The Confidence Villains (Continued)

This is a follow-up post I’d written after completing the inspirational book The Confidence Code. For the original post see: The Confidence Villains.

confidence-code-shapes-red-yellow-greenAt the office: Management can instill confidence or rob it. I discovered the importance of leaders that recognize that as a quality while working at Intuit as Brad Smith pulled me aside after a status update meeting to say he noticed that while most other managers consistently showed their projects had a green status, I often showed mine as yellow (at some risk). After a pause, he said he thought that was a good thing. I was being honest and while many other managers did everything to run their projects so safely that their status updates would consistently be green, I was willing to take risks, show that my status was yellow, and recognize and have mitigation plans in case the risks came to bear. BTW, a status of red was a cry for help from management – which to me implied you went too far in taking risks and needed help to bail you out. Certainly, as the book underscores, failure is the inevitable result of taking risks. Allison Mnookin, a GM at Intuit at the time, told me that, from her perspective, it’s not failure that defines you but how you recover. Risk mitigation is key, but the ability to recover from a loss or failure is also an important skill to master. My take-away was: don’t allow a failure to be the villain that robs your confidence, see it as the teacher that imparted a valuable lesson.

As a Business: Another thing the author did not go into, probably because it’s a bit off-topic, is the power of confidence when scaled from an individual to a team. When I started at Intuit, it was resting a bit on it laurels for having created Quicken as a very useful tool for individuals to manage their money. It was doing well in the market, until BOOM a competitive, copycat product appears on the market built by a very powerful and successful company. Microsoft Money appeared on the market. It was a big morale blow to the employees to see the powerhouse behemoth show up to steal the glory. Intuit’s leadership, however, chose not to give up so easily. Throughout the organization, the notion that this smaller, but dedicated team could beat that powerhouse, and the team set about improving the product on a variety of vectors with many new and improved features. They did not allow the competitive villain to rob them of their confidence, instead they instilled confidence that we were batter at this game and we would prevail. The level of energy and commitment in the office which had just taken a huge blow, was suddenly way up and everyone was inspired to win this game. It was like the Marshall football team that would not give up. The resulting Quicken product came from behind to deliver tremendous improvements leaving MS Money in the read-view mirror.

Brad Smith Herd ShirtAs a Community: Perhaps not surprisingly at all, Intuit’s CEO, Brad Smith hails from West Virginia where he seems to have come from with the confidence to win repeatedly against all odds such as was the case in the aftermath of the 1970 plane crash that killed 37 football players on the Marshall University Thundering Herd football team. The experience of the tragedy was the villain in their story at first seemed to completely rob the university and surrounding community of their confidence and spirit, and yet they were able to rebuild the team, heal the community and ignite a powerful new spirit behind a rallying belief and chant “We are Marshall.” See also: Legendary Leadership: The Wisdom of Brad Smith

In an industry: in 2009, my colleague and friend, Evan Driscoll, told me he was going to leave IMVU to join a startup as their first engineering manager at a startup that was daring to challenge the storage industry EMC. I left to go to work for a small startup that was challenging YouTube with a niche approach of streaming video gaming – talk about confidence. After tripling the size of the engineering team and lots of due diligence discussions, Twitch was acquired by Amazon for ~$1B. That’s when I left to work with Evan at Pure Storage that had found the confidence to challenge an established storage industry which led to another unicorn IPO experience for me. In both experiences, it also seemed to help motivate the team to find their confidence by finding villains to challenge and conquer on their road to success…

