Stepping Up For Growth
With so much happening every day, rhythm is the biggest enabler of agility. If a team operates in a Flow, then everyone can do their best work. We all know what it is like to groove. We also know what it is like to have that groove interrupted by questioning the choices made or pausing to have choices validated, reconsidered, or tweaked.
Trying to get ahead of decisions sounds great. This quickly turns into trying to know what isn’t known and worse to prepare for it. Finding a way to codify the set of problems that will trigger a review or joint decision turns into a meta-planning exercise trying to agree on potential challenges.
In my experience, the real challenge is in trying to define decisions, isolate important ones, and then figure out the stakeholders for that once instance. Decisions are everywhere. Deciders are all over the place. Every identifiable decision is made up of many other choices, constraints, and stakeholders.
The following is my own idealization of the role a CEO or exec can play in decisions. Instead of kicking off a process for a single decision, spend the energy up front to decide what and how the CEO will work. Thinking this way allows for a variety of approaches for getting involved, delegating, or empowering. It avoids the complexities of figuring out what it is that is actually being decided and hairsplitting accountabilities among individuals. It introduces agility into a process rather than rigidity.
My own experience led me to believe that before I decided something that was brought to me, I had to have an idea of what role I was playing in the process. It is easy to be a boss and assume people need your wisdom, advice, or context. It can be tricky to know if you are really adding that, affirming the choices of those who work for you, randomizing them, or simply doing their job for them.
With that experience, my view is that before deciding something a CEO or exec should be clear how he/she contributes to a project or work, using one of the following:
- Initiator. Kicking off new projects.
- Connector. Connecting people to others so the work gets better.
- Amplifier. Amplifying the things that are working well or not so there is awareness of success and learning.
- Editor. Fixing or changing things while they are being done.
Let’s look at each of these in a little more detail.
As a practical matter, assuming the organization is running at > 100% capacity then there’s a finite amount of initiating that can be done. Almost everything kicked off at the exec level looks like the strategy, new projects, new organization, or the prioritization of work. Creating or seizing new opportunities from the leadership vantage point is precisely it means to be the initiator.
- Examples: Kicking off something entirely new (hiring process, first sales deck, new product release, opening a new position. Deciding to make a big bet on a new technology, platform. Starting a new strategic or transformative initiative.
- Tools: Write it down in a way that someone joining the project later can quickly get up to speed. I believe writing is thinking, so taking the time to gain clarity on what to do and what success looks like only helps. Pro tip: Drafts circulated to a small set of key people, but quickly along with seeking and acting on feedback can be very valuable.
- Granularity: Almost always this will be fairly coarse like “launch day” or “new product” but can scale all the way down to being the specific such as “add this feature”, “create a partnership”, “publish APIs”.
- Time: When operating in a rhythm (product cycles, launches, adding new leads) initiating becomes a key part of team rhythm. About 10% of overall work is initiating new work or projects.
- Mindset. The most important work of an exec is in kicking off a new project so put the most effort into this work product. Initiating is the only time an exec does the work of an individual contributor.
Most all decision-making challenges happen across domains. Rarely does a solid engineering leader pick the wrong toolset. Rather the toolset is wrong because the full scope of the challenge was not known. Anything crossing functional lines requires a connection. The exec is in a unique position to be constantly connecting functions and work. Helping people to know more about what is going on with others on the team while recognizing this almost never happens by chance.
- Examples: There are classic examples across functional lines such as connecting sales and product. Many of the most interesting examples are the non-traditional ones, which can help people to gain more experience such as connecting engineering to customers. Facilitated connections rather than simple introductions afford the chance to see how parties use the connection and to drive an agenda consistent with a rhythm.
- Tools: Presence, listening and talking have no substitutes. Even with everyone being online and available, don’t assume everyone or the right people will read everything. With any size team, the amount of “FYI” or automated information will quickly overwhelm even the most diligent. Rather than believing status reports and scorecards will connect, execs must focus on making specific connecting efforts with clear intentions to move things along. Most work has natural points where checking in makes sense. Rather than relying on ad hoc connections, use a structured approach to surface the right issues.
