FOLLOW THE LEADER…
In the last chapter, I provided some context on the early years at Match. I explained some of my views on developing team chemistry and what I learned from those early days. Since then, I’ve worked with many more people and I’ve learned a great deal more. This has only furthered my belief that establishing a great culture and building team chemistry is essential to success. As part of this, good leadership plays a critical role. So, this chapter will expand on my views on good leadership in this context.
Whether you are officially in a leadership role or not, your words and actions influence others. Therefore, in some way, I consider every role a leadership role. People may follow you, for good or for bad, based on the examples that you set. Please remember this. For those in “official” leadership roles, typically the influence is broader but this isn’t always the case. “Official role” doesn’t necessarily define whether your impact is greater or more important to others. I’ve had many individual contributors that I consider great leaders because they had significant, positive impacts on other team members, the company and the business. It’s what you say and what you do that makes the impact, not your role. Leaders don’t really “try” to lead. They don’t explain how they are leading. They don’t look for followers. They act. Through these actions they bring out the best in everyone, including themselves, for the good of the team. Like many things, you can’t fake leadership. So, I’m not going to tell you how to be a leader. I’m going to explain actions that good leaders take and principles that good leaders understand. You may adapt them to your own style and beliefs because it’s how you see it. You may disregard some of them because they aren’t you. That’s fine. In many ways, it’s better. No-one can or should be who they are not. You must be genuine to be an effective leader.
You can also learn from others that you follow because they inspire you to become better. Take the initiative and time to learn from them. Seek their input. Armed with this learning, hopefully, you’ll inspire others and this will help them become better as well. What I’m suggesting is not that easy. It’s usually hard and time consuming. It’s wrought with the possible risk of alienating friends, teammates and/or simply being avoided. Maybe you’ll be labelled a “brown nose” or “boss’s pet” in the gossip circles. Don’t fall prey to this worry. Use what you’ve learned to help others. Continue to act the right way. Be committed. Over time, how you are viewed will align with your actions. Some would say people are born to be leaders. I don’t believe that, certainly not the way I’ve defined leadership. It can be learned and leadership skills developed. With that said, someone can’t change their personality without it being obvious or coming across as fake or phony. Still, within their own unique style, anyone can influence others and make a significant positive impact on their teammates and their company. Anyone can also learn and improve on their own leadership style using proven techniques within the context of who they are.
So, I’d like to challenge you to think about your own leadership style and qualities. I want you to look inward and analyze your own actions. Think about them in this context. Try to be as objective as possible when doing so, even critical. Are you having a positive or negative impact on those around you? Are you even aware of your impact? How much effort are you making to have a positive impact? Do you even care? I hope so. Not thinking about these things is not an acceptable action for a leader. Brushing it off as if it doesn’t matter isn’t acceptable either. It does matter. You have the power to make it matter. You can make a positive difference in those around you. In business. In your personal life. In your family. Every word or action can be the difference between inspiration or discouragement. So, I hope to inspire you to learn more in this area and to make it your mission to make it matter. I want you to look for leaders that inspire you and follow them. And, I hope that you’ll put in the time to inspire others. If you do, you won’t regret it. Hopefully, the rest of this chapter will help you in this mission.
Nobody Can Win Alone
The first thing that you must realize is that you can’t be successful by yourself. A baseball pitcher on the mound with no team behind him won’t win. A quarterback without surrounding team players is useless. Even in individual sports, these players have teachers, mentors, agents, family and a whole host of support behind them. Business is a team sport. If you can’t work within a team, or better, inspire them, you’re never going achieve what you are capable of. And, it’s much more than just working within the team. You can’t just “use the team” to achieve what you want. It’s the team goals that matter most. You have to make the team capable of everything they can be. Why? Because that makes the team better. It makes the company better. It makes you better. And, it means that you are supporting the team and they will most likely support you. So, to that end, you need people that will challenge you. And, you need to challenge them in a constructive, collective way. The more everyone is supported, the more they will work together, and the better everyone will become. If the opposite is true, if it’s obvious that you are in it for yourself, you won’t get support, you will be alone and nobody can win alone.
