or otherwise, these qualities are your go-to responses, the tools that you pull out first every time, and they define your leadership style.  Are you a good speaker?  Do you motivate others to do great things?  Are you a problem solver?  Do you roll up your sleeves and lead by example?  When you tell your workplace war stories, what do they say about you?  Knowing your strengths helps you understand the example you're setting for others when you're at your best, the ways that every day you say, "Be like me and you'll succeed, too."

Now, what's the flip side of every one of these strengths?  When your tools fail you, how do you respond?  Does exhorting become yelling?  Does problem-solving become frustration and shoving people aside to do their jobs for them?  What did your least proud moments look like?  This is harder than listing your strengths, but it's far more important.  Anyone can tell you what they're good at, but a leader who ignores his weaknesses -- or worse, explains them away by blaming others -- is dangerous to his company and his team.  He may succeed in the short-term by sheer determination, but he'll burn people out or drive them away in the long term, creating expensive turnover and reducing the overall quality of the team in the process.  Any relatively smart person can do a good job for a while, or stand in front of a group of people and take credit for their success.  A good leader, the kind of person whom people follow willingly, has to look at himself with a cold eye, setting aside the easy answers and digging into the muck of his own personality to seek the dangers lurking within.  Let other people give you the praise: you have a job to do, and you don't have time be squeamish.

Look around you.
OK, you've looked inside.  Now look around.  How do people respond to you?  Are they listening attentively or waiting for their turn to speak?  Do they engage in dialogue or sit back and let you ramble?  Do they challenge you when they know you're wrong or do they let you hang yourself?  What happens when you stop talking?  You may think you know what kind of impact you're having, but in the daily bustle it's easy to stop listening, stop paying attention to what's going on around you and just focus on the task at hand.  I've spent weeks thinking that my team and I were happily solving problems, knocking down barriers, and getting stuff done, only to have someone finally point out that I was the only one doing the talking.  Everyone else had checked out and was just waiting to be told what to do because I had forgotten to let anyone else in on the solution.  I was happy; they were bored.

Leadership isn't just about being the smartest guy in the room.  In fact, the best leaders historically have been those who've surrounded themselves with people who were even smarter than they were and then turned them loose on intractable problems.  If you're the only one talking, or if everyone else is just waiting for instructions, then you're doing it wrong.  You're limiting yourself and your team to the boundaries of your own capabilities instead of harnessing the collective brilliance of a whole group of people.  You've become a single-brained organism with many hands.

If you see this happening, step back and give someone else a turn.  When they do the wrong thing -- which will probably be about fifteen seconds later -- ask questions instead of giving orders.  Let them find their way with some minor corrections instead of telling them where to go and how to get there.  It will be painful in the short term, but the long-term dividends will be huge.

Find your fool.
Every successful leader gets too big for his britches at some point.  We all start to believe our own press, whether real or figurative, and think that we have all the answers.  Get a few successful projects under my belt and I'll start to think that I'm God's gift to software development, that no one could possibly design a better product than I can, and that people are lucky to work for me.  When that happens, we are at our most dangerous.  We start to abuse people, expecting longer hours, more dedication, and a daily thank-you on the way out the door.  We stop listening to good ideas and start telling people how to do things "the right way."  We lose flexibility, falling back on the tools and techniques that brought us this far rather than taking a risk on learning something new.  In short, we become tiny tyrants.

Ancient rulers understood this problem, so they kept someone close to them who had special dispensation to let them know when they were losing perspective.  In biblical times, these were the prophets, chosen by God to speak up when the king began to abuse his people.  In the Middle Ages, that role was filled by the fool, or the court jester, who kept his place at court by entertaining the king and by telling him the truth when no one else would do so.  Through wit and wisdom, he reminded the king that he was still but a man.

Just as you need people who are smarter than you, you need people who aren't afraid to tell you the truth, especially when you don't want to hear it.  You don't need to be challenged constantly -- that's neither productive nor a sign of good leadership -- but you need one or two people in your organization who can shut the door, lower the blinds, and say, "Stop behaving like an ass!"  These ego-busting moments might hurt, but they can save you and your organization before you drive it off a cliff.  Find these people, cherish them, and keep them close.  Do more than give them permission to tell you when you're out of line: make it part of their job description and challenge them when they go quiet on you.  If you want to be a great leader, then your ego needs to be strong enough to take a healthy beating once in a while.

