Monthly Archives: March 2015

On The Importance of the Competent Jerk

Years ago I remember sitting in an all IS meeting (we’re talking upwards of a couple hundred folks) where we had a presentation on the four quadrants making up Likeability and Competence. I recently looked up and found the pertinent article from Casciaro & Lobo (HBR, June 2005)

I was in the back of the room with the cools kids (my team) and my team lead and I were standing propped back against the wall, noses in our phones.  Our CIO was at the front of the room and I’m sure shaking his heads in exasperation had he noticed us.

Until this presentation started. And we were ALL ears.

Ted and I had been friends and co-workers for almost a couple of decades. I dragged him around and he fought me every step like the drogue chute equivalent of a conquering Roman general’s memento mori during the vir triumphalis. Thankfully he’s the patient sort. We did have a long running joke however about how his gravestone would read “Here lies Ted, Dead Craving Competence.”  What can I say, we have exceedingly high expectations of our species.

The crowd was sedate as per usual. And by sedate I mean non-participatory. So of course when the time came and the presenter asked if the room knew any competent jerks, Ted and my hand’s shot up instantaneously. The presenter pointed at us and said:

“Great! Point them out to us, don’t be shy, this is part of the learning experience.” Our CIO, Larry, was already starting to shake his head, but smiling.

Ted and I looked at each other and pointed at each other simultaneously. Nervous laughter in the room, except for my team which guffawed quite heartily. Our CIO was definitely shaking his head, but he was still smiling.

We had a lively debate for a few minutes about how Competent Jerks were necessary and in fact should not be reformed into

Steve Martin - The Jerk (Movie)

Steve Martin – The Jerk (Movie)

Lovable Stars as they likelihood, based on our personal experience, was that they would likely fall into the Lovable Fool category (read the article if you haven’t already). We posited that the best performing teams consisted of Competent Jerks lead by a Competent Jerk who was adaptable enough to be a Lovable Fool or Loveable Star. In fact, that adaptability we felt was necessary for delivery.  Our CIO closed off our conversations thus:

“You two jerks can finish this conversation in my office after the  meeting, I’ll have HR there.” He said, with a grin, of course, to wider laughter. And we did have a lively debate in his office later that week. He was the approachable sort, always open to having this thinking challenged.

But the point is this – and one I still maintain. Likeability is desired but not necessary as it creates the potential to completely disregard Competence. While I don’t seek out Competent Jerks, I don’t go out of my way to avoid them. I’m happy to take them on the team and management as long as they display an exemplary level of competence. The rest I can lead or manage.

What’s your competent jerk story?

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On Being the Team Dad

During one of my last dot com forays (prior to the bomb era), I remember one of our business associates pulling me aside after a particularly grueling day at work. We had been in some of the same business planning and technology requirements meeting. I was the CTO and he was playing a dual role as a domain expert and business manager for our growing equities research arm. Like most professional traders I’ve come to know he was as brash and arrogant as he was exceedingly competent at his job – something I welcome and can deal with (we’ll cover that on a later post). He and I had built a rapport mostly revolving around his keen insights and my sarcasm rooted in self deprecation. I’ve fixed the latter. Mostly.

But on to the story.

He laughing pulled me into his office as I walked by and closed the door. Inviting me to sit with one of his infuriating knowing smiles. Did I mention it had been an exceedingly long day? As he beckoned me to sit, he opened up with one of his signature lines

“You know, you’re like the team’s dad.”

I was a little dumbfounded. Things started to click into place. He took my silence as an indication he could go on.

“That’s what this team needs, a dad. Not a touchy, feely mom, but a Dad. The team knows you love them and go to bat for them, but they also know there’ll be hell to pay if they fuck up. And you’ll be the one to make sure they pay.” (I did mention he was a professional trader.

“I see.” Was the best I could rally with

“No, I’m being serious. They know they can joke around and horse around with you, but they also know when it’s time to put down the nerf guns and crank out the sweat equity. And they know when you walk in there with a belt and they hop to it. I’ve seen it.”

“So …?” Yes, a man of few but mighty words.

“So I wanted to tell you you’re doing a great job something Mark (our CEO and my report-to) doesn’t tell you often enough. He’s hard on everyone and you’re hard on yourself. Cut yourself some slack, you’re doing great, the team loves and respects you. Don’t doubt yourself.”

“Gee, Shane, uh, thanks.”

“Ok, great, now get the fuck outta my office and back to work, or do you want a sandwich with that side of ass-kissing.”

Haha. Much laughter and back slapping and off to work we went.

