Moving Up the Care Personally Axis (Radical Candor)

I just finished up with Radical Candor, a book on leadership by former Google and Facebook executive Kim Scott. Scott lays out two axes that exist within leadership—care personally and challenge directly. Together, they create the radical candor framework.

A visual depiction of the radical candor framework

This post on First Round Review offers a great breakdown if you just want to learn more about the framework. Image from Radical Candor.

Care personally is just that—demonstrating to your teammates that you give a damn about their well-being and success.

Challenge directly is all about helping them improve, giving them feedback, and pushing them to excel.

I want to talk about moving up on the Care personally axis and moving towards Radical Candor pulling both from the book and personal experience.

Continue reading

Do You Raise the Average?

Using the law of averages in reverse as an introspection exercise

You’ve undoubtedly heard Jim Rohn’s famous quip:

You’re the average of the five individuals you spend the most time with.

A quick Google search will turn up articles on LifeHacker, Entrepreneur.com, and more all pointing to the singular argument; who you spend time with matters. They influence how you think, how you act, and what you believe.

Generally, the “law of averages” focuses on what you adopt from others. Your mindset, beliefs, and habits are influenced by those close to you. We can flip the equation around though and look at it a different way. You influence the mindset, beliefs, and habits of your close friends, which leads to a simple question.

Do you raise the average?

Continue reading

Here’s a Wacky Exercise: Try Writing Your Own Eulogy

An individual kneeling on one knee and praying.

Last week, I was in Berkeley, California writing my own eulogy. Yep. I know. A bit premature. I’m not planning on using it for many, many years to come.

I was attending True University 2017, a series of workshops put on by True Ventures for their portfolio companies. The last day consisted of a leadership intensive, which is where I found myself sitting in a room surrounded by 100 strangers writing out what I hoped my wife would say at my funeral.

A tad bit morbid? Sure.

Fun? Not exactly.

Helpful? Definitely.

Here’s a quick breakdown of how we got to the eulogy piece, where I see this benefiting me down the road, and how you can complete a version of the exercise. It won’t take longer than 10 minutes in total. Promise.

Continue reading

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

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.

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.

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!

Establishing forward momentum

This video from Simon Sinek on “Millennials in the Workplace” is making a ruckus on the internet. Sinek hits on including four factors preventing millennials from being successful in their careers. One reason is patience, a key characteristic of success.

In the workplace, patience is the ability to work hard at something for a long time knowing that mastery, fulfillment, and impact take years to develop. This ties into another concept that is critical—forward momentum. The two feed off one another.

Let’s say you’re looking to become the COO of a large organization. You’re fresh out of college and looking to climb the corporate ladder. Jumping straight to the COO level isn’t realistic; it’s akin to climbing a mountain in a single bound. This is where momentum comes in.

You build forward momentum in your career when you take one small step towards your goal. Start with the smallest project you can own within your company. Own it and do the best damn job you can. Next time, you’ll get assigned a bigger project. Again, you’re going to rock that one, which will lead to a bigger project and so on.

The tendency is to look at the top and think “Why don’t I get assigned the biggest projects?” We ignore the momentum that those at the top have built up over time. It takes years and years to build momentum, gain trust, and prove that you can deliver. The key is to start small and build forward momentum.