A Higher Standard

Last week I shared Amazon’s Leadership Principles, which includes “insist on the highest standards.” Modeling the higher standard myself, and expecting it in others I work with. The concept of leaders training new leaders is on my mind a lot lately, because it’s central to my role at Automattic and in the WordPress community.

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When looking for new models to refresh my inputs and broaden my understanding, one logical source of inspiring leader is the military.

My introduction to military leadership started with One Mission by Chris Fussell, which led to Team of Teams by General (Ret.) Stanley McChrystal — see my notes here.

Now I’m pleased to discover A Higher Standard by General (Ret.) Ann Dunwoody (Goodreads), the life story and lessons from the first woman promoted to four-star general in US military history. Hat tip: Matt.

The book follows Gen. Dunwoody’s wonderful and amazing life journey through career, family, and life. She grounds the narrative with lessons and principles. Guideposts.

Here are a few guideposts that resonated with me.

Whatever you believe about the nature of leadership, true leaders never stop learning, refining, growing, and adapting—and that’s the primary focus of this book.

On setting a high standard:

Meeting the standard is the expectation, but those who strive to exceed the standard send a signal about their character and their competence.

After managing nearly sixty-nine thousand employees, one thing is clear to me: there is a higher standard that provides the foundation upon which every effective leadership journey is built. It’s the difference between the leaders who excel and the leaders who fail. It’s their thought process, attention to detail, and execution that enables them to inspire and motivate their workforce to create and sustain high-performing, successful organizations.

If you take nothing else from this book—never walk by a mistake, or you just set a new lower standard!

Putting this high standard into practice means not walking by a mistake without correcting it — at Automattic we call this “trash pickup.”

He taught me to never walk by a mistake. Far too often we let little things slide. But just turn on the news and listen as the anchors lament an auto-part defect leading to deaths and multibillion-dollar recalls or a small leak in a gas pipeline causing an explosion that endangers wildlife. Recognizing when something is wrong, big or small, and holding people accountable can save industries billions and citizens their lives. Sergeant Bowen instilled in me instantly that if you do walk by a mistake, then you just set a new, lower standard.

In my world I also think this task falls to people acting as “chief quality officers” for products and services — see my recent post on the topic of product leadership.

On energy and balance; see also my recent thoughts, On Self-Management and Energy:

…working longer hours doesn’t necessarily equal better performance. Working harder doesn’t mean working smarter. Longer hours mean less sleep, fatigue, ulcers, compromised decisions, and a lack of balance in one’s life.

On developing other leaders — what I would call “training the trainer” — finding your successor is another essential aspect of leadership.

The job of senior leaders is to develop other leaders. It requires senior leaders to weigh in on key decisions. Leaders who don’t weigh in lose their vote.

One of most important jobs a senior leader has is to develop leaders or to “build the bench.”

When leaders help subordinates overcome weaknesses or mistakes, they help the subordinate, they help the organization, and they help themselves become better leaders.

…as a lifelong skill, I have worked on developing the skill of giving people chances to improve their performance after a failure.

On diversity and inclusion:

Although the power of diversity is sometimes hard to quantify, Childs definitely got my attention. His success revealed a few points: (1) diversity wasn’t about numbers or quotas—having one of these and one of those—it was about diversity of thought, and not just anyone’s thought but the best-of-the-best thoughts; and (2) these folks had to have a platform from which their ideas could be heard and implemented.

I believe the strength in diversity comes from being able to leverage diversity of thought.

View the A Higher Standard: Leadership Strategies from America’s First Female Four-Star General book on Amazon and Goodreads.

Leader as Gardener, Not Chess Master, to Create the Space for Great Work

A frequent topic I talk to other leaders and managers about is how to influence change. This goes for anyone working in a team, of course — not just managers. I’d like to share how my ideas have evolved in the last year or so as I’ve scaled up my own role at Automattic across bigger teams and projects.

Starting from control

Early in my career, my mental model centered around influencing others to change. Whether by having bright ideas myself and communicating a clear vision, selling and pushing others’ best ideas, or simply wearing the other parties down by being persistent.

Through experience and mistakes I can now see that pressing my mind against others’ isn’t the most effective way to work together. I could try to convince someone to see my way by force or pressure, but it won’t last long. Nor is it a healthy environment for collaboration.

Environment is more important than control

My mental model for leadership now removes influence from the equation. Instead of convincing or controlling, I start instead by creating the right environment for change. A space for sharing insights and lessons together to build momentum. A space where change comes naturally from individuals and teams themselves. “Your job as a leader is to edit more than you write,” to paraphrase Jack Dorsey.

Creating this space is a major component of a healthy company — you could even say it’s the key to a productive and effective team culture. I’ve certainly seen it in the last year on my team at Automattic.