What Shane said stuck with me. It has defined my management style and almost all of my managers have always noted something similar, regardless of what level I’ve managed at. It does fit me and I’ve been blessed to have strong teams who’ve always delivered results and taken ownership of their messes, gladly burning the midnight oil to meet commitments and deadlines, knowing I never abuse that drive.  It’s a cross between herding cats, fishing and breaking horses. Somewhere in that nexus is what it takes to be a leader of engineers. It’s where I’ve lived for over fifteen years and I look forward to getting back to that nexus.

Hello, my name is Sam Adams and I’m the team dad. What’s your style?

Dilbert - Managing the Impossible

Dilbert – Managing the Impossible

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INTERMEZZO: A Big Week to Start a New Tradition

I’ve decided to make this something of a big week. It’s pretty significant for me, but I wanted to do something different this year.  I’m going to take some time off and reconnect – with people I haven’t seen in a while. Visit graves of friends and family who loomed large in my life. I think on them often, but a graveside visit has been absent for too long. I’ll be on the road on-again, off-again, bouncing around and randomly dropping in and, hopefully, surprising folks, with a number of side trips to parks and beaches to just – unstick – from the world. I’m going to miss some folks, but I’ll actually plan for this to be a new tradition the third week of March moving forward. It’s my way of giving back of myself, something I should do more often.

I’m placing personal relationships at a higher priority than they have been. Somewhere along the assembly line that life became, friendships fell to second place. Sure, professional relationships remain well maintained. But it’s not enough for me. It’s the personal contacts, the touch points, the one hundred little conversations that hold more meaning than any hundred big work conversations. I miss my friends and I’m to blame.

It’s a balance I’ve missed. It energizes and invigorates and is a necessary part of a healthier, happier life.


The Grind: I Got Nothing …

I just sat staring at the screen for the better part of a half hour .. I got nothing, I tell ya, nothing.

Creative and Academic writers block sucks…

On the Importance of (Realistically) Knowing Your Own Worth

At what point did humility become not knowing your own worth?

This goes beyond not being able to take a compliment. Self-deprecation is all fun and well – I’m particulary good at it according to my friends. But there’s always a hint of challenge bordering on sarcasm that makes it work, I think. I’m not talking about humility either – a fair dose of humility is always a good idea. There’s always someone right around the corner waiting to kick your kettle up over your teapot, cupcake. I keep that firmly in mind.

What I am talking about is that you know you are worthwhile as a person just the way you are. No one ever has the right to judge you, even if they have walked a mile in your shoe, or been there done that, or any of the other countless silly amorphisms that exist to justify negative people criticizing you. No, you haven’t. Everyone lives a unique life. Sure, there are patterns to the weave, but no one sees it all. It’s not only impossible but the height of arrogant pride to think that someone can judge who you are.

Look, we’re not talking about courts and the law. You kill someone, you’re going to jail yeah. Don’t kill anyone. What we are talking about is the cess of negativity that some of us live with and keep around. Similar to my prior post on People who are Anchors, don’t stand for judgement when it does happen. Set limits. Enforce them. You deserve and are worth better.

Mr Rogers

Mr Rogers

In no way do I suggest not seeking out advice or council. Reach out to your friends, a therapist – ask for help by all means. But realize that help means a patient ear, hearing some uncomfortable truths and a heaping helpful hand extended in love, not a finger pointing in judgement. Never stand for that.

And don’t judge – you’ve never and will never earn that right.

If that’s not the truest definition of love, I don’t know what is.


On the Importance of Indirect Management

One of the muscles I’ve had to build recently is that of indirect management. Let me explain.

After over fifteen years as manager of managers and manager of people, I welcomed a respite in a return to an individual contributor role. My current role puts me very much in a team of one – as most everyone in the same role is. It’s a nature of the job requirements, even though the intent might be different. I depend heavily on specialists who cover more customers than I do and none of them report to me. In fact, they report up through a completely different tree, with the first common ground 3 levels above me. This calls for a different management muscle. I welcomed this challenge as it wasn’t a muscle I had to use very much over the last two decades of my professional career.

Indirect Management

Indirect Management

So how does this work? With a lot of effort and constant deposits in the First Mutual Bank of Credibility.

I have to know what scorecard metrics are important to those folks. In some cases they’ll map to mine, in other cases they won’t – and that’s ok as well. If I’m the one creating opportunities for them that meet their measure – credibility! I have to look for opportunities they can scale up and out with partners or with our services arm.  Instead of asking for product road map sessions for a customer, I’ll combine geographically close customers. For remote customers, we can broadcast to them. Have a remote datacenter in Denver? No problem, we can stream the session to them.  In one fell swoop I’ve boosted their scorecard.

This calls for consistency – which isn’t always possible unfortunately. But as long as it is the exception and not the rule, I stand a good chance of being in good stead with the folks I rely on the most to be successful at my job. Understandably, this is how most organizations function at the senior and executive levels. My current professional experience is helping lay the foundation and build the muscles I’ll need when I return to being a manager.

