Why Poor Leaders Are Valuable

Thomas Edison famously replied when asked whether his repeated failures (ten thousand plus) at creating a working light bulb frustrated him: “No, I just discovered 10,000 ways that won’t work.” When someone demonstrates poor leadership, he or she is showing you one way not to make your light bulb.

My father gave me similar advice while I was attending Navy Officer Candidate School after I had complained about some of the leadership traits of my peers and senior candidates in charge of us:

Correct in yourself what you do not like in others.

This single phrase helped me see people’s weaknesses or inabilities not as a chance to point out their blemishes but to look inward and see what I could change about myself.

When people miss this lesson, it’s a wasted opportunity. You may never be able to change the person above you, but you do have the power to create a better work environment for those under you.

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The Art, Craft, and Science of Great Management

When you meet management consultant Anne Libby, you can’t help but notice her passion and clarity in talking about how to bring workplaces to their senses.

Great management, according to Anne, is a “mixture of art, craft and science” — which can be a foggy path to navigate. Throughout our interview, Anne offers both practical tips and food for thought to help managers and the people around them do their best and become great managers.

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How to Get More Out of Your Team Without Being a Micromanaging Jerk

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(Part 1 of 2 in a guest post series on setting up successful systems.)

Anthony Gatto is one of the greatest jugglers ever. He has over twelve world records to his name.  Throw him four, five or six balls, and he’ll keep juggling away, no problem. Give him a seventh, and he’ll struggle to keep juggling for ten minutes. Throw an eighth ball into the mix, and he’ll barely last a full minute.

No matter how sublime a juggler’s skills, give him too much to handle and he’ll mess up. Push a juggler too far, and he’ll never be totally Russian — juggler slang for doing a dropless show.

As a boss or manager, you can’t do it all by micromanaging. You must clear your plate to keep growing. So you hire and delegate only to see tasks come back late, incomplete, or low-quality. When that happens, you’ve either got to redo it yourself or submit shoddy work to your clients. Doing either hurts. You wonder if everything would be better if you handled it all yourself, and then you’re back at not being able to juggle it all.

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A Winning Formula for Building Successful Teams

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You need great teams in order to build great products. The way engineering director Rich Paret creates such teams at the Twitter-acquired Crashlytics — which provides mobile crash reporting — is to “hire for the culture you have, and the culture you want to have.”

The company culture at Crashlytics isn’t a collection of perks or a bunch of abstract values. It’s how people get stuff done together. When we visited Rich at Twitter Boston this past May, he emphasized how it’s the quality of a team’s communication that determines its outcomes.

How does a project become late?” he asked. As our minds ran through various scenarios and the complexities of managing a team, he broke our pondering pause with his simple answer — “Day by day.” Just as you can build meaningful progress day by day, you can also increasingly get off track to the point of failure. Communication losses accumulate, a slow but steady snowball, as the days roll by, when you’re not careful.

Consider the distribution and flow of information within a company. Too often knowledge is guarded amongst the people at the top, or cooped up in people’s heads, or trapped in silos. What happens then? As Rich puts it, islands of information” emerge. When different people know different pieces of information, it becomes progressively harder to reach across the waters just to know where the puzzle pieces are, let alone put the puzzle together.

One approach to avoiding islands and fostering a bridging, communicative culture is to hire smart and work smart. When you align people and process, you ultimately create strong values, culture, and behaviors.  Here’s a look at Rich’s formula for building awesome teams and in doing so, awesome company culture:

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Does Anybody Listen to You? 4 Steps to Becoming an Influencer

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The things we do at work matter, but our achievements alone don’t necessarily add up to a successful career. For people who have reached a certain level of success through sheer hard work (as many high-achievers do early on in their careers), this can be a hard lesson to learn.

After all, if you’re putting in long hours and knocking critical tasks off of your to-do list every single day, shouldn’t you be the most successful person on your team? Unfortunately, many people reach a plateau in their careers because their hard work doesn’t carry them forward the way it used to. So what’s missing?

Communication and influence.

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Why Stack Rank Doesn’t Measure Up

In this two-part guest series, Ellen Chisa shares her experience at Microsoft and how its review system affected her psyche and productivity. (Read part 1 for an overview of Ellen’s time at Microsoft.)

