This week we’re joined by Lara Hogan – author of Resilient Management and management coach & trainer for the tech industry. Lara led engineering teams at Kickstarter and Etsy before she, and Deepa Subramaniam stepped away from their deep roots in the tech industry to start Wherewithall – a consultancy that helps level up managers and emerging leaders.
The majority of our conversation focuses on the four primary hats leaders and managers end up wearing; mentoring, coaching, sponsoring, and delivering feedback. We also talk about knowing when you’re ready to lead, empathy and compassion, and learning to lead.
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- An excerpt from Resilient Management on A List Apart
- Paloma Medina
- Core Needs: BICEPS
- Lara’s book
- The Manager’s Path: A Guide for Tech Leaders Navigating Growth and Change
- Your brain on progress – Increment
- I’m a cog
- The Changelog #342: From zero to thought leader in 6 months with Emma Bostian
- Lara Hogan on mentorship and sponsorship
- What does sponsorship look like?
- Linchpin from Seth Godin
Play the audio to listen along while you enjoy the transcript. 🎧
Lara Hogan - hey, nice to have you here on the Changelog, finally. I’m a big fan of yours. I’ve been reading and paying attention to you for so long, and I think it was back when I logged Laura Hogan on mentorship and sponsorship. This is the first time I’ve heard the idea of sponsorship and really dug deep. We logged that through our news feed, and then I think I subscribed to your newsletter immediately after that. It was super-cool.
Oh, that’s so nice. That’s so nice, thank you. I’m so excited to be here.
Yeah. And you wrote that post back in 2017. I didn’t find it until 2019, so - sorry about that.
It’s evergreen, you know? It’s the kind of thing that I could talk about all day long, every single day, for the rest of my life. It’s the kind of thing where it seeps into everything that we do, this idea that by default we all tend to give advice to each other, but actually that’s not the most powerful tool in our toolbox. And there’s all of these other tools, for example sponsorship, that we can use every day.
So yeah, I find myself talking about it… My poor partner is sick of it at this point, like “Alright, I get it, Lara…” [laughs]
So you’ve teed it up… What’s the difference then? How do you break them out?
[04:05] Yeah, totally. So if we step into a room with someone and we’re so excited to support them, we really wanna see this person grow and learn, we see so much potential… Instead of defaulting to giving them advice to sharing our perspective, sharing what we’ve seen work and not work, instead it’s really important to consider what are the opportunities that we can basically put our name online for on behalf of this person. Where can we throw their name into the ring? Where can we give them the opportunity to do visible, valuable work that’s connected to business goals?
We often forget that we can do this, because we already have folks in mind, or we have folks with more experience, or we have folks that are friends that we’re already thinking about whenever a new opportunity comes up… But when it comes to helping people grow, sponsorship is actually the one – you know, studies have shown it’s correlated to [unintelligible 00:04:53.25] not mentorship. Mentorship is just like “Here, let me show you all the things that I know to help you avoid pitfalls in the future.” That’s not growth. That’s getting unblocked, or maybe that’s avoiding major issues, but that’s not growth.
So in a lot of my work I’m trying to help folks, especially engineers, get out of the habit of believing that the best thing that we can do, the value that we can provide is sharing our knowledge, and instead think about these opportunities and where can we sponsor people through these opportunities.
You said it was correlated to what? When you said that it was correlated to something, I didn’t hear what you said there. What was it correlated to do
I don’t know, I forgot already…
Career growth, I think you said?
Oh, yeah, career growth. Thank you.
Gotcha. I wasn’t sure if it was like a research, or something like that. I wanna make sure I earmark that in my brain, because I’ll forget if not.
Tons… Yeah, there’s a ton of research. I mean, sponsorship is one of those things that’s been studied for decades, and all of the studies show that people get further in their careers, they have more opportunities to do even more visible, valuable work, they’re more likely to get a stretch assignment, they’re more likely to get raises, they’re more likely to have other people higher up in the ladder know their name… You know, people who kind of get more projects.
There’s so much data that says that that’s where we should be investing our energy when it comes to supporting other people as they grow… And that’s also what we should be asking for when we’re thinking about our own growth… Like, who are the people that know our work and might be able to vouch for us for the big, juicy leadership opportunities that, you know – like, I wanna start public speaking, or I wanna write a company blog post, or I wanna open source this project… Who are the people that can maybe vouch for me and help me put my name [unintelligible 00:06:19.19] for those opportunities?
Yeah. In some ways too it almost forces you to not be in your own way.
Because so often do we just not nominate ourselves, because we’re like “Oh, I’m sort of an impostor here, I’m not actually that good. I don’t really do this well. Some people pay attention, but let’s just face it, I’m not that good.” And then somebody close to you nominates you or suggests you or sponsors you or advocates for you or refers you, however it is, and you almost feel like you have to do better because you love them, or you care for them, or you appreciate them, or whatever it is, their position in your life, and you’re like “I have to live up to what they believe in for me”, so it almost makes you do better even.
Absolutely. I have this sneaky trick question at the beginning of my workshop on mentoring, coaching and sponsoring… And my sneaky trick question is I have everybody who’s in attendance share one thing that a manager has done for them that has skyrocketed their growth. And I don’t tell anybody the difference between these three skills before we have this little intro… And everybody, nine times out of ten, they describe someone who’s been a sponsor to them.
And when I get to the sponsorship part of the workshop, I’m like “Guess what, everybody? Not one of you mentioned mentorship when you were describing something that a manager has done for you that has skyrocketed your growth.” One person mentioned coaching, everybody else mentioned sponsorship.
Jerod and Adam - think about a time when someone’s done something for you that skyrocketed your growth. What was that?
Well, I’m glad you asked, because I have that earmarked for something to mention… I’ve shared this before on this show at least once…
Thank you for asking.
We have a show called Backstage, where Mireille Reece, Doctor of Clinical Psychology who I co-hosted Brain Science with - she asked me a lot of questions about my past. And then very specifically, back in the day when I was in the military, I was in what they call my MOS training. It’s training for my job in the military, essentially. And I just hadn’t really considered being a leader – I mean, I had leadership qualities, I was a strong person in my friend groups… I wasn’t like this shy person. But I just never really considered being the leader.
[08:20] So the drill sergeant says “Stacoviak! You’re first squad leader now.” Out of nowhere. Because I guess the other person was messing up. And I kind of correlate that to sponsorship. It’s kind of by force, really, so I’m not sure… Maybe you can help me judge if that’s truly sponsorship or not… But my drill sergeant believed in me enough, or just picked me by random number or whatever it might be, but he’s like “You’re now a leader.” And I was like “Um… Okay…” What did I do? I didn’t do anything special. And then from that day forth I just started to learn specific things to be a leader in the military… And all these things because that person believed in me, in many ways by force, I was suddenly a leader… You know what I mean?
So I had to live up to that. And that was many years ago, and I’m still – I think since that moment I was like “Wow, I can be a leader.”
That’s absolutely sponsorship. That is 100% the definition of sponsorship. And that’s the kind of story that I hear all the time in these workshops from people. Like, “I don’t know why this person believed in me. I don’t know why this person had faith in me. I didn’t think I could do this thing. But they did, and that skyrocketed my growth.” 100% sponsorship.