- Granularity: The reason connecting is fun is because when it not randomizing or micro-managing, but simply sharing and getting head of potential problems. Connecting peers together is a service to the team.
- Time: Spending more than half, perhaps 60%, of the time connecting is routine among CEOs and execs. A useful way to spend time is on structured, periodic checkpoints that connect the status of the current work to the start of the project. Pro tip: Most every interaction can serve as a chance to connect one part of the team to another or a CEO’s external context to what is going on internally while also using the opportunity to demonstrate listening while not trying to solve everything along the way.
- Mindset. Connecting is the field work of the exec. Execs should be thinking about what to connect almost all of the time. Connecting skillfully is a force multiplier.
The CEO or exec soapbox is a super valuable tool. Within a company there are not only good things worth letting everyone know about, but lessons learned that could be shared. Since it is a given that not everything can be thought through in advance, seeing and amplifying the creative ideas or great execution seen along the way can be seen as a proxy for initiating new things. When a CEO stands up in front of the team and celebrates success or learning it just matters more.
- Examples: The best example is to amplify the good work of the team or to turn failure into a lesson. Amplifying the good work of competitors, sales wins, or collaboration across functions gives leaders a chance to call our efforts that cross many parts of the company.
- Tools: The team meeting is the most valuable forum for amplifying and often supporting this with something in writing (or a t-shirt or sticker!) works best. Amplifying work is also related to connecting work and often they are two sides of the same coin. The most compelling efforts to amplify are supported by great stories — when taking the time to amplify something, do so with the whole story and the background that makes it worth amplifying. It is one thing to tell people something important, but another to describe why it is important.
- Granularity: Amplify things that apply to many people on the team but do so with a frequency that maintains meaning and impact. Pro tip: When celebrating success, execs should be sure to give the right credit to the right people.
- Time: Execs have a unique ability to amplify success, which in turn makes this a high value effort so it is worth spending 10% of time.
- Mindset. It is fair to view amplifying as a bit of a tax. As is often said in management, “what’s worth saying is worth repeating”. Ronald Reagan was famous for not veering off important messages because he believed even though it was old news for the press corp, it was new to those in the live audience.
In a big company, people just wish execs would go away and let them do their jobs. In a new startup, execs are doing the work (i.e. coding, selling specific accounts, designing the UX). Everywhere else many people are doing the work and the exec is figuring out when to contribute. Somewhere between “swoop and poop” and “micro-managing” is the role of contributing editor. I use the term “editor” specifically because this is about changing (or improving) the work created by others. Editing is the right of a boss, but also a privilege in a team made up of smart and creative people. Everything about editing is in how it is done. Poorly done, editing makes people feel bad and never generates the best work (except for Steve Jobs as many like to say). Done well, and editing makes everyone feel better about the collective effort.
- Examples: Redlining a document, drilling into a design review, redoing a positioning framework, creating an outline for a blog post or release, designing the 2×2 competitive framework are all examples of editing.
- Tools: The most important “tool” to use when editing is to do so in-person. The vast majority of editing feedback comes across as negative and critical. While there is always enough bad work to go around, finding ways to be constructive is always worthwhile. For better or worse, editing without verbal context or worse just being critical over email almost always makes things worse.
- Granularity: Chances are the granularity of editorial input is very fine-grained. The question is not really whether to edit or not, but how many times the same thing (even for the same person) is edited. Repetition means there’s a systematic problem with communication or the people doing the work.
- Time: Editing is a big time commitment, but not the biggest. It also comes in fits and starts. More important than time is timing. The later in the process or the closer to the deadline the higher “cost” being an editor has. Overall about 20% of exec work is editing.
- Mindset. This is the comfort zone for every exec, especially when it is the type of work he/she did individually. The important thing is for the exec to really know the importance of the changes.
With a framework or roles like this, there is clarity in how an exec is working with the team and how work is started, iterated, and completed. I would also encourage using this framework by managers at all levels in a company. One changes the time devoted to each type of interaction.