Cheer For or Cheer Against, You Decide

“Drop it”, the third base coach shouted to the pitcher as she fielded a ball hit back to the mound and tossed it to first for the out. In that moment, the visiting team coach decided to root for the opposition to make a mistake rather than cheering on his team to reach first base.

We can choose to root against someone hoping to get the desired outcome or we can choose to cheer for our team letting our experience, expertise, and preparedness achieve success.

“Winning” by hoping for an error from someone else is short term.

Winning by honing our skills, building a competitive edge, and preparing is long term.

When a girl from the visiting team struck out, the coach made her do pushups in front of the dugout. I’m certain this was humiliating, having her face in the grass in front of her teammates, parents, and opposing team. When our girls struck out, we pat her on the helmet as she heads back into the dugout to high-fives and encouragement from her teammates. The coach may provide a tip for the next at bat while calling out a few good things about her stance, swing, or how she tracked the pitch.

Creating a safe place to analyze mistakes builds a learning environment.

Berating someone for an error creates a culture of fear.

Leadership by fear is temporary and always produces poorer results.

Leadership by example generates trust and produces the highest quality results.

Our girls went on to win. At the end, when the teams were shaking hands and saying “good game”, I said to the coach “Your girls played well, I was cheering for them”.

Advertisements

Discovering my Super Power

Back in March, Maureen Jules-Perez moderated a Q&A session with two of our top women executives: Chief People Officer, Terri Zandhuis, and Chief Marketing Officer, Allie Kline. The trio were participating in an AOL employee forum called “Candid Conversations: Women in Leadership” as part of Women’s History Month in March. Nearing the end of the session Maureen asked both women a short, five word question that I wasn’t expecting and that completely stumped me:

What is your super power?

CandidConversations1
Dulles, VA – AOL Campus- Maureen Jules-Perez discusses leadership with Chief People Officer Terri Zandhuis and Chief Marketing Officer Allie Kline

This question has been stuck in the crevices of my brain these few months. An initial reaction might be to dismiss this question, knowing that we don’t have the ability to fly, teleport, or manipulate the elements. Clearly we can’t breath underwater, summon animals, or wield Thor’s hammer. We’re just humans, with normal human abilities. And yet …

~

As a kid I read a fair share of comic books. Truth be told, I still pay a little attention to comics now. I’ve been a long time William Gibson fan, and his debut comic series Archangel has me pretty excited. It seems I’m not alone, comic book sales had their best month in June of the last 20 years. Maybe we all long for super powers of some sort.

 
From the large pool of comic book super heroes, my favorite has always been Spider-man. He was more relatable to me. Here was a kid, who, through no plan of his own, was bitten by a radioactive spider and suddenly found himself with incredible abilities. Still stumbling through his own adolescence, Peter Parker was provided with inhuman abilities and the still maturing brain of a teenager. He talked non-stop during the high action parts of the story line, made bad puns, seemed continually surprised by his capabilities, and generally got himself in over his head. [By the way, Tom Holland’s portrayal of Spider-man in the recent Captain America: Civil War movie was spot on.]

I’m under no grand illusions that I have been harboring hidden talents that give me super hero powers. However, I do believe I might have talents that give me human amplifying powers. And I think you do too.

~

I recently had the privilege of speaking at Columbia University to a group of future CIOs enrolled in a 3-day workshop. My talk differed from much of the agenda, concentrating on the art of storytelling, inspiration, and the human element of leadership. I was taking a bit of a risk. This was a heavily technically focused program and audience, yet I was going to talk mostly about psychology, marketing, and my approach to inspiring a workforce. [I should note, I have no formal training in psychology or marketing, so out on a limb I go]. I had never given this presentation before and I followed an energetic, assertive, boisterous former CIO who didn’t mince words and had the audience well riveted.

 

At the end of the day we had a social event for the “students”, I was one of a couple of presenters to attend. Feedback was very positive about my session and it was clear that the topics I discussed had hit a nerve with many. One attendee and I got to talking about his role and his work, he eventually described a particularly large challenge he has been dealing with. He didn’t stop there, he also outlined a solution which he felt was the best remedy to the problem. He had clearly thought long and hard about this, and his solution was creative. It was also controversial given the norms of his working culture and company. He ended his description with a straight forward question.

What should I do?

I gave him the only answer I could. The only one that made sense to me.

You know what you need to do, you just outlined it entirely for me. You have both the solution and the drive to implement it. From what you shared, the only part you lack is that last bit of courage to execute this. I think your company is lucky to have you and they have rightly given you the position to make these decisions. Go solve this problem.

