I Think Our Leaders are Failing Us

Let me be more specific: People want to feel like the leaders in their life have their back.

I’ve got a hypothesis, but I have no real way to test it out besides testing it on you folks. So here goes: I think that there is a large portion of the population (in this country at least) that does not experience being served by the leadership in their life the way they want to be served.

This article’s incredible image is courtesy of my friend Joshua Coffy. Check out his work here.

Let me be more specific: People want to feel like the leaders in their life have their back.

And for most of us, at least at work, that experience is lacking. The other aspects of leadership are important as well. You need good strategy, tactics, and execution. You need to make sure that money continues to flow into your organization. There is a lot of expertise to accumulate and decisions to navigate as the leader of an organization. If your organizational leadership is highly innovative and pushes their team to innovate as well, that is great.

But how many organizations are going to have your back when the shit hits the fan? How many organizations do the work to make sure you are deployed in a way that inspires you and gets the best work out of you? How many organizations make sure you are getting paid a wage that works for you? How many work with you during organizational changes to make sure that your needs are also met?

Heck, how many organizations listen to feedback from their front line staff – the people who make everything work on a day to day basis? How many actively develop the talents of the folks already working for them, so when greater expertise is needed they can call on people who already have knowledge of the inner workings of the organization?

How many organizations make sure that there is enough institutional knowledge among their staff that there is always someone to train people who are ready to grow? How many organizations are constantly trying to cut labor costs, or cut front line staff costs so they can show a bigger profit and/or give their leadership bigger bonuses?

HOW MANY ORGANIZATIONS EVEN TAKE THE TIME TO TRAIN PEOPLE PROPERLY?!?

My thinking is that this is a big thing that is missing in the development of leadership today. That is, that people who are leading organizations don’t receive training in how to handle the fact that they aren’t just running a company or a non-profit – that they are in a leadership role in a community. That they are responsible for the health of the community, and the health of that community as well as the people inside of it often determines the health of the organization. That if you, as a business or non-profit leader, don’t realize that you are also in charge of nurturing a community you are missing the point.

I know that there is a line of thinking among some capitalists that labor should be interchangeable. But if labor is interchangeable, that means that any one person doesn’t matter. Everyone wants to matter, in their day-to-day life. They want to be treated like they matter.

I myself have seen firsthand what happens when employees feel like their leadership has their back, and it’s a beautiful thing. The things that I’ve seen those teams accomplish have been off the charts. It didn’t take fancy management training, or some whiz-bang consultant. It just took making sure everyone knew that the leadership had their back.

I would argue that political leaders in our country understand this. That they make sure segments of the population believe that they are going to have their back. The issue there is that they are often only playing to certain segments. But that’s another blog for another day…

My experience is only anecdotal. I’m not totally sure how this could be tested on a larger scale, even though I’m sure it could. What I’m looking for, for those of you who have stuck with this post this far, is more anecdotal evidence. Do you feel like leadership having your back is missing for you too, or missing for people around you? Have you experienced what it was like to feel totally supported by the leadership in your organization, and what was it like for you?

 

PS: Don’t take this as any way influenced by my new job. I frickin love my new job (more on that later). But I am at the point where I see this everywhere, when almost everyone opens their mouths to talk about their work. It’s been on my mind quite a bit, so I figure it’s time to put it out there.

This Might Be the Best Sunday of Football Ever

A couple of days ago, a friend of mine asked “What keeps your faith in the world?”

It’s days like today. Seeing, of all things, NFL players taking a knee together during the national anthem today is what keeps my faith. After Trump said anyone who kneels should be fired… as if kneeling is any disrespect to the national anthem.

I don’t remember being so moved by football.

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I honestly don’t remember being so proud to be American. Not about anything that happened in my lifetime. Seeing so many Americans kneeling against divisiveness. Kneeling to remind the country that too many black people are dying at the hands of police.

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Seeing so many people back the kneelers, or at least stand up for their right to kneel.

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I’m proud to see America finally show it’s true colors. It always takes a crisis…

Oh Man, What The Heck Am I Doing?

