The OG Team Lead Whisperer Peter Drucker on Responsibility, Automattic Style

Originally posted on an internal Automattic leadership blog, part of our asynchronous communication system called P2.

This is my loose interpretation of Peter Drucker’s words in his famous book The Effective Executive — where I replace “executive” with “team lead” and edit he/him pronouns to be more inclusive. Adding a few Automattic specific references such as “P2s.”

Effective leaders focus on outward contributions.

The question “What should I contribute?” gives freedom because it gives responsibility.

The great majority of team leads tend to focus in and down. They are occupied with efforts rather than with results. They worry over what Automattic, Matt, and other senior leaders “owe” them and should do for them. And they are conscious above all of the authority they “should have.”

As a result, they render themselves ineffectual. The effective team lead focuses on contribution. She looks up from her work and outward toward goals. She asks: “What can I contribute that will significantly affect the performance and the results of Automattic?” Her stress is on responsibility.

The focus on contribution is the key to effectiveness for a team lead:

  • In their own work — its content, its level, its standards, and its impacts. Setting a good example in what’s produced personally.
  • In their relations with others — superiors, peers, subordinates.
  • In their use of the tools of the team lead — such as meetings, P2 posts, and performance reviews.
  • In setting clear expectations that everyone is aware of — nudge those who aren’t aware, and manage out those who can’t get it.

The focus on contribution turns the team lead’s attention away from her own specialty, her own narrow skills, her own department, and toward the performance of the whole. It turns her attention to the outside, the only place where there are results.


Takeaway: The most effective team leads maintain a constant focus on the contributions everyone at Automattic can make: user experience, customer happiness, building the company, and healthy revenue growth.

If you haven’t read Peter Drucker’s work— he’s known as the “godfather of modern management” — and “the one to read” even if you are a skeptic. He defined the standards for both the intellectual and real output for knowledge workers in the modern workplace.

Notable leaders in our industry that we still read today built on his work, from Andy Grove to Ben Horowitz to Camille Fournier — and, naturally — many team leads at Automattic. Drucker (Austrian-American, 1909–2005) was a true polymath known for his depth and teaching across many subjects: art, history, literature, music, and religion.

Kathleen Eisenhardt on Simple Rules To Unblock and Make Faster Decisions

When analyzing my work with teams, projects, and my own contributions I often try to find the bottleneck in the system. What’s blocked? How could we move faster? What’s are the important decisions?

Kathleen Eisenhardt is a professor at Stanford University who dives deep into these questions, and more. Below are two examples that share insights from her work around complex systems, decision making, and how simple rules can make all the difference.


Kathleen Eisenhardt: What Are Simple Rules? — We’re more likely to remember and act on 2-5 simple rules.


Kathleen Eisenhardt: Effective People Think Simply — You can make decisions faster when the rules are simple.

Start from both ends — open versus closed, and structured/complex versus chaotic.

What are the likely scenarios?

  • Product development teams that are highly complex might launch the wrong product very efficiently.
  • Product development teams that are highly chaotic — and anything goes — have a great time launching nothing.

Questions to ask:

  1. What are we trying to achieve?
  2. What’s the bottleneck in the process? What keeps us from achieving our goals?
  3. What are the rules? For example, understand your own data while also bringing in outside experts.

You can make decisions faster when the rules are simple.

“Stopping” rules are the hardest to learn. People are good at starting! Bad at stopping.

One of the biggest mistakes business people make is staying in something too long. A stopping rule helps you get out of that.

Kathleen Eisenhardt

Involve people around you to determine the rules — they shouldn’t just be from the top.

I hope you learn as much as I did from Kathleen Eisenhardt’s work.

One Foot Higher Each Year

Phil Knight: “We have so much opportunity, but we’re having a terrible time getting managers who can seize the opportunities. We try people from the outside, but they fail, because our culture is so different.”
Mr. Hayami: “See those bamboo trees up there?”
“Yes.”
“Next year they will be one foot higher.”

I understood. When I returned… I tried hard to cultivate and grow the management team we had, slowly, with more patience, with an eye toward more training and more long-term planning. I took the wider, longer view. It worked.

Nike founder Phil Knight describing a learning moment in his memoir Shoe Dog.

Love this view of better results from growing leaders up from the people already around you, slowly and surely building a strong bench. Not simply expecting new faces to show up and solve everything.

Read my Goodreads review of Shoe Dog by Phil Knight of Nike (4 stars).

Leaders Shorten the Distance

Our job as leaders is to close the gap between the inconceivable to some but inevitable to us.

Paraphrased from Nancy Pelosi’s 2020 commencement address as Smith College (emphasis mine).

During this crisis and in the days, years, and weeks that will follow, the world needs your leadership too,” Pelosi said to the graduates. “Our goal as leaders is to shorten the distance between the inconceivable to some, but inevitable to us … Because Smithies are relentless and persistent, I’m confident in your ability to do so,” she continued.

Boston.com

An Advice Process Paves the Way for Clear Decisions

In Brave New Work Aaron Dignan describes a wonderfully clear way to use an “advice process” to make better decisions.

