Past 7 Days

I recently re-read an old post The Rapture of Being Alive and decided to capture moments of rapture from the past week. For me, experiences of rapture are more than just feel-good moments – they are experiences that open us up, they invite vulnerability, and they make us more freely available to others.

From the past 7 days…

I felt it with Michelle yesterday, as we got deep into conversation about kids and sports and cell phones and growing up.

I felt it Thursday on the Boulder Skyline Traverse hiking with Bart Foster and 40 other amazing business leaders / outdoor adventurists.

I felt it when I texted Dad about the Chaos Walking movie.

I felt it last weekend when Joe and Jack and I were climbing in Boulder Canyon.

I felt it with Quinn at the coffee shop this week, talking about the photography on the walls.

I felt it with Luca this morning, hiking up to the Royal Arch in Boulder, discussing career and friendship and spooky tales of haunted houses.

I felt it last week at lunch with the CFO/COO of the Colorado Mountain Club. Jacob shared some inspiring mountaineering stories, interspersed with business challenges they’re tackling at CMC.

I even felt it playing fetch with the dog, and tug-of-war with a rag.

These are older than 7 days…

I feel it on every exec hike with Geoff.

I feel it every time the Zen Mustache crew takes the stage for a performance. And any time we get together to play music, even if it’s just in the garage.

I felt it riding my bike on paths through the nature preserves south of Chicago.

I felt it camping by myself in the back of the truck, listening to insects chirping and the wind in the forest.

I felt it visiting the Field of Dreams in Iowa.

I felt it laying flooring at my parent’s house, crawling around on my knees, moving appliances, and listening to country music.

Looking at the list above, trying to extract what’s in common. It’s not about the specific activity. Seems that rapture comes from two places:

  • It’s about who I’m with and the openness of that relationship, or:
  • It’s about being open to the moment at hand and immersing completely in the experience – not worried about other things – so the focus is completely present.

Those are moments of rapture, and it turns out they are everywhere.

Burnout

My son, a college sophomore who is deeply entrenched in STEM classes this semester, called last week feeling overwhelmed. He had just finished the first part of a two-part physics exam, and felt crappy because he’d left 2 out of 4 questions completely blank, and wasn’t confident on the two he did answer. The second half was coming tomorrow, and he had so much studying to do; he just wasn’t getting the concepts. But he also had calculus homework due the next day (mostly completed over the weekend, but needed to be finished off), a computer science assignment due the following day, and some drawings for his technical drawing class. That was all just in the next two days. Plus his hourly work at the events center, practicing his music for weekly lessons, and his climbing team commitments. Somehow this was only week 4 of the semester. He was asking me, rhetorically, how he would ever be able to keep up?

Here was a perfect moment to lay on the wisdom, to bring my years of life experience into focus. Surely I could craft some insightful advice that would help my son in his moment of despair.

“That’s so hard. I’m so sorry you have to deal with this.”

That was basically the gist of my message. Yep, the editors of Parenting Magazine will be calling me any day now.

My son mentioned during our conversation that he wanted to find the right work life balance. That he had seen me working so hard and being terribly unhappy (prior to me finally making a peaceful transition out of my start-up company), and he knew he didn’t want that for himself. But he did want to work hard enough to feel good about his work, and he did want to build a responsible life for himself.

At one point during the conversation I told him something along the lines, “College is a different season of life than anything else you’ll have when you’re in the work force. College isn’t about work-life balance, it’s about work-work balance.” He laughed and said, Yeah it’s not about whether or not to get it done, it’s only about when and how to squeeze it all in, and with what level of effort.

This HBR article reinforces something many of us have already instilled in our lives: making time to recharge. It’s more than unplugging, or breaking the routine. Both the body and the brain need recovery time. Not just rest, but recovery. I’ve been out of the workforce for a little over two months, and I’m just beginning to feel recovered.

