Telling someone that they are amazing, naturally creative, resourceful and whole with unbounded potential is NOT an acknowledgement.
A few years ago, a senior leader said he observed that members of my team loved me and would do just about anything for me. He wanted to know how that came to be. My initial inclination was to tell him that it needs to start with letting them know and trust that their growth and success is very important to you.
However, luckily, I realized that statement would have been wrong.
Instead, I recognized and said, it starts with it actually being truly important to you that they grow and succeed. To his credit, he was honest enough to say that he had never seen that as an aspect of leadership. Your team will not believe you care unless you actually do. Once they recognize you care for them and their success, they will care more for themselves and their own success.
So, back to my original statement:
Telling someone that they are amazing, naturally creative, resourceful and whole with unbounded potential is NOT an acknowledgement.
You yourself recognizing, truly believing and internalizing that they are amazing, naturally creative, resourceful and whole with unbounded potential is the actual acknowledgement. Telling them that they are amazing is a statement of acknowledgement. Without first appreciating it, the statement is hollow with little impact.
Nonetheless, the magic doesn’t really happen until they themselves recognize, acknowledge and truly believe in their own ability to grow, achieve and succeed without bound. When you truly recognize another person’s magnificence, they are much more likely to also see it themselves.
Acknowledgement in the Classroom
When teaching, especially 8th graders, if you want to have any hope of reaching your students, you need their trust. Start with first acknowledging yourself that they are fully capable individuals. This is a necessary foundation for establishing genuine trust. It’s hard to make progress in the classroom if there isn’t a connection established. I remember a school event where parents where dumbfounded that their 8th graders were asking me to be in selfies with them. If you can have that kind of connection with 8th graders, you can also help them appreciate that your objective is to enable them to discover they are ready for life. Now you can begin evoking the transformation to help them learn how to learn.
The way you do anything is the way you do everything
When we look closely at another or their actions, we get a window into the whole person. Everything the say or do in some way sheds more light. The values driving small actions and choices are the same as those driving small and large decisions in other parts of their life. As the saying goes “the way you do one thing is the way you do everything.“
When we look deeply into another’s eyes we may see their soul; when we look at, understand, appreciate and acknowledge small achievements we may have just opened a window into what lies inside waiting to venture out. The Zulu greeting Sawubona means “I see you, you are important to me and I value you.” It’s a way to make the other person visible and to accept them as they are with their virtues, nuances, and flaws. In my experience if you truly see and accept someone, it opens the door for them to become visible to themselves.
When we observe others and acknowledge and appreciate their potential and allow them to recognize what we truly see in them, they may come to recognize their own potential. By truly seeing them, you enable them to evoke transformation in themselves. See them.
Vectors of Influence come from all sides in a changing world and tension easily arises that hinder effective Human Transformation. Challenges arise leading teams through uncertainty and change of Digital Transformation. However, to arrive at good solutions, there is a lot of value in fostering discussions based on conflicting perspectives.
These interactions can play out to benefit everyone or to create rifts if emotions enter. In reducing conflict, it helps to appreciate the same interaction with the same person can go differently on different days.
In taking a class on classroom management for my teaching credential, I remember hearing lots of questions on about what do I do in situation x, y or z. Life had taught me that every situation is different and hence deserves a different approach. The same teacher and the same student in the same situation on two different days can unfold very differently based many things that may have preceded that encounter. It took me back to my physics roots on the influence of various forces that can contribute to any collision. Hence, I came up with an image like the one I created above.
None of us Immune to the Vectors of Influence
None of us are immune to the influences of experiences throughout our lives or even in the course of a single day. We bring those experiences into any interaction as do those that interact with us.
This is why in person interactions for important or contentious interactions are so much better. They enable you to gauge mood and how things are going and to leverage cues and your intuition on whether it’s better to adjust your approach. Still, there may be hidden vectors of influence.
This is also why first impressions matter so much. All the following interactions with this other person will be grounded in the first interactions. As such, it’s worth the investment to consciously prepare for and respond during the first interaction.
While you typically can’t change what the other person brings to the interaction (other than previous positive interactions to build upon), you can have an influence on where you start. This is why it’s good to start your day on the right foot. For example a hug from one or more of your family members in the morning and knowing one awaits you when you return home can help start your day in a better place. One thing I do is timing a walk up 11 flights of stairs to the office in the morning (instead of taking the elevator). This helps start with a sense of accomplishment. Another suggestion to make your bed each morning (see video speech on that below).
Vectors of Influence on Horses
Having had my own horse and learning about horse whispering also provided a great deal of insight into how many very subtle influences impact a horse’s demeanor. It starts with understanding the implications of them being both flight and herd animals. They once roamed the wild wary of predators. It helps to know how much they queue off of your fear, nervousness/calm as well as your body posture. Knowing this allowed me to move a horse around an arena with changes in posture and look. With time you discover they change direction and speed, simply queued off of subtle, non-verbal gestures. It offered me another perspective for interactions of all types.
When taking a class on the various theories of psychology, the professor started by having us learn about the childhood of the psychologists. Knowing what shaped their personalities proved to be invaluable in understanding some of the origins of their theories.
John Boyd’s OODA Loop and theory behind it also digs into having a full understanding of all vectors of influence. It was born out of his experience as a fighter pilot, but’s it’s applicable in a very generic sense.
Steven Covey provides a great example of how differently we can perceive things if we know what happened in someone’s day before we encounter then (and conversely how little when we don’t)….
“I remember a mini-paradigm shift I experienced one Sunday morning on a subway in New York. People were sitting quietly – some reading newspapers, some lost in thought, some resting with their eyes closed. It was a calm, peaceful scene.
Then suddenly, a man and his children entered the subway car. The children were so loud and rambunctious that instantly the whole climate changed.
The man sat down next to me and closed his eyes, apparently oblivious to the situation. The children were yelling back and forth, throwing things, even grabbing people’s papers. It was very disturbing. And yet, the man sitting next to me did nothing.
It was difficult not to feel irritated. I could not believe that he could be so insensitive as to let his children run wild like that and do nothing about it, taking no responsibility at all. It was easy to see that everyone else on the subway felt irritated, too. So finally, with what I felt like was unusual patience and restraint, I turned to him and said, “Sir, your children are really disturbing a lot of people. I wonder if you couldn’t control them a little more?”
The man lifted his gaze as if to come to a consciousness of the situation for the first time and said softly, “Oh, you’re right. I guess I should do something about it. We just came from the hospital where their mother died about an hour ago. I don’t know what do think, and I guess they don’t know who to handle it either.”
The WEF estimatesthat it will take the U.S. another 208 years to reach gender equality; so, women and minorities may need to lean in for some time. As leaders though, we should lean out to create space so others may lean in.
I’ve had the uncommon pleasure in my career of reporting into five women VPs of Engineering. In my third role as VP of Engineering. I continue to appreciate the lessons I received from my mentors. My partner and our three girls continually inspire me with their strength, conviction, and empathy.
I was dismayed at my first impression of Lean In – Women, Work, and the Will to Lead. I thought I should write a blog post entitled Lean Out – Men Learning a More Collaborative Approach. It seemed Sheryl Sandberg was advocating women behave more like the stereotypical, traditional, Type-A, white American male. The value of diversity as described in Diversity: The New Global Mindset offers a contrast, and since the publication of Lean In, much more has been written on qualities of leaders. In her course Radical Candor Kim Scott points out that Sheryl Sandberg managed her from a place of caring.
Should we lean in “up” and lean out “down?”
After reading Liz Wiseman’s Multipliers – How the Best Leaders Make Everyone Smarter, I arrived at a refined perspective on how and when to lean. The refined perspective: one should indeed lean in when finding ourselves the junior person at the table. This creates opportunity to inject new ideas and be heard. As a quiet person, I was coached to be more heard by a retired exec from IBM. In 29 years of management, I’ve Leaning Out is empowering for those I lead.
As leaders, we should lean out to empower more junior colleagues, and we create space for them to lean in. Leaning in, we diminish and dis-empower – denying our team members and junior colleagues opportunity to lean in and contribute. Wiseman speaks of the overly assertive, proactive, vocal leaders as Diminishers. She argues that they continue to operate in a one brain, many hands organizational model. This stunts growth of intelligence and talent around them, and Wiseman suggests multiplying value by creating opportunity and space to be more proactive and participatory.
The moment of lift
In The Moment of Lift – How Empowering Women Changes the WorldMelinda Gates uses examples from many situations around the world where oppressed women did need to lean in. Leaning into oppressive situations can lift them out of their circumstances. This ultimately came to great benefit to their communities including those that had oppressed them.
Many like to believe we’re past biases in today’s world. The hierarchy of deference and unconscious bias plays out on sidewalks of cities every day. Split second decisions are made by the billions on who will alter their course to avoid a collision. Choices are made based on culture, gender, age, race, attire, posture, eye contact, stride, physical size, pace, facial expression, …
As teachers, coaches, managers, parents, adults, humans, … we should recognize we’re in a position to plant new ideas. We can foster confidence, potential, almost invincibility and sense of worthiness in those that look up to us. We can help them recognize the potential within them to unlock abilities they previously didn’t realize they possessed.
Lean out by being the last to speak
Simon Sinek advises “be the last to speak” (lean out) so those of us who are rarely or never heard to speak (to lean in).
“I see it in boardrooms every day of the week, even people who consider themselves to be good leaders, who may actually be decent leaders, will walk into the room and say, ‘Here’s the problem. Here’s what I think, but I’m interested in your opinion. Let’s go around the room.’ It’s too late,”
In Why Do So Many Incompetent Men Become Leaders, Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic brings up the distinction between competence and confidence. He suggests that men typically have a confidence that exceeds what their competence might warrant and vice versa. Many cases that can be made for why women should lean in more to break through barriers. We should lean out for those we lead to create the space to become empowered and impactful without needing to lean in so hard. Don’t give into confidence villains, but also don’t become one.
Leaning out doesn’t equate to not needing to be candid. Built on a relationship of trust, radical candor can come from a place of caring that allows it to be better received in Radically Candid Conversations. Likewise, listening and observing to more senior mentors and leaders also has its value.
Lean out and remain competitive
Leaning out in a business that wants to aggressively move forward can be challenging. A knowledgeable leader is often more expedient leaning into any situation to provide the solution. Our good intent may prevent our teams to arrive there on their own. Perhaps it’s better to ask with open questions: What would you do? What about potential challenges? It is still more expedient to just tell them the “right” answer. By disempowering others, we remain required for every decision and it becomes less expedient over even a short period of time. It can hard to resist that temptation when we are eager to move forward quickly, and you may be missing great opportunities for more innovative and/or effective approaches.
A person who is patient, flexible, intuitive, reasonable, passionate, empathetic, selfless, loyal…
Across the globe, people want a more expressive style of leader:
Someone who shares their feelings and emotions openly & honestly.
They want to connect with those in power more personally
They want leaders who will break a gridlock through reason not ideology
A long-term thinker who plans for a sustainable future (not posturing for expediency)
Cause-driven leaders (not self focused)
Leaders that are flexible, that listen, build consensus
Decisiveness and resilience (considered more masculine traits) are important but the data highlighted the definition of “winning” is changing
It’s becoming about a more inclusive construct than a zero-sum game!
It’s more effective to collaborate and share credit than to show aggression and control.
Lean out to create well over a trillion dollars in market value
In Trillion Dollar Coach, Eric Schmidt describes how Bill Campbell built relationships of trust founded on lean-out principles. I had the pleasure of working at Intuit while Bill was at the helm and under Brad Smith whom he groomed as his replacement. Bill and Brad both lead from the heart. These leaders could be brutally honest, but that it always came from a lean out place of caring. As I describe in greater detail at RadicalCandor.blog, if you lay a foundation of trust, that tough love can be very helpful. See Also – Slideshare: Eric Schmidt – Trillion Dollar Coach Book (Bill Campbell)
Going counter to hierarchy in Germany
A few months into my first full time tech job in Munich, our HR person passed me in the hallway. She shook her finger at me and just said “Just wait, I’ll figure it out!” She had been confused how I held such influence given her background in sociology. Being the clearly youngest in a hierarchical society, I still managed to hold quite a bit of influence. She concluded I did it through love. She said it was clear to everyone that I would gladly help anyone in any situation and hence, they in turn seemed very happy to help me with anything I might ever need.
Being compassionate and collaborative has been an lean out cornerstone of my style of leadership. I feel good about my impact on others – when I leading through influence rather than by edict or title. I have certainly since experienced what others are willing to do for me once they realize that I will do whatever I can to help them. In The Moment of Lift, Melinda Gates says “Love is the most powerful and underused force for change in the world.” She also describes characteristics typically attributed to women in various cultures around the globe. She points out how they have been a force of change for the better. She also speaks to her husband, Bill Gates, as having many “Lean Out” qualities.
Leaning out on the battle-front
In Simon Sinek’s Why good leaders make you feel safe, he references Medal of Honor recipient Army Major William D. Swenson, who brought his wounded sergeant, Kenneth Westbrook to a helicopter for evacuation, kissed him on the forehead before returning to the “kill zone” for more trips in an unarmored vehicle to evacuate additional wounded. When Sinek asked others in the military willing to go under fire to rescue their comrades “why did you do it?” They all said because they would’ve done it for me.
In Dare to LeadBrené Brown references humanness in the Air Force Manual 35-15. Written in 1948, these words no longer exists in thelatest versionof the manual. “A discussion of feeling – how men would feel – was referred to 147 times. The importance of creating a sense of belonging was mentioned 21 times. The fear of combat, the fear of exclusion, the fear of life in a profession of arms will bring was mentioned 35 times. Love – what it means as a leader to love your men – was brought up 13 times.” Even the post World War II war machine of the USAF recognized these leadership traits as being important.
In their own summary of their book The Dichotomy of Leadership – Balancing the Challenges of Extreme Ownership to Lead and Win, Jocko Willink and Leif Babin point out leaders must “Care deeply about their people and their individual success and livelihoods, yet look out for the good of the overall team and above all accomplish the strategic mission.” Compassionate leaders are often seen as weak; however, these traits are often leveraged and underscored by some of the strongest leaders facing life and death situations as being critical to success.
Manager Transition making managers more comfortable with being vulnerable and honest as per their new manager’s guide.
Coaching as revealed through Project Oxygen, the number one quality of effective managers is being a good coach.
Feedback in recognition of a manager’s potential build or destroy.
Decision making leveraging effective collaboration through ensuring judgments aren’t made in a vacuum.
Lean out traits called out by speakers and authors
Well-know authors and speakers make strong cases (often based in much research) for leveraging lean out traits as ways for leaders to achieve success are illustrated using multiple examples from today’s business world…
Ian Leslie looks at what feeds and starves both epistemic curiosity (which relies on effort and persistence) and empathic curiosity (which leads us to wonder about the thoughts and feelings of others). Both forms of curiosity can be empowering in life and business. In Curious – The Desire to Know and Why Your Future Depends on It, based on research from psychology, sociology, and business.
Tiffany Pham has built a highly successful recruiting firm around the notion that hiring diverse talent brings diverse perspectives and approaches into how everything is done within your organization. In You Are a Mogul – How to Do the Impossible, Do It Yourself, and Do It Now she describes how she herself was able to leverage her perspectives and approaches in building a successful business.
Daniel Goleman, as the first to identify emotional intelligence as a critical factor in leadership performance and success, underscores how emotional intelligence can be more impactful than one’s IQ in his classic Emotional Intelligence: What Makes a Leader?,
Michael Ventura not only speaks to empathy within a company as an effective means of achieving success but also empathy with customers. His business Sub Rosa have leveraged empathy to help businesses such as Delta, General Electric, Levi’s New Balance, and Nike find great success in connecting with their customer base in Applied Empathy.
Simon Sinek underscores the need for empathy. He explains the downsides of the traditional “how do I get the best out of my people” of the past of primary focus being on increasing share-holder value to “how do I help my people be at their natural best” which is how I, as a leader, can enable others to be more effective and impactful in his talk, Most leaders don’t even know the game they are in,
Harmony – Or, lack thereof?
Darko Lovric references research that shows creativity and innovation can be enhanced by reducing team harmony some discord can feed creativity; naturally, the occurs best in a supportive environment of trust. A team that seems very peaceful may actually be a team doesn’t feel free to express their opinions. In my experience, discord is actually often a sign of a deeper, healthy harmony. A good leader may often elicit healthy conflict and adversity by welcoming challenges to his/her perspectives. Darko suggests that “Psychological safety creates an atmosphere of participation and trust that allows members to actively engage in risky social behaviors such as disagreements and criticisms, as well as non-defensive and open responses to those risky behaviors” in Too Much Team Harmony Can Kill Creativity
John Dickson describes how his research of highly successful leaders lead him to conclude that without humility, many people fail to develop their true leadership potential and miss out on genuine fulfillment in their lives and their relationships. Leaning out so others may lean in is an act of humility in Humilitas – A Lost Key to Life, Love, and Leadership,
A core value without which all the others lose their foundation. Warren Buffett Says This Is the Most Important Leadership Trait You Should Have. Most businesses tout Integrity as a core value. There are many things written about how one can demonstrate integrity, but integrity can be emulated – people will figure it out over time and many sense it at a first encounter.
