Lean Out “Down” / Lean in “Up”

Lean In Up, Lean Out Down

The WEF estimates that 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.

Collaborative leadership is gaining traction in market where technological changes are accelerating. In areas needing continuing innovation and pivoting, top-down management is a thing of the past, and Meghan Casserly wrote for Forbes that the Majority of Americans Would Rather Fire their Boss Than Get a Raise.

Lean In by Sheryl Sandberg inspired the notion of a need to lean out

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 World Melinda 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.

Girls and women benefit from having self-confidence as Reshma Saujani describes in her Ted talk, and I have experience teaching K-8. She also writes about this in her book Brave not Perfect. VP of Engineering, Rukmini Reddy describes the challenges she faced. She describes them in Becoming a bad-ass engineering leader: 5 tried and true lessons from a woman of color. The #MeToo movement also underscores the need to speak up, and lean in.

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.

Leaning out and in

The Confidence Code The Science and Art of Self-Assurance - Knowing when to Lean in or lean out

On another note regarding leaning in or out, in Katty Kay’s and Claire Shipman’s book The Confidence Code – The Science and Art of Self-Assurance – What Women Should Know they make reference to a Stanford Business School Study that revealed that women who combined the qualities typically found in men (assertion, aggression, confidence) along with qualities more typically found in women (collaboration, process-orientation, persuasion, humility) do better than others. Note, oddly, the study did not reveal this advantage when men adoption both sets of traits – though I still suspect they’re missing something there. Note, as I point out in confidence villains, I think Kay and Shipman miss the power that can be derived from “confidence villains.”

Patty Azzarello provides a great perspective on managing up, down and across in her book Rise – 3 Practical Steps for Advancing Your Career, Standing Out as a Leader, and Liking Your Life. Her views of leveraging the strengths of her team – leaning out, while focusing on the impact you can make as a leader – including influencing across and up akin to leaning in.

Leaning out according to the Athena Doctrine

In The Athena Doctrine – How Women (and the Men Who Think Like Them) Will Rule the Future John Gerzema and Michael D’Antonio present survey results. They spanned age, gender and culture what the found as shared belief in Lean Out Leadership Qualities of the ideal modern leader:

  • 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 Lead Brené Brown references humanness in the Air Force Manual 35-15.  Written in 1948, these words no longer exists in the latest version of 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.

Lean out traits

Google did extensive research together with the Harvard Business Review published in Project Oxygen. As described in Michael Schneider’s Google Spent Years Studying Effective Bosses. Now They Teach New Managers These 6 Things The transition to management requires a transformation of thought, Google has since arrived at the following six things to teach their managers:

  1. Mindset and Values revolving around Carol Dweck’s philosophy around Growth Mindsets that I came across almost 20 years ago as an educator.
  2. Emotional Intelligence as based upon Daniel Goleman’s Emotional Intelligence: What Makes a Leader?
  3. Manager Transition making managers more comfortable with being vulnerable and honest as per their new manager’s guide.
  4. Coaching as revealed through Project Oxygen, the number one quality of effective managers is being a good coach. 
  5. Feedback in recognition of a manager’s potential build or destroy.
  6. 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…


Daniel Coyle describes and illustrates how a cohesive, motivated culture is the foundation of highly successful groups in The Culture Code – The Secrets of Highly Successful Groups.


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,


Simon Sinek‘s Start with Why was the third most popular TED video of all time. He makes the case that being inspired by a meaningful “why” / purpose,  people and organizations are more innovative, more influential, and more profitable than others in Start with Why – How Great Leaders Inspire Everyone to Take Action,


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


In The Speed of Trust – The One Thing that Changes Everything, Stephen M. R. Covey makes a strong case that trust greatly accelerates and amplifies success. Creating space and enabling others to lean in comes from a place of trust.  

Joel Peterson, Chairman, JetBlue Airways, also underscores the critically of establishing and maintaining trust as a leader and suggests in his book, The 10 Laws of TrustBuilding the Bonds That Make a Business Great

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.