Reading this article makes me think it’s not about work-life balance, it’s about engaging in work that is meaningful to ourselves, and then doing things that truly recharge. In that model, we don’t really have an opportunity to burn out.

https://hbr.org/2016/06/resilience-is-about-how-you-recharge-not-how-you-endure?utm_medium=social&utm_campaign=hbr&utm_source=LinkedIn&tpcc=orgsocial_edit

My Changing Role as an Ops Leader

My function as a operations leader at Nextbite is changing. When we were 10 people, I was involved in everything. When we grew to 35 people, I had leaders managing day-to-day but I was still involved in every project. Now that we are well over 100 people, what the organization needs from me is changing again. I’m writing this down to capture my thoughts at this point in time, and in the future I can look back and see if I was right or wrong (because honestly, I’m making this up as I go).

I recently brought on a General Manager of Operations. Three or four months ago, one of my executive colleagues convinced me I needed help because the Operations team was just so huge. We started a hiring process and our new General Manager started about 3 weeks ago. She has a very strong personality and is taking the org by storm, coming up to speed quickly and earning a reputation as a progressive-thinking go-getter.

As she takes the reins overseeing day-to-day operational concerns, I find myself in a new position. I will no longer be in the weeds every moment, and someone else is looking after the day-to-day. So what will be my focus? Here’s what I have so far:

1. DEFINE THE GOALS, EXPLAIN THEM CLEARLY, EMPOWER AND CHEER-LEAD

I want clear visibility into every team’s objectives for the quarter, and I want to be able to see their progress to date at any given time. We have several good systems in place today (we’re using the eOS framework) but I’m not convinced everyone knows their team’s mission for the quarter.

I also want clear visibility into any project the teams are working on. Our company uses Notion to capture and share information and some of our team members are amazingly diligent. It’s so easy to quickly understand that state of a project, what decisions have been made and what is the trajectory of the work. I need to make these individuals into role models and duplicate their excellence throughout the org.

At the start of every quarter we re-up our department-level goals, and all teams need to update their projects and targets accordingly. I need to be clear about the ‘why’ especially as priorities shift from one quarter to the next.

Once everyone knows what they’re working on and why, I need to be a cheerleader. Encouraging, nudging, helping leaders hold their teams accountable, removing obstacles, and celebrating every victory that I observe. The more I observe, the better, because when people see that I’m paying attention, and that I want to celebrate their wins, this will be a positive motivator in the culture.

2. BE A COACH AND MENTOR

Not just to my new General Manager and the one or two other leaders who report directly to me, but to everyone in Operations. This means making myself available to front-line teams, learning what they do and how they do it, asking questions and confronting/challenging/encouraging/nurturing.

Two two greatest characteristics I can embody as I go about these conversations: Empathy and Perspective.

Empathy (not sympathy) that I understand how hard the work is and I’m willing to jump into the bunkers with team members and experience what they’re going through.

Perspective, so each person understands that what they do matters and how their work connects to what the company is trying to accomplish. For our younger workers, who are being managed by younger managers, I suspect there will also be opportunities to share perspective about each individual’s professional experiences and growth.

3. LOOK AND LISTEN FOR FOR OPPORTUNITIES

The org will be so heads-down and it’ll just keep churning on a process that might be not be working efficiently. It’s up to me (along with the GM) to spot areas where things could be breaking, or there might be a better way. This means talking to teams and listening for their frustrations. It means connecting with people in other companies and learning how they do it. I could also mean learning about new tools, processes or best practices that may be available.

Okay, those are the 3 big areas I’ve identified as I redefine my job. There will be other things I need to do, too, like keeping a thumb on what our competition is doing, working with Product & Engineering to determine the right technology strategy, working with Business Dev to bring home whale accounts, etc. But on the question of how do I support the Ops teams and create an environment where every person can be the best version of themselves at work – that’s where my head is today.

Opportunities to Engage

We should never get complacent about opportunities to give praise/be grateful/be engaged to all of our hardworking people & teams. Whether directly to those that deserve it, or publicly in front of a group setting, it means so much to our employees to hear from their leaders.