Don’t Look Away
When you see things that are not right, you can’t ignore them, whatever they are and whoever is involved. You can’t pretend that you didn’t see what is happening. People will either think that you saw it and did nothing or that you didn’t see it and should have. If you see something but give special treatment because a star is involved, this isn’t good either. You can’t support behavior differently for people due to skill-set, relationship or organizational structure. Sure, little differences are fine. And, of course, differences in salaries, bonuses, etc., are normal. These are role-based differences not personal differences. However, different treatment with respect to company rules, beliefs and/or integrity is something completely different. If you treat people differently here, you implicitly support the behavior and/or support different standards. This causes problems and these problems won’t go away. They will fester. They will erode confidence in your leadership. They will weaken your culture. You must take a stand. You must say something. It doesn’t need to be dramatic or over the top. There doesn’t have to be harsh punishment involved. It could be a subtle comment reinforcing values or a reminder of the improper actions/words including a better option going forward. One of my favorite movies is King Arthur, Legend of the Sword. There is a scene that hits home with my experiences. The sage is talking to Arthur and says the following:
Arthur, did you see what you needed to? Did you look away? Don’t get me wrong, I look away. We all look away. But that is the difference between a man and a king. You will face it when it’s worth it to you.
You can’t take the easy way out and do nothing because you think it’s not worth doing or saying anything. Don’t look away because it’s a star employee. In these situations, maybe you’re worried about alienating team members, losing friendships, getting fired, or a host of other valid concerns. You’ll need to decide how to weigh in but you need to weigh in. Ultimately, it’s worth it, whether it seems that way in the moment or not. Doing the right thing is always worth it in the long run. Sure, sometimes people may not listen. Sometimes, you may upset colleagues and you may take heat. Other times, maybe the behavior won’t change. You’ll have to deal with these things separately. But, remember, your team is watching and likely waiting for you to do something when things happen.
I’m going to tell a story that has nothing to do with an actual business situation. It happened with me at Match. It’s a story about a birthday cake. It was in June of 2009 and Greg Blatt was our new CEO since the start of that year. I was running the international business and we were in the middle of exchanging our European business with Meetic for ownership in the French company. Needless to say, a lot was going on for me at the time. On June 2nd, a company-wide email hit my inbox. It was from our facilities manager:
From: Jim H
Sent: Tuesday, June 02, 2009 6:03 PM
To: ALL Match – Home Office
Subject: Reward – $50
Today was an employees birthday and their co-workers spent their personal money to purchase 2 large Tiramisu cakes. They placed them in the GL refrigerator at 1pm. At 145 they had been stolen by someone. If anyone can provide me with details on who took the cakes a $50 reward will be paid. If you took the cake and would like to reimburse your co-workers I will keep your identity anonymous.
Global Real Estate and Corporate Services
I was in my office that night, like most nights. To this day, I clearly remember receiving this email. I remember how upset I was. I couldn’t or wouldn’t believe that people in our organization would do such a thing, i.e. steal a cake, deliberately. Who would go to our common area refrigerator, open it up, see cakes that were not theirs and just take them? I stewed for a while after receiving the email. And, I waited. Should I respond? How would I respond? What will my new boss think about placing so much focus on cakes? Why did Jim use the word “stolen” in his email? He may be right but we don’t have all the facts and I really hope and believe that this is wrong. What kind of message is this sending to our employees – that we so easily believe that there is a thief among us? What if this is all a misunderstanding? Will anyone else respond? Finally, I had it. It seemed like I waited forever to respond but 50 minutes later, I sent the following email to everyone:
From: Mike Presz
To: Jim H; ALL Match – Home Office
Subject: Re: Reward – $50
Date: Tuesday, June 2, 2009 6:52:49 PM
I’m going to assume that there was some misunderstanding, confusion or some other understandable reason for the “disappearance” of these cakes. Hopefully, they will be returned or the confusion resolved by the end of day tomorrow. However, if it is not, I will personally buy the 2 large replacement Tiramisu cakes. And, in either scenario (cakes returned or not), I will also offer my attendance to a new birthday celebration for the employee and for those who planned the event. I sincerely hope that the confusion will be resolved tomorrow.
Jim – please contact me after tomorrow and we’ll arrange for the person to get a proper birthday celebration.
And, the story does not end there. The next day, I received an email that the cakes were replaced with one piece missing. The involved employees wanted to use the returned cakes.
—– Original Message —–
From: Chris H
To: Jim H
Sent: Wed Jun 03 11:54:43 2009
Subject: RE: Reward – $50 (and now the tiramisu has reappeared)
About an hour ago, I went to the GL to get some fruit and decided to check the refrigerator. The missing tiramisu, less a corner piece, was in the freezer section. We have it upstairs in the CSI area in case you want to dust it for prints (just kidding?).
We never expected this to be a big deal and certainly were not expecting the company to compensate for the loss. I understand the frustration things like this can cause and I do appreciate your efforts–I think your email played a factor in the cake’s return.
