A. B. Clarke

Category: Management

Staying Sane: Lead, Don’t Manage

by abclarke

(5e of 5 in The Rules of Naked Management)

Trying to stay sane as a manager? This is the final step in doing that. Warning: there is some profanity in this article.

The Shit

I’ve worked with some pretty smart people(1), and when thinking about this article one of them consistently came to mind.

This person, whom I’ll call Todd(2), was an extremely smart engineer. Not only that, Todd had a lot of personal integrity, had strong opinions he could persuasively argue about, could persevere through a lot, and could be, when times demanded it, quite charming. Todd had all the right talents for getting shit done, and so should have risen up high in the organization.

But he didn’t – instead the organization shat all over him!

He had risen to a mid-management level, but he wasn’t able to rise higher. And, he wanted to. He made clear to me many times how he desired to be seen as a leader by his peers, be given a title that reflected his leadership, and be afforded the respect that his clear talents warranted.

Yet constantly, the organization blocked him; his management would not give him the title and leadership position he knew he deserved. What’s worse, his prestige seemed to be waning. When hard problems came up, senior management turned more often to one of Todd’s co-workers, a guy named Bill(3). Bill’s opinion was solicited by others when making strategic decision, whereas Todd found he had to force himself into strategic conversations. Bill was approached for fun new projects first, whereas Todd had to explicitly ask to be involved. (Now, Todd had been at the company for a long time and so, given his seniority, was able to force his involvement, but he knew he was doing the forcing.)

Eventually Todd had enough of this shit and decided to leave that company to try his talents elsewhere.

Why Lead?

Which brings me to the topics I have for this final essay: why you should aspire to lead; and how to become a leader.

Todd wanted to be a leader, and it was easy to understand why. If an organization sees you as a leader, your ability to get shit done increases exponentially.

Why?

If you’re just managing people, you’re trying to convince them to do things they probably don’t want to do. But, if you’re leading people, they do what you need them to do because they want to do it.

The difference is night and day. When you’re leading, people go above and beyond what you ask them to do because they want to impress you and they don’t want to disappoint you. You spend less time having to track how others spend time, and you start getting almost double out of your team.

I’ve managed teams where I was just seen as a manager, and it was hard work and not fun. I felt I had to constantly watch over people’s shoulders to make sure things were on track. I had an upset stomach almost the entire time.

But I’ve also managed teams where people saw me as a leader, and wow, did we get a lot more shit done together then. And it was more fun to boot – I looked forward to coming to work, and felt a lot healthier as a result.

If you’re the type of person who likes to get shit done, who wouldn’t want to be a leader?

So given that, how do you become a leader?

How to Lead

That’s easy; it’s the simplest rule of all the Rules of Naked Management:

Stop aspiring to be a leader! Instead, start getting shit done.

Todd constantly talked about what a great leader he’d make. He made his case to lots of people by letting them know all the great stuff he would get done. And had he actually done the stuff he was talking about, the entire engineering organization would have followed him to the moon. But people didn’t follow him because frankly people don’t like to follow people just because they’re told to by titles, or positions, or reputations(4). Instead they aligned around Bill because Bill didn’t worry about being perceived as a leader; Bill worried about getting shit done, constantly got new shit done, and kept challenging himself to get even more shit done. And as a result people followed him.

Think about all the leaders you’ve followed in your career, and you’ll probably notice the common theme: none of them worry most about being seen as a leader; they worry about getting lots of different shit done. (Oh yes, sometimes they have to be seen as a leader to get some goals accomplished, but it’s the goals that are obviously motivating them, not the leadership position.)

And then ask yourself why you considered that person a leader?

  • Was it because they asked you to follow them and you agreed because you were asked? Nope
  • Was it because they demanded you respect them? Absolutely not.
  • Was it because he or she was a nice guy? Probably not.
  • Was it because other people saw them as a leader? Probably not.
  • Was it because you felt this person could get the right shit done consistently? Absolutely.

So, right now if you think you want to be seen as a leader, SHUT THE FUCK UP!

Instead, focus on getting shit done! And be warned, once you start getting shit done, you’ll find that people will start asking for you to help, will start asking you to weigh on important issues, and will start following you.

Constantly get more and different shit done, and one day without even realizing it, someone will point out you’re a leader.

Getting Shit Done

And Getting the Right Shit Done is what this series of articles has been about. And, almost four months after I started what I thought was going to be a 4-week set of articles, this series is now done. Hopefully some of the techniques work for you.

I’d write more, but I’ve got a bunch of shit I need to be doing for Vlideshow right now, so I’m going back to that. By the way, if you happen to be a Flex & ActionScript or Flash & Actionscript genius and want to work at a cool company, drop me a line at aclarke at vlideshow.com.

By the way, next week I start a new series of articles. I don’t know what they’re about yet, so feel free to send me suggestions 🙂

– Art

(1) I like to be the person on any team who brings down the “smartness” average.

(2) Not his real name.

(3) Also not his real name.

(4) In a funny twist, all the members of the senior management team told me separately that they would love to give Todd the title he wanted, but first they wanted to see him do the job without the title for six months.

Staying Sane: Kill Some Puppies

by abclarke

(5d of 5 in The Rules of Naked Management)

Trying to stay sane as a manager? This is the third step in doing that.

Back on the Farm

I grew up on a farm in Ireland where at one time or another we raised cows, chickens, rabbits, turkeys, peacocks, goats and pigs. Every one of those was a cash crop, and while it cost us money to feed them, my father knew that ultimately we’d sell them at market for a profit so it was worth the short term cost.

But we also had dogs, and while arguably the dogs could assist in hunting, the truth is we kept them purely for companionship.

When I was about 8 my father got a puppy(1) for each of his four children. But no one in our backwoods part of Ireland could afford to pay a vet to neuter dogs. As a result, by the time I was eleven, we had 22 dogs on the farm(2). You couldn’t move in the farmyard without stepping on one of them.

To someone not familiar with living on a farm, this might even seem cute. But on a farm that every year struggled to make a profit (and therefore feed our family), these dogs presented a real problem: every day they drank an entire barrel of milk, and given our farm only produced 30 barrels a day, they were consuming over 3% of our dairy output. In good years, my father would only eke a small profit from his farm, so literally these dogs were threatening to eat us out of house and home.