He didn’t need my problem solving abilities. He didn’t need my experience in similar situations. He didn’t need me to come up with an elegant technical solution. He needed encouragement and validation. He needed someone to listen. He needed someone without an agenda, who isn’t personally vested in the problem. He needed to trust himself, to affirm that he has the capability, intelligence, and position to solve his own problem.

 

And I needed him. I needed him to show me that my super power is the ability to receive and reciprocate. That through listening, and truly hearing his ideas, that I could help unleash the solution by simply saying “Yes, your idea is a good idea”. Here is a relative stranger, who through one common, random bond we had (attending the same CIO workshop), could show me that I, too, have a power. Reflecting on this on the train home, I realized I had been doing this for some time, unaware that I had been having a multiplier effect on other people’s ideas.

 

So now I’m ready Maureen. Now I can answer your simple, yet thoughtful question.

 

And, like Peter Parker, I’ve got the general idea down and I’ll get better as I practice and hone this ability. See you soon, in the meantime, I’ve got some web slinging to do…

 

Stay Curious,

James

The Unassisted Triple Play

I periodically send notes to my entire team sharing details of what I’m working on individually, updates on major company initiatives, and what I hope are thought-provoking themes and ideas. These notes are one mechanism to help with communication and stayed engaged with a large staff. My general approach is to write about three of four topics and create an unusual headline for the subject of the email, in hopes of grabbing attention and getting folks to read it. Here are a couple of subject headline examples:

“Brand Camp, Performance reviews, and a sneaky reminder about SBC [Standards of Business Conduct] training”

“Advisory boards, G8, and 3rd remote worker forum”

“Why we care about Doritos, Beer, Bananas, and laundry detergent”

“A call to action, 3rd annual RWF, and the unassisted triple play”

Today I want to expand a bit on one of these themes, the unassisted triple play (And no, I’m not talking about cable, phone, and TV bundles).

A recurring trend in my thinking these past many weeks relate to aspirations. We have a lot of initiatives underway, and nearly all of them are part of a long-term strategy that is defined by an aspirational goal. Sharing the end-state vision allows us to validate that the work we’re doing today will line up with that future target. Aspirations take the form of cultural, organizational, and service-delivery goals, and for me, they evolve as we chart our course and learn from the work we undertake.

Johnny Evers, Chicago NL, at Polo Grounds, NY
Johnny Evers was a 2nd baseman and part of the most famous double-play team in baseball history “Tinker-to-Evers-to-Chance”. [Johnny Evers, Chicago NL, at Polo Grounds, NY]

Unassisted Triple Play

This past weekend, like most weekends in the Spring and Fall, I spent a lot of time on the softball field coaching and watching my two girls play. This past weekend I witnessed an amazing unassisted triple play. An unassisted triple play is when a single fielder makes all three outs in the inning in one continuous play without the help of any of her teammates. This play favors the middle infielders, shortstop and 2nd base, and predominately happens when a line drive or pop fly is caught for out number 1. The fielder then tags a base runner for out 2 and beats the other base runner back to the original base for the 3rd out.

To share how rare this event is, there have only been 15 unassisted triple plays in Major League baseball since 1909. Stunningly, two of these occurred within 24 hours of each other in 1927. The next didn’t happen for 41 years. Granted these girls are high school players, but it’s not neighborhood ball anymore, they are competitive and it was an amazing play and sight to see. I was thinking about how this play parallels our TechOps aspirational mindset.

Three things need to culminate for an unassisted triple play:

1. Situational

To be eligible for a triple play to happen there must be no outs in the inning and at least two base runners need to be on the bases. This alone is enough to make the event rare, think about how few times in a game two base runners are on base with no outs, this is a small window in any baseball or softball game. The batter then needs to hit a ball to the infield in the air. Very likely the hit needs to be directly to a fielder to give them time, assuming she makes the initial catch, to make the remaining two outs. Situation matters, and being aware of the situation you’re in matters too. Are we situationally aware for the next play we need to make? We can’t expect a triple play, but we should be preparing ourselves ahead of time for the next move. This is what I mean when I talk about being proactive.

2. Heads up play

The fielder needs to know who’s on base and where to make the play. Combining situational knowledge with quick reactions is essential. The fielder needs to have the skill to execute the catch, the tag, and the sprint. If their muscles aren’t trained, if their weight is back on their heels, if they have doubt they can make the play; they won’t. Do we have our heads in the game and are we ready to make the play? When we’re called on to catch the ball, to install code, to handle increased capacity, are we ready? Have we trained our minds for what’s about to come and are we ready to face the challenge in the moment or do we need to call time and regroup?

