Coaching Notes

How to Work With Somebody You Don’t Trust

(This is one of a set of notes from my work coaching founders, CEOs and technical leaders in the tech industry.  Originally published in the “Leadership, Management and Being Human” newsletter)

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.

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Intensity Is Not the Same As Anxiety, Fear and Anger (A Note On Table Banging, and How to Stop It)

(this is one of a set of notes from my work coaching founders, CEOs and technical leaders in the tech industry.  Originally published in the “Leadership, Management and Being Human” newsletter)

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).

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Use Radical Candor to Reduce “HR Debt”

(this is one of a set of notes from my work coaching founders, CEOs and technical leaders in the tech industry.  Originally published in the “Leadership, Management and Being Human” newsletter)

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).

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“Code Wins Arguments”. Why This Is True. And Why You Should Be A Little Less Blunt About It.

(This is one of a set of notes from my work coaching founders, CEOs and technical leaders in the tech industry.  Originally published in the “Leadership, Management and Being Human” newsletter)

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. 
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The EQ of Meetings Whilst Checking Your Laptop/Phone/iPad. Yes, We Can See You

(This is one of a set of notes from my work coaching founders, CEOs and technical leaders in the tech industry.  Originally published in the “Leadership, Management and Being Human” newsletter)

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?
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Why You Are Still Overwhelmed

(This is one of a set of notes from my work coaching founders, CEOs and technical leaders in the tech industry.  Originally published in the “Leadership, Management and Being Human” newsletter)

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.
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How to Look Round Corners

(This is one of a set of notes from my work coaching founders, CEOs and technical leaders in the tech industry.  Originally published in the “Leadership, Management and Being Human” newsletter)

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.
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Culture Notes Part 1: Your Culture is You

(This is one of a set of notes from my work coaching founders, CEOs and technical leaders in the tech industry.  Originally published in the “Leadership, Management and Being Human” newsletter)

Your Culture is Being Created Now.  You Might As Well Pay Attention.

I was doing a Q&A at a startup incubator recently when I was asked: “when is the right time to start working on our culture?”.   I was pretty surprised.  The answer is of course: you start working on your culture from the first moment you start your company, and you’re working on it right now, whether or not you are conscious of it.

An example (90’s edition):

In the 90’s, we used to visit Microsoft frequently.  Almost without exception, we’d end up in a room where a young exec with a short floppy haircut would sit in a chair and rock back and forth as he stared at us, hard.  He would ask rapid, deep technical questions with some aggression and very little humor.  The execs were different every time, but the behavior was the same.  Why?  Because Bill Gates was an intense youngish man with a floppy haircut who famously would rock back and forth in his chair as he subjected his teams to direct and intense technical interrogation.

The culture of the team that you lead, whether it’s a startup or a Fortune 500 company, is defined at a fundamental level by who you are.  Your team will repeat the phrases you use, imitate the way you stand and adopt the moods you carry with you.  They will make decisions in the same style you do, and at more or less the same speed.  They will value what you value, pay attention to what you pay attention to, and ignore what you ignore – good and bad.

Mirroring: A Foundation of Human Relationships

Mirroring is a fundamental tool for human connection. It’s one of the critical ways we learn from our parents – well before we start to understand language, we learn by imitating those closest to us (ever watched a kid who can’t talk yet use a banana as a phone?)

As we develop, mirroring is how we form close bonds with our family, how we choose and stay close to our friends, and how we internalize the teachers who change us (and those who don’t).

There is a physical mechanism at work here (mirror neurons): when we pay attention to another person, we literally (in the correct meaning of the word) start to feel how they feel. The neural networks that fire inside us are the same as those firing in the person we are paying attention to.  If they scratch their head, our neural systems act as though we had also scratched our head.  If they become angry, we start to feel the pressure of the anger: we unconsciously internally mimic the state of people who are important to us, and we do it constantly.    (An in-depth review of the literature on mirror neurons here).

The more important somebody is to us, the more we pick up how they are:

when we are more concerned with others, depend more on them, feel closer to them, or want to be liked by them, we tend to take over their behavior to greater extent

Where is the love.  The social aspects of mimicry” 

(This idea shows up as “you are the average of the five people you spend most time with”, which is  useful shorthand for this behavior, whatever you think about its accuracy).

