Flush With Pride

When I was in the third grade, I entered the school science fair with a project entitled, “How Steam Engines Work.” I built a trifold display with found plywood and cabinet hinges, affixed several carefully drawn schematics to the display, and — my pièce de résistance — fashioned an aluminum foil turbine that sat atop a tea kettle and hot plate and turned when steam escaped from the kettle spout and pushed up on the crumpled aluminum.

It was a fantastic looking display that should’ve made any third-grader proud.

Except me. While my project looked great as a display, it couldn’t function because I’d neglected to bring an extension cord for the hot plate. It was a profound lesson in the importance of marshaling the right tools for a job.

I’m sure teachers said at least a few nice things about my project — “you should be proud!” — but I couldn’t hear any of it. All I heard was callous jeering from the all-too-far power outlet.

I kicked myself the entire way home, award-less and pride-less.

Sure, there is a dark kind of pride: the kind that has given rise to countless cautionary memes and aphorisms dating back to Aquinas. Destructive pride that crushes empires, strung-out celebrities, and botched criminal enterprises. The selfish pinky-ringed-Gordon-Gecko sort that hordes credit for outrageous accomplishments like the invention of oxygen.

But it needn’t always be so. As a parent, I beam with pride over the most quotidian accomplishments of my kids. In a professional context, I’ve enjoyed the proud camaraderie that forms over hard-fought victories. And, loathe as I am to admit, I myself have felt the seductive charm of pride over my own nominal accomplishments, especially when I remember to bring an extension cord.

Lately, I spend considerable time thinking about how to instill in my two sons a sense of pride and confidence without unleashing two more rapacious heathens into this world. And as it goes with most parenting insecurities, the problem starts with the parent’s own limitations: just as I never learned to throw a curveball, it’s tough for me to teach the skill.

For my part, I’ve always had an uncomfortable relationship with pride. Maybe it’s the catholic upbringing, or an undeveloped sense of gratitude, or the ossified chip on my shoulder — I feel wildly uncomfortable expressing pride in my work and accomplishments. Instead, I cringe over mistakes, missteps, and misunderstandings. I dismiss kudos as superficial politeness, even from my own family; you better believe I will not hesitate to call my own mom’s baby ugly.

To be clear, I’m not proud of my inability to express pride. I think there should be plenty of room for the healthy sort of pride before ever veering into the ecclesiastically sinister variety. And I think it’s especially important for women and people of color to feel and express pride over their own accomplishments so that we remind one another that it’s entirely possible to strive and succeed.

And it’s now important for me as a father to model an appropriate degree of confidence and pride in well-earned accomplishments. So I’ve made a pact to assess myself a little more honestly, both good and bad. After all, there’s still plenty I manage to screw up, and the universe has its own way of tempering one’s ego with hilariously new causes for humility.

I recently shared this post with my LinkedIn network because, yeah, I’m proud:

My wife showed our two boys while we drove to get dinner. The seven-year-old asked his typically rational questions: “what’s a board and what’s a director?” My wife made a valiant attempt to explain corporate governance to a first grader. “This is now one of the things papa will be doing for work cause he has some valuable experience to share.”

At which point the four year old contributed his own incisive observation.

“And papa can fix toilets…cause he has the right tools.”

I don’t know what made me prouder: that it’s finally true or that he noticed.

Dedication and Fallibility

I recently debated a policy issue with a longtime advocate who had spent their career researching and writing in support of a particular perspective. I, in turn, expressed a contrary viewpoint. My basic thesis was that certain policy prescriptions of the past had failed to yield the intended results, and that the underlying assumptions needed to be reviewed. This went over like a lead ballon. The advocate dug in and reminded me that they had spent 20+ years studying and supporting their particular perspective. The not-so-subtle implication seemed to be that I could not possibly be correct since I had not dedicated the same amount of time during the course of my own career.

I should acknowledge two things right upfront. The first is, while I haven’t logged as many miles as some folks, my experience is not negligible. I usually don’t wade into territory about which I know nothing about, and my views on this particular topic are not entirely uninformed.

Second, I should note that I generally like and admire the advocate with whom I disagreed. Maybe they don’t believe this and maybe it doesn’t matter to them. But it sure matters enough to me to acknowledge that, despite the political and social climate of the past few years, it is still possible to disagree respectfully and with admiration intact.

And this is precisely why I was so disheartened during this exchange. No, it’s not because I unsuccessfully swayed the advocate’s opinion. Rather, it was the categorical unwillingness to consider an alternative perspective because of what it might mean for the person’s 20+ years of advocacy. The fear, left unstated, seemed to be that if this person’s sincerely held belief turned out to be wrong or incomplete, then the person’s 20+ years of advocacy would have been all for naught. To my mind, this kind of thinking aptly illustrates the sunk-cost fallacy. And the problem with the sunk-cost fallacy is that it is, well, fallacious.

What I wish I could convey to this advocate is that their 20+ years of dedication is no less valuable or admirable by shifting one’s perspective. I wish I could convey that all of our perspectives are subject to change amidst a changing world with changing facts and circumstances. And that it is not at all a sign of weakness to show some degree of elasticity in one’s perspective but, rather, it is a sign of strength and courage. These are the things I wish I could have conveyed but for the advocate’s categorical refusal to be proven wrong by anybody.

Of course, I could be wrong. What the hell do I know?

