Robert Whiting In search of awesome

On taking and giving advantage


These cycles gain momentum like freight trains over time, and eventually they seem unstoppable. But things were good once before they went bad. And many thing which were once bad are now good. From the leadership side; what advice would you give for turning a vicious cycle virtuous, and for preventing a good thing from turning bad?

A Serious Dan

Brother, to be honest, I didn’t expect you to follow through and write me a public letter to discuss leadership principles across bartending and software. But I’m glad you did.

One of the best lessons I’ve learned in software that’s kept me from becoming Doormat of the Year while still pleasing bosses and getting stuff done well is setting firm boundaries. Early on, I set the precident that I would only work 45 hours a week in my software job, and I’d prefer to average 40-42 hours a week.

My peers worked 50-70 hours a week to keep up with demand, and I didn’t like what I saw in them. I saw frantic, stretched thin individuals getting work done that wasn’t important. Instead of working on 20 unimportant things and failing to deliver, I focused on one or two things and got them done well. Oddly enough, the self imposed time limit helped me deliver higher quality work faster than my peers because I was focused–I didn’t have time to do the extra projects.

I did have the distinct advantage of starting that way. Moving into that model is really difficult once a bad precedent is set, but I think it’s worth a few difficult conversations with management to break and reset the bone to make work a more focused and challenge oriented rather than a scramble to move the world.

All of that was an asside on the Doormat of the Year, sorry. Now on to taking advantage and the selfish struggle for power.

If I’m perfectly honest, I’m most often looking out for myself. Fortunately, I’ve had some great leaders help me redirect my understanding of success. If my team succeeds so do I.

One commonality between bartending and software, is that people don’t stay in the same place for more than a few years. In software, people move on to bigger better companies to continue their stream of learning and income leaps. In bartending (I assume based on what you’ve told me) people move through positions up through various responsibilities until they can jump to a more prestigeous job at the bottom again.

The hard thing about a constantly shifting team is that the team culture can change suddenly when a bad influence comes into the team. The only way to stop that bad influence is to build a solid team culture ahead of time and avoid hiring bad influencers.

In many of the companies I’ve worked at, management is afraid to give additional freedom because they’re afraid that someone will abuse the privilage and ruin it for everyone. I think that’s a little short sighted. It’s easy to see when someone is taking advantage of the system, and it’s easy to sit down and give that person a warning. But it requires an open and functioning line of communication between management and employees, and most humans fear conflict of any kind, even if it’s killing the culture and the company.

Wow, this is rambly. I guess this is what you get for asking an open question without making it a polished presentation. But this is the real stuff.

Managers are looking out for themselves too. They suffer the same blindness that the employees have to the whole team success thing. If the whole team succeeds then the manager suceeds, but instead of spending the time to build those relationships and work together to solve problems, they try to mandate fixes and work on a process rather than the people. People are messy and confusing, and they have to be treated differently (yes, you heard me right, humans are not machines or identical and require different communication strategies and motivations).

So how do you make a team work together instead of stabbing eachother in the back?

It’s an uphill battle, and it’s messy, and not everyone wants to play. Build the personal relationships so that each person on the team knows that you are looking out for their best interest and the best interest of the team. Even if that means helping them find a place or role that fits them better.

Titles aside, the real managers and leaders are the people who have an ownership attitude and a deep caring for their people and company. I’m not a directory or manager in title, but I pour my heart into my team. I remove problems from their path and stand by them when they need help from management. I was hard to let go of my personal performance metrics and let the success of the whole team be my metric of success, but the whole team is more powerful as a result.

And management knows it. I might not code as much as the next guy, but my team and other teams are more effective because of the things I’m doing instead. Orders of magnitude more effective than if I were just keeping my head down and coding in my cube.