The Unpracticed Art of Receiving Feedback

Receiving feedback, particularly critical feedback, can be challenging.

When I first stepped into the role of team lead at Automattic, I knew one of my biggest areas for growth revolved around feedback. Sure, I'd led a team in the past, but this felt like an entirely new ballgame.

I dove in headfirst into reading all about feedback. I scheduled feedback sessions with everyone on my team and encouraged them to give me feedback as well with leadback surveys. Overall, I thought I had a handle on the feedback thing.

About a year ago, I stumbled across the book Thanks for the Feedback by Douglas Stone and Sheila Heen. Not only did the book have an amazing tagline1; when I put it down, I realized I had earmarked nearly every other page. It changed how I viewed feedback in general.

Giving feedback was only half of the equation; receiving feedback was the other (arguably, more important) half. I realized that focusing on the latter could help with the former.

In January of 2017, I gave a workshop to my colleagues at Automattic all about receiving feedback covering many of the concepts from the book and examples of how I was putting them to use. A few people told me the workshop was helpful so I thought I'd share it here. Continue reading

Using Rhetoric to Amplify Your Message

I really enjoyed this article from Eugene Wei about the power of rhetoric. He cites the perennial question:

Walk up to anyone in the company in the hallway and ask them if they know what their current top priority or mission is. Can they recite it from memory?

He provides examples of how Jeff Bezos uses rhetoric to emphasize his mission and vision at Amazon. His continued use of the phrase “Day 1” is a prime example. You can read about it in his latest letter to shareholders. “Day 1” is so familiar to readers and team members at Amazon that it needs no explanation. Bezos has boiled a way of thinking and acting down to one expression.

Eugene elaborates on why it’s important to think about phrasing when discussing your mission.

Who is setting your standards?

Ask: Who is setting your standards—your industry, your ego, or your clients? – Selling the Invisible

You launch a new feature for your product. It uses a new technology stack that’s cutting edge. You spend hours working on the last few tweaks making sure the logo and the animations are perfect. Your colleagues applaud your work and compliment the new project. The only problem? Your customers prefer the old version.

It’s easy to fall into a trap of allowing your industry or your ego to set the standard for your work. The desire to impress colleagues and receive accolades pushes us to go the extra mile on projects but occasionally forget that customers might have preferred something else entirely.

The goal in shipping should be to solve the customer’s problem, not to get kudos. If the industry and ego are satisfied but the client is unhappy, that’s not success. It’s true that customers often aren’t sure exactly what they want. That’s not an excuse to ignore what they’re asking for altogether.

Let your client set the standard for your work. Ego and industry should come second.

Cus D’Amato on the Difference Between a Hero and a Coward

“I tell my kids, what is the difference between a hero and a coward? What is the difference between being yellow and being brave? No difference. Only what you do. They both feel the same. They both fear dying and getting hurt. The man who is yellow refuses to face up to what he’s got to face. The hero is more disciplined and he fights those feelings off and he does what he has to do. But they both feel the same, the hero and the coward. People who watch you judge you on what you do, not how you feel.”

– Cus D’Amato (via The Hard Thing About Hard Things)

Why Remote Work Can’t Be Stopped

Automattic and a few of my colleagues were recently featured in an article on the Wall Street Journal titled “Why Remote Work Can’t Be Stopped”:

“…data indicates that the remote-work trend in the U.S. labor force is inexorable, aided by ever-better tools for getting work done anywhere.”

I’m a huge proponent of remote work, and I do think it’s the future of work in many industries (not just tech). The tools are improving at a lightning pace removing the disparities between in-person and remote collaboration.

One piece of the article I disagreed with is this quote from Steve Price, chief human resources officer at Dell:

“Engineering, leadership, R&D, sales and customer support—those are roles that don’t lend themselves very well to remote work.”

I lead a remote customer support team so I check two of those boxes. I think there are many processes you can put in place to solve the leadership piece for remote work. In no particular order:

  • A consistent approach to one-on-ones that encourage accountability for both parties. I just switched to using Lighthouse for managing these.
  • Weekly all-team hangouts with rotating call lead responsibilities. Longer team calls every quarter to cover goals and reevaluate how we work as a team.
  • A consistent process for tackling feedback including feedback for the manager/lead from the team (I wrote about leadback surveys here).
  • Non-work related hangouts to encourage team bonding and camaraderie. I wrote about how we do this here.

