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

One free way to increase motivation

When thinking about workplace motivation, we think about motivators like money, responsibility, and promotions. Those aspects play a role, but there are far simpler tools we can use as well. One tool is just acknowledging hard work and saying “Thank you.”

In Payoff, Dan Arielly describes an experimental condition that illustrated this. Participants were presented with a sheet of paper full of random letters and asked to circle identical pairs of letters that appeared next to one another. Simple enough. When the participant turned in their assignment to the experimenter, they were paid $0.55. The experimenter then asked if they would be willing to complete a second sheet for 5 cents less. This continued until the money was eventually not worth the effort.

Now, imagine three experimental conditions. In the first group called the “Acknowledged” group, participants were asked to put their name in the top left corner of the sheet. When turned in their sheets, the experimenter looked at the sheet carefully, said “uh huh,” and put the sheet facedown on the desk.

The second condition was the “Ignored” group. Participants didn’t put their name on the paper. When they turned in their paper, the experimenter just placed it facedown on the desk without looking at it.

The “Shredded” group was the most extreme. Participants didn’t put their name on the paper. When they turned it in, the experimenter didn’t even look at it before putting it through a shredder.

You can guess which group worked the longest (Acknowledged), but which group completed the fewest sheets of paper?

The results showed that the “Shredded” and “Ignored” groups were nearly identical. The Acknowledged group worked until the payment was down around $0.15. The other groups stopped at roughly $0.27.

The takeaway:

This suggests that if you really want to demotivate people, “shredding” their work is the way to go, but that you can get almost all the way there simply by ignoring their efforts. Acknowledgement is a kind of human magic—a small human connection, a gift from one person to another that translates into a much larger, more meaningful outcome.

Acknowledgement and outward appreciation are free ways to increase motivation on your team. Saying “Thank you”—being specific about the action you’re thankful for and the positive result it had on the team—makes a huge impact in the long run.

Focus on the hard part

I recently finished listening to Seth Godin’s Startup School podcast. The episodes are short and well worth your time.

One clear message: Seth encourages the entrepreneurs to focus on the hard part of their business, which isn’t the same as the fun part.

The easy part is setting up your website, buying your domain name, and creating your logo. Almost anyone can do it. The hard part is finding someone to buy your product and deciding how you can market to them. Few people can do it.

Two of my dearest friends run an awesome company in Denver called Brewery Boot Camp. They partner with local breweries to offer an effective workout in a fun environment. They’re growing quickly now, which is exciting.

There are two ways to approach expansion: sign on more breweries or get more people to the existing breweries. Which one is the hard part?

Brief aside: This ties into a story Seth tells in the podcast about the start of the yellow pages. To sell advertising in the yellow pages, a sales rep walks into a pizza place. Instead of making a hard sales pitch, the sales rep offers to install a new phone in the restaurant. This new phone is connected to a new number and sits right beside the existing phone. The new number is then advertised in the yellow pages for a week. Orders are coming in like crazy, and it’s the new phone, not the old, existing one, that’s ringing off the hook. A week later, the sales rep comes back to take out the new phone. You can guess what happens next.

Signing on more breweries would be exciting, but it’s not that hard. Breweries want to have something new and exciting for their patrons.

Getting more people to existing brewery events is the hard part. Getting out of bed early on Saturday morning (even to workout at a brewery) is a tough call.

The good news is that once you solve the hard problem everything else gets easier. Once you can say, “We can bring 30 new patrons into your business every week” everyone is going to get onboard.

Building Many Different Career Ladders

Career ladders

In Primed to Perform, the authors discuss the importance of building a few different career ladders within your organization. The typical career ladder (become good at something then move to managing people) isn’t for everyone and susceptible to the Peter Principle.

What kind of other career ladders could you build within your organization? The authors lay out three potentials.

The Managerial Ladder

This is the career ladder we’re all familiar with. Individuals that pursue this ladder are masters of motivation and leading others. They thrive with solving difficult problems and seeing others thrive.

The Expert Ladder

Individuals that pursue this ladder develop extensive domain expertise. They become masters of their craft and share that knowledge with the rest of the company.

Let’s take a sales rep as an example. Instead of moving into a managerial role, they could perfect the art of talking to clients and making the sale. The trick then becomes not leading others but downloading their expertise in a way that helps everyone else.

The Customer Ladder

Before reading Primed to Perform, I didn’t think of this as a separate ladder. The authors describe the “Customer ladder” as a role where employees master the art of talking to customers, understanding the direction of the company, and translating feedback to product teams. This role straddles marketing, sales, and product development.

I’m not sure I agree that the Customer ladder is useful as a third ladder. In reality, I think it could fit in the Expert ladder category, which would leave us with two options:

  1. Move into a leadership role.
  2. Become an expert in your field and help everyone else level up.

Regardless of which you choose, there needs to be an aspirational point, the pinnacle for success amongst those on your ladder. This is pretty straightforward for the Managerial ladder, but what about the Expert ladder? How do you define the pinnacle of that track?

Primed to Perform provides the example of IBM, which created a position called a “Fellow” to honor their top research scholars. It’s often considered more prestigious than a management position. A “Fellow” is someone within IBM that “embodies a place with pioneering vision in an ever-expanding field.” Fellow achievements include things like developing the first microscope that could show atoms and building the system that put the first man on the moon.

I’ve been thinking about this quite a bit with Automattic. How do you create a culture that emphasizes the importance of the Expert ladder? One way is simple. Automatticians continue to get pay increases regardless of whether they move into a leadership position. Therefore, a typical incentive (pay) is removed in many ways from a specific career ladder. This is just one idea, and other opportunities certainly exist to really highlight the contributions of the expert.

If you’ve figured out how to create the Expert ladder within your company, I’d love to chat. It’s certainly something I’m interested in!