Jocko Willink and Leif Babin use several example from the field and business to underscore the value of leaders taking ownership. They “own it” when thing go wrong instead of attributing it to others or circumstances beyond their control. In their follow-up book, The Dichotomy of Leadership they call out things shouldn’t be taken to the extreme, but are very contextual. It’s a follow-up to Extreme Ownership – How U.S. Navy SEALs Lead and Win
Start with integrity Invest in respect Empower everyone Require accountability Create a winning vision Keep everyone informed Budget in line with expectations Embrace conflict Forget “you” to become an effective leader
Ray Dalio describes “radical truth” and “radical transparency.” He makes the case for these as the most effective ways for individuals and organizations to make decisions, approach challenges, and build strong teams in Principles – Life and Work,
Brené Brown helps us appreciate vulnerable leaders Those who responsibly recognize potential in people and ideas and have the courage to develop that potential. She explains how when we dare to lead, we don’t pretend to have the right answers; we stay curious and ask the right questions. Instead of seeing power as finite and hoarding it; we know that power becomes infinite when we share it with others. Avoiding difficult conversations and situations is one option; or, we lean into vulnerability when it’s necessary to do good work. Leaning out requires us to have some degree of vulnerability in Dare to Lead – Brave Work. Tough Conversations. Whole Hearts,
Lean out by whispering
If we want to ride a wild mustang, we can break the horse’s spirit. Or, we can choose the approach of a horse whisperer that will lean out to slowly builds a relationship of trust. This allows that mustang’s spirit to live on. In today’s world where talent is expensive and hard to hire, develop and retain. Organizations do better when they keep alive and feed spirit, innovation, drive and willingness to take risks. In my relationship to horses and people, I have found reward in the approach of the Whisperer. Leaders are better served if we acted as Talent Whisperers.
We may need to lean in to create space for ourselves to grow upward, to challenge norms in the interest of continuous improvement, but we should also remember that leaning in one direction is facilitated by leaning away from another. If we lean out to create space for those we lead, we empower them to lean in/grow and strengthen the team. Hence the notion of lean in “up” and lean out “down” is a win-win approach.
Marissa Orr – Lean Out – The Truth About Women, Power, and the Workplace – “With female-dominant strengths such as empathy and consensus-building being the future of business, the headlines forecast that women will dominate the future generations of corporate leaders. But that won’t happen until prescriptions for success stop requiring women to act more like men, mistaking traits such as empathy as signals of weakness.”
The Center for Talent Innovation’s Research & Insights has a collection of related reference material. Their mission is “to drive ground-breaking research that leverages talent across the divides of gender, generation, geography and culture; and to create a community of senior executives united by an understanding that full utilization of the global talent pool is at the heart of competitive success.“
I also keep a list of books I recommend is at TalentWhisperers.com/Books. I continually read and learn as I feel we can really only effectively grow others if we continue to grow ourselves. 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.”
Good leaders inspire people to persevere in the face of adversity and ultimately derive energy from the challenge of confronting their villains.
Completing Katty Kay’s and Claire Shipman’s inspirational book The Confidence Code, left me feeling every good story needs a villain.
“Gore isn’t required for a good story, but adversity is.” – Celeste Ng
Being Your Opponent’s Villain
I once met and played with Stanford’s National Champion Ultimate team captain. He imparted some advice to me. Prior to a game, scout the opposing team for a or the pivotal player and then line up against them. Completely shut them down on defense and consistently escape their efforts at defense while I was on offense. This served to build my confidence while also eroded theirs – hence I played the role of the confidence robbing villain. As he put it, once their confidence was gone, you had them in your pocket.
I applied that advice at the German nationals and then the World Championships, and ever since in sports and business. Shifting confidence away from your opponent and towards yourself became an effective strategy. Though we beat the former national champions, they worked with the tournament organizer to introduce a cross-over game before finals. We found out just after finishing lunch that we had five minutes to be on the field. We managed to win that game but had to play the former champs again in the finals – losing narrowly. Later they adjusted their strategy to switch players covering me to rob me of my confidence. They observed, learned and adjusted. We had to adjust our tactics again to win in a winter nationals later on.
The key takeaways for me being:
There’s power in finding ways to instill confidence in yourself.
It will help your team win to instill similar confidence in your teammates.
It is possible to erode such confidence in your competitors.
Hence, the (im)balance of confidence can be shifted.
It’s good to be wary of such tactics used against you.
“When I’m playing defense, I’m going to break down my opponent mentally, not just the man I’m guarding, I want everyone on the other team to be looking over his shoulder, watching for me, thinking about where I am.“
The book Confidence Code speaks to confidence as an individual. Confidence also exists at a team level. After breaking my collarbone, the spouses/partners of the players of my Ultimate team asked me to coach them. Three months later we flew to their first tournament and were matched up against last year’s U.S. national champs. Our team shouldn’t have completed a single pass, but at half time it was tied. At the end, we lost by one.
I inspired them to play with confidence and earning their trust to try out totally unorthodox defensive and offensive strategies. We switched between zone and person coverage within a point (previously unheard of). We mixed playing zone coverage in the front and person in the back. Our players confidence allowed them to try these things. The effectiveness against the confused champs became a virtuous cycle for our team’s confidence and a negative spiral for the opponents.
A novice team rattled veterans with tactics no experienced player would consider. Their confidence had been robbed and shifted it to our team – finding myself again as villain here. The balance shifted resulting in a totally unexpected outcome. The veteran team eventually regained their confidence to win the tournament.
Villains in Math Class
A professor told me within the first week students stack rank each other of “smartest” to “dumbest”. This determines who gets picked on the playground and who gets invited to birthday parties. In my first week in 1st grade, a Portuguese girl struggling to keep up linguistically was viewed last. Meanwhile, the whole class was struggling to grasp fact families: 3 + 4 = 7, 4 + 3 = 7, 7 – 3 = 4, 7 – 4 = 3
I asked her to stay during break and walk through it with yellow and red blocks … until she got it. Later, I sat with her in the front, while others were doing exercises. We did equations like 21 + 32 = 53, 71 + 12 = 83, 34 + 43 = 77, …
Crying, she managed to apply the same concept and she then started writing double-digit equations. 1st graders only do single-digit math. Noticing her excitement, others came up and were blown away. In 2 hours she went from the dumbest kid in the class to the smartest. Believing she could do anything shifted her mindset and the confidence stuck with her. The confidence eroding impact on the other kids had become their villain. Applying the growth mindset theory helped them appreciate they hadn’t learned it “yet” as they mastered fact families.
The students made a transition from having a fixed mindset to having a growth mindset. It was no longer a question of someone being smart or dump, they could all learn to overcome uncertainty.
Villains in the History Classroom
I opened fifth grade history by asking who could tell me who discovered America. I got a lot of “Columbus” answers. In response to asking how they knew, I got: My teacher told me. I read it in a history book. my dad told me… I asked: How does your teacher know? How does the author of the book know, how does your dad know? Now their curiosity was peaked as to where this new teacher was going. I asked how do we know anything?
Later, I asked them to imagine Igor running in and yelling: “Mr. D. Johnny and Juan are fighting outside!” I bring the boys in and ask Johnny: Who started it? What’s he going to say? How about if I ask Juan? What if I asked Johnny’s best friend, or if I asked Juan’s? Eroding their assumptions opened the doors to teaching them to seek primary sources of difference perspectives. Another example was the uncertainties of what really happened between the Conquistadors, the Aztecs and the Incas… We rebuilt confidence in their knowledge by helping them learn to find things closer to the truth themselves. Opportunities abound letting go of assumptions by asking: How do you know, and how does your source know? See also my Orange Lesson.
Confidence in the Face of Your Villains
In her TED talk, Amy Cuddy explains how you can derive confidence from something as simple as a pose.
Note, Cuddy’s research has come under some scrutiny as per the references below; however, in the end, it seems there may be some truth to her premises, and I know people who say it works for them – just believing can also be a source of confidence as we all know, confidence is all about what we believe about ourselves…
Another thing Katty and Claire speak to in their book is how confidence can help you be willing to take risks – or as I like to think of it, discover a hunger for the challenges of venturing into uncertainty to make new discoveries and build new strengths. If you look into Carol Dweck’s theories of Growth Mindset, you can see how that willingness to take risks is a cornerstone of the Growth Mindset. The fears often tied to taking risks can be a real villains that holds us back.
Villains on the Battle Field
I don’t have personal experience on the battle field, but a friend recommended Robert Coram’s Boyd – The Fighter Pilot Who Changed the Art of War, and it turned out to be a fascinating read applicable in many venues. John Boyd’s OODALoop and theory behind it. It’s also clear that Boyd derived strength and conviction from those that challenged him, and the greater force they were, the more it inspired him to excel. It was born out of his experience as a fighter pilot combined with reading things like Sun Tzu’s The Art of War; however, it’s applicable in a very generic sense as he concluded later in life as it started getting used in business and seemed reflected in the Toyota Production System.
Confronting Villains across the Board and on the Mat
Josh Waitzkin won his first National Chess Championship at age nine; later he became World Champion of Tai Chi Chuan. In The Art of Learning, Josh insists he wasn’t a prodigy and that we can all achieve these levels of accomplishment with the right approach. One key aspect is studying opponents and leveraging them more as teachers than villains. He would learn both about the art and his competitor. Viewing videos frame by frame, he would dissect every move. The challenge of a broken hand created another learning opportunity by forcing him to shift to learning to use his non-dominant hand. Converting his opponent’s strengths and his own challenges into opportunities deepened his knowledge and abilities. He discovered the best learning involves the ability to unlearn and relearn with deeper insight. In Talks at Google he says: “Most of my big growth has come from losses’
Waitzkin also references Carol Dweck’s notion of a Growth Mindset and learning from his mother’s practice as a horse whisperer in how her being in tune with the animals created a much deeper appreciation of what moves them. He too found deep truths between the seeming contradictions in Lao Tzu’s Tao te Ching. Josh’s book resonated with me on so many levels that it has become on of my favorites. 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.”
In various marital arts, one learns to redirect the opponent’s energy. The harder they come at you, the more they’ll be off balance and the more energy you’ll have to work with. This technique is used in various martial arts including Tai Chi Chuan, Aikido, and Ju Jitsu. Using your opponents’ movements, momentum and focus to your advantage need not be limited to the physical realm. Josh Waitzkin, who include the use of this technique to win the Tai Chi Chuan world championships, would also in chess, on his path to winning nationals, find ways to take advantage of his opponents sense that they had made an effective attack to lure them into a false sense of security causing them to let their guard down and overlook his subtle redirection until it was too late.
In a verbal attack, taking the force head on is typically less effective than welcoming the attack. If accused of being unethical, countering with, “thank you for pointing that out, I didn’t realize what I was saying could be heard as unethical” you have begun to disarm them. Following with “I’d love to hear your perspective.” you shift from a head-on confrontation to a shoulder-to-shoulder perspective inspecting what you said. I have found that agreeing with a verbal attack on you, that energy can often be shifted in your favor. What is heard is typically more important than what is said – understanding how others hear your words can help you learn to adapt your language and approach. Agreeing with an “attacker’s” assault, you may convert an adversary into an ally. You can allow your villains to weaken or strengthen you – it all depends on which wolf you feed.
Making our Villains into our Heroes
Perhaps the most valuable lesson I’ve learned is to see the villains in our lives as our heroes. They challenge us to be better, stronger, more resilient, and confident. We can thank them for making us stronger. Though not easy, when you convert the villains in your story seeking to rob you of confidence into your inspirational heroes, you dis-empower them and shift the balance of power. I discovered the strong adversary on the field or in the office can be a tremendous source of strength and learning. Note, pulling strength from your opponent is one thing, if the villain appears on your own team, it’s good to establish you’re both striving for the same value, but hold different views on how to achieve it. I also share my strategies with my opponents as I prefer out-shining them to making them feel small.
If we choose to receive their criticism/radical candor and “attacks” as gifts of new perspectives and thank them for the insights. An attack or criticism may weaken you. Whereas awareness of a different or new perspective strengthens you. I’ve experienced that receiving attacks as gifts can soften the blows and eventually result in counter perspectives being brought as a gift from a newfound ally.
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. I also discovered after reading Daniel Coyle’s Talent Code, that “primal cues” can help us in deep learning as we’re building myelin – primal cues are things like fear, competition, hunger, … It’s not so much what we see, but how we see it that will make us into a 10x-er.
The Flip Side
It helps to have a strong Adversity Quotient to find the gift in what might otherwise be received as confidence robbing criticism from what would then be a Confidence Villain. On the flip-side, as Mandela said:
It never hurts to see the good in someone. They often act the better because of it.
When we Assume the Best of Others, then, as Jack Kornfield suggests the attribution of Seeing the Goodness in Another Being seeing the beauty in another being can have a transformative affect. As leaders, confirmation of the value we see in others can multiply our and their impact rather than diminish it with framing that may be received as criticism.
Confidence robbing Villains are also to be avoided
Conquering your villains and overcoming their challenges may make you stronger by forcing you to find your strengths. However, a villain can also be your demise if you don’t overcome them. While you might celebrate overcoming the challenges thrown in our path, we should also recognize that those challenges are not usually thrown in our path with good intent. A villain with a narcissistic personality disorder may at one moment be a domineering bully and in the next play the poor-me victim. We should strive to break free of their clutch, and we may celebrate our escape when we achieve it. Such challenging, often abusive times can leave scars that also prove to be challenging and hold us back. Villains are often nothing more than villains, and it is you that becomes the hero by overcoming the challenges they create.
The most challenging villains to conquer may be the ones we see in the mirror
Our biggest villain is the one in the mirror, and yet that can also become our greatest ally. It all depends on our mindset and which wolf we choose to feed.
The Adversity Quotient needed to overcome villains.
The “Godfather of FinTech,” Ron Suber, speaks about having a Medium IQ, Medium EQ, High AQ (Adversity Quotient). His ability to overcome adversity helped him take on challenges and push beyond his fear and comfort zones. In The Adversity Advantage Paul G. Stoltz describes how AQ is about how you respond to life. The tuff stuff,helps you respond to everyday hassles and big adversities that life.
“In the middle of difficulty lies opportunity.” – Albert Einstein
In her book Radical Candor – Be a Kick-Ass Boss Without Losing Your Humanity, Kim Scott describes four quadrants for feedback. She explains a type of feedback that is obnoxious and aggression. Over the years in sports, business and private life, I’ve discovered that with a simple twist in perspective, I can receive feedback delivered as “Obnoxious Aggression” with the positive benefits of Radical Candor. If I take it in as though it were delivered with good intent and recognize that every time someone points out a weakness or failing of mine, they are actually doing me a favor by showing me where I can work on being stronger and more successful. This also dis-empowers any aggressive intent to tear me down. Yes, it sounds easier than it is at first, but once you realize you can do it, it becomes a lot easier.
I have yet to meet someone that doesn’t carry with them some degree of self-doubt and concern for their own worthiness (our internal villain). Even narcissistic glorious bastards are often burying a need to prove to themselves and the world how worthy they are. Those willing to vulnerably accept their imperfections often discover doing to be a great source of strength and fertile ground for growth. Being vulnerable can require a higher degree of bravery than being filled with self-conviction. Being fearless doesn’t equate to bravery; acting in spite of fear is true bravery. As leaders, public vulnerably accepting our imperfections gives license to those we lead to be more at ease with their imperfections. It dis-empowers the confidence villains and empowers those able to be comfortable with being vulnerable. It’s the hurdles we encounter that should define use, but how we choose to process the experience.
On the Football Field
Legendary football coach Lou Holtz, now retired and in the College Football Hall of Fame, had an uncanny ability to turn losing teams into winners. On overcoming our villains and adversity, Lou Holtz had to say:
In adversity, there is opportunity. Show me someone who has done something worthwhile, and I’ll show you someone who has overcome adversity. I’ve never known anybody to achieve anything without overcoming adversity. Adversity is another way to measure the greatness of individuals. I never had a crisis that didn’t make me stronger. Remember that adversity presents us with numerous possibilities for success, if we are just willing to see them.
“You can bend but never break me ‘Cause it only serves to make me More determined to achieve my final goal And I come back even stronger Not a novice any longer ‘Cause you’ve deepened the conviction in my soul”
Releasing the Villains that put You Behind Bars
When the Villains of Apartheid imprisoned Nelson Mandela and tried to break his soul in a tiny prison cell on Robben Island, he says he maintained his sanity and positive outlook in part by reciting Ernst’s Invictus to himself. I remembered this when lying immobile for weeks behind the bars of a hospital bed after the mighty Pacific had broken my shoulder, collarbone, rib, five vertebrae and wrangled my neck to the point where I couldn’t move my head. But behind the opioid fog of being on Oxycodone and Morphine, I could only remember the last lines “I am the master of my fate. I am the captain of my soul.” It also brought me back in touch with my previous experiences with seeing myself removed, from a bird’s-eye view.
When my dad turned 103, he often felt age had become his biggest villain. He had lost his autonomy in the physical world, and so I also read Invictus to him. Luckily, he still had a remarkable amount of clarity in his mind until the end, and we had some great conversations to the end. My dad had also the experience of learning to cope from behind bars many years earlier when he had been imprisoned by the Nazis.