By the way, we’re hiring. Come work with me!

What does the finish line look like?

Good leaders paint a vision of the future that their team can attach to. As Adam Grant puts it in Originals, they create a gap between how things exist now and what they could look like:

The greatest communicators of all time…start by establishing “What is…here’s the status quo.” Then, they compare that to what could be making that gap as big as possible.

As inspiring as these alternate futures can be, they’re also typically a few years in the future with many miles between here and there. Your role as a leader within an organization is to motivate your team and set up a framework wherein that dream future becomes a reality.

There are (at least) two tricky aspects:

  1. How do you maintain motivation as a team when the finish line seems so far away (and often seemingly moving farther away each day)?
  2. How do you keep the finish line in focus when it’s months/years down the road?

The first piece can manifest in various ways. Teams can lose motivation in the middle of the journey or mistake a step in the right direction as crossing the finish line. It’s important to celebrate overcoming hurdles and making progress along the way, but it’s equally important to reinforce that these intermediate steps are just that, steps along the way.

The second piece becomes more evident as team members do the daily work required for forward progress. It’s easy to “lose sight of the forest for the trees” as the saying goes.

Grant provided two workarounds to help a team stay attached to the larger picture even as they’re heads down doing the actual work.

First, it’s so very important to reinforce that gap between the way things currently are and the way things could be in the future. We systematically undercommunicate this vision because it’s so familiar to us already:

You know the lyrics and the melody of your idea by heart. By that point, it’s no longer possible to imagine what it sounds like to an audience that’s listening to it for the first time. This explains why we undercommunicate our ideas. They’re already so familiar to us that we underestimate how much exposure an audience needs to comprehend and buy into them.

Second, invite others to help share your vision, particularly customers. They’ll offer a unique perspective and connect team members with individuals actually benefiting from their work.

People are inspired to achieve the highest performance when leaders describe a vision and then allow customers to bring it to life with a personal story. The leader’s message provides an overarching vision to start the car, and the personal story steps on the accelerator.

This piece about inviting customers to bring to life the vision with a personal story resonated in particular. Meeting real WordPress users at WordCamps around the country helps to reinvigorate the work I do at Automattic. Finding ways to bring in real-life customer stories into our work is something I’m actively thinking about.

Monthly Review: May 2017

I publish a monthly review of habits, work, etc. You’ll be able to find them all here.

It’s been a long time since I’ve done one of these monthly reviews! The last one was probably my 2016 retrospective (and November 2016 before that). The past few months have been exceptionally busy so blogging took a backseat. I’m excited to get back at it particularly with these monthly reviews as I think there’s something really special about setting public goals.

As for May 2017, it was an awesome month both at work and at home. I was able to set aside a solid portion of time for development-oriented work, and I learned some new concepts while tackling issues in Calypso. At home, I competed in my first CrossFit competition in awhile and joined a marathon relay team. We also had family and friends visiting us in Colorado. A packed month for sure! Here’s a full breakdown of books, goals, etc and what I’m working on in June.

What did I read?

Looking ahead to this month, I’m going to read MoneyballThe Undoing Project, and Permission Marketing.

Time Spent Coding

31 hours

I was able to block out some significant chunks of time (mainly in the early morning and late evening) for coding in May. This is probably the most time I’ve spent working on code-related projects ever. I suspect this number will decrease in June as I have some other items to work on, but May was a ton of fun. I’m excited by the progress I made working on Calypso and attempting to fix new bugs.

Goals For June

Looking ahead to June, I have two fitness-related events (a GoRuck event and a Ragnar Trail relay) alongside some vacation and some work travel. As a result, I’m going a bit conservative with the goals I set.

  • Complete Wes Bos’ ES6 course (#)
  • Make progress on the Treehouse PHP course
  • Read 3 books
  • 8 pull requests to Calypso
  • Publish 5 blog posts here on the personal blog