Watch a short video on YouTube where author Aaron Dignan illustrates the advice process (at minute 4:45).

Start with consent by asking for agreement. Get buy-in and move things forward. This not consensus or everyone is 100% happy with it, instead it means it is safe to try.

Use an advice process. Whenever you’re about to make a decision that’s irreversible or could damage things, go seek advice from those who’ve done it before. And, seek advice from those affected by it.

This replaces the waiting and expectation for a leader to do something—top-down decision making—with your own judgement and responsibility.

Rosabeth Moss Kanter on Confidence

rosabeth moss kanter on confidence

A quick-hit edition of Voices in Management

Confidence isn’t optimism or pessimism, and it’s not a character attribute. It’s the expectation of a positive outcome.

I’m inspired by Rosabeth Moss Kanter’s work and philosophy on change management. The consistent message in her writing—many of her essays are in Harvard Business Review—is that a leader’s job is to “provide the tools and conditions that liberate people to use their brainpower to make a difference in a world of constant challenge and change.”

Kerry Liu on Team Leadership: Three Important Things

Insight on team leadership and management from my colleague and technical team lead extraordinaire Kerry Liu.

Remember these three things: don’t fall into the safety of your old job, listen, and provide useful feedback.

These are the three most important insights I gained from working as an Engineering Team Lead at Automattic. 

Read the full article: Three Important Things.

Lance Willett: My altMBA Roundup

I took part in the 20th altMBA group, April–May 2018. A wonderful experience! I highly recommend it for folks looking to challenge themselves, grow into leadership, and meet motivated folks with a similar mindset.

Screenshot from the altMBA info page.

The altMBA is an intensive, 4-week online workshop designed by Seth Godin for high-performing individuals who want to level up and lead.

AltMBA website

I found the course a larger time commitment than expected, much more than 2-3 nights a week and all day Sunday. Ended up being every day for me, at least a few hours of homework, if not more. The main task of the smaller group you’re assigned is to review each others’ work—three to four homework assignments a week. My altMBA experience, like many things in life, gave me back much more when I put in more.

What I didn’t expect was that shipping my homework wasn’t all; I also reviewed and commented on my group members’ work, then had two more steps for each assignment: rewrite mine again based on the feedback, and then publish it publicly.

The small group cohort style and tools are familiar to those working remotely at a company like Automattic: Zoom, Slack, WordPress. There are coaches that help out at various times, but most of it is self-study or a small group effort. The altMBA team sends you a box of books ahead, and if I had to do it over, I’d read them more carefully. I referenced them a ton during the coursework and group sessions—and have continued to use many of the books as a reference.

Overall, the course was worth the investment in my case. I still keep in touch with my small group, including on the alumni website, and made a few great friends there. People still connect with me on LinkedIn to share stories, ask for advice, and check in on the work I shared—much of which related to taking bigger steps in my career. Indeed, the “forced” growth via the exercises and homework became essential to taking a bigger leap at work last year. I’m grateful.


My shipped projects are on Medium: medium.com/@lancewillett — the platform and format were required; otherwise I’d prefer publishing on WordPress. Here’s an article that made it back to this blog: A Napkin Sketch is Enough.

Check Your Fuel Gauges

Via McKinsey Quarterly Q1 2018, The four questions to ask when serving on a nonprofit board. Question 4 hit home for me as I ramp up my leadership IQ, “Do we have the right ‘fuel’ to drive our organization?”

Screen Shot 2018-04-28 at 19.35.16.png
Screenshot from McKinsey Quarterly Q1 2018.

If you want to be an effective strategic leader, you can’t settle for a regimen of reading board books and showing up for quarterly meetings. You must engage fully on your organization’s mission; seize opportunities to observe frontline work; and, at each board meeting, take every chance to confront the big, long-term issues by asking tough questions.

After checking the gauges, you’ll know what to do next: keep effective performers, remove laggards, and ask the tough questions and demand answers.

This advice for board members applies equally to an executive team member in a business setting, leading teams at Automattic. In short—do the work, be open to the burden of responsibility, and seek out direct connections.

Agile Thinkers Know When a Best Practice Isn’t Best

I have a hiring heuristic called ABCDEF, which stands for: agility, brains, communication, drive, empathy and fit. For gatekeepers, I’ve found agility is the most important attribute. To test it, I ask them: ‘Tell me a best practice from your way of working.’ Then I ask: ‘Tell me a situation where that best practice would be inappropriate.’ Only agile thinkers can demonstrate that a best practice isn’t always best,” says Ries. “For an attorney, that might be probing for a situation where you shouldn’t run everything by a lawyer. Hopefully they don’t say ‘criminal conspiracy,’ but you want someone to say something like: ‘You know what? If you’re a two person team, and you’re just doing an MVP, and six people are involved, you don’t need a lawyer.’ It requires some common sense and mental flexibility.

Via First Round Review: Lean Startup’s Eric Ries on How to Make ‘Gatekeepers’ a Source of Power and Speed.