At 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.
Certainly, Confidence Code underscores that 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 – don’t allow a failure to be the villain that robs your confidence, see it as the teacher that imparted a valuable lesson. updates would consistently be green, I was willing to take risks, show that my status was often yellow, and recognize and have mitigation plans in case the risks came to bear.
Leveraging Competition as a Villain
There is also power in confidence when scaled 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 a competitive, copycat product appears on the market built by a very powerful and successful company.
Microsoft Money appeared on the market as a big morale blow to the employees to see this powerhouse show up to steal our glory. However, the notion that this smaller, but dedicated team could beat that powerhouse grew as the team set about improving the product on a variety of vectors with many new and improved features. Intuit’s leaders did not allow the competitive villain to rob them of their confidence, instead they instilled confidence that we were batter at this game. 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.
A Community Overcoming Tragedy
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 UniversityThundering Herd football team. The experience of the tragedy was the villain in their story which 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
Government as a Villain
One of the greatest challenges is to persevere is when your government is the villain against you. When you consider what confidence and courage it took for Rosa Parks, Martin Luther King, Gandhi, The Dalai Lama, Oskar Schindler, Nelson Mandela, or Malala Yousafzai to find a voice to speak out and inspire others and draw courage from their convictions, you can only be left in awe.
Countries that historically looked down at other countries lead by villains may be more susceptible to succumbing to a villain as a leader than they realize.
Villains in Business
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…
The Rival Nation as a Villain
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:
Fear gripped me after a rogue wave broke five vertebrae and the Pacific pulled me under. Chasing Mavericks’ “Fear is good, panic is bad” came to me as pushed past the pain to get my head over water. I remember the resignation of accepting my life was over the second time the Pacific pulled me under. It was perhaps the most serene moment of my life as I felt myself separate from my body and seeing my parents above the beach about to lose a child. That thought drove me to fight to get my head above the water again. I was pulled out by a friend and an off-duty EMT who had seen it happen and rushed in. Every day since then and since learning to walk again has been a gift. This experience helps reduce the power that my various villains might have over me.
At some point, the opioid fog became something I wanted to free my brain of. The doctor advised against it, telling me that the pain killers had allowed my brain to stop producing endorphins and that would kick back in right away. He said it would bring me to a new level of pain that would be hard to imagine. I learned that people that try to come off like that end up going right back on. I’m glad he warned me and informed me that after time, if I actually preserved, the endorphin production would kick back in. That knowledge combined with the ability to meditate myself away my pain allowed me to pass through that valley and eventually learn how to walk again. It still helps me 13 years later to separate myself from the villain of pain that has lived as my constant companion every day since.
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. Considering how a villain might use a confidence robbing strategy against you and being aware that it could be used , may help lessen that affect when you see/recognize it…
As a Horse and Trainer
Seabiscuit is a great true story about finding confidence for a horse, a trainer, a jockey and as a nation. All face seemingly insurmountable challenges brought on by the Great Depression which was a villain in its own right. 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 Startup Lessons
The Confidence Code makes reference to taking risks and failing fast as perspectives embraced in high-tech startups. In The Lean Startup Eric Ries describes his experience at the startup IMVU. Joinging after Eric left, I became responsible for engineering process. I continued the culture of taking risks, failing fast, and experimenting as the company grew. 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. We find the root cause of the failure through a post mortems. 5-why analysis further strengthened and improved our product and systems.
Competitive sports in Europe and the US not only taught me the benefits of taking risks (a la Michael Jordan), but also the competitive edge gained by forcing errors in the opposing players/teams. It’s perhaps more of a male characteristic to not only by excelling and exploiting our own strengths, but also to be the villains 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.
The Challenges of Diversity in the Classroom
Working towards my teaching credentials, I wrote a paper on diversity from my classroom experience. I recognized that often the students that struggled at first could be the ones that later excelled the most. It reminded me of “Smooth seas don’t make for strong sailors“. Lou Holtz said “Show me a champion and I’ll show you someone who has overcome adversity.” Confidence Code calls out examples where challenges, if not entirely devastating, would strengthen you. 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 further references “insufficient neglect” in parenting by overly protective parents having a weakening effect 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. He noticed that I’d walk in and sit quietly on the outside. 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. Often we’ll we hear things that weren’t thought out. Time often 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.
Instilling confidence where you discover a vacuum…
My first teaching assignment was with a group of disruptive 8th graders. Other teachers had tossed out these students that were all in gangs in East San Jose. Most didn’t really expect to live long enough to make it to college. They had villains in their lives as kids that I’ve been lucky to have never experienced. I’ve had guns and knives drawn on me, but never with the frequency these kids experienced.
I bought copies for everyone the book The Rose That Grew From Concrete by Tupac Shakur. 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 someone not from their hood but could connect with them at this level. These students had never read a book. They now walked around proudly this book and new found faith in their own abilities. Writing their open poems about their own lives, they asked for other book suggestions. They were able now to appreciate Shakespeare was just writing from the context of life in his world at his time…
“You should never view your challenges as a disadvantage. Instead, it’s important for you to understand that your experience facing and overcoming adversity is actually one of your biggest advantages.“ – Michelle Obama Commencement Address
“There is no better than adversity. Every defeat, every heartbreak, every loss, contains its own seed, its own lesson on how to improve your performance next time.” – Malcolm X
“A man of character finds a special attractiveness in difficulty, since it is only by coming to grips with difficulty that he can realize his potentialities.” – Charles De Gaulle
“One who gains strength by overcoming obstacles possesses the only strength which can overcome adversity.” – Albert Schweitzer
“Just as we develop our physical muscles through overcoming opposition – such as lifting weights – we develop our character muscles by overcoming challenges and adversity. “ -Stephen Covey
“You gain strength, courage, and confidence by every experience in which you really stop to look fear in the face. You are able to say to yourself, ‘I lived through this horror. I can take the next thing that comes along.’” – Eleanor Roosevelt
“Think like a queen. A queen is not afraid to fail. Failure is another stepping stone to greatness.” – Oprah Winfrey
“Women, like men, should try to do the impossible. And when they fail, their failure should be a challenge to others.” – Amelia Earhart
“You may not control all the events that happen to you, but you can decide not to be reduced by them.” – Maya Angelou
“The moment we believe that success is determined by an ingrained level of ability as opposed to resilience and hard work, we will be brittle in the face of adversity.” “I have never considered myself a prodigy. Others have used that term, but I never bought in to it.” – Joshua Waitzkin, former world champion at chess and then world champion at Tai Chi
“There are uses to adversity, and they don’t reveal themselves until tested. Whether it’s serious illness, financial hardship, or the simple constraint of parents who speak limited English, difficulty can tap unexpected strengths.” – Sonia Sotomayo
Radical Candor is an overlooked asset in creating high-performance teams when that candor is built upon a foundation of trust. I’ve discovered that evoking transformation can often require radical candor. However, when properly applied, the transformation can resemble a metamorphosis. The Harvard Business Review article One Out of Every Two Managers Is Terrible at Accountability starts with:
“Out of all the things we expect of leaders — taking charge, setting strategy, empowering people, driving execution, you name it. What one single behavior would you guess is most often neglected or avoided among executives? Seeing the big picture? No. Delegating? Not either. Mapping out detailed project plans? No again. Although many upper-level managers don’t do these things enough, by far and away the single-most shirked responsibility of executives is holding people accountable.“
While we often think of having tough conversations with low performers, these conversations may be equally valid with top performers. When someone isn’t “meeting expectations” one should ask what expectations does one have? It’s reasonable to have high expectations for top performers and to help them step up to meet their potential. Since Kim Scott published Radical Candor – Be a Kick-Ass Boss Without Losing Your Humanity, leaders are expected to leverage “Radical Candor.“
Radical Candor – Four foundational elements
Establish a relationship of trust In order to have any successful candid conversation, there must be mutual trust. The journey should begin in all cases by establishing trust.
Have the employee’s best interest at heart Note, if you don’t start with believing it yourself, you’ll not be able to convince them. Once you are sure you have their best interest at heart, you can start to ensure they also recognize that.
Believe in them As John Maxwell put it “When you believe in someone and demonstrate that belief, they begin believing in themselves too.” Note, they also then start believing in you
Differentiate between Intent and Impact Without establishing that you believe they have good intent, they will be defensive and not able to absorb constructive feedback.
These things are relatively easy to do for our top performers; why should they not apply to others? As part of leadership development at Pure Storage, Laura from Bi-Jingo, LTD gave us a few Performance Based Training sessions. These were on Meaningful Check-ins and Feedback Conversations (I can highly recommend these). Laura opened the session with a question. Raise your hand if you cringe at the thought of a conversation with a challenged employee that holds upward aspirations. As all the hands went up, I reluctantly raised mine as well. I was actually lying by doing so. In truth, I actually enjoy those conversations tremendously.
Key take-away if we hope to be high-impact managers:
We worked through four se=cenarios in separate groups. One employee that showed promise, had high aspirations and expectations. However, they also faced with challenges that prevented them from operating at the level they saw themselves. We may cringe at the thought of being candid with an employee with challenges. We may be preventing them from actually performing at the level where they see themselves. Perhaps it is us that are not performing as the high-impact managers we’d like to believe we are. Should we not relish these opportunities?
Tough conversations are one of many opportunities for leaders to take on a challenge and have an impact. We can leave an employee empowered and excited to overcome obstacles preventing them from performing at the next level. Approach these conversations from the perspective of having discovered an opportunity to help. Entering the conversation with an optimistic mindset may help the recipient be less defensive and more receptive to feedback.
5 Questions to ask before giving feedback
Is your intent to deliver feedback that will help the recipient of the feedback?
Do you believe that whatever you’re giving feedback on was rooted in good intent even if the outcome was sub-optimal?
Will delivering feedback bring value to the recipient?
Are you the best person to deliver this feedback such that the most value be derived?
Is now the best time to deliver this feedback such that the most value be derived?
Radical Candor – Leaving the Comfort Zone in Interviews
When interviewing engineers, strive to get them out of their comfort zone. Presenting them with problems they haven’t seen . Use variations until we find something that they’re entirely unfamiliar with. We solve new, hard problems as we innovate. We want to hire engineers who love the challenge of solving really hard problems in innovative ways. Some are exhausted at the end of a day of really tough questions. Challenges may not give them energy. If they’re excited about the opportunity to stretch the limits of their abilities, then they’ve come to the right place.
Similarly for managers; we want managers that love challenges. I’m not saying we have incredibly difficult engineers that pose challenges unlike any manager has seen before 😉 We want to hire/promote managers up to the challenge of taking top talent and finding ways to inspire/challenge them. We’d like to enable them to be great at innovating, collaborating, solving tough problems. We should help them grow past limits that were only imagined.
Growing includes leveraging trainers and bringing in teams like Laura’s to expand our manager tool-set for meeting such challenges. Managers are learning to use radical candor and discovering a love and passion for working through challenges. We learn to see the positive impact that can have when leveraged appropriately. Kim Scott, executive coach and author of Radical Candor believes it’s about caring personally when delivering feedback.
Radical Candor – Where to Begin the Journey
I was asked if saying things positively just comes naturally in a recent coaching/mentoring conversation. It seems to come from a place of genuinely having good intent to help the person we’re delivering feedback to. As described in Where to Begin the Journey, I believe if you don’t have that intention, people will know it. It will help to genuinely state your intention to be helpful; this is a premise that both Scott and Grant underscore. Scott also advises us to be humble as we may be wrong in what we perceived as an issue. Ray Dalio also underscores the cornerstone values of “radical truth” and “radical transparency” in Principles – Life and Work.
In Eric Schmidt’s Trillion Dollar Coach he underscores Bill’s caring with candor. Bill excelled at and modeled building close connections of trust. However, he also provided very direct feedback that may have seemed harsh but always came from a place of caring. At Intuit, I had the privilege of experiencing how that approach permeating management. This was particularly in my time with Brad Smith whom Bill had groomed. I highly recommend Eric’s book to gain further insight into Bill’s hugely successful approach to leadership.
Understand the Root Causes and Influencers
If any employee’s performance has changed, there may be other influences at work that can both affect their performance and any feedback conversations. Similarly, even what happened on the way to work for yourself and/or the other person can influence how a conversation starts out. As such it may also be of value to ask open-ended questions that could help you root cause what other vectors may be at play – see Vectors of Influence.
When a person is not doing his job, there can only be two reasons for it. The person either can’t do it or won’t do it; he is either not capable or not motivated. To determine which, we can employ a simple mental test: if the person’s life depended on doing the work, could he do it? If the answer is yes, that person is not motivated; if the answer is no, he is not capable. This insight enables a manager to dramatically focus her efforts. All you can do to improve the output of an employee if motivate and train. There is nothing else.
Learning to Love Criticism
As managers, we should strive to find opportunities to dish out constructive criticism in such a way that our employees not only internalize it as inspiration to do more but actually seek out and crave that kind of criticism. Much as employees have learned to love criticism at Bridgewater according to Adam Grant. Or love to foster creativity as it’s done on the Daily Show by not fearing criticism; we should strive for the same.
Naturally, not every approach works with everyone in every situation. We strive to build relationships of trust and understanding so that we have the context to customize the interactions to the best outcome. Likewise, we need to navigate each situation according what we discover works in that specific conversation for we may not be conscious of the impact of something that may have transpired at home before work that day for us or our employee that completely changes the frame of mind we each bring into the conversation. As Steven Covey described with the man on the subway in his 7 Habits book, we shouldn’t assume we are aware of all the factors influencing someone else’s behavior.
We strive to hire 10x engineers who love challenges and foster an environment to grow great engineers into phenomenal engineers to become and remain 10x engineers by being 10x managers that also love the challenges of working on various fronts to keep us being a 10x business. Positivity and productivity exist where transparency and challenges are sought out.
Radical Candor Aided by Curiosity
Sheila Heen in her course on Difficult Conversations, makes the point that we should enter a difficult conversation with a curiosity to understand the other person’s perspective (which typically differs from ours) rather than with the intent to convince them of our perspective. In my experience to be curious about how they feel, where they’re coming from, why their perspective differs from mine and not only be enlightening for me, but it can also reduce the defensive barriers that lets the other person also become more curious about where I’m coming from and why… Sheila further goes on to suggest from coming from a place of seeking blame (looking backwards) to Joint Contribution which assumes that in most situations everyone somehow contributed to a discord.
Intent vs Impact
In an ally training at work, we were asked some hypothetical questions. One of them was” “If someone were you approach you and say to your face: ‘You are a racist and a bigot!’ how would you feel?” The visceral reaction is of course one of defensiveness. The idea was for us to empathize with someone we might call out. I prefered a reframing: “I’d like to help you understand what you just said could be heard as racist.” This can shift from defensiveness to curiosity, It is a shift from head on confronting them by implying we know another person’s intent when they do or say things to standing next to them and considering the possible impact on others. Regardless of whatever the actual intent may be, this is more likely to allow for a constructive conversation.
The other kind of “Impact” that can be helpful here is helping the other person appreciate the positive impact a change can have on their effectiveness and career.
This can apply in many situations including the workplace. When addressing an issue at work, it can be very different to stand shoulder to shoulder with an employee when looking at a bad outcome from the perspective of together let’s figure out what went wrong to help avoid it in the future – seeing it as an opportunity. It’s more likely to initiate a productive conversation that a face-to-face, finger pointing confrontation a la “you messed up!”
Nose-to-Nose vs Shoulder-to-Shoulder
It is vital to success to first establish within ourselves that we believe in the other person having good intent at their core. Only then should we attempt a conversation with any hope of establishing trust or providing constructive feedback that you hope to be received in a positive manner. Holding this belief ourselves helps us convey our intent of being helpful; this is crucial in allowing others to receive. As humans, our egos have us shut down to feedback and go into defensive or denial mode when we feel attacked.
Recieving Radical Candor
In my post at Villains.blog, I speak to another way to deal with a confrontation...
In various marital arts, one learns to redirect the opponent’s energy. The harder they come at you, the more they’ll be off balance and the more energyyou’ll have to work with. This technique is used in various martial arts including Tai Chi Chuan, Aikido, and Ju Jitsu. Using your opponents’ movements, momentum and focus to your advantage need not be limited to the physical realm. Josh Waitzkin, who include the use of this technique to win the Tai Chi Chuan world championships, would also in chess, on his path to winning nationals, find ways to take advantage of his opponents sense that they had made an effective attack to lure them into a false sense of security causing them to let their guard down and overlook his subtle redirection until it was too late.
In a verbal attack, taking the force head on is typically less effective than of you welcome and even agree with the attack. If someone accuses you of being unethical, the expected response is a defensive one. Instead, if you counter with, “thank you for pointing that out, I didn’t realize what I was saying could be unethical” you have begun to disarm them. You can follow with “that wasn’t my intent, but I’d love to hear your perspective…” you shift from a head-on confrontation to standing shoulder-to-shoulder with them looking at what you said, how it could be interpreted or heard. I have found that often in agreeing with a verbal attack on you, that energy can often be shifted in your favor.
