Leaders: You Must be Present to Win

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Years ago, the company I worked for was struggling. We hadn’t hit our numbers in months, and it was determined that layoffs would be necessary. Secret meetings were scheduled, often early in the morning or late in the day. Spreadsheets were created, reviewed, and updated. The process went on for weeks. During that time, if you happened to catch a glimpse of one of our executives, it would have been racing through the halls from meeting room to office, quickly and with focus. When they arrived safely in their offices, our leaders closed their doors, so as not to be asked questions that were impossible to answer.

If you’ve been around awhile, you’ve likely witnessed this kind of behavior. It’s completely understandable, and an absolute disaster. Employees know their leaders are privy to private information, and that there are things they can’t share. They get it. But when leaders start to hide away, purposely making themselves unavailable, it makes employees angry and nervous. And what do employees do when they’re angry and nervous about their jobs? They look for new ones. In most cases, your best employees are the ones who’ll find jobs first.

This is what happened at the company I’m describing. What started out as a small, potentially containable reduction in force turned into a mass exodus, as employees lost trust in their leaders and looked elsewhere. I learned a lesson I will never forget: leaders must be present to win.

Unprecedented times

Remember back in March when the coronavirus was spiking and our employers sent us home? My company’s first fully remote day was Friday, March 13. We thought we’d be back in two or three weeks, tops.

It’s shocking to remember how naive we were at the start of this global pandemic. Did we really think it would be taken care of in two weeks? My first note to the team included a sentence or two about the emotional aspects of the situation, and then a full page of logistics: best practices for remote meetings, core hours, ergonomic concerns, and the like. It wasn’t terrible, but it wasn’t awesome. I soon learned that the logistics of working from home were going to need to take a backseat to the more pressing concerns of my team members, like fear and loneliness.

In March, there was no way to know what leadership challenges we’d be facing in the coming months. We said the word “unprecedented” a lot, but how many of us fully understood what that meant? If a global pandemic was our only challenge, there were still no books to read to get us through, no podcasts to listen to from people who’d been through it before. And a global pandemic was not our only challenge.

Still, at that time we had our hands full with the things we knew about. As three weeks turned to four, and then five, my leadership team and I looked for new ways to keep the team upbeat, engaged, productive, and informed. Our weekly all hands meeting would continue, of course, complemented by daily leadership stand-ups and a weekly all-team happy hour, with trivia and other fun games. We slowly settled into our new normal.

Staying in touch

There’s a big difference between leading a remote team and leading a remote team during a pandemic. It was a little bit different for my technology team, but in general, my company had considered working remotely a perk, reserved for all-stars who had proven themselves capable and trust worthy. When working remotely became a requirement on March 13, it was as big an adjustment for managers as it was for individual contributors.

A technology team, of course, handles issues as they occur, at all hours of the day, from wherever we happen to be. This means the logistics of working remotely had been figured out ages ago, as a matter of course. I had zero concern in this area.

But I was concerned about how I was going to continue to connect with my team members. Each of our teams has a daily standup, but I’m not on any of the teams, and “walking the floor” had been an important part of my routine. How would I replicate that in an all-virtual environment?

The short answer is that I couldn’t, but I could find other ways to connect. I became a Slack power user, adding comments in channels where I used to lurk quietly, and reaching out to employees I didn’t naturally cross paths with on a regular basis. I blocked time on my calendar time for these Slack check-ins, almost as though they were one-on-ones.

I did – and I do – other things too. I’ve scheduled long-distance lunch dates with employees and teammates, gone for bike rides and walks, and hosted small socially-distanced happy hours in my backyard. I’ve sent emails, texted, showed up at meetings, and met people at parks. The reasons for doing these things are both personal and professional. Of course I need to find creative ways to stay close to the work my team is doing, to get beyond the surface. But I also need to stay close to the people. I miss seeing them in real life, and I need to make sure they know they’re on my mind, that I care.

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The weekly email

Nearly every Monday morning since March 16, I’ve sent an email to my entire team (I missed two when I was on vacation). It’s a commitment I made to myself on day one, and George Floyd’s murder and the events that followed reinforced the need. There were things I needed to say, and things the team needed to hear. Even if I couldn’t see every person on my team every week, I needed to be present, and I need to communicate proactively.

After more than five months, it can be hard to find ways to keep the emails fresh and new, but that’s not really the point. Some weeks I write about world events or work highlights. Other weeks I discuss things that are happening in my family or articles I find. It can be hard to find the right balance between sharing my opinions and veering into what currently passes for politics, but I try. Here are a few excerpts from my emails.

March 23:

My family, like most of yours, is trying to make the most of our time together without killing each other. My teenage son works at the local Kowalski’s, and he’s thoroughly enjoying being the only person in our family classified by the government as an “emergency worker.” 

June 8:

Over the course of the last week, George Floyd’s murder went from being a local story about an unjust police killing in Minneapolis to a national emergency focused on much larger, systemic issues. Thousands of people across the country are joining together and saying “no more.” It’s about time. Please stay safe and wear your masks out there.

July 27:

I know it can feel weird to do, given that most people aren’t actually going anywhere, but an occasional day off can be fantastic for our mental health, and I strongly encourage people to use PTO when you can. Most people are not currently doing this. Maybe you’re saving it for a rainy day, or hoping things will open up more this year? Fair enough. I’m not telling you what to you – my only motive is to make sure those of you who need a break find a way to get one. Burnout is real, and it’s something I’d like to avoid, if possible. 