From: Mike Presz
To: Jim H; Stuart H
Sent: Wed Jun 03 12:38:35 2009
Subject: Re: Reward – $50 (and now the tiramisu has reappeared)
I met with the involved parties. I’ve reimbursed the $50 for the old cake and also will buy a new cake “on Match” – we will not be eating a tainted cake.
I attended the birthday celebration for the employees involved. They were unbelievably appreciative although I’m not sure how comfortable they were with me being there – I didn’t stay long so they could have the rest of the time as they originally planned.
I will tell you that of all the emails that I’ve ever sent at Match, of all the things that I’ve ever done, I’ve received as much positive employee feedback (at all levels) on my cake email as any other. I’d be walking the halls and someone would randomly say “great email, Mike, thank you for responding” or “so glad you took care of the cake” or “can you believe what happened?”. The story of the cake spread like wild fire internationally. The details that a cake was returned with a piece missing spread too. That the company paid for a new cake and that I attended the birthday party myself wasn’t lost either. Only the original email and my response went to everyone (and only in the main office). Yet, within days, it seemed that everyone knew everything. The message is twofold:
- We won’t tolerate things that don’t represent the values of our company no matter how small they may seem. It’s not just about business. It’s about our values.
- We value you as an employee. We know you work hard here and that you care. We care too. We have your back when you need us.
Of course, I didn’t send the emails and do what I did to get this reaction. I sent the emails because I was upset and that I didn’t think or want this situation to represent our company or our employees. More importantly, I passionately believed that it didn’t. Finally, I wanted to right any wrong that the affected employees experienced. I wanted them to have a great birthday and certainly did not want them to lose money because someone took their cake, regardless if it was by mistake. This wasn’t about business. It was about principles. It was about not looking away. Yet, after receiving the initial email, I hesitated. I waited. Sure, that’s fine to avoid knee-jerk emotional responses. But, in reality, some of my hesitation was about how I’d be judged for responding since my initial response was widely broadcast.
Whether the cake was taken intentionally or not, I never knew. It could have been a mistake and I continue to believe that it was. I know the people that worked at Match. Nobody stole that cake as a malicious and intentional act. Careless, maybe. Misunderstanding, likely. Regardless, situations like this present opportunities. Opportunities for people to step up and do the right thing. None of this was on my mind at the time. Reflecting back, though, I’ve learned what a difference it makes. I’m not writing this section to tell you to look for these opportunities and then exploit them. I just want you to remember that when you find yourself in these types of situations (and you will) and some concern may cause you to hesitate like I did, instead, do what you believe is right and appropriate. Take respectful action. Everyone may be watching. You will be judged. It will take guts. It will be hard to make that choice. Still, don’t look away.
Intent And Delivery Are Everything
When delivering a message, there are a couple of important things that influence your message beyond the content of the message itself:
- The reason for why you are delivering the message. I call this the intent.
- The delivery mechanism of the message.
The intent, whether actual or perceived, is a key factor in whether the content of the message will be accepted or rejected. So, beyond the soundness of your actual intent, you must ensure that the perceived intent is actually your real intent. One way to achieve this is to act with conviction and passion. When someone believes strongly in something, people can usually tell. The intent comes across clearly in the words and/or actions. Take the cake story. If I was really doing it to “show everyone” that I cared or that I was somehow trying to take advantage of the opportunity, well, that would have been obvious. If people believed that I was only doing it to look good for my boss or for some other “self-gain”, it would have turned people off. Of course, I wasn’t doing it for any of these reasons. Still, I was worried about responding. A key here is to be genuine. You can’t be fake. So, I tried to be consistent with my other words and actions prior. And, it wasn’t like everyone else was jumping in with responses. When faced with these types of situations, do what’s in your heart. Be genuine. Be transparent. If appropriate, ensure that your intent is known up front.
I’ll give you another example. I’m a guy that loves to get in the weeds. I’m not a “hands-off” manager. In fact, many would say that I micro-manage, in a negative sense. I get this “input” a lot, regarding my style. People think it’s because I don’t trust them. Or, because I think that I know more than them. Or, sometimes, for other reasons. Here is what I tell them:
- There are many reasons why I get involved. I love to learn. I want to be part of the action. I want to understand. I want us to make the right decisions.
- If I come and engage with you, do not worry. It’s because I believe that the discussion is worth my time. I believe that I can learn something. I value your input and skills. I believe that the interaction will help me understand better. I believe that it will help us make the right decisions. I believe that it will help us be successful. The time to worry is if I don’t engage with you. It means that I don’t feel there is anything that I can learn or get value for the business by the discussion.