3. Luck

There is no doubt luck plays a huge role in the unassisted triple play. However, I believe you get to make a bit of your own luck by being prepared to seize the moment when that opportunity arises. The fielder who makes a “lucky” catch was likely doing somethings right. If she hadn’t opened her glove, or sprinted hard to where the ball was going, she wouldn’t have been giving herself every opportunity to be successful. We can’t control everything, but we can take advantage of a situation and capitalize on the line drive hit right to us, maybe by turning a double or triple play. If you believe you can influence luck, then you might also agree it can work the other way. A consistent coaching subject I use with my girls all the time is to not defeat yourself before the game has even begun. Visualize what needs to be done and then get about the business of doing it. Seeing success breeds success.

One last note: While an unassisted triple play is an amazing feat. Making a triple play with the help of your teammates is pretty darn impressive too. There have only been 696 triple plays in MLB ever (1876 – 2014). The most recent triple play happened just  days ago on September 14, 2014 by the Pittsburgh Pirates vs the Chicago Cubs.

If you need help from your teammates and colleagues to make a triple play, there is no shame, we’re all on the same team.

Play ball.

Kicking off the 1% Club

I really find value in spending time talking to the individuals in my organization, not just about the project of the moment, but about their ideas, thoughts, and frustrations. I’ve found that by knowing more about what motivates people, what their passions and hobbies are, that I develop a better understanding of their motivations and the thinking behind the work they do. I also know I value when my bosses take time to learn a bit about me and who I am, and I’m hoping others feel will feel the same.

I’m writing this on my return trip to Virginia from spending a few days in Northern California where I was meeting with 4 individuals from different teams in my org. The genesis of my trip was to spend time with each of them due to recent org changes I’ve made. I hoped to ensure them that their thoughts are both encouraged and expected, their involvement is crucial to getting the move forward steps right. These talks are similar to many other conversations I have with my staff, albeit, mostly informal and more happenstance much of the time. There are so many valuable things I learn from these talks, and the feedback I get indicates individuals appreciate the time and data I’m able to share in these settings.

Today I’m excited to claim I’ll be adding a slightly more formal approach to these conversations. I’m kicking off what I call “The 1% Club“. Over the next 12 months I’m committing to spend at least 1 hour with every member of my organization in small groups that represent between 1% & 2% of my staff. This will be 50 separate 1 hour meetings with 4-8 people at a time. This size allows a more intimate conversation than team meetings generally provide. Additionally, I’ll be hand crafting each 1% attendee list such that the makeup of each consist of people who don’t normally get to work closely together.

I intend this to be a loosely structured conversation, but I will moderate the discussions, and prefer to mostly listen rather than talk. I’ll also be mindful of the extrovert tendency to dominate the session and reserve the right to halt the conversation of a topic so we get to hear from everyone. I am going to identify a few key messages in each meeting and collect and collate them to share with the larger org. Topics discussed can help inform our future efforts, identify and uncover obstacles to overcome, and ensure we’re doing a better job connecting the business roadmap to the work we’re all busy doing. We won’t talk about individual career development, at least in specific terms, nor confidential things that would be best handled in our normal manager to employee 1 on 1’s. Otherwise, the agenda is a “stream of conscious”, fluid, in-the-moment opportunity for participants.

Objectives:

  • Hear from employees directly on their view of the business, our central Technology Operations organization, and what is and isn’t working for them.
  • Determine how connected to the larger company people believe their tasks and work are.
  • Learning from peer teammates and better understanding of what others are working on. Make introductions and better “one team” efforts.
  • Learn what motivates and energies my staff, what are they passionate about, what are the “hot buttons”.

I’ll follow up this post as I progress and share my thoughts on the impact this effort makes, but now I’m off to schedule a number of upcoming meetings.

Remote Workers Forum – an experiment in engagement

Approximately 12% of our staff is located outside Virginia. While our corporate headquarters may be in New York, the bulk of our Technical Operations staff is based in Northern Virginia. However, many of these employees really consider themselves Virginia based employees as either the bulk of their team and/or manager is in Virginia. Last December I started kicking around this idea to bring all of our remote staff together for a day called the “Remote Workers Forum” that we held a couple weeks ago in April.

The goals in holding the forum were many, including:

  1. To reinforce our commitment to employees that work remotely, who’s brains and talents are paramount to our success as a collective technical staff.
  2. To make new connections with other remote workers, to learn and share what works and what doesn’t while apart from the bulk of the organization.
  3. To discuss the challenges remote workers have with communication, expectations of “always on”, “out of sight out of mind”, and missing water cooler and social interactions with peers and co-workers.
  4. To hear how other parts of our company (and some outside guests) interact with remote employees.
  5. To spend some social time with the remote workers and engage them in the day to day activities around our Dulles, VA offices.