My last blog post received quite a few views (for me), and quite a few comments on facebook. I found myself dreading the comments. Like, “oh crap, who is going to be terrible in the comments now?”

Yet this is what I set myself up for, this is what I asked for in a way. I want my stuff to be read, I want people to be thinking about it. In our world, the best way to do that is to write stuff that gets a lot of comments. But if I’m deliberately avoiding facebook because I don’t want to see what people are saying now, even if it isn’t directed at me, that’s a problem.

I took this on for a variety of reasons. I wanted an online presence to establish who I am and what I’m about. Over the years I have felt that the real me doesn’t get communicated in short bursts, nor do I really get captured by the tools we have to capture who people are: resumes, social media profiles, business cards, etc. I wanted to have a place where people could see the different sides of me.

I also wanted to have a place where I could affect the way we talk about the world around us, even if it is just among my very small readership. I think most, if not all of us, today would agree that there is crazy stuff going on in the world around us. I wanted to have a place where I could assist, in my own small way, in us finding solutions to our seemingly insurmountable problems.

I also wanted a forum to start conversations. There is so much going on in our world, and a limited time to actually talk about it. For friends of mine to say “I read your blog, and here’s what I think about it…” gets us to the heart of the matter real fast when we have a limited amount of time to talk. It also gets me thinking in new ways about the subject. Invariably, every time I talk with someone about one of these topic I’ve written about it changes the way I see it.

Of course, if I’m going to be engaging in the discourse that exists around the problems of today, I’m going to have to deal with the vitriol that exists in our current political discourse. In fact, that is exactly what I want to be addressing with my writing.

But holy crap guys, sometimes witnessing that on my own feed is really hard. And I’m sure that one day I’ll write something that ends up getting that vitriol directed at me, and those few days will be hard as well. Honestly, I’m afraid of that day. That’s really what it is. I’m afraid of that day when it feels like the whole world has turned against me. I’m afraid that one day I’ll write something, and people will lobby my employer to get me fired over it. I’m afraid I’ll write something, and I’ll feel like people I love and care about are judging me over it. I’m afraid that I’ll lose friends. I’m afraid that my intentions, which are ultimately just to calm the dialogue around our divisive issues, will be lost.

There’s more to what I’m feeling than that, however. I think I’m also really coming to grips with exactly how much work there is to be done. How calloused we all are to each other’s points of view that we skip all of the lead up and cut straight to the arguing. Or we skip the arguing, and go straight to taking action against each other.

What we have in our culture today is a failure to diffuse negative feelings towards one another. We have a failure to help each other move past anger. A failure to address issues before they become causes, a failure to listen and take action before people become calloused. We have an inability to perceived injustice when it affects people we don’t identify with. Our initial response to people who don’t share our worldview is one of not trusting their intentions.

And now, violence feels much more common in our political discourse than it did say, 20 years ago. It certainly feels much easier for people to rationalize violent acts.

Yet I also know that this is just a period, and that this period will pass. Since our world has become interconnected, it has always suffered from periods of “unrest” – for lack of any better vocabulary. World War I and II were extreme examples. The 1960’s were another. We are in one now. How long it will last, I don’t know. When will it peak? I don’t know that either. But it will pass. What will the world look like when it’s done? I don’t know that either.

Sometimes I wonder how far I want to put myself out there. How much am I going to risk getting burned? Yet the time has come for me where I can no longer live with inaction. I cannot sit by and watch the world burn.

Yet my contribution is not… normal? I don’t yet see how going to protests or calling my representatives is actually going to further what I’m up to. I’m concerned with the dialogue, and I’m concerned with the lack of listening happening in our culture.

Behind every political position is at least one unaddressed concern. Immigration, in our country, is a great example. Someone can be against immigration because they are concerned about it’s impact on our economy overall, because they don’t want the people who are already here to lose their jobs, because they don’t want our culture to be diluted, because they don’t want immigrants who are going to take from us instead of contribute, because they don’t want criminals to come here… OR they could be biased against people that don’t look like them, or racist. Anyone who comes up with an immigration policy that demonstrates that it mitigates against those first five concerns, while meeting the goals of people who are in favor of immigration, is going to end up with the great majority of the US populace behind them.

