And Now, For a Completely Different View of What Management Could Be

09/17/2013

Future of WorkIn the late 1970′s Tracy Kidder captured a new kind of work ethic and (at the time) a novel kind of management when he wrote the business classic, “The Soul of a New Machine.” It was a rollicking good story about engineers building a new computer. The story was really about people, and teams, and how management could create a completely new culture where amazing work could occur. Long before we were using phrases like “knowledge workers” or referring to part of California as “Silicon Valley” he gave us a preview, a new choice really, of what leadership could look like.

Scott Berkun has done the same with his new book, “A Year Without Pants, WordPress and the Future of Work.” With warmth, humor, and finely crafted prose Berkun shares the story of his time working for Automattic, the tiny company behind WordPress–the 15th most popular website on the planet, hosting almost 20% of the top 10 million websites in the world.

Berkun is no passive observer in this story. After a decade working successfully as an author, he gave up that glorious life of freedom to work as a Project Manager at Automattic. He did actual work, and apparently did it well (having worked at Microsoft on Internet Explorer during the browser wars, he knew how to lead a technical project). His experience brings us gems of insight like, “The bottleneck is never code or creativity; it’s lack of clarity.” And, “Ambiguity makes everyone tolerant of incompetence.”

If you run a small firm, or manage people, or care about what the future of work might be, you’ll want to know this story. It should be required reading in business school. Not because Berkun makes any claims to know the future. There’s no way of knowing whether this book predicts the future, as Tracy Kidder did. Perhaps the set of open-source management principles he outlines will forever remain a wild outlier to traditional management theory. Frankly, it doesn’t matter. Because his book will make you question assumptions you have not thought about in a very long time.

What’s it like to work in an open source culture? Berkun says Automattic is, “not managed at all in any conventional business sense.” The founder of Automattic, “went to great lengths to keep support roles like legal, HR and IT from infringing on the autonomy of creative roles like engineering and design. The most striking expression of this is that management is seen as a support role.”

Berkun illustrates both the bad and the good of working at Automattic with penetrating clarity. He shares that, “Meetings at Automattic were always qualified disasters. They happened so rarely, certainly in-person ones, and had so little urgency there was little pressure to get better at running them.”

There are also worthwhile insights into innovation and project management, “It’s never a surprise in great projects to find grueling work somewhere along the way … It sometimes takes ugly effort to make beautiful things.”

He offers insights into how to evaluate people, “The real story behind some people you meet with fantastic reputations isn’t notable talents or skills, but merely an exceptional ability to choose the right time to join and leave particular projects. The work of managers everywhere is rarely evaluated with enough consideration for the situation they inherited and the situations they faced that were not in their control.“

The book is a primer for how to be a project manager in an open source world. But don’t read the book today and expect to apply these lessons to your company tomorrow. Berkun cautions, “A great fallacy borne from the failure to study culture is the assumption that you can take a practice from one culture and simply jam it into another and expect similar results.”  And this gem, “Often acquisitions create a paradox: they’re hard to fit into a company for the same reason they’re attractive to acquire. The thing you want to buy reflects a different way of thinking, which has value, but that difference is at odds with the culture you already have. Like an organ transplant, natural antibodies will fight against having the new organ fit in. And the more you do to force it in, the less of what you wanted to acquire in the first place remains. The vast majority of acquisitions fail for this reason.”

Fair warning, once you start the book, it will be hard to put down. And once you finish it, you’ll need some time to go away and think about it.


What Everyone Overlooked in Sheryl Sandberg’s “Lean In”

07/22/2013

200158983-001Amazingly, we still read whole books here at Staffing Advisors. Recently, we discussed Lean In, the bestseller from Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg, which is largely about how to improve women’s position in the modern workplace. The book got us thinking. The buzz and drama in the blogosphere is about her main point – that women, who are now 60% of college graduates, should be as ambitious as men and ultimately strive to make up a much larger proportion of the executive workforce than they currently hold. That’s important, but equally important (and we think overlooked) was her approach to leadership, and the role effective communication has played in her career.

Openness to new ideas seems to be a central tenet of Sandberg’s philosophy. It provides a constant stream of new ways to look at problems, and grants the ability to rapidly and nimbly adapt to a constantly shifting corporate landscape. The teachings of Fred Kofman, author of Conscious Business, “changed [her] career and [her] life.”  She focuses on the Kofman idea that “great leadership is ‘conscious’ leadership,” and that “effective communication starts with the understanding that there is my point of view (my truth) and someone else’s point of view (his truth). Rarely is there one absolute truth, so people who believe that they speak the truth are very silencing of others.”