Something had to be done. The question was what? We couldn’t give away the dogs; there were already too many dogs on farms in Ireland. In reality there were only three options:

Feed all the puppies

Certainly the best short term option for the dogs, but bad in the long term for them. If the farm went out of business, then all the dogs would starve and die. Not good.

Starve all the puppies

This would potentially keep the farm profitable and therefore in a position to starve the dogs for a long time, but would ultimately lead to sickly dogs spreading disease everywhere. Not good.

Kill some puppies

A horrible thought, but for the surviving dogs, it meant sufficient food, and for the farm it meant survival as well.

Ultimately there was no choice, and so my father, against the cries of all his sons, made the only rational choice.

He killed some puppies(3).

Managing a Puppy Farm

So, what does this have to do with staying sane as a manager? Last week I talked about how to do less more, but pointed out it would require you to not do some things that are on your list of responsibilities.

But in a management context, it’s hard to say no.

A former VP at Tellme explained it like this to me: every day you come to work and you have 10 different things you have to do but can only get 8 done. It’s like you have 10 puppies, all looking up at you with their big eyes, and begging to be fed. And the reality is you only have enough food for 8. What do you do?

In order to stay sane you need to do the same responsible thing my father did; you need to kill some puppies. Why is that?

Well, let’s look at the same three options again:

Feed all the puppies

You could increase the amount of time you work so that you can spend time with all your tasks. This will work in the short term, but you’ll exhaust yourself very quickly and this can lead to burnout, which ends up hurting all the things you work on. Not a good option.

Starve all the puppies

You could spend a little time on each task, but not as much as necessary to do a good job. But, you’ll find pretty quickly that that will results in things getting half done or worse, and you’ll feel pressured to spend more time fixing problems that came about because you didn’t do it right the first time. Not a good option.

Kill some puppies

This means you decide not to do some things, and you tell people in advance. In the short term they are disappointed, but they adapt quickly, and soon you find you can spend more time on the things that matter. In other words, short-term pain but long-term effectiveness.

The only rational choice is to either feed a puppy, or kill the puppy, but never starve the puppy. In other words, either fully work on a task or problem, or don’t work on it. But don’t ever try to half-do it. Again, this idea isn’t unique to me (IBM’s management team used the expression “feed a monkey or shoot a monkey, but never starve a monkey”).

Assuming I’ve convinced you that you need to NOT DO some tasks, then the question becomes how do you not do something when you have lots of puppy owners yelling at you to feed their puppies. Here’s the ways that have worked for me.

Know Your Puppy Owners

The first trick here is to know your puppy owners. Make sure you’ve build strong relationships with any decision makers who are going to depend on you, outside the context of just your job responsibilities. If you’re given a big project that they depend on, take them to lunch first and get to know them as individuals before you have to tell them no. Find out about their families, and their lives. Share information about yourself. Get to know them as a person, and help them understand that you are a human being too – not just a resource in another team.

You can’t always tell when you get a project that you’ll need to reprioritize it later, so always invest in getting to know the people upfront. Ultimately if you need to reschedule or renegotiate a deliverable, it’s much easier if you actually like your counterpart and he or she likes you.

As a side note, don’t try to build a relationship in anticipation of saying no. In other words, if you already know you’re going to tell that person no, but don’t have a relationship yet, it’s too late to try building one. Instead, you need to recruit other supporters who have relationships with that decision-maker, and you have to fall back on the other options here.

Find Three Ways to Kill a Puppy

Sometimes you can tell people no directly, but in business that’s often not an option. So instead, fall back on this rule. Never say “no” directly; instead present your decision maker with at least three solutions they can choose from to move forward. This rule was explained to me as follows:

One is an ultimatum; two is a dilemma; three are options!

When you have to renege on a commitment, don’t just tell the person who you have to disappoint “no”. That raises their defenses and gets into a pissing match. Instead before you say no, think from their perspective (which is why you should know your puppy owner first) and try to figure out at least three different options you could offer them. Sure, they won’t be as good as had you gotten what they wanted done, but if you’re disappointing a higher-up decision maker, but you present them with three options to move forward, your discussion will center around your options (so you’re controlling the fall out) and the higher-up will usually appreciate the effort you made to think of solutions(5).

Good executives know that the unexpected happens and that some things don’t get done the way they were planned, but reward their managers to think through solutions to get around the unexpected.

Never Kill a Puppy by Surprise

Peter Drucker said:

Never give your manager a bad surprise. And there is no such thing as a good surprise.

This dictum is a great thing to remember when dealing with your own manager, but it especially applies to saying no. Never inform someone that a deliverable or project was missed after the fact. If you do, you will lose their trust very quickly (you didn’t even give them an ultimatum). This means keep good track of who you owe what to (I use the task list I talked about last week) and every day, figure out who you’re going to disappoint.

People don’t like to get bad news, but they really appreciate it when given the news with enough time that they can react to it.

Kill Puppies in Public

This last rule is extremely important. Assuming you’ve informed all affected decision makers, given them their options, and guided them to agree to a solution, you must make sure to publically let folks know the puppy is dead.

Why is this? During renegotiations to “kill a puppy” your stakeholders will usually agree to an option; that’s because they are in crisis mode. Hard decisions get made when folks are in crisis mode.

But once they feel the crisis has passed, there is a very human tendency to fall back on the way things were. That might include their assuming “oh, Art couldn’t do it this one time, but he’ll get it done the next time.” As a result you may find your puppy coming back to life over and over again.

To minimize the chance of this happening, document the decision and communicate widely that the puppy is dead. If a project just got killed, e-mail out the decision in a short e-mail to all the project teams and stakeholders. If you’ve just agreed to divest some responsibilities and some other team agreed to take them, announce it at the largest meeting you can find, and take questions with your other stakeholders there. Once you’ve publically declared something dead, and your stakeholders have not objected in public (and how can they since they just agreed to the same thing in private) it becomes much more difficult for them to back out of their agreement.

Of all the rules for killing puppies, this one is most often ignored, and yet it’s probably most important. Like the rest of the principles of transparency that apply to Naked Management, transparency in killing puppies makes you even more effective.