You get the idea. The email isn’t magical, but it reminds my team that I’m here, that I’m human, and that I’m deeply invested in our success. It also keeps me present and gives me another opportunity to lead, and I’ve gotten consistent feedback that the team likes it. (By the way, if something important happens today, I’m not going to wait until next Monday’s email to reach out to the team.)

Employee expectations

As I mentioned earlier, we’re in uncharted territory, both as employees and as leaders. You can argue that great leadership strategies work regardless of the situation, but let’s face it: Jack Welch never led a team through a pandemic.

There are a lot of things we don’t know – how long the coronavirus will last, its lasting impact on our businesses, when we’ll be back in our offices, the outcome of the next election, whether we’ll make real improvements related to equity, and so much more. It’s incredibly hard to lead a team through so much uncertainty. In order to do it, we need to free ourselves from the idea that our teams expect us to be all-knowing. They don’t.

But our teams do expect certain things from us, especially now. They expect us to be honest, for example, and to be as transparent as possible, even though they know we sometimes have information that can’t be shared. They expect us to listen to their concerns, and to escalate them within our organizations as it makes sense. They expect us to understand that it’s impossible to be completely present in a meeting when they’re bouncing their toddlers on their laps. They expect us to be human, and – even if they don’t always show it – they know we’re feeling a lot of the same stress and uncertainty they are. Most of all, our teams expect us to be present, to show our faces, and to walk the talk.

In this post, I’ve shared a few of my own ideas and strategies for being present with my team. I hope some of them are useful to you, but I’m very aware that I don’t have it all figured out – we’re all learning as we go. Now I’d love to hear your ideas and strategies. How are you finding ways to connect with your teams? What’s working, and what’s not? How are you balancing your own stress with your work? How are you showing the team they’re in good hands? How are you leveraging technology? How are you being present for your team every single day? I’d love to know.

Can agile principles help us become anti-racist?

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Like many people, I’ve been a sponge lately, taking in amazing books like Ta-Nehisi Coates’s Between the World and Me, listening to fantastic podcasts like How Core Values Influence Diversity and Inclusion with Kim Crayton, and reading mind-blowing articles like What is Owed by Nikole Hannah-Jones. Now is a time for me to learn, and I’ve got years of work to do before I can claim to have gotten past the tip of the iceberg.

But I don’t have years, weeks, or even days to read, listen to, and process all of this information before taking action. I have a job to do, and a team demanding that I use my position to make positive change now. Yes, this is a time to learn, but it’s also a time to act. We’ve been patient – even with ourselves – for too long.

This is complicated by the fact that it’s a terrible time to make mistakes. The stakes are high and scrutiny has never been greater. On the positive side, we’re all being held accountable for our words and actions, as we should be. On the negative side, we’re also demanding that people take risks, and mistakes can be costly.

So it seems like we need to listen, learn, and take action, and we need to do it without making mistakes. But how?

Unfortunately, we’re going to make mistakes

Unless our plan is to learn everything before we do anything, we will fail, at least occasionally. The issues we face related to racial injustice have been deeply ingrained in our society for hundreds of years, and in order for us to make things better, we’re going to have to have hard conversations and take risks. And what are the odds we’ll get it right every single time? Not very good.

If our goal is to make things better, and to do it quickly, we need a structure that allows us to make mistakes and learn from them iteratively. And here’s where I turn to the agile principle of failing fast. In agile development, when we talk about failing fast, we assume that failure is inevitable, at least some of the time. And if failure is inevitable, then the faster we do it, the faster we learn and improve. According to Ben Rossi in Information Age:

In software development, the point about “fail fast” is that if a failure is going to take place you want to reduce the time lag in a) detecting the failure, and b) relaying the detection back to the responsible developer. 

What would it mean to apply this concept to our interactions with others, to our discussions about racial injustice? If we all agreed that “detecting the failure” was step one, then we’d expect it, and we’d be grateful when it happened quickly so we could move on to step two, “relaying the detection back.” For example, if our organization unintentionally supported the wrong charity, or made well intentioned hires without supporting them well, or changed HR policies that singled people out instead of bringing them together, we could identify these errors and fix them. If we could do this without fear or judgement, imagine how quickly we’d learn and improve.

Of course, this would require that we all acknowledged up front that we’re going to make mistakes, and that this is as important as it is inevitable. We’d have to trust each other, assume positive intent, and agree not to blame or judge each other when we fail. We’d need to speak freely, without fear of unintended consequences, and we’d need to listen openly, giving others the benefit of the doubt. This sounds hard, but I think it’s possible.

Embracing the agile concept of failing fast

At the start of this post, I said what we needed to do was clear: listen, learn, and take action without making mistakes. But what if we acknowledged that mistakes will be made and leveraged a process – like agile – that helped us fail fast, correct our behavior, and learn? What if we were willing to be wrong without being defensive?

As we work towards social justice and equality, we need to acknowledge that we will, inevitably, make mistakes. And while agile philosophy may not be the silver bullet that makes us anti-racist, I do think it might offer us a viable way forward. If we embrace the concept of failing fast and use it as a way to learn, understand, and improve over time, we’ll be better able to meet the needs of each other and our teams over time. And that’s a start.