It's your choice: find a fool or become one.

Wednesday, April 29, 2015

"Where Are They Now?" - Shelbyville Edition

A college friend sent me an email this week with the following challenge:

My high school is doing a "where are they now?" edition of the alumni newsletter and they are asking alumni to provide 3-4 sentences describing what they've done since high school.  I challenge you to write something totally crazy, but believable enough to be accepted for the newsletter.
Challenge accepted.

A few years ago, I submitted my own entirely fake biography to our alma mater, just to see how ridiculously you could brag about yourself without being called on it.  Since it was published without question, the answer to that particular puzzle remains elusive.

I couldn't stop at just one, of course, and while it got a little dark toward the end, I think I've managed to find the sweet spot between tragic, comic, and credible, especially if you know "Jerome."  See what you think.  And if you need some help with your college or high school alumni magazine, just let me know and I'll be glad to make something up.  Maybe I could make a business out of it!

(All names have been changed to protect the fraudulent.) 

Jerome put his accounting degree to good work, acting as the CFO for Tinder in its startup phase.  Tiring of the daily grind, he cashed out his options and bought an orchard in the Bay Area, where he and his family now live.  Their brand, Poochie’s Peaches, is famous at farmer’s markets throughout California, and they plan to release the first bottling of their peach wine this fall.  Watch for it in your local Trader Joe’s!


Jerome’s love of history led him to pursue a lucrative career running revolutionary war reenactment fairs.  This hidden market, while not as well-known as the renaissance fair industry, has a passionate and wealthy clientele who want nothing more than to see if the British will win this time.  While trying to meet his clients’ desires to prove their ancestral ties to revolutionary war heroes, Jerome launched a complementary genealogy business and is now one of the executive producers of that show on PBS that tells celebrities who their ancestors were.


After leaving Shelbyville High, Jerome wandered for a while seeking his purpose.  After stints at the Universities of Pennsylvania and Montana still didn’t provide a suitable direction, Jerome moved to the Bay Area, where he discovered his true calling: hot yoga.  He also met his wife there when she impressed him with her flexibility and calm while using a Groupon for a free session.  He now runs a studio in downtown San Francisco that specializes in Bikram and hot yoga.  He and his wife have two children, a dog, and a Subaru.


Jerome’s book, I’m OK, But You’re a Hot Mess, is now celebrating its 23rd consecutive week on the USA Today bestseller list for children’s books.  He quit his bartending job last year to write full-time and expects to release another children’s book entitled, Katie Has Four Mommies: Living With Your Mormon Neighbors, this fall.  He lives with his wife and three kids (well-adjusted, thank you very much!) in a basement apartment in Burlingame.


Once Jerome graduated from Shelbyville High, he realized that his best years were behind him.  He lived with his parents for a while, but once they retired and moved to a smaller house – he suspects that this was not an accident – he struck out on his own to pursue his one true passion: mandolin music.  He now makes a subsistence living playing backup for several touring bluegrass bands.  If you’re in Colorado, Central Oregon, or Northern California, drop him a line and maybe you can hook up the next time he swings through town (or you can meet in the middle if he’s within an hour’s drive of a large town).


While Jerome never really got over Michael Crawford’s retirement, he keeps the “spirit of the ghost” alive and well as he completes his 16th year with the touring company of Phantom of the Opera.  He relishes the opportunity to bring the show to smaller markets while waiting for the 30th anniversary revival season, because it gives him the opportunity to bring this magical musical to an ever-wider audience of young musical theater fans.  He and his wife Cory Anne met ten years ago when she took over the role of chorus and backup understudy for Christine, and they’ve been making wonderful music together ever since!


My husband Jerome passed away last summer in a BASE-jumping accident that showed astonishingly poor judgment.  Please remove this address from your mailing list.


Thursday, March 19, 2015

I give this article a 4.5 out of 5

It's annual review time once again, that precious time of year when every manager gets to say to his underlings, "Remember when you really annoyed me last February?  I do!"  It's a time for cheers, tears, and annoyed grunts.  Much like Christmas or our wedding day, we enter with big expectations and some of us get lucky, while others end up with cake all over our faces, wondering who all these strangers are and who stole our pants.  Maybe that's just me.  Either way, that was one strange review process, and I'm glad I only worked there for four years.