Difficult Conversations – What is Heard
What is heard carries more weight than what is said. Understanding how others hear your words can help you learn to adapt your language and approach. In the end, we may discover that what was heard was more inferred than implied. By agreeing with an attacker’s assault, you may find yourself standing shoulder to shoulder next to them and may have converted an adversary into an ally. You can allow your villains to weaken or strengthen you – it all depends on which wolf you feed.
In Difficult Conversations – How to Discuss What Matters Most, Douglas Stone, Bruce Patton, Sheila Heen also speak to viewing any conflict from a perspective of “contribution” rather than blame – the assumption being that all parties involved typically contribute to some degree to any conflict. When we keep this in mind, it’s also easier to take a shoulder-to-shoulder perspective. Here too though, they focus on contributing factors directly related to the conflict between the two parties and don’t address the other potential Vectors of Influence that may be contributing.
Imagine receiving feedback of “you’re not good at giving presentations”, “you’re no expert at running meetings”, “you’re not manager material”, … That phrasing is most likely deflating, taken as criticism, and taken personally. If, however, a slightly altered message it delivered: “you’re not good at giving presentations yet”, “you’re no expert at running meetings yet”, “you’re not manager material yet”, … It can evoke a curiosity. An eagerness to discover what’s missing may result. The impact is lessened and the intent can now be easily framed as helpful. Again, solving a problem or making an improvement is better done in shoulder-to-shoulder collaboration than in face-to-face confrontation. Including “yet” helps establish that you believe in them and their intent.
We’ve since invited Bi-Jingo back a few times to have more classes with actors acting out being the employee receiving feedback and not quite hearing it as exercises for our managers, and everyone has found it to be a very effective way to work through improving on such conversations.
Kim Scott’s Radical Candor
In her book Radical Candor – Be a Kick-Ass Boss Without Losing Your Humanity, Kim Scott describes four quadrants for feedback. Scott explains how caring for someone and remaining silent in terms of providing constructive criticism is actually holding them back from improving. She refers to it as “Ruinous Empathy.” She also describes the opposite of that where you don’t care at all and provide feedback obnoxiously and aggressively. Scott further goes on to also speak to how we receive feedback.
Over the years in sports, business and private life, I’ve discovered that with a simple twist in perspective, I can receive feedback delivered as “Obnoxious Aggression” with the positive benefits of Radical Candor. I seek the value I can extract and recognize that every time someone points out a weakness or failing of mine, they are actually doing me a favor by showing me where I can work on being stronger and more successful. This also dis-empowers any aggressive intent to tear me down. Yes, it sounds easier than it is at first, but once you realize you can do it, it becomes a lot easier.
“You can bend but never break me ‘Cause it only serves to make me More determined to achieve my final goal And I come back even stronger Not a novice any longer ‘Cause you’ve deepened the conviction in my soul”
Radical Candor in Coaching
The Co-Active Training Institute, is the oldest and largest international organization to train coaches to be in service of their clients in helping them grow. Much of the coaching terminology is about being candid, holding the client and accountable and challenging them. Clients pay their coaches to help them grow. Being candid and challenging, when done appropriately, is in service of the client. As leaders and managers, we create a win-win scenario when we see the relationship as being symbiotic. We can and should be candid with and challenge those we lead. Even in coaching, Kim Scott’s notion of ruinous empathy exists in that if we only coddle and never challenge our clients implies that we are not really helping them.
Aspects of Candid Coaching
Co-Active Coaching includes various aspects of being candid and challenging clients:
Accountability – holding clients to account for what they said they were going to do.
Asking Permission – opening the door to access areas of focus. For example, “May I tell you a hard truth?”
Challenging – requesting that a client stretch way beyond his or her self-imposed limits, AND SHAKES UP THE WAY THEY SEE THEMSELVES.
Commitment – asking a client “What are you committed to?”
Evoking Transformation – a coach’s job is to call forth the greatest possibility for the client.
Forwarding Action & Deepening Learning – moving the client forward.
Goal Setting – keeping clients focused and on track toward who they are becoming.
Holding Focus – the coach’s job is to keep the client on track and true to that course.
Inquiring – to provoke further reflection.
Intruding – a coach may need to intrude, to interrupt or wake up a client who is going on and on, or who is kidding himself or herself.
Powerful Questions – holding the client’s agenda and either forward the client’s action or deepen their learning.
Requesting – designed to forward the client’s action. The request includes a specified action, conditions of satisfaction and a date or time by which it will be done.
Taking Charge – a coach may need to take charge and direct the coaching back to what is most meaningful to the client.
Pure Storage’s Founder’s Take
“As we all go through our journey at Pure, remember that we are evolving and changing. We will never reach perfection, but we should always be striving to do better. This concept of evolution and change is something that we have incorporated into our company values in everything you should be asking yourself: Is there a better way? Can we improve this? Great ideas for improvement come from all of us. Never be satisfied with the way everyone else has done it. Be satisfied with the right way, the best way and please drive that spirit into everything we do.”
– Coz – Founder and CTO, Pure Storage, Inc.
Radical Candor by the Numbers
P.S. Laura from Bi-Jingo in opening, also mentioned a study that showed managers could have a 39% impact on employee productivity through meaningful conversations. Searching finds the study Managing for High Performance and Retention An HR Toolkit for Supporting the Line Manager which pulled from Datasets with more than 90,000 employees from 135 organizations supported the analyses presented with that report. I do believe there can be very substantial impact on employee performance through good management. However, I’m skeptical the causality could be isolated and measured that precisely. It’s an interesting read nonetheless.
What is the root cause of a 10x engineer? It is questioned whether “10x Engineers” are mythical creatures that exist only in our imagination or are real but simply elusive. If elusive, how do we find them?
People in high growth and highly successful companies swear they have seen them. Having worked at various such companies, I absolutely believe they exist. As leaders, I believe one can find them, hire them, inspire them, develop them. Similarly, one can also take the wind out of their sails if we’re not careful. One objective of this blog is to look into various avenues to inspire, develop and leverage such people. In my experience in various startups including helping take a company from Pre-IPO to a $46B valuation, I witnessed multiple occurrences where 5 engineers outperformed 50 – so, I’m a believer.
There is talk about finding a 10x engineer, recognizing them and hiring them. There’s not much root cause analysis of what allows someone to become and remain a 10x engineer. What sets them apart and how did they become that way? Understanding that can help in developing and keeping them happy where they are. Once you have a unicorn, you certainly want to retain them. Also, it’s not really that someone is 10x “smarter” or “better.” They are 10x plus as impactful as others in how they apply their knowledge and abilities. They have the mindset and potential to have a 10x impact if provided with the right environment, processes, and support to allow it to come to bear.
Hence, it helps to understand how to find, hire, inspire those with the potential to be 10X-ers that will thrive in a world changing at an accelerating pace. Hiring and inspiring people capable of Human Transformation is particularly relevant in the age of Digital Transformation.
Bill Gates, Reed Hastings and Marty Cagan on the 10x Engineer
“With a fixed amount of money for salaries and a project I needed to complete, I had a choice: Hire 10 to 25 average engineers, or hire one “rock-star” and pay significantly more than what I’d pay the others, if necessary.
Bill Gates said: “A great lathe operator commands several times the wages of an average lathe operator, but a great writer of software code is worth 10,000 times the price of an average software writer.”
Reed Hastings discovered: “Over the years, I’ve come to see that the best programmer doesn’t add 10 times the value. He or she adds more like a 100 times.”
“To be clear, there is most definitely such a thing as 10X employees. These are people that have demonstrated their ability to contribute on the order of 10X more than their peers. However, it’s also no secret that having a 10X employee does not necessarily translate into having 10X results.“
10x Engineer Mindsets
During my hiatus into teaching, I learned about Carol Dweck’s notion of learners possessing “fixed mindsets” or “growth mindsets.” Those with a fixed mindset believe we have an innate intelligence and set of skills. Whereas those with a growth mindset believe our intelligence and skills can be developed. If you’re endowed with certain intelligence and abilities, those more readily develop if you push beyond the challenges you meet. That are various differences between the two illustrated in the graphic below. What is key is understanding how to develop and foster the growth mindset.
Telling a child getting an A (or an engineer solving a tough problem) that they’re smart implies an innate intelligence. Remarking on the effort or approach creates a mindset encouraging taking on challenges and overcoming them. Saying someone hasn’t achieved something “yet” implies they can achieve it. People with growth mindsets thrive in uncertainty; they have a hunger for overcoming challenges and a high tolerance for risk. For them, failures are mere setbacks telling them they need to try a different approach. They welcome criticism as it helps them recognize they’re on the wrong path and allows them to course correct sooner. There is a wealth of information out there if you look for Carol Dweck and Growth Mindset…
In his book, Great by Choice, Jim Collins also refers to 10x companies and 10x leaders:
“We labeled our high-performing study cases with the moniker “10X” because they didn’t merely get by or just become successful. They truly thrived. Every 10X case beat its industry index by at least 10 times.” … “We labeled our high-performing study cases with the moniker “10X” because they didn’t merely get by or just become successful. They truly thrived. Every 10X case beat its industry index by at least 10 times.” … “On the one hand, 10X-ers understand that they face continuous uncertainty and that they cannot control, and cannot accurately predict, significant aspects of the world around them. On the other hand, they reject the idea that forces outside their control or chance events will determine their results; they accept full responsibility for their own fate.“
In his case studies, it is clear that 10x leaders are not only very conscious of how they choose their teams, but it also become how they role model for and inspire they teams to greatness to outperform other teams by 10x or more.
10x Engineer Risk Tolerance
While studying cultural diversity, I recognized that only a very small minority were born in Silicon Valley, and a disproportionate number come from other countries. The founding fathers left behind the safety and known world in Europe. They risked crossing the ocean into an unknown environment. They came willing to take risks and overcome challenges to attain something they didn’t have before. Often the immigrant leaves behind their home, family, friends and culture. They’re eager to conquer challenges in an unknown world to attain something more at the cost of what leave behind. This could also be a high-school graduate from Arkansas or West Virginia… These are entrepreneurs and pioneers arriving at new ideas and approaches, breaking new ground and creating great companies.
People with a high risk tolerance aren’t afraid of change. In fact, they often seek it out as a life without challenge would seem dull to them. They are drawn to a life composed of a series of paradigm shifts that evoke and require continuous human transformation These thrill-seekers may be ideally suited to thrive in the Age of Digital Transformation.
In Munich, we loved hiring engineers from East Germany. They were consistently very eager to succeed in a new and unknown world. Many had often undergone great risk and left behind family and friends to find something better for themselves. After the wall came down, the desire to hire people from the East faded. Many from the East no longer had to risk much to get there. They often weren’t used to jobs rewarding engagement and risk taking. The Berlin Wall had been a barrier to those faint of heart, much like the ocean to the pioneers. Once gone, coming from East Germany was no longer a valid differentiator to find ambitious risk takers.
10x Engineer Hiring
Hiring 10x-ers, it’s key to recognize what sets them apart. Take the candidate outside their comfort zone with structured questions. This allows various avenues and depths for the interviewer to go. You learn a great deal more than if you probe them for what knowledge they have. Candidates taken down a path beyond their existing knowledge need to collaborate with the interviewer. They need to first understand the problem and then explore possible solutions.
People with fixed mindsets quickly stall or give up when you take them down this path. People with a growth mindset will derive energy from a new challenge. They’re able to grasp specifics of problems they’ve never seen before with a willingness to be vulnerable in potentially failing as they explore possible solutions. The ultimate question is if they are drained or energized by collaborating and exploring solutions. To get ahead, you need to solve problems others haven’t solved and/or to solve them in ways others haven’t solved them before. Hence, hire those eager to explore the unknown and learn and discover than to hire someone who knows existing answers to existing problems.
Other Perspectives on Hiring 10x-ers
Dan Slate, from Wealthfront asks: “What’s the most important thing you’ve learned from a peer and how have you used that lesson in your day-to-day life?” It shows a willingness to learn from others (rather than be threatened by them).
Jonathan Fulton former SVP Product & Engineering at Storyblocks suggests a process we also used at IMVU in 7 Steps to Hiring 10x Engineers, , . In the post-interview huddle, we required a champion for a candidate and allowed anyone to veto. I’d also go around the room asking each interviewer how they would feel if they would be the new-hire’s spin-up buddy. Engineers tend to be analytical in assessing others, but this question to accessed their intuition. Great hires were consistently ones people would want to buddy with.
I don’t entirely agree with Fulton’s closing statement that he pulled from Steve Jobs: “You know what’s interesting, you know who the best managers are? They’re the great individual contributors who never, ever want to be a manager but decide they have to be a manager because no one else is going to be able to do as good a job as them.” In my experience, the best managers are often started as the best engineers. Great managers also benefit from a 10x Mindset; however, great managers, like any 10x-er, love what they do no matter what it is. I have yet to meet a great manager that hates their job.
“The top tier of developers are far more than 10x more valuable than the average developer. Not because they produce 10x more lines of code, or “crush” 10x as many bugs or sprint points, but because they build. better. systems. Period.“
One common scenario that Seibel suggests involving such “keystone” developers:
“There’s a tiny team or a startup working on an ambitious product. Despite their limited resources they produce something of significant value and quality, something that normally would require a much vaster number of average developers working for much longer to achieve a similar result. This leads to runaway success.“
Carol Dweck speaks to hiring for the Growth Mindset as part of her talk The Growth Mindset at Google.
In my experience, a key contributing factor contributing to what makes a 10x individual may well be a 10x manager, teacher, coach or parent…
Here is my take on The Five Why’s Behind a Growth Mindset:
Why can one 10x engineer be so much more productive than another? Because they approach problems differently.
Why does a 10x engineer approach problems so differently? Because they have a fundamentally different Mindset.
Why is it that they have a different Mindset? Because they come from an environment that fosters a different perspective and experienced the rewards that this mindset brings.
Why is this environment so different leading to such a different outcome? Because they have been influenced by parents, grandparents, uncles, aunts, teachers, mentors, role models, coaches, peers, and/or managers. People that help them recognize the values of not fearing failure, embracing challenges, and seeking to understand the unknown.Those that support their willingness to take risks, be inspired by others, persist in the face of setbacks, be open-minded to trying novel approaches. Supporters that help them learn from criticism, find lessons and inspiration from the successes of others.Ultimately it helps that they experience that this has helped them overcome challenges they may have previously seen as insurmountable.
Why are these influencers so different from other people? Because they understand what has helped them succeed and are willing and able to invest in sharing these insights with others.
Happiness and the 10x Engineer
When I interview manager or director candidates, I ask them how they would differentiate an engineer they cannot find a way to help succeed and one they would love to clone. Some say they are smart or hard-working or highly skilled. If those are the answers, I like to ask: What do you think makes them that way? What is the root cause behind someone having all these qualities? More experience/insightful managers will offer passionate or motivated. Ultimately, people that love what they’re doing are more likely to work hard, learn, be engaged become skilled, … They have or develop a Growth Mindset or they are simply happy at whatever they do.
I listened to a Udemy course on management where an experienced manager stated “I’ve never seen anyone get fired that was happy in their job.” Comparatively, you may discover that resonates with your experience. The conclusion being that people that love their jobs will succeed and will be valued. I found some related research below.
Planting the seeds for 10x Engineers
As teachers, coaches, managers, parents, adults, humans, … we find ourselve in a unique position. We may plant a sense of confidence, potential, almost invincibility and sense of worthiness in those looking up to us. We can help them appreciate that within them lies the ability to unlock potential they previously didn’t realize they possessed.
Studies have shown that employees, especially highly desirable engineers may join a company, but they leave a manager. The number one reason for leaving a job is the manager.
Google researched what makes the most effective and desirable managers that develop and retain the most effective engineers. They came up with:
Eight Habits of a Highly Effective Google Manager: 1. Be a good coach 2. Empower your team and don’t micro-manage 3. Express interest in employees’ success and well-being 4. Be productive and results-oriented 5. Be a good communicator and listen to your team 6. Help your employees with career development 7. Have a clear vision and strategy for the team 8. Have key technical skills, so you can help advise the team.
Developing the 10x Engineer
Talent Code is a book where Daniel Coyle describes deep learning through short repetitions and feedback loops. His examples include repeated sources of top athletes and musicians. I have applied this approach in coaching sports and in business. As leaders, understanding how to apply the talent code can help us enable 10x talent to develop more quickly than through brute-force hard work.
Josh Waitzkin won his first National Chess Championship at age nine; later he became World Champion of Tai Chi Chuan. In The Art of Learning, Josh insists he wasn’t a prodigy and that we can all achieve these levels of accomplishment with the right approach.
“The moment we believe that success is determined by an ingrained level of ability, we will be brittle in the face of adversity.”- Josh Waitzkin
Are You Missing the Point?
If you read this hoping to learn how to get the most out of your employees, then you’re missing the point. When that’s your motivation, you’ll discover it’s hard to motivate those you lead. If you’re hoping to create the best environment for them to flourish, you may find yourself in a virtuous cycle.
How do I get the most out of my people vs How do I help my people work at their natural best?
How do I get somebody to do something? I hear this all the time? I get this question, How do I get the most out of my people? How do I get the best out my people?
They’re not a towel. You don’t wring them. You don’t see how much you can get out of them.
How do I help my people work at their natural best? That’s the right question, and it profoundly changes the answers you’ll come up simply by changing the question.