Finding a mental model: gardener

Last year a new way of seeing this new leadership model came to light for me when I came across Stanley McChrystal’s TED talk “Listen, learn… lead”:

I’d read McChrystal’s book Team of Teams just before seeing the video, and both carry the same message. How over his military career he evolved his leadership style, going from command-and-control to empowering. A leader as more of a gardener than chess master.

The connectivity of trust and purpose imbues teams with an ability to solve problems that could never be foreseen by a single manager—their solutions often emerge as the bottom-up result of interactions, rather than from top-down orders.

The role of the senior leader was no longer that of controlling puppet master, but rather that of an empathetic crafter of culture.

Gardener is a perfect fit for me

McChrystal calls this a “gardener” role, and it fits my mindset perfectly.

The temptation to lead as a chess master, controlling each move of the organization, must give way to an approach as a gardener, enabling rather than directing.

The gardener cannot actually “grow” tomatoes, squash, or beans—she can only foster an environment in which the plants do so.

First I needed to shift my focus from moving pieces on the board to shaping the ecosystem.

Creating and maintaining the teamwork conditions we needed—tending the garden—became my primary responsibility.

This is now exactly how I view my own leadership model: Create the space for great work.

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A note to my readers — if you’re new here, hello! Old time simpledream readers, drop me a line if you’re still with me in this journey. I’ve evolved the blog a bit to focus on my journey as a leader, though still connected to WordPress and front-end engineering and web standards.

Readers, I welcome your thoughts in the comments or via social media. Better yet, post to your blog and link it back here. I’d love to continue a conversation about what you’re learning and seeing as well.

Cheers,
– Lance Willett, The Sensible Leader

Decision Journals and Framing Your Bets

Decision journals are designed to create a log of the decisions you’ve made and why you made them. To both capture a snapshot of your thinking at the start, then use the notes to improve your decision making process when you review it later.

I first heard about decision journaling when Ian Stewart pointed to a Farnham Street post a few years back. Then it came up again in late 2017 via Matt on the OFF RCRD podcast. I decided to take another look.

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Screenshot of the Farnham Street post about decision journals, highlighting the need for quality control of our decisions.

“You can think of a decision journal as quality control” for your decisions — yes, that fits my mindset. A quality check in six months or a year to prevent hindsight bias.

Here’s the Farnham Street template as a downloadable PDF: Decision Journal Template.

I haven’t made this a standard practice yet, probably because it feels like too much overhead. These days when reviewing success and failure I find myself reflecting back without a full picture of where my mind was at the start. What have a I learned in between? Will I repeat the same mistakes? How can I repeat the top bets that paid off?

For example, for a given decision, what do I expect to change? What am I betting on, and how will I know if I’m right or wrong?

In 2018 I hope to be better at stating my intentions ahead — taking the time to create the snapshot of my thinking at the start. Blogging this publicly to keep myself accountable for journaling the decisions at the start.


Bonus: Two recent mental models for framing your decisions as “bets” that I’ve come across, in case you find them helpful.

  1. Mind the Product’s bet matrix, via Brie Demkiw. “I bet that [this decision] will create [this outcome]. I’ll know I’m right when I see [this evidence].

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    Screenshot of the Bet Matrix by Mind the Product.
  2. Ray Dalio’s expected value calculation in Principles (see my book review):

    Make your decisions as expected value calculations. Think of every decision as a bet with a probability and a reward for being right and a probability and a penalty for being wrong. Suppose something that has only a one-in-five chance (20%) of succeeding will return ten times (e.g., $1,000) the amount that it will cost you if it fails ($100). Its expected value is positive ($120), so it’s probably a smart decision, even though the odds are against you, as long as you can also cover the loss.

 

The Real Reason People Won’t Change

I first heard the concept of uncovering competing commitments in a talk by Rich Sheridan of Menlo Innovations. On the topic of embracing change he pointed to the act of uncovering as a key activity when teams are blocked. And when addressing low performance.

In the Q & A of this session I asked:

When someone isn’t performing well, how do you motivate them to change in the positive direction — without using fear-based tactics around losing their job, if they don’t turn things around?

Rich answered:

For general performance issues, always check in with them as a person first. What are their other commitments? [He then referenced the HBR article about reasons for people’s resistance to change]. If it’s truly a performance issue that needs addressing, and the fear is no longer artificial, communicate that clearly as you kick it off.

Curious to dig in more, I thought: what are other possible causes of low performance, and how am I doing in my assessment of those cases to separate the perception from the truth?

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Screenshot of the Harvard Business Review article, “The Real Reason People Won’t Change” (2001).

Competing commitments are detailed in the article Rich shared: The Real Reason People Won’t Change. The authors describe concealed commitments that block change where people hold on to and hide their assumptions. To get to the truth, they suggest an exercise is to turn the questions or complaints around — rephrasing them — to find out what they are worried about and how it’s preventing their success. And more important, which part they play in resolving it.