Anyway, performance reviews can be extremely valuable if done correctly (and with minimal de-pantsings).  They offer an opportunity to step aside from the day-to-day, reflect on how other people are doing their jobs, and then tell them what you think of them.  Constructively, of course (or not, if you want them to quit).  This process is called "feedback," and like the screeching sound created by holding an electric guitar too close to a speaker, it's an acquired taste that can make you look like a genius if you do it correctly.  And I want nothing more than to make you look like a genius, especially if you work for me, because then I can take credit for hiring you.  Reading this article counts as mentoring, by the way.

Without further ado, here are 5 tips for giving the kinds of performance reviews that will have people asking for them every quarter!

1.  No surprises

I open every performance conversation with the phrase, "None of this should come as news to you...."  This is because, if I've waited for a whole year to tell someone what they're doing well or poorly, then they really shouldn't have stuck around.  We all want to hear praise when we do something well, and people who say, "The work is its own reward" are either liars or living in complete solitude.  If you spent an entire year working side-by-side with people and none of them ever gave a hint as to how they feel about you and your work, you should check to see if you are invisible or someone's imaginary friend.  As a manager, you owe it to your people to say, "Good job," "Thank you," and "Wow, I never would have thought of that," especially when it's true.  I'm not talking about fawning over people and telling every one of them what a special, special flower they are.  That's up to their parents.  But if they do something well and you want to ever see them do it again, you need to tell them.

If, on the other hand, someone does something that you don't want them to do, you need to correct them so they don't keep doing it.  I've seen managers wait an entire year before telling someone that they had been making obvious mistakes that irritated everyone around them, mainly because the manager wouldn't have an uncomfortable conversation until they were forced to.  By that point, the damage was done and the person was left saying, "Why didn't you tell me that I was doing that? Everyone hates me now!"  That sort of surprise leaves you feeling like you've just come home from a cocktail party, only to have your wife tell you that you had a huge piece of spinach in your teeth for the entire night and excuse herself by saying, "I didn't want to embarrass you."  Man up (or woman up, if you prefer) and have the uncomfortable conversation immediately, so that, at review time, you can say, "I know you're working on this, and you're already improving."

2.  Be specific

I once dated a girl who told me, "I need you to make me feel special.  And you need to be more attentive."  I had no idea what to do with that guidance.  Was I supposed to praise her constantly?  Buy her gifts that I couldn't afford?  Stare at her for hours on end?  How was I supposed to make her feel anything?  Maybe I was supposed to slip Xanax into her drink.  Would that make her feel special, or just sleepy?  I couldn't handle the confusion, so I broke up with her.

(I feel compelled at this point to state that this was not my wife, because she's awesome and would never say crazy things like this. Hi, honey!)

Sometimes, while trying to be helpful, we can sound like crazy work girlfriends:

"You need to be more motivated!"

"I need to see that you really care about your career here at Acme Corp.!"

"The client feels that you aren't really looking out for them.  Go fix that.  But don't give anything away for free!  Oh, and make them feel special!"

General guidance leads to general behavior (also known as "erratic," "hit-and-miss," or "spotty improvement").  If you feel like your people are wandering around making terrible decisions, maybe you need to look at the guidance you're providing.  Are you giving them a specific target to hit, or are you just pointing them in the general direction of "better?"  Can you remember the last time you pointed out a specific example of something they did well or something that they shouldn't have done?

Human brains can handle abstract concepts, but we're still wired for narrative.  If you can tell me a story with a happy ending, then I can generalize it to bring about other happy endings.  If you illustrate my own personal office tragedy for me, then you can help me rewrite it in my head so that the ending is better next time.  If you just tell me to be happy, then eventually I'm going to have to break up with you and find someone who can show me how that's done.

3.  You aren't a mind reader

Speaking of narrative, we all love to tell ourselves stories about the people around us, and every good story needs motivation and characterization.  Jack sold the cow for a handful of beans because he was  foolish and a dreamer, but he stole the giant's treasure because he wanted adventure and he loved his mother very much.  He killed the giant because, underneath the foolishness, he was also very clever.