So, you might be coming up with all the right answers to all the wrong questions. That’s the problem. How do I get the best out of my people? Well, you can whip them; that’s works. It works really well. Try it. It does; it does. Try it. But, it’s not sustainable. Teachers will become demoralized, they’ll quit. Or, they’ll just become bad teachers.
Another way to look at whether 10x engineers exist is to consider if there are 1/10th engineers. Engineers that are one tenth as productive as others we’ve seen. I would argue this too is not only a real possibility, but I’ve discovered these as well. Often if you have a team or single engineer that is operating without motivation, with an extremely high interrupt level, within a poor environment or in code heavily laden with tech debt, or mismanaged, and/or constantly being asked to start something new before the previous work was completed, … Then it is easy to imagine them performing at 1/10th or even less of their potential, capacity or ability.
I believe for many of us, the 1/10th engineer is easier to imagine than a 10x engineer, and yet it all boils down to the same basics. If we do the inverse of filling our engineers’ sails with winds then we can take all the wind out of their sails. When we do that, we shouldn’t be surprised when that ship appears motionlessly adrift.
If, as leaders, we look for the root cause of a 1/10 engineer, we may well find ourselves looking into the mirror.
A boat crew analogy of how, as leaders, we can create 1/10 engineers or 10x engineers – Jocko Willink and Leif Babin explain how leadership can directly effect the success of a team.
The above analogy from Jocko Willink and Leif Babin comes from their first book Extreme Ownership. Afterwards, they realized there were subtle yet critical nuances they had left out of that book which actually created poor leadership practices. So, they decided to write second book to speak to some of these critically important nuances: The Dichotomy of Leadership. If you’ve only read that book, you missed the boat.
How a 10x-er Approaches the Job from Hell
I was presented this question in an Organizational Psychology course and was surprised how few leaders appreciated why a good employee would excel in what they believed to be the job from hell:
If you took your least productive employee and asked them to describe their dream job, and you took your most product employee and asked them to describe the job from hell. If you then created both jobs and put the least productive employee into their dream job and the most productive employee in the job from hell, after two months in those jobs, who do you think would be more productive?
Akin to the Navy Seal exercise, it’s not about the challenge, but how someone chooses to approach it.
For the 10x-er, I’d expect them to define a very mundane job that isn’t challenging and possibly repetitive. Once put into that job, a 10x-ers will typically find a way to systematize or automate the task to make it happen more quickly with less effort to free time up for more challenging work. Doing this, rather than just doing the job is at the core of what makes a 10x-er a 10x-er. The automated/systematized task will often be completely 10x as fast as when done manually.
Similarly, consider that It’s very rare for someone who loved their job to be let go (Exceptions: Layoffs that are true Reductions in Force). The corollary is: It’s very rare for someone who hated their job to be promoted.
A 10X-er is “that rare person with outsized skills, an abnormally positive attitude, and lots of vision, balanced with enough humility to pivot when great advice comes along. When great advice doesn’t come organically, the 10x-er solicits it, knowing where and how to look for feedback that will help most. Deep curiosity and enthusiasm are always part of the 10x-er’s game-changing makeup. 10x-ers often work harder and smarter than everyone else in the room. From their perspective, inefficiency is just a bug they’d love to squash. They see a world filled with opportunities and can move on to the next available own when things don’t go their way. They are fundamentally reasonable and willing to accept responsibility for their role in outcomes. In essence, the 10x-er alone has the raw materials to go from very good to great to excellent to sublime and beyond.”
Start with trust to set the foundations of a relationships when a new person joins your team. The first impression you make on them sets the foundation for the rest of your journey together. Before you impress upon them your intentions and objectives as a leader, you should first establish with yourself what you believe to be the foundation of such as relationship.
See also New Hires for thoughts on the three most impactful people in determining the joy, success and fulfillment an employee finds in their job.
As a leader, begin with deciding if you buy into the notion that solving for the team member’s best interest is also in your own and your organization’s best interest. In other words, do you believe that the most effective people are those that love what they do and the more they have passion for what they do, the greater their value to the organization is likely to be. If you don’t believe with conviction that helping your team members (be they subordinates or peers) find and achieve their goals, you will be hampered in your own success and that of your team. They will know the difference subconsciously or consciously.
Lou Holtz also starts with trust
Legendary football coach Lou Holtz, now retired and in the College Football Hall of Fame, had an uncanny ability to turn losing teams into winners. During his college coaching career, he compiled a record of 249 wins, 132 losses, and 7 ties. Holtz’s 1988 Notre Dame team was undefeated and determined to be the consensus national champion. Holtz too believes you should start with trust. He said that players had three implicit questions about a new coach:
“Can I trust you?”
“Are you committed?”
“Do you care about me?”
This brings to mind two quotes about thinking well of others and the impact it may have on them…Trust men and they will be true to you; treat them greatly and they will show themselves great.– Ralph Waldo Emerson
Thinking too well of people often allows them to be better than they otherwise would. – Nelson Mandela
Start with Trust for Effective Communication
Effective communication is often addressed in the form of tools you can use such as active listening, empathic listening, powerful questions, making eye contact, not interrupting, paying attention, withholding judgement, echoing back, radical candor, … At the core of effectively using any of these techniques is our genuine interest to hear what the other person is saying and to have genuine concern for their well-being. If we’re not genuinely interested, they will know, even if only subconsciously.
Clever Hans (in German: der Kluge Hans) was an Orlov Trotterhorse that was claimed to have performed arithmetic and other intellectual tasks. After a formal investigation in 1907, psychologistOskar Pfungstdemonstrated that the horse was not actually performing these mental tasks, but was watching the reactions of his trainer.
Start with Trust Within Yourself
If you don’t believe with conviction, it might help to dig deeper into some of the the well researched books about teams and working with others before continuing here. Note, there have been successful teams built around amazing players such as those described in Tim Grover’s Relentless – From Good to Great to Unstoppable and there is much to be learned there as well, but for that type of team, please refer to Grover’s book.
Hans’ ability to stop stomping out the “right” answer was cued by the audience changing demeanor once he arrived at it. Horses and humans take non-verbal cues as to our intent. All those techniques that serve as cues will come more naturally, be more convincing and effective if our interest in those we lead, live and work with can sense it’s genuine.
Studies into human communication reveals that only 7 per cent of any communication is conveyed though actual words; 93 per cent are conveyed non-verbally, through facial expressions, posture and tone.
Horse whispering is all about communicating using non-verbal cues and body language. Natural Horsemen also start with trust. They believe horses are as unique as individuals, so it’s easy to extrapolate this form of communication for interpersonal conversations.
Trainers say that leading a horse only requires three main things: establishing trust, demonstrating respect, and communicating directions clearly. Here are the main leadership lessons to learn from communicating with horses.
Once you have the conviction that you’re solving for the other, you can start to get them on board by telling and showing them that their best interest is in your best interest.
Once you are both clear on your intent, the journey can begin either at the first interview with a powerful question. It can certainly also begin later with a first “real” powerful conversation in your first 1-on-1 (if you weren’t part of the interview process). Towards the end of the first interaction, I like to arrive at asking an employee or candidate to relate a time or experience that fundamentally changed who they are. You often get the most amazing stories, you also learn who they are and what they value, and you feel you should share something in return yourself. Now, you have a foundation of genuine interest in the person upon which a relationship of trust can be built. A question that reveals who they are and what they want in life also provides the context in which more immediate goals can be framed. Now, when you might need to have a difficult conversation, it won’t be a conflict of one opinion against the other in a battle of offense and defensiveness, but rather a mutual objective of getting past the challenge. If the question/conversation is truly powerful, it can lead to a self realization for that person about what matters to them, what gives them energy and clarity on why their near term objectives are important to them. Simon Sinek also believes you should start with trust. He says building relationships is hard work on How to Establish Trust When Building Relationships. As Brené Brown puts it in The power of vulnerability, in order to connect, we have to be seen.
Start with Trust in the Very First Interaction
Towards the end of the first interaction, I like to arrive at asking an employee or candidate to relate a time or experience that fundamentally changed who they are. You often get the most amazing stories, you also learn who they are and what they value, and you feel you should share something in return yourself. Now, you have a foundation of genuine interest in the person upon which a relationship of trust can be built. A question that reveals who they are and what they want in life also provides the context in which more immediate goals can be framed. Now, when you might need to have a difficult conversation, it won’t be a conflict of one opinion against the other in a battle of offense and defensiveness, but rather a mutual objective of getting past the challenge. If the question/conversation is truly powerful, it can lead to a self realization for that person about what matters to them, what gives them energy and clarity on why their near term objectives are important to them. Simon Sinek says building relationships is hard work on How to Establish Trust When Building Relationships. As Brené Brown puts it in The power of vulnerability, in order to connect, we have to be seen.
Where should that conversation end?
Ideally, the person you’re hoping to lead or already leading walks away with a feeling of genuine trust that you are going to solve for their best interest together with them. It’s ok if they understand their success will benefit the business and you, but that should be the outcome and not the objective. When they believe your benefit and the business are the primary objective and their success is an outcome and not the objective, you will discover they are not nearly as motivated. Your intent may be good, but it is the impact that matters. In closing, it can be good to ask them if they genuinely believe you are interested in and will solve for what’s best for them. If they don’t, and you might tell by how they say it more than the words they use, you know have something to work on. Until that foundation of trust is there, all other conversations will be much less impactful.
Caveat – What if it doesn’t turn out?
When you hire someone or engage with them as a client, you should be convinced it will work out such that they are successful and you should solve to that end. However, you should also let them know you don’t have a crystal ball, and no matter how how you try to set them up for success, there is no guarantee it will work. Ultimately, if they are succeeding, you have a responsibility to them, others on the team and yourself to recognize that could leave you in a place where you believe that engagement isn’t successful. You should both accept that’s a possible outcome from day one.
At SAS – 37 consecutive years of record earnings–$2.8 billion in 2012.
As CEO Jim Goodnight points out in How SAS Became The World’s Best Place To Work “the diagnosis from Gallup is just as dire: Fewer than 3 in 10 workers admit to having their hearts in their jobs. This lack of employee engagement will cost business upwards of $300 billion this year alone.” He also suggests Value People Above All Else and Trust Above All Things – The foundation of employee happiness at SAS, Goodnight believes, is its culture of trust.
In a team setting
Start with trust in team settings. You might have everyone go around the room – possibly over lunch – relating something about themselves no one else in the room knows. This can help the team feel more connected. A fun alternative is to have everyone write their experience on a piece of paper that each person will then pull one to read and the team guesses who it might be. It may help to open by giving an example or two from your own life to provide context for the types of things people might say or write down.
At some of the companies I’ve worked, we’ve also had new hires get up in the company to tell a story that no one knows with bonus points if it’s embarrassing – this too can help provide a foundation for a more human connection.
Trust In the Classroom
When teaching, especially 8th graders, if you want to have any hope of reaching your students, start with trust. It’s hard to make progress in the classroom if there isn’t a connection established. I remember a school event where parents where dumbfounded that their 8th graders were asking me to be in selfies with them. If you can have that kind of connection with 8th graders, you can also help them appreciate that your objective is to prepare them for life and help them learn how to learn.
In another classroom – Growing Roses from Concrete.
My first assignment as a student teacher was to work with a teacher that had a special class of students with “learning issues.” On the day I showed up, the principal informed me that the teacher had quit the previous day and asked if I’d be willing to still lead the class. I was also told that these were 8th graders that other teachers had given up on being able to manage in their classrooms in a school where most student came from very tough backgrounds. They all later confided in me that everyone of them was in a gang and they figured they’d be lucky to live to the age of 18, and hence, education wasn’t a big priority for them – and education beyond high school was beyond their wildest dreams. So, if I want to develop their talent, how to I establish that necessary foundation of connection and trust?
I remembered a book one of my professors had suggested that she used when she taught at juvenile hall. It was Tupac Shakur‘s book of poetry The Rose That Grew From Concrete.
I bought enough used copies of the book so each student could have once to keep as their own. The students were surprised that I even knew who Tupac was and that I knew lots of his material, but they were really surprised that I had bought them this book for them to keep. They didn’t know that Pac wrote poetry, they had really not expected me to be showing them something from Pac they hadn’t know about. When I next saw them, most of these 8th graders told me it was the first book they ever read. They were proud to carry it around with them, and they had selected their favorite poem. Some had also been inspired to write their first poem after reading it. I could not read any of their poems without tears coming to my eyes – pretty amazing stuff.
Some pointed out that this was cool, and the only other reading of poetry some previous teachers had tried to foist on them was some junk by Shakespeare. I pointed out that Shakespeare just grew up in a different time, in another country and on another type of “concrete”. That tweaked their curiosity, and now a door was open to expand their horizons and awareness.
Know your audience and find a connection is a valid context to find a place to start any dialog. Embrace the challenge, enjoy the fruits of your investments.
New hires present the best opportunity to put employees on their path to achieve their greatest potential. There are three very impactful people in determining the joy, success and fulfillment an employee finds in their job…
Typically, none of the three appreciates the honor and responsibility bestowed upon them to have this impact on another human.
These three are crucial in determining whether new hires enjoy their job, are successful and find fulfillment. For, the joy, success and fulfillment an employee derives from their job greatly impacts their life. Employees spend more of their waking hours at work than they do with their life partner/children. It helps to remind each of the significance their part in this has. We each should recognize that we can, at any given moment, also see ourselves in each of these roles.
I believe these three people are in order:
1. The New Hire Employee Themselves
New hires often don’t fully appreciate their ability and role in determining their own joy, success and fulfillment at work. As leaders, our most important task is to help those we lead appreciate their ability to impact their own destiny. By enabling a growth mindset, we let them feel the joy, success and fulfillment they derive from their job. We enable them discover their ability to succeed, we are allogwing them to get in their own way. They can be their own worst enemy or own best champion.
2. The New Hire’s Manager
Sadly, as managers we often overlook the honor and responsibility bestowed upon us in hiring and managing a new hire. Each employee does spend more waking hour at work than anywhere else in their life. We, as their managers, bear a huge responsibility in making that experience enjoyable, fruitful and fulfilling. If successful in fulfilling, we ourselves may derive a great deal from that experience. We may finding greater joy, success and fulfillment in our jobs. More on the manager’s responsibility at Where to Begin the Journey.
3. The Spin-Up Buddy / Mentor
The first three months can be the most influential in whether new hires find joy, success and fulfillment at work. Yes, they themselves and their manager bear a huge responsibility in this endeavor. However, success is greatly increased for a new hire when assigned a buddy/mentor. Ideally this is someone that works closely with them in a similar role. They show them the ropes, they introduce them to people they should know to succeed. They help ensure they find their feet in doing their job.
Often the person honored to be a new hire’s spin-up buddy becomes that new hire’s most trusted confident at work. Often that relationship continues on well after either or both of those individuals have moved on.
The opportunity of consciously choosing and assigning someone into this third role is often over looked. Sometimes we refer to these buddies as mentors; however, that implies it must be someone more senior that the new hire. It can also be a peer or someone at a lower level.
I’ve been asked how, at a fast-growing startup, one can afford to take time from the best engineers to spin up new engineers. First of all, it’s a great investment, but perhaps more importantly, a well spun-up new hire, even if fresh out of college, makes for a great mentor for the next hire. The simply repeat what they went through with their own improvements.
The New Hire’s Team
In addition, the team plays the fourth most influential role. It takes a village. Enabling an employee to find fulfillment the team finds itself in a symbiotic relationship – one that is truly mutually beneficial. Each employee themselves should not overlook their own responsibility here.
Spinning Up New Hires at IMVU
On joining IMVU, the expectation was to make a change and push it to production on my first day. There are a few objectives with doing that:
The new hire push ensures everything is right in terms of system, accounts etc.
It ensures your mentor has a change ready for you.
It allows you to see that it’s possible to make a change, add testing for it, and run a complete set of tests.
New hire change emails go to all employees, and responses are a lot of “Welcome to IMVU!” emails from Execs and people across all functions. You become an employee not when you show up at the office, but when you’ve made your first impact. New hires are given a frame of mind of having impact (not to do paperwork).
I uncovered a few glitches in the spin-up process, and I decided to improve the documentation and process. I then made the improvement thwe first thing in the spin-up document. It’s new hire’s and mentor’s responsibility to leave the spin-up process in a better state. I’ve carried the practice of new hires improving the new hire process to Twitch, Pure Storage and Prosper.
At Twitch, I set the target for a new hire make their first production change on Day 1. There was concern that this would end up as a disappointment for the new hire and the mentor. However, folks didn’t realize that I’d been having new hires fine tune the process for some time. It proved to be a success. And so, my notion of framing this as Leave a Trace began.
Have New Hires Leave a Trace
As new hires, please view it as your responsibility as a new hire to make improvements to this process. Add missing steps, make corrections, or clarifying things so as to improve the spin up for the next person. To this affect, please feel free to enlist your mentor.
This also sets expectation that encountering anything that could use improvement, it’s your responsibility to im prove it.
At IMVU, a mentor’s primary task during spin-up to make the new hire completely self-sufficient and fully-functional as an engineer. That supersedes the priority of any other work. There is good, long-term ROI to sooner have two fully functioning engineers instead of one. We have even had success with a mentor spinning up three engineers at the same time.
