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 fourth 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 amongst more senior staff. 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 learned that Leaning Out is empowering for those I lead.

As leaders, we should lean out to empower quieter or 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”

Confidence Villains

Wonder Woman-Conquerer of Villains

Good leaders inspire people to persevere in the face of adversity and ultimately derive energy from the challenge of confronting their villains.

Completing Katty Kay’s and Claire Shipman’s  inspirational book The Confidence Code, left me feeling every good story needs a villain.

“Gore isn’t required for a good story, but adversity is.” – Celeste Ng

Being Your Opponent’s Villain

I once met and played with Stanford’s National Champion Ultimate team captain. He imparted some advice to me. Prior to a game, scout the opposing team for a or the pivotal player and then line up against them. Completely shut them down on defense and consistently escape their efforts at defense while I was on offense. This served to build my confidence while also eroded theirs – hence I played the role of the confidence robbing villain. As he put it, once their confidence was gone, you had them in your pocket.

I applied that advice at the German nationals and then the World Championships, and ever since in sports and business. Shifting confidence away from your opponent and towards yourself became an effective strategy. Though we beat the former national champions, they worked with the tournament organizer to introduce a cross-over game before finals. We found out just after finishing lunch that we had five minutes to be on the field. We managed to win that game but had to play the former champs again in the finals – losing narrowly. Later they adjusted their strategy to switch players covering me to rob me of my confidence. They observed, learned and adjusted. We had to adjust our tactics again to win in a winter nationals later on.

The key takeaways for me being:

  • There’s power in finding ways to instill confidence in yourself.
  • It will help your team win to instill similar confidence in your teammates.
  • It is possible to erode such confidence in your competitors.
  • Hence, the (im)balance of confidence can be shifted.
  • It’s good to be wary of such tactics used against you.

When I’m playing defense, I’m going to break down my opponent mentally, not just the man I’m guarding, I want everyone on the other team to be looking over his shoulder, watching for me, thinking about where I am.

Michael Jordan minute 12:00

Overcoming Villains as a Team


The book Confidence Code speaks to confidence as an individual. Confidence also exists at a team level. After breaking my collarbone, the spouses/partners of the players of my Ultimate team asked me to coach them. Three months later we flew to their first tournament and were matched up against last year’s U.S. national champs. Our team shouldn’t have completed a single pass, but at half time it was tied. At the end, we lost by one.

I inspired them to play with confidence and earning their trust to try out totally unorthodox defensive and offensive strategies. We switched between zone and person coverage within a point (previously unheard of). We mixed playing zone coverage in the front and person in the back. Our players confidence allowed them to try these things. The effectiveness against the confused champs became a virtuous cycle for our team’s confidence and a negative spiral for the opponents.

A novice team rattled veterans with tactics no experienced player would consider. Their confidence had been robbed and shifted it to our team – finding myself again as villain here. The balance shifted resulting in a totally unexpected outcome. The veteran team eventually regained their confidence to win the tournament.

Villains in Math Class

The daunting challenges of math can loom large as villains

A professor told me within the first week students stack rank each other of “smartest” to “dumbest”. This determines who gets picked on the playground and who gets invited to birthday parties. In my first week in 1st grade, a Portuguese girl struggling to keep up linguistically was viewed last. Meanwhile, the whole class was struggling to grasp fact families: 3 + 4 = 7,     4 + 3 = 7,     7 – 3 = 4,      7 – 4 = 3

I asked her to stay during break and walk through it with yellow and red blocks … until she got it.
Later, I sat with her in the front, while others were doing exercises. We did equations like 21 + 32 = 53, 71 + 12 = 83, 34 + 43 = 77, …

Crying, she managed to apply the same concept and she then started writing double-digit equations. 1st graders only do single-digit math. Noticing her excitement, others came up and were blown away. In 2 hours she went from the dumbest kid in the class to the smartest. Believing she could do anything shifted her mindset and the confidence stuck with her. The confidence eroding impact on the other kids had become their villain. Applying the growth mindset theory helped them appreciate they hadn’t learned it “yet” as they mastered fact families.

The students made a transition from having a fixed mindset to having a growth mindset. It was no longer a question of someone being smart or dump, they could all learn to overcome uncertainty.

Villains in the History Classroom

I opened fifth grade history by asking who could tell me who discovered America. I got a lot of “Columbus” answers. In response to asking how they knew, I got: My teacher told me. I read it in a history book. my dad told me… I asked: How does your teacher know? How does the author of the book know, how does your dad know? Now their curiosity was peaked as to where this new teacher was going. I asked how do we know anything?

Later, I asked them to imagine Igor running in and yelling: “Mr. D. Johnny and Juan are fighting outside!” I bring the boys in and ask Johnny: Who started it? What’s he going to say? How about if I ask Juan? What if I asked Johnny’s best friend, or if I asked Juan’s? Eroding their assumptions opened the doors to teaching them to seek primary sources of difference perspectives. Another example was the uncertainties of what really happened between the Conquistadors, the Aztecs and the Incas… We rebuilt confidence in their knowledge by helping them learn to find things closer to the truth themselves. Opportunities abound letting go of assumptions by asking: How do you know, and how does your source know?
See also my Orange Lesson.

Confidence in the Face of Your Villains

Amy Cuddy Confidence Pose in the face of Villains

In her TED talk, Amy Cuddy explains how you can derive confidence from something as simple as a pose.

She suggests faking it until you become it. She speaks of the all-to-common imposter syndrome women in particular can feel when they feel they shouldn’t be in a prestigious college, business or role. Much as I highly recommend the book Confidence Code, I also highly recommend her TED Talk: Your body language may shape who you are.  There’s also a related article about Imposter Syndrome and why going outside your comfort zone may be uncomfortable but also very advantageous: Why Impostor Syndrome Is Good For You.