Finally

But here’s the truth. If you do the things I suggest to stay sanelove thyself; do less more; and kill some puppies – your life will become more livable and you will become a better manager. But you won’t become a great manager. That’s because there is one last thing you need to do, and that’s “lead, don’t manage.” Which is the last (finally) rant in this series of rants, and I’ll talk about it next week.

– Art

(1) This story is actually mostly true, with one slight detail switch. In reality, we had 22 cats, not dogs. But I’m changed the story to puppies, because when I learned this analogy for the management principle from a former VP at Tellme (now working here) her expression was “killing puppies.” By the way, I’m confident she didn’t mean this definition of “killing puppies.”

(2) It appears that Irish dogs (well, cats) are Catholic.

(3) As I mentioned above, the actual events happened with cats, not dogs. And technically my dad didn’t kill them; instead he gave them all away to a factory that produced pig food. Now, before you get too appalled let me explain. He thought he’d have to kill a couple of them because no one usually would adopt 18+ cats, but when discussing it over beers with a friend who owned the pig factory his friend suggested a solution: The pig farm had a big problem with rats eating all their pig food and my dad’s friend realized that feeding the cats milk, if they took care of the rats, would cost him less than the lost food. In this case, a good solution was found at the last moment, but the fact is my dad had to get rid of the cats. As a manager, you also need to get rid of the puppies or kittens you can’t feed. (4)

(4) OK, funny (and still true) story here. Two years later the pig factory owner convinced another farmer to give him about 5 extra dogs he had. Why? Well, it turns out our cats had figured out that there was an easier way to get fed than catch rats all day; the cats just started eating the pig food. Instead of killing the cats, the farmer decided to get dogs to chase them away. I don’t know what happened after that, but I wouldn’t be surprised if the dogs started eating the food and the factory-owner got a horse to chase the dogs away. In a way, the pig farmer was just like the old lady who swallowed a fly.

(5) By the way, be open to fourth and fifth options that become apparent as you discuss things with the decision maker. By already bringing 3 to the table, the decision maker will often use their powers to come up with options that are even better for both of you.

Staying Sane: Do Less More

by abclarke

(5c of 5 in The Rules of Naked Management)

Trying to stay sane as a manager? This is the second step in doing that.

Why Do I Write This Blog?

It’s Friday at 6:30pm now, and as I write this I’m asking myself why. It takes time for me to this, time that would be spent on Vlideshow, time that could be spent at the gym, or time that could be spent having fun. It’d be so much easier to just punt this, and “do it next week”.

Heck, would it really matter if I didn’t write this at all? I mean it’s important to me in the long term as part of my philosophy of running naked(1), but it’s not really urgent. I think I’ll skip it this week.

The Trap

The reality is I have more things to do each day than I can possibly do in the time allotted, and several of those are urgent things. Today for example I had a meeting I agreed to take with another entrepreneur, I had a meeting scheduled with a recruit, I had some Flash coding (yes… I’m writing code these days) for my upcoming Vlideshow user test, a call with a business mentor, a meeting for a board I’m on, and a bunch of other things. And I had to write this blog entry. I was totally overcommitted today, and I knew it as soon as I got up.

I’ve mentioned it’s a trap; and it applies to the Entrepreneur as much as it does the manager. As you progress as a manager and get more successful, you’ll be asked to do more and harder things, but because they are harder things you’ll actually be able to effectively do less and less. The traditional answer is to delegate (less of an option for me these days), and while that’s necessary, it’s not sufficient. You’ll find that even after you’ve delegated all the things you can away, you still have more to do than is possible. You need to do more than just that.

The Answer

The answer is simple: don’t try to do everything. Do less. And the trick to that consists of two parts:

  1. Learn the difference between important and urgent tasks and concentrate on the important.
  2. Recognize you’re not going to get everything done, and choose the right things to not do.

Let’s talk about the first one of those parts.

Urgently Important

Urgent tasks demand attention. Urgent tasks are the person from finance yelling for your quarterly sales projections; Urgent tasks are your boss demanding you to fix a programming bug that is crashing your company’s website; Urgent tasks are the instant-message window that just popped up from a friend asking where you want to go for dinner tonight. Urgent tasks are the e-mail from a development manager asking you to read a 12-page product presentation they have and give them feedback in 2-hours before their meeting with the CEO. They are the things that if you don’t respond in the moment, someone gets upset.

Important tasks are the things that if you don’t do will eventually result in you failing in your goal.

But, it’s worth noting that not all tasks are urgent, and not all tasks are important. Some tasks are urgent but not important (e.g. responding about dinner). Others are important but not urgent (e.g. for me, writing this blog entry). Broadly you can categorize any tasks you have based on how important and how urgent they are and figure out which of the following categorizes it belongs in:

The trick do “Doing Less More” is simple. Each day:

  • Do all the tasks in box 1 that must be done;
  • Do at least one task in box 2;
  • Try to avoid tasks in box 3, but recognize you’ll have to do some of them;
  • Don’t do any tasks in box 4 until they “graduate” to box 3.

Doing Less More

As usual with me, this isn’t something that I invented. Lots of folks have recognized the difference between “important” and “urgent” (sometimes called “tactical” and “strategic”). For example, see Getting Things Done. But here’s how I do it.

  • I maintain a list of “strategic” things I need to do (with corresponding due days), and a list of “tactical bullshit” I need to do (with corresponding due days).
  • Every night, I create my to-do list for the next day. I used to do it on paper (in a black book I would carry) but these days I just do it in Microsoft Word. I always leave the top entry on my to-do list empty to start.
  • I fill in the remaining entries with first any urgent and strategic things that must be done (box 1 above).
  • I then start listing any items from box 3 that must be done tomorrow.
  • And then, I look at box 2. I take one item from box 2, and I fill in the blank top entry on my to-do list. That becomes my top priority for the next day.
  • In the unlikely event that my to-do list has less than 5-7 entries, then I add other things from box 2 to the bottom of the list.
  • If my entry has more than 7 entries, I look at every entry below 7 and find some way to punt it (e.g. delegate, or just don’t do it). Seriously – I kill those puppies. I don’t do it. It sometimes means I piss people off, but that’s the nature of killing puppies.
  • Then, the next day at work, I start working off my list and I DON’T STOP WORK UNTIL THE TOP TASK ON THE LIST IS DONE.