Spin-up work Buddies for New Hires in Munich
When I started my job at Softlab at Arabellastraße in Munich in 1983, I realized how influential the colleague I shred an office with was in determining how much joy, success and fulfillment I found in my job. When I learned that the next engineer we hired was to sit alone in a two person office until bought on another new hire, I decided to take it upon myself to move into that office with them to help get them started.
Higher Productivity Work Environments
When Softlab achieved enough success that we could hire an architect to design a new building for us at Zamodorferstraße, we had several discussions around the configuration of that office space. One of the considerations was whether we should have one, two or three person offices. Despite initially most people feeling inclined toward having individual offices, We ultimately decided the best experience for all would be had by having pairs of mentors and new hires working together.
Note, there we also other factors that went into designing that building to aid in creating the most productive work space possible – such as the width of the hallways, the location of the restrooms, the location of the raised floor computer room (we worked very close to the hardware of the the systems we were designing), …Softlab became the second most successful independent software company at its time (behind SAP) to then get acquired by BMW.My uncle, Carl Martin Dolezalek, made quite a nice living up until the 1970s by advising businesses and factories how to lay out work space so as to gain efficiency as he described in his book “Planung von Fabrikanlagen” first published in 1973. His income was derived from a minor percentage of any increases in output due to higher productivity that resulted from changes he suggested.
Talent Code is a book where Daniel Coyle describes deep learning through short repetitions and feedback loops. I have applied this approach in coaching sports and in business.
Talent Code’s REPS approach (Reaching/Repeating, Engagement, Purposefulness, Strong, direct feedback) can be applied in software development, and it can also grow the talent in your business / engineering organization This is referred to in The Lean Startup as the Build/Measure/Learn feedback cycle, and though the focus there is on learning, innovating and improving on customer needs, the same applies to the teams iterating through the process of finding the best way on executing delivery to that end.
I applied this approach on a ski trip with my friend Joe for whom it was his second time on skis. Instead a few runs on the bunny slope, we went to the top of the mountain is did very many, very short traverses going down the hill. That approach resulted in well over 100 falls on that day, but after each traverse that initially ended in a fall, there was opportunity for very immediate and relevant feedback.
Talent Code on the slopes
Not everyone learning to ski would have followed me to the top of the mountain in near gale force winds for their second time skiing ever. Most who have heard this story tell me they don’t want to learn to ski with me. However, Joe trusted me and followed me up there, was willing to fall, get up, listen to what I had to say, and he would go again knowing full well the most likely outcome would be another fall.
Joe got up from each fall, and he didn’t think about the last or next fall even – he was thinking about getting feedback on what went wrong so he could do it better on the next stretch. Not everyone has the perseverance and courage to do that, and I give Joe a lot of credit for that. It does also help to have established a relationship of trust that I was solving for his learning and growth. That foundation of trust is vital if you hope to guide individuals into trying new things they may not be comfortable with.
“Josh, what do you think are the three most important turns of a ski run?”
Billy points out: “if your last three turns are precise, then what you’re internalizing on the lift ride up is precision.” We did many short traverses instead of a couple of long runs, and we reviewed each one. He was able to internalize what he did right and what he needed to improve after each fall.
Range – David Epstein’s Perspective
In his book Range – Why Generalists Triumph in a Specialized World, David Epstein sites a longs list of examples across multiple fields that demonstrate the value of not focusing on becoming an expert in one field and that leads us to see things from a narrow perspectives. He writes of musicians and athletes that benefits from having learned multiple instruments or sports before settling on one to perfect. The notion is that we learn to learn even better when the patterns we are discovering vary greatly.
In Joe’s runs down the expert slope, each traverse was different in what skiers and snow-boarders crossed his path when, how steep it was, how many moguls lay in the path, what lay at the end of the traverse, etc. Next time we may try snow boards, then wake-boarding and surfing, etc. Combining multiple, short iterations of learning along with variation reinforces our ability to recognize and master patterns in a world of ever changing paradigms.
Daniel Coyle describes four qualities of a master coach when coaching within a specific sport or field.
The Matrix: Coaches with deep, task-specific knowledge utilize innovative responses to a student’s efforts to evoke deeper learning. These coaches had typically spent many years mastering their craft and myelinating their own circuits.
Perceptiveness: Master coaches are curious about individuals and leverage insights about their students to tailor their coaching.
GPS Reflex: Coaches reflexively give immediate feedback to help students navigate challenges as they practice.
Theatrical Honesty: Coaches with theatrical flair leverage drama and character to give honest feedback to their students while being morally honest when pointing out errors.
Talent Code’s REPS
Daniel Coyle also describes four aspects of coaching/learning: REPS: R – Reaching/Repeating, E – Engagement, P -Purposefulness, and S – S – Strong, Direct, Immediate Feedback. These REPS also lend themselves well in the filed of software development.
R – Reaching/Repeating
MVPs Developing Minimal Viable Products that you deliver to customers gets fast feedback, and you can learn and improve in small increments and the heightened importance of delivering quality to a customer can also serve as a primal cue.
Agile Sprints Iterating in short development sprints further shortens the cycle.
Discrete Tasks Breaking sprint objectives into discrete tasks that are followed by tests runs can further tighten the feedback loop.
Microservices Deploying new functionality incrementally in the form of independent micro-services also increases the ability for tighter, more focused loops, and this speeds up learning and establishing processes that are continuously being improved and optimized. Uber employs their Micro Deploy cycles to leverage microservices for Continuous Delivery in their application of the Talent Code.
E – Engagement
Autonomy Don’t provide your engineers with the technical solution they implement, but rather with a clear statement of the problem. Allow them to arrive at the best solution, and this will empower them through the Multiplier approach. Providing the solution is a dis-empowering Diminisher approach.
Challenge and Mastery Engineers love to improve their craft, and if you focus first on time to delivery, you’re sending a message that time trumps quality. Instead lead them with the objective of finding the most efficient, elegant and sound solution, and you’ll feed their drive. Dan Pink underscores that Autonomy, Challenge and Mastery motivates people much more that monetary gain.
P – Purposefulness
Clear Problem Statements Provide a clear understanding the value to the business, and the customer will empower and motivate engineers to come up with the best solutions in striving to solve for an understood purpose. Dan Pink refers this as the “Purpose Motive”
S – Strong, Direct, Immediate Feedback
Feedback from MVPs to Customer Deliver MVPs and incremental improvements to your customers, and you get the fastest real feedback on how well your solutions are received by your customers. Sometimes, this can result is very strong, clear feedback that allows us to learn and course correct before we invest further down an errant path and we learn more quickly.
Sprint Retrospectives One of the most valuable aspects of doing Agile Sprints is what a team can learn from a retrospective. Here the team decides what worked well – to keep, what – didn’t – to stop, and what could be improved – to change. When I ran Yahoo!Games, I brought the release cycle down from months to releasing at changes at the end of every sprint. The learning of the loop came through adding customer feedback to the retrospective at the end of a sprint, and we then continued to tighten that loop to daily releases to production.
Running Tests After Each Completed Task A fast way to get strong, clear and immediate feedback is to break work down into discrete tasks that include tests written to stress and break the code that was just written. This can enable a feedback, learning cycle that can occur on a daily basis and it is another reason to break down work and not leaving the testing and validation to the end of a lengthy product development cycle.
Code Reviews on Each Submit Another very fast turn-around can come in the form of code reviews any time an engineer submits a change.
Applying The Talent Code at IMVU: Methods of Rapid and Continuous Feedback
Continuous Deployments at IMVU When I joined IMVU, we were not only doing MVPs, but we were deploying code to production in incremental changes every 40 minutes. I helped bring that down toe 9 minute cycles, and those pushes were typically in the form of A/B experiments where we could quickly learn which were more effective at improving customer experience. We also had an Immune System which would automatically rollback changes that went out of bounds in terms of memory or disc usage, customer sessions times, etc.
5-Why’s in Blameless Post Mortems are another key aspect of a Lean Startup. Learning is also greatly enhanced when things go wrong and we as quickly as possible do a Post Mortem where we get to the root cause of what went wrong with the objective of learning (not blaming). This too facilitates learning through a feedback cycle, and it serves to make individuals and the team stronger. The energy right after a major issue can also serve as a primal cue to help ignite deep learning.
Kaizen as it Relates to Talent Code
The notion of many small, incremental improvements is known as Kaizen from lean manufacturing, and it also works well with the approach of many small reps with lots of opportunities for small incremental improvement also aligns well with the REPS described in The Talent Code.
John Boyd’s OODA Loop
Boyd’s “Observe, Orient, Decide, Act” also underscores the benefits of repetitive learning cycles/loops similar to those in The Talent Code …
Talent Code, OKRs and the Superbowl
If you start a season with winning the Superbowl as your big Objective. You can break that objective into Key Results of winning games against competitors each with unique strengths and weaknesses.
With each game win as an Objective, each possession becomes a contributing Key Result. The Objective of scoring on each possession is broken down into Key Results of gaining yards on every play. Each player contributes in their own way to the effectiveness of the play.
Now, you’re down to the level of quick iterations with learning potential – the huddle can serve as a quick retrospective or post mortem on what worked and didn’t in that play as a means of Strong Feedback. Likewise, each player can apply their learnings on the last play to be more effective on the next.
Now, your team is applying Talent Code’s REPS approach (Reaching/Repeating, Engagement, Purposefulness, Strong, direct feedback)
New managers face a paradigm shift from one set of responsibilities to an entirely different set of challenges. Naturally, we want our employees to develop and grow and explore unknowns in their careers. We want them to set them up for success in whatever new endeavors they explore. If it turns out not to be for them, there are valuable lessons they’ll walk away with.
The transition from engineering into management should not be the only way to level up. New managers should also not feel this is a less challenging job. They should be inspired by the complexities and uncertainties of helping diverse groups of humans navigate and conquer challenges.
Is Becoming a New Manager Right for You?
A great way to help engineers appreciate how different being a manager is from being an engineer can be challenging. Hopefully, you’ll help them appreciate it’s best to ease into a new thing before discovering if it’s the right move. I like to start by telling them they should try before they buy. That starts with choosing management tasks they can take on to see if they like it and could succeed. To succeed, they need time for the chosen task and hence let go of some of their engineering work.
They should consider things they do and which ones they’d like to let go to take on a management task. More importantly, they should be clear what they absolutely want to hold on to. Monday, ask them what they decided they absolutely didn’t want to let go. Now, tell them, that is what you’re asking them to let go. Yeah, that’s their first disappointment as a manager.
It’s critical they appreciate why this is a good choice. To succeed as a manager, you need to think more about making others successful than making yourself successful. How excited and engaged will someone be to work on your least favorite task? Conversely, the thing you didn’t want to let go, is likely something pretty cool. It’s likely something your passionate about. Something you’d hate to see fail, is something you’ll be motivated to help someone else succeed with. Additionally, it’ll be something they’ll be excited to take on.
This is an opportunity to discover if you can find a passion for making someone else successful. It will be good to know if that exceeds your passion for doing it yourself. Here is one point where you might discover management is not as appealing to yours you first thought.
The Trial Period
Trial tasks are much less painful than making someone “acting manager” and then having it not work out. Also, a try-before-you-buy allows them to learn in gradual transition. There is value in making the first trial task/project an exciting and enticing one. So, you might want to model giving up something you enjoy.
OK, so let’s say you succeed at a few tasks and tests thrown your way and you’re ready to try people management. It’s not ideal to use existing employees as guinea pigs for your fantasies of becoming a people manager – that may not be a nice thing to do to them. It’s less impactful to learn people management with interns. You need to commit to sticking with it through the internship. The interns gain the experience with a single manager for their internship. A good internship is also something that encompasses a project from concept to completion. This too is another good experience opportunity for a fledgling manager.
The Intern Trial
As a new manager managing interns, there are two primary objectives. The intern should love the experience, and the new manager must decide whether they should return.
At the end of the internship, interns should be very excited to come back. You should leave them with this desire regardless of how they fare. A good experience will help sway them to return. Furthermore, a good experience for less stellar interns allows them to return to school saying good things about your company.
At the end of the internship, you’ll decide if we should make an offer to return full-time. Also,if they do come back and don’t succeed, it won’t reflect so well on your ability to assess their abilities. Much more importantly though, I will make it clear to you what burden of responsibility this places on you. Imagine a college grad all excited about their first job (if you did your job well in 1. above). You may have to disappoint them and let them know you won’t be extending an offer.
Conversely, if you do extend an offer, they may have to move a great distance to start. It may be a job that they excitedly tell all their friends and family about. It is their first real job in the real world. Now imagine they don’t succeed and you have to let them go. What did you just do to that human? What impact did you just have on them in their very first real job and start in life? How they will be viewed by friends and family? Imagine now that they end up in a strange city with few, if any, friends outside of work. Yeah, not such a great thing to feel you’ve just done to another human.
Being a manager comes with tremendous responsibility that can feel like a real burden. Keeping them despite challenges after returning is also not a great experience for them or their colleagues or the business. Bearing the burden of such responsibilities for others is part of being a new manager. If, however, such decisions don’t phase you then I’d also argue, management is also not a good choice for you.
Starting with Trust
Many factors influence whether you’d make a good or great manager and whether you discover a passion for it. Some of us discover a passion for helping others grow and go through Human Transformation. Similarly, helping someone else discover if being a Transformer is the path for them can require some maneuvering. It’s not the ideal path for everyone.
Help them appreciate that you have their best interest at heart in becoming a manager. This can also serve as good modeling for them. For them to have great relationships and success with their employees, they too should Start with Trust. It is such a powerful starting place for any new manager
As leaders, much of the magic happens in the one-on-one conversations either in the privacy of a physical of virtual room (think Skype or Zoom) or on a walk-about as a more neutral setting and where you also benefit from the energy of being in Motion. These conversations should sometimes be as non-threatening as a walk in the park and other times be as invigorating as a race up the stadium stairs.
We should consciously and actively have a genuine interest in helping your team members develop and find what motivates them. It is vital that you establish the trust such that the person you’re working with has no doubt you have their best interest at heart (rather than having them wonder if you might be solving towards getting more work out of them). This sets the context for together solving challenges and finding opportunities. If you don’t establish the trust in that intent, you’ll be starting at a place where they will be defensive about your calling out challenges they have.
The room where it happens is perhaps not quite the same as the free-association couch, but still a good place to connect.
One thing to keep in mind is what not to talk about – things typically discussed in other meetings.
Google suggests What do you want? as an opener. I tend to prefer starting with understanding what they do and don’t enjoy at work to help them consider what it is they want. I like, especially in skip-levels, to start with Start with: Are you happy? I have found the most passionate and productive engineers are the ones that really enjoy what they’re doing. If there’s hesitation, then it’s a great thread to pull to unravel a good insightful story.
In Google’s Project Oxygen, the top three items on their list of an effective manager come out to be:
Be a good coach.
Empower; don’t micromanage.
Be interested in direct reports, success and well-being.
Underlying causes of unhappiness can be that be beneficial to explore; areas where I’ve often uncovered some frustration that benefited from some attention include:
Purpose: why am I doing what I’m doing? Often an engineer may not appreciate the value of what they’re are working on by itself or relative to other things. This is a great conversation to have because either you haven’t explained it well enough in the past, or they’re right, there are more important things they could be working on. Either outcome adds value.
Motivation: people can lose their drive or hunger for something they’ve been doing for a long time. It;’s great to explore what may interest them as soon as possible so that you can together look for opportunities.
Craft: Employees take pride in their craft. If they feel rushed into doing a quick and dirty job or not challenged to enhance their craft, the engagement may fade.
Efficiency: No employee likes external influences getting in the way of them doing their job. It’s good to know if/when they feel systems are too slow, resources too constrained, processes too cumbersome, test and/or build runs too long, … These are all great opportunities for a manager to improve an employees effectiveness and engagement.
Autonomy: Another thing that can drain an employee’s motivation and make them less effective is if they feel to dependent on others for collaboration, support, approval, unblocking, etc. Here too a manager can offer value by reducing or eliminating obstacle to autonomy.
Conflict: There can be conflict within the team or with other teams. This too is a great opportunity for the manager to coach the employee through conflict resolution.
In her book Radical Candor – Be a Kick-Ass Boss Without Losing Your Humanity Kim Scott dives into the notion of how be the nice manager who empathizes may not be the most helpful to our employees that also could benefit from the true compassion of being willing to have more candid conversations. See also my post on Meaningful Feedback Conversations.
Note, there is also benefit in making it a two way street by building a trust relationship where you also encourage getting some radical candor coming back on things you could do better.
Take an Ask vs. Tell approach (or as Intuit calls it Sell vs Tell).
Focus on the employee vs. the task
It’s not about “fixing” anyone.
Set up a clear accountability structure for action & outcomes.
Coaching can/should happen as needed and in-the-moment (but not in public
Which is also reminiscent of what I learned at Intuit about Sell vs Tell – it’s more effective to see someone on the merits of doing something than to simply tell them to do it – you get more buy-in, engagement and often a better outcome as they appreciate what you’re trying to solve for and find the best solution rather just implementing the solution you had in mind…
I have also found it useful to sometimes do a five whys analysis of understanding the root causes of why someone may be frustrated, unhappy or demotivated.