- If I challenge you, please understand it’s not being critical for the sake of it. My top priority is to make us successful. I want us to do the right things for the business. I want to make the company better, everyone better, including myself. You should feel the same about challenging me.
Beyond your actual intent, the delivery mechanism that you choose will impact how the content of your message is received. It can also impact the perceived intent. As you can see from the cake emails, I didn’t originate the company wide blast. I wasn’t “broadcasting” anything to show anyone anything. I was responding to the initial one that informed everyone that cakes went missing. And, after the original response, I didn’t keep blasting everyone to keep showing updates. It wasn’t about letting everyone know. My initial “broadcast” email was about not letting the “theft” accusation sit without clarification. And, I didn’t want an office birthday celebration ruined for my employees. I spent a lot of time crafting my initial response with careful consideration of the following:
- I wanted to dispel the “theft” accusation (i.e. that the cakes had been stolen by someone and that was indeed their intent). We had no facts that this was theft. Yes, cakes were missing. However, I didn’t believe any Match employees were thieves nor should we imply that we thought this. Certainly not without facts. So, I made it clear that I assumed this was a mistake not an intentional act of theft.
- That I was disappointed in the situation and hoped that it was indeed a mistake.
- That the company would resolve this quickly and make sure we took care of any lost money for the cakes.
- We cared about the employee having a good birthday celebration. I did not want “stolen cakes” to be what they remembered or, worse, to also cancel the party.
Over the years, I find myself spending more and more time ensuring that I choose the right delivery mechanism. The intent part is easier. I do what I believe is right and I communicate my intent up front if I’m concerned there could be any misinterpretation. It doesn’t mean that I always get this right or communicate it effectively but I do try. I say it’s easier because I know my own intent. However, delivery is different. It can make the perceived intent different than my real intent. The delivery can be influenced by emotion, by valid differences in situations/beliefs and by a bunch of other differences between you and the target of the message (where many times it’s a variable combination of many different people). So, take some time before delivering important messages. Try to avoid knee-jerk reaction and jumping to conclusions without time/facts (this is hard for me because it’s not really my nature). I’ve developed some of my own techniques that help me in this area. For example, I try to view the situation as if it were me receiving the message. It causes me to slow down. How would I feel? What would I think? Then, I think about how I could address these concerns in the message and delivery itself. I have an autistic son so I’ve learned a lot from him about misaligned intent when I tell him something. I’ve also learned a lot about myself. Patience and methodology can be helpful here. I want to motivate my team and get the most out of them. I also want them to bring the best out of me. If I’m not careful with how I communicate, I may not communicate effectively and this jeopardizes both of these. So, given my experiences in work and at home, I try very hard to ensure that my intent is clear and my message is delivered in a constructive way. Honestly, it’s something that I really enjoy working at now. When everyone on the team embraces this thinking, it can be a powerful thing.
Here are some common principles that I try to adhere to:
- Communicate your intent if it’s not obvious. And, realize that it’s probably not as obvious to others as it is to you.
- Tone matters. Whether this is the tone of your voice or the tone of the words in an email, choose your tone carefully.
- Feedback for the sake of being critical or to embarrass or to dismiss doesn’t inspire anyone. Don’t berate the negative/mistakes. Spend more time of the discussion on the improvement mechanism/solution. Your goal should be to make everyone better so make sure the feedback is given in this context.
- Own your mistakes. Communicate proactively and explain your course correction.
- Understand the forum that you are in before delivering a message. For example, don’t embarrass a team member in front of the team. Talk to them in private. Provide feedback then. They’ll respect that you chose a private forum for the feedback. Others will too.
My over-arching intent is to make the individual and the company better. Often, this means pushing hard. It means not accepting sitting still, no matter how good things are. So, I always push forward. Sometimes, people might not like it. Sometimes, I will not be right. I’ll adjust as we keep moving. When I deliver my message to someone, I truly do so with the hope of making them better and/or for the betterment of the company. I will remind them of this while acknowledging they may not agree with my action in the moment. In writing this book, I hope to make my readers better. I sincerely hope that everyone that reads it will gain more in value than the price that they’ve paid for it (which may be nothing since I’m putting chapters out for free). I certainly believe that they will or I wouldn’t have written the book. So, whether you agree or disagree with me after you finish reading, you’ll now understand what my intent is.