Have you been on the receiving end of that in your career?
Oh, yeah. Oh, my goodness… It’s funny, because I also participate in the interest too, so I was trying to pick a new example… And there’s just so many. I think about the difference between a time when my manager went on parental leave for six months, and at the top of the doc for like “Who to contact in different situations while I’m out” he put “If you’ve got any questions, ask Lara.” He was a VP, I was not. And I was not prepared for that was like – he didn’t ask me first… It was sponsorship. As you said, Adam, by force. Sponsorship by force. But again, it connected me to so many different people within the business. I didn’t know what cap-ex or op-ex was. I didn’t understand how head count worked, and it threw me in the deep end in a way that really, again, skyrocketed my growth.
Or, I talk about the person who was my manager - actually at the same company - when I was on deck to get a promotion to director. I was leading a web performance team [unintelligible 00:10:12.20] product infrastructure group, and my director was in the meeting, vouching for me, and all the other directors in the meeting were saying “Yeah, but maybe she’s not technical enough. Like, frontend… I don’t know. She doesn’t have [unintelligible 00:10:28.03] other experience.” And my director was like “You know, she wrote a book about web performance, right? I think we can say that she’s tactical enough to have the job of a director, like you all.” And that’s sponsorship, too. That was behind closed doors. I didn’t know about that till much later, but that’s also – sponsorship can be invisible to you also.
Yeah. The thing too with any sort of any opportunity - it comes with more connection.
Just blatantly. Not even like network connection, but just more connection. Whenever you’re in conflict, the recipe to disperse and mitigate conflict is more connection, not less connection. So you would think that anybody in anything really would just thrive on more connection, so what you’re providing with sponsorship is just a greater social network, a greater work network, more connection to more people that know – whether you’re good or not doesn’t really matter. It’s your chance to now show up and prove or showcase who you are, and that connection can pay dividends over time.
I could not nod more enthusiastically about that. And it benefits you as a sponsor. You look so good by sponsoring someone else that goes and kills it on whatever they’re working on. And you’re building a new leadership bench. The only way that your organization - your team, or whatever - is gonna survive is if you have a group of strong leaders there to pitch in… And the only way to get them to the place where they can pitch in is to provide them with sponsorship opportunities.
Well, the way I discovered some of your work was through your book, obviously, Resilient Management, and you wrote an excerpt for the A List Apart website, which we’re super-huge fans of in like forever, basically.
My entire career has been like “If A List Apart showcases it, it’s awesome stuff.” But you wrote an excerpt there… And I also wanna mention that you voiced your own book, which was super-cool, by the way. I didn’t expect that, and then I’m like, “Oh, that’s really cool.”
But I’ve read that, and it kind of frameworks a lot of this - leaders, managers, you’ve got the idea of mentoring, coaching, sponsoring, and then delivering feedback. It’s sort of like all the different hats you wear as a manager. How did you come up with this framework? Was it something you observed, was it something you defined yourself? How did you know what you know to now teach others?
Yeah, so I learned a lot of what I know today from this person Paloma Medina. She was the Etsy learning and development director there. So basically everything that I talk about today, I learned in some way or was influenced in some way by Paloma’s work.
When it comes to mentoring and coaching, two of the skills, I’ve definitely learned the difference between those from here. But really, I started getting interested in sponsorship when I was trying to help the staff engineering group at Etsy start to add people who were not meant to the group. I was trying to figure out what are all of the different ways that we build really homogenous leadership teams, what are the contributing factors… And I started doing a lot of reading about in-group bias, I started reading about all of the different ways that we might start to measure the success of changing the demographics in a group over time… And I came across the work of someone named [unintelligible 00:13:32.08] who’s done a ton of work on sponsorship and research on sponsorship. And she had this quote that stuck with me ever since then… It’s about women, but I think we can apply it to any member of a minoritized community. Members of minoritized communities are over-mentored but under-sponsored.
I started to realize, if I wanted to try to enact change within this staff engineering cohort, I needed to help these folks understand the difference between the two things. Understand that what they were doing was taking members of minoritized communities out to coffee to teach them what they know, but that’s not the way to make this group more diverse. The way to make this group more diverse is to help make sure that the people getting the next opportunities to do visible, valuable work are those members of the minoritized communities, and support them in that way. That was really a pivotal moment for me in understanding the power of this work, and also trying to spread the good work about it to folks who are in positions of privilege and authority who can do it.
Yeah. That’s a challenging position to be in too, sponsoring folks. It’s almost like “Do they need my help? Maybe…” Back to that self-doubt, potentially, or the impostor - do they need my help? Maybe they just need my advice. They didn’t even ask for it. Should I even give it?
You almost to some degree can be paralyzed by the ability, but I guess if you know you can help somebody, you know you can help somebody.
Right. There’s a few there, of - what if this person fails at the thing that I’m sponsoring them for? And that’s real, that’s valid. There’s always that risk. But then what I try to do is coach people through like “Okay, what happens? Let’s play that out.” Like, what’s the worst possible scenario? And then what can we do to prevent that scenario from happening? What are the check-ins? What are the other forms of support that this person might need to be successful? How are we measuring success? How are we making sure that we are making this an accessible leadership opprotunity to those who don’t already have the implicit power or privilege that we do?
There’s a lot to unpack there, but it’s a reasonable fear, and I want to make sure people understand that that’s not an abnormal one, but it’s totally surmountable.
Yeah. Because when you vouch for somebody, you’re lending your reputation. And so if they fail, then your reputation is harmed, and the next time somebody turns to you for advice – maybe they don’t turn to you anymore, because they’re like “Well, you let me down the last time.” I like what you said there with regard to the support, because in order to hedge your own risk - well, what do you do? You don’t just provide the vouching or the opportunity, you don’t just open the door, but you also give them what they need to walk through the door, and make it through to the other side. That’s really powerful.
[15:59] And that might also be advice, but it’s really important to ask the person what they need, rather than just assuming that what they need is still more of your advice, because that may not be it. One of my most mind-blowing moments was realizing that what someone needed was access to a meeting where decisions were being made… So I invited them to shadow me at this important meeting. And honestly, it opened up so many doors. Just the act of being there, silent, with me. There’s so many different ways that support can manifest, and advice is just one.
Yeah. The one shadow I can see happen – well, actually, I got to witness it first-hand was when I sat down with Sid Sijbrandij from GitLab, and he is die-hard on his shadows going everywhere.
So my show, Founders Talk, is really one-on-one, and so we sell it as one-on-one. So when you have more than one in the room, it just can kind of put some performance operations there, potentially; like, you might perform because someone else is there, or act a certain way…
It changes the vibe.
Yeah, it can really change the dynamics. So as a believer in those dynamics and the one-on-one, I wasn’t trying to advocate that they shouldn’t be there, but just for the reasons of the show and how we did it… And I understood where they were coming from, the shadows came anyways, and that was totally cool with me… I agreed to it beforehand; he didn’t just show up and I was like “Okay, how do I deal with this?” I agreed to it. I thought it was a good idea, given what that CEO’s shadow program does. And I just think that’s super-cool to do that, because you get to really, like you said, you get to open those doors and just being there silently, but you get to witness somebody doing their thing. And sometimes you can just learn something by just osmosis. You just sort of see that happen, and boom - you’ve gained this new opportunity because you saw it happen, and now you’re thinking “Well, i could probably do that, too.”