Donald Trump, Job Applicant

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I’m not the first person to point out that if Donald Trump had a “normal” job, he’d have been fired by now. No HR policy would allow his behavior, and no Board of Directors could withstand the scrutiny, regardless of how much money he was making the company. A recent Business Insider article titled “What if Your Boss Acted Like This?” put it this way:

Imagine your boss did this: 

You send him a memo about a life-or-death issue for the company, and he doesn’t read it. He has regular calls with firms you’re doing deals with, but he doesn’t prepare for them, and instead spends the whole call talking about himself, or insulting the person he’s talking to. He commits an egregious, humiliating screw-up one morning, then turns his phone off and plays golf, leaving everyone else to clean up the mess.

These are not hypothetical examples. This is quite literally an account — taken from a single day! — of how Donald Trump does the job we hired him to do, and that we pay him to do.

But Donald Trump doesn’t have a “normal” job, and the only way he can be “fired” is if the American people vote him out. In fact, Donald Trump has never actually even had to  apply for a job (if you think running for president counts, compare that with any job interview you’ve had). So I started to wonder: what would happen if he did?

An interesting resume 

Imagine it, if you can: Donald Trump, fresh off his tour as President of the United States, sending out resumes in the hopes that one of the companies he’s considered buying over the past 50 years might hire him instead. The jobs I hire for, typically team leaders, product managers, product designers, and software engineers, are somewhat specialized, and require a fair amount of experience, but let’s face it: Trump’s resume is pretty interesting, so I might bring him in regardless.

The Interview

The interview here is, of course, imagined. Trump’s words are his own, pulled from interviews and statements he’s given in the last five years, with links to their original sources. My questions aren’t actual interview questions, but I think they get the job done.

Lee: What makes you a the best candidate for the job?

DJT: ….Actually, throughout my life, my two greatest assets have been mental stability and being, like, really smart. I went from VERY successful businessman, to top T.V. Star…to President of the United States (on my first try). I think that would qualify as not smart, but genius….and a very stable genius at that!

Lee: That sounds impressive. And that makes you the best candidate?

DJT: So great looking and smart, a true Stable Genius!

Lee: Um, okay. Accountability is a big deal to me. Tell me about a time when you took responsibility for something that didn’t go well.

DJT: [Silence]

Lee: Maybe related to the coronavirus?

DJT: I don’t take responsibility at all. This horrible disease was sent to us by China. It should not have been sent. They should have stopped it. They could have stopped it.  They didn’t. And the entire world has gotten infected, and a lot of countries are going through a lot right now.

Lee: Once it was clear that coronavirus was here, and that we needed to deal with it, how did you see the role of the federal government versus the states?

DJT: The states’ testing is up to the states to do, which will implement the test and logistically coordinate the tests.

Lee: “The states’ testing is up to the states to do”? That’s not really saying anything at all.

DJT: Similar to the situation with ventilators, states need to assess their complete inventory of available capacity. Some states have far more capacity than they actually understand. And it is a complex subject, but some of the governors didn’t understand it. Not simply ask the federal government to provide unlimited support.

Lee: So the states should not ask the federal government for support?

DJT: The authority of the President of the United States, having to do with the subject we’re talking about, is total.

Lee: I’m not sure that’s true, but let’s assume – just for a minute – that it is. How would you rate yourself in your handling of the coronavirus? I mean, the U.S. has already had more than 5.5 million cases, with more than 170,000 deaths.

DJT: Nobody has done anything like we’ve been able to do. And everything I took over was a mess. It was a broken country in so many ways. In so many ways. We have done a job, the likes of which nobody has ever done.

When I took this over, it was an empty box. We didn’t have testing. We didn’t have anything. We had a broken system there. We had a broken system with stockpiling. We had a lot of broken systems. And I’m not just blaming President Obama. You go long before that.

Lee: I’m still trying to figure out which role on the team might be the best fit for you. Your responses don’t exactly scream “engineer.” What job on the team do you think you’d be best suited for?

DJT: I don’t know if you know this but probably 10 years ago I was honored. I was the man of the year by I think somebody, whoever. I was the man of the year in Michigan, can you believe it? Long time.

Other countries come to see me, all of their leaders they say, sir, first thing, sir, congratulations on your economy. We’re trying to do the same thing. Congratulations sir. And I say you think Hillary could do this? I don’t think so.

Lee: Are you talking about Hillary Clinton? I’m not sure what this has to do with her, and we don’t have an opening for “man of the year,” but since you’re focused on the economy, maybe a job in Finance? Although it’s been extensively reported that, under your leadership. the US economy is suffering its biggest contraction in 75 years. That doesn’t make it sound like you’d be an asset to our Finance team.

DJT:  It was just put out that the United States economy added almost 5 million jobs in the month of June, shattering all expectations. The stock market is doing extremely well, which means, to me, jobs. This is the largest monthly jobs gain in the history of our country. The unemployment rate fell by more than 2 percentage points down to just about 11 percent. We started at a number very much higher than that.  As you know, we broke the record last month, and we broke it again this month in an even bigger way.

Lee: This certainly seems like good news to me. All this talk about jobs makes me think you might be a fit for our HR department. Like other companies, we’re working hard to be anti-racist, and as a Minneapolis-based company, we were sickened by the murder of George Floyd.

DJT: All Americans were rightly sickened and revolted by the brutal death of George Floyd. My administration is fully committed that for George and his family, justice will be served.

Lee: I’m so glad to hear you say that, I was nervous you were going to say something about there being “fine people on both sides.”

