When Were You Last a Beginner?

In a couple of weeks I’m taking the opportunity to broaden my leadership horizons by attending the BSA leadership course known as Philmont Leadership Challenge. It’s a course that builds on a lot of the things that I’ve been learning and teaching for the past five years. It’s designed to be a sort of capstone for servant leadership and learning how to inspire others. I’m excited to be a part of it in large part because I get to participate for a change.

Being a member of the staff for my local council Wood Badge courses has given me a great opportunity to learn the material inside and out. I love being able to teach and see others grow into leaders. It’s also inspired me to share some of those lessons here to help others in the IT community that might not have the chance to attend a course like that. However the past 3 years have also shown me the value of being a beginner at something from time to time.

Square One

Everyone is new at something. No one is born knowing every piece of information they’ll need to know for their entire lives. We learn language and history and social skills throughout our formative years. When we get to our career we learn skills and trades and figure out how to do complex things easily. For some of us we also learn how to lead and manage others. It’s a process of building layer upon layer to be better at what we do. Those skills give us the chance to show how far we’ve come in a given area by the way we understand how the complex things we do interact.

One of my favorite stories about this process is when I first started studying for my CCIE back in 2008. I knew the first place I should look was the Cisco Press certification guide for the written exam. As I started reading through the copy I caught myself thinking, “This is easy. I already know this.” I even pondered why I bothered with those pesky CCNP routing books because everything I needed to know was right here!

The practitioners in the audience have already spotted the logical fallacy in my thinking. The CCIE certification guide was easy and remedial for me because I’d already spent so much time reading over those CCNP guides. And those CCNP guides only made sense to me because I’d studied for my CCNA beforehand. The advanced topics I was refreshing myself on could be expanded because I understood the rest of the information that was being presented already.

When you’re a beginner everything looks bigger. There’s so much to learn. It’s worrisome to try and figure out what you need to know. You spend your time categorizing things that might be important later. It can be an overwhelming process. But it’s necessary because it introduces you to the areas you have to understand. You can’t start off knowing everything. You need to work you way into it. You need to digest information and work with it before moving on to add more to what you’ve learned. Trying to drink from a firehose makes it impossible to do anything.

However, when you approach things from a perspective of an expert you lose some of the critical nature of being bad at something. You might think to yourself that you don’t need to remember a protocol number or a timer value because “they never worry about that anyway”. I’ve heard more than a few people in my time skip over valuable information at the start of a course because they want to get to the “good stuff” that they just know comes later. Of course, skipping over the early lessons means they’re going to be spending more time reviewing the later information because they missed the important stuff up front.

Those Who Teach

You might think to yourself that teaching something is a harder job. You need to understand the material well enough to instruct others and anticipate questions. You need to prep and practice. It’s not easy. But it also takes away some of the magic of learning.

Everyone has a moment in their journey with some technology or concept where everything just clicks. You can call it a Eureka moment or something similar but we all remember how it felt. Understanding how the pieces fit together and how you grasp that interconnection is one of the keys to how we process complex topics. If you don’t get it you may never remember it. Those moments mean a lot to someone at the start of their journey.

When you teach something you have to grasp it all. You may have had your Eureka moment already. You’re also hoping that you can inspire one in others. If you’re trying to find ways to impart the knowledge to others based on how you grasped it you may very well inspire that moment. But you also don’t have the opportunity to do it for yourself. We’re all familiar with the old adage that familiarity breeds contempt. It’s easy to fall into that trap with a topic you are intimately familiar with.

In your career have you ever asked a question about a technical subject to an expert that started their explanation with “it’s really easy…”? Most of us have. We’ve probably even said that phrase ourselves. But it’s important to remember that not everyone has had the same experiences. Not everyone knows the topic to the level that we know it. And not everyone is going to form the same connections to recall that information when they need it again. It may be simple to you but for a beginner it’s a difficult subject they’re struggling to understand. How they comprehend it relies heavily on how you impart that knowledge.

Wide Eyed Wonder

Lastly, the thing that I think is missing in the expert level of things is the wonder of learning something new for the first time. It’s easy to get jaded when you have to take in a new piece of information and integrate it into your existing view. It can be frustrating in cases where the new knowledge conflicts with old knowledge. We spent a lot of time learning the old way and now we have to change?

Part of the value of being a beginner is looking at things with fresh eyes. No doubt you’ve heard things like “this is the way we’ve always done it” in meetings before. I’ve written about challenging those assumptions in the past and how to go about doing it properly but having a beginner perspective helps. Pretend I’m new to this. Explain to me why we do it that way. Help me understand. By taking an approach of learning you can see the process and help fix the broken pieces or optimize the things that need to be improved.