we-choose-to-go-to-the-moon-in-this-decade-and-do-the-other-things-not-because-they-are-easy-but-because-they-are-hard3-300x211As a nation
: As recently reminded from the movie Hidden Figures, in 1957, the “villainous” Soviet Union robbed the U.S. of a great deal of confidence by beating the U.S. to to space with the orbiting of Sputnik 1.
In 1962, Kennedy said: ” We choose to go to the Moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard…” That became a great example of a growth mindset confidently presenting a setback as an inspirational challenge. As a leader with the support of a nation behind him, instead of allowing the USSR to rob the U.S. of all it’s confidence, it was seen as a challenge and used to motivate. Hidden Figures, Apollo 11 and In the Shadow of the Moon (narrated by the original Apollo astronauts) are very inspirational in conveying what can be achieved by a confident nation in the aftermath of such a confidence robbing experience. Similarly, with Apollo 13, where the confidence robbing villain was a malfunction that initially seemed to have sealed the fate of the astronauts; however, instead of giving up, the team pulled off a miracle and managed to save them and again restore confidence in the program and nation.


The Experience Villain: As described above, a confidence robbing villain can come in the form of a competitive individual, team, or business. It can also come in the form of an experience. Taking risks in the real world, leaning over your ski tips, riding that big wave, etc can come with real danger as a rogue wave in the Pacific taught me as it smashed me into the shore breaking five vertebrae, a rib, a shoulder and a collar bone all in the blink of an eye. As I was being tossed around under water, that clarity that this could be the end came to me and I struggled to the surface for air despite the pain before being pulled under yet again. The next time I made it to the surface, I was able to find the strength to wave to a friend and she, and an off-duty EMT, came in a pulled me out. This all came back to me when watching the protagonist in the movie Chasing Mavericks go under and after coming out admitting to his mentor that he had been afraid.  The response was “Fear is healthy, panic is dangerous.” That was certainly the lesson I learned on July 2, 2006.

Confidence Robbing From the Book: further along in the book, the authors do mention ~”A memory of a negative comment made by a colleague in a meeting four years ago may still be contributing our choices to keep quiet.” It’s from the perspective of the impacted party. Thinking about robbing confidence as a strategy and they being aware that it could be used against you, may help lessen that affect when you see/recognize it…

Its not about the horseAs a Horse and Trainer: Seabiscuit, a great true story about finding confidence for a horse, a trainer, a jockey and as a nation all facing seemingly insurmountable challenges brought on by the Great Depression which was a villain in its own right. In the story, the owner, the trainer, the jockey and the horse are all faced with various challenges that could have destroyed them. Together they turned those challenges into opportunities to achieve what seemed unimaginable.

Lean StartupLean Startup Lessons: In The Confidence Code, reference is made to taking risks and failing fast as perspectives embraced in high-tech startups. These came in part out of Eric Ries’ book The Lean Startup: How Today’s Entrepreneurs Use Continuous Innovation to Create Radically Successful Businesses written from his experience at the startup IMVU where as the person responsible for engineering process after Eric left to write his book, consult and speak, I was able to continue with the culture of taking risks, failing fast, and experimenting as the company grew, all within the context of learning. I developed a strange love of failures, which I had come to see as “teachable moments” as a teacher , in business I started celebrating the discovery/recognition of a failure as an opportunity to find the root cause of the failure through a post mortem and 5-why analysis in order to further strengthen and improve our product and systems.

andrew-fleming-at-WUCC-Stadium-Layout-300x166.jpgAs a National Champion Ultimate Player: Competitive sports not only taught me the benefits of taking risks (a la Michael Jordan), but also the competitive edge that can be gained by forcing errors in the opposing players/teams. It is often more of a male characteristic to be competitive not only by excelling and exploiting our own strengths, but also to capitalize and exploit our opponents’ weaknesses. The Confidence Code and the … (Ted Talk Superhero pose…) talk about building confidence but don’t really call out the notion that there are others out there that will seek advantage in eroding your confidence (hopefully not within the same team/company). From my experience, being aware that strategy is out there and not taking it personally (or seeing it as a negative personality trait), but seeing it more as an Art of War strategy can help reduce the impact when that card is played against you.