But what doesn’t make it into the national conversation, is anyone actually attempting to alleviate the concerns of people who are anti-immigration. What we hear from the pro-immigration side is “Those people are racists!” Or, people who are against immigration are hopelessly biased or simply ignorant of the economic facts about immigration. Maybe we’ll see frustrated speculation wondering why people don’t understand what is such an obvious, to them, truth.

What I want is for people engaged in our national conversation to start listening to, and alleviating, the concerns of the different groups that make up our population. I haven’t the slightest idea how to achieve that. That, and reinforce and strengthen our democratic institutions (ie; make sure everyone gets a vote and every vote is counted equally). That also means refraining from purposely distributing false information, and giving up achieving legislative agendas through undemocratic means.

This is a big ask. I understand that. As a people we’re so used to doing things the way we have been, to suddenly actually “do democracy” in a democratic way would be a big change. But for me, this is what’s worth wading into the public discourse for. I would consider myself remiss if I did not take action on this issue. This is why I’ve been writing and podcasting recently. This is my overall goal.

Lol, and yes I have always taken on things that are too big. But I know what this is. I know, that if it is ever achieved, that it may not happen in my lifetime. There is no manual for this. It’s ultimately going to take millions of people taking up this cause in one way or another to have a noticeable effect. But what the heck else is worth doing?

No, You Don’t Fire the Google Guy

I view this as a failure of management.

I have a rule when it comes to hiring, and that is to hire people that I can support. That means that I hire people that I can have open communication with and who can listen to constructive feedback from me – and who can give me feedback as well. I hire people that will tell me what is on their mind. Hand in hand with that, is that I make sure that I’m someone that people are generally comfortable sharing that kind of stuff with.

Then, if I’m doing my job correctly, I’m checking in with them regularly. So if one of my staff starts saying things like this about our company:

Google's biases.JPG

I can address their concerns, one at a time, before they get incorporated into some “manifesto” that then spreads like wildfire across my company. From my perspective, if I’ve gone to the trouble of hiring this person, I need to treat their concerns as valid even if I don’t agree with them. Maybe they need coaching, maybe they need mentoring (maybe I need to hook them up with a mentor), maybe they just need assistance thinking through the opinions they have. But I, as their manager, cannot be brushing off their concerns.

That being said, the concerns in the above image (that are directly from his manifesto) absolutely need to be addressed. In the effort to create an equality based workplace and society, we must keep in mind that not everyone feels like they have experienced the benefits of not being discriminated against. What matters to people the most, regardless of the justice or injustice in the rest of the world, is their own experience. If it is in fact true that there are “programs, mentoring, and classes only for people with a certain gender or race” – that absolutely needs to be rectified. It comes across as blatantly unfair. We don’t know what support any particular person has experienced throughout their lives. We cannot be assuming that any given white man doesn’t feel the need for these programs as well.

If I’m really doing my job, as a manager, coach, or mentor, I’m separating the concerns about policies and practice from ideological and political stances. That is definitely something that needs to be done with this guy. He quotes a lot of research and data that has been politicized in our crazily biased political world, and does a lot of theorizing about why Google is the way it is… All that stuff really is irrelevant. The questions that need to be addressed are all around “what policies and practices do you disagree with or want done differently?” Once you allow the conversation to get into theorizing about why things are the way they are, or grand theories about what principles the company should or shouldn’t emphasize instead of addressing individual practices, you get into areas where people are likely to be offended and alienated.

The ideas that he presents in his manifesto are not exclusive to him. They are, in fact, common in our society at large. That means that if you aren’t dealing with them when he brings them up, you are going to end up dealing with them when someone else brings them up. You can’t actually expect to have a workplace that has diversity of ideas if you marginalize people with these concerns, or fire them when they express them. They absolutely need to be addressed, and where appropriate, rectified.