Left unsaid, intent can be interpreted. Maybe I’m writing this book for the money. Maybe I’m writing the book for fame, to help myself. Certainly, these aren’t unrealistic reasons and I couldn’t fault anyone for believing them in the absence of anything else. I have enough money. And, offering it for free is certainly counter to the money argument. And, I don’t really want fame unless it’s fame for helping a lot of people improve their lives. I did that at Match. Bringing people together, helping to build families, seeing our employees thrive, and much more. If this book succeeds in helping many more with their jobs and/or improving their lives, I’ll be very happy. If it doesn’t, I’m content that I gave it my best effort and tried.
Lead From The Front
There are different types of leaders. There is the general who sits behind his troops on a hill and orders his troops in front of him into battle. Then, this leader watches his troops from his perch to assess the damage below, good or bad, as his troops fight. Then there is my preferred leader, who grabs a battle tool, races out in front, turns back to his troops with his arms waving them to join him in his mad rush into battle, while yelling “charge”. This embodies one of my key leadership principles: Don’t ask anyone to do something that you wouldn’t do yourself.
During Crop ‘Til You drop, I started cropping immediately and jumped to the top of the leaderboard. Everyone on my team could see my name there and the pace of my photo processing. They all knew that I had other responsibilities, like running the business, but they all understood the message. This was important. This was something that I asked them to do. This is something that I will help them do. Beat me. And, they all wanted to. This mentality isn’t just for managers or people in high positions, like myself. Leaders can be anyone. The employees that eventually won were leaders in this effort. They stepped up. They set the pace. They chose to lead by their actions. Anyone can be a leader if they choose. So, choose to lead every day. Set the right example. People will notice. The people at the top of our leaderboard certainly got my attention.
I’ll give you another example. As an executive, I was allowed to travel business class on my many trips. Unfortunately, almost all of my team that accompanied me on these work trips were not allowed business class per company policy. When this happened, instead of sitting up front like a king, I travelled in coach, the same as them. My peers and bosses would call me crazy. They gave me a hard time. I’m sure some of them were worried that it made anyone flying business look bad (which wasn’t my intent). All but finance, that is. They loved it. And, they also approved the business dinners that I expensed with my team every time, no matter how much, because the dinner cost was still far less than a business class airfare. My team loved it too. They enjoyed fancy dinners overseas as part of the compensation for being away from their families. They also knew that I was sacrificing my luxury for their benefit. I also knew that this was the right thing to do for the company. I calculated that I saved the company over $200,000 on airfare one year for international travel. I made a ton of trips and the difference between $10k-$15k and $2k is lot when multiplied by the number of trips that I took preceding our ownership exchange with Meetic (more on this in the international section). For the exchange of ownership with Meetic, the valuation of our Europe business was based on a 15x earnings multiple. That’s $3M value just because I flew coach. It’s not a perfect number since maybe not all of that savings hits EBITDA but, directionally, it’s clear. It’s a lot of value. Let that sink in. On top of this, my team appreciated my approach. Respect and trust are not given. You must earn them. That won’t happen without sacrifice and treating your team as you would want to be treated. Since they were sitting in coach, so did I when I travelled with them.
The Players Know Who Is Pulling Their Weight
I talked in previous chapters about not playing favorites and the importance of fairness. I’m continually amazed these days when I hear in sports about not wanting to hurt kids’ feelings. Teams are considering not using a draft process so the kids aren’t “labelled” or to avoid someone being picked last. I get it. I know we don’t want to hurt anyone’s feelings, especially when they are young. Realize that this may not be helping them. Do you know who knows best when they aren’t good at something or aren’t happy? The kids. In sports, the team knows who is performing and who isn’t. All the players know. In business, employees know too. They know what everyone else is doing. They know the situation. So, don’t lie to them. Don’t pretend. When they need it, help them. Try to build their confidence back up. Try to find positions that may be better suited for their skills. Try and motivate them. Do it in the proper forum as I’ve mentioned prior. It doesn’t do anyone any good to pretend that everything is OK when it isn’t. Furthermore, even if a situation is OK, it can be better. So, keep trying to make it better. We can all be better. Constantly push them. But, do it consistently. Give them the opportunity to succeed or fail on their own. Help them succeed. Help them avoid failure. Prepare them and give them a real chance if they have earned it. You might be surprised. Just be sure that you are fair. If you play favorites or are not fair, everyone will see it. Because, in most situations, everyone already knows what is going on. Recognize the obvious. And, if you deviate from the obvious, you should explain your rational to everyone. Otherwise, they will either think that you don’t see the obvious (i.e. you aren’t qualified to be in your position) or you do see it and don’t care (i.e. you aren’t qualified to be in your position).