At the team level this exercise often takes a deeper dive over a long period of time. Something I haven’t found on my teams that we take time to do, especially with large groups of people, many moving parts, and urgent deadlines. Partly because taking the time derails progress; the abstraction of examining complaints and gathering enough data to find the source of low performance. That takes precious time away from shipping continuous product iterations for customers, which is our primary mission.

One pattern I’ve seen with projects that go on too long, the responsible parties in the end often admit they didn’t know quite how to solve the problem. Or, they ran into a blocker that needed help outside the team. But they didn’t feel comfortable openly admitting it.

Based on this research, I can now say that disagreements passively held are often indistinguishable from poor performance.

A lack of passion or drive — which in turn blocks progress to follow up or complete something — could indicate someone isn’t connecting personally to the goal, or to our company culture, or their team.

Which helps answer the questions: 1) Why does someone “go dark?” and 2) Why does a team underperform?

A key point from my experience is that when you uncover the assumptions behind the low performance, you might find out that the underlying fear or disagreement is real. By pointing to something real — together — you can discover the missing alignment. The commitments made after that discovery shine the light on the truth and guide the next steps. Steps toward clarity and alignment.

Amazon’s Leadership Principles

Still haven’t found a better list than Amazon’s Leadership Principles. Concise, clear, ambitious. A benchmark.

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Bookmarked this in 2017, now printed it (on paper!) for a weekly read and review.

Here are my favorites.

Bias for Action
Speed matters in business. Many decisions and actions are reversible and do not need extensive study. We value calculated risk taking.

Insist on the Highest Standards
Leaders have relentlessly high standards – many people may think these standards are unreasonably high. Leaders are continually raising the bar and driving their teams to deliver high quality products, services and processes. Leaders ensure that defects do not get sent down the line and that problems are fixed so they stay fixed.

Customer Obsession
Leaders start with the customer and work backwards. They work vigorously to earn and keep customer trust. Although leaders pay attention to competitors, they obsess over customers.

Ownership
Leaders are owners. They think long term and don’t sacrifice long-term value for short-term results. They act on behalf of the entire company, beyond just their own team. They never say “that’s not my job.”

A Product Lead is a Quality Driver

As my product lead role evolves I’ve started to see patterns emerge in my work across WordPress.com teams at Automattic. Two that keep coming up for me are focus on people, not technology and be a quality driver. I’d like to dig into the Quality Driver aspect in this post.

A Quality Driver navigates all the levels, end-to-end

Here’s a recipe for success as a product lead that I’ve now written down on a paper card near, and placed on my desk. I’m working on internalizing it as I put it into practice.

+ Obsess over customers.
+ Know how we want to communicate our message.
+ Understand our business goals and core mission.
+ Keep in touch with where the technology is headed.

Driving quality as a product lead takes place at many levels, from strategy to operations to tactics. At the highest level we write stories — sometimes framed as bets — to set the vision. Then working with teams on projects, schedules, organization — all the way through to the details of design, engineering, marketing, and support.

The key for me as I grow into this role is to synthesize everything as I navigate through the various levels. (For more, see my previous post on Synthesis: Navigating Levels Effectively.)

Another way I’ve to frame this Quality Driver  is in the form of a job description. A bit aspirational and ambitious to motivate me to grow and scale my product leadership. It’s my new mindset.

Quality Driver as a job description

Strategic — Raise awareness for the top issues facing our customers, and coordinate with teams to make the needed product changes. Pay attention to the end-to-end experience of our products, acting as the chief quality officer. Hold a holistic view across the business and own every aspect of the customer journey.

Operational — Act as an effective facilitator between developers, team leads, and company leadership. Align team resources to company goals and product initiatives. Engage with product teams for effectiveness, motivation, and project management. Build a culture of trust, quality, and high performance.

Strategic — Communicate a strategic vision and turn it into action. As a compassionate and effective product steward, use the ability to succinctly communicate our CEO’s vision to teams, as well as communicate everyone’s aspirations to the CEO. Find the gems, bring them to light, and move the needle. Work on the right things, avoid crashes, and be a few steps ahead of everything — knowing how every change fits in with our plans. Help everyone understand the context of their work and the broader vision for our products.

Knowing my success

Following the recipe I started with above, I can measure my impact as a product leader by watching for:

  1. Business growth for a sustainable and profitable future.
  2. Better customer engagement and satisfaction.
  3. A natural and healthy flow of communication.
  4. The happiness and effectiveness of teams.

Inspired by Doug Glanville’s Triple Threat: Baseball, Journalism, and Social Justice

A modern-day baseball anthropologist, Doug Glanville is a former Major Leaguer whose activism and advocacy for social justice is as inspiring to me as his incredible talent as a writer and journalist.