Absolutely. Absolutely. And you get to see so many different ways that leadership manifests. That’s something else I think a lot about, is there’s not just one way to be a leader, and to be able to have access to a diverse group of leaders shows you all of the different ways that you might wanna hone your own approach to leadership too, and there’s something really powerful, it sounds like, in what they’re doing, allowing them to not just witness them performing, or being a part of a podcast, or being a CEO, but all of the people they’re interacting with, too.
You can see a new side of that person too, and gain - or probably lose - some respect from, depending on how you act…
There’s always that risk… [laughs]
Yeah, there is some risk there, but one thing I love particularly about Sid is that he seems to be the same person no matter where he’s at. He seems to showcase the same values… And that could be a filter, I don’t know, because I only really see him in, I suppose, professional spaces - and I’ve met him personally, too - but I’ve never observed him anywhere where it’s like “Okay, this is a different Sid.” Or “He’s angry, so now he’s this way.” Or “There’s pressure, so he acts this way.” And he always seems to be the same kind of cool, calm, collected, calculated Sid that thinks, but then also has empathy and compassion in his words and responses, and also seems to be a good person to admit when he’s wrong and willing to change. I think even witnessing that face-to-face in a shadow program is enough to change somebody.
Totally. I talk a lot about the idea of our default approach in a lot of my workshops and coaching sessions, just because we all do have a default approach to leadership… How it looks to other people, it’s a default approach. But it’s really important to switch it up when the context calls for it, so I’d be really curious - maybe it’s a question I can ask him someday… It’s like, “Okay, in what situations does that approach not work for you, or not work for your team? What are the opportunities that you have to switch it up based on what’s needed?” It’s hard.
So you’ve mentioned the difference between sponsorship, mentorship and coaching… I wanna dive into the coaching bit a little bit, but put a pin in that first, because you’re also talking management and leadership, and I wonder if you differentiate those two, or if you don’t. And if so, what are the differences?
[19:49] Great question. What a time, you know honor tradition of trying to define these two very broad, mixed-up categories… [laughter] Honestly, just like mentoring and coaching tend to also be really conflated a lot of the time. I do find a distinction between them a lot, but just like a square is a rectangle, but a rectangle may not be a square - management and leadership are a little bit like that… Where you can be a manager and also a leader, and you can also be a leader and also a manager, but sometimes they’re really distinct.
I think a lot about facilitators in meetings. Someone who’s a facilitator of a meeting - they may not be managing anybody, they may not be managing the content, but they’re probably leading the meeting in a way, even if they don’t have any interest in what’s happening. That’s a pretty clear distinction to me. Every company is different in how they define it. In a lot of companies, staff folks - meaning staff engineers, staff designers, whomever - are leaders, but they don’t have distinct management responsibilities. But again, it’s all kind of messy…
When I talk about management, I talk about it in terms of “Are you supporting other people as they grow?” That actually applies to people who are not managers too, which is why I like to use the definition of management instead, that way I can say “Okay, these skills may apply to you, whether or not you have technical HR responsibilities in your role.”
Do you think a leader is more on like the inspiration side of things than the doing of the details/tasks thing? Because management seems to be task-based(ish), and then leadership seems to be more visionary, that kind of way, where you’re sort of inspiring greatness in others, or to go or believe in the direction. It kind of requires a bit of salespersonship to sort of say “This is our mission, whether you like it or not.” And maybe they don’t deliver that way. Maybe it’s more like “This is our mission because… And this is why I believe in the mission.”
So that seems to be more leadership. Maybe that’s mainly how I break it down - it seems more like inspire vs. tasks, and do, and organization.
What did you say
Oh, I said inspire vs. require, just because it rhymed. Sorry.
So that was actually what I was gonna say, but I thought it was a little too cliche… Inspire, require…
[laughs] That’s hilarious…
I’m here for you…
Mind-melt. So actually, I’ve worked with a lot of managers that do that, and that’s actually a part of their job. They can’t get everybody in a row in the same direction unless they do that, too. And leaders often have a lot of tactical responsibilities. So I actually more think of it as a spectrum between being empowering and being directive. And a leader and a manager can end up anywhere on this spectrum, and we all have a default on that spectrum.
My default is actually on the empowerment end. In the absence of context, I will ask everybody a million open coaching questions, which - Jerod, I know you wanna talk about coaching…
But that doesn’t always work. Sometimes you need to be directive. Sometimes you need to mandate a desk move. Sometimes you need to tell someone what their job is. Sometimes you need to give feedback that’s not coaching, but instead it’s like “I need you to do this thing right now.” That’s directive. Again, some people default to the directive end of the spectrum. They’re like “Okay, here’s what I need. Here’s how it’s gonna happen. Here’s how we’re gonna move forward.” But they don’t leave lots of room for empowerment. They don’t ask lots of questions. They don’t find sponsorship opportunities. They don’t ask people how they wanna grow.
So again, based on the circumstance, based on the situation, we all have a default, but that default won’t be useful to us in all circumstances. Strong leaders and strong managers need to know when to switch up their approach based on the given circumstances. So I would argue that managers and leaders both have to do these things, and company-specific responsibilities really just change.
I like that you called it a spectrum, honestly, because I almost feel like you can take a test and see where you land on that…
You can even evaluate the thing you’re doing currently, and like “Which direction is this?” Is it sort of center in the spectrum, or…?
Yeah, in one of my workshops we go through that. I give a bunch of example scenarios… I actually have people draw the spectrum and mark on the line where they would end up based on the scenario, like “You’ve found out that one of your direct reports is being named to your other teammates in a meeting. Do you respond with empowerment or direction?” “A senior leader is talking over you and interrupting you. Empowerment or direction?” “One of your direct reports comes to you with a competing job offer two times their current salary. Do you default to empowering or being directive?” Again, it’s really interesting to see… And in the workshop we have everybody hold up their line, so we can see where people land…
At the same time?
[24:02] Yeah. Some people are really close together in where they landed, some people are all over the place. And again, I think it’s just a way to say, we have to adapt based on the circumstance. [laughs]
That sounds fun.
We have fun.
Well, I think it’s kind of theory, to some degree, where do you land…
So you have to understand the mechanics behind things and the frameworks behind things to maybe even determine that…
And I guess you could somewhat guess too, if you weren’t really skilled in the theory and the details behind things… But it really does give you an idea of like “Okay, this is where I’m defaulting to”, as you’ve said a few times. “Maybe that’s not a good place to default to, but it’s okay. It’s the truth.” We can all sort of grow from the truth currently. Don’t lie to yourself, basically.
Right, exactly. Let’s be honest.
If you’re defaulting and you’re erring on the side of like “Well, that’s not actually optimistic or that’s not a good way to be”, then you’ve gotta change. But at least you know where you’re at.