DJT: Hopefully George is looking down right now and saying, “This is a great thing that’s happening for our country.” This is a great day for him. It’s a great day for everybody. This is a great day for everybody. This is a great, great day in terms of equality. It’s really what our constitution requires and it’s what our country is all about.

Lee: How on earth can this be a great day for a man who was brutally murdered by police?

DJT: What we’re announcing today is a tremendous tribute to equality. We’re bringing our jobs back. When we had our tremendous numbers. And when we had just prior to the China plague that floated in, we had numbers, the best in history for African American, for Hispanic American, and for Asian American and for everybody. Best for women, best for people without a diploma, young people without a diploma. I mean so many different categories. Our numbers were the best in almost every category.

Lee: I notice you mentioned women.

DJT: You know, I’m automatically attracted to beautiful — I just start kissing them. It’s like a magnet. Just kiss. I don’t even wait. And when you’re a star, they let you do it. You can do anything. Grab ’em by the –

Lee: [Interrupting] So definitely not a job in HR. Wow, look at the time! Thanks so much for coming in. We’ve got a few other candidates to talk with, but you should expect to hear from our HR team within a few days.

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Unqualified for any job

There you have it. My imagined interview, with answers pulled from real interviews, speeches, and Tweets. My goal was not to be comprehensive – I barely scratched the surface – but you get the idea. You can’t make this stuff up.

And yet, much of what Trump has said, even here, is made up. Recent data shows that the President tells more than 23 lies every day, a number that has increased since the start of COVID-19.

Setting aside the bluster, Trump’s record as a President is clear, consistent, and public. So is his record as a businessman. A quick internet search will give you the facts related to his handling of race relations, the coronavirus, his record on job growth, the state of the economy, what he’s done to the environment, the company he keeps, and who has benefitted from his policies. It will also reveal that Trump has golfed 135 times since taking on the presidency at a cost to taxpayers of approximately $140 million, and that he has openly used the highest office in our country to line his own pockets.

If, after all of this, you’re still feeling good about a second Trump presidency, consider this: if Donald Trump showed up at your place of business (office, fire station, convenience store, restaurant, etc.) for an interview, what job would he be qualified for? What job would he be good at? What job would you give him? If your answer, like mine, is not a single one, then is he the right person to run our country?

No justice, no sleep

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Just under two weeks ago, just over a mile from my house, George Floyd was murdered. It is indisputable that if he were white, he would still be alive today. 

We’re all exhausted. It’s hard to sleep with helicopters circling overhead, and with the constant threat of violence in our neighborhoods. It’s hard to sleep with white supremacists and anarchists descending on our city and hiding in our backyards. It’s hard to sleep when we see so much injustice all around us. 

We white folks slept better a few weeks ago, didn’t we? But how? The racism and hatred that led to George Floyd’s murder has been with us all along. Without systemic change, it was inevitable that another black person would be killed by another white police officer. How did we sleep? 

We slept by pushing these terrible, inevitable facts out of our minds. We focused on the small things we could do, and on our good intentions, and on the donations we made to the right causes. We did this even as the coronavirus continued to spread disproportionately to communities of color. We knew these things, but they were too uncomfortable to face, so we looked away. 

It’s much harder to look away now. How will be sleep? Maybe we won’t. Probably we shouldn’t.

What now, white guy?

I’m a well-meaning white man. I’ve been extremely restrained on social media, because I believe it to be an echo chamber at best. And while my priority is to listen carefully and openly, I need to make my feelings public and clear:

Racism is poison. I’m committed to working against it, even when it makes me uncomfortable. I’ll listen better and learn more, and I’ll use my influence to make things better. I’ll put more of my money, and all of my votes, where my mouth is. I stand in solidarity with the black community and demand justice for George Floyd. Black lives matter.

So what? So nothing. To build a society that works for all of us, this statement and the thousands just like it being posted across the internet by well-meaning white people are less than the price of admission. I know I need to back up these words with actions. I’ll write more about that in future posts, including how to lead people through these challenging topics and times.

The center of the world

I love so much about Minneapolis. I love its lakes and its restaurants, its culture and its parks, its sports and its quality of life – I’ve even written a song about it. But Governor Walz put it perfectly when he said that:

We don’t just rank near the top on educational attainment. We rank near the top on personal incomes, on home ownership, and on life expectancies. We ranked second in a survey of the 50 States, second in happiness behind Hawaii. But if you take a deeper look and peel it back, which this week has peeled back, all of those statistics are true if you’re white. If you’re not, we ranked near the bottom.

Have you heard about “Minnesota Nice”? It’s the idea that we Minnesotans are as pleasant as can be when we’re together, but that we’re just being “nice.” That we’ll do anything to put someone else at ease, but we don’t actually mean it. That we’re not genuine, we’re just trying to avoid conflict. This is something we readily acknowledge and often laugh about, and that white people often credit to their Scandinavian or Germanic heritage. How can it be bad to be nice?

The truth about “Minnesota Nice” is that it can prevent us from getting below the surface, from really understanding and connecting with each other. “Minnesota Nice” is what allows us white Minnesotans to say we empathize with black people, to donate to black causes, and to vote for people of color without actually engaging in the community or the conversation. I keep thinking of the lyrics from Lou Reed’s “Busload of Faith”:

You can’t depend on the goodly hearted
the goodly hearted made lamp-shades and soap

It’s time to stop being nice, to stop avoiding conflict, to stop running from the hard stuff. It’s time to engage.