Even if you know the subject inside and out it can be important to sit back and think through it from the perspective of a beginner. Why is a vanilla spanning tree timer 50 seconds? What can be improved in that process? Why should things not be hurried. What happens when things go wrong? How long does it take for them to get fixed? These are all valid beginner questions that help you understand how others look at something you’re very familiar with. You’ll find that being able to answer them as a beginner would will lead to even more understanding of the process and the way things are supposed to work.


Tom’s Take

There are times when I desperately want to be new at something again. I struggle with finding the time to jump into a new technology or understand a new concept because my tendency is to want to learn everything about it and there are many times when I can’t. But the value of being new at something isn’t just acquiring new knowledge. It’s learning how a beginner thinks and seeing how they process something. It’s about those Eureka moments and integrating things into your process. It’s about chaos and change and eventually understanding. So if you find yourself burned out it’s important to stop and ask when you were last a beginner.

Authority and Responsibility

Congratulations on your promotion! You’re now a manager or leader for your team. You now have to make sure everyone is getting their things done. That also means lots of reports and meetings with your manager about what’s happening and all the new rules that have to be followed in the future. Doesn’t this all sound nice?

In truth we all want to be able to help out as much as possible. Sometimes that means putting in extra work. For many it also means being promoted to a position of responsibility in a company leading a team or group of teams. That means you will have some new responsibilities and also some new authority. But what’s the difference? And why is one more foundational than the other?

Respect My Authority

Authority is “power to influence or command thought, opinion, or behavior”. It means you have the ability to tell people what to do. You give orders and they are followed. You tell your team the direction that you want things to go and it happens. If it doesn’t there are consequences. When you tell someone they are the boss this is what they usually picture.

Responsibility is “the quality of being responsible,” where responsible means “liable to be called on to answer”. Responsibility is being the one to discuss what happens with the people under your charge. You talk about successes and failures and ultimately serve as the face of the group. When your boss starts looking for someone to tell them what’s going on you’re the one that needs to provide the answers.

As mentioned, many people think leadership and management is about the first thing and less about the second. I’d argue that you’ve worked for them before and it hasn’t been enjoyable. Having orders barked at you or threats of disciplinary action if goals aren’t accomplished are hallmarks of someone that’s focused on authority or on a “power trip”. It’s usually a very unpleasant experience, especially if that person later gets more power or is promoted to a higher level.

Responsibility is what the rest of the population thinks of when you discuss leadership. It’s being accountable for the people you lead. It’s more about celebrating their successes with others when appropriate as well as explaining what happened when there wasn’t the success you’d hoped for. These leaders are often much easier to work for because they empower those they work with and shield you from bad managers and bosses that only want someone other than themselves to accept the responsibility for failure.

A good leader will exhibit qualities of both of these traits to a degree. However, I would argue that the biggest difference between good leaders and bad bosses is how they handle responsibility. Responsibility is the more important of the two qualities to have. That’s because you can delegate authority but you can never delegate responsibility.

Read that last part again. Slowly.

In a formal leadership role, such as a military command, you delegate authority to accomplish things. Officers delegate authority to non-commissioned officers who then may delegate to a lower level like a team leader. At no point is there only one single person issuing all the orders from on high with the expectation that they will be followed by everyone beneath them. Leaders like CEOs may have a vision for how things need to be done but they leave the authority to accomplish those goals up to the leaders closer to the task at hand.

Delegating authority ensures that things are accomplished with efficiency. Could you imagine how difficult it would be for a military command to rely on a single general to give them every single order that was necessary for them to function? That might have worked in antiquity with smaller armies but in a modern force you have to delegate authority to junior officers or enlisted soldiers in order to keep things running smoothly. You also have to trust that the people you’ve placed in that role will get things accomplished. It doesn’t always work out the way you’d like but that’s part of the role of developing good leaders.

Responsibility Bites

What about the other, more important thing? Responsibility can’t be delegated. If the captain of a ship puts a junior officer in charge and something happens? In the example of the USS Fitzgerald colliding with a merchant ship the sailors in charge of the bridge were relieved of command and the ship’s commander faced disciplinary action. Someone had to answer for the collision. The person that caused it faced disciplinary actions but so too did the people in charge. In a different situation removed from the military it might have been easy for the commander to claim they weren’t on duty or they had told someone else to do it but the legal tradition of the US Navy is that the commander of the ship is always responsible for the actions of their crew. They must answer for problems, including colliding with another ship.