Otherwise, you end up looking like this to a large portion of the population:

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I’m not saying this cartoon is accurate. I have no idea what it’s actually like at Google. But I can say, for certain, that this is what it looks like to a lot of people who are outside of Google looking in.

(Sorry, I have no idea who created that cartoon. I found it floating around the internet unsourced)

Another thing that needs to be addressed, is this. Again, directly from his “manifesto”:

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Yes, conservative people do often feel like they need to stay in the closet in largely liberal groups. Look, I know that liberal people think that they are open-minded and non-judgemental – I used to think the same way. That is in direct conflict with the experience of many conservatives. This is part of why we are experiencing the division in our country that we are; people of a conservative viewpoint did not feel like their viewpoint was being addressed in the news, media, or entertainment of our culture at large. So they made their own. I’ll let you all deduce the consequences of that.

Obviously, if you’re going to empower those with different ideologies to be able to express themselves, you need to do it in a context where people aren’t purposely making each other angry, where they are being civil, and where they are being respectful. So essentially the opposite of what is going on in our popular society at large. Maybe you haven’t experienced that kind of environment, but it is certainly possible to do.

Most importantly, if you are in regular communication with your staff about their needs and can address this stuff as it comes up you can offer coaching and perspective that makes a difference. Lots of what this former Google manager said absolutely does need to be communicated to our manifesto writer. Things like this:

If you’re a professional, especially one working on systems that can use terms like “planet-scale” and “carrier-class” without the slightest exaggeration, then you’ll quickly find that the large bulk of your job is about coordinating and cooperating with other groups. It’s about making sure you’re all building one system, instead of twenty different ones; about making sure that dependencies and risks are managed, about designing the right modularity boundaries that make it easy to continue to innovate in the future, about preemptively managing the sorts of dangers that teams like SRE, Security, Privacy, and Abuse are the experts in catching before they turn your project into rubble.

Essentially, engineering is all about cooperation, collaboration, and empathy for both your colleagues and your customers. If someone told you that engineering was a field where you could get away with not dealing with people or feelings, then I’m very sorry to tell you that you have been lied to. Solitary work is something that only happens at the most junior levels, and even then it’s only possible because someone senior to you — most likely your manager — has been putting in long hours to build up the social structures in your group that let you focus on code.

I’m not saying that our manifesto writer is all-correct (absolutely not). I’m saying that in any managerial context you give someone an opportunity to correct their error-filled ways before you terminate them.

And, most importantly, there is nothing about the manifesto writer’s tone or writing that indicates that he is some sort of raging ideologue. He sounds to me like someone who can be reasoned with. He openly says that he wants a diverse workplace. He cites a lot of his points with data and studies. That is a great entry into getting him to rethink his viewpoints, by pointing out that how those studies are flawed – or pointing out how his thinking about them is. If, in fact, it is. Part of engaging with people who disagree with you, is that if you are going to do it honestly and effectively you have to be open to them teaching you something about the world as well. I know it can seem really important to fight for our viewpoints in the face of resistance, but it’s difficult if not impossible to listen while you are fighting.

Under every position is a concern or series of concerns. When I am a manager, I view it as a big part of my job to remove the concerns of my staff so that they can focus on doing their work.

Instead, what Google has done is reinforce those concerns by literally firing him for expressing them. This is not isolated to him or to Google either. Google has reinforced those concerns amongst the millions of people nationwide that have them. Now, they are stronger. To them, this is what happens when conservatives speak up in liberal environments. They lose their job.

Google has chosen a side in the culture wars, whether it wanted to or not.

Why do you think there is so much push back against PC culture? Because this stuff happens.

For reference, here is the “manifesto

Democracy Today

I’ve been thinking a lot about democracy recently. How, ideally it seems, what democracy allows in a society is the ability for a population to consent to their own governance. Which is really great. Like really great you guys, really this cannot be understated. The opposite of consenting to your own governance is oppression, manipulation, exploitation, disempowerment… and people generally having less say and control over their lives and the direction of their community than they want.

