Category Archives: Work Topics

Before going down with the ship, make sure you’re the captain

captain-sinking-ship

It was 2005, but I remember it clearly. I was working for a company that was quickly making its way up the Fortune 500, and its desire to extend the business internationally was causing us to stretch in new, uncomfortable ways. A large consulting company that had “done this kind of thing before” was now running the show, and our CIO was leaving in the midst of lots of rumor and turmoil. On his last day, the CIO, who had capably led us through many other challenges in his eight years with the company, stood before us with tears in his eyes. We were a Technology team of 1000 people.

“I’ve failed you,” he said, “and now I’m leaving.”

The consultants had convinced my company that outsourcing its Technology department would both improve performance and save money. Our CIO had fought the decision with all he had, but in the end, it wasn’t enough. As we watched him leave, the reality of the situation sunk in: the rest of us weren’t going anywhere, at least for the time being. Was our CIO leaving because he was outvoted on the outsourcing decision? Was he leaving because his ego couldn’t take the hit?

Had our captain abandoned our ship, jumping into a small lifeboat and leaving us to drown?

The writing on the wall

Last December, after more than five years at my previous company, I left to join SportsEngine as VP of Product and User Experience. Leaving my job was one of the hardest decisions of my career – in partnership with some of my favorite co-workers ever, I’d built an amazing team from the ground up. If you’ve read any of my previous posts, you know the team I was leaving was forward-thinking and creative, that we were lean and Agile, and that we were high performing.

When I started exploring other options, I knew that the reasons to stay were significant and plentiful: my co-workers were great, I was respected, and I had the opportunity to make a meaningful impact. For months before I left I would meet up with friends and float the idea of finding a new gig. They looked at me like I had two heads. “How could you leave?,” they asked, “it sounds perfect.” From the outside looking in, I was in an ideal spot. Each time I met with a friend I returned to my office determined to make it work. What was I thinking?

But the writing was on the wall. The company was struggling, and I was struggling to grow there. I had all sorts of ideas about how to make things better – org changes, new hires, process changes, new focus areas, and more – but my suggestions went nowhere. I’ve written in the past about people who have the wrong attitude and how toxic that can be, and I did my best to address those situations when they arose in myself and in others. I looked for new angles, different ways to approach our problems, short- and long-term solutions. Over the course of almost a year, I exhausted every path I could identify. My frustration grew. I didn’t – and I don’t – blame my boss or the company for failing to see how “brilliant” my suggestions were. My knowledge was limited in some ways, and my ideas were rooted in my own biases. It’s very possible that some of my ideas were uninformed, impossible, or just plain bad.

Through it all, my team continued to perform terrifically. At our annual offsite, the CEO told the group we were among the company’s highest performers, and the team grew as other areas in the business were consolidated and moved. Our team was highly motivated, delivering great work and usually feeling both valuable and valued. But if I couldn’t extend my influence beyond my team, I knew the honeymoon wouldn’t last. And I knew I wouldn’t last either.

27684ce600000578-0-image-a-109_1428666142386

Who’s the captain?

All of which brings us back to the CIO at the start of this post – the man who left his large team at sea. Did he do the right thing?

Of all the reasons to stay at my company, the biggest was guilt. As I mentioned above, I’d built my team from scratch, and I’d played a role in the hiring of nearly everyone on it. My closest coworkers were also close friends. How could I abandon them? To make matters worse, the company wasn’t doing well. As a leader, wasn’t my job to rally the troops? If the ship was sinking, shouldn’t I be sinking with it?

I questioned my own motives for wanting to leave. For the most part, I felt listened to and valued, even as my best ideas languished on the sidelines. My relationships were strong, and I was assured that my future at the company was bright. I was frustrated, but not angry. Was my ego getting in the way of my desire to stand by my team? After some reflection, I decided it wasn’t. I was just getting my head around something I’d realized before but hadn’t really accepted: I might have been the captain of my team, but I was clearly not the captain of the company.

Months ago, in a blog post about getting fired, I wrote:

After we’ve said our piece, when the dust has settled and we didn’t get our way, our choices are clear: we can change our attitude, or we can change our scenery.

It was time.