See also:

Videos and Ted Talks on leaning out:

Lean out Books:

Lean out Articles:

Other lean out reference information

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.”

The University of Washington’s Resilience Lab‘s graphic and research behind it captures much of what we want to enable as leaders to lean out, empower and support.Women, Power And The Workplace In “Lean Out”

Radical Candor, Meaningful Conversations

Radical Candor a la Bi-Jingo, LTD

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

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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
  4. 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

  1. Is your intent to deliver feedback that will help the recipient of the feedback?
  2. Do you believe that whatever you’re giving feedback on was rooted in good intent even if the outcome was sub-optimal?
  3. Will delivering feedback bring value to the recipient?
  4. Are you the best person to deliver this feedback such that the most value be derived?
  5. 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.

VP of Engineering, Rukmini Reddy describes the challenges she faced in Becoming a bad-ass engineering leader: 5 tried and true lessons from a woman of color. She makes a clear distinction: Candor is not criticism from her experience. “The difference between feedback that is meant to keep you in your place (criticism) and feedback that is meant to help you grow (candor).”

In High Output Management, Andy Grove makes the distinction

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

Radical Candor - 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...

Radical Candor - Redirecting Energy

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 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.

There’s a great TED talk on delivering a receiving criticism as a good thing that challenges us to be better: Adam Grant – WorkLife: How to love criticism.

The Power of “Yet”

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

Radical Candor Quadrants

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.

As Helen Reddy once put it

“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

Pure Storage Message

“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.

Radical Candor by the numbers


See Also

On the need for holding people accountable and why leaders struggle with it:

10x Engineer – The Root Cause

10x Engineer
10x Engineer

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 $26B 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

Reed Hastings - Netflix 10X Engineers - The Root Cause

A couple of years after I originally posted this, I came across Reed Hastings’ take on 10x Engineers in a CNBC article: Netflix CEO on paying sky-high salaries: ‘The best are easily 10 times better than average’

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.”

In his book Empowered in Chapter 26: Competence and Character, Marty Cagan refers to the 10x employee. As quoted by Silicon Valley Product Group

“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

10x Engineer Dweck.Mindset

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…

Turning our Confidence Villains into our heroes converts Radical Candor into energy that makes us 10x-ers. See Also: How Microsoft Uses a Growth Mindset to Develop Leaders (Carol Dweck, Kathleen Hogan)

10x Companies and 10x Leaders

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

10x-Engineer Female

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

10x Engineer Male

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).

Similarly, in How to Hire for Growth Mindset With One Interview Question Jessica Tower uses a prompt: “tell me about a failure;” a question that I also like using.

Jeff Boss determines a growth mindset during the interview; it seems his questions could also be done by a coached recruiter during a phone screen: 5 Questions That Identify Growth-Minded Employees.

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.

Keystone Developers

In Peter Seibel’s Let a thousand flowers bloom, then rip 999 of them outhe points out:

“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.

Let a thousand flowers bloom, then rip 999 of them out

Hiring for a Growth Mindset

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:

  1. Why can one 10x engineer be so much more productive than another?
    Because they approach problems differently.
  2. Why does a 10x engineer approach problems so differently?
    Because they have a fundamentally different Mindset.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. 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:

Michelle Donovan speaks to How Google Makes 10x Managers

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
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.

Simon Sinek – Simon Sinek- Getting the most out of your team?

The Happy Demise of the 10x Engineer?

Sam Gerstenzang of Andreesen Horowitz writes about The Happy Demise of the 10X Engineer. He refers to how Software eats software development suggesting 10x engineers are no longer needed given ever increasing enabling technology. While this holds for many non-deep-tech endeavors, it also actually underscores that the engineers that the engineers building all that infrastructure may be 1,000x engineers as their work hugely multiplies the work of others.