Yes. You’ve gotta be honest about it. And also be honest about where that default is most successful. One of the circumstances - what’s the environment in which your default way of operating works best? That way you can start to think about “Okay, now when are the times when I might need to switch it up? And how can I experiment with that to know when it’s time for me to switch it up? How can I know when to do that, and that really effectively, too?” [laughs]
So Lara, we mentioned your excerpt from your book, Resilient Management, on A List Apart. I love that. And that’s kind of where I saw this framework… I guess - full disclosure, I haven’t read your book in completion. I have listened to some of it, to give myself a little pat on the back, but… You laid out this framework quite well…
[laughs] Doing her a favor… “I listened to a little bit of it…”
I listened to it a little bit… [laughs] I wanna listen to all of it. Actually, I think I’d rather listen to it than read it, now that I’ve heard it, because you’ve got a great voice; I think you speak very well through it, and I’m actually much more of an Audible listener than a reader. I do like to read, I said this yesterday on some outro of JS Party, or something like that… I do read, but I prefer to listen.
So with that aside, you mentioned how leaders, managers - they end up wearing these different hats, four different hats distinctly: mentoring, coaching, sponsoring and delivering feedback. Kind of go in to the details of what each of those mean, and we can sort of go from there.
Absolutely. So mentorship is all about sharing your perspective, sharing your advice, sharing what you’ve see work and not work, suggesting pitfalls that this person can avoid… It’s all about sharing your own knowledge and handing it over to this person. So mentoring is really useful when someone’s blocked and just needs a little bit of help getting unblocked, and it’s also really useful for when someone’s being onboarded to a new role, a new company, whatever. Those are really the only two use cases where mentoring is useful and powerful.
The other three skills of coaching, sponsoring and feedback are the ones that I try to emphasize that anybody who’s supporting other people should really focus on and hone their skills in.
So coaching is all about asking lots of open questions and helping this person reflect, connect their own dots, develop their own brain wrinkles… So it has nothing to do with your own knowledge, which is very hard for many of us that have been taught that our knowledge is the value that we provide.
[28:07] So open coaching questions, championing someone, reflecting back what you’re hearing them say - these are all tools that we can use to help someone kind of sit back and say “Alright, am I actually looking at this from all different directions? Have I truly identified the problem statement at hand, that’s the real one that I wanna tackle? What’s hard about this? What’s surprising about this?”
Sitting in that messy space unlocks so much more than we could have ever unearthed before, and that’s where the power comes in - the ability to kind of look at something from all different angles, not just the rote, surface-level ones, and figure out what we need to do specifically to move forward.
Sponsorship is feeling on the hook to get someone to the next level by putting their name in the ring, giving them visible opportunities to do valuable work, again, connected to business goals ideally. And then feedback - we all know feedback. Feedback is giving someone a steer, you know, as specific and as actionable as possible, to how they could do something even better or why what they’re doing right now is really working. I could go on all day about those last three skills, why they’re powerful, and how to do them.
As you were saying that though, about coaching, I kind of thought, since I’ve got some experience with therapy, and working with psychologists, and co-hosting a podcast with a psychologist - they seem to really camp out on coaching.
Because the thing I grokked most from a therapist and somebody receiving therapy is they wanna help them find the path by asking questions and let that person determine what’s the right move.
Because it’s not about them telling the patient what the right move is, or the determination, or whatever it might be, it’s about helping them discover where they need to go. Because let’s face it, if you come to your own choices, you have so much more power. When you’re an advocate in your own choice, rather than given a choice, it’s not really a choice. So you can feel far more comfortable in that next step(s), because you came to that conclusion yourself.
Absolutely. And you’re unique, your journey forward. You might be pulling on information from other people to help you shape that journey forward, but it’s gonna be unique to you. No one else can give you the answers that you need. So that’s why I personally find coaching really valuable, is everybody’s so unique I can’t assume that my experience is gonna map to theirs, or my solution could be useful to them. What’s way more powerful that I can provide these days are open coaching questions. And open coaching questions - you know, they’re not closed, they can’t be answered in yes or no or a number, and they’re not leading, like “What if you tried this mentorship, this advice?” That’s giving a solution.
So in coaching mode, which is really, really hard to stay in - in coaching mode you’re asking genuinely curious, open, broad questions, and I find that the best ones start with the word “What”, like “What’s important about this? What’s hard about this?”
My number one favorite open question to use is “What are you optimizing for?” Because in any different situation, everyone’s optimizing for something different. But we never think about it. Whenever I ask someone – let’s say we’re talking about a conflict that they’re having, and they can’t figure out how to move forward. I’m like, “Alright, so in this situation, with this relationship, what is it that you’re optimizing for?” Usually, they’ll sit back in their chair and be like “Huh…” And that’s what I’m looking for as a coach. [laughs] I want that moment of [unintelligible 00:31:19.28] like “I’m stumped for a second. I need to actually sit down and process this.” That’s where the magic of coaching happens.
I laugh, because this is Adam’s favorite statement, isn’t it? “What are you optimizing for?” He says it all the time.
It is. I think you have to know where you’re going. You can’t take the steps forward with any assurance if you don’t know where you’re trying to go. Otherwise you’re just sort of haphazardly moving along your path and you think you know where you’re trying to go, but if you haven’t really considered “What am I optimizing for? What am I really trying to do in this situation?”, your list becomes so much more concise. You can go from 8 to 4 really easily, or maybe 8 to 1, because you’re like “These things are not important, so they don’t matter. At least today.”
I think a lot of that comes from me reading – gosh, what is that book called? What is it called, man?
It’s called –
[32:08] Essentialism. Essentialism. A lot of that book is really about getting rid of the trivial many in the vital few. You have to whittle down to the things that really matter, and you can’t get to the vital few unless you get away with the trivial many… And you can’t do that unless you know what you’re optimizing for.
I couldn’t agree more.
Well, and when I’m working with coaching clients and I ask them the “What are you optimizing for?” question and they give me two answers, I force them to turn it into an “even over” statement. Like, “I’m optimizing for speed, even over quality.”
Prioritize those two.
You’re right. You’ve gotta get down to just one.
You can time-box it, like you said. Like, “In this season, I am optimizing for blah.” Because you know it’s gonna change, and that’s cool.
Another question that you have on your list which I ask guests all the time on the show which I really like is “What does success look like?” And that’s a hard question to answer. I think we get – multiple people kind of stop and have to think for a minute… And that’s really what you’re trying to get them to do as a coach, is to think for yourself and then go along for that ride.
Yeah, totally. And we spend so much time talking about failures, it’s hard to remember we also need to think about what success looks like, too.
One of my favorite questions also on that list that I stole from Paloma Medina, who I mentioned earlier - is “What is the worst possible outcome?” and then “What’s the most likely outcome?”
Yeah. Because we tend to focus on what’s the worst thing that could happen, right? Which is the first part of the question.
Because it’s worth knowing, it’s worth thinking about that. But then also putting that in context of like “Now, how likely is it that that one happens?” And then usually, it’s like, the reason it’s the worst is it’s literally the outlier of the statistical things that could happen. It doesn’t mean don’t think about it, but let’s not give it so much weight in our minds. What’s more likely to happen?