Rather than being single-minded and focused on only her vision, Sandberg is humble and works hard to gather honest and open feedback from everyone around her, noting that “the ability to listen is as important as the ability to speak.”  Even if you’re the highest executive in the room, she aptly says it is nearly impossible to know what other people are thinking without asking. She recounts an experience where she was being interviewed by Tom Brokaw. She felt like she stumbled through some answers, so after the interview, she asked him for feedback, and he “seemed surprised by [her] question…so [she] asked again…He then told [her] that in his entire career, [she] was only the second person to ask him for feedback.”  To us, that seems like a risk few executives would take, which takes real humility, self-awareness, and emotional intelligence.

Sandberg’s message is not the standard “communication is good” so frequently advised. Her message is an example of how hard executives truly need to work in order to create an open and strong work environment – one that does not silence the vital voices needed for change and growth, so that you can grow a small start-up like Facebook into a profitable company.  If you’re seeking agility or innovation in your workplace, but the feedback you typically receive is just strangely wrapped in consequence-averse corporate speak, we would recommend that you promote a culture of openness (though not necessarily an open floor-plan office, they might not be the best idea).


“The Rare Find” is a Must Read for Hiring Managers

10/30/2011

If you want to lock in a long-term competitive advantage for your organization, be among the first to read and apply the lessons of George Anders new book “The Rare Find:  Spotting Exceptional Talent Before Everyone Else.”

Drawing on vivid examples from the U.S. Army Special Forces, Teach for America, Facebook, Hollywood, and professional sports, he shows how you can see what everyone else is missing in their hiring.

This is no vanity book. He’s not pitching his hiring system, or trying to sell you consulting services. Even better, he is not advocating that you “just do your hiring like we did at GE in the 1980′s.”

No, this book is the real deal.  Space does not permit me to cover all my favorite quotes, but here are a few:

“American social norms call for job candidates to tell a story of uninterrupted success. Previous experiences are burnished until they all sound like triumphs. Traditional resumes are set up so that resilience becomes invisible. That’s a horribly unfortunate distortion. At some point fate slams all of us to the ground. What happens next determines who we become. Some people are so bitter or dispirited they never fully recover. Others do whatever it takes to bounce back. The more you can learn about how people handle adversity, the more astutely you can judge them.”

or:

“…we’re in the midst of an enormous economic and technological upheaval that is redefining what it means to be enduringly successful. Long track records my be irrelevant or impossible to find in fields that are taking shape so fast the everyone is a newcomer. Competence is not enough anymore. The difference between growth and stagnation comes down to finding people with bold, fresh approaches, who can create opportunities that no one else saw before. That’s true not just in Silicon Valley, Hollywood or Wall Street; it’s the new norm in almost every field.”

From how to define what kind of person you are looking for, to how you should interview candidates, this book covers the landscape of talent spotting. I found no evidence of vague, sloppy platitudes or lazy thinking. For example:

“Take something as universal … as ‘work ethic.’ That’s a cherished value at almost any top tier organization (but) everyone’s definition of ‘work ethic’ calls for slightly different virtues. Some jobs call for people who can summon up extraordinary stamina and ingenuity in a crisis. Others require orderly souls who are totally comfortable with the tireless preparation for a challenge that may be months or years away. The work ethics of a great doctor and a great football player are not the same. Solving the talent puzzle means looking for exactly the right ethos that’s vital for a particular job–rather than trying to match candidates to a along list of universal virtues that might or might not be especially relevant.”


Worth Reading

10/06/2011

Long after he had email, my Dad would still clip relevant articles from the newspaper and mail them to me. I loved it. But I don’t get my news from a newspaper, so I’ve updated the process. I email my kids hyperlinks to relevant content instead. (I’m sure they would prefer that I text them, but tradition requires that your father be at least one generation behind on technology).

So here are a few articles I would have clipped from the newspaper for you. (They were actually sourced from Twitter and elsewhere):


The Five Essential Traits to Look for in an Interview

04/19/2011

Every Sunday, Adam Bryant of the New York Times talks with top executives about the challenges of leading and managing. In his new book, “The Corner Office” (Times Books), he analyzes the broader lessons that have emerged from his interviews.   He says that interviews he has conducted with more than 70 chief executives and other leaders  point to five essentials for success — qualities that most of those C.E.O.’s share and look for in people they hire.  This information comes from decades of collective experience of top executives who have learned first-hand what it takes to succeed.

Bryant lists the five qualities:

  1. Passionate curiosity.
  2. Battle-hardened confidence.
  3. Team smarts.
  4. A simple mind-set.
  5. Fearlessness.

“The good news,” says Bryant, is “these traits are not genetic. These qualities are developed through attitude, habit and discipline — factors that are within your control. They will make you stand out. They will make you a better employee, manager and leader.”

This is some of the best advice on hiring I’ve read in quite a while.  Do yourself a favor and read the full article.


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