Gerstenzang argues:

“As the leverage of the individual software engineer increases, the barriers to becoming a code creator are falling fast. The same software foundation (open source software, development tools like Github, infrastructure as a service provided by the likes of Digital Ocean, and more) that allowed Whatsapp and Imgur to scale, means that experience and skill writing software become less important.”

10x Engineer – The Root Cause - Ali Tamaseb - Level of Engineering, Scientific Complexity
A disproportionately high number of billion dollar companies are deep-tech

It might seem we only need a few of these in the industry, and we don’t need them in our company. However, for “deep-tech” companies, they are valuable within the company. In his book Super Founders What Data Reveals About Billion-Dollar Startups, Ali Tamaseb speaks of Level of Engineering at various Unicorn Tech.

“The level of engineering/scientific innovation and work varies and we can find all types, from pure system integration (where the value-add is mostly in business model) to hard-tech companies where the main value is a new technology that was not available before. Based on the overall number of deep-tech companies that get founded every year (not that many), a disproportionately high number of billion dollar companies are deep-tech.”

So, my counter to Gerstenzang’s points is that for deep/highly technical companies, the 10x engineer still has an opportunity and place for impact. Furthermore, the engineers building generically available enabling technology may be 100x++ engineers.

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.

Does the 1/10th Engineer Exist?

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.

10x Founders

Ali speaks of “Super Founders” as he dives into understand what contributes to a founder having a larger outcome / exit which he sets at the $1B level. He collected over 30,000 data points from non-unicorn startups and then interviewed founders of 15 billion dollar startups including Zoom, Nest, GitHub, Cloudflare, PayPal, Affirm, Brex, Kite Pharma, Instacart, as well as VCs like Peter Thiel, Elad Gil, and Alfred Lin (Sequoia Capital), Keith Rabois (Founders Fund).

In so doing, he debunked come myths around these 10x founders but also found some interesting commonalities. To learn more, check out:

Some of his findings correlate to what I’ve seen with non-founding 10x leaders and engineers.



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.”

Michael Solomon and Rishon Blumberg in their book Game Changer: How To Be 10X In The Talent Economy,

Further they call out differences in leaders as follows:

We like to think of our champions and idols as superheroes who were born different from us.
We don’t like to think of them as relatively ordinary people who made themselves extraordinary.”

Paul G. Stoltz tells us in his book Put Your Mindset to Work

Ability to persevere begins with you, the individual. However, change is rarely easy. In fact, sometimes it is downright formidable.

Daniel Coyle premise in The Talent Code is that “Greatness isn’t born, it’s grown”.

Perspectives on Fixed Mindset vs Growth Mindset

References for Motivation/Happiness vs Productivity Correlation

10x Employees – Other Perspectives

Hiring 10x Engineers – Other Perspectives

New Hires

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 allowing them to get in their own way. They can be their own worst enemy or own best champion.

2. The New Hire’s Manager

Becoming a new 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

New Hires Spinning-Up

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 the 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

Leave a Trace - Code Ethics

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 shared 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 we bought on another new hire, I decided to take it upon myself to move into that office with them to help get them started. Note: Softlab was all about enabling developer productivity as it’s core product Maestro I was the first integrated development environment in the history of computing. One of my first changes at Softlab was to get the company to dog-food it’s own product.

Higher Productivity Work Environments

When Softlab achieved enough success that we could hire an architect to design a new building for us at 120 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. Initially most people feeling inclined toward having individual offices. This would solve for quiet and focused space that improve engineering productivity. Three people offices would increase collaboration. We ultimately decided the best experience for all would be had by having pairs of mentors and new hires working together. For collaboration, the German laws about needing to regular breaks during the day (e.g. for coffee, tea or lunch) allowed for impromptu collaboration time.

Even in open space offices, I hate to interrupt engineers. When I see an engineer I want to catch up with grab their coffee mug, I grab mine and tag along.

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.