Note, Cuddy’s research has come under some scrutiny as per the references below; however, in the end, it seems there may be some truth to her premises, and I know people who say it works for them – just believing can also be a source of confidence as we all know, confidence is all about what we believe about ourselves…

Willingness to take risks Mindset

Another thing Katty and Claire speak to in their book is how confidence can help you be willing to take risks – or as I like to think of it, discover a hunger for the challenges of venturing into uncertainty to make new discoveries and build new strengths. If you look into Carol Dweck’s theories of Growth Mindset, you can see how that willingness to take risks is a cornerstone of the Growth Mindset. The fears often tied to taking risks can be a real villains that holds us back.

The Dweck Mindset as a tool to overcome villains

Villains on the Battle Field

I don’t have personal experience on the battle field, but a friend recommended Robert Coram’s Boyd – The Fighter Pilot Who Changed the Art of War, and it turned out to be a fascinating read applicable in many venues. John Boyd’s OODA Loop and theory behind it. It’s also clear that Boyd derived strength and conviction from those that challenged him, and the greater force they were, the more it inspired him to excel. It was born out of his experience as a fighter pilot combined with reading things like Sun Tzu’s The Art of War; however, it’s applicable in a very generic sense as he concluded later in life as it started getting used in business and seemed reflected in the Toyota Production System.

Boyd's OODA loop as a means of overcoming villains on the battle field

Confronting Villains across the Board and on the Mat

Josh Waitzkin had to overcome Villains in the form of competitors and judges to become Tai-Chi World Champion
Josh Waitzkin in becoming a World Champion Chess player at an early age, often had to overcome villains as his opponents employed various psychological tactics against him

Josh Waitzkin won his first National Chess Championship at age nine; later he became World Champion of Tai Chi Chuan. In The Art of Learning, Josh insists he wasn’t a prodigy and that we can all achieve these levels of accomplishment with the right approach. One key aspect is studying opponents and leveraging them more as teachers than villains. He would learn both about the art and his competitor. Viewing videos frame by frame, he would dissect every move. The challenge of a broken hand created another learning opportunity by forcing him to shift to learning to use his non-dominant hand. Converting his opponent’s strengths and his own challenges into opportunities deepened his knowledge and abilities. He discovered the best learning involves the ability to unlearn and relearn with deeper insight. In Talks at Google he says: “Most of my big growth has come from losses’

Tao te Ching

Waitzkin also references Carol Dweck’s notion of a Growth Mindset and learning from his mother’s practice as a horse whisperer in how her being in tune with the animals created a much deeper appreciation of what moves them. He too found deep truths between the seeming contradictions in Lao Tzu’s Tao te Ching. Josh’s book resonated with me on so many levels that it has become on of my favorites. American author Alvin Toffler said: “The illiterate of the 21st century will not be those who cannot read and write, but those who cannot learn, unlearn, and relearn.

See Also: The Art or Leaning by Josh Waitzkin | Core Message

The Art of Redirecting Attacks

Redirecting the Energy of villains turn their energy to your advantage

In various marital arts, one learns to redirect the opponent’s energy. The harder they come at you, the more they’ll be off balance and the more energy you’ll have to work with. This technique is used in various martial arts including Tai Chi Chuan, Aikido, and Ju Jitsu. Using your opponents’ movements, momentum and focus to your advantage need not be limited to the physical realm. Josh Waitzkin, who include the use of this technique to win the Tai Chi Chuan world championships, would also in chess, on his path to winning nationals, find ways to take advantage of his opponents sense that they had made an effective attack to lure them into a false sense of security causing them to let their guard down and overlook his subtle redirection until it was too late.

In a verbal attack, taking the force head on is typically less effective than welcoming the attack. If accused of being unethical, countering with, “thank you for pointing that out, I didn’t realize what I was saying could be heard as unethical” you have begun to disarm them. Following with “I’d love to hear your perspective.” you shift from a head-on confrontation to a shoulder-to-shoulder perspective inspecting what you said. I have found that agreeing with a verbal attack on you, that energy can often be shifted in your favor. What is heard is typically more important than what is said – understanding how others hear your words can help you learn to adapt your language and approach. Agreeing with an “attacker’s” assault, you may convert an adversary into an ally. You can allow your villains to weaken or strengthen you – it all depends on which wolf you feed.

Making our Villains into our Heroes

Darth Vader - leader of Villains but also in a yin-yang relationship with the good side of the Force

Perhaps the most valuable lesson I’ve learned is to see the villains in our lives as our heroes. They challenge us to be better, stronger, more resilient, and confident. We can thank them for making us stronger. Though not easy, when you convert the villains in your story seeking to rob you of confidence into your inspirational heroes, you dis-empower them and shift the balance of power. I discovered the strong adversary on the field or in the office can be a tremendous source of strength and learning. Note, pulling strength from your opponent is one thing, if the villain appears on your own team, it’s good to establish you’re both striving for the same value, but hold different views on how to achieve it. I also share my strategies with my opponents as I prefer out-shining them to making them feel small.

If we choose to receive their criticism/radical candor and “attacks” as gifts of new perspectives and thank them for the insights. An attack or criticism may weaken you. Whereas awareness of a different or new perspective strengthens you. I’ve experienced that receiving attacks as gifts can soften the blows and eventually result in counter perspectives being brought as a gift from a newfound ally.