Clearly Minneapolis is not the only city in the country – or in the world – with a racist history, and with racist policies that have created vast inequities for hundreds of years. Still it’s my city, and right now it feels like the center of the world for the worst possible reason.

This is our time

“I wish it need not have happened in my time,” said Frodo. “So do I,” said Gandalf, “and so do all who live to see such times. But that is not for them to decide. All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us.”

J.R.R. Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings

Right here, right now, we have an incredible opportunity to shape the future, to turn Minneapolis into a city that works for all people, regardless of the color of their skin. If we can rise to the occasion, then maybe we can be the city where things got so bad that they finally started to get better.

This is a time to listen openly, to challenge our ways of thinking and behaving, to stand up for the things that matter (including each other), and to work for change. This is our time.

We can sleep after that.

For heaven’s sake, apologize!

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It was just over a month ago, but it still makes me feel sick. I was presenting an important and sensitive topic to the team, something I’d worked hard to get right. There were two versions of the deck I’d created, and between the stress of the day and a variety of technical difficulties, I found myself presenting the wrong version to the team. The fact that this version and the scenario it described were old and outdated didn’t matter. There it was, for all to see.

The worst part of my mistake was that I wasn’t the only person who was embarrassed by it – the deck I’d accidentally presented had implications for others on the team too. It was not my best hour. In response, I did what a lot of reasonable people would have done in the same situation: I ignored the mistake and hoped it would go away.

Only – surprise! – ignoring the mistake did not make it go away. It was only after I acknowledged the mistake a full week later that the team could get past it. “I made a mistake,” I said, genuinely, “I’m really sorry I did that.”

In response, one of my team members said something that truly amazed me. “I’ve never had a boss apologize to me before,” he said, “that means a lot.” What took me so long?

Sorry seems to be the hardest word

It’s not just Elton John who thinks so. According Renee Garfinkel, Ph.D., in Psychology Today:

Apologizing is difficult because it requires humility. Apologizing temporarily reduces one’s self-esteem.  The offender who apologizes yields some power, some control.  Having announced their imperfection and error, the offender is now vulnerable.  It takes humility to make a sincere apology, and for some people humility is just too uncomfortably close to humiliation.

When we apologize, we acknowledge our “imperfection and error,” which makes us feel weak and vulnerable. But we are imperfect, and we do make errors. There’s nothing weak about it at all. I’d argue that you need self-confidence in order to admit your failures. As Plato said in The Republic:

I am the wisest man alive, for I know one thing, and that is that I know nothing.

I used to wonder at what age I’d be smart enough to stop putting my foot in my mouth, but that was a long time ago. Now I know that age will never come, that I’ll never be that smart. I may not be “the wisest man alive,” but I know I don’t know everything. And if I don’t know everything, sometimes I’m going to get things wrong – and sometimes that will require an apology.

“Sorry” can be overused

The internet is littered with articles describing people who apologize too much. According to Greatist:

If you’re someone who throws out “sorrys” like candy from a parade float, that can be a problem. While on the surface this might seem like a polite habit, overusing any word can devalue it—and more importantly, excessive apologizing can make you look guilty when you haven’t done anything wrong.

While according to Tonic:

Apologies aren’t always helpful—and sometimes they can be excessive. This behavior may stem from anxiety or depression, although research on the topic is scarce. What we do know is that, for some, the urge to say “I’m sorry” for every little thing is involuntary and often has little to do with actual remorse.

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According to the Child Mind Institute, this is especially problematic for girls:

Apologizing can be a good thing—a sign that a child is empathetic and has strong social skills. But saying you’re sorry too much can backfire. For instance, when a girl starts a statement by saying, “Sorry, but… ” or “I might be wrong, but …” she may think she’s being polite, but it undermines what she’s about to say. “It says ‘I don’t feel confident in what I’m about to say or my right to say it,’ ” explains Dr. Rachel Busman, a clinical psychologist at the Child Mind Institute.

Got it? The point is not to apologize with abandon. It’s to acknowledge that we genuinely care when our actions hurt people, and to admit that we make mistakes.

Coda

We’re actively hiring at work – we’ve got lots of open roles on my team and lots of great candidates, both internal and external. In an effort to get the word out quickly and get the ball rolling, I rushed a few job descriptions out before checking them with the hiring managers.

Can you guess what happened? Candidates had applied for a job based on a description they’d seen last month, and we were planning to interview them based on a job description we’d updated last week. Not ideal.

As a believer in the Agile Manifesto, I’m committed to welcoming change, to favoring individuals and interactions over processes and tools, and to responding to change over following a plan. I move fast. I break things. My intentions were pure, but this issue was entirely my fault. As I called each of the candidates, letting them know how and why the job they’d applied for had changed and asking them if they still wanted to apply, I made at least one thing clear.

“I’m really sorry about this,” I said, “I made a mistake.”

“No problem,” they responded, “thanks for taking the time to explain what happened. See you next week.”

 

I’ll be voting tomorrow

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I believe diversity is a strength and not a weakness.

I believe all Americans should have the opportunity to earn a living wage.

I believe we’re obligated to provide for those in need.

I believe we’re all equal, no exceptions.

I believe we should strive to create a world that’s better for our children.

I believe we’re in it together.

I believe scientists.