Leaving can create opportunity 

There were lots of good reasons for me to leave my company, including career growth, opportunity, interesting new challenges, general well-being, and more. Several people on my team saw that it was also an opportunity for them. If I felt like I was stagnating in my role, looking for ways to extend my influence, there were others who felt that way too. The last thing I wanted to do was hold good people back.

When I eventually left the company, several people had the opportunity to grow in their roles, to lead bigger teams and to drive bigger decisions. The team I’d helped create continued to evolve, and was, in lots of ways, self-sustaining. It was ready for new leadership and ideas. Despite my best efforts, I had to acknowledge that my own ideas and approach weren’t working.

The CIO at the start of this post knew the same thing about his Technology team. He knew we had to become what the company needed now, rather than the thing he’d built. His leaving was an acknowledgment that the company was changing, that he was not the captain, and that he understood his own limits. He was stepping aside – at least partly – so that new leaders could emerge, and so the group could evolve and grow without being constrained by the “old guard.” I like to think that I was doing that too.

Fortune favors the bold

Maybe I’m rationalizing in order to make myself feel better. I’ve spent some time with my previous team members these past few weeks and things have been hard. The company’s going through lots of change, and the new leaders who are learning to step up are doing it in extraordinary circumstances. For some, it’s the opportunity of a lifetime, a crash course in business and leadership. It’s not easy, but that’s okay.

The decision to leave a job is a very personal one, with lots of professional, practical, and emotional considerations. The idea of a captain (or worse, rats!) abandoning a sinking ship has been so ingrained in our culture that it can be impossible to see beyond. But this is an unfair over-simplification. There’s a difference between abandoning ship and knowing when moving on is the right call for yourself and your team.

A company will do what it needs to in order to survive and thrive, and that’s a good thing; that’s what it’s supposed to do. Still, despite certain Supreme Court decisions, companies are not people, and they don’t have feelings. We need to be able to understand this, and to make decisions about our careers accordingly. Too many of us are afraid to be perceived as captains abandoning ship when we should be embracing a more relevant, empowering truth: fortune favors the bold.

Why is it so hard to stop the line?

taiichi-ohno-lean-manufacturing-1

Those of us who’ve adopted (and adapted) Lean software techniques owe a debt to Eiji Toyoda, and especially to Taiichi Ohno, who developed the Toyota Production System (TPS) and forever changed the way manufacturing – and eventually much of software development – works. According to Wikipedia:

TPS is grounded on two main conceptual pillars:

  1. Just-in-time – meaning “Making only what is needed, only when it is needed, and only in the amount that is needed”
  2. Jidoka – meaning “Automation with a human touch”

Core to jidoka is the concept of “stopping the line,” which means that when someone at Toyota identifies a problem, they’re required to stop production and resolve the issue. This ensures problems are addressed immediately, when they’re easier, less expensive, and less frustrating to fix.

Our eCommerce team has embraced this way of thinking. Our agile product teams are familiar with the Toyota story, and they understand the importance of identifying problems early. They sit together at tables, which makes collaboration easy, and they have daily stand-up meetings to make sure everyone’s on the same page. Best of all, they’re aligned around common goals, so they have the same motivation to improve the customer experience and their KPIs.

So why won’t they stop the line when they see an issue?

Stopping the line is really, really hard

Recently, my team released a couple of new features that weren’t up to our usual standard – experiences that were a little bit clunky. In both cases, after the projects were complete and the new functionality was deployed into production, we removed the new functionality from our site, sending the teams back to the drawing board. Weeks later, we’re still in the process of rebuilding these features, and we’re going through the work in great detail as a team to make sure we get it right.

Every single member of the team knew – weeks before launch – that the experience was less-than-perfect. And every single member of the team had been coached multiple times to stop the line. Even further, if you asked any member of my team if they understood the importance of stopping the line – if they agreed with it conceptually – every one of them would have said yes. And yet, nobody did it.

I asked three people why, and they all said some version of this:

Our team is working on becoming a well-oiled machine, and I don’t feel comfortable slowing things down.

The machine

Earlier this week I attended DevJam’s excellent Product Conference, and I was glad to hear its founder David Hussman discuss how product and agile are evolving. “We’ve gotten really good at building the wrong thing faster,” he said, and I couldn’t agree more.