It’s the best idea I’ve come up with until I find the One Ring …


On the Importance of Failure

As one of my mentors is fond of reminding me – failure is the best teacher.  As he also reminds me, fail twice at the same task and you’ve got big problems starting with an erosion credibility. Credibility is the single most expensive asset you will ever own, it never appreciates unless you actively grow it and it is exceedingly easy to erode. Look up pride.

But here’s my twist on this (and I can just see you rolling your eyes at this Mr S.) Failure is GOOD for the soul. Sure, not repeated failure, but bear with me for a moment. I’ve had two instances in my professional life where I’ve run what were essentially technology R&D shops. The ‘D’ in my book as always stood for Delivery.  The ‘R’ is where the fun starts, but not everyone can be researching. I’ve always made sure to have at least one person in the research role who consistently fails. It requires vigorous interviewing to find, identify and surface that personality type, especially in technologist types, then mentor, manage and insulate them so they do their best work. I won’t give away any further specifics on how to identify them – but I’ll be happy to consult with you for a fee 🙂

These individuals will fail at the tasks you give them over and over. The tasks are not the routine or mundane ones. They’re the really strange, esoteric complete WTF concepts that no respecting researcher or developer would touch.  They’re the ones that will make this person cringe at the thought and bemoan their fate.  But you’ll feel that secret glee they have and – this is important – set them loose. They have to attack the problem their way. Keep a close eye on them, help them avoid ratholes and painted corners. That’s your job. Their job is to fail.

And learn.

When they fail, the critical important part is to focus on what they learned. And they’ll have to share this with the wider team.  While everyone is talking up accomplishments, this persons accomplishment is what they learned while failing. Without fail their insight has lent itself to the wider team. Sometimes it’s a small value add, sometimes it’s just the insight that was needed for resolving a major barrier.  This is where the patterns of problems and solutions comes into play – something much studied and widely accepted in software development.

Small cost, consistent measurable benefit.

Admittedly it is a risky proposition and it does require greater management investment and commitment.

But hey, you’re still going to learn if you fail at it.

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On the Importance of Cutting Away Anchors

Anchor on Shore

Anchor on Shore

Do you swim with an anchor tied around you? Snorkel? Scuba? Ok, how about running? We’ll settle on walking.

Why in heaven would you ever do any of those with an anchor dragging you down or weighing on you, always holding you back.

There are people in life who will compliment you, encourage you on and hold you accountable. They’ll hold you back when you’re about to make a rash decision, hold you close when you just need to wail a little and propel you from your shoulders when you’re trying to reach the next step. You’ll find them in all walks of life, at the oddest of times, don’t close yourself to the potential they bring.

But there are people we keep around like dusty tchotchke’s on the shelf of our life. We think them baubles not recognizing that they’re actually anchors. We all have those people – of mean minds and fickle jealousies. They are inconsistent at best yet we keep them around. I’ve heard of a gamut of reasons as to why we keep these people in our lives – I’ve as yet to hear a good reason.

There’s a variety of books on the topic, from those about safe people to watching out for red flags. While I encourage you to read them, this post is about encouraging you to face the pain of cutting those people out of your life. Yes, pain. It will be a painful, tough choice to make, I won’t mince words. You’ll get through it, you’ll feel the better for it once done. Lean on those consistent people in your life, they’ll recognize your effort and support you for it.

Cut those anchors loose.

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On the Importance of Not Thinking

I’m sure there’s a number of academic texts, TED talks and management or innovation books about the importance of NOT thinking to creativity and innovation.

I haven’t seen any of them.

I’ve always had a love-hate relationship with problem solving. I love solving them. My managers hate HOW I solve them.  When I hit a thorny knot, I bypass it. When I’m stuck, I just stop thinking about the problem, put it down and work on something else.  Whether it’s a creative or technical task, I’ve always found that if a key insight doesn’t come right away, I have to stop and just let me head take it over, while I focus on something else. I’ve as yet to be let down.

High Speed

High Speed

Sometimes what pops back is the entirety of the answer. Sometimes it’s a window into it. Rarely, it’s nothing, which – after 2-3 days, indicates I need more data to crunch the problem. Or the problem is ill-defined. I’ve learned that rarely is the answer “it can’t be done.”  The answer is always yes. The solution comes down to time and money.

I have NO insight into what’s going on, but I can say it’s not a black box. It’s more of a gray box where I look into from time to time as the problem is crunched away. While it’s a bit of a mystery, I’ve just chalked it up to how my head works through knots.  While I do recognize that there’s a pell-mell push in today’s world where everything is mach schnell, I draw comfort – and inspiration – from speakers that have recognized – we have to slow down.

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