We can choose to let the villains in our stories rob us of our confidence or inspire us to achievement that will build our confidence. I also discovered after reading Daniel Coyle’s Talent Code, that “primal cues” can help us in deep learning as we’re building myelin – primal cues are things like fear, competition, hunger, … It’s not so much what we see, but how we see it that will make us into a 10x-er.

The Flip Side

It helps to have a strong Adversity Quotient to find the gift in what might otherwise be received as confidence robbing criticism from what would then be a Confidence Villain.
On the flip-side, as Mandela said:

It never hurts to see the good in someone.
They often act the better because of it.

When we Assume the Best of Others, then, as Jack Kornfield suggests the attribution of Seeing the Goodness in Another Being seeing the beauty in another being can have a transformative affect. As leaders, confirmation of the value we see in others can multiply our and their impact rather than diminish it with framing that may be received as criticism.

Confidence robbing Villains are also to be avoided

Conquering your villains and overcoming their challenges may make you stronger by forcing you to find your strengths. However, a villain can also be your demise if you don’t overcome them. While you might celebrate overcoming the challenges thrown in our path, we should also recognize that those challenges are not usually thrown in our path with good intent. A villain with a narcissistic personality disorder may at one moment be a domineering bully and in the next play the poor-me victim. We should strive to break free of their clutch, and we may celebrate our escape when we achieve it. Such challenging, often abusive times can leave scars that also prove to be challenging and hold us back. Villains are often nothing more than villains, and it is you that becomes the hero by overcoming the challenges they create.

The most challenging villains to conquer may be the ones we see in the mirror

Yin Yang Wolf - Do we feed the villain within us?

Our biggest villain is the one in the mirror, and yet that can also become our greatest ally. It all depends on our mindset and which wolf we choose to feed.

If you read Norman Doidge’s The Brain’s Way of Healing you may also discover our mind can also be a great villain or ally in our lives, the difference can lie in what movement, sounds and light we nourish it with. Recognizing things we need to overcome in ourselves is the first step. Overcoming our own resistance to change is the bigger challenge. See a great summary of the challenge at Immunity to Change. Robert Keegan describes how only 1 in 7 heart patients follow doctor’s instruction that would save their life. See also his book Immunity to Change – How to Overcome It and Unlock the Potential in Yourself and Your Organization.

The Adversity Quotient needed to overcome villains.


The “Godfather of FinTech,” Ron Suber, speaks about having a Medium IQ, Medium EQ, High AQ (Adversity Quotient). His ability to overcome adversity helped him take on challenges and push beyond his fear and comfort zones. In  The Adversity Advantage Paul G. Stoltz describes how AQ is about how you respond to life. The tuff stuff,helps you respond to everyday hassles and big adversities that life.

“In the middle of difficulty lies opportunity.”
– Albert Einstein


Continuing from above…

The Value of a Villain Offering Radical Candor

Radical Candor Compass can we flip the obnoxious aggression of a villain to our benefit?

In her book Radical Candor – Be a Kick-Ass Boss Without Losing Your Humanity, Kim Scott describes four quadrants for feedback. She explains a type of feedback that is obnoxious and aggression. Over the years in sports, business and private life, I’ve discovered that with a simple twist in perspective, I can receive feedback delivered as “Obnoxious Aggression” with the positive benefits of Radical Candor. If I take it in as though it were delivered with good intent and recognize that every time someone points out a weakness or failing of mine, they are actually doing me a favor by showing me where I can work on being stronger and more successful. This also dis-empowers any aggressive intent to tear me down. Yes, it sounds easier than it is at first, but once you realize you can do it, it becomes a lot easier.

I have yet to meet someone that doesn’t carry with them some degree of self-doubt and concern for their own worthiness (our internal villain). Even narcissistic glorious bastards are often burying a need to prove to themselves and the world how worthy they are. Those willing to vulnerably accept their imperfections often discover doing to be a great source of strength and fertile ground for growth. Being vulnerable can require a higher degree of bravery than being filled with self-conviction. Being fearless doesn’t equate to bravery; acting in spite of fear is true bravery. As leaders, public vulnerably accepting our imperfections gives license to those we lead to be more at ease with their imperfections. It dis-empowers the confidence villains and empowers those able to be comfortable with being vulnerable. It’s the hurdles we encounter that should define use, but how we choose to process the experience.

On the Football Field


Legendary football coach Lou Holtz, now retired and in the College Football Hall of Fame, had an uncanny ability to turn losing teams into winners.
On overcoming our villains and adversity, Lou Holtz had to say:

In adversity, there is opportunity.
Show me someone who has done something worthwhile,
and I’ll show you someone who has overcome adversity.
I’ve never known anybody to achieve anything without overcoming adversity.
Adversity is another way to measure the greatness of individuals.
I never had a crisis that didn’t make me stronger.

Remember that adversity presents us with numerous possibilities for success,
if we are just willing to see them.

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”

Releasing the Villains that put You Behind Bars

When the Villains of Apartheid imprisoned Nelson Mandela and tried to break his soul in a tiny prison cell on Robben Island, he says he maintained his sanity and positive outlook in part by reciting Ernst’s Invictus to himself. I remembered this when lying immobile for weeks behind the bars of a hospital bed after the mighty Pacific had broken my shoulder, collarbone, rib, five vertebrae and wrangled my neck to the point where I couldn’t move my head. But behind the opioid fog of being on Oxycodone and Morphine, I could only remember the last lines “I am the master of my fate. I am the captain of my soul.” It also brought me back in touch with my previous experiences with seeing myself removed, from a bird’s-eye view.

When my dad turned 103, he often felt age had become his biggest villain. He had lost his autonomy in the physical world, and so I also read Invictus to him. Luckily, he still had a remarkable amount of clarity in his mind until the end, and we had some great conversations to the end. My dad had also the experience of learning to cope from behind bars many years earlier when he had been imprisoned by the Nazis.