This works well when you're writing fiction, but it can be disastrous when you're dealing with real people.  You can assume that Jack screwed up the budget because he's lazy and doesn't pay attention to detail, but what if he's actually very conscientious and Jill gave him the wrong information?  You've already decided that Jack is lazy and stupid, so you aren't going to trust him with important tasks anymore.  He gets bored with simple activities, which only reinforces your image, so eventually you fire him.  Then he goes on to become the CFO of your competitor, Giant Industries, and crushes you (see what I did there?).

We all want to understand other people's motivations, especially when they do something we don't like.  We want to know why they did that annoying, hurtful, or dumb thing so that we can make them never do it again.  The problem is, unless you ask the person why they're acting a certain way, you'll never know for sure.  In fact, you really can't know for sure even if you ask them, because sometimes people lie.  And sometimes they don't even know.  And the problem with these assumptions, especially assumptions about a person's character or capabilities, is that they're permanent.  Jack can't stop being stupid even if he wants to.  When you give in to that desire to know why they did it, instead of focusing on what they did, then you brand them in your mind, for good or ill.

Now, that's not to say that some people aren't stupid, careless, or lazy.  There are plenty of those people around, and their consistent behavior will show it over time.  It just doesn't do you any good to make that decision for them, because what are you going to do: tell them to stop being lazy?  If that was your answer, please reread Tip #2, above.  Whatever a person's inherent character traits or innate capabilities are, they're beyond your reach.  All you can monitor, quantify, or change is their behavior, so that needs to be your focus.  Which bring us to...

4.  Behavior leads motive

What is performance but behavior over time?  Good performance, bad performance, high performance or low, it's nothing but the sum of our daily activities gathered up into an annual bundle.  Do you really need to know that I nailed that client presentation because I want to have your job within three years?  Or that I finished that project early because I wanted to take a long weekend?  Or that I was late to the big meeting with the SeaWorld account because I have a crippling, unexplainable fear of dolphins?  You don't really need to know what my motives are as long as you're getting the behavior that you need.  But most of us want to do the right things for the right reasons, and we want the same from the people around us.  So how do we get there?

For years, consultants, pastors, life coaches, and motivational speakers have tried to change behavior from the inside out.  By changing people's motives, we hoped to change their behaviors.  Motivate the employees and they'll work harder.  Teach the fat people to want to be skinny and they'll change their eating habits.  Tell the criminals that crime is bad and they'll stop doing it.  We thought it would be easier, because once you changed the one thing (motive), then all the other things (behaviors and actions) would naturally follow.  One is less than a bunch, so the math seemed easy.  There are three problems with this:
  1. Internal motives are closely held, often core to a person's self-image, and really hard to change.
  2. Even with the right motives, people often still do the wrong things.
  3. Even good motives can conflict and cancel each other out.
I want to lose 25 pounds.  I am motivated to do so by all of the pictures on the health magazines that show me what my ripped abs look like, if I can just find them under that layer of extra insulation.  I know that I will be healthier if I lose 25 pounds and that being healthier is better.  All of my motives are correct.  And yet, the 25 pounds remain (year after freaking year).  So am I poorly motivated, or am I embracing the wrong behaviors?

Did I mention that I also enjoy food?  This is also a good motive, but it conflicts with my desire to lose weight.  Given the choice between not eating something delicious and eating it, I will generally choose to follow the motive that puts something delicious in my mouth.  I don't overeat, binge, or try to eat my feelings, so this isn't an unhealthy motivation, but it's keeping that 25 pounds hanging around (did I mention year after freaking year?).

In his book, Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell points out that it isn't the most motivated (or even talented) players who succeed in professional sports.  It's those who work the hardest, those who have the right behaviors.  Whether they're doing it because they love their Mama and want to buy her a house or because they hate A-Rod (and who doesn't?) and want to beat him until he cries like a little girl, it's the actions that they take in response to those motivations that make them successful.  In the same way, when striving for better performance, the wise manager focuses on behavior first and motive second.  If you tell your people what you want them to do -- and make it specific enough for them to take action -- then you have a much higher chance of success than if you try to make them feel better about their jobs.

The interesting thing about this is, when the behavior is better, then the job satisfaction and the motivation tend to follow.  When I do something well, I'm happy about it, which makes me want to do it more, which makes me better at it.  When I do something poorly or I receive negative feedback, I don't like that feeling, so I don't want to do that thing again.  Proper feedback and guidance on behavior, then, leads to better outcomes, which lead to better motivation.  I may still be doing well because I want your job, but if I and my teammates are all doing a great job, then you're likely to get promoted, so you won't need that old job anyway.  Everyone wins.