How Hiring Impacts Spin-Up

10x-Engineer Female

The ability for a new hire to spin up is also greatly influenced by their mindset and approach to learning new things. As mentioned in 10x Engineer – The Root Cause, there are ways to find and hire engineers with a Growth Mindset. This mindset that comes with curiosity and a desire to learn new things contributes significantly to how quickly someone spins up. Also, the well-defined spin-up process itself will reveal if the hiring process truly found the person you want to have on your team.

Furthermore, the “burden” or interviewing can also greatly impact an existing team. As such, it helps to spin up new hires to become certified as qualified to ask certain interview questions. This is not to be taken lightly, as the interview questions we use have been developed for over 12 years. The continuous improvement of questions and the manager close process is key in finding and hiring the best engineers.

Ensuring New Hires don’t Slow Down Accelerated Growth

Rapidly on-boarding new engineers generating new designs and code can create a burden on the existing team. I have found myself in a few situations where rapid growth is required, but existing/senior staff are also critical to move the company forward in its rapid growth phase. At Twitch, I came up with the ideal that the nth hire could be best suited and least impactful in spinning up hire n+1. This proved to work, with a good spin-up process even when the next hire started only two weeks later. Their mentor was also still being spun up but had very recently learned what they needed to learn and made improvements to the spin-up process they would now be teaching.

The Developer Productivity Manifesto

Another challenge in rapid growth companies comes with finding the time to review designs and pull-requests. The is much new code being produced and an ever-shrinking percentage of engineers with tenure. Therefore, it’s crucial to include how to review designs and pull-requests as part of the new hire process. Good hires should already come with the ability to comment on general design and coding principles. The mentor should also provide context relevant to the design and architecture of the system in place and being extended. It’s also important that the mentor impart that design and code reviews are essentially continuous spin-up processes. Comments and suggestions should be given as coming from a place of helping (not criticizing). Exchanging comments and feedback through design and code review feed the continuous and incremental growth of the entire team. It also leads to an ever-improving code-base and system.

This continuous investment in employees feeds a virtuous cycle spinning a developer-productivity and code quality flywheel. It also helps reinforce the mindset of always keep learning and always keep teaching.

A Culture of Learning and Growth

The spin-up process fosters the notion of always learning and improving things. This is furthered beyond hiring and spin-up in a supportive culture of Human Transformation. An overall culture of learning with the organization fosters the mindset of continuous growth and learning. This includes training existing staff and new hires to do design and code reviews from a place of helping rather than criticizing. It includes doing one-on-ones starting with trust. The trust is that leaders have the best interests of everyone at heart. See Start with Trust.

This is further supported by clear and communicated rubrics of various levels within an org and what is expected at each level. The creates a structure for leaders to find opportunities along various vectors of growth. Also, Radical Candor in support of growth also enables upward mobility.

Grooming new New Managers also provides another avenue of growth for certain individuals.

These considerations are crucial along with growing an org through hiring and spinning up. Retention and motivation is critical among existing staff as new staff members are added. Also, when this culture is present among existing employees, it comes across both in the interview process and tends to infect new hires with an excitement based in collaboration and growth.

Engineering Productivity Enables New Hires to Have Greater Impact

Having comprehensive testing in place, reduces the odds of new hires inadvertently breaking code and systems they aren’t familiar with. This too frees up existing engineers to take on other challenges. Furthermore, good architecture, such as cookie-cutting templates for new services and frameworks for front-end design increase engineering efficiency. These help avoid a hodgepodge of coding styles as you continuously add new hires to your engineering team. They also enable moving engineers to new areas quickly if there is a need to shift or pivot focus in various stages of growth. Spinning up people quickly as they move to new areas within a company not only increases efficiency but benefits morale as well.

Reliably removing obstacles and burdens to getting to ever-increasing productivity is what it’s all about.