For years I’ve enjoyed his essays and reporting on sports, society, and life from The New York Times to ESPN to The Atlantic to speaking at TEDx. Check it out — now he’s debuting as a college professor.

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Whether you love baseball metaphors or not, Doug’s a triple-threat.

(Hat tip, Tom Willett — aka my Dad.)

Head of HR Lori McCleese on Automattic’s Learning and Development

 

I’m excited to see that Culture Amp’s blog features Automattic’s Global Head of Human Resources Lori McCleese sharing our latest efforts for learning and development: Three tested approaches to driving learning and development.

As an Automattic employee and team lead I’ve benefitted directly from these perks and benefits — from private leadership coaching in a 1-1 setting to in-person training course led by Reboot to diversity & inclusion speakers and courses. We’ve upped our game and it’s already born fruit in my own teams and relationships, as well as given me new resources and ideas.

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Footnote: I highly recommend following Lori’s personal blog, too — her photos, stories, and thoughtful essays on life and travel and friendship bring joy to my life. For example, see this fun inside look at her recent move across the US from San Francisco to Asheville, NC. 🌰

Leadership Gap: Scaling Presence With Distributed Teams

In my practice as a team lead at Automattic I keep coming back to the challenge of scale. Scaling up both in scope and in size, taking on larger projects and bigger teams with more overhead and management. Going from a small team paying attention to one product all the way to a group of teams across a many channels.

One reason it’s a been a difficult challenge for me is that with the increase in scope and size, my time to give individual attention to people and projects decreases. I find myself asking, “How can I best scale up my presence to keep in touch with everyone on everything they’re doing?”

The second part of the challenge is our particular work style: Automattic is fully distributed, biased toward text communication, and most interactions are asynchronous because of time zones. Our culture is optimized for personal flexibility as we set our own work hours and schedules — and office locations change daily.

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I’ve started writing down the principles that lead to my mindset for being present — plus the techniques that have worked well so far. I’m sharing them here publicly to keep myself accountable for the practice.

To scale my presence on distributed teams, I will:

  1. Build connections to build trust.
  2. Conduct pulse checks on a regular basis, including skip-level chats¹.
  3. Share regular updates to the group to expose my thinking, highlight important messages, and provide insight into what I’m tracking both internally and externally.
  4. Ask everyone to share their observations with me.
  5. Make coaching a priority, so others can learn to help themselves.
  6. Delegate more. Can someone else do it?
  7. Be true to my word.
  8. Be visible.

Your ability to have influence at a larger scale within your organization starts with knowing how to connect and influence people in your immediate team. Alyssa Burkus in How to Be More Present With your Team (Actionable.co)

But wait… these are all practices for any leader, even when located in the same building, same city. The last one — being visible — is the key to solving the difficulty of a distributed, async workforce.

Ideas that I’ve tried for improving visibility include connecting more over video, to “share a tea” virtually as we chat. Posting short personal updates on what I’m up to outside work. Jumping into short, high-fidelity check-ins over voice and video to unblock a communication gap, which is a boost to the human bond. The view into someone’s office can lead to questions like, “What’s that book on your shelf?”

Teams and individuals at Automattic socialize together via chat or photoblogs or videos or GIFs. Whether that’s around hobbies and shared interests, building cultural awareness, and following each others’ lives via social media. As my coworker Cate says, “Make it feel like a team.” Ultimately it’s about humanizing the distance.

Making it feel more human means involving myself in the connection over the distance. It’s not just a transaction — we’ve bridged the gap to interaction.

I’d love to hear from you, too. What’s worked best for you to be more present for your team?


  1. Footnote: the vocabulary of scaling teams is fun. Learning to scale my leadership also means picking up industry lingo around scaling teams and companies. Everything from skip-levels, business units (BU), direct reports (DR), individual contributors (IC), org chart, directly responsible individual (DRI), “manage up,” and more. Not all the buzz words are new to me, but I typically avoid using corporate-sounding vocabulary. As I seek to understand everything at scale, I find myself using these phrases and acronyms more often now with certain audiences. I’m picking it up as I go! Something new each day.

 

Get Involved: Engineering Managers Community

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If you manage technical teams, are looking to grow and learn and broaden your network — you might enjoy connecting with this community of peers from all around the world: Engineering Manager Slack.

I’ve enjoyed participating in the discussions around books, conferences, remote companies, and more. Useful to both get a new perspective once in a while as I’m exposed to fresh ideas outside my own company’s culture and norms. And also to get a zeitgeist feel of my industry, my “people.”

Co-organizer Cate’s put up a brief recap of the first year or so in New-ish Eng-Manager Slack, >1 Year On.

I believe in community, and the value of peer-mentoring, and it’s been great to create a space for that and have others value it too.

Join us!