“Hey, that update that you sent was very clear and concise, and I really appreciate how you always communicate the challenges that are on your mind.”

“Thanks for being brave and offering to role play with us to create a better process for selling.”

It’s also good to ask follow-up questions to communications (shows great engagement) like, “Thanks so much for sending these 3 product updates, I noticed there wasn’t any mention of project X, are we still on track?”

I encourage every leader to be engaged, ask questions, give feedback, and sing praises more often.

Keeping cameras turned on during group zoom meetings helps too (even though it can be exhausting sometimes).

Reach out to someone on slack that you haven’t spoken to in a while, and just say, “Hey, how are you. It’s been too long. Just wanted to check in to say hello.”

Or if there is someone new on your team, message them saying, “Hi there, I wanted to check in now that you’ve been here for a couple weeks. How was the first few weeks for you? Is there anything that’s been hard or confusing?”

This doesn’t just apply to direct reports, but even newer junior people on our teams.

I realize this is tough when we have our own jobs as leaders. The more engaged we are, the more connected our team members will feel.

That Feeling of Engagement

Talking last week with a friend who manages a team of software developers, and she was marveling at their level of productivity. To her it felt like 10x the throughput of a team she’d been a part of at a previous company, plus they were all having more fun.

Reminded me of a seminar where we identified the conditions that create a space for people to invest themselves and be deeply committed. It’s not just about clear vision and compelling mission (though those are important too). Engagement is highest when we feel we are highly valued; when we feel we’re part of a winning team; when our work is meaningful; and when there is an environment of trust.

So I asked my friend what is she doing to stimulate these factors? She herself wasn’t fully aware, but as we talked it became clear it could only be happening through the multitude of daily small conversations she has with her team and with each individual in the team. Sharing a sense of appreciation in each email or slack message. Holding her people accountable not through constant badgering but by being in the heat of battle with them. Being willing to climb into the foxhole and work side by side on the real problems. Yes, providing clear direction of where they were going and milestones to mark the way; yes, giving constant encouragement, having course-correcting chats when needed, and celebrating progress; and yet also taking time and care to listen to the people in her team, to hear their fears and support them when they feel frustrated.

Doesn’t matter at what level we are leading: Executives, directors, project managers, sports coaches, clergy, administrators, team captains, dorm leaders, teachers, parents, big brothers and sisters: anyone in positions of authority can influence how engaged we feel.

I am so impressed with my friend’s success, and I strive to emulate her. Leadership is a difficult and noble undertaking.

Quick Decisions

Ninety-five percent of business decisions can be undone, and a full reversal is almost never necessary. Usually, our informed intuition is directionally correct, and as we learn we can course-correct along the way.

This is a well known tenet in leadership literature yet it is powerful for leaders to digest and practice, especially if the team is driving toward big goals. The bigger, hairier, more audacious the goal, the more important it becomes to make decisions quickly.

An example: Early in my career, I used to wait until I was 80-90% sure of my decision before putting the team into motion. I was trained as an engineer and I craved the assurance of knowing I was making the right decision based on sufficient data. But the team needed sponsorship far before I could get that level of confidence. Left to their own, they made individual choices that caused confusion, created conflict, and resulted in slower performance. This actually became more of a headache to manage than if I’d made a 50% confident decision in the first place, then adjusted as we went.

Certainly, some decisions cannot be easily reversed. Selecting the right ERP system requires much more input and research than deciding how and when to introduce a process change, even a major one.

But most decisions can be tweaked and course-corrected if they are moving in the general right direction. Don’t fall into the trap of trying to quell your fears, cover your @$$, or flailing due to ambiguity, because you’re probably hurting the team more than you realize.

Are We Accomplishing Anything?

People aren’t happy because they have stuff. They feel happy because they’ve accomplished things.

How do they know they are accomplishing things? How do they know they are accomplishing the *right* things?

