I once worked for about eighteen months with a peer I couldn’t trust. It was awful. I wasted time, effort and attention on parsing his emails, protecting my team and laboriously documenting “agreements” that “clarified the situation” to my boss (which would be run over an hour after we had met to “ratify” them).
And I felt bad. All the time. There’s just something nasty about not knowing: not knowing what will happen in the next meeting; not knowing if an agreement will be kept; not knowing when another email will come in from your boss, from your team, from a peer, with another set of bruises and breakages and emotional upset. And there’s something more than that: having to be around somebody who you don’t fundamentally trust is spooky, uncomfortable, unpleasant.
|I recently highlighted this rather terrific post by Jessica Rose. It kind of off-handedly introduced a notion we might call “HR Debt” – the organizational analogue of technical debt.|
Coincidentally, a day later, I then walked into a client session where the issue was, in fact, fixing up a team that had been badly structured and poorly lead: we spent an hour sorting out the pain, cost and general difficulty of getting things set to rights. The notion of “HR Debt” was immediately helpful. Good!
We might describe technical debt as the literal cost (time, attention, real money) of avoiding doing things the right way. In the short term, the company saves money by, for example, not fixing a legacy architectural issue, by “hard-wiring” a piece of code, or just not fixing known bugs (feel free to provide your own list).
The issue that came up in the coaching session was: when to stop meeting and write some code? My client, a senior software engineer, knew in his bones that more meetings wouldn’t move the project forward, but a week of him coding a prototype would. But how to communicate that without appearing to just arrogantly blow off the team?
“Code Wins Arguments” has been around for a while. This is from the Facebook S1 filing:
“Instead of debating for days whether a new idea is possible or what the best way to build something is, hackers would rather just prototype something and see what works”.
Classic! “Hackers would rather…”. Of course they would! No more stupid meetings, we’re just going to build it and you guys can sort it out later! Cool! The implied context is an argument and the outcome is a win – which means a defeat for somebody.
So I’ve had a few clients who check their laptops and phones in meetings, to the extent that it comes up in a 360 review.
I’ve even had a couple of clients who apparently do it in one on ones.
When you pull out your phone in a meeting, or open the laptop and start typing away, you are not invisible: humans are exquisitely constructed to connect with other humans. We notice every detail in face, body posture, vocal tone, and attention. How do you feel when somebody pays close attention to you? Intense, right? Can be great, can be uncomfortable, but there’s a lot happening there. How do you feel when somebody completely ignores you, despite the fact that you’re right there? Less good, right?
This happens: you look at your calendar and see, once again, that your entire week is entirely blocked out, and you’re going to be completely overwhelmed. Again.
We all know how to manage time, right? Prioritize the tasks that are urgent and important, delegate, use a todo list. Simple! So why do we spend year after year not getting it right?
How we live our days is how we live our lives (misquoting Anne Dillard). And how we live our lives is driven by unconscious patterns of behavior that we developed very, very early, and which feel “right” – even if they cause us stress and difficulty. We gravitate to living in our patterns, however uncomfortable and stressed they make us feel. Tinkering with a todo list doesn’t move us out of our default behavior – it’s like trying to put out a fire with a water pistol – it’s the wrong tool.
The sales number looked great with two weeks to go, and now we’ve missed it. By a lot. Up to the last week, the sales team was solid: “98% likely. We’ve got a bunch of upside”. The product was going to ship in three weeks, for sure, and now it needs another month. The weekend before the ship date the product team was quietly confident: “yes, we’ll make it”. They were wrong.
This happens (not usually both at the same time, I should add :-), and has shown up in coaching a few times in the last year.
At some point in a management career, and the earlier the better, we need to develop the ability to look round corners, to see the ice starting to get thin, to sense when the wheels are about to come off (if you’ll forgive the many mixed metaphors). This is where management becomes much more than checking tasks off a list, or numbers off a spreadsheet. Now we are learning to sense the scope and abilities of the organization.
Below The Surface
I discovered this very simple model of conversations a couple of months ago, and it’s proved useful in debugging some tricky interactions that have come up in coaching, so I thought I’d share it more widely. It’s a simplified version of a model described in Fred Kofman’s Conscious Business (and h/t Gordon for pointing it out).
When we’re talking about anything, there is an “It” – the ostensible subject of the conversation: the bug that needs fixing, or the code that needs writing, or the decision that needs making. The “It” is usually fairly objective and pretty well described. That’s what we think we’re talking about:
Two views of the same, very simple, conversation:
Team lead: we missed the deadline on Monday night.
Team lead (defensive): we had some issues with the offshore team
Boss: are they fixed now?
Team lead (defensive): almost
Boss: almost? why aren’t they fixed today?
Can we move beyond the Leadership Listicle? Can we admit that there are more (or less) than “Seven Ways to Unleash Potential”, “Five Keys to Innovation”, “Ten Skills a Leader Must Have”? If we were concert pianists, would we be reading “The Eight Critical Attributes Every Concert Pianist Must Strive For?”. Maybe we would. I doubt it (any concert pianists out there are more than welcome to chime in).
Leadership, at its best, is a fine, subtle art. A mix of intentions, craft, intuition, determination, and a deep knowledge of human interaction. Leadership, at its best, brings out what is most human in all of us – the desire, and the means, to make the world a different place. Leadership, at its best, melds our finest qualities – community, creativity, insight, to name a few (a list of three) – to have us live and work above ourselves, to build a momentum, a wave, an energy of change.
We know it when we see it. We know it when we feel it. If we are engaged in any kind of enterprise with other people, we look for it, need it, require it.