Mandela managed to not succumb to the villains that imprisoned him on Robben Island be reciting Invictus

At the Office


Management can instill confidence or rob it. I discovered the importance of leaders that recognize that as a quality while working at Intuit as Brad Smith pulled me aside after a status update meeting to say he noticed that while most other managers consistently showed their projects had a green status, I often showed mine as yellow (at some risk). After a pause, he said he thought that was a good thing. I was being honest and while many other managers did everything to run their projects so safely that their status.

Certainly, Confidence Code underscores that failure is the inevitable result of taking risks. Allison Mnookin, a GM at Intuit at the time, told me that, from her perspective, it’s not failure that defines you but how you recover. Risk mitigation is key, but the ability to recover from a loss or failure is also an important skill to master. My take-away – don’t allow a failure to be the villain that robs your confidence, see it as the teacher that imparted a valuable lesson. updates would consistently be green, I was willing to take risks, show that my status was often yellow, and recognize and have mitigation plans in case the risks came to bear.

Leveraging Competition as a Villain

There is also power in confidence when scaled to a team. When I started at Intuit, it was resting a bit on it laurels for having created Quicken as a very useful tool for individuals to manage their money. It was doing well in the market, until a competitive, copycat product appears on the market built by a very powerful and successful company.

Microsoft Money appeared on the market as a big morale blow to the employees to see this powerhouse show up to steal our glory. However, the notion that this smaller, but dedicated team could beat that powerhouse grew as the team set about improving the product on a variety of vectors with many new and improved features. Intuit’s leaders did not allow the competitive villain to rob them of their confidence, instead they instilled confidence that we were batter at this game. The level of energy and commitment in the office which had just taken a huge blow, was suddenly way up and everyone was inspired to win this game. It was like the Marshall football team that would not give up. The resulting Quicken product came from behind to deliver tremendous improvements leaving MS Money in the read-view mirror.

A Community Overcoming Tragedy

Brad Smith Herd Shirt

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

Government as a Villain

One of the greatest challenges is to persevere is when your government is the villain against you. When you consider what confidence and courage it took for Rosa Parks, Martin Luther King, Gandhi, The Dalai Lama, Oskar Schindler, Nelson Mandela, or Malala Yousafzai to find a voice to speak out and inspire others and draw courage from their convictions, you can only be left in awe.

Countries that historically looked down at other countries lead by villains may be more susceptible to succumbing to a villain as a leader than they realize.

Villains in Business

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

The Rival Nation as a Villain


As recently reminded from the movie Hidden Figures, in 1957, the “villainous” Soviet Union robbed the U.S. of a great deal of confidence by beating the U.S. to to space with the orbiting of Sputnik 1.
In 1962, Kennedy said: ” We choose to go to the Moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard…”

That became a great example of a growth mindset confidently presenting a setback as an inspirational challenge. As a leader with the support of a nation behind him, instead of allowing the USSR to rob the U.S. of all it’s confidence, it was seen as a challenge and used to motivate. Hidden Figures, Apollo 11 and In the Shadow of the Moon (narrated by the original Apollo astronauts) are very inspirational in conveying what can be achieved by a confident nation in the aftermath of such a confidence robbing experience. Similarly, with Apollo 13, where the confidence robbing villain was a malfunction that initially seemed to have sealed the fate of the astronauts; however, instead of giving up, the team pulled off a miracle and managed to save them and again restore confidence in the program and nation.

The Experience Villain:


Fear gripped me after a rogue wave broke five vertebrae and the Pacific pulled me under. Chasing Mavericks’ “Fear is good, panic is bad” came to me as pushed past the pain to get my head over water. I remember the resignation of accepting my life was over the second time the Pacific pulled me under. It was perhaps the most serene moment of my life as I felt myself separate from my body and seeing my parents above the beach about to lose a child. That thought drove me to fight to get my head above the water again. I was pulled out by a friend and an off-duty EMT who had seen it happen and rushed in. Every day since then and since learning to walk again has been a gift. This experience helps reduce the power that my various villains might have over me.

At some point, the opioid fog became something I wanted to free my brain of. The doctor advised against it, telling me that the pain killers had allowed my brain to stop producing endorphins and that would kick back in right away. He said it would bring me to a new level of pain that would be hard to imagine. I learned that people that try to come off like that end up going right back on. I’m glad he warned me and informed me that after time, if I actually preserved, the endorphin production would kick back in. That knowledge combined with the ability to meditate myself away my pain allowed me to pass through that valley and eventually learn how to walk again. It still helps me 13 years later to separate myself from the villain of pain that has lived as my constant companion every day since.

Confidence Robbing From the Book

Further along in the book, the authors do mention ~”A memory of a negative comment made by a colleague in a meeting four years ago may still be contributing our choices to keep quiet.” It’s from the perspective of the impacted party. Considering how a villain might use a confidence robbing strategy against you and being aware that it could be used , may help lessen that affect when you see/recognize it…

As a Horse and Trainer

Its not about the horse

Seabiscuit is a great true story about finding confidence for a horse, a trainer, a jockey and as a nation. All face seemingly insurmountable challenges brought on by the Great Depression which was a villain in its own right. The owner, the trainer, the jockey and the horse are all faced with various challenges that could have destroyed them. Together they turned those challenges into opportunities to achieve what seemed unimaginable.