5.  Don't forget to dream

Let's face it: unless you enjoy making people uncomfortable or you're one of those people who offers "constructive criticism" to the wait staff, performance reviews kind of suck.  And if you're following these tips, especially #1, they can start to feel unnecessary, as well.  So if you're like me and you can start your reviews with, "This shouldn't be news to you..." then use this opportunity to dream a little.  Get through the boring stuff -- "You're awesome, I helped make you that way, and you're already improving on that little thing we talked about last week" -- and take advantage of this annual break in the action to think about what might come next.  What are your dreams for your team, as a group and as individuals?  What could they do that would make you stand and proudly watch them like a dad whose kid just hit a home run?  What will make them glad to come to work each day, what challenges make their eyes light up?  How can you help them be so awesome that they don't even need you anymore?  What do they want to do next?

Don't know the answers?  Here's a thought: ask them.  After all, it's their performance review.  Shouldn't they get a chance to talk, too?

You're doing a great job.  Keep up the good work.

Thursday, March 12, 2015

Everything I Need to Know I Learned from Star Wars

Seeing Star Wars for the first time was a seminal moment in my young life.  Not only did it open my eyes to what a movie could be, but it taught important lessons that have served me well all the way into adulthood.  Here are a few of the things that I learned from watching Star Wars and its two sequels, because those are the only ones that were ever made.

(By the way, here's the appropriate soundtrack for reading this post)

Trust your feelings.

It's easy to overthink things, especially if you're one of those "hard to reach" logical types like me.  But sometimes, you face a problem that can't be dissected, diagnosed, and solved.  Whether it's because the problem is too complex or because (gasp) people are involved, you might find your logic failing you.  Or it may be that the logical solution isn't exactly the right one.  At those times, you need to trust something other than your conscious thought processes.  Whether you call it your gut, your feelings, or your intuition, there's something built into each one of us that processes information far faster than our conscious mind can and often comes up with the perfect solution in seconds.  We just spend the next 10 minutes (or 10 months) trying to find the justification for that answer, even when we somehow know it's right.  When you don't have time for that kind of processing, or when you've already tried all of the usual tricks and they've failed you, then maybe it's time to make like Luke in the Death Star trench and "trust your feelings."

Of course is your feelings have a track record of getting you into terrible trouble, then you might want to look for other sources of guidance.

Scruffy and noble aren't mutually exclusive.

We often judge people by appearances, and while that first impression may actually be quite correct -- the guy asking for change on the mall will almost always turn out to be a bad financial advisor -- it can also miss something important.  Sometimes, the scruffy nerf herder (whatever that is) turns out to be a noble hero, even when he has to go against his best instincts to do so.  In the same way, that surprisingly awkward IT guy at your office might turn out to be a genius, or at least an entertaining gaming companion.  When we look below the surface and allow our opinions to change as we learn more about people, we open ourselves up to wonderful possibilities.  This takes time, a willingness to defer judgment until all the evidence is in, and the ability to admit when you got it wrong the first time.  The best leaders are able to do this, as are the best friends.  And who knows?  That scoundrel could save your life some day.

Be careful who you kiss: she could be your sister.

I don't know if this is really a life lesson, but it scarred me emotionally for years.  I was so rooting for Luke and Leia to get together that when we all found out she was Luke's sister, it felt like we all committed incest together.  I'm telling you, that made me very cautious in my relationships for a while: checking eye color, asking about blood types, demanding a detailed genealogy by the third date... it wasn't pretty.

Do... or do not.  There is no try.

I spoke about this at Ignite Boulder a few years ago, but this is a quote you can live by.  When we "try," we hold back, saving a little bit for the recovery in case we fail.  Like a distance runner who saves too much for the final kick and loses by a stride, we never know if going all in would have made the difference between success and failure.  I have seen many people "try" at life, whether it was a new career, pursuing a dream, or reaching a personal goal like riding a bike for 100 miles.  More often than not, those triers quit before they reached the goal.  They weren't committed, and when things got tough -- as they always do in life -- it was easier to go back to the old rut than to push through the challenge.  No successful entrepreneur sums up his story with, "so I decided to do this thing part-time without taking any risks, and now I'm a millionaire!"  No one achieves their dreams by working on them only when they feel like it.  Life is a long-term gamble with a finite number of chips.  Sometimes you have to go all in, or else watch slack-jawed while someone else succeeds where you failed.