The Players Are Watching The Coach
When you are a coach, your players are always watching you. They are listening to what you say and watching what you do. In business, things are no different. Per the previous section, when players aren’t pulling their weight, the other players will notice. They all know. For a short time, the other players will assign the root cause of the problem to the player not pulling their weight. Hopefully, these other players will give that player a chance to rectify the situation. You should too. Maybe there is a history of success that leads everyone to believe that things will get turned around. We all go through slumps/bad times. However, after a certain amount of time, if things don’t change and the player is still not pulling their weight, the focus of the other players will shift to the coach. It will become a problem with the coach in their minds. A problem for not making a change. You need to understand this. As a leader, when employees aren’t pulling their weight, you must be fair and give them a chance. However, after a certain point, you become the problem.
Put People On The Tracks
I use this expression to represent making someone accountable for their words. The terminology is that of a train coming and you are on the tracks and have to make a decision or the train will run you over. You see, saying things is easy when you aren’t responsible, when you aren’t on the tracks with a train coming. Not that people don’t believe what they are saying in less stressful situations. It’s that truth often shows itself better when the stakes are the highest. If you were asked a question under oath or at the risk of dying, your answer may be much more carefully thought out than when asked casually. Creating an environment where pressure is applied (rewards, consequences, etc.) typically gets people to apply different calculations. Being on the tracks with a train coming is an extreme concept. So is “with a gun to your head”, what would you do? We probably don’t know and may never know unless we are in that situation. Thinking we do know without actually being there is naïve. And, while I would never create these extreme scenarios for real, I still tried to create an environment where consequences were high. For example, I don’t know how many product prioritization meetings that I’ve led where everyone fights for their own ideas as “the best”. Why? They want their idea selected so they can work on it. In these types of meetings, everything presented to me sounds like a good idea and the rational for why is plausible. It’s hard to know what the reality is when everyone fights for their own ideas to be “the highest priority”. Because, it can’t be true. So, imagine this scenario:
- I give everyone in the meeting $10,000
- Everyone in the meeting would have to vote their $10,000 on the feature with the highest business return
- Those that were right would split the pot of money
This would likely change the voting behavior. People would be more apt to vote for the idea they thought was best and not necessarily their own ideas. HR would never let me create this type of situation directly. However, I tried to create an environment where stakes were high and truth could come out. By measuring results and tying rewards to them (salary, bonuses, etc.), over time you can create an environment where people understand that delivering results as a team is rewarded. That it doesn’t have to be “their idea” for them to succeed. Everyone succeeds when the team succeeds. Everyone fails when the team fails.
Another element to the expression of “on the tracks” with a train coming is that your team must make a decision or they will get run over. They can’t just think forever. They must decide on a solution. There are many ways to solve a problem. Many of these ways will work. However, for them to work, the team must believe in the way selected. Think of people rowing in a boat. The stroke rate can be variable. Some may work better than others. However, if done in unison by the entire team, the boat moves forward. However, if half the boat does it fast and half the boat does it slow, the boat goes in circles. So, build a consensus and start rowing. Moving forward is the material goal.
With all of that said, if you have your own preferred method of solving a problem then your team MUST also believe it is the right way and execute together. Otherwise, they will not take ownership in delivering the solution if you force it on them. They may impact the delivery, intentionally or unintentionally. It also gives them an easy excuse/out when problems arise. Most deliveries encounter obstacles along the way. They will use this difficulty to point out that “their way” would have been easier. This is likely untrue but can’t be proven otherwise (since “their way” was not chosen). This will lead to decreases in effort and increases in dissent, all of which will have a material impact on the delivery. So, for any solution to work, the team must own the path selected. They must be “on the tracks” with a solution they own. This way, they will work together better. They will fight to deliver it. When times get tough, they will dig in as opposed to pointing fingers. When considering a solution to a problem, you must either:
- Select a team that believes in your preferred solution and thus considers it to be their own
- Allow the team to select “their way” and deliver the solution the way they believe it should be done
Otherwise, the team will not truly own the solution. Making them own the solution is a material part to putting people on the tracks. If they don’t own the solution, they will never truly feel that they are responsible. It’s easy to be an armchair quarterback with all the answers when you aren’t in the game. Once on the field, it’s a different story. As a leader, you are always on the tracks. You own everything. So, if you really believe in a solution, you must select option 1 above. If you can’t find a team that believes in it, you are either wrong or don’t have the right people. If you are wrong or just not properly informed of the options/solutions available, you should be convinced of this and then option 2 can become a viable option. Engaging openly and honestly with your team will usually yield the proper path.