There are two odd things about how I do this (different that things like GTD recommend):

  1. I prioritize one non-urgent but important task (box-2) above all the other urgent-and-important tasks (box-1). Why? In the short term (when I started doing this) it meant I had to work hard to get through all my box-1 tasks and get the box-2 tasks done, but after a while the investment I made in “farming” box 2 started paying off, and my box-1 tasks decreased (because I wasn’t procrastinating as much).
  2. I choose 5-7 tasks because as a manager I found most tasks took me about 10 to 30 minutes, so doing 5-7 filled up about 50% of my day, leaving time for other interrupts. If a task takes longer than 30 minutes, then I schedule fewer things for that day. You need to recognize as a manager that at best 50% of your time will be under your control.

It sounds like a lot, but with practice you can get very fast at it. At this stage, it takes me 60 seconds to do this exercise every night. Most folks I know who have similar systems also spend no more than 1-2 minutes each day maintaining it. And during the day, as things get out of plan, I just start jettisoning things lower on the list. For example today, I punted on my flash code so I can write this blog (which since it’s not on my software critical path right now, is the right decision to make).

What Happens When You Do Less

A strange thing happens when you do less. I’ve found that once I started doing this, I pissed off some people in the short-term, but usually (sorry) they were people who cared about non-important tasks, and there was little long term damage to me. But I also found I developed a reputation for getting “important things” done, and people started giving me more important things to do.

Why is that? Well, come review time it becomes obvious: people care that you got the important things done, not that you reacted quickly to some urgent tasks 4 months ago.

What Happens When You Don’t Do Something

Still, just deciding to “not do something” may seem hard. And it is. But fortunately, there are ways to make that easier too, and that’s what killing puppies is all about. Which I’ll continue next week.

– Art

(1) In the short term it absolutely wouldn’t matter. I know that. But in the long term, if punting became the pattern, I’d lose sight of my goal of Running Naked. I pledged to write long pieces about once every week exploring different topics that are important to me, and if I can keep a track record of doing it, I believe the discipline will help me think through a lot of my approaches to life, and ultimately help make me a better person.

 

Staying Sane: Love Thyself

by abclarke

(5b of 5 in The Rules of Naked Management)

Trying to stay sane as a manager? This is the first step in doing that.

My Wife Is Flawed

I love my wife deeply; those of you who know me closely know how true that is. We started dating almost fourteen years ago, got married six and a half years ago, and I am more in love with her today than I have ever been.

But allow me to bitch for a moment: my wife isn’t perfect! Were she a diamond in a jeweler’s hand, he’d spot all sorts of inconsistencies, imperfections, and flaws(1).

I know: woe is me!

Aw Shucks…

Yet, I love those inconsistencies, and I love those imperfections. I accept and would not want to change any of those flaws, even though I’ll admit I don’t understand some of them. To me that’s the nature of love: truly accept what you cannot change.

My wife may not be perfect, but I still wouldn’t change a thing: she’s perfect for me.

Filling The Gaps

OK, hopefully you’ve finished throwing up now. Although I do mean what I wrote above, this article is still about Naked Management so let’s get back to the topic.

Let’s talk about personal growth and how most of us approach it.

Early in my career I took a look at myself, set a vision, and asked what I needed to achieve to get there. I then identified gaps to fill, imperfections in myself, and started filling them in.

  • I felt I needed sales experience? Check, I joined a sales team.
  • I felt I didn’t know how to effectively influence executives? Check, I designed a modification of my boss’s organization in my head and then influenced a reorganization.

This was the path I followed for several years until 2004: find the next flaw, the next weakness, and fix it.

Falling Into The Gap

At first I got huge returns on my investments, but gradually “filling the gaps” became harder. For example, in 2002 I got it into my head that I needed to learn more about design and pick up some skills in that area (I picked voice design because that was what was done at my employer). I started (as a sales-engineer) suggesting designs for automated phone system interactions.

Today I’ll happily admit any of my attempts (which took hours of work on my part) were easily bettered by 5-minutes of effort on the part of one of Tellme’s talented designers. Worse, my meddling efforts pissed off several designers, so not only did I fail to pick up this skill, but I did myself measurable political damage.

Talentless Hack

In retrospect the reason I never got good at design is because inherently it’s not a skill; it’s a talent. Some things are inherent talents; you either have it or you don’t. You can improve upon the talent by learning new skills(2) and someday you can become great! But if you don’t have a talent for something, you can work hard, learn all the skills you can, and at best (with a lot of work) you’ll be merely good. Only with an innate talent will you achieve greatness.

And when it comes to interface design, I have anti-talent.

Now the difference between talents and skills is well recognized, and the advice given by many people on it is quite good. I’ll summarize. To become great in your career:

  1. Invest heavily in skills that hone your core-talents; under-invest in skills that attempt to hone talents you don’t have.
  2. Avoid positions and circumstances that require talents you don’t possess; instead try to change the circumstances to rely on talents you possess.

Official management doctrine does not suggest you ignore areas you don’t have talent in; only that you invest up to the point where it is no longer a show-stopper for your career, but no further. Better yet is to avoid (or delegate away) the responsibilities that require a given talent.

But there is one thing extra you must do that I didn’t realize until 2004, and it relates back to the fact that I love my wife.

Anti-Talents

I believe I have a talent (which is not say I’m great at it, only that I have an innate passion and ability for it) that separates me from most people: I love and thrive in times of change and chaos. My adrenaline fires up when things are going wrong and I work hard to bring about change to fix a problem. But this talent(3) comes with two flaws, one of which I always realized, and one of which took me until 2004 to realize.

The first anti-talent, the one I’ve known for years, is that when things are not in chaos or the chaos is something I’ve seen and know how to solve, I get very unhappy. Once a problem is fixed, I get bored. Once the chaos is in order, I’d rather gag myself with a spoon all day than go to work. I’ve learned to work around this by hiring people who love and excel managing during good times, and then getting out of their way.

But I only realized the second flaw in 2004. I (like most people) have a large ego. OK, I have a super large ego. Sue me. And I believe given a little time and some resources, I can solve any new problem. I still believe that today.