Let the Wookie win.

There are times when you have to deal with people who are simply unreasonable: they can't admit when they're wrong, they have to be the center of attention, or every good idea has to come from them.  You've tried reasoning, you've tried cajoling, you've probably even tried yelling.  The problem with unreasonable people is that they're so, well, unreasonable, which leaves the rest of us at a loss when trying to reasonably work through a conflict.  When you try to use logic or persuasion with an unreasonable person, it's like bringing a giraffe to a gun fight.  If you don't know the rules, you can't win.

So when all else fails, just let the Wookie win.  It will shut him up for a while and you can walk away knowing that you were the bigger droid -- er, person.  The best part is that everyone else will probably know it, too.

Hokey religions and ancient weapons actually are a match for a good blaster at your side, but bring the blaster anyway.

It never hurts to be prepared.  Sure, you could use some Jedi mind trickery to convince the client to buy your product or get that pretty girl to go out with you, but why not bring some facts and a good presentation along, too?  We all have one or two tricks that have worked well for us in the past, but flexibility and preparedness are the precursors to success.  Then, when your favorite line doesn't work, you'll have a backup ready.  I love to wing it in conversations, partly because I like the thrill of improvising, the way that it requires you to be completely in the moment in order to succeed.  I like solving problems live with a group of people rather than presenting a fait accompli for them to go along with, and I'm actually pretty good at it.  But I've also learned that a little bit of structure can actually make that process work even better, and a little bit of preparation can ensure that we meet our goals more quickly.  Other people prefer a much more structured approach, but they can find themselves at a loss if things don't go exactly according to plan.  They have to find a way to act spontaneously in those moments until they can get back on course.  Finding the balance between the blaster of preparation and the spontaneity of the Force is the path to becoming a true Jedi.

And if all else fails, run at them screaming.

Don't mess with a good thing: significant is better than perfect.

George Lucas showed us all how to dream on a massive scale, and how to stick to your dreams when no one else believes in them.  He also showed us what happens when you don't know how to let go of your dreams and share them with others.  Whether it's inserting an inane conversation between Han and Jabba in the remastered version of Star Wars Episode IV or making Greedo shoot first just because he didn't want Han to have a dark side, Lucas couldn't leave well enough alone.  He failed to recognize that his dreams were now our dreams, and those moments, imperfect though they might have been, had shaped our lives.  The ambiguity actually made the story better, and when he tried to "clarify it" for us, he took something away from us.  Sometimes, we need things to be imperfect.  We need room to debate, to challenge, to interpret.  We need to make things our own.

Whether you're working on a project at work or making Play-Doh sculptures with your kids, there's a point where you need to let go and let someone else share the vision.  They may not do it the way you would -- your daughter might decide that the little man needs a third arm so that he can hold his drink while he eats -- but they'll make it their own, which means you aren't alone in your vision anymore.  When you do that, you enable more people to participate, which means that you can do more together than you ever could have done alone.  And sometimes, you'll accomplish something that's greater, stranger, and more wonderful than you could have ever imagined.  That's the power of collective imagination, and that's what the movies have always been about.

Saturday, March 07, 2015

A Refresher Course on Leadership

My last post on the shaping power of leaders made me think a little bit more about what leadership is.  Over the years, I've seen both good and bad examples of leadership, as well as quite a few people who seemed confused on the differences between good and bad leadership.  If you're one of those, then here's a handy reference to help you out:

Not leadership: 

  • "Rallying the troops" to work the weekend when you've done nothing all week to help them.
  • Creating a false sense of urgency to trick people into working harder.
  • Measuring success based upon who comes in earliest, stays latest, and complains the most about how hard they're working.
  • Giving your team the information that they need to understand the real deadlines that are driving their work, then giving them the tools to complete their work on time.
  • Removing obstacles to your team's progress as soon as they appear.
  • Driving timely decision-making so that work can be finished by Friday.
  • Measuring outcomes, not effort.
Good leaders get a lot out of their people, not because they make them work harder, but because they inspire and teach them to work better.  The highest-performing teams aren't those that put in the longest hours -- though long hours may be necessary at times -- but those that deliver the best outcomes.  I would rather have a team that works 30 hours a week and consistently produces a high-quality, valuable product than a team that works 100 hours a week and consistently misses the mark.  Any time a leader starts talking about how hard his team is working, watch out: they're heading for the wrong path.