Lean Startup Lessons

Lean Startup

The Confidence Code makes reference to taking risks and failing fast as perspectives embraced in high-tech startups. In The Lean Startup Eric Ries describes his experience at the startup IMVU. Joinging after Eric left, I became responsible for engineering process. I continued the culture of taking risks, failing fast, and experimenting as the company grew. I developed a strange love of failures, which I had come to see as “teachable moments” as a teacher. In business I started celebrating the discovery/recognition of a failure as an opportunity. We find the root cause of the failure through a post mortems. 5-why analysis further strengthened and improved our product and systems.

As a National Champion Ultimate Player


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

The Challenges of Diversity in the Classroom

Working towards my teaching credentials, I wrote a paper on diversity from my classroom experience. I recognized that often the students that struggled at first could be the ones that later excelled the most. It reminded me of “Smooth seas don’t make for strong sailors“. Lou Holtz said “Show me a champion and I’ll show you someone who has overcome adversity.” Confidence Code calls out examples where challenges, if not entirely devastating, would strengthen you. Good skiers lean over the tips of their skis and if they make it to the bottom of the hill on a practice run without a single fall, think to themselves: I didn’t push myself hard enough. The book further references “insufficient neglect” in parenting by overly protective parents having a weakening effect on their children.

At the Table

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

Instilling confidence where you discover a vacuum…

My first teaching assignment was with a group of disruptive 8th graders. Other teachers had tossed out these students that were all in gangs in East San Jose. Most didn’t really expect to live long enough to make it to college. They had villains in their lives as kids that I’ve been lucky to have never experienced. I’ve had guns and knives drawn on me, but never with the frequency these kids experienced.

I bought copies for everyone the book The Rose That Grew From Concrete by Tupac Shakur. For many of them it was their first book ever and opened the to start reading and writing poetry.

The Rose that Grew from Concrete to Overcome Villains but ultimately succumb to them as well

They were caught off guard by someone not from their hood but could connect with them at this level. These students had never read a book. They now walked around proudly this book and new found faith in their own abilities. Writing their open poems about their own lives, they asked for other book suggestions. They were able now to appreciate Shakespeare was just writing from the context of life in his world at his time…

Villain Quotes

“You should never view your challenges as a disadvantage. Instead, it’s important for you to understand that your experience facing and overcoming adversity is actually one of your biggest advantages.
– Michelle Obama Commencement Address

“There is no better than adversity. Every defeat, every heartbreak, every loss, contains its own seed, its own lesson on how to improve your performance next time.”
– Malcolm X

“A man of character finds a special attractiveness in difficulty, since it is only by coming to grips with difficulty that he can realize his potentialities.”
Charles De Gaulle

“One who gains strength by overcoming obstacles possesses the only strength which can overcome adversity.”
– Albert Schweitzer

“Just as we develop our physical muscles through overcoming opposition – such as lifting weights – we develop our character muscles by overcoming challenges and adversity. “
-Stephen Covey

“You gain strength, courage, and confidence by every experience in which you really stop to look fear in the face. You are able to say to yourself, ‘I lived through this horror. I can take the next thing that comes along.’”
– Eleanor Roosevelt

“Think like a queen. A queen is not afraid to fail. Failure is another stepping stone to greatness.”
– Oprah Winfrey

“Women, like men, should try to do the impossible. And when they fail, their failure should be a challenge to others.”
– Amelia Earhart

“You may not control all the events that happen to you,
but you can decide not to be reduced by them.”
– Maya Angelou

The moment we believe that success is determined by an ingrained level of ability as opposed to resilience and hard work, we will be brittle in the face of adversity.” “I have never considered myself a prodigy. Others have used that term, but I never bought in to it.
– Joshua Waitzkin, former world champion at chess and then world champion at Tai Chi

“There are uses to adversity, and they don’t reveal themselves until tested. Whether it’s serious illness, financial hardship, or the simple constraint of parents who speak limited English, difficulty can tap unexpected strengths.”
– Sonia Sotomayo

See Also

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 people 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 and family.

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 hours at work than anywhere else in their life. We, as their managers, bear a huge responsibility in making that experience enjoyable, fruitful and fulfilling. Successfully helping a team member find fulfillment in their job, we ourselves may derive a great deal from that experience. More on the manager’s responsibility at Where to Begin the Journey.

3. The Spin-Up Buddy or 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 confidant 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 than 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. They 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 of doing 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 (The Lean Startup), we were not only doing MVPs (Minimal Viable Products), but we were deploying code to production in incremental changes every ~40 minutes. I helped bring that down under 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

Firing Bullets then Cannonballs

In his book, Great by Choice, Jim Collins uses the following metaphor (backed by lots of real world examples):

Talent Code Applied: Fire Bullets, then Cannonballs

Excerpt from Great by Choice: Picture yourself at sea, a hostile ship bearing down on you. You have a limited amount of gunpowder. You take all your gunpowder and use it to fire a big cannonball. The cannonball flies out over the ocean…and misses the target, off by 40 degrees. You turn to your stockpile and discover that you’re out of gunpowder. You die. But suppose instead that when you see the ship bearing down, you take a little bit of gunpowder and fire a bullet. It misses by 40 degrees. You make another bullet and fire. It misses by 30 degrees. You make a third bullet and fire, missing by only 10 degrees. The next bullet hits—ping!—the hull of the oncoming ship. Now, you take all the remaining gunpowder and fire a big cannonball along the same line of sight, which sinks the enemy ship. You live. 

Referring back to the example of Joe at the top of the hill. We could have chosen to point our skis straight downhill and just go for it. That may have been the fastest means to get to the bottom of the hill, much as starting by firing the cannonball. It likewise could have ended in demise or serious injury for Joe. The short traverses were the equivalent of firing bullets first. “First, you fire bullets (low-cost, low-risk, low-distraction experiments) to figure out what will work—calibrating your line of sight by taking small shots.