Responsibility can’t be delegated. If you are the leader for your team you must answer for their actions. If their actions create success that’s an easy conversation to have. If their actions lead to problems or liability then you also must answer for those as well. You can’t just take credit for the good things. You must also provide the interface when your manager or boss needs to discuss the bad things too. Responsibility for your team fosters the connections that reinforce teamwork. It’s easy to claim it wasn’t your fault that something happened if you weren’t around for it. The best leaders accept that whatever happened must have been because of a lack of training or some other deficiency and answer for it while working to correct the issue. They take the heat to allow for time to fix the issue, either through training or through personnel replacement.

If you’re now staring to see the value of working for an organization where leaders delegate authority to a good team and accept responsibility for their actions, both good and bad, then you know how valuable that can be. Morale will go up, productivity will increase, and most importantly you’ll be training the next generation of leaders in that mold so they become effective.

However, if you’re wondering what it feels like to work in an environment that is the exact opposite, imagine a role where your boss tells you that you must be the one to answer for your actions and that they aren’t responsible for what happens. When someone complains your boss is the first to point out that it’s not their fault. When there is success they claim it was all due to their leadership. When you complain that the rules don’t allow you to be effective your boss tells you that’s just the way it is and you can’t change anything so you need to get used to it.

If that sounds familiar you’re not alone. If that sounds like the role you’re currently in perhaps it’s time to work for a better leader.


Tom’s Take

Good leaders know when to help and when to get out of the way. They don’t take charge. They take responsibility. They highlight success as a team effort and answer when success isn’t there so it can be fixed. It doesn’t have to be as strict as a military command. By delegating authority and being responsible you can set an example for everyone you work with and everyone you work for. If the culture of your organization is the exact opposite it’s time to go somewhere you are valued because bad leaders will soon have no one to take responsibility for them and they won’t be able to boss anyone around they way they really want to.

Fast Friday Thoughts on Leadership

I’m once more taking part in the BSA Wood Badge leadership course for my local council. I enjoy the opportunity to hone my skills when it comes to leading others and teaching them how to train their own leaders. A lot of my content around coaching, mentoring, and even imposter syndrome has come from the lessons I’ve learned during Wood Badge. It sounds crazy but I enjoy taking vacation time to staff something that looks like work because it feels amazing!

A few random thoughts from the week:

  • You need a sense of urgency in everything you do. You may not know exactly what’s coming or how to adjust for what needs to be done but you need to be moving with purpose to get it done. Not only does that help you with your vision to make things happen but it encourages others to do the same.
  • Team building happens when you’re not focused entirely on the goal. It doesn’t take much for your group to come together but it can only happen when they aren’t charging toward the finish line. Remember that taking a few moments here and there to reinforce the group dynamic can do a lot to build a cohesive unit. Stopping to smell the roses isn’t a bad thing when your team members chat about them too.
  • Make sure you appreciate your team when they succeed. The grindstone doesn’t feel quite so rough when you know that your effort is appreciated. It’s difficult some times to remember to recognize those that put in the work but if you do you’ll create happier people and more functional ones too.

Tom’s Take

I’m sure I’ll have more thoughts about leadership and team building as soon as I’m done with the practical application of it this weekend!

Follow My Leader

I spent the past two weeks enjoying the scenic views at the Philmont Scout Ranch with my son and some of his fellow Scouts BSA troop mates. It was very much the kind of vacation that involved a lot of hiking, mountain climbing, and even some inclement weather. We all completely enjoyed ourselves and I learned a lot about hanging bear bags and taking care of blisters. I also learned a lot about leadership by watching the boys in the crew interact with each other.

Storm Warnings

Leadership styles are nothing new to the people that read my blog. I’ve talked about them at length in the past. One thing I noticed when I was on the trek was how different leadership styles can clash and create friction among teenagers. As adults we tend to gloss over delivery and just accept that people are the way they are. When you’re fourteen or fifteen you haven’t quite taken that lesson to heart yet. That means more pushing against styles that don’t work for you.

We have all worked for or with someone that has a very authoritarian style in the past. The kind of people that say, “Do this right now” frequently. It’s a style that works well for things like military units or other places where decisions need to be quick and final. The crew leader exhibited that kind of leadership style to our crew. I sat back and watched how the other boys in the unit handled it.