Yeah, we can honor it. We can honor it by naming it. And then we can focus on the more likely outcome. [laughs]
Yeah, exactly. So as I read through your different terms here, I guess the coaching was the one that has tripped me up. I don’t wanna get too much into a semantic discussion about words, but coaching - I just bring a lot of context to coaching mostly in my life of sports, where I’ve been a coach and I’ve also been an athlete on a team… And it seems like what I think of coaching as prior to reading this - really actually what a coach does on a sporting team is actually all these things… Because they are instructive, they are giving you what you ought to do, but then they’re also asking you questions and helping you grow, and they’re also putting you in the captain spot, or “Hey, you’re pitching today.” They’re sponsoring people.
So I think when I saw coaching, I was like “Is this really what coaching is?” But I wonder if that’s just like the difference between business, or maybe adult-to-adult coaching, versus sports… And maybe there just aren’t lines that we can draw between the two.
Totally. Yeah, I think that that’s one of the challenges, is that the term “coach”, in specific contexts, absolutely means a blend of all those three things. In sports… I think I might even call that out in the book specifically - if you have any sports background at all, you might think of coach as probably actually more of a mentor. Most people who I talk to, when they think about coaching, or being coached on a sports team, they talk about mentorship. But you’re right, it’s not just mentorship, it’s not just giving advice.
A lot of feedback. You give a lot of feedback.
Exactly. Absolutely. And as you said, sponsorship too, right?
So - totally. When it comes to the term “coaching”, I think that’s distinct from the role. And you’re right, the role in a business context is like a leadership coach, or a life coach.
Life coach, yeah.
That’s the kind of role that’s distinct from, let’s say, a sports coach.
One hundred percent.
So dive more into delivering feedback… Because I think this is something that we all do, and we all don’t always do well. You mentioned actionable…
[35:55] Specific… Is there any other heuristics of like “Here’s how to give good feedback versus not so good”?
Oh, yeah. I mean, I can give an additional whole episode just about feedback… [laughter] Originally, the chapter in the book had a whole different, separate feedback chapter, and then I started to realize it actually relates to mentoring, coaching and sponsoring, because we can do those three things of mentoring, coaching and sponsoring when we’re giving feedback, too.
So when I think about good feedback, a lot of the way that I think about it derives from SBI (Situation, Behavior, Impact), that framework. Situation - we get people to talk about the facts. What’s my observation of the behavior I’m giving feedback on? Just the facts means not my assumptions, not my judgments… I’m trying to make sure I’m keeping my own opinions at the first part of the feedback, because what we wanna avoid is someone receiving a feedback getting amygdala-hijacked. So we wanna avoid their fight or flight response kicking in. And you all know, same is true for me - if I’m getting feedback, if I even smell feedback is coming, my whole body freezes up. My amygdala, the part of my brain that’s responsible for trying to keep me safe and be on the lookout for threats - it senses a threat that’s headed our way.
A lot of how I think about feedback has to do with trying to keep that amygdala chilled out and keep our prefrontal cortex, the rational, logical, practical part of our brain online.
So just the facts means let’s make sure that this person’s amygdala is like “Yeah, that’s true. That’s all happening. What you described is real, and I can attest that that is a real thing.” So start with the observation.
Next though we can talk about the impact that this person’s behavior has had. Traditionally, we’ve been taught to frame the impact, the behavior based on what we as the feedback giver care about. Let’s say someone’s writing really terse emails to me… I’m mad that all the time they write 4-5 words, it’s a waste of my time, I always have to respond, and get more information… I feel like they’re mad at me all the time. Those are all my perspectives and why I wanna give the feedback. I challenge everybody who’s giving me feedback to instead of saying why you think that this feedback is important for the person to listen to, why did they care about it? What did they care about and how does this feedback relate to that thing?
In the example of the person writing really terse emails, they probably care about getting this product done on time. So I might say “Hey listen, when you send me emails of this length, I need to respond and ask for more information, which adds time to the process, which means that the thing you wanna have done takes three times longer than it normally would.” So you see what I’m doing - I’m distinguishing between [unintelligible 00:38:23.15]
It’s really hard to put ourselves in their shoes, but again, we wanna keep their amygdala chilled out and their PFC online. So by describing it in terms of what they care about is really, really useful.
And then the final thing I like to do is close with an open coaching question. Again, we’ve been taught to make a request, like “Therefore, could you please send longer emails?” But if you have hit the nail on the head with the facts, they’re on board, and you’ve also hit the nail on the head with what they care about, they’re already thinking about what they wanna do next. You don’t need to tell them. That’s mentorship mode. It’s just saying “Therefore, could you please…” And usually, we’ll come up with as good of an idea as they will. So instead of making this a one-way feedback dump, ask an open question, which turns into a two-way dialogue, where you’re brainstorming together about what we could do going forward, what this person needs… Again, “What are you optimizing for? When you write emails, what are you optimizing for?”
Do any of the open coaching questions and see what that does for your feedback conversations, and hopefully you are lowering the chances of an amygdala hijack, of a fight-or-flight response happening in that feedback conversation.
Yeah, that could be the bomb going off, like “Oh, come on now.” And the next thing you know you’re fighting, there’s a conflict instead of a resolution, which - you really want the resolution…
They’ve shut down…
Yeah, they’ve shut down… There’s no more communication, there’s no more connection…
No one wins.
Yeah, exactly. I like that, that you lead with what you assume though what they’re optimizing for. You’re assuming because of certain observations - the length of the email, their characteristics, their behavior in meetings - that they care about time.
So you’re sort of capitalizing on that and saying “If you really care about time, here’s how we can–”
…spend less of it.
“…here’s the challenge we have together. Here’s how it impacts you and me.”
Absolutely. And you might get it wrong. You might get the impact part wrong. You may totally mistake what they actually care about…
…in which case you’re gonna have to try again, but only after you do some more digging. And if you do this prework upfront, you can spend time asking questions about what they’re optimizing for, or what’s most on their mind, what are they focused on the most right now, or what’s worrying them, what’s motivating them… Any of those kinds of questions can help you get the kind of data that you need before you give the feedback. And sometimes I like to actually open feedback with the impact that they care about first, like “Hey, I know you can’t – we talked so much about this. I know it’s really important that we ship this by Tuesday, so I’ve got some feedback I’d like to give to make sure we could ship this by Tuesday.” So you can see how by kicking it off with what they care about, their brain is like “Huh. [unintelligible 00:40:50.21] might get a little bit tense… But you know me, you hear me, you see me. Maybe I’ll be open to hearing this feedback, because it seems like we maybe care about the same thing.”
And you’re also kind of identifying the reward, which is kind of leading into the habit loop even…
Because the habit is the email, and the habit is the length or lack of length of the email… So the reward really is like “Okay, I get back to work.” But maybe you shift the reward and say “Okay, you get back to work, but we delay shipping because X.”
“But wait…” [laughs]
So you’re sort of like identifying their reward, or I suppose the team’s reward. There’s a lot of psychology really in this process.
That’s something I’m learning more and more… Especially as we look at your chapter titles, “Setting clear expectations. Communicate effectively” and then “Building resiliency.” That’s a lot of things that happens from a psychologist to a patient in therapy; it’s very much a lot of this. When did you begin to study the brain, I suppose, to know the prefrontal cortex and the amygdala? You must have done some digging into research; which books did you read, how did you get curious?