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.

The Room Where it Happens

As leaders, much of the magic happens in the one-on-one conversations either in the privacy of a physical of virtual room (think Skype or Zoom) or on a walk-about as a more neutral setting and where you also benefit from the energy of being in Motion. These conversations should sometimes be as non-threatening as a walk in the park and other times be as invigorating as a race up the stadium stairs.

We should consciously and actively have a genuine interest in helping our team members develop and find what motivates them. It is vital that you establish the trust such that the person you’re working with has no doubt you have their best interest at heart (rather than having them wonder if you might be solving towards getting more work out of them). This sets the context for together solving challenges and finding opportunities. If you don’t establish the trust in that intent, you’ll be starting at a place where they will be defensive about your calling out challenges they have.

The room where it happens is perhaps not quite the same as the free-association couch, but still a good place to connect.

One thing to keep in mind is what not to talk about – things typically discussed in other meetings.

Effective 1-on-1s - What not to talk about

Google suggests What do you want? as an opener. I tend to prefer starting with understanding what they do and don’t enjoy at work to help them consider what it is they want. I like, especially in skip-levels, to start with Start with: Are you happy? I have found the most passionate and productive engineers are the ones that really enjoy what they’re doing. If there’s hesitation, then it’s a great thread to pull to unravel a good insightful story.

The Coach’s Training Institute has a collection of sample powerful questions to help spawn a conversation,

In Google’s Project Oxygen, the top three items on their list of an effective manager come out to be:

  1. Be a good coach.
  2. Empower; don’t micromanage.
  3. Be interested in direct reports, success and well-being.

Underlying causes of unhappiness can be that be beneficial to explore; areas where I’ve often uncovered some frustration that benefited from some attention include:

  • Purpose: why am I doing what I’m doing? Often an engineer may not appreciate the value of what they’re are working on by itself or relative to other things. This is a great conversation to have because either you haven’t explained it well enough in the past, or they’re right, there are more important things they could be working on. Either outcome adds value.
  • Motivation: people can lose their drive or hunger for something they’ve been doing for a long time. It;’s great to explore what may interest them as soon as possible so that you can together look for opportunities.
  • Craft: Employees take pride in their craft. If they feel rushed into doing a quick and dirty job or not challenged to enhance their craft, the engagement may fade.
  • Efficiency: No employee likes external influences getting in the way of them doing their job. It’s good to know if/when they feel systems are too slow, resources too constrained, processes too cumbersome, test and/or build runs too long, … These are all great opportunities for a manager to improve an employees effectiveness and engagement.
  • Autonomy: Another thing that can drain an employee’s motivation and make them less effective is if they feel to dependent on others for collaboration, support, approval, unblocking, etc. Here too a manager can offer value by reducing or eliminating obstacle to autonomy.
  • Conflict: There can be conflict within the team or with other teams. This too is a great opportunity for the manager to coach the employee through conflict resolution.

In her book Radical Candor – Be a Kick-Ass Boss Without Losing Your Humanity Kim Scott dives into the notion of how be the nice manager who empathizes may not be the most helpful to our employees that also could benefit from the true compassion of being willing to have more candid conversations. See also my post on Meaningful Feedback Conversations. 
Note, there is also benefit in making it a two way street by building a trust relationship where you also encourage getting some radical candor coming back on things you could do better.

Radical Candor in the Mirror

Martha Duesterhoft also talks about 5 Coaching Skills Every Manager Needs:

  1. Take an Ask vs. Tell approach (or as Intuit calls it Sell vs Tell).
  2. —Focus on the employee vs. the task
  3. It’s not about “fixing” anyone.
  4. Set up a clear accountability structure for action & outcomes.
  5. Coaching can/should happen as needed and in-the-moment (but not in public

Which is also reminiscent of what I learned at Intuit about Sell vs Tell – it’s more effective to see someone on the merits of doing something than to simply tell them to do it – you get more buy-in, engagement and often a better outcome as they appreciate what you’re trying to solve for and find the best solution rather just implementing the solution you had in mind…

I have also found it useful to sometimes do a five whys analysis of understanding the root causes of why someone may be frustrated, unhappy or demotivated.

See also:

Precision Questions and Precision Answers where JD opens with:

“It is not the answer that enlightens, but the question.”
– Eugene Ionesco –

3 Questions to More Insightful Team Management where Ferhan Elvanoglu suggests asking:

  1. Where is your heart ?

  1. What does growth look like for you ?
  2. Aside from financial rewards, what is the best way to reward you ? And what is the best way to give you bad news or feedback ?

In Drive – The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us, Dan Pink explores interesting aspects of what motivates us:

  • Autonomy (Don’t micromanage – it’s a sure-fire way to take the wind out of their sails.)
  • Mastery (Help find ways to master their craft; show genuine appreciation for it.)
  • Purpose (Why do you come to work, why do you work for this company and not another, what, in your eyes, is our business’ purpose, how does that align with what you see as your prupose, and what do you hope to impact by working at here?)

See also TED Talk by Dan Pink: The puzzle of motivation or for those a slightly more fun/visible interpretation:

Show-Personal-Interest-2-1024x541 copy
National award-winning Palo Alto teacher takes unusual approach

Levels in the Room
Another level of thinking about the Room Where it Happens comes in the context of framing styles of leadership in the fish story:

  • Level 1 leading – The Micromanager – tells them what to do – gives them a fish. There are some leaders that can be surprisingly effective in this mode if they happen to be experts at what they do, fast on their feet and full of energy. I’ve seen successful VPs operate at this level.