But the flaw was I believed I could change anything about myself: I inherently believed every flaw I have was fixable. Every imperfection was smoothable. And as I continued on my path of career growth, and my ability to change some things about myself started to wane, I grew more and more frustrated and threw myself more and more into trying to fix the unfixable. It ate me up alive.

While my burn-out occurred on a spectacularly fucked-up and mismanaged project, the reality is I was headed in that direction anyway by following the personal growth path of fix all flaws.

In short, I did not love myself.

Sanity and Love

And that’s the first trick to staying sane: Accept and love yourself.

I started out this essay by pointing out that I love my wife. That means I love both her good attributes and her imperfections. And I accept those imperfections and don’t try to change them (well, except for her penchant to remind me I’m too wordy in my writing; she’s got to stop that!).

In 2004 I realized I needed to do the same for myself. I needed to accept that although there were things I didn’t like about myself, some of them were unchangeable and I had to accept them. I will never be a great designer. I will always get bored with day-to-day operational tasks.

And my fatal flaw? The one that ultimately felled me in 2004? I will always be compulsively obsessed and addicted to something. In 2004, it was my job. I had no sense of balance and was putting my job before everything else in my life: my wife, my family, and my health.

For me it took of a crisis to jar me to life, but I’ve come to accept this flaw in myself, and now I try to use it as a talent. I’ve been trying to apply my compulsiveness to building a balance of body, mind, spirit and soul, as opposed to just succeeding at a job. And since doing that, I’ve also learned how to be more effective at my jobs, and much more content at my place in the Universe.

For each of us the flaws are different, but the key step in keeping your sanity is the same:

  1. Know your talents
  2. Know your flaws
  3. And while you should always try to improve, accept that you are who you are.

If you can do that, the other steps in keeping your sanity are just details. Really.

– Art

(1) Now, I’m not the world’s smartest man but I’m also not the world’s stupidest man, so I’m not about to detail those flaws here. Suffice it to say she has flaws.

(2) As usual, I’m not the first person to realize the distinction between skills and talents. Here’s another framework recommended to me by my friends Naomi and Rich for understanding the difference, and a tool that helps some people discover their talents versus their skills.

(3) I believe all talents come at a cost, and everyone who is insanely talented in one key area is also fatally flawed in another. And nothing they can do will ever remove the fatal flaw; they just need to manage around it. It’s almost like we were given $100 to spend on talents when we were created, and some of us choose not to spend it evenly on all talents. I imagine Jimi Hendrix choosing to spend $99 of it on musical talent, leaving self-control underinvested in. But on the flip side, if we didn’t do that, how much more boring and ugly would this world be?

The Rules For Keeping Your Sanity

by abclarke

(5a of 5 in The Rules of Naked Management)

In prior entries I talked about the keys to running naked teams: Figure out the most important thing, run a naked team, grow your naked team, and grow the individuals on your team. With all that stuff to follow, how can the Naked Manager stay sane? That’s what this last article focuses on.

The Management Paradox

A trap awaits the successful Naked Manager. It consists of two truisms:

  1. You will be asked to do more and harder things with each success
  2. You will be able to do less and less with each success

The first truism happens because other managers always give their stars more and more to do – track-records are valued more than anything else. The second truism occurs because the problems get harder, require more time, and require more thought, and despite efforts by scientists to solve the problem, there remains only 24 hours in each day.

Left alone most managers at some point (myself included) fall into the trap of taking on more and more and relying on brute-force, intellect and ego to keep up the track record. Some managers (myself included) eventually cave under the pressure.

It happened to me in 2004. I feel into the trap of working 80+ hour weeks for three months in a row and I spectacularly burned out in my job and had to take 3 months off to recover. It was the second biggest failure of my life(1), but…

Breaking the Paradox

…I had the luxury at the time of working for a company that welcomed me back (which I’ll be forever grateful for) and the time off gave me some time to create a new framework to approach my job (and my life) with, which I applied and tweaked in my next go-round of the management merry-go-round. In reality what happened was one of the best things to ever happen to me.

This series of mini-articles will detail the approach I came up with to stay sane. These are the steps:

I’ll fill in the links as I post the details. I can’t guarantee it’ll work for everyone, but I’ve had some other friends and co-workers adopt the framework and reviews are very positive. Stay tuned for the details…

– Art

(1) I may write one day about the first. However, in both cases, the lessons I learned from the failures far outweighed the pain of the failure. I’m become a real believer that failures are the key to growth in all aspects of life. In the first failure I learned what it means to really love another person (my now wife). In the second failure I learned what it really means to love myself (and no, that’s not a masturbation reference 🙂 ).

Growing Individuals: Fire Your Stars

by abclarke

(4f of 5 in The Rules of Naked Management)

You’re Fired!

In the intro to this section, I laid out my argument for why you should “fire your stars”, but to recap:

“Fire your Stars” means tangibly change the responsibilities of the best performer on your team (and optionally change their title and compensation), even if it means transferring them to another group in the company.

This goes counter to most management advice which says retain your stars at all costs, but I say “Fire your Stars” because:

  1. Without action on your part, your stars will leave anyway.
  2. By “Firing Your Stars”, you can control the timing and circumstances.
  3. Your team becomes more resilient.
  4. Your team’s morale increases.
  5. Your team’s performance reaches a higher level than before.
  6. And damn it, it’s the right thing to do for your Stars anyway.

See the intro if you want the background for why these things happen.

Your Goal

This part of Growing Individuals is deceptively simple. You’ve already identified the top performer on your team (you did it as part of Putting Your Money Where Your Mouth Is). Now, you need to set the following goal for yourself:

Within 12 months since your last top performer changed responsibilities, you will change the responsibilities of your current top performer.

That’s it. Once every 12 months should give you a maintainable rate of change. You can “Fire more Stars” if you think your organization can handle it, but the minimum is one.

Now hitting this isn’t easy, you have to do lots of things:

  1. Understand and anticipate potential opportunities for your Star within your organization or other organizations.
  2. Pre-sell potential stake holders on the change.
  3. Aggressively make your Star fill any gaps that would preclude success in the new role.
  4. Balance the reality of your organization (probably slow moving) with the expectations of your employee (wants fast change).
  5. Handle unexpected realities, such as another person quitting unexpectedly.

