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.

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:

Google individual.jpg

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”:

Alienating Conservatives.JPG

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

Consent at Work

Consent isn’t just for sex. It’s great that we’re all finally realizing that without consent it isn’t called sex, it’s called rape. But limiting our conversations about consent to just intimate relations really limits the power of the conversation that we are having about consent as a society. I’m going to argue that sex is the third most powerful thing that we can apply consent to. The second most powerful thing is work. The first… well the first thing we’ll get to later.

How do I mean?

-Mandatory overtime is not consent. Telling someone that they have to work extra hours then they planned, even if it’s just a few minutes, with the threat of some sort of consequences if they don’t, violates whatever trust your employees have in you.

-Mandatory holiday work is not consent. It’s one thing if you hire someone specifically to work the holidays. But it’s another to tell your staff that they have to work on holidays or face consequences.

-Suddenly changing job descriptions is not consent. You can certainly get consent about changing a job description, but if you are simply announcing to your employee that their job is now going to be different – you are not getting consent.

-Dictating job performance metrics is not consent.

-Ignoring your employees input is not consent.

-Limiting time off from work is not consent.

-Being told who to hire and who to let go is not consent.

We have a word for performing labor without consent: slavery. I’m not saying that everyone who works is a slave, but I am saying that anyone who works in an environment that does not respect consent experiences a similar level of shame and disempowerment.

I feel like I’m just scratching the surface here. This might become an ongoing series as I flush out the topic. Stay tuned…

The 10 Key

These days I often find myself using the 10 key on my keyboard at work. It’s faster for me when I’m entering a lot of numbers at once. But every time I do, I’m reminded of my first temp job. I was about an hour into working there, and I was entering a lot of data into the computer. I was not in the habit of using the 10 key at the time. The admin assistant who was “managing” me gave me a look, a look that I’ll never forget, and said “you don’t use the 10 key?”

At that precise moment I knew I wasn’t going to last very long at that assignment. I was right.

Looking back, being good at using the 10 key was pretty much irrelevant to what I was doing for that company. For me, it’s a great example of how we decide that people are or aren’t able to do a job based on skills that are totally irrelevant. Or we dismiss capable people because they don’t have skills that can be taught – even though they do have the skills that can’t.

The young man in me – who was desperate to be given a chance professionally so I could spread my wings and show what I could really do – feels the frustration that I felt then, when people in the position to hire me didn’t see (what to me was obvious) that I could learn the skills they needed for the job quickly. That I could excel at anything, given the chance. I just wanted a chance.

Yet I’m also reminded of the film producer I worked with that only knew how to sell action films. He and I had worked on a couple projects together, and I had spent a bit of time telling him how his model for financing films could be applied to movies of other genres. His response, at the end, was “But I don’t know how to sell those movies. I know how to sell action films, so those are the ones I make.”

Some people only know how to sell action films. Some people only know how to capitalize on really specific skill sets, and those skill sets need to be presented to them. They can’t teach them, they may not even really know how to measure them. But when they have access to them, they can capitalize on them.

That’s all I have for now. Just a few observations, about work.