The Harsh Reality Of The Public Square
If you are in a leadership role, you are constantly balancing your teams view of you. They must know that on one hand you are one of them but on the other hand you are not. They must believe that you support them and have their back. You are all on the same team with the same goals for the company. Yet, they must also understand that you are different and they must respect that difference. You are their boss. You must realize this too and accept the responsibilities that come with it. Hopefully, decisions that you make can be aligned with each individual’s interest and the company’s interests. Most of the time, they will be aligned. However, when they are not aligned, it’s your job to re-align. The company’s interest always comes first. So, sometimes you have to make decisions that will be viewed as harsh by some in the company. This is the difficult but required part of being a leader. I call it a public display of authority. Not because it’s meant to embarrass, diminish or demean. In fact, before the action is taken, everyone must understand why the action was taken. They must believe that it was fair and/or necessary. They must believe that all avenues were explored to avoid the situation but to no avail. As hard as you try, not everyone will. Not everyone will agree with the decision in the end. However, everyone WILL know that it happened. That’s the point of it being in the public square. It’s seen by everyone as a reminder of your authority. Unfortunately, letting someone go is like this. Most of the time, everyone knows when an employee is a problem. It may be because they aren’t productive. It may be because they are creating dissent in the ranks. There are a number of reasons why. With poor leadership, the problem is allowed to continue before any action is taken or no action is ever taken. Leadership hopes it will go away or just tolerates it. This erodes confidence in your leadership and diminishes your perceived authority. Maybe more people will embrace the same behavior and things will get even worse. If you don’t take action you may be removed. So, action must be taken and it must be done quickly and swiftly. It must be known to everyone. It’s a reminder that business is business and sometimes hard decisions must be made. And, when necessary, that you will not hesitate to make them.
“Doers” Vs “Thinkers”
I always hear the phrase “hire people smarter than yourself” or its equivalent, “surround yourself with people smarter than yourself”. What an obvious statement. It’s like saying “only sign the best recruits in the nation” or “only draft the best players in the world” in sports. Uh, thank you for that earth-shattering advice! As a coach, I would have never thought of that myself. Having this as the goal is so obvious that I consider these statements just plain dumb. The real question is HOW? What does “smarter” mean? How do you judge “smarts”? IQ test? Interviews? In sports, we know that most draft picks actually do not pan out. Why? Why do some teams draft better than other teams? How much is just luck and hindsight? For example, how does Michael Jordan not get selected #1 in his NBA draft class? How does Tom Brady, the greatest NFL player of all time, get drafted in the 6th round? Seriously. Evaluating talent takes experience. There is no set of checkboxes that will tell you who to hire. I can’t tell you some complex evaluation criteria that when followed will get you the best recruits. However, I will tell you my main focus. And, I will use an exaggerated example:
I need two holes dug and I only have two small hand shovels. I have two employees and I give them each a hand shovel and I say “We need to dig two holes over there, both 4 feet long, 1 foot wide and 1 foot deep. Each of you take one.” One of my employees starts asking me a bunch of questions. He asks me why I only have hand shovels. He says that there are many other tools that could dig a lot quicker. A larger shovel, a skid steer, and even better, an excavator. An excavator could do that in 5 minutes, he explains. He does some research online and tells me that he can rent an excavator for several thousand dollars and it can be delivered in about a week, if we have the money. He complains that using a hand shovel will take “forever” and that nobody “digs with a hand shovel any more”. I explain to him that this is all that I have. We don’t have any money. We don’t have a ton of time. He still isn’t convinced. He wants to know more. This goes on for a while. Finally, I look over at my other employee and, guess what, he has finished digging his hole with the hand shovel. Sweat dripping down his body, he tells me “I’m done. Is this what you wanted?” he says with a proud smile.
I want doers. I want people who role up their sleeves and get to work, regardless of the obstacles and challenges that may be before them. People that dive in. People that aren’t afraid. People that realize that there is no perfect set of circumstances available before work gets started. As the Nike slogan would suggest “Just do it!”. Action matters. I place people in two overall categories: the “thinkers” and the “doers”. I’m not saying that thinking/planning is not important. It is. However, knowing when the thinking/planning is over and the work needs to begin is more important. The problem with thinkers is that they take way, way too long in getting started in my opinion. Everything can be made a little better on paper. When money is free to spend, there is always some better tool. When there are no budgets, there are no constraints and therefore anything is possible. In utopia, it all ends well and you have forever to come up with the “perfect” solution. Unfortunately, in business and in life, it’s not utopia. There are budgets. There are constraints. You have to find solutions within them. And, you need to find them quickly or your competitors will find them before you. Unimplemented “solutions” are useless. Doers feel inefficient and ineffective when not doing anything. They don’t want to spend their time in endless debates and timeless discussions. They want to get things done. So, find people that want to take action. People who get frustrated by just thinking and talking. Look at their background. Ask them questions on planning versus execution. If they are already employees, watch for people like this. Give them more opportunities.