Where did you dig?
I can tie all this, again, back to that same person Paloma Medina at Etsy, who has done a lot of research on organizational psychology, but also just like the neuroscience behind why humans behave the way that they do.
Since she’s worked at Etsy, she’s done a number of incredible things, including starting a shop about productivity tools for our brains and the neuroscience behind productivity at work, psychological safety - all of these things. She’s just incredible. So a lot of what I initially learned was from her. And honestly, like you all know, engineers - we just get so hooked on the data and the science behind things; it’s an easy way in to get people to start thinking about “Okay, what are all the ways that we humans are behaving the way that we are?”
One of the things that she taught me very early on was this framework, this acronym she calls BICEPS. And BICEPS stands for the six core needs that humans have at work. And again, this is all neuroscience, but also anthropology, and a lot of the social sciences trying to study why do humans behave the way that they do, and what do we need – what do our amygdalas try to secure and ensure for us to keep us safe at work? And it’s things like a sense of belonging, a sense of community. If we feel othered or left behind, our amygdala considers that a threat. A sense of improvement and progress, a sense of choice, fairness, predictability, all of these things in the BICEPS core needs - it’s all neuroscience-backed. Thanks to Paloma I have learned so much more about all of those surprising ways that humans behave and deal with each other at work.
Yeah. How about any particular books that you’ve read recently?
I can mention for me Atomic Habits has been so on my prefrontal cortex… I’m thinking about it a lot; I’m always thinking about habits, and habit loops, and just how the 1% improvement can change things. I’m curious what you’re reading.
A go-to is always “Switch: How to change things when change is hard” by Chip and Dan Heath. It’s all about “How do I influence change in any context if I don’t have power or authority or control over the situation itself?” They include a bunch of studies, a bunch of anecdotes, real case studies about how – you all must be familiar with the “Don’t mess with Texas” slogan, and where that came from?
Don’t mess with Texas.
Do you know where it came from?
I also didn’t know. I learned it from Switch. I’m gonna butcher this story, so apologies to everybody involved… Go read the book to get the real story. But at the end of the day, there was too much littering. There was a bunch of littering happening in Texas, and so the government tried to brainstorm, “Okay, how do we get littering to decrease?” And they made this ad with this cowboy picking up litter off the road and putting it in a trash bin and saying “Don’t mess with Texas.” And that’s where it was born out of. And you know what - littering decreased significantly after this ad campaign kicked off.
So again, it’s all influence. It’s all a lot of psychology that you mention, it’s a lot of neuroscience-backed stuff… It’s fascinating. How do we influence change to happen, positive influence where we don’t have complete control on the situation?
Yeah. Well, I think that may have worked - I’m gonna assume a lot, because I haven’t read the book - because Texas seems to be very prideful about their land. The size of things, everything’s bigger in Texas, things like that… And I think that probably – and a cowboy is like a significant…
He’s a model.
Yeah. The ethos.
…a model for a lot of people in this space. The cowboy hat, we have the rodeo here every single year, it’s massive… I’m not from Texas originally, so I can’t claim these things as native for me. I came here [unintelligible 00:45:24.02] which is a common phrase to a transplant to Texas… But I’m from the North-East, but long story short, I didn’t grow up with cowboys and I didn’t grow up with the things that I see here in Texas all the time, but I can see that’s probably why it worked well…
…because they took this common model and the pride of the land and the respect for the space and the desire for it to be the best it can be and attached that to something that really matters, which is “Stop littering”, right?
Yeah. And that comes back to the BICEPS core needs list. The B stands for Belonging. We are a part of the community. We identify with this role model, we wanna support each other as the community of Texas… And Significance is the S. So in the hierarchy, we have a lot of pride in our land, in our state. Again, these two core needs - the book goes into this in so much detail, but those two core needs, again, our amygdala is working really hard to secure and to ensure for us… They’re present, and it’s a huge way to get people to listen, to get people to care… People have to be motivated to do something.
So Lara, a lot of our audience are engineers, or were engineers and now are managers and leaders… And it’s always a difficult thing deciding if that’s a move for you. Once you’ve decided that it is, making the transition, like what does success look like in that case? You’ve done the transition a while ago, and now you’re succeeding and teaching other people how to be managers and leaders… So advice for us and for our audience about how do you make a decision like that, and once you do, how do you navigate that successfully?
[48:13] I love this question. I talk to and work with a lot of people that have made the transition multiple times. One of my former colleagues, Dan, has written a bunch about how do you choose, how do you make a decision, how do you know when to go back and forth, when is it right… There’s just so much good stuff out there. The way that I like to think about it is – the same question we’ve been talking about, the “What are you optimizing for?” question. Get really clear on that, for yourself, because that’s a precursor to knowing whether or not you can actually achieve that thing you’re optimizing for in a different role.
If you’re optimizing for gaining more power, for example, and you’re thinking about becoming a manager, you may not actually get more power. It will be really important for you to do some research, talk to some other managers to ask about what they have influence on, what they have authority over etc. because it’s often a bad surprise.
If you’re optimizing for making a new team charter, a new vision, giving the team purpose - maybe that’s a possibility at your company. If you’re optimizing for a change of pace, guarantee your management will give you a change of pace, and they will ask what are optimizing for with change of pace and that could also breed additional questions.
So getting clear about what you’re optimizing for will allow you to figure out whether or not you can have success in the other role, in either direction. People who skip this step have asked themselves “What am I optimizing for when I’m thinking about changing roles?” often change roles and then hate it… Because they find out that they can’t achieve the thing that they were optimizing for, because they were working under a bunch of assumptions, or that’s just not how it works, so the role doesn’t have as much authority or power as they thought it would.
When I was experimenting with leadership and management and thinking about that, I just really wanted to support the people that I was working with day-to-day… I was working at a really small startup, and we were basically UI/UX frontend site performance developers, and we didn’t have a manager that knew any of that stuff… Our manager really only knew Perl. And as much as we could spend all day talking about Perl, I really wanna be able to provide a little bit more structure, a little bit more career progression for folks that were experimenting at the time with CSS 2.0. “Oh, my goodness…” You know, thinking about those sorts of things…
So for me it was about providing team environment where we could self-identify as this frontend/UX group… And so for that reason, becoming a manager worked. I was able to achieve the thing I was optimizing for with that role change.
There have certainly been times when I’ve thought about other kinds of role changes and I wanted to figure out “Could I be successful in that new role based on what I was optimizing for?” and the answer has always been different. So yeah, I would definitely suggest thinking to yourself and getting really clear with yourself about what you’re optimizing for before making a switch.
Yeah. Something that I learned while doing the show Brain Science which I’ve mentioned before, with Dr. Mireille Reece, was – a thing she had said was “Try it on.” So any new big decision, anything really in particular, so in this case this transition - try the thing on. How could you sort of get a feedback loop quickly. I guess step one would be “What are you optimizing for?” Okay, sure, I do wanna think about this decision or consider it. How can I first take a step to try it on. How can I try this decision on temporarily? How would my drive to work change? And maybe in these times there’s no drive to work. How would my interactions with my counterparts that I really care about, like in your case - I wanna step up and help in these ways, because I care about this team and what we’re trying to do… How would just my relationship change as a result of this?