Worse, there is no cookbook to follow for this one either, because each individual is unique, each circumstance is unique, and each set of opportunities is unique. In other words, it’s hard.

But it’s the right place to spend your time growing individuals. It means in reality of the time you spend on “growing individuals”, you spend most time on just your top performer. But that’s ok, because by following the other rules you’ve outsourced most of the rest of the work to the other individuals on your team and as a result they are growing nicely on their own.

For The Unbelievers

Some people will try desperately hard to retain their stars through other means. Usually they resort to compensation or title changes without actual changes in responsibility. I know I have before I figured out to Fire them. I can say with certainty, having tried all combinations of ways to keep stars that “Firing Your Stars” actually leads to the best retention for your company (if not your team). Here’s a quick summary of what I’ve experienced when I had a star who wanted to grow and changed some combination of title, compensation or responsibility.

A black circle represents something changed (for example, on the first entry, I changed nothing, resulting in the Star deciding to leave the company on their own):

One Last Caveat

The key thing about “Firing Your Stars” is making sure your Star has new responsibilities. But it only works if your Star feels that they are genuinely new responsibilities, and that some of her old responsibilities no longer need to be done directly by her.

I’ve tried, and seen many managers try, to spin an increase in responsibilities as a “new job” to an employee and they see through that bullshit immediately.

Here’s the key rule of thumb: if your Star does not perceive the change in responsibilities as a real step forward in their career, then you have not “Fired Your Star”, you’ve pissed them off. Very different.

Managing The Naked Team

Still, I believe if you run a naked team, grow a naked team, and grow individuals, you’ll end up with the strongest of teams you could possibly have. But, as GNP pointed out, it’s a lot of steps to follow. How the hell do you do all this without going crazy? That’s the next topic.

– Art

Growing Individuals: Crack the Whip

by abclarke

(4e of 5 in The Rules of Naked Management)

A Coach or a Friend?

I started taking swimming lessons a few weeks ago. I’d started training for my first triathlon and I didn’t know how to swim.

My coach, Gus, is also a friend and I’ve spent a lot of time hanging out with him and his family. We’ve been to soccer games together (“Football” for the more worldly readers). I’ve babysat his kids. I’ve ridden hundreds of miles with him at my side. He’s a very good friend.

This morning I had a typical coaching experience with Gus. I had just finished a 50-yard dash in the pool, my breathing was heavy, and my legs were burning. I wanted nothing more than to rest and catch my breath. I looked up at my friend Gus and said “give me a second”.

But my friend wasn’t there. Instead my coach was, and he just said, “No. Do it again.” And I was off. Dear God, sometimes I hate my coach.

Now here’s the interesting thing: I am a much stronger swimmer today than I was four weeks ago.

Of Carrots… and Sticks

The last two parts of this essay talked about what you need to do to get an employee growing their career:

That’s good, and in reality most of the work that must be done is borne by the employee. So far, as a manager, you haven’t had to sweat, and as I’ve always said, laziness is good.

But all that was carrot. For many people carrots aren’t enough – it’s always easy to “start tomorrow” or “wait until next week”. Sometimes you need a stick to get folks moving.

Coaching

Earlier I cautioned managers to get over themselves and realize there isn’t that much they can do to force someone to grow their career.

Now I’ll modify that slightly: assuming you’ve done the stuff mentioned above, there is one thing you can do: you can be the source of honest feedback on whether progress is being made, and you can reward and punish if progress is made or not made.

To do that, you need to remember you’re not a friend, you’re a coach. And sometimes Coaches need to ‘crack the whip’, or ‘be harsh’ or ‘be demanding’ in order to get the most of their charges(1).

That’s what Gus was doing this morning, and that’s what you need to do too.

The Whip

Now I’m not recommending you keep a whip by your desk (although I’ve known someone who did that). Instead, be serious about managing your employee to complete their small steps, rewarding them when they do, and punishing them when they don’t. Small steps are measurable and are black-and-white: Your employee either scheduled the mentoring lunch or they didn’t. They either signed up for the PMI course or they didn’t. Don’t worry about the larger goal – the employee will track that. Instead, just remember what small thing they said they would do, and hold them to it.

As usual, everyone has a different style with this, but here’s what I like to do. I track the one small step each employee told me they would complete, and when they would complete it by. And then every time I meet them, I ask them for status. EVERY DAMN TIME (Several folks who’ve worked for me will tell you how annoying I am about that(2)).

I make it their #1 goal on their goal list for the quarter. When they miss the step, I tell them I’m disappointed but make them set and tell me another one. And if they consistently miss their small step goals, then I start trying to move them into some other position (or “manage them out”). I reward in reviews those who made their steps; I don’t reward those who missed them – even if the rest of their work was stellar.

In reality, I’ve had a few employees miss their first and second steps, but never more than that. My experience is that your employees get really serious about following through on their career growth goals (or they leave) when you start tracking their small steps closely.

Self-Flagellation

Sometimes you’ll have an employee tell you they think their next small step is to “have my manager talk to Bob in Operations about a transfer to his department.” Yikes! This goes against my principle of laziness: your employee is trying to get you to do something, and if you don’t do it they can claim that you caused them to miss a goal, and if you do it, you could lose them! They’re trying to get you to crack the whip on yourself.

OK, don’t panic!

First, do you think that’s the right next step for them to take? If it isn’t, you’re their manager, and can tell them to pick another step. If this person isn’t a star on your team, you have a duty not to pass him or her on to Bob (and they should NOT be surprised to find this out). You should make your employee aware of where the gaps are and encourage him or her to start fixing them.

But what if you person is a star… well, that’s fine too, because if you’ve been tracking closely, you’re now about to fire your stars…

(which I’ll discuss next week, unless I’m too stuffed from Holiday feasting).

– Art

(1) I do believe coaching is about 50% teaching, 40% motivating and only 10% cracking the whip, but all the earlier stuff I’ve talked about covers the first 90%.

(2) No comment on other things I’m annoying about.

Growing Individuals: Remember Michael Jordan

by abclarke

(4d of 5 in The Rules of Naked Management)

Who?

In the mid-Nineties, the Chicago Bulls’ star player, Michael Jordan, decided to retire even though he had plenty of playable years left in him. Even more surprising, he decided he’d go play professional baseball.