Building on the previous section, I have another classification system that I look for in employees. I have two categories of people:
- When there is credit available, they are taking. When there is blame available, they are giving.
- When there is credit available, they are giving. When there is blame available, they are taking.
In my opinion, great leaders fall into category 2. When success has been achieved, they are giving all the credit to their team. They are down-playing their role. They do not suck up the spotlight at the expense of their team. In fact, it’s the opposite. They shower praise on their team and make sure to let everyone know who had a hand in the success. And, when failure happens, they shoulder the blame. They take the arrows for the team, even when it is not all their fault. It’s human nature to want to take credit and avoid blame. Don’t. Use these opportunities to acknowledge people that helped you or accept your responsibility in the failure. Your team will respect you a lot more. Managers are smart. They know the situation. They know when people are trying to take undue credit or finger pointing to avoid the responsibility. Even when the credit is due or the responsibility lies elsewhere, it is a pleasant surprise when I see someone giving the credit away to other deserving people (their team) or having their back when challenges arise. Trust me, a team will fight for leaders like this. They will work harder. They will fight to fix the problems. Usually, teams under people that grab the credit and assign the blame will abandon their leader at the first sign of trouble.
I’m The American Dummy
Sometimes, you have to take one for the team. You need to put the company and your team ahead of yourself. You have to be willing to show everyone what it takes to win and that you are willing to do it yourself. The grainy photo is a picture of me in Paris on the stage of the Moulin Rouge. Yes, THE Moulin Rouge that opened in 1889. I’m the second person from the left, my bald head visible if you look closely.
Let me set the stage for you. We were in the process of exchanging our Europe business for an ownership stake in Meetic. Match had a world-wide deal with Microsoft. I was responsible for managing the Microsoft partnership, the most important partnership for us internationally. I was running Match’s international business at the time and the Microsoft deal renewal was coming up. It was essential that our proposed combination with Meetic did not jeopardize the Microsoft deal or this could materially impact our deal. I spent a lot of time with Microsoft over the years, all over the world, but this particular Europe trip was one of the most important ones that I ever took. It included the head of Microsoft partnerships and other Microsoft resources. Marc Simoncini, the head of Meetic was hosting us. Match and Meetic were jointly meeting with Microsoft to explain why and how the Match/Meetic business combination was best for everyone and that we were the best choice for the dating deal renewal. Marc is a brilliant guy and very well connected in France. He pulled out all the stops. On one of the nights, he arranged for all of us to go to the Moulin Rouge. Match, Meetic and Microsoft were sitting at a center table. You can see from the picture how close we were to the stage (it was taken by our Microsoft partner whom I knew well). What I didn’t know prior to being up on stage was that Marc had arranged for the comedian on stage (he’s the one in the center, to the right of me, with his right hand behind my back) to pull me out of the crowd.
So, what did I do up there? Well. I was an American Dummy. Yes, the comedian put his hand behind my back and I moved my mouth, like a Ventriloquist controls a dummy. I was the dummy. Every word that he spoke in French, I flapped my jaws as excitedly as I could. I smiled as the crowd roared in laughter. I don’t speak French but I could understand the audience’s reaction. The crowd loved it. They were whaling. The comedian, sensing this, talked more, I flapped my mouth to even louder roars. I’m sure that he was making a fool of me but I certainly didn’t care. That was the point of this. To make everyone laugh and have a good time. And, most importantly, that included my new partners at Meetic and our Microsoft partners. If it came at my expense in a “roast like” way, well, I could certainly live with that.
When I got back to the table, I could see that everyone had enjoyed it. Still, they were somewhat cautious as I approached the table, unsure whether I was embarrassed or how I’d take being a part of this. I could sense it and quickly tried to put them at ease by smiling and laughing. I wasn’t embarrassed. Truth is, I went to the ends of the earth, literally, to help the company, to deliver results for our company, for Microsoft and, eventually, for Meetic. I travelled with Microsoft to locations all over the world to meet with their local teams. I travelled in the back of local country planes, attended political protests at night, ate food in countries where I knew better than to ask what it was, travelled under armored guard to barricaded hotels and, yes, was an American Dummy on one of the world’s most prestigious stages, the Moulin Rouge.
By the way, Match/Meetic got the Microsoft renewal…