How does my relationship change at home, beyond just simply working – sometimes we make work decisions or professional decisions and kind of forget that we have other constraints that don’t map to that opportunity. And like you had said, if you don’t consider what you’re optimizing for.
[51:56] In our case, for us running this business, Jerod and I - we have certain personal constraints that help us navigate choices we make in the business. Things we just definitely probably will never do… And I have a hard time saying absolutes; Jerod, you probably know me to do that, so that’s why I say “probably never”, but maybe not… But the point is that we have certain things that give us structure and constraints to say “Okay, when we make that transition or we do that kind of thing, how can we try it on, or know what we’re optimizing for to do that?” That’s such a key phrase. “What are you optimizing for?” is such a key phrase in so many places. Really, it is.
Yeah, absolutely. You go to the grocery store, and try to decide between two different apples… What are you optimizing for? [laughter] [unintelligible 00:52:37.24] Yeah, absolutely.
Price, freshness, bulk…
[laughs] But back to that point of trying it on - Camille Fournier’s book “The Manager’s Path” is just so brilliant in so many different ways, and one of the ways is that her first few chapters are all about before becoming a manager, what are the different ways you might try on some of those responsibilities.
So in what way can I be a mentor, in what way can I be a tech lead…? Trying it on before you actually go in. So if folks are trying to figure out how they could try it on, definitely check out Camille Fournier’s book, “The Manager’s Path.” It’s great.
We’re a fan of Camille, and she also wrote the intro to your book, the foreword for your book…
And then she also obviously wrote her own book, The Manager’s Path, and I think as part of her story too, a blog post you had written while she was writing that book was so influential to her, she had to kind of incorporate some of your ideas… So I definitely wanna give a shout-out to Camille. She’s awesome.
Hey, Camille! [laughs]
Do you find – and I’m asking you to generalize here… Do you find that engineers make good managers?
That is an impossible question to answer. I like it.
Give it a shot.
People of any ilk make great managers and terrible managers. I find that one of the hardest parts about transitioning to management from any individual contributor worker work is the lack of measurable progress. So in engineering you’re shipping things, you’ve got code reviews, you see things launch. You actually have observable progress forward. In management a lot of your work is invisible, or there’s a long lead time between when you do a thing or say a thing, and you see the results of that thing, if ever. You might do a thing or say a thing and think it’s incredible, and then nothing ever happens.
One of the ways that I coach managers struggling with this is just start to think about celebrating tiny, tiny wins that might have to be confidential with a supportive group that you trust to keep those wins confidential. Someone can be like “Alright, that rework - it’s done. I can’t tell if it’s good yet, but it’s done. Let’s celebrate.” Finding some way to basically measure and observe progress in yourself and in your work as a manager is challenging, certainly.
Yeah, I like celebrating the wins, too. We say that a lot around here. Even one time I think we were in a call - I can’t remember how far back, but Jerod was just sort of like down a little bit and he’s like “I just need a win. I just need to ship something and get it out there and just know it’s done.” He’s very task-oriented, and if there’s a list in front of him that’s not done, he’s fretting about it. He wants that list to be done.
I feel that.
And that’s a different context, but celebrating the wins is something that I like to say a lot too, for us even, because I think too often you just forget to – like, if you waited to celebrate, it’s almost like process over goals. If you only celebrate the goal and not the process - that’s kind of like the thing, like that’s a process. Getting the work done was part of the process.
It may have been the goal too, but if you don’t celebrate the little parts of those processes happening, getting done, and you wait till the goal, the goal is always moving. Almost always moving. It’s always sort of changing, and you sort of camp out in this process land and just celebrate those wins.
Yeah. I wrote an article for Increment on this exact topic. For anybody that has invisible work, how do you start to identify where you can measure or even just mark those wins? I borrowed a lot of research about microtasks and how our brain gets that sweet, sweet dopamine hit from the act of checking something off of a list. And that’s what we crave, that dopamine.
[56:10] Yeah, it is. It’s all for the dopamine. Dopamine is a – I’m sure everybody knows what it is, but it’s basically this chemical in your brain that you love to get, that is a reward factor. I’m paraphrasing terribly, of course, but it’s this thing in your brain that occurs when you do things that you like.
It’s feedback to say “That was good. I’d like to do more of it, basically.” So to paraphrase –
Your brain even releases it in anticipation of checking something off of your list. It’s great, it’s awesome.
And then what happens if you don’t get the thing checked off? Does it go back?
It’s a bummer. It teaches your brain that maybe we don’t need to do this… [laughs]
Yeah. Maybe this person’s a failure. So is that article called “Your brain on progress”? Is that what it’s called?
It is, indeed.
Alright, we’ll put that one in the show notes, along with all the other things.
I wanna read that too, because I haven’t read that one yet, and I’m all about progress. What about stories? I’m sure someone like you has tons of stories… We didn’t well-define, I think, some of your past history; you mentioned somewhat where you’ve been before - engineering director at Etsy, VP of engineering at Kickstarter, you mentioned a couple… I’m not sure if Etsy was that startup – I think you were there a while back…
No, I was at a DNS company before Etsy.
So at Etsy, actually – when I think about stories, a lot of them are from Etsy, because it was such a formative time in my career, just being at that kind of organization, under the leadership that I was under… You just learn so much about being a human around other humans that care about humans. A lot of the work that I do today can be directly tied back to that time. And when I think about war stories, horror stories, I think about the relationships that I formed there that I’ve carried on today… Like, what did I survive, what did we all survive there? And I think about a time when I actually had to fire someone for the first time, and I wasn’t getting the support that I needed from my manager at the time. He was checked out, he was unavailable, he just couldn’t help, and I didn’t know what I was doing. I didn’t know if I should fire this person, I didn’t know if I was making the right decision, what’s the process, what do I need to make sure I do, how do I make sure that I’m supporting this person…?
I ended up basically hanging out with a bunch of other managers in this program called [unintelligible 00:58:07.15] that Paloma had created, where - it was a confidential, kind of like support group for managers across the company. It was a cross-functional group, really small groups. I think there were maybe eight people in my group. We were all kind of baby managers, and I was sharing with them confidentially the questions I had, and how challenging it was and how stressed out I was, and just how sad I was about it. And even though we were all baby managers, they all had different experiences before of going through something like this, within different organizations even.
So one person offered to roleplay the difficult conversations with me, so I could get practice and really hone what I needed to say. One person helped me really get a good gut-check on how to make this decision, make sure it was good for everybody involved. One person had experience [unintelligible 00:58:52.12] so she gave me advice on that process and connecting me with someone to talk to.
And by their powers combined, they got me through. Each of their different experiences, different skillsets were so, so, so incredibly helpful and powerful to help me survive. They took me out for drinks afterwards, so I could just kind of cry a little bit, you know…?
And I realized this power in this group was so important, because your manager can’t be your everything. Your manager has one particular set of skills; one particular set of places that they can sponsor you for, or types of feedback they can give. Maybe they’re even bad at feedback, maybe they’re bad at mentoring, maybe they’re bad at coaching. It could be everything. You need a group, you need a collection of people that I like to jokingly refer to as a Manager Voltron. Not just one manager, but who’s in your Manager Voltron?