My team was built for speed, and although I kept telling them to stop the line, I also told them a lot of other things:

  • “This new functionality is going to add a lot of revenue for our business.”
  • “You’ve got a long backlog.”
  • “If we get this done pre-holiday, it’ll be great for the bottom line.”
  • “Our Marketing team really, really wants this now.”
  • “It’d be great to get both of these projects done next quarter.”

By now you get the idea, and hopefully you see the problem. And it wasn’t just me. My team supports a lot of brands, and the brand owners, marketers, merchandisers, technology teams, senior executives – everyone, really, was in some way or other telling our product team to do more, faster.

In response, we became a machine built for speed. We got good at getting a lot of projects done, and we found a way to set and meet the goals we had before us. We implemented Test Driven Development (TDD), built automated tests, and found ways to get closer and closer to continuous delivery. And I’m convinced that every one of these things was – and is – the right thing to do.

The problem is that we did them at the expense of building great things.

In my next post, Encouraging people to stop the line with both carrots and sticks, I’ll describe what we’re doing about it.

Home

08-411072+26PAISLEYrjs042216Like lots of other people on LinkedIn, I hear from a good number of recruiters. All over the world, amazing job opportunities exist for me – well-established companies and start-ups, hugely profitable companies and those that hope to be. Apparently, there’s a big need out there for people who do what I do. And, although my current gig is fantastic, it’s hard not to be intrigued sometimes. (When I say “me” and “my,” I really mean “us” and “our” – I know I’m not all that special.)

Whether the new opportunity is local or not, it’s important for recruiters to know if I’m open to relocation, because if I am, the number of potential opportunities expands exponentially. If I’m serious about my career, which I am, I know that my answer should be yes.

I’m thinking about this while staring at the photo above, from an all night gathering/party in Minneapolis last night outside First Avenue, where Prince went from local phenomenon to national star. Prince traveled the world, and you could argue that New York or L.A. would have provided more opportunity for him – more producers, more gigs, more talent to surround himself with. Prince had recruiters calling, no doubt, and he dabbled in other locations over the years, but he kept coming back to Paisley Park, to Chanhassen, MN – to Minneapolis.

There are other artists and bands that are tightly linked to their hometowns – Bruce Springsteen, Billy Joel, Jon Bon Jovi, and X come to mind – but this kind of connection is becoming more and more unusual, as music “scenes” are replaced with digital music and YouTube videos. Lots of professionals – musicians, TV anchors, eCommerce professionals – wonder whether being associated with a particular place is a good thing, dropping their accents and answering yes when a recruiter asks if they’re open to relocation.

There’s nothing wrong with this! I left my hometown, and I may leave Minneapolis at some point too. If I worked in certain industries, in fact, I’d have to. But when I look at the photo above, at all the people gathered overnight to celebrate a local hero, it reminds me that there’s no shame in being rooted to a community, surrounding yourself with people you love and who love you, and feeling connected to where you’re from. Prince left home, sharing his immense talent and joy with people all over the world for more than 30 years. I, like many people here in Minneapolis, are happy, grateful, and proud that he always came back.

 

That time I was fired

I love Ben Horowitz‘s book The Hard Thing About Hard Things: Building a Business When There Are No Easy Answers. It’s a quick read, full of memorable business ideas that stick, gleaned from Horowitz’s experience with Loudcloud and other ventures (plus a handful of choice rap lyrics). Horowitz sets the tone right from the start:

imgresEvery time I read a management or a self-help book, I find myself saying, “That’s fine, but that wasn’t really the hard thing about the situation.” The hard thing isn’t setting a big hairy audacious goal. The hard thing is laying people off when you miss the big goal. The hard thing isn’t hiring great people. The hard thing is when those “great people” develop a sense of entitlement and start demanding unreasonable things. The hard thing isn’t setting up an organizational chart. The hard thing is getting people to communicate within the organization that you just designed. 

One of my favorite chapters is “When Smart People Are Bad Employees.” Here’s an excerpt:

Sometimes a really smart employee develops an agenda other than improving the company. Rather than identifying weaknesses so he can fix them, he looks for faults to build his case. Specifically, he builds his case that the company is hopeless and run by a bunch of morons.