It comes down to what we are measuring, and what we’re talking about every day, every week. Are we focused on the stuff that needs to get done, or are we talking about what we did last weekend? (No problem chatting about our personal lives, but that’s 1% of the conversation, not 5% or 50%)

Where is our scoreboard, and how often are we checking in on it? Are we celebrating each little victory that moves us closer to our goals?

If we don’t know how to measure what’s going on, then we don’t really understand the process of what’s happening.

Meaningful 1-1’s

I’ve seen loads of great ideas for managing effective 1-1’s with direct reports. Here’s one that I used many years ago, then drifted away from, and recently reinstated with excellent reviews from my staff.

It’s a 25-minute check-in with a “5×5” approach. It’s predicated on a quarterly establishing of goals for each team member. The format feels similar to that of a daily scrum.

5-10 min: What are 1-2 accomplishments since our last meeting that moved you toward your goals.

5-10 min: What 1-2 accomplishments are you aiming for before our next meeting.

5 min: Is there anything you need from me to get this done?

Twice a quarter (every 4-6 weeks) is a good cadence to ask, “What else is going on with you, where you do feel stagnant, in what areas would you like to keep growing, and what do you need from me to do so?”

I find that sticking to a playbook for 1-1 meetings accomplishes three things:

  • Maintain focus on quarterly goals;
  • Setting an expectation with reports about the purpose of this meeting;
  • Creating space for ongoing professional development conversations.

Communication Requires Context

We live in a world where we are affected by a social media stream where we are unable to effectively ascertain other people’s tone. This is very dangerous. If I’m walking on the sidewalk and you’re standing on the corner in my way, I can say, “Excuse me, can I get by” and from my tone you know there is no danger here, I’m not fighting with you, I’m not threatening you, and we can interact with each other peaceably. But on social media, where tone is absent, this same message is commonly misinterpreted as a rude shout: “EXCUUUUSE ME!! CAN I GET BY!!” perhaps heard with sarcasm or criticism. The receiver completely misunderstands the sender’s message and a dialogue turns toxic. We do this all the time; we misinterpret each other’s intentions because we don’t know each other.

Communication requires context.

Be Clear About Your WHY

People don’t buy what you do, they buy WHY YOU DO IT.

Last week at our Operations All-Hands meeting we watched a TED Talk: Simon Sinek ‘Start With Why’. If you haven’t watched it, it’s an excellent 18-minute investment of your time. Even if you’ve seen it, it’s worth watching again.

Sinek gives us examples of how organizations, teams, and people change the world — not because of what they do but WHY THEY DO IT.

When we are clear about WHY we do what we do, it has many effects. Two of those are:

  1. It becomes a filter for what we’ll do with our precious time and resources, and what we will say no to.
  2. It attracts others who share our beliefs. When we clearly articulate what we stand for, others who believe the same thing will be drawn into our dialogue.

I can’t tell you how powerful this is, to be clear about your WHY. I’ve been working my WHY for some time. It runs deeper than wanting to help people or making a dent in the universe. Those are great things to accomplish but being clear about WHY we do want to help people requires more introspection.

I’m finding it’s the nexus of empowering other people to accomplish things that are bigger than themselves, and creating the framework people can work within, is WHY I enjoy being a leader.

What’s your WHY?

Critical Number

I’ve recently been getting re-energized about The Great Game of Business. It’s the story of a company that turned itself around in the 1980’s by using an approach to management through something called ‘open-book management‘. I won’t describe it all here because there many great articles already doing that.

One important concept to open book management is the Critical Number. The Critical Number is one metric, either operational or financial, that represents a weakness or vulnerability that, if not addressed and corrected, will negatively impact the overall performance and long-term security of the business. The Critical Number can change from year to year, but it usually doesn’t change too quickly.

Usually this is thought about in the context of business, but it can also apply in other contexts. For example, someone who is looking for a new job or career might decide their Critical Number is how many job applications they submit. For someone who wants to be the first seat violinist in the city orchestra, their Critical Number might be how many hours a day they practice. Baseball players are measured on a huge swath of statistics but a Critical Number for winning might be on-base percentage.

What gets measured, gets improved.