I don’t know if listeners are familiar with the concept of a Voltron. I don’t know if you wanna give a definition… [laughs]
Go for it, Adam.
What’s the definition, Jerod? Are you a Voltron fan?
I’m just checking out Voltron for the first time. I’m trying to grok this…
What does Wikipedia say?
Voltron - of course, everybody knows - is an animated television series franchise that features a team of five space explorers who pilot a giant super-robot known as Voltron.
Voltron! Yeah, bingo. If you were familiar with Captain Planet growing up - very similar vibes.
Exactly. Captain Planet.
Yeah, absolutely. Same vibe. And you need all of them. You need all of them, a supportive, powerful being to support you going forward. So I like this idea, as we go forward, who are the people in your network that can provide the different kinds of support that you need? Who can provide good mentorship, good coaching, good sponsoring, good feedback? A good eye for the politics at your organization. A good person to shadow at company meetings. A person with a completely different leadership style than you are.
Actually, I made a little worksheet, a little bingo card for everybody to kind of brainstorm who is already in their Voltron for this variety of different skills, and where are the gaps, where might you want to find someone to fill that void for you as you grow and learn, that way you can collect a supportive group of people that can continue to level you up as you grow together.
Yeah. You know, listening to all this, it seems like there’s really just such a wild framework to be a manager. I never really understood that it was like – maybe I thought you were born with it; you were born with the ability to manage, the ability to lead… But it seems like it’s such a learned skill. Like most things, you just sort of discover more the things that you can do well in life tend to be things you can really learn, not just something like “Oh, that person’s good at it because they were born with the skills.” It’s probably somewhat true they’ve got some assurances and maybe a certain personality type. I tend to be very forward-thinking, I tend to be very self-assured; I have self-assurance, so when I score on like – what’s that, the Strength Finder I believe it was…? And I almost wonder if you have something like that, where you can sort of take a test, like “Am I fit to be a manager?”
You mentioned the spectrum before, if you have anything like that. I’m curious, but – you know, that’s something that for me is, you know, this is something you can learn; you can go to a course like you might have, or read a book like you’ve written, or Camille’s book, or other books that you can suggest… But this is something that you can study. There’s theory behind it, there’s framework behind it, and so just because you don’t have those skills today doesn’t mean you can’t bury your head in a book, or take a course and learn this kind of thing, because it seems like there’s a lot of do’s and don’ts and framework to it that are waiting to be found, basically.
Yeah, I would argue that anybody can be a manager. It’s actually important that we have a diverse set of approaches to management and to leadership. It’s important that there’s not just one archetype. We of course all have an archetype of what a manager looks like, or what a leader looks like, but that’s not gonna serve all populations, all organizations, all companies and all stages.
I’ve always approached this from “Here’s a set of skills, here’s a set of tools that you can have in your toolbox that you can learn how to apply based on who you are, based on the organization you operate in, based on what your team needs.” And that context is gonna keep on evolving. So you as a manager, you as a leader need to keep on evolving your toolbox going forward, because again, it’s not one-size-fits-all, it’s definitely not one side of like do’s and don’ts, it’s “Oh no, here’s a new one I haven’t seen before. How do I adapt? Who can I learn from to figure out how to approach this one in a way that works for my style, and also works for the environment?”
Yeah. I mentioned before, I thought I would throw this at you - you weren’t much of a fan, or you haven’t read much of Seth Godin, is that right?
I have not read much of Seth Godin, no.
Are you familiar with the book Linchpin, at least?
Not at all. Okay, good. I’ll give you the paraphrase of the book, and I’m curious what your thoughts are on this… Linchpin is essentially that you are indispensable; that you have to be so good that they can’t ignore you, essentially. So I sort of bucked at that. I really thought that’s what I had to be as a leader. I was a product manager, I felt like I had to be the linchpin, I had to be indispensable, I couldn’t be replaced… And then I thought “Well, that’s just super-arrogant. That’s super self-centered. Aren’t we all truly indispensable? Aren’t we all truly replaceable at some point?”
[01:04:08.27] And I thought – you know, this question I wanna share with you or ask you is “Cog versus linchpin.” Should someone aspire to be a linchpin, or should someone in the leadership aspire to be a cog? Because a cog sort of fits in and helps everybody else move; they’re very helper, very servant potentially even, whereas a linchpin is like “I am the only one here that can do this”, at least to some degree. So I’m curious what you think about cog versus linchpin.
Based on your description, I think I could not be further diametrically opposed to the idea of linchpin, just because, you know, our job supporting other people as they grow - it needs to continue to evolve and change and we cannot be the only one. Personally, again, based on the short description. I cannot imagine a world in which having a bunch of linchpins is a healthy way for – what’s everybody else then? [laughs]
And when I think cog, too - certainly, servant leadership has its pros and cons. There’s definitely times when we need to be a servant leader, and other times we need to be more directive, maybe, than that… Again, pitfalls to every approach, which is why there’s definitely not one one-size-fits-all approach to leadership.
But I’m all about understanding what the needs are, figuring out how you might be able to support them or understanding when you can’t, and finding out “Where else can we get the support that I or my teammates or my organization needs to move forward?”
I personally land on this idea that I need to be a cog. I really studied hard and I was like “You know what–” I read the book and I thought – the book was actually very influential to me, and helped me gain confidence. But over time, I learned that that’s not really what I need to be. And I’m gonna share something I wrote on the subject just to see if it resonates with you. And this is me sort of coming to this conclusion, essentially, so this is my words. “I’m a very sharp, highly-specific, purposely-purposeful cog that’s part of a much bigger, much more grand machine. I play a very specific role, I highly need [unintelligible 01:06:02.29] so others can do the same. I serve the unit, the team, and its mission. Not myself.”
So as a leader, I felt like that’s what I needed to be. I needed to serve that mission, and less of myself. Not so much completely not myself, but I need to think about my team’s motives, my mission, the unit etc. rather than just simply saying “Adam, it’s all about you.”
I love that. And many organizations need exactly that. They need someone who’s gonna come in and understand the dynamics, understand what’s needed, and support it in that way. Other organizations need some version of a linchpin at some moment in time, and I think that’s the important part about understanding the context and also understanding who we are, so we can make sure that even if we can’t fit the mold of what an organization needs, we can help make sure that that cog gets fit sometime.
Yeah. Well, Lara, it was awesome talking to you. It’s years in the making; like I’d mentioned at the top of the show, I’d found your post in 2019. Don’t ask us why it took us so long to invite you… [laughter] Maybe we were – I don’t know. I don’t know what it was.
Now is the time.
Now is the time.
So we reached out via email, you said yes, here you are… It was awesome. Is there anything we didn’t ask you? Anything we didn’t bring up that you’d love to share on shows like this, when you do podcasts and you speak to audiences? Is there anything left unsaid, essentially?
Honestly, I’m just so excited to talk about all of these things with you. I think I could go on for hours and hours. So much is left unsaid for another episode. [laughs]
Yeah. Alright, Lara, well thank you so much for your time today. It’s been awesome talking to you.
Thank you both.
We appreciate you.
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