Autonomy (Don’t micromanage – it’s a sure-fire way to take the wind out of their sails.)
Mastery (Help find ways to master their craft; show genuine appreciation for it.)
Purpose (Why do you come to work, why do you work for this company and not another, what, in your eyes, is our business’ purpose, how does that align with what you see as your prupose, and what do you hope to impact by working at here?)
Levels in the Room
Another level of thinking about the Room Where it Happens comes in the context of framing styles of leadership in the fish story:
Level 1 leading – The Micromanager – tells them what to do – gives them a fish. There are some leaders that can be surprisingly effective in this mode if they happen to be experts at what they do, fast on their feet and full of energy. I’ve seen successful VPs operate at this level.
Level 2 leading – The Instructor – shows them how to do it – teaches them to fish. Now they can repeat the task themselves.
Level 3 guiding – The Eye-Opener – bestows the grit, confidence and experiences, insight and tools allowing them to solve whatever may come – teaches them to learn so they might obtain various forms of food.
Level 4 guiding – The Leader of Leaders – enables/teaches others to become level 2. 3 and 4 leaders.
Level 5 guiding – The Master Whisperer – operates at levels 3 and 4 with such subtly that the recipient often doesn’t notice they are being guided. A level 1 or 2 leader may also not recognize when there’s a level 5 leader on their team.
Level 1 and 2 leadership often leads to underutilized or diminish the potential of members of their team.
Level 3 and above leadership empowers, inspires, grows and scales teams and organizations.
One way to test if you’ve have a level 5 connection, is to start a conversation by saying: “Close your eyes, recognize that you know me, know yourself, know what’s transpired, you what you intend to ask me or talk about and recognize what I’d say and where we’d end up. Try that for 10 minutes.” Surprisingly often, people you’ve spent enough time with will be able to do that. This means they can carry you with them as a subconscious guide. For people who miss the guidance of a parent or partner that has passed, this exercise usually helps them realize that person is still there to be called upon for guidance.
Perspectives are helpful when facing a big, life decision with multiple aspects at play. Often we find ourselves stuck with lists of pros and cons and still can’t arrive at a decision. There’s a Co-active coaching exercise where you divide the floor into 8 sections with tape. You view the choice or topic at being in the center. Then, each section is a metaphor for a perspective that you put yourself into. Now, ask your self how would xxx see this/do about this…?
Goldilocks and the Six Chairs Perspectives
I have altered the Co-Active model a bit to ask clients if they have a conference or dining table with 6-8 chairs.
Then I have them take stickies and put the topic in the center and a perspective at each chair. Often, they like some suggestions for perspectives; so, I offer a few and them them choose some others.
Write the names of 6-8 such metaphors for perspectives on each sticky in front of each chair. Sit in each chair and consider the topic, the perspective is more relevant or resonates better for this topic. You can also switch back and forth between chairs to consider the different angles. Once you’ve found the most meaningful seat/perspective, stay with that for a while. This may help you get unstuck.
Perspectives that have Resonated
In doing this exercise, I have discovered a few perspectives that seem to resonate well with different people.
OJ: Old Joe – you at 95 sitting happily at a bungalow looking at the waves, chuckling as you look back. What would the 95-year-old you say to you right now?
You @ 21: the young college student/adult – full of optimism and ambition (or cynicism and doubt?). What would that perhaps naive or not-yet-jaded youngster suggest to you now?
A Passed Confidant: a particularly close parent or grandparent perhaps no longer with us. When we ask ourselves, we’ll usually discover we know exactly what they’d say.
A Former Teacher, Mentor or Coach: a past , mentor or coach that may have previously helped you see things you overlooked or didn’t give due consideration.
The Critical 13-Year-Old: If you’ve ever one, you know this hyper-critical perspective…
Favorite Pet: what would a long-time companion pet say if they could speak?
Spirit Guide: a spirit guide or animal or shaman.
Hero(ine): Wonder Woman. Spider Man, RBG, MLK …
Your Car: our car represents certain meaning to us and there are reasons we own it.
Identical Twin: it’s easier to give a sibling or close friend advice than to make a decision. What would you say to them?
Eagle: a bird’s eye where you lift off to heights above the walls, trees, mountains or seas that surround you. You distance yourself from the immediate obstacles you’re confronting to gain perspective and a bigger picture.
Your Table and Chairs as a Wheel of Life
Another tool leveraged in Co-Active Coaching is the Wheel of Life. It helps assess where you are regarding various aspects of your life. You can then choose which aspects you are potentially feeling a need to change. However, you can leverage each aspect when confronted with a life impacting decision. Instead of using such a wheel to assess your dilemma, imagine each of these perspectives as names tags of guests. Then, sit in each seat. Now, consider how each aspect of your life would be impacted by each option you have to choose from.
Imagine a choice between staying in your current job A, or jobs offers B and C. How would you image each of these aspects of your life to be impacted by each possibility?
Below are different representations of this aspects/perspectives on your life that might be affected as a result of a choice you’re feeling yourself confronted with:
Discover Wellness Within of Ontario leverages a wellness wheel to help you assess your current “health” level in each area, but it could also help you consider how each of these aspects may be impacted with each of your choices:
Other Characters to Seat Around Your Table ..
In Michael Ventura’s Applied Empathy he introduces seven “Archetypes of Empathy” (hey’re embellished with some characters here that you might imagine seating around a table to help embody that perspective). Ventura suggests you try out each perspective to see which perspective/questions resonates the strongest with you for self reflection …
written by CD | June 28, 2020
For any team that is responsible for existing systems that are already in use while also iterating on those systems to enhance and/or improve them there is also typically the burden of interrupts from the existing system. Forward progress is best made with concentrated effort that is focused and uninterrupted. How does one balance these two conflicting jobs of a team?
The first step is to consider an interrupt rotation where only one person at a time on a team fields the interrupts leaving the others to focus. That person may also work on improvements, but is then the only one that should be getting interrupted. A downside to this approach is that if the interrupt falls outside the area of expertise of the interrupt person, they may spend too much time trying to solve the issue whereas the “expert” may have quickly found the root cause and solution. While there is value in digging and learning, there is also a big cost of time and frustration of fruitlessly going down the rat hole.
How does one balance between the two conflicting objectives of efficiently addressing issues that crop up in existing systems while making focused forward process on iterating on improvements?
Consider the following and tweak as appropriate for your team as your mileage may vary:
Establish an interrupt rotation where one person fields and addresses all interrupts. If this isn’t a full time job, devote the first x hours of each day to interrupts office hours.
Have the interrupt person handle each new interrupt as follows:
Is the “house on fire”?
If yes: This interrupt must be addressed as quickly as possible, go distract the person or people best suited to address the issue, and follow the normal communication and escalations processes.
Do your best to dig into the top priority interrupt on your plate and learn as you go about areas previously unfamiliar to you.
At the next day’s stand-up, give your update on which issue(s) your working on (if the expert is now on another team, go attend their standup as a guest).
As a follow-up to stand-up, if an expert on the team could help guide you to the root-cause/solution, they should speak up.
The manager having heard everyone’s update can make a priority call if the expert should leave it at a few words of advice or invest time in helping with the issue that day rather than continue with their previously scheduled program.
Once the issue is understood along either path do either a formal or mental 5-why’s post-morten to get to the core of the right measured and proportional response of…
Understanding the root cause(s)
Fixing the immediate problem and
addressing the areas that would make the existing system more resilient..,
Adding/improving monitoring to catch things like this (not just specifically this issue) when they start to go wrong
Adding/improving test coverage to prevent (re)introducing issues like this (not just specifically this issue) by any other engineer modifying the code or by changes in underlying systems or environmental factors.
Consider adding self-healing logic such as retries.
This approach has several advantages:
Issues with existing systems do get triaged and get some measured and proportional attention with guidance from the manager.
The majority of the team can work focused/uninterrupted on making improvements to the system.
The interrupt person spends some amount of time each day broadening their knowledge to learn new areas and reducing the dependency on a single “expert.”
There is a mechanism to prevent the interrupt person rat-holing into an unknown area for more than a day without other knowledgeable people learning about it and course correcting them.
The interrupts of the focused members comes as a follow-up to stand-up at which point they are already interrupted.
The manager is involved in the priority decision of deciding whether the ROI of investing more resources resolving the interrupt outweigh the investments in focused forward improvements of the system as a whole.
Lastly, note that the principles here could/should also be applied for team-internal interrupts – if one team member is seeking help from another, doing an assessment of whether the house is on fire or if it can wait until tomorrow’s stand-up is healthy in either case as is doing some archeology first to learn a bit, see how far you can get on your own, and offer up good context when you do bring it up…
Interrupts for existing systems not under active development
Sometimes interrupts show up for systems that are no longer under active development. This can lead to interrupts for people that worked on that system in the past but have now moved onto other projects. At IMVU, we introduced the notion of “Domain Experts” for various areas of the product. There were also backups designated that either also had knowledge of the area or were tasked at helping field issues to be able to help off-load any single point of failure Domain Expert. For interrupts of this kind coming in, the process is not all that different.
Triage the issue to decide if it’s a “house is on fire” / drop everything issue, then essentially proceed as above together jump on the fire or wait until the next day’s stand-up to communicate that you need to decide whether to pause whatever your current work is to a ddress this issue…
I later introduced similar notions of dealing with interrupts to Twitch and then Pure.
Hand-offs between interrupt cycles
One thing to be aware of is that some interrupts require more depth and context than others. For simple interrupts or ones where the in-depth effort hasn’t begun, the hand-off from one person on interrupt to the next makes sense. For more in-depth ones, on the last day on interrupt, the interrupt engineer should mention such issues on their plate and then have a follow-up to stand-up with the manager and next person on interrupt to decide whether they should
Continue with that issue or
Hand it off to the next interrupt person
Pause it and put it on the backlog for the team to revisit down the road.
Motivation for resolving interrupts
Often, people will sigh, moan, whine … when their turn for interrupt duty shows up. This can greatly impact they effectiveness. They often feel they are rooting around in code someone else wrote to uncover what they failed to account for.
There is a certain joy that be gained from solving a mystery. What greater mystery than rooting around in someone else’s code? There are rewards in being the Sherlock Holmes that solves the mystery. As a manager, it’s important to show recognition and appreciation for this and not just progress on the feature currently under development.
One source is start-up early code. It helps to explain that a successful company may not be where it is today had not the early engineers whipped something together to get the company where it is today and pay your paychecks. This train of thought should be less about guilt and more about appreciation.
Interrupts always ending up with most senior person
As startups grow into larger and larger companies, it’s not uncommon to see the more experienced engineers get buried in interrupts from people coming to them to do this or that or help debug something.
Part of this can be addressed by ensuring engineers appreciate well written code with good test coverage greatly reduces how often other will come and ask them about it and hence creates freedom for them to grow to learn new things and/or experience upward mobility.
However, there are also time where you’ll hear “Why should I give it to someone else to do? I can do it in an hour and it’ll take them two days, and since I know the system, I’ll do it better. Besides, it seems selfish to ask someone else to burn two days of their time for what would take me 30-60 minutes. Right?” At first blush, that might seem right, but it’s actually the wrong approach. By doing it yourself, you’re depriving the other engineer(s) from learning and getting better at it. The organization won’t scale and neither will you if you take that approach, and the new engineers will soon get demotivated if they are never trusted to do anything. Having help experienced engineers see things from this angle has repeatedly resulted seen their ability to work on new things increase and with it their motivation and engagement.
Every now and then, you’ll get a wise old engineer counter: :”Well, what if it’s a hot customer issue, what if the ‘house is on fire’?” They kind of have a point here given the above; however, even here, things can improve. Grabbing that new engineer to observe while they fight the fire (while also verbalizing what they do and why) can also help to bring up new folks to fire fighting. The next step is to have the new engineer be the one with the hands on the keyboard while the senior engineer instructs and potentially dictates. Hands-on-keyboard will still help with learning more than simply observing. The next progression is to stop dictating and start asking, “ok, what’s your next step?” and only helping out when they don’t right away know the answer. This process helps bring up to speed new engineers and helps existing engineers not get bogged down and demotivated…
Another thing that has proven helpful is to create a routine for the person on interrupt duty to check through various sources of interrupts at the start of each day with some sense of priority to plan their day and the sequence of attack.
The Dark Side of Agile
written by CD | June 28, 2020
Along with the virtues of Agile Software Development also can come some destructive downsides that can erode trust and effectiveness within your company culture.
I recently attended a 3-day Scrum certification class where the founder of the particular methodology was the instructor. He insisted that managers not participate in standup meetings, planning meetings, grooming sessions, retrospectives, or any other meetings where an agile team might discuss their work. When asked why, he said, managers micromanage and lead through fear and intimidation because they control employee salaries, career progression, time-off requests and the decision whether to fire them. I have heard this perspective before, but decided to challenge him nonetheless. I suggested that if any of my managers lead in that manner, they would either need to change, no longer be managers or seek employment elsewhere – I guess you could call that managing through intimidation. When I suggested that managers can and should be supportive of their employees, his partner chimed in and suggested I was describing “Servant Leadership.” The instructor owned up that he had never seen such a leadership style in action and that his entire career had been in a very hierarchical, command and control organization within a culture that was very hierarchical.
I later realized that when Agile Coaches he had trained would come into organizations and spread this philosophy of distrust in leadership and insist managers be removed from team meetings and suggest managers be removed altogether from the organization. Team members can buy into this perspective and it can create a distrust in leaders that can taint every interaction potentially throughout their career. As they say, Trust is hard to gain, easy to lose and even harder to regain.
Certainly, there have been managers that manage through fear, intimidation and micromanagement, but people that buy into the notion that all managers/leader think along these lines must not be familiar with…
According to Laszlo Bock’s “Work Rules!” Google, instead of removing managers from all the significant day-to-day meetings where they can see their employees in action, ask open-ended questions, listen and learn, … decided instead to “cleave the knot by deliberately taking power and authority over employees away from managers.
Here is a sample of the decisions managers at Google cannot make unilaterally:
Whom to hire
Whom to fire
How someone’s performance is rated
How much of a salary increase, bonus, or stock grant to give someone
Who is selected to win an award for great management
Whom to promote
When code is of sufficient quality to be incorporated into our software code base
The final design of a product and when to launch it
Each of these decisions is instead made either by a group of peers, a committee, or a dedicated, independent team. Many newly hired managers hate this! Even once they get their heads around the way hiring works, promotion time comes around and they are dumbfounded that they can’t unilaterally promote those whom they believe to be their best people. The problem is that you and I might define our “best people” differently. Or it might be possible that your worst person is better than my best person, in which case you should promote everyone and I should promote no one. If you’re solving for what is most fair across the entire organization, which in turn helps employees have greater trust in the company and makes rewards more meaningful, managers must give up this power and allow outcomes to be calibrated across groups.“
The concern I have with Google’s approach as described above is that it feels like it’s trying to legislate fairness and good leadership behavior. The notion of calibrating across teams and making hiring, firing, promotion decisions with cross-organizational support and buy-in are things that are in service of servant leaders. Legislating it, as this feels, seems more like a tell than a sell, and in my experience, tells tend to get less genuine buy-in and appreciation than sells. Managers often have the best perspective to advocate and make a case for the members of their team. The modern manager/leader, imho, should want to solve for fair practices across all employees. If Google discovers that “Many newly hired managers hate this!” I would worry about an approach where the new managers weren’t sold on the notion of such practices being in service of enabling them to be more effective leaders. Otherwise, I do feel it’s a much better approach than simply removing managers from the majority of team meetings. Google being a place that believes in continuous improvement and the book being from 2015, I suspect Google has since figured it out. The concern is people are still reading the book and looking for a quick and simple answer may take it too literally.
Along with many other modern approaches to leadership that have long put the notion of leading through fear behind them. An effective, trusted leader is better able to provide guidance and coaching to her/his team if they can observe them in action. I’ve sadly heard of interactions that include bullying, demeaning and disrespecting fellow team members in meetings where no leader is present. Certainly, one objective of a leader should be to make themselves redundant and create atmospheres where “supervision” isn’t necessary, but without any guidance or coaching, and a good dose of distrust, good cultures can erode…
Going back to the original Agile Manifesto, we are reminded that Agile was intended to solve for individuals and interactions over process and tools. No where is there mention of having distrust in managers…
The Agile Manifesto
“We are uncovering better ways of developing software by doing it and helping others do it.
Through this work we have come to value:
Individuals and interactions over processes and tools
Working software over comprehensive documentation
P.S. Another point that was raised in the training and by coaches trained in this style of scrum was that individuals should never change teams. I said that I understood frequent changes could disrupt the flow of a team, but why the notion of “never?” The answer was clearly stated that too often upper management sees effective teams and decides to break them up to spread these effective employees around. I asked if his point was that employees shouldn’t be treated like chess pieces. I agreed and asked what if after a year on a team, an employee mentioned she/he would be very motivated to another team… Should we hold them back? His answer was “of course not!” I asked if he realized that his disciples hearing him preach about never moving employees between teams have fervently fought against letting employees change teams in such cases because the edit had been stated in no uncertain terms. He said he didn’t realize things were being taken so literally.