Image made by the very talented Josh Coffy. Check out his stuff here.

Democracy also requires people to engage in a certain level of civility. To really do democracy, you have to be willing to accept that the ideas and beliefs of other people are valid and need to be addressed – even if you think those ideas and beliefs are completely and totally wrong. Because otherwise, how can you work with them? Democracy, as is defined by google, is “a system of government by the whole population.” That means you have to work with the whole population, find common ground, and create agreement so that you can move forward in the best interest of your town, city, community, state and/or country.

I’ve been thinking about democracy a lot because everywhere I look in the news and world today I see either failures of democracy or people deliberately subverting democracy to achieve their political goals. There are a lot of reasons this is foolish, but I think the most important point is that when we erode democracy to reach our goals then our achievements are decidedly temporary. When you do not create consensus, or even agreement, what you get is instant resistance to your policies regardless of how good your policies are. It simply does not matter how right it is, the thing that you want to do. When you force that thing upon people they are going to focus on the negative aspects of it.

A textbook case is the most recent attempt by Mitch McConnell and the GOP to “repeal and replace” Obamacare. Whether you agree with that idea in principle or not, I can tell you with absolute certainty that writing the bill in secret, giving people an hour to read it, and then forcing a vote is not an effective way to create consensus. And what do you know? They couldn’t even get the 52 Senators in their own party to agree on the thing.

Another disparate example is the first post-Saddam Hussein government in Iraq. It seemed to be more interested in subjugating the Sunni parts of the Iraqi population than serving them… and then the Sunni militia Jama’at al-Tawhid wal-Jihad became Al-Qaeda in Iraq – which then became ISIS. Many more people have written much more in-depth than I will about ISIS, but making sure a significant portion of your country is not served by your government is a great way to destabilize your country.

“Those who make peaceful revolution impossible will make violent revolution inevitable” -JFK, according to the internet.

Whether or not JFK actually said that (I’m not going to believe stuff just because it’s been made into memes on the internet), I think that quote is the most prescient lens through which to look at events throughout the world today. Functioning and effective democracy is a means by which we allow for peaceful revolution, as well as peaceful change and peaceful growth. A judiciary based on the rule of law is another. When those institutions are subverted, we increase the likelihood of injustice. And when that injustice is not addressed, eventually people turn to violence.

Not that we should be waiting until people want to take up arms to secure the institutions of our democracy. I value consent, and a functioning democracy ensures that it’s citizens our governed by consent. Maybe not everyone values consent? I don’t know. But for me democracy is important because it is the best means we have to governing with consent. And we should always be working to make sure that whatever our government is has as much consent as possible.

That’s what I’m thinking about these days…

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Thoughts on the UK, now that I’m back in the US

I just got back to the states. You can read my first entry about this trip here.

Image from Wikipedia.

-How did I ever drink Heineken?!? It’s like beery water!

-British bacon is SO much better than American bacon

-I actually prefer roundabouts to traffic lights. Though it’s easier to get lost with roundabouts.

-There are KFC’s everywhere in the UK, so I had to try one. KFC in the UK is not as greasy or crispy. They also don’t have biscuits – possibly on account of cookies being called biscuits in the UK.

-Jet lag is real, folks. After the first night back, we haven’t been able to sleep past 5:30am.

-People in the UK are so much better at small talk than Americans. By a significant amount. It is generally very easy to strike up a conversation with someone out in public in the UK.

-Daily services, like buses, coffee and breakfast shops, etc seem to have enough staff that people aren’t running around to get their job done and they actually have enough time to do it well.

-Casual kindness to strangers was the rule rather than the exception, even in big cities. It reminded me of the midwest that way.

-“You can’t swing your dick in Scotland without hitting a castle.”

-Some Scottish accents will be so strong you’ll need a translator.

-Sodas are smaller in the UK. Same with the portions of essentially all packaged goods.

-The smallest paper money is a £5 note. They have 1 and 2 pound coins, and 1 and 2 pence coins. Also 20 pence coins.

-In Scotland, there’s no “e” in whisky!