Death to the Pre-Call

Conference calls, previously shunned by technologists and social-media acolytes, have reemerged with great vigor in our socially-distant work environment. More equitable and less invasive than a video conference, a conference call satisfies the need for real-time discussion. It allows cross-functional teams to check in on the status of things, and gives managers a sense of control.

Read on…

People Management and Team Leadership

Managers and “stupivisors” are generous founts of comedy and derision in our popular culture. Michael Scott. Mr. Burns. TPS Reports. Chances are pretty good that none of these names conjure up a particularly flattering view of management or leadership. And I think this is quite a shame considering how much of our professional lives we spend, or will spend, under the management of another.

To further complicate matters, the vast majority of managers find themselves managing in multiple directions: down to their direct reports; across to their cross-functional contemporaries; and up to their own boss(es). Given the multidimensional quality of people management, it’s no wonder we managers (yes, I’m one) manage to strike out as often as we do — we take a lot of at bats. So it is worth considering a common grammar and framework to improve our impact as managers.

Let’s start with managing down to a team of direct reports.

First thing’s first: management is not the same as leadership. To be clear, this is not an original idea of mine. And yet it is easy to trivialize. Management elicits compliance either through fear of some punishment or hope of some gain. Leadership, by contrast, means inspiring a voluntary choice to follow.

Here’s the difference.

One can lead through fear of deprivation. “Do this or else you won’t get a bonus.” “Complete this by Friday or else I’ll give the next assignment to someone else.” Or simply, “Do this because your job is on the line.” To be sure, these are hard nosed tactics and may not always fly in certain settings where policy or decorum dictates otherwise. But I’d venture to guess that this is the framework — the proverbial stick — most people have in mind when they think of “management.”

Of course, one may also manage through reward and incentive. This is also a form of manipulation, albeit more benign. What does this look like? This is the proverbial carrot: “Accomplish this and you’ll get a bonus.”

Now, candidly, either approach can work a short while because we’re all somewhat conditioned to respond to them. And, honestly, should be part of a leader’s arsenal. But the mistake many people manager’s make is that they fail to diversify their leadership toolkit.

In an ideal world, people would follow you, not because they fear recrimination, and not because they’re compelled by personal financial gain. But because your vision of a path and destination a naturally aligns with where they want to go as part of their own personal or professional development.

How do you do this?

First, start by making your path and destination explicitly known. Your team cannot willingly follow you if they don’t first know where you plan to go: Want to build lean team of legal generalists? Say so. Or do you want to build a bench of seasoned subject-matter experts? Tell them so they’re not surprised. Do you envision building a vertically integrated legal team or more of a matrix style? Whatever the course, tell your team, first and foremost.

Next, expressly invite your team for the ride and make clear that the ride is optional. We all know from experience that employees do not always buy into the strategic vision or direction of a company, yet they suppress voicing opposition for fear of recrimination. This is a destructive paradigm, in my view. It is also completely fine to acknowledge differences of opinion.

Finally, and critically, ask your team to hold you — the leader — accountable to the direction you have set. Give them a mechanism to provide feedback like a regularly scheduled check-in or survey. Now, this is hard to do because feedback always invites criticism. But, as a leader, you need the wherewithal to consider feedback of all sort, and to turn it into action for the benefit of your team.

Personal Lessons About Team-Building

Over four years ago, I was tasked with the enviable project of building from ground zero an in-house legal and compliance team at Affirm. Given my dearth of prior experience, I had no business managing such a project, and each hiring decision was fraught with self-doubt: could I successfully harness this person’s talents and experience without outing myself as a fraud?

Four years and dozens hires later, I’ve grown more confident in my team-building role though I find it no less challenging — and certainly no less critical — today than it was on day one. With typical year-end reflection, I thought now would be good time to reflect on and share three lessons learned.

Get over yourself: Your new team members in many ways will, and should, be more talented and forward-thinking than you. After all, this is precisely why you’re hiring them. One person alone cannot possibly have perfect knowledge and judgment, and it is unreasonable (and potentially stupid) to think oneself master arbiter of all questions. Healthy dialogue with a talented team will always yield better results.

Share information early and often: Think about the onboarding process and how you might best set up your new teammates for success. Transfer your knowledge about the business to each new hire in digestible, actionable bites. Who will be their primary points-of-contact for the lines of business they’ll support? What are those personalities like? What are the organization’s communication channels? The more efficient this knowledge transference, the better your new teammates will be able to bring their unique expertise to bear.

Think ahead 2-3 years: When we started building the legal and compliance team, it was very tempting to hire for more immediate and discrete needs. Luckily, several friends and colleagues advised against this temptation and urged me to think about higher potential candidates that could grow a job function instead of just “keep up” with a job function. This is admittedly challenging particularly when staring at a mountain of immediate work. Still, it is well worth taking the step back and thinking about what the needs might look like 2-3 years out.

Accept change: The team you build today will not be the team you keep. I’ve been struggling with this a lot lately because of some recent “regrettable attrition.” Change is a fact of life, and it can be quite healthy by forcing a hiring manager to constantly consider retention. But even when your team inevitably loses a high performer, it could be because of the opportunity you, the hiring manager, afforded them. That has to be worth something. Besides, people can always decide to return.

Building the legan and compliance team at Affirm remains the most rewarding and challenging experience of my career, and I am thankful for the opportunity to have “learned on the job.” In sum, I suppose the biggest lesson I’ve learned is that it’s okay to not have all the answers. But it is important to ask the right questions even at the risk of revealing ignorance. After all, teamwork makes the dream work.