Luckily, so far every place I’ve been that turn to the dark side and took these principles on too literally as dogma and demonizing employees eventually came around and recognized the possibility of managers being contributing leaders.
Hence, I’ve always been an advocate of being clear what you’re ultimately solving for and letting that supersede any strict adherence to dogma or rules. I long ago arrived at the notion that the only thing you should be religious about when it comes to Agile is to not be religious about anything 😉
5 Flavors of Agile at the Lean Startup
At IMVU (aka The Lean Startup) there was a point where I was managing 5 different teams that were each implementing their own tweaked versions of Agile. Each team ended up with a form of agile that didn’t come straight/religiously from a book, paper or blog-post, but rather from what best suited them and their particular situation.
We had a team that was heavily laden with handling interrupts, and they needed to find a way to plan their sprints to incorporate significant unforeseen work and to frame the tasks/stories around interrupts in a user-centric ways with measurable impacts.
We had a mobile team that needed to take into consideration that between release to Apple and actual availability to customers could take three weeks – so, we needed to implement more change-control and triaging of changes and heavier testing at the end (very different fro IMVU’s typical push-often, learn-fast, fail-fast approach to web-based releases).
We had a team that was collaborating with Pivotal Labs doing their flavor of extreme agile with extreme pairing (that exposed some challenges in a team that wasn’t composed of T-shaped engineers).
We had a green-field team working on a new system in a new architecture where story-pointing was very difficult, and they arrived at a form of Kan Ban that worked for them.
We had a team that mostly worked in typical scrum-agile manner with tweaks to account for IMVU’s approach of pushing changes to production every 10 minutes, including multi-variant experiments and matching hypotheses. It did, as I recall, include a remote worker that also led to some adaptations to the more traditional scrum-agile.
Good Agile: The Manager and Scrum In discussing the notion of the manager as scrum master states: “The pre-existing patterns of “order-giver” and “order-follower” are very difficult to break, and what’s likely to happen instead is that command-and-control will be transplanted into the heart of the Scrum practices.” This assumes a starting place of command-and-control and giving and taking orders. It suggests avoiding the issues rather than addressing them because addressing them would be difficult. If the Navy Seals and the US Marine Corps can move from purely command and control to leaders that eat last and discover the result are much more effective teams, then perhaps businesses should consider that approach as well. .
McKinsey: The Agile Manager Suggests the traditional mid-level manager is reallocated to three different roles: the chapter leader, the tribe leader, and the squad leader. .
Atlassian: Development Managers vs. Scrum Masters Describes the development manager still involved in the process and meetings, but suggests things like: “The development manager adds value by asking questions and vetting assumptions made in the estimation exercise.” .
Solutions IQ: What Makes an Effective Agile Manager? Suggests: “Effective Agile managers are critical to successful Agile transformation and thus business agility” and “Today’s Companies Need Leaders, Not Managers.” .
Agile Alliance: Agile Q&A: Is There a Place for Managers in an Agile Organization? Suggests: “If you became a development manager because you are genuinely interested in helping people improve their skills and would rather do that than write code, the move to Agile provides you an excellent opportunity to do exactly what you wanted to do when you became a development manager – develop your team.” .
In The Lean Startup and also his more recent book, The Leader’s Guide, Eric focuses on understanding on how to best find out what would best delights prospects, customers, and the market, how to build to that learning and gain adoption through minimal viable products, experiments and iteration into continuous improvement. If you haven’t read them, I highly recommend Eric’s books and the approaches we used at IMVU.
One concept he speaks of is the 5 whys, an approach developed by Taiichi Ohno, one of the inventors of the Toyota Production System and described in his book Toyota Production System: Beyond Large-Scale Production. Eric points out that typically “what started as a technical problem actually turned out to be a human and process problem.“ He also frames a startup as a human institution navigating uncertainty. While being a strong proponent and having adopted of the Lean Startup principals, this site focuses more on the rest of the story: finding, hiring, developing and retaining the adaptive talent – the innovators and entrepreneurs that thrive on uncertainty to arrive at novel and compelling offerings.
As Paul Harvey used to say “and now, for the rest of the story…”
At IMVU, we also focused on hiring and developing engineers that loved challenges and loved to iterate and move fast. This included an interview process where each question was set up to get harder and harder until we had pushed beyond the candidates comfort zone – we did this because we wanted to find people that loved to think on their feet and collaborate to find solutions to problems they hadn’t solved before. If at the end of several such sessions a candidate was pumped about dealing with new challenges – they were a fit. If that sort of thing drained them, well then, not so much. I still remember one of our architects Chad Austin coming out of an interview and shaking his head. I asked what was wrong. He said that interview was totally useless. Why? Because he had asked her to explain the internet and he kept going further and further to various bizarre edge cases and she always just knew the right answer – she was never outside of her comfort zone. He hoped someone else would find an area she was not so well versed in to see how she would think on her feet and collaborate with the interview to solve problems in unknown territory.
We also had a tradition that every new hire was expected to push a change to production on day 1. This was enabled in part by our driving to reduce the push to live in production time down to 9 minutes. I also underscored that every new hire had a task of making some improvement to the new-hire spin up process to ensure it was always current and improving. I also later did this at Twitch where we needed to scale rapidly. The idea here was to put emphasis on the fact that engineers were hired to make an impact as early as their first day. At the end of their push, they’d send out a company wide email with something along the lines of…
I pushed a change to production that improves the customer experience by xxx
I added testing for my change
I tested it locally and in product
This email was then responded to by everyone from the CEO down saying Welcome to IMVU! The implied message was that you were now part of the team as you had made your first improvement to the product on your first day.
By the time I’d gotten to IMVU, the rapid iteration had slowed down quite a bit due to growing the engineering team and the number of changes and tests that were being added. The build dashboards had become typically more read than green and the fastest turn-around from pushing a change to seeing it in production had crept to over an hour. By putting a concerted effort into improving our tests and rollout systems and load balancing our testing across over 100 servers, we brought that time back down to under 9 minutes.
We also had a notion of an assigned mentor that would have some work in mind before a new hire started. It was their full-time job for a while to bring you up to speed. I describe this further in my post on Spinning Up New Hires. Wherever I go, I introduce the notion of having each new-hire/mentor pair make continuous improvements to the spin-up process.
We also introduced the notion of continuous improvements to our processes. A new change, such as using Story Point Poker would be introduced at the beginning of a sprint in terms of its intent and how it might work. We then discussed at the retrospective if the process change was effective, how we might improve it to try again in the next sprint or just throw it out as it didn’t work for this team. Hence, applying the principles of minimal viable product, experimenting and continuous improvement to our internal processes. At one point, I remember realizing that we were leveraging five very distinct development process within the company – each was arrived at being what was best for that team, the area the were changing and the constraints of the technology and releases (e.g. mobile vs web).
The notion of root cause analysis and 5 whys was not only effective in understanding why something worked different in production than expected. It also helped change the mindset of our engineers to be welcoming of taking risks and actually finding value in things breaking as a mechanism for not only improving the product but also the resiliency of our systems. It fostered a Growth Mindset (something I learned about from a colleague of Carol Dweck while I was getting my K-8 teaching credentials) in our engineers that encouraged them to not only continuously improve the product but everything about the company and themselves.
I have carried many of these principles forward into companies after IMVU while also continuously improving upon them after I left IMVU to triple the size of Twitch’s engineering team as their VP of Engineering and help them get acquired by Amazon for ~$1B. I then brought along many of these principles as I went back into hard-core enterprise software and hardware at Pure Storage where I was asked to come by several former IMVU colleagues – Pure became the fastest growing infrastructure company that went through a unicorn IPO and have since been brought on as VP, Engineering at Prosper largely because of my ability to impact the effectiveness of engineering teams.
As VP, Engineering at BroadVision which during the dot com days was the fastest grwoing company of Nasdaq, I managed multiple teams each supporting a product line (procurement, business-to-consumer e-commerce, business-to-business e-commerce, knowledge management, content management, online banking and billing). Each of these teams was 6-11 engineers and each competed with entire companies solely focused on one of the product spaces – we outperformed them all to a large extent because of the caliber of the people I hired and how we grew and leveraged the skills they had.
The blog posts, links and references found here (at TalentWhisperers.com) focus on understanding how to find, inspire and retain people with growth mindsets that will contribute to your collective success. People that love to innovate, experiment and learn to make up cross functional teams as described in Eric’s books and talks. My insights start with my experience in software development dating back to the 80s and then enhancing what I found at IMVU in 2010 and beyond. Many of the sources referenced throughout this site certainly also continue to contribute to that knowledge.
In 2005, right about the time Eric was growing IMVU, I joined Intuit after a K-8 teaching hiatus. On my first day at Intuit, I was handed the book The Innovator’s Dilemma: The Revolutionary Book That Will Change the Way You Do Business and told to find a way to disrupt the business. Interestingly enough, I was hired into Intuit by the GM of the QuickBooks Payroll business who later became CEO of IMVU and enticed me to follow him there right after Eric left on his adventures as an evangelist of Lean Startup principles.
Also, all the avatars in the image above were ones I created while working at IMVU as part dog-fooding the product and getting to know the product and customers.
written by CD | June 28, 2020
I devised this Orange Observations exercise in my efforts to inspire my students to be observant. It’s a fun exercise for science, art and writing classes. I’d place a box of organic oranges on my desk and ask each student to come and take one. Then I asked them to take out a pencil or pen and two pieces of paper. On one paper, I’d have them write a description of their orange. On the other paper, I’d have them make a sketch of their orange. When done, I’d have them return their orange to the box. Then I’d mix the oranges in the box. Next, I’d asked them to exchange the description with one student and their sketch with another. Then, I’d ask them to come up and select the exact oranges depicted in the two papers they had received. They would typically look at me quite dumbfounded.
I’d then offer “let’s do this again”. Low and behold they were able to see, describe and capture in sketch unique things in their particular orange. They were able to capture details they had overlooked before. It wasn’t hard to do this enough to later be able to distinguish that orange from others. Learning to dig deeper, look closer allows us to capture what is unique. This allows us to more deeply consider and relay our experiences and the impact something or someone has on us.
Orange Observations in an Interview
In an interview, you could ask the candidate to give you the orange when they’re done. You can then mix it up with other oranges; ask them to use their own notes or sketch to find their orange. Or, even more fun can be to interview multiple candidates at once. I’ve had them ask each other interview questions as well. You can learn a lot about a candidate when then end up in an interview situation they weren’t expecting. The amazing candidate can pick out the other’s orange from the bunch without seeing their sketch or notes. It is a rare find to meet someone that can recall distinctive markings in another’s orange in this situation.
As a variant, you could have them choose a fruit from two boxes. One box with tangerines and one with clementines. Have them write a description of what they taste. and then have someone else see if they can determine if that description better fits a fruit from the box of clementines or the box of tangerine. Next, try that with smell instead of taste. With this you could open day one of training sommeliers 😉
Spin-up or Group Intro
This can also be a great way to spin-up a group of new-hires with fun activity. Another one is the Broken Squares Exercise.
Tangerines vs Mandarins vs Clementines: What’s the Difference?
There can many advantages for mind, body and soul to being able to calm oneself to be more present and aware when trying to notice opportunities previously overlooked. Much of the guidance on meditation starts with focusing on the breath. I found it to be more effective to focus on the heart in a way where there is direct feedback. Also, a key to consciously changing your heart rate is to adjust your breathing.
After the Pacific pile drove me into the bottom of the ocean breaking 5 vertebrae, one shoulder, one collar bone and one rib, there was little for me to do other than lie in the hospital bed and try not to move hour upon hour, day after day. On the nightstand I could see the SpO2 monitor which showed me my heart rate and oxygen. I remembered my Tai Chi / Qi Gong Master, Lee Holden, had talked about consciously lowering one’s heart rate. So, for lack of anything else to do, I worked on keeping the oxygen above 90% while lowering my heart rate to 40. This also proved to be a great way for me to remove myself from the pain.
Since then, I have leveraged this ability to settle my breathing and heart-rate by settling my mind because it brings me into a state of tremendous inner peace and tranquility while also seeming to open me to a greater awareness – strange as that may sound. The direct feedback loop of having an SpO2 meter help greatly in trying yourself to influence your heart rate and breathing.
“Psychology’s recognition of the body’s influence on the mind coincides with a recent focus on the role of the heart in our social psychology. It turns out that the heart is not only critical for survival, but also for how people related to one another. In particular, heart rate variability (HRV), variation in the heart’s beat-to-beat interval, plays a key role in social behaviors ranging from decision-making, regulating one’s emotions, coping with stress, and even academic engagement. Decreased HRV appears to be related to depression and autism and may be linked to thinking about information deliberately. Increased HRV, on the other hand, is associated with greater social skills such as recognizing other people’s emotions and helps people cope with socially stressful situations, such as thinking about giving a public speech or being evaluated by someone of another race.”
“Simply put, changes in breathing—for example, breathing at different paces or paying careful attention to the breaths—were shown to engage different parts of the brain… ..The findings provide neural support for advice individuals have been given for millennia: during times of stress, or when heightened concentration is needed, focusing on one’s breathing or doing breathing exercises can indeed change the brain. This has potential application to individuals in a variety of professions that require extreme focus and agility.”
Live and Dare: “There are over 3,000 scientific studies on the benefits of meditation,” what will happen if you start meditating today?
On January 22nd 2006, mindfulness and performance expert George Mumford told Kobe Bryant not to try to score, but just be in the moment and let the game happen. That night he scored 81 points against the Toronto Raptors.
In his book The Culture Code – The Secrets of Highly Successful Groups, Daniel Coyle refers to a competition at Stanford where business students in university squared off against kindergartners. The four-person teams had to beat the clock and build a tower using uncooked spaghetti, tape and string with a marshmallow on top. You would think that obviously, the group of MBA student would easily outperform a group of kindergartners. It turns out it’s good to act like a bunch of 5-year-olds – well, at least when it comes to working in a groups. The kindergartners do better than the business school students.
He further mentions a “sociometer” which can measure the energy level of an interaction, and use it to determine levels of engagement. Most important, it can combine its data with email and social media to form detailed maps that reveal the inner workings of a team, company, or classroom. There are lots of interesting insights he derives from that.
However, you may not wish to invest in a spaghetti tower competition or a sociometer, but you might try an exercise that’s worked for me in putting teams of four to compete against each other. It’s a fun exercise I learned on the path to my teaching credentials was Broken Squares (see various links below). You pit the groups of four against each other where each group, without speaking must complete making four squares from four envelopes of pieces give to each participant. You only win when all four squares are completed. The sets of four envelopes are grouped such that only one holds all the pieces to make a square. The others can’t successfully complete their squares unless they get pieces from the other participants including the one who had a complete set. As you observe the competing teams, you’ll often see someone compete their square and get frustrated that his or her teammates aren’t doing their part. The team that collaborates by giving up pieces (you can give but not take and no talking) of their, possibly already completed square, to allow their teammates to all complete their squares is the one that gets all four squares.
Observing the group dynamics and then talking them through can be quite insightful – you might even choose to make the envelopes with a complete set to the people that tend to be leaders to help them discover how effectively and collaboratively they lead.
My high school history teacher Mr. Hupert always used to say “different strokes fo different folks” in explaining how under different circumstances in different times with different people, different forms of government were effective. So, too, I discovered, it is with effective software development methodologies.
When I joined IMVU, we were continuously deploying to our production websites about every 40 minutes. With some effort, we got down to being able to push fully tested changes to production every 9 minutes.
Though we had frequent incremental deployments we also employed various forms of Agile methodologies within development. At one point I had five different team using five different methodologies. How you best approach software development, even within the company famous of it’s Lean Agile approach, differs from team to team.
For a team that was doing more green field work going into somewhat uncharted territories of new programing languages and/or system architectures, it was trickier to predict what would get accomplished within a two-week sprint. So, we used the Kan Ban approach where the completion of a phase of work is not bounded by time but rather by accomplishing a set of work that we would pull from a backlog of tasks until a set of functionality was completed in the form of a Minimally Viable Product we could unleash on some of our customers to run experiments on how effective it was.
Other teams that were iterating with know technologies in known areas of the product to make tweaks in hopes of improving customer experience were much more able to scope work into two week sprints. Here to there were variants as we learned at the retrospectives what worked and didn’t work well for a particular team. Some teams used story point poker, others didn’t …
Our team that ventured into releasing an iOS version of our product didn’t, unfortunately, have the luxury of continuous deployment as Apple’s review cycles at the time meant it could take two weeks before any customer would see a change. That too meant if we discovered something wasn’t working so well, it would take about two weeks to pull that change out again. Here continuous deployment and rapid experimenting didn’t work as easily. We had to target experiments to come in two week trial phases.
We also had a team that experimented with using Extreme Agile as per our experience in working with Pivotal Labs who also was very strict about their definition of pair programming.
When I went to Twitch and, in addition to web and mobile, we shipped changes that were integrated with the releases of Xbox and PlayStation, our processes had to be more akin to the water-fall days as the next release might be six months away. This required even more rigor in planning and validating what went into each release.
Finding what worked best for each team and set of circustances once again proved it’s best not to assume one size fits all.
Experimenting not only with which product features were best for our customers but also with our processes, to tune them to the people and release vehicles, allowed us to continuously innovate in our approaches to software development as well.