May 5, 2019

What Do You Think?

The whole freaking world was full of people who were bound to tell you they weren't qualified to do this or that but they were determined to go ahead and do just that thing anyway 
-Tom Wolfe, The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test

In the mid-90s I worked for a man whose management style we used to call Mentor/Tormentor. He would give us - junior, barely experienced businesspeople - complicated yet wildly interesting transactions to complete (from start to finish) with almost no guidance other than “you’ll figure it out” or “you know my issues.”

Definitely the most stressful professional moments I’ve ever had. Also definitely, the most I ever learned in a work setting. His philosophy appeared to be that he hired smart people and relied on them to figure things out.

Managing a group of people is hard, especially as that group of people gets larger. At betaworks, I remember the feeling when the company got large enough that when the office door opened and I looked up, I could no longer tell if the person walking in worked with us or not. That feeling was one of intense uncertainty.

At the same time, the “contract” between a company and an employee can be thought of very simply. Patty McCord uses this succinct construct in her book Powerful: Building a Culture of Freedom and Responsibility: “Help make our company more valuable, and we’ll make you more valuable.” 

The most effective way I’ve seen to make employees more valuable at the same time as creating a space for them to do their best work was the one I experienced: by giving people agency over their ideas, decisions, and suggestions. That agency came with fear and repercussions - the fear of screwing up, of making the same mistake repeatedly, of not getting the next great assignment - but it was personal agency nonetheless. 

And the most effective technique I’ve used or seen to deliver agency is also a simple one. Ask someone: “What do you think?” “What do you suggest?” “What is your opinion?” Ask it over and over again and listen to what people have to say. Then let them try it out.

We still tell stories about the Mentor/Tormentor, about deals that we screwed up and victories that we won. There were a ton more of the latter than the former. He made us more valuable professionals, and in turn we made the company much more valuable, by letting us experience the feeling of acting independently and making choices. By giving us agency. By asking us “What do you think?”

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