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Stack ranking is a performance review system that ranks employees against each other. Critics point out that a review process that creates inevitable losers and requires managers to fight on behalf of reports is unfair and disconnected from the quality of the performance itself. Microsoft recently decided to get rid of the stack rank.

Stack ranking hurt Microsoft employees. It negatively impacted the work and damaged people’s views of themselves and their ability to improve.

Here’s how:

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My Microsoft Experience: from Promising Start to Personal Hell

In this two-part guest series, Ellen Chisa shares her experience at Microsoft and how its review system affected her psyche and productivity.

This first part gives an overview of Ellen’s time at Microsoft, providing insight into the company’s environment as well as the successes and failures of everyday management. The second part discusses stack rank specifically.

Ellen Chisa Microsoft experience

Recently Microsoft decided to get rid of the stack rank system they used for reviews.

Stack ranking is a performance review system that ranks employees against each other. Also referred to as “rank and yank”, stack rank creates a zero-sum management system in which one person’s positive ranking means another person’s loss. Critics point out that a process that creates inevitable losers and requires managers to fight on behalf of reports is unfair and disconnected from performance quality.

I’m really happy with this decision: the stack rank negatively affected me, and many people I know. I saw multiple people have the same experience:

1.  Promising start (say, 1-3 years)
2.  Something goes wrong (a project, big manager conflict, etc.)
3.  The issue isn’t addressed when it happens and festers until review.
4.  Bad review, general angst, uncertainty
5.  Talented person quits and moves on to a great career elsewhere.

One obvious takeaway is that Microsoft was probably hemorrhaging a lot of talent. The more insidious one is the toll on its employees’ self-perception and effectiveness.

I wanted to write about how that feels. Here I outline what happened in my first eighteen months at Microsoft, which were interesting and challenging — to how things started to go wrong.

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The Boss Doesn’t Always Know Best

Bosses:  sometimes your team is going to go above and beyond the call of duty, and you’re not even going to notice. It happens. Unless you spend your days micromanaging — and nobody ever wants this — you’re not going to see every amazing thing they do.

Why is this important? Because it means you’re lacking important information about how people are doing and so, are less able and likely to give feedback.

Feedback in the workplace is essential for making progress. So if you can’t know everything that’s going on at work, how can you create a great culture of frequent, helpful feedback?

That’s where peer feedback comes in.

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Are You Thinking Enough Before You Commit?

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Back when I was a first-year physics graduate student, one of my favorite professors used to get on my case about using pencil instead of pen for my notes and problem sets.

He’d say, “think and then commit with ink!”

As I progressed through my studies, I realized that my use of the pencil was a symptom of something deeper. I’d developed the habit of trying to get toward a solution by writing equations down and having to erase my errors as I went along.

This is fine at first. But when a complete equation involves so many complexities and spans multiple lines, you begin to confuse the activity of writing for clear thinking, diving in for the sake of starting. Using the act of writing as a way to figure out what’s going on in a physics problem can end up obstructing itself and taking too long for a good feedback loop to form. It becomes difficult to actually think because there are so many adjustments and things on the page to take in.

I eventually did switch to ink.

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Break the Bad Habit of Ineffective Meetings

Why do we continue to have bad meetings? Seriously, 99% of the human population seem to hate them, and there are surveys showing again and again that there are x many meetings everyday that cost gabillions of dollars worth of wasted time and productivity.

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Is it some horrible concoction of misplaced optimism that this time it’ll be better, resigned acceptance that this is a required dog and pony show — the business world’s tradition of dance, monkey, dance — and a massive buildup of bad meeting history that’s created such intense inertia that only superheroes can help us pull away into the light?

Imagine that a group of you had to build a doghouse like Snoopy’s, and you got a toolbox, some wood, and pencils and paper. Your team is revved up about this cool doghouse, you can envision it, you have all these super useful tools, but all your team does with the pencils and paper is doodle pictures of cute dogs instead of making a blueprint or marking down measurements. Then when you run out of paper, you ask for more paper — only to doodle more pictures of dogs.

That’s how we’re treating meetings. Meetings are a helpful tool to decide and plan things. But misused, they’re just a bunch of meaningless doodles that don’t lead to anything being built and Snoopy with no place to live.

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