Not surprisingly, Mr. Jordan didn’t achieve the same level of success between the bases as he did between the baselines. Within two years, he admitted that baseball was not for him.

But when he attempted to return to basketball, no one would have him. Team after team passed on him. They wouldn’t even consider him for a coaching position. Eventually Michael ended up having to take a low paying job in retail to support his family.

At best, Michael Jordan is but a sad footnote in the history of basketball, and a sad but common parable of the human race: a man following a dream, only to have his life destroyed in the end.

Bare with me… I’ll get back to that (obviously false) story in a bit.

Why Assume It’s True?

A few weeks ago (I’m behind…) I wrote about the importance of encouraging your employees to dream. Without a dream to move towards, they won’t push themselves. Once they have a dream, it’s usually fairly easy for them to envision a few small steps they can take that will move them closer (for example: go ask a potential mentor to lunch).

And yet, often there is a hesitation to take even the small step; a worry that if they fail in achieving their dream, their professional lives will be over. Often this hesitation is strongest in your stars as they think they have the most to lose. And as a result, too often, your employee never takes the first step.

That’s where the concept of “Looking at the Negative” comes in.

The Power of Negative Thinking

Let’s revisit the process again for getting something done:

  1. Daydream: Form a vision of what you want do.
  2. Be Lazy: Come up with one small step that moves you closer.
  3. Look at the Negative: Look at the opportunity cost of that step, and if it’s too large, go back to step 2.

Then, TAKE THE STEP!

We’ve covered the dreaming and being lazy in the last article, but “Looking at the Negative” is the key to dealing with hesitation. As a manager, your job is to force your hesitating employee to look at the negative. Yes, I mean force: Make them uncomfortable; Make them list all the things that could go wrong and the consequences; Make them squirm as they try to justify why such trivial things are stopping them.

Do this, and all sorts of obstacles will vanish under the scrutiny of examination. For example, your employee may worry if they ask a mentor to lunch that they’ll be rejected, but when they think about it out loud they’ll see the only real worry is schedule availability, not personal rejection. They may worry that they’ll be laughed at if they do an architecture talk in front of the entire Engineering division, but will quickly realize that the worst result is someone offering free help in presentation skills afterwards (really…).

In addition, if an employee verbalizes the negative before he takes his step, and decides to take the step anyway (for example, realizing that some assholes will laugh at you if you give a sucky presentation, but trying anyway), it makes it much easier to get through the bad when it happens.

In general you’ll be amazed how successful a technique it is to get your employees to verbalize their fears out loud.

But occasionally one “negative” or “opportunity” cost may not be easily dismissible: Your employee, particularly your stars, may worry that they’ll lose their job and destroy their careers if they fail in their next career endeavor.

That’s where Michael Jordan comes in.

The Consequences of Failure

Here’s the truth about career development: if you are a star today, but fail in something different tomorrow, you will always be welcomed back in your old role (although not always at the same company).

If you were an excellent engineer, and then fail in marketing, someone will always take you back as an engineer.

If you were an amazing designer, and then fail as an account manager, someone will always take you back as a designer.

And, as if you believed the bullshit I wrote at the top of this article, if you were a great basketball player, and then fail in Major League Baseball, basketball will welcome you back as you decimate all opponents again and win another three championships.

I’m not suggesting that people plan for failure – quite the opposite, you should expect and envision success.

But realize that if you don’t succeed, it’s not that big a deal. That’s what Michael Jordan teaches us. Even if (in the unlikely event) your employee fails in a new position, they can always fall back.

Oh, there will be some short term embarrassment (Jordan definitely got shit in the media), they may need to find a new company because their old job is filled, but once they go back to being a star again in their old role, naysayers shut up really really quickly.

As a manager, when you see someone hesitate because of fear of failure, coach them to think through what the real consequences are, and most will see the light: in career development, risks are rarely as dangerous as they appear.

Cracking the Whip

Now, if you’ve done the steps I’ve been writing about, and with a bit of luck, you’ve now gotten your employee to actually take one small step towards a brighter career future.

How do you (again remembering how little you matter in this process) get them to take the second step?

Simple… be a manager and crack the whip… which I’ll talk about next.

– Art

Growing Individuals: Be the Sandman

by abclarke

(4c of 5 in The Rules of Naked Management)

Two weeks ago I talked about the first rule of growing people on your team: get over yourself! Assuming you’ve done that, the next step is to Be the Sandman…

Cathedrals of the Mind

So your employee holds the key to growing their own career. If so, why the hell do we need managers involved?

Well, let’s revisit the process involved in getting something done:

  1. Daydream: Form a vision of what you want do.
  2. Be Lazy: Come up with one small step that moves you closer.
  3. Look at the Negative: Look at the opportunity cost of that step, and if it’s too large, go back to step 2.

Then, TAKE THE STEP!

In career growth therefore, the first thing you need to do is form a vision, a dream if you would, of where you eventually want to get to. It can be grandiose (“I will be the CEO of a fortune 500 company”). It can be noble (“I will create and run a charity that serves the needs of the homeless in Seattle”). It can be very specific (“I will be the Director of Strategic Projects within 2 years”). It can even by very vague (“I want to build something that is larger than just myself”), but it’ll need to get more specific over time. The most important thing though is to have that dream and to believe you’re going to achieve it. Every great achievement of mankind started as a dream, and so everyone who wants to be great needs a dream:

“A rock pile ceases to be a rock pile the moment a single man contemplates it, bearing within him the image of a cathedral.” -Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, Flight to Arras, 1942

If your employee doesn’t have a dream of where they want to get to, then all the training, all the mentoring, and all the experience in the world is for naught; it’s just passing time.

Enter the Sandman

Now, why are managers needed? Because left to their own devices most people will never follow the process above. Sure, they know they need to follow it. But they also know they need to rebalance their portfolios, get that annual physical, and have their teeth cleaned.

Most people are incredibly frightened by the concept of looking internally, finding a dream, and then communicating it to the world. So they procrastinate.

But as a manager you have one power that applies here; you can force someone to do something, and fire them if they fail to do it (harsh I know, but ultimately that’s the only hard-power managers have). And in growing careers, that’s what you need to do.