If you’ve never gotten to watch the Stages of Team Development form in real time you’re missing out on a treat. I won’t go into too much depth here but the important stage happens after we get past the formation and into the Storming phase. This is where motivation and skill sets are low and the interaction between the members is primarily antagonistic. Arguments and defensiveness are more prevalent during storming. It happens every time and frequently occurs again and again as team members interact. It’s important to recognize the barriers that Storming creates and move past them to a place where the team puts the mission before their egos.

Easier said that done when you’re with a group of teenagers. I swear our group never really got past the storming phase for long. The end of the trek saw some friction still among the members. I couldn’t quite put my finger on why that was. After all, we grown ups can put things aside to focus on the mission, right? We can check our egos at the door and hope that we can just get past this next part to make things easier overall.

Style Points

That’s when our lead Crew Advisor pointed out a key piece of the puzzle I’d missed, even after all my time dealing with team development. He said to the crew on the last day, “There are a lot of leaders in this group. That’s why there was so much friction between you all.” It was like a lightbulb going off in my mind. The friction wasn’t the result of leadership styles inasmuch as it was the clash between styles that kids aren’t so good at hiding.

I’m not an authoritarian. I don’t demand people do things. I ask people to do things. Maybe when I want isn’t a request but it is almost always phrased that way. “Please walk the dog” or “Can you get me the hammer from the garage?” are common ways for me to direct my family or my unit. I was raised not to be a demanding person. However, in my house growing up those statements were never questions. I’ve continued that method of leadership as my own family has grown. Dad asks you to do something but it’s not optional.

Where my leadership style clashes is with people who tell you to do something right now. “Get this done” or “You go do this thing over here” wrankle me. Moreover, I get frustrated when I don’t understand the why behind it. I’m happy to help if you just help me understand why it needs to be done. Bear bags need to be hung right away to keep animals from devouring the human food. The dining fly needs to be put up to put things underneath in case of inclement weather. There’s an order to things that makes sense. You need to explain why instead of just giving orders.

As I watched the teenagers in the crew interact with each other I couldn’t understand the defensive nature of the interactions. Some of the crew mates flat out refused to do things because they didn’t get it. They took their time getting necessary tasks done because they felt like they were doing all the work. Until the end of the trip I didn’t understand that the reason for their lack of motivation wasn’t inspired by laziness, but instead by a clash in style.

My son is like me in that he asks people to do things. So when he was ordered to do something he felt the need to push back or express displeasure with the leadership style. It looked defiant because he was trying to communicate that politeness and explanation go a long way toward helping people feel more motivated to pitch in. 

For example, asking someone to help hang the bear bags because there is a storm coming in and they are the most efficient at it is a better explanation than telling them to just do it. Explaining that you want someone to train another person in a job because you excel at it helps the person understand this is more about education than making them do the job over and over again. I’ve mentioned it before when it comes to leaders leaning on the people that get the job done all the time without expressing why. It’s important to help people understand that they have special unique skills that are critical to helping out.

Promoting From Within

Leaders chafe at the styles that don’t match their own. One of the ways to help this process is through delegation. Instead of punishing those that talk back to you make them responsible for leading the group. Let them show off their leadership style to see how it is received. You’re essentially giving that person the power to express themselves to see if their way is better. Depending on your leadership style this may be difficult to do. Authoritarians don’t like letting go of their power. People with no patience are more likely to just do the job themselves instead of letting others learn. However, you need to do it.

Leaders will excel in the right environment. Give someone responsibility and let them accomplish things. Instead of simply giving out tasks let the leaders figure out how to accomplish the goals. I ran a small experiment where I told our crew leader to just take care of his one responsibility and then leave the crew to their own devices. By this point in the trek they knew what needed to be done. If they couldn’t find the motivation to get it done then it was on them and not the leader. Weather forced my hand before I could get the experiment done but when a leader is having issues with those under then chafing at their leadership style they need to empower their group to lead their way to see how effective it can be instead of just falling back on “I’m in charge so you do what I say”.


Tom’s Take

My leadership experience and training has been all about creating artificial situations where people are required to step up to lead. Seeing it happen organically was a new experience for me. Leaders emerge naturally but they don’t all grow at the same rate or in the same way. The insight gained at the end of the trip helped me understand the source of friction over the twelve days were were in the backcountry. I think I’d do things a little differently next time given the opportunity to allow those that needed a different style to come forward and provide their own way of doing things. I’ll be interested to see how those leaders develop as well as how I approach these situations in the future.