I believe the world and our country are less safe, less compassionate, and more violent since the current president was elected.

I believe facts.

I believe my vote matters, and I’ll be voting tomorrow.

A quick word about estimating work

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A Google search for “creating accurate estimates for development work” yields more than 121 million results. A Google search for “why are teams so bad at estimating development work?” yields more than 47 million. If there’s one thing we all know about estimates, it’s that they’re almost always wrong. The reasons for this are well documented:

  • No two developers have exactly the same skill set or develop at exactly the same speed
  • Code issues are difficult or impossible to predict
  • Availability of other project resources (UX, QA, etc.) can be an issue
  • And so on (this article does a good job of outlining more)

And yet we continue to estimate, to make promises and commitments, and to convince ourselves that these wildly optimistic guesses (because they’re always wildly optimistic and they’re always guesses) are more than just that. I don’t need to add to the many millions of Google search results on this topic, but I do want to highlight the clear and direct connection between the commitments we make and our ability to give our teams work that’s both achievable and manageable.

Every product leader I know actively tries to avoid setting deadlines and making commitments, partly because we know our estimates are inaccurate, and partly because we know that deadlines don’t help teams create better products. And yet, making commitments is often unavoidable. When we’re in this situation, I like to remind my team of one very important fact: nobody outside of our team actually knows how long it takes to do our work.

There are lots of strategies for padding development estimates (a Google search for “how much should we pad our development estimates?” yields 35 million results), but this isn’t my point. My point is that, in an effort to force our estimates into pre-determined timelines, we sometimes leave out things that are critically important, like QA and UX. Instead of estimating what it would take to deliver a quality project, we jump right to how we’ll hit a deadline. When we do this, we miss all sorts of great opportunities to negotiate – we give up before we even get started. We also make it impossible for our teams to deliver a quality product on time.

Nobody outside of our team actually knows how long it takes to do our work. This gives us the power to estimate our work as it should be, and to include all the critical pieces that are sometimes thought of as nice-to-haves. It also gives us the chance to bring our business partners along, to help them understand what it takes to build great software, to enlist their help when making trade-offs, and to get their buy-in and support for the recommended approach.

Let’s not forget to take advantage of it.

 

Feeling overwhelmed? Channel Kurt Vonnegut and get to work.

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Every company I’ve been a part of has had more work to do than people to do it. (Has there ever been a company with too many people and not enough work to do? Not for long.) Sometimes the gap between need and output is relatively small, and a team can almost keep up, but more often – especially if a company is aggressive about identifying opportunities – the gap is much, much bigger.

This can lead to lots of frustration. In my last post, I wrote about how great leaders help their teams win by defining success in ways that are achievable. In this post, I’ll focus on getting to work and making it manageable.

My current product organization is responsible for a lot more products than we have teams, including nearly a dozen products built by companies we’ve acquired over the past two years. Inevitably, at any given time, there are products we’re not working on, or even thinking much about. This can be hard to stomach. But the reality is that we’ll never have enough people or time to adequately address all of the issues and opportunities in front of us. In order to wrap our heads around the challenge, we need a different way to think about it.

That’s where I turn to Kurt Vonnegut.

In his article, On the Work to be Done, first published in the May 28, 1998 issue of Rolling Stone magazine, Vonnegut writes brilliantly in the topic of getting to work. Although he’s writing about building a better world, Vonnegut’s words apply to building better software too. Here goes:

As I read the Book of Genesis, God didn’t give Adam and Eve a whole planet.

He gave them a manageable piece of property, for the sake of discussion let’s say 200 acres.

I suggest to you Adams and Eves that you set as your goals the putting of some small part of the planet into something like safe and sane and decent order.

If God had given Adam and Eve the entire world, what would they have done? It’s easy to imagine them running naked through the jungle, shaking their fists, fighting back tears, screaming, “we’re not ready to take care of all these animals – we don’t even have clothes yet!”

In Vonnegut’s telling, God doesn’t overwhelm Adam and Eve, he gives them “some small part of the planet” – just as much as they can handle.  Adam and Eve weren’t responsible for the entire planet, I remind my team, and you’re not responsible for the entire platform. You’re divided into product teams for a reason, so that one group can focus on financial management while another focuses on mobile applications and so on. If you try to eat the elephant (or the forbidden apple?) in one bite, you’ll get sick. Vonnegut continues:

What painters and sculptors and writers do, incidentally, is put very small properties indeed into good order, as best they can.

A painter thinks, “I can’t fix the whole planet, but I can at least make this square of canvas what it ought to be.” And a sculptor thinks the same thing about a lump of clay or marble. A writer thinks the same about a piece of paper, conventionally eleven inches long and eight-and-a-half inches wide.

A product manager is responsible for creating an awesome product. A user experience designer is responsible for creating an awesome experience. A software architect is responsible for creating an awesome technical architecture. And so on. Often this work happens incrementally, over time. The good and bad news? The work is never done.

So here’s the challenge: take your 200 acres (or lines of code) and put them in decent order. Make them exactly what they’re meant to be, or make them even better. After that, there’ll be another 200 acres to worry about, and then another 200 acres after that.

That sounds manageable, right?

Great teams want to win. Great leaders make it possible.

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I was just a few months into my new position as Director of eCommerce and, although the team was delivering lots of work, the work itself was underwhelming: shortcuts were being taken, errors were being made, and deadlines were being missed. And while members of the team told me they were overworked, I was pretty sure none of them was working more than a 40-hour week, and a few were working less.