Your job is to force your employees to think hard and articulate where they want to take their careers; in other words, you must be the Sandman and force them to dream.

Becoming Morpheus

The concrete step here is simple: make sure every one of your employees has clearly articulated to you their dream for where they want their career to be in five to ten years. Write it down if that helps you, but the key is that the employee (not you) articulated it, and he or she can recall it at a moment without referring to some bullshit document (so don’t just follow the HR plan).

This will be easy with some employees – they will have firm dreams already ensconced in their minds that you just need to extract from them. For others though, you’re going to have to force them to do a lot of work. The good news is pretty much everyone has a dream; you just have to get it out of them.

People have lots of different ways of doing it, but here are some of the techniques that have worked for me.

  1. Listen, don’t direct. This goes back to “get over yourself”, but when you have conversations with your employees about where they want to grow their careers, make sure you spend most of the time listening. Don’t be afraid of silences – make them break the silence.
  2. Ask open-ended questions. Don’t ask “do you want to be a CEO?” But also don’t ask “what job do you want to have in ten years?”: I have no idea what my job will be ten years from now; how can I expect my employees to know? Instead ask “what are the qualities you want to have in your job ten years from now” (I do know the qualities I want in my job 10 years from now)? Or “what types of things do you want to do in your job ten years from now? (I know the answer to that too; I’ll bet you know your answers as well).”
  3. Encourage made-up titles. I’ve found this one to be very useful. Once I’ve asked a bunch of open ended questions about the qualities they want in a job, I ask the employee to make up a title for that job. Sometimes they pick “CEO” or “CTO”, but more often than not they pick something way more personal to them. I once had someone pick “Director of Special Projects”, and another person pick “Judge.” I’ve found that when someone picks a name for their set of job qualities, it makes it more real for them and more memorable!
  4. Ask them what are the differences between themselves today, and the person who holds the title they made up. This is useful to find the gaps and also to give some ideas of the types of steps they should take to get to their goal. For the person who told me “Judge”, he rightly pointed out he didn’t have a law degree (any guesses what his next step was)? For the person who told me “Director of Special Projects” he told me he hadn’t really worked on a special project to date, so the goal became getting him assigned to a more important project with trickier technology.
  5. Be persistent. Every time you meet with an employee who is uncertain of their dream, ask them how it is coming. When they have made no progress, be harsh. Give them deliverables if that works with them. But never give up on this – without a dream, they will not take their career anywhere!

Stop Dreaming

Once you have a dream that is articulated, with some gaps identified between the employee today and the employee of the future, it’s time to move onto the next two steps: being lazy, and looking at the negative.

Being lazy is usually quite easy once you have a dream: you ask the employee to come up with some ideas of steps they could take within your organization that moves them closer to their dream. This is a time where you can seed them with ideas, but try to make them come up with ideas first – you’ll be surprised by the results.

But “looking at the negative”, well that deserves its own topic which I’ll cover soon.

– Art

Growing Individuals: Get Over Yourself

by abclarke

(4b of 5 in The Rules of Naked Management)

Last week I talked about my general framework for why you need to make sure team members grow in their roles. This week I’ll go through some of the techniques I use.

Self-Importance

Before I talk about people on your team, let’s talk about you. Who has been the most important person in your career to-date? Who has had the most influence on what you’ve done and what jobs you’ve taken? Whose advice have you followed the most? Who’s been your best ally and who have you asked for the most input on career directions?

Without a doubt I’ve been the most influential person on my career (and not always in a good way). Sure I’ve had mentors who’ve suggested paths, but often I’ve ignored their advice – but I’ve never ignored myself.

Who’s the second most influential person? For me, that’s my wife. She’s listened to my cheers, my complaints, my dreams and my plans. She’s pushed me to take certain directions and (assuming I’ve agreed) I’ve favored her advice over anyone else’s.

Who’s the third most important? For me, it’s been my friends and peers. I’ve compared myself to where they’ve taken their careers. I’ve kvetched with them about my plans, my frustrations, and my dreams. I’ve done it at work, but also over dinner, out hiking, heck, anywhere my friends gather. We often talk about work and their stories about their careers definitely influences where I want to take mine.

In fact, you have to get pretty far down the list before one my mentors shows up. That’s not to say mentors aren’t important – they are critical and I’ve had some absolutely stellar mentors. But in reality I pay way more attention to me, my spouse, and my friends.

And I’m typical of most employees.

Get Over Yourself

First time managers often think they should take a very active role in growing their employees (or at least I did), and can find themselves devoting lots of time to it. It leads to things like career maps, ladder-levels, “mandatory training”, soul-searching on weekends about how you can improve individuals on your team, giving constant “constructive” feedback about ways to “grow”, and often leads to frustration on the part of both the manager on the employee. The manager thinks the employee is ignoring good advice. The employee thinks the manager is pushing some bullshit agenda on them that isn’t where they want to go. Eventually both manager and employee abdicate any responsibility for career growth, and instead talk (in bitter sarcastic terms) about following bullshit processes – and that’s the best outcome.

The manager is at fault here – the employee is following the advice of more important people, and the manager mistakenly thinks his advice should come first.

Given that, the first rule of growing individuals is: get over yourself. At best as a manager you are the 4th or 5th most important person advising your employee on their career (assuming most of your employees have at least 3-4 friends). Your advice, especially your unsolicited advice, is likely to be in competition with more important people and therefore not followed.

So stop giving it!

Instead focus your management powers on managing your employee’s relationship with their most important advisor – themselves. Make sure they are asking themselves where they want to go, make sure they are following the advice they lay out on their own, and only step in to help with the how when asked.

Once you do this, the amount of time you spend on “growing individuals” drops drastically, but the quality of the interaction increases drastically. You become the person an employee reports their career-growth progress to, not the person actually taking the steps to grow their career. The employee takes more ownership because it’s their own steps. You can put metrics around how they take their steps and hold them accountable. And you’ve delegated responsibility for growing the employee to the most qualified person imaginable – your employee.

The next few articles will talk about the 4 remaining steps I do to grow someone’s career, but the most important of them is the first: get over yourself. You’re not as important as you think you are, so spend the amount of time commensurate with your importance.

I’ll continue the rest the week after next

– Art