Not leadership: 
  • Doing someone's work for them because "that's the only way it will be done correctly."
  • Doing your team's work for them because they are too poorly trained, incompetent, or lazy to do it for themselves.
  • Teaching people to work for themselves and allowing them to do things differently than you would have done them, as long as the outcome still meets the need.
  • Looking for weaknesses in your team's skill sets, then filling them with training and coaching.
  • Being patient when someone isn't as fast or as good as you are, so that they have the opportunity to get there someday.
The best leaders achieve great things because they're working through their followers, multiplying their efforts five-, ten-, a hundredfold by equipping other talented people with the skills to do the job, then inspiring them with a grand vision to fulfill.  The person who does everyone's job for them quickly becomes their own limiting factor: their success only stretches as far as their personal energy can extend.  Show your team where you want them to go, equip them for the journey, and send them off.  If they reach the destination successfully, then it really doesn't matter if they took the exact path you would have taken.

Not leadership: 
  • Allowing an individual to fail because you're not comfortable having a hard conversation with them to tell them they're failing.
  • Allowing a team to fail because you're too nice to fire someone who really needs to be fired.
  • Being your team's buddy when they need you to be their boss.
  • Setting clear expectations and holding people accountable for delivering on them.
  • Freeing high performers to reach their potential by surrounding them with other high performers and removing people who can't or won't keep up with them.
  • Recognizing that being the boss sometime means that you have to make the tough decisions that no one else is able to make.  That's why they pay you the big bucks.
Study after study has shown that successful people want to work with other successful people, and when they do, their collective output is significantly higher than simply the sum of what they could have produced on their own.  If you've ever played a team sport, or even gone on a hike with young children, then you know how frustrating it is to be held back by someone who either can't keep up or doesn't want to put forth the effort required to keep pace with the group.  Being a good leader requires active management of team chemistry and performance, which sometimes requires some uncomfortable conversations with people who aren't meeting expectations.  The good news is, if you're clear about what you expect, then that chronic underperformer shouldn't be surprised when you free him to pursue other opportunities.

Not leadership: 
  • Yelling.
  • Criticizing people for their mistakes in front of their peers.
  • Making jokes at people's expense when they're in no position to do the same with you.
  • Rallying your team by telling what you want them to do rather than focusing on what you don't want them to do.
  • Praising people publicly when they do a good job and discussing their shortfalls privately when they make a mistake.
  • Using humor to defuse tension and make work enjoyable, but not at the expense of someone over whom you have authority.  Being willing to laugh at yourself, especially when you make mistakes.
It's unfortunate that this still needs to be said, but yelling is not leading.  It may garner short-term results, but the long-term damage is never worth the short-term gains.  No one likes to be yelled at, and talented people will always leave an oppressive environment, leaving you with the people who have nowhere else to go.

The same goes for making jokes at your team's expense or singling people out for their differences.  You may think they're laughing with you, but do they really have a choice?  When the boss tells a joke, people laugh, even when they're cringing inside.  Many times in my career, I've worked with people who didn't understand this and thought that they had a great, joking relationship with their underlings, never realizing that the jokes were rarely bidirectional.   I like to use humor myself, but I'm always conscious of this dynamic and the impact my words might have on those who consider me an authority figure, whether they report to me or not.  While it's possible to create a friendly, humor-filled dynamic on a team, the good leader is always conscious of the weight of his words, using self-deprecation as his favorite tool and allowing two jokes at his expense for every one directed at someone else. As Cyrano de Bergerac said:
So far –
If you let fall upon me one hard word,
Out of that height – you crush me! 

If you're a leader, then I hope this little leadership primer has helped clear some things up for you.  If you're among the led (and aren't we all, at some level or another?) and you feel that your leader could use a refresher course, feel free to print this out and tape it where they can see it.  You might want to do it anonymously, though, in case they haven't read Cyrano.