CD Job Logos

I have a long-standing passion around spinning up new engineers and increasing engineering efficiency dating back to joining Softlab, GmbH in 1983 with its flagship product Maestro the first integrated development environment in the history of computing. I got engineering at Softlab to dog food Maestro and trained customers’ engineering teams to be more efficient through Maestro. A passion for helping new-hires spin-up also developed as Softlab became the second fastest growing software company in Germany (behind SAP) to be acquired by BMW.

That passion continued as I moved to Silicon Valley and again became critical as I joined BroadVision Pre-IPO and helped it grow to the fastest growing software company on Nasdaq during dot com and branching it out into 7 product lines and achieving a $26B valuation.

After the rapid growth and success of BroadVision, I became more interested in how people lean and decided to get educated as a schoolteacher. I struck up a good relationship with one of my professors, Patricia Swanson who had worked at Stanford with Carol Dweck. Patty got me inspired to learn more about Dweck’s notion of the Growth Mindset. Dweck later published the first edition of The Growth Mindset in 2006. The notion of the Growth Mindset has made its way into business with particular relevance in rapidly evolving fields.

Return to Tech

The Lean Startup

After my sabbatical of diving into teaching, I came back into tech at Intuit where I grew an internal startup. A few years later, I came to IMVU aka The Lean Startup where I developed the notion of more rigor around the ever-improving spin-up process. Here too came the introduction to interview questions targeting at finding candidates with a hunger and ability to learn – those questions have continued to evolve over the last 12 years. My experience at The Lean Startup helped develop my notion around Lean Staffing.


I brought these concepts of growth to Twitch which had been struggling to hire in its early days and I was able to triple the engineering team within one year. I employed and enhanced many of the spin-up principles during this rapid growth and came up with the 8practice of the nth hire spins up hire n+1. The successful growth led to a unicorn acquisition by Amazon.

My next stop at Pure Storage, came with further development of the spin-up processes where I developed an approach to a Manager Close which I was then asked to teach in classes for all hiring managers across both business units.

Also, while at Pure, I developed an interest in coaching. This came to mind after learning about Google’s Project Oxygen where they concluded after much research that the most important behavior exhibited by their best managers was being a good coach. I began and completed the training as a coach. Again, another angle on how to enable people to grow beyond what they believe was possible.

Another arena where spinning up new players and building world-class teams came into play was as a competitive athlete where I ended up coaching two teams to winning national championships.

See Also

Where to Begin the Journey?

When a new person joins, the first impression you make on them sets the foundation for the rest of your journey together. So, the question arises: Where to Begin the Journey? Before expressing your objectives as a leader, 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.

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. 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 this with conviction, you will be hampered in your own success and that of your team. They will know the difference subconsciously or consciously.


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 said that players had three implicit questions about a new coach:

  1. “Can I trust you?”
  2. “Are you committed?”
  3. “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

Effective Communication

Effective communication is often addressed in the form of tools you can use. These include active listening, empathic listening, powerful questions, making eye contact, not interrupting, paying attention, withholding judgement, echoing back, radical candor, … To effectively use 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 Pfungst demonstrated that the horse was not actually performing these mental tasks, but was watching the reactions of his trainer

If you don’t believe with conviction, it might help to dig deeper into some of the the well researched books about teams. Note, successful teams have been 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.


In her article 4 Leadership Lessons from Horse Whispering, Praseeda Nair points out…

  • 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. Trainers believe horses are as unique as individuals, so it’s easy to extrapolate this form of communication for between 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.

Start with who you’re solving for

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.

A Powerful Question

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 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.

What changed you?

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.

Something like this can also be done in a team setting where everyone goes 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.

In the Classroom

Similarly, when teaching, especially 8th graders, 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 the appreciate that you’re objective is to prepare them for life and help them learn how to learn.