  • Level 2 leading – The Instructor – shows them how to do it – teaches them to fish. Now they can repeat the task themselves.
  • Level 3 guiding – The Eye-Opener – bestows the grit, confidence and experiences, insight and tools allowing them to solve whatever may come – teaches them to learn so they might obtain various forms of food.
  • Level 4 guiding – The Leader of Leaders – enables/teaches others to become level 2. 3 and 4 leaders.
  • Level 5 guiding – The Master Whisperer – operates at levels 3 and 4 with such subtly that the recipient often doesn’t notice they are being guided by shining a light on possibilities and possible perspectives. A level 1 or 2 leader may also not recognize when there’s a level 5 leader on their team.

Level 1 and 2 leadership often leads to underutilized or diminish the potential of members of their team.

Level 3 and above leadership empowers, inspires, grows and scales teams and organizations.

One way to test if you’ve have a level 5 connection, is to start a conversation by saying: “Close your eyes, recognize that you know me, know yourself, know what’s transpired, you what you intend to ask me or talk about and recognize what I’d say and where we’d end up. Try that for 10 minutes.” Surprisingly often, people you’ve spent enough time with will be able to do that. This means they can carry you with them as a subconscious guide. For people who miss the guidance of a parent or partner that has passed, this exercise usually helps them realize that person is still there to be called upon for guidance.

See also:

Hamilton - The Room Where It Happens

Heart Rate Meditation

HEart-Ani-280x300There are advantages for mind, body and soul to being calm oneself to be more present and aware. Much of the guidance on meditation starts with focusing on the breath. I found it to be more effective to practice Heart Rate Meditation by focusing via direct feedback. Also, a key to consciously changing your heart rate is to adjust your breathing.

In 2006. the Pacific drove me into the sand breaking 5 vertebrae, one shoulder, one collar bone and one rib. There was little for me to do other than lie in the hospital bed and try not to move. On the nightstand I could see the SpO2 monitor which showed me my heart rate and oxygen. I remembered my Tai Chi / Qi Gong Master, Lee Holden, had talked about consciously lowering one’s heart rate. So, I worked on keeping the oxygen above 90% while lowering my heart rate to 40. This also proved to be a great way for me to remove myself from the pain.


Since then, I have leveraged this Heart Rate Meditation to settle my breathing and heart-rate. It brings me into a state of tremendous inner peace and tranquility. Simulataneously, it also seeming to open me to a greater awareness – strange as that may sound. The direct feedback loop of an SpO2 meter helps in learning to influence your heart rate and breathing.

Scientifc American Phsychology beyond the brain Headline

The Heart – Mind Connection

Scientific American: Psychology beyond the Brain reveals insights into how your heart rate has a surprising influence on our abilities:

“Psychology’s recognition of the body’s influence on the mind coincides with a recent focus on the role of the heart in our social psychology. It turns out that the heart is not only critical for survival, but also for how people related to one another. In particular, heart rate variability (HRV), variation in the heart’s beat-to-beat interval, plays a key role in social behaviors ranging from decision-making, regulating one’s emotions, coping with stress, and even academic engagement. Decreased HRV appears to be related to depression and autism and may be linked to thinking about information deliberately. Increased HRV, on the other hand, is associated with greater social skills such as recognizing other people’s emotions and helps people cope with socially stressful situations, such as thinking about giving a public speech or being evaluated by someone of another race.”

The feedback loop enabled by an SpO2 meter helps in training yourself to control your heart rate meditation. You will discover a keep part of that is slow, steady, deep breathing. Neuroscientists have identified how exactly a deep breath changes your mind speaks to how breathing impact brain function…

“Simply put, changes in breathing—for example, breathing at different paces or paying careful attention to the breaths—were shown to engage different parts of the brain…
..The findings provide neural support for advice individuals have been given for millennia: during times of stress, or when heightened concentration is needed, focusing on one’s breathing or doing breathing exercises can indeed change the brain. This has potential application to individuals in a variety of professions that require extreme focus and agility.”

The Benefits of Meditation

Live and Dare: “There are over 3,000 scientific studies on the benefits of meditation,” what will happen if you start meditating today?


Tai Chi / Qi Gong also solves for a healthier mind, body and soul through mind/body practices…



On January 22nd 2006, mindfulness and performance expert George Mumford told Kobe Bryant not to try to score, but just be in the moment and let the game happen. That night he scored 81 points against the Toronto Raptors.


See Also:


Building Collaborative Groups with Broken Squares

In his book The Culture Code – The Secrets of Highly Successful Groups, Daniel Coyle refers to a competition at Stanford where business students in university squared off against kindergartners. The four-person teams had to beat the clock and build a tower using uncooked spaghetti, tape and string with a marshmallow on top. You would think that obviously, the group of MBA student would easily outperform a group of kindergartners. It turns out it’s good to act like a bunch of 5-year-olds – well, at least when it comes to working in a groups. The kindergartners do better than the business school students.

He further mentions a “sociometer” which can measure the energy level of an interaction, and use it to determine levels of engagement. Most important, it can combine its data with email and social media to form detailed maps that reveal the inner workings of a team, company, or classroom. There are lots of interesting insights he derives from that.

However, you may not wish to invest in a spaghetti tower competition or a sociometer, but you might try an exercise that’s worked for me in putting teams of four to compete against each other. It’s a fun exercise I learned on the path to my teaching credentials was Broken Squares (see various links below). You pit the groups of four against each other where each group, without speaking must complete making four squares from four envelopes of pieces give to each participant. You only win when all four squares are completed. The sets of four envelopes are grouped such that only one holds all the pieces to make a square. The others can’t successfully complete their squares unless they get pieces from the other participants including the one who had a complete set. As you observe the competing teams, you’ll often see someone compete their square and get frustrated that his or her teammates aren’t doing their part. The team that collaborates by giving up pieces (you can give but not take and no talking) of their, possibly already completed square, to allow their teammates to all complete their squares is the one that gets all four squares.