A manager, leader or founder is an important person to the team: the team’s working life (money, status, daily satisfaction) depends pretty fundamentally on how the leader is.  So the team pays close attention, and unconsciously starts to mirror her: if she moves fast, the team will move fast; if she has a highly optimistic view, so will the team; if she is habitually late and overwhelmed, then expect the team to be overwhelmed also.

Your organizational culture is being shaped right now, whether you are conscious of it or not.

The good news is that the more aware you are of your habits, behavior and moods, the more you can consciously moderate the traits that you don’t want to see in your team, and emphasize those that you do.   Not easy!   But the alternative is having the culture grow around you, unseen and untended, until it becomes rooted and extremely hard to change.

Culture is What You Do, Not What You Say It Is

Culture is formed by what you do, not what you say you’re doing.  What you say matters, but only to the extent that it matches what you actually do. If your speech doesn’t match your actions, not only will you not get the culture you want, you’ll get a culture that values saying one thing and doing another.

So, at times you will have to make uncomfortable decisions to preserve the cultural values that are important to you and the company.

If you want an organizational culture of transparency, you will sometimes have to reveal the “sausage making” of high-level decision-making earlier than you’d like.  If you want a cultural value of excellent quality, you’ll have to delay releases until they are ready.  If you want a culture of inclusion, you’ll have to bend over backwards to make sure that constituencies who traditionally don’t speak up, are given a voice and are heard.

It takes work, and a conscious emphasis on aligning your actions with the values you want to be fundamental to your culture.

What You Get By Acting Your Values

The result of this hard work is an organization that knows what is valued and will replicate that behavior and set of values as it grows.  Just as your direct reports are constantly learning from your behavior, everybody who joins the organization learns from the people who hire them and work with them.  Strong, values-based behavior is contagious.

The result is an organization that has a set of “organizational habits” that define the way work is done.  The style of execution and problem-solving sits within a set of guidelines that are just understood.  Your job becomes less about imposing process and checking details, and more about vision, leadership and direction.

Why is culture so important to a business? Here is a simple way to frame it. The stronger the culture, the less corporate process a company needs. When the culture is strong, you can trust everyone to do the right thing. People can be independent and autonomous.

Don’t F Up the Culture“, Brian Chesky, AirBnB

Is That All There is To It?

Well, no, of course not.  Culture needs tending.   Culture needs to be broadcast, talked about and demonstrated.  It needs to be written down (clearly and concisely), included in on-boarding new employees, and considered in hiring decisions.  It needs to be recognized and celebrated.

But it starts with you.  If your values are clear, and reflected transparently in your actions and decisions – especially the difficult ones – then you are growing the culture on a solid foundation.

A Checkup: Take An Inventory

Here’s a suggestion: take an inventory of what you value in yourself and in your work.  Take a couple of hours away, and a single sheet of paper, and write down the projects you have been proud of, and why; the times you have been excited and alive, and why. 

What traits in yourself showed up in those moments?  What are the pros and cons of those traits?  What really worked and was real to you?  (be honest)

Write down what you want your organization to embody.  Be honest (again).  Map it to the list of your traits.

You now have  a set of behaviors and attitudes you can begin to emphasize in yourself, and a set you want to minimize.  Check it daily.  Refine it against your daily work.   Watch for the reflection of your actions in the actions and attitudes of your team.

Your culture is all around you.  You built it.  The more attention you pay to it, the better it will be.

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Culture Notes Part 2: Creating a Tribal Identity

(This is one of a set of notes from my work coaching founders, CEOs and technical leaders in the tech industry.  Originally published in the “Leadership, Management and Being Human” newsletter)

You’re Going To Get A Tribal Identity: Pay Attention

If you put a group of people together for any length of time, even a few minutes, they will start to form what we might call a tribal identity.  They will start to agree amongst themselves, quite unconsciously “this is who we are”.  Think of a group of strangers stranded at an airport gate.  Very quickly the group will decide: “we are lost” or “we are helpless” or “we are heroes and we’re not going to take this any more”.  These “decisions” won’t be made explicitly or with much discussion – they will happen as the people in the group pick up on the moods and intentions and characters of the people around them.

In a previous post, I stated that Culture is You.  That is: the culture of your organization is largely defined by what you believe and value, and how that is transmitted through your actions. 

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