The Care and Feeding of Monkeys

A fellow Automattician passed along this older HBR article that originally appeared in 1974. In the piece, the author describes how managers and leaders often take on unnecessary responsibility from teammates inadvertently. These responsibilities are referred to as “monkeys.”

An example from the article:

A fourth subordinate, Reed, has just been transferred from another part of the company so that he can launch and eventually manage a newly created business venture. The manager has said they should get together soon to hammer out a set of objectives for the new job, adding, “I will draw up an initial draft for discussion with you.”

Let us analyze this one, too. The subordinate has the new job (by formal assignment) and the full responsibility (by formal delegation), but the manager has the next move. Until he makes it, he will have the monkey, and the subordinate will be immobilized.

The language in the piece is a bit outdated (“subordinates” is an unfortunate term), but the piece is worth a read and reflection.

How to Effectively Delegate and Avoid Stealing Success From Your Teammates

Time for a scary admission: I can be a bit of a control freak.

For the longest time, if I was asked about my biggest weakness, I would say just that – I have a hard time letting go of control especially if we’re talking about managing a project or a complicated task. I was the kid in school that preferred to work by himself rather than in a group (yeah…that kid). I knew I would do the project correctly. Someone else? They might screw it up.

As a result, I’d pile on tasks even if I was overwhelmed. If I took it on, I knew it would get done. That was all that mattered! If I did hand something off, I’d be sure to provide step-by-step instructions on how to get it to the finish line.

This might be a bit of an exaggeration. I’ve been steadily trying to get over this fear of letting go especially after I read Marshall Goldsmith’s What Got You Here Won’t Get You There. I’ve gotten better at handing over tasks and allowing others to run with ideas. Still, it’s an area that I’m constantly trying to work on – how to delegate effectively and allow others to crush projects on their own, without my needless meddling.

This concept of effective delegation popped up again recently as I read The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People. One of the habits (Put First Things First) spoke to this idea of delegating ideas. It broke down two types of delegation – Gofer and Stewardship – and described how the former steals success from teammates while the latter empowers them.

Let’s dive in.

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A Comprehensive Look at How to Give Better Feedback

A woman sitting on one side of the table as she receives feedback from two individuals

A few months back, I published some notes from a presentation I gave at Automattic all about why receiving feedback tends to sting. While everyone is focused on developing the skill of delivering feedback, I truly believe becoming a better feedback receiver is worth spending some time on. The skills go hand in hand. While you can’t always control how feedback is delivered to you, you can control your reaction to that feedback.

Still, there is an art to delivering feedback. When delivered appropriately, feedback can grow the relationship you have with colleagues, teammates, and even friends/family. When delivered inappropriately, it can create animosity.

If you remember the three types of feedback triggers, you’ll know that the three reasons feedback tends to sting are:

  • Truth triggers – We’re upset by the substance of the feedback. It’s unhelpful or simply not true.
  • Relationship triggers – We’re upset by the dynamics with the feedback giver. Either we feel mistreated by this person or we feel as though they’re not in a position to give us feedback on this particular topic.
  • Identity triggers – The feedback we’re receiving conflicts with our own internal narrative.

Similar to receiving feedback, I led a workshop awhile back at Automattic on the topic of giving feedback. Here are some extrapolated notes from that topic. They’ll address specifics like:

  • Feedback comes in all shapes and sizes. We’ll talk about the three specific types of feedback and why you’re likely falling short on one of them.
  • Now that I know why colleagues are set off by feedback, how can I tailor the feedback I’m giving to avoid the three triggers mentioned above?

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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.

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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.

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.

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!

Come With a Blank Slate

Consider these two ways of asking for feedback:

  1. We need to increase our sales numbers. I was thinking of moving Sarah over from Marketing to lead a new team for Q4. What do you think?
  2. We need to increase our sales numbers. How do you think we should do it?

The first option puts a suggestion out on the table. It’s couched in a way that looks like feedback, but it’s really asking for agreement and support. You could phrase it differently as “Moving Sarah over from Marketing is the best move here, right?”

Depending on your relationship with the receiving party, many will just agree with your original suggestion. As a trend, we dislike disagreements and try to avoid them. You’ve given them an easy out.

The first option allows you to check off the box for “Asked for feedback.” The other side didn’t really get to offer any kind of opinion. It’s an example of adding too much value to the conversation.

The second option asks for actual feedback. You’re not imposing some kind of secret agenda on the other side. You ask a question, and then you actually listen to what they have to say.

The hardest part of these conversations is closing your mouth once you’ve asked the question. My internal dialogue: “Ask the question. Then, shut up.”

The Three Forms of Feedback

Identifying the three types of feedback can help you as the feedback giver or receiver.

I’m in the process of reading Thanks for the Feedback, which is the best leadership/professional growth oriented book I’ve read this year. The book focuses on receiving feedback (how to accept criticism, avoid getting defensive, etc), but I’m taking a ton away on the art of giving feedback as well.

I have several posts I want to write that came to mind while reading through the book, but one of the first (and simplest) takeaways was the different forms of feedback that exist. We often think of feedback as this one thing, but the authors point out there are actually three main types of feedback. When giving feedback, it’s important to recognize which type of feedback you’re trying to use and get both parties on the same page.

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Receiving Feedback as a Team Lead

I recently read a pretty kickass article by Mercer on Kayako’s blog, How to Invite and Acknowledge Feedback as a Manager. Feedback is critical to your performance as a lead/manager. Over the past year and a half, I’ve tried to build in more opportunities for team members to give me feedback in a variety of situations (voice vs text, anonymous vs non-anonymous, in-person vs remote).

The article popped into my Pocket at a particularly timely moment. We just completed our third “leadback” survey of the year on Sparta, and I’m in the process of reading through the results and figuring out next steps.

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