My first thought was that my team was lazy, that they’d gotten away with putting in less than a full effort in the past and needed to recommit to their jobs. Wasn’t it obvious that if they put in more hours they’d get more work done? In an attempt to get more hours out of the team, I put a few carrots in place (a free meal, a small bonus) and a few sticks (unpleasant meetings, the threat of disciplinary action). Neither worked. At the end of my rope, I called a team meeting.

The meeting started with lots of venting, as you’d expect: the job was hard, there was too much work and not enough people, the team was under-appreciated. I wondered if pulling everyone together was a bad idea. And then, suddenly, one of my employees said something so simple – and so perfect – that I’ve literally thought about it every day since:

“We come to work each day to win,” he said, “but we always lose.”

The rest of the team nodded their heads in agreement, and I dug in. When I pressed them to describe what it meant to win, they said they felt like they were on a treadmill – no matter how many hours they worked, they could never keep up. And if, miraculously, they could keep up with their workload, their only reward was to do it all over again the next week. What’s more, “keeping up” wasn’t something the team could rally around. They wanted to do great work, improve the process, and add value to our company and our customers. They wanted to be proud of not just the quantity of their work, but the quality as well.

The team wasn’t working longer hours because couldn’t see the point – no matter how many hours they worked, they couldn’t win.

#Winning
Remember the movie “Groundhog Day”? In it, Bill Murray is forced to relive the same day over and over again until he gets it right. The movie works because every time Murray’s character wakes up in the morning we see small improvements in his behavior – we can see that he’s learning – so we know he’ll eventually be waking up next to Andie MacDowell. For too many of our teams, there’s no difference between one day and the next. They can’t see forward progress, and a happy ending seems like an impossibility. They want their chance to wake up next to Andie MacDowell, but their experience tells them they never will.

As I mentioned, the eCommerce team above defined winning as doing high quality work, improving the process, and adding value to our company and our customers. But leadership at the company we worked for defined winning for the team as simply keeping up with their aggressive workload. Who was right? The team was, of course.

When a company sets a low bar for its employees and teams, the best employees – the kind you want to keep – have just two choices: set the bar higher or move on. Too often a company takes the view that repetitive, operational roles are best staffed by people who just want to put in their time. Even these roles need a version of winning.

Winning means different things to different teams, but in my experience working with lots of them, forward progress is a must. If a team isn’t moving forward, it can’t possibly be winning.

Before you can set your team up to win, you need to know what winning means to them. If you don’t know, ask them.

The definition of insanity
For teams that feel like they’re living “Groundhog Day,” you need to find a way to show forward progress. That way, even if your team continues to experience the operational pain of a never-ending task, they can start to get a sense that tomorrow’s problems will be different from today’s. You know that line about how the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results? That’s what we’re trying to avoid.

For the team above, that meant doing a deep dive into their process and tools, holding weekly meetings to discuss progress, creating a shared vision of success, and resetting expectations across the organization.

Work hard and show progress
The risk of gathering information and committing to helping your team win is that they’ll hold you accountable for making it happen. But you don’t really have a choice, do you? It’s your job. One of your most critical responsibilities is to make sure your employees can do their best work every day.

This is really hard to do! Articulating what it means to win is one thing, but setting your team up to win is something else. Often, the things that get in the way are expensive, enormous, complicated, and largely out of your control. Fortunately, your team doesn’t expect you to be a superhero. Your job isn’t to fix everything immediately, it’s to work hard and show progress.

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No more clockwatching
At the start of this post, I mentioned that my team wasn’t putting in more hours even though they were falling behind in their work. This makes complete sense. Until a team buys into their goals and approach – until they think they can win – they’re unlikely to invest more than the absolute minimum amount of energy and time required.

Once your team believes there’s a connection between their effort and their success, their work will be better, they’ll be happier, and they’ll see the benefits of working harder. They’ll stop worrying about how many hours they’re putting in, and you will too.

A new hope
The conversation described above was more than five years and several jobs ago, but I remember it like it was yesterday. The employee who made the comment about winning is still one of the most valuable employees I’ve ever had – he’s been on every one of my teams since.

I continued to work with that eCommerce team for another year or so, and although we never replaced their software or hired as many people as they wanted, we made a lot of progress. Within a few months, I’d replaced their manager, introduced new KPIs and reporting, gained organizational alignment, and scheduled regular meetings to help the team understand the context of their work and think more strategically. I didn’t fix everything, but I was able to show progress. The team started making fewer errors, taking pride in their work, and even working longer hours.

Finally, the team had hope. Winning wasn’t going to be easy, but maybe, if we all worked hard enough, it was possible.

“Leadership by tweets” is still not a thing

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This is from the New York Times on December 3, 2017, but it could be from almost any news source on almost any day this year:

In a series of early-morning tweets, Mr. Trump said the F.B.I.’s standing was now the “worst in history.” The attack was one of the harshest in a generation on an independent agency that two days earlier had helped secure a guilty plea and a pledge of cooperation from the president’s first national security adviser.

Yesterday Mr. Trump took to Twitter to criticize the F.B.I., but unless you’ve been living under a big, heavy rock wearing noise canceling headphones and a sleep mask, yesterday’s news didn’t surprise you. Heck, yesterday’s news wasn’t even news. Tweeting whatever comes to mind – good or bad – is just what the man does, several times a day or more. It helped him get elected to the highest office in our country.