I invited both remote workers and their management chain to attend. We sent out a pre-forum survey to help shape our agenda for the day and discovered that overall the group was pretty happy with the telecommuting arrangements. They did affirm the reasons for holding the forum, like those in the above goals. The results also showed some common themes around challenges:

Remote worker challenges (self identified)

  • Missing out on the “water cooler” informal conversations
  • Not knowing/feeling the morale in Dulles, VA
  • Missing key information only shared locally
  • Conferencing etiquette & technical difficulties
  • Time zones
  • The balance between work and “life”
  • Knowing when to turn work off for the day and “come home”
  • Keeping normal business hours
  • The perception of always being available
  • Managing  work volume and prioritization

Managers of remote worker challenges (self identified)

  • Communications overall – the greater effort it takes to communicate frequently/effectively
  • Limited informal communications & not physically around
  • Out of sight, out of mind
  • Giving exposure to other team members/projects
  • Two-way trust: both in the remote employee & manager

We partnered with The Mind Gym to tailor a 2 hour session called Remote Control focused on the feedback we received from the survey, and added this to our agenda for the forum. The topics were focused on the concepts of coordination & control, trust, spirit, and team customs. What I liked about this approach was that it was an engaging and fast paced “workout” that kept us involved and active in the conversations, much better than a lecture style class IMHO. At the end of the session we asked each person to make an individual pledge as a way to commit to improving one area from the challenges we covered. The Mind Gym also shared with us that only about 15% of training attendees put into use the material they learn. To improve this rate, we’re having a 45-day check video call with our forum attendees to follow up on their pledges.

Our afternoon’s agenda was filled with guest speakers I pulled from other parts of the company, an external media company’s General Manager who was a willing participant, and a panel of some of the forum attendees. These talk were informal and open to audience questions, with the goal of sharing their unique experiences on working remotely, managing remote and global teams, and sharing some funny anecdotes and stories about their professional journey.

We closed the forum with some organization specific data, refreshing and reminding the group about the goals we’ve committed to deliver on in 2012 and discussed some other important initiatives within the company that parts of the organization has been involved with.

Finally, we also sent out a post-forum survey to learn how this day together was perceived. I’ll let those metrics, shown below, speak for themselves.

This experiment about engaging our remote work force was time well spent. In some cases, attendees had been working together for years, but had never physically been in the same room together. It was fun to watch these interactions and connections materialize. I’m committed to bringing our remote employees together again for another forum in the future, in the meantime, we’re going to ensure we’re engaging our remote work force and bringing them to Virginia on occasion so we can interact face to face.

I saw the forum as an affirmation that the leadership supports and embraces remote workers.  This was very reassuring as previous regimes have not always been as supportive.  It was also a great opportunity to put names with faces and to have face time with colleagues. – Remote Worker Forum attendee

No room for complacency

As part of my assessment of my new organization, I reviewed the length of employment for each employee. This, in combination with many other factors, is part of an assessment of the work we do, how we do it, and where I’d like to focus my energies for 2012. I wanted data to support my hypothesis that we need more “new” ideas and outside influence on how we do our job. I believe that we not only need to market and present what we’re doing outside of the company, but we need to participate and contribute to the work happening in our field. This may be meetups, research, conferences, or simply thinking differently about something we’ve accepted in the past as “the way things work”. As the graph below shows, the org is very mature, with the average length of employment over 10 years. This is not necessarily a problem, as long as we are continuing to bring new ideas and solutions to our challenges.

Length of employment in years by %

We recently recognized several employees for both 10 and 15 year anniversaries. These talented people have intimate knowledge of our systems and technologies, they have the context for why decisions were made, and we rely on them to keep our services running smoothly. These are smart, seasoned people who have wonderful ideas and loads of experience. A risk I see is that these veterans become complacent because they are comfortable in their positions, comfortable with those around them, and we (the leadership team) are comfortable with them.

We need to strike a healthy balance of sustaining engineering and new design work. Finding this balance of senior contributors to journeyman work is a delicate one. Not all of the work we have is befitting of a principal systems administrator. I need passionate junior level employees who can feel rewarded because they are learning new systems and excited to be working on large scale consumer web sites to cover the day to day support of our environments. I need the more senior staff to be thinking of larger, value added improvements and how we transform the work we do or operate more effectively.

To be a healthy organization we need to reward new ways of thinking, even if we don’t implement the specific idea presented. We need to create a climate that challenges the accepted ways of doing things, especially those for legacy systems. We don’t have the luxury of starting over and creating new environments wholesale, but we do have the ability to make incremental changes to our procedures, so that new hosts, applications, and services are advancing along a computing evolution. In some fashion I’ll be evaluating our work through these types of lens for 2012 and creating goals that support advancing new thoughts and for quelling complacency in our organization.