Broken Squares Version 3 - Stanford ED 284Observing the group dynamics and then talking them through can be quite insightful – you might even choose to make the envelopes with a complete set to the people that tend to be leaders to help them discover how effectively and collaboratively they lead.

In The Culture Code – The Secrets of Highly Successful Groups, Daniel Coyle goes into the various aspects of how teams function effectively. After doing a broken squares exercise, this might be a good book to suggest to your leaders.

See Also:

Level 5 Leading

I like to framing styles of leadership as I see them in the fish story. I’m adding a level 5 here that is not as easy to grasp as the others:

  • Level 1 leading – The Micromanager – tells them what to do – gives them a fish. There are some leaders that can be surprisingly effective in this mode if they happen to be experts at what they do, fast on their feet and full of energy. I’ve seen successful VPs operate at this level.
  • Level 2 leading – The Instructor – shows them how to do it – teaches them to fish. Now they can repeat the task themselves.
  • Level 3 guiding – The Eye-Opener – bestows the grit, confidence and experiences, insight and tools allowing them to solve whatever may come – teaches them to learn so they might obtain various forms of food.
  • Level 4 guiding – The Leader of Leaders – enables/teaches others to become level 2. 3 and 4 leaders.
  • Level 5 guiding – The Master Whisperer – starts by operating at levels 3 and 4 with increasing subtly that the recipient often doesn’t notice they are being guided. A level 1 or 2 leader may also not recognize when there’s a level 5 leader on their team.
    A more direct introduction of Level 5 guiding is to take a client/employee you’ve been meeting for a while and on the next meeting/session, ask them to think about what they’d like to discuss (either new topic or a continuation of a past interaction) and keep it to themselves. Then ask them to close their eyes and listen.  Ask them if they feel they know you by know. Then tell them to keep their eyes closed and image the conversation as they know it would unfold – assure them they know you well enough so that they can predict what you will ask, how they will respond, what you’ll say next … Let them do this for 5-10 minutes. When they seem done, ask them if they feel they got a fair amount of it figured out. Then ask them to think a little more deeply about what they were unsure about and reassure them, they’ll figure it out. With this, you can demonstrate how they can consciously and eventually subconsciously channel the coaching and mentoring you would have done and thereby channel you. If far enough along, they can master this skill themselves – if you’ve been helping them along well, they will know that all the answers to their questions can be found within themselves (perhaps with the help of looking at them from perspectives other their own, but nonetheless ones they know.
    I have thus also helped people channel parents, partners and good friends they’ve lost whom they liked to go to for meaningful conversations. If they were close to the person, they know what that person would say and ask. They consistently discover that the person they lost is actually very much still with them – there to be called upon any time.
    The Level 5 Master leaves others with the ability to leverage them as their guide even long after they are gone.

Level 3 and above leadership empowers, inspires, grows and scales teams and organizations.

Level 1 and 2 leadership often leads to under-utilize or diminish the potential of members of their team.

Often people have a hard time imagining Level 5 guiding. Below is one illustration of how this can be done in the Room Where it Happens:

To operate at Level 5, consider having a form or questionnaire to offer at the end of one meeting and to be completed prior to meeting along the lines of:

  • What happened since we last met?
    • What worked?
    • What didn’t work?
  • – Did anything happen related to what was discussed last time?
    • What worked?
    • What didn’t work?
  • What do you want to talk about?
  • What do you hope to get into / work on after the upcoming meeting?

Now, at the meeting time, let them know that for the first five minutes you’d like them to close there eyes so they don’t get any visual queues from you. Let them know that for that time you’re not going say a word or make a sound and they should remain silent as well. Then inform them after those five minutes, you’re going to ask them what you would have just discussed if their had been a dialog.

When that look of disbelief and confusion comes back, help them. Help them realize they know what happened since the last meeting, they know what worked and what didn’t, they know what lies ahead that they want to work on. Remind them that they know you, you know them and they know themselves. Now ask them to close their eyes and mentally go through the conversation and interaction as they know would unfold in that room if it were a dialog.

When the five minutes have passed, ask them to open their eyes. Ask them if they believe they may have mostly gotten it right. If/when they agree, ask them if they could also imagine there was something they missed. If/when they agree, ask them to tell you what they forgot to tell you or what they weren’t clear on how you would respond. Have them tell you what they overlooked and/or what they actually know about how you would respond, what questions you would ask, what action you would ask them to take. If you have built the connection and relationship well, they will also be able to answer those questions.

Now, ask them if they could do this exercise if you happened not to be in the room. Could it still happen in that room if you weren’t present? Ask them if it might be possible that at at time where it would help and/or at a prescribed time/interval they could create a room where it happens in their minds and close their eyes to “sit” in that room and have the conversation in their mind. Mind you, as a leader, it’s important to help them appreciate you’re not abdicating responsibility, but rather delegating it which could open the door to richer conversations with you to explore new avenues of growth and development for them.

Can you build a connection that allows them to create the notion of a virtual captain to guide their vessel that they could call upon at will? This can help remove a dependence, empower them and free you to move onto to do some work with another vessel.

If you work with them to together create their own captain, they can hear what their captain whispers in the room where it happens even when they are alone and physically somewhere else. It might help them to step outside of the physical space they are in, close their eyes and listen to the whispers.