As a leadership challenge, leading the United States has to be about as tough as it gets. So the fact that Trump leverages Twitter so frequently and enthusiastically is worth considering, particularly for those of us who lead companies and teams that are invariably smaller and less complex than the United States government. As it turns out, we can learn a lot of things from the way Trump uses Twitter. Here are a few things I’ve learned – or been reminded of – in just the last few weeks:

Build trust
One could argue that one of our president’s primary responsibilities is to keep Americans safe. This surely includes preventing nuclear war. And yet, while Rex Tillerson, our Secretary of State, works to build trust around the world, his boss can’t help but chime in:

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There are a couple of key leadership lessons here:

  • Calling an employee “wonderful” while criticizing his work publicly – especially in front of 44 million Twitter followers – sends a mixed message, and probably won’t result in the behavior you seek. Critical feedback should be given directly, and privately.
  • Name calling is never a good idea, even if the name is something cool like “Little Rocket Man.” (If the person you’re calling “Little Rocket Man” has access to nuclear weapons, it’s an even worse idea.)

Details matter
From The Washington Post, November 30, 2017:

Taking aim at Prime Minister Theresa May’s sharp rebuke of his actions, Trump wanted May to know he was unhappy with her response. In Trump fashion, he took to Twitter to air his grievances. But he targeted the wrong Theresa May.

Scrivener, now known as the “wrong Theresa May,” broke her silence later Thursday. “It’s amazing to think that the world’s most powerful man managed to press the wrong button,” she said, adding, “I’m just glad he was not contacting me to say he was going to war with North Korea.”

Calling out a strategic partner or employee publicly can be problematic (see above). But calling out the wrong person is worse. Strong leaders confirm that they’re talking with the right person, check their spelling, etc. before going down this path. If you’re a leader but not a perfectionist, consider leveraging a proofreader before sharing something important.

Check your facts
From Factcheck.org, November 29, 2017:

President Donald Trump retweeted a video that purported to show a “Muslim migrant” beating up “a Dutch boy on crutches.” But, according to the Netherlands Embassy in the United States, the attacker wasn’t an immigrant. He was born and raised in the Netherlands.

The embassy chastised the U.S. president for spreading false information. “Facts do matter,” it said in a statement on Twitter hours after the president’s retweet.

This single example contains additional leadership lessons as well. We are taught as leaders to acknowledge implicit bias, which cannot help but exist, and to look for ways to counter it, including training, better conflict management, and implementing systems that account for it. We are also taught to slow down. From Bentley University’s website, good leaders must:

Pause…leading to more thoughtful decisions. Taking a breath or a pause in the height of the decision making process can be the most meaningful action they can take. Often, that mental and/or physical space is needed to fully understand a situation and keep a clear head.

Show integrity
In one of Trump’s tweets from this past weekend, the President wrote that he fired Michael Flynn for lying to the FBI:

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And here’s the fallout, from NBC News this morning:

WASHINGTON — President Donald Trump’s personal lawyer took responsibility Sunday for a tweet that Trump sent the previous day, in which the president said for the first time that he knew his former security adviser, Michael Flynn, had lied to the FBI before he fired Flynn in February.

The tweet caused an uproar in Washington because it implied Trump knew Flynn had committed a felony — lying to the FBI — when he told then-FBI director James Comey to go easy on Flynn the day after the firing.

In this case, Trump tweeted information that could, theoretically, get him impeached – probably not a great move. Then, instead of admitting he’d made a mistake, Trump allowed his lawyer to take the blame. Making mistakes is no fun, but it’s also unavoidable. Owning our mistakes shows integrity.

Focus on what’s important
Last week, Michael Flynn pleaded guilty and agreed to testify, Republican senators approved a sweeping tax bill, and several well-known politicians and TV personalities were accused of sexual assault. This week, a government shutdown looms. Trump spent most of last week tweeting about Hillary Clinton, James Comey, ABC News and Brian Ross, and – falsely – about Muslims behaving badly.

Many of us have intense jobs, with back-to-back meetings, large teams we’re trying to build and improve, projects with challenging deadlines that need to be met, and more. Very few of us are trying to simultaneously rewrite the tax code, change our healthcare system, prevent nuclear war, and keep ourselves out of jail. Still, we know how important it is to be able to separate the things that are critical from those that are not. If we don’t do this, we cannot be successful at our jobs.

The gift that keeps on giving
Trump is arguably the most powerful leader in the world, and his love of Twitter is beyond legendary. I’ve also recently watched Quit Social Media, Dr. Cal Newport’s compelling TED talk (thanks Jamie!), so my mind is on social media and its place in our lives and our work. I’ve been thinking about how social media makes our lives more full and also how it makes them more empty, how it creates revolution and how it spreads fake news, how it brings us together and how it pulls us apart.

The collection of the President’s tweets above is far from comprehensive, of course – we’ve got much more to learn from the tweets he’s already posted – and will likely continue to post – about war heroes, co-workers, competitors, movie stars, women, football players, and more. From a learning perspective, Trump on Twitter is the gift that keeps on giving.

And so, acknowledging that there’s still lots to learn while Trump is in office, my current view on Twitter and Trump is this: while Twitter clearly helped Trump become a more effective candidate, it has yet to help him become a more effective leader. Based on what we’ve seen so far, I don’t think it ever will.