Diversity in the Classroom: In working towards my teaching credentials, I wrote a paper on diversity from my experience in the classroom that recognized that often the students that struggled could be the ones that later excelled the most. It reminded me of such quotes as “Smooth seas don’t make for strong sailors” and Lou Holtz “Show me a champion and I’ll show you someone who has overcome adversity” Michael Jordan Fail/Succeed quote. The book makes reference to the ideas and calls out examples where challenges, if not entirely devastating, would strengthen you – if it doesn’t kill you, it only makes you stronger… Good skiers lean over the tips of their skis and if they make it to the bottom of the hill on a practice run without a single fall, think to themselves: I didn’t push myself hard enough. The book also makes reference to the notion of “insufficient neglect” in parenting by overly protective parents having a weakening affect on their children.

At the Table: Informix once hired a retired IBM exec to come and observe and provide advice to managers. After a few meetings, he pulled me aside and said he noticed that I’d walk in and sit quietly on the outside even if there were seats at the table. He said he also noticed that when I did have something to say, every one would turn to listen. He told me to sit at the table and speak up more. I’ve also since heard that introverts think to speak and extroverts speak to think. The result often being that we hear things that weren’t thought out and time runs out before hearing the thoughts based in reason. Our societies seem to generate more introverts in women than men and we often go without hearing them. I guess the retired exec was telling me to lean in.

Managed risk taking is also confidence building.
In over 100 product releases (on physical media) I was responsible for only two were not on time (missed by a couple of days) despite my willingness to take risks by taking calculated risks and differentiating between nice to have functionality, my teams were always able to push hard but dial in the release by first ensuring must-have features were solid and being willing to dial back on optional features if needed to hit a date.

Instilling confidence where you discover a vacuum
To repeat my take-away from the original post:
As my first student teaching assignment, I was given a group of disruptive 8th graders (other teachers had tossed out of their classes) that were all in gangs in East San Jose and didn’t really expect to live long enough to make it to college. I had heard of the book The Rose That Grew From Concrete by Tupac Shakur and bought copies for everyone in the class. For many of them it was their first book ever and opened the to start reading and writing poetry. They were caught off guard by this white dude who wasn’t from their hood but could connect with them in a way no other teacher had. These students who had little hope and had never read a book, walked around proudly carrying a copy of their new book with a new found faith in their own abilities in part encouraged by a stranger that believed in them. They started writing their open poems about their own lives and started asking for other book suggestions. They were able to now appreciate that Shakespeare also was just writing from his own view into life in his world at his time…

Learning at the core of Growth.
In The Art of Learning – An Inner Journey to Optimal Performance  Josh Waitzkin describes his journey to becoming a national chess and later national Tai Chi master. He too leveraged his opponents to teach him things and propel him higher levels. His adversaries came in the form of chess and Tai Chi opponents that played within or outside of the rules, but also in the form of a broken hand which helped him learn things he would’ve otherwise missed. I had a similar experience when I was out of commission after breaking five vertebrae. Much of what Josh relates in terms of slowing things down, seeing things as a horse whisperer might, leveraging a growth mindset, looking at every detail in what you do and what your opponents does and how each responds and leveraging pattern recognition all resonated very well with my experiences. This is a great book if you want to truly learn how to learn. American author Alvin Toffler said: “The illiterate of the 21st century will not be those who cannot read and write, but those who cannot learn, unlearn, and relearn.

IMVU-DarthMake your Villains into your Heroes: Perhaps the most valuable lesson I’ve learned is to see the villains in my life stories that can rob me of my confidence as my heroes. Whether individuals, teams, businesses, events or health conditions, they challenge me to be better, stronger, more resilient and confident. In this way, I can thank them for making me stronger. It is by no means always easy, but when you make the villain in your story that seeks to rob you of your confidence become the hero that inspires you, you dis-empower them and shift the balance of power. Note, pulling strength from your opponent is one thing, if the villain appears on your own team, that’s another story. I also share my strategies with my opponents as I prefer out-shining them to making them feel small. We can choose to let the villains in our stories rob us of our confidence or inspire us to achievement that will build our confidence. Perhaps its not so much what you see, but how you see it.


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