Show-Personal-Interest-2-1024x541 copy

National award-winning Palo Alto teacher takes unusual approach

In another classroom – Growing Roses from Concrete

Tupac Shakur The Rose that Grew from Concrete

I showed up for my first teaching assignment to learn the teacher had quit the previous day and asked if I’d be willing to lead the class. The class was made of 8th graders that other teachers had given up on being able to manage in their classrooms. The students later confided in me that every one of them was in a gang and they figured they’d be lucky to live to the age of 18. Hence, education wasn’t a big priority for them – and education beyond high school was beyond their wildest dreams.

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.

The students were surprised that I bought them each a copy and that I even knew who Tupac was. They didn’t know that Pac wrote poetry, they had not expected me to be showing them something from Pac they hadn’t know about. 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 – 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.

See Also:

Talent Code Applied

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 - REPS on the Slopes

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.

Talent Code - Tim Ferris on skiing

I later came across an interview with Tim Ferriss included at the end of The Art of Learning – An Inner Journey to Optimal Performance by chess and Tai Chi world champion Josh Waitzkin. Josh relates his experience skiing with ’60s Olympic legend Billy Kidd. Billy asked him:

“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.

See Also:

Coyle’s Qualities of a Master Coach

Daniel Coyle describes four qualities of a master coach when coaching within a specific sport or field.

  1. 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.
  2. Perceptiveness: Master coaches are curious about individuals and leverage insights about their students to tailor their coaching.
  3. GPS Reflex: Coaches reflexively give immediate feedback to help students navigate challenges as they practice.
  4. 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.
Talent Code applied to software engineering
Uber Engineering’s Micro Deploy: Deploying Daily with Confidence
The REPS cycle as a metaphor for the software development cycle
DevOps and Microservices – Symbiotes

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.

Talent Code - as applied in The Lean Startup
The Lean Startup by Eric Ries as per StartupLessonsLearned.BlogSpot.com as depicted by Visually.

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

John Boyd's OODA Loop

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)


See also:

Talent Code – Building Myelin 

Rapid Iteration in Software Development

Drive – What Motivates us

Multipliers – Leaders that Empower Others

Outliers and 10,000 Hours of Practice

The Talent Code provides an alternative to Gladwell’s 10,000 hour rule.

OODA (Obeserve, Orient, Decide, Act) Loop

John Boyd’s OODA Loop is another parallell to the ideas present in Coyle’s The Talent Code


Beyond the Talent Code

Applying the Talent Code by itself is of course only one ingredient for everything to come together to make an effective learning environment and success business.

  • Villains – turning the villains that might challenge success into wins
  • Leaning Out – creating a supportive culture to multiply strengths
  • Radical Candor – creating an environment of open communication
  • 10x Engineers – understanding what makes people excel

New Managers

So, you want to be a new manager?

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.

People Management for New Managers

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.

Trial Objective

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.

Trial End

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.

Trial Conclusion

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.

New Managers – 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

For managers in an Agile organization, you may also find The Dark Side of Agile of interest.

See Also

Other key aspects for being an effective manager

Here are two good blog posts specifically for developing new managers in product management.

Lean Staffing – It’s about the People

Lean Staffing More Lessons LearnedThe notion of Lean Staffing is best paired with the concept of The Lean Startup. In his insightful book The Lean Startup: How Today’s Entrepreneurs Use Continuous Innovation to Create Radically Successful Businesses, Eric Ries speaks of his startup lessons learned at IMVU and from many other companies he came to know afterwards including Intuit. He speaks to the processes behind effective startups; Lean Staffing speaks to the people behind those same types of startups.

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: “what started as a technical problem actually turned out to be a human and process problem.“ He frames startup as human institutions navigating uncertainty. I remain 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. We needed to see how she would think on her feet and collaborate with the interview to solve problems in unknown territory.

Starting on Day 1

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.

Rapid Iteration

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).

5 Whys

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.

In my role as VP, Engineering at BroadVision which during the dot com days was the fastest growing company of Nasdaq we achieved a $26B valuation. 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. More on the notion of high-functioning engineers: 10x Engineer – The Root Cause.

This Blog

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.