In my first ten years of employment, I’d been laid off or outsourced three times. Each time this happened, I was offered a new job or an extended severance package. I was reassured that my work was solid, and that the decision was based on math – nothing else. When I lost my job at the startup, it was something entirely different.

I’d joined the company as Chief Experience Officer, employee number six. We were a small but mighty team in Minneapolis, building something great that didn’t exist in the market. Within three months of our launch, Silicon Valley investors came knocking. They convinced our Founder CEO that they’d crush us if he didn’t take their money, and that their investment, experience, and relationships were exactly what we needed to make the company grow. We took the money.

With the money came a new CEO, based in California, an Entrepreneur In Residence (EIR) with the kind of pedigree investors dream about. Our Founder CEO was demoted to President of his company, and none of us were thrilled. We felt that the new owners were dismissive of our ideas, and that the direction they were taking the company was wrong-headed and stupid. I took it upon myself to stand up for the Minneapolis office.

I let the new CEO know he was wrong, again and again. I questioned most of his decisions, undermined him in company meetings, and made sure my coworkers knew we were headed down the wrong path. When my customer experience research was questioned, I got angry. When my coworkers felt undermined, I challenged the CEO to do better.

When I was fired, ten months after the new CEO started, I was enraged. Didn’t he know I was the one holding this thing together? Didn’t he understand that I was very, very right, and that he was very, very wrong?

If you don’t like something, change it. If you can’t change it, change your attitude.
– Maya Angelou

I’ll go to my grave knowing that our CEO was wrong about a lot of things, but he wasn’t wrong to fire me. I’d stopped looking for ways to fix the company, for ways to rally around the new product and leadership. I’d started focusing on making sure everyone knew the company was run by morons. I couldn’t change the things I didn’t like, and I refused to change my attitude. How did I last ten months?

I had to go.

Getting fired – for reasons that were entirely within my control – was terrible. I’ll never forget it, and I don’t recommend it. But the lessons I learned from the experience were valuable. Falling in line isn’t anyone’s favorite thing to do – many of us are paid to think critically, and we want to know that our opinions are heard and valued. But after we’ve said our piece, when the dust has settled and we didn’t get our way, our choices are clear: we can change our attitude, or we can change our scenery.

Secrets of the Superbosses: let them go

imgres-1There are all sorts of great ideas contained in Sydney Finkelsteins’ Harvard Business Review article Secrets of the Superbosses, things like hiring unconventionally; seeking out people who are smart, creative, and flexible; focusing on “unlikely winners”; and adapting the work to fit the talent. I especially love the part about helping employees move on the bigger and better opportunities:

Smart, creative, flexible people tend to have fast-paced careers. Some may soon want to move on. That’s OK with superbosses. They understand that the quality of talent on their teams matters more than stability, and they regard turnover as an opportunity to find fresh stars.

I hope to keep my best people on my team forever, I really do. But there are great reasons to embrace the fact that I can’t. Here are a few:

  • I’d rather keep a high performer in the company than lose them entirely: I’ve got people on my team who will deserve to be promoted in the next 1-3 years, maybe more people than I have opportunities. If I can grow my employees’ careers by helping them find a role on a different team, I might be able to keep them within the company.
  • New talent can be a great thing: Smart, motivated, new employees will bring new energy and ideas to the party. Adding people to the team is a huge risk, and I don’t take it lightly – it can be a disaster. But adding the right people can elevate everyone’s game, including my own.
  • It’s a small world after-all: My current employer is not my first, and more than likely it won’t be my last. There’s a very pragmatic reason to support my best people moving on to bigger and better roles, even at other companies: when I’m out looking for a new job, I’ll be glad to have good friends in high places.

Towards the end of the article, Finkelstein writes:

Superbosses employ practices that set them head and shoulders above even the best traditional bosses. They seek out talent differently and hire them in unusual ways. They create high expectations and take it upon themselves to serve as “masters” to up-and-coming “apprentices.” And they accept it when their protégés go on to bigger and better things, making sure to stay connected.

Superbosses think differently about their roles and responsibilities: they push their people, expect great things, and are confident in their own ability to grow and maintain talented teams. Part of this is acknowledging that, sometimes, to let a person grow, you have to let them go.