Servant Leadership and Standing Out

LonePawn

My son is fifteen and he’s the typical teenager that either thinks he’s being asked to do way too much or he’s not getting recognized for what he’s accomplished. That last part is hard for him because he’s a bit humble and doesn’t like to tout his own work. I once told him that he didn’t need to do that because he stands out to the people that matter. He did the typical teenager thing where he fought me and said that no one noticed anything he did. I told him that if you do things the way they’re supposed to be done and don’t spend your whole day crowing about what you’re doing that the right people will most assuredly notice.

The worry that your work is going unnoticed isn’t unfounded among teenagers or adults. How many times have we asked ourselves in our daily work roles if we matter? It takes about two weeks worth of meetings in a typical IT department for you to see how things go. There are those that coast by with the knowledge they obtained years ago that have their niche and they intend to fill it. Their entire purpose is to avoid notice. They fear someone will figure out their job is redundant or they don’t want to get found out for having less capability than they really possess.

The other side of the coin is the group we all loathe. The braggarts and proclaimers. The ones that spend all of five minutes turning a wrench or typing in a command and then take the next hour to talk about how great a job they did or how things would have fallen apart without their help and expertise. These are the people that we’re all worried about. They don’t want to avoid attracting attention. In fact, they revel in it. They want the eyes on them. They have no fear of looking inadequate or incapable. They will put any of their skills up against anyone at any time so they can be seen as the best at something.

What about those in the middle? The ones that want to be recognized for what we are without sounding overly confident or even boastful? What about those that are learning but still unsure of their skills and don’t want to do something wrong just in case it’s going to cause problems? Or the people that only want to stand out because they work hard and feel like the braggarts get all the eyeballs? What if I told you there was an easier method to figure out where your stand?

The Pillars of Productivity

You’ve probably already noticed that your leaders come to you when something needs to be done, right? Not the usual kind of busy work or tasks that have little importance in the long run. I’m talking about the big tasks. The important projects. The things that can’t fail and need attention to detail because they have to be done right. You know, the kinds of things you get asked to do all the time?

Why is that? While you may not be able to see it from your vantage point, the best leaders are the ones that have been keeping score the entire time and they know how to get things done. They see those shadowy people in IT that have outdated skill sets trying to keep a low profile. They also have a record of all the times those people have asked to learn something new or stretch their horizon. While those team members may think they’re flying under the radar they’re even more visible to those that know what to look for and how to select them out of important stuff. Those job roles they covet because they’re easy and important? They’re also one step away from being automated and keep unmotivated team members away from critical things.

What about the loud mouths? The ones that don’t miss an opportunity to talk about all the important stuff they’re doing and how management came to them to make it happen. How is it that they get all the good jobs and you get to toil away on these never-ending projects? What makes them so special?

Did you ever stop and ask yourself how important those projects were? Did you ever think that perhaps they’re not as critical as one might believe? Perhaps even that they’re so unimportant that people feel the need to brag about them to make them seem more important? I’ve seen more than a few times in my career that the ones that are spending the most time talking about what they’re doing are actually doing the least amount of work. If the task or project is so critical and important how is it that this person has the time to sit around the water cooler sharing how things are only going smoothly because they’re getting it all done?

They Who Serve Their Fellows

The idea that people should do the work without expecting credit or praise isn’t as foreign as it sounds. It’s a component of the Servant Leadership concept popularized by Robert Greenleaf. Servant leadership is based around the idea that the leader of a group exists to serve their employees and help them grow and be better. One of the important pieces of this the need to do things not for praise but for the greater good.

Leaders that subscribe to the ideas behind servant leadership don’t look for the loud team members crowing about their accomplishments. Instead, they look for those that are quietly getting things accomplished. They measure output, not volume. They seek those that serve others as they do not those that serve themselves. And those are the people that are relied upon over and over again to get things accomplished.

You may be saying to yourself, “That’s not how it works around my office.” And that’s entirely true for a lot of places. If that’s the case, do me a favor and think for moment about the bosses that are always heaping praise onto those that can’t stop talking about their accomplishments. Are they they kinds of people that also brag about themselves and their roles? Do they spend more time announcing their work than they do working? I think you’ll find a strong correlation. Those that can’t see the inherent value in someone’s output often need to be told someone is working hard. And because they feel the same need to boast about what they do they take the discussion at face value instead of understanding it all at a deeper level. I would also venture to guess that they aren’t the kinds of managers that you’d want to be working for.

Since we’re doing thought exercises, let’s do another. Think about a manager that you would want to work for. Maybe it was someone that was concerned with your skill set and encouraged you to learn more. Or that checked in on you frequently to see how you were doing on a project instead of just assuming you weren’t getting the job done because you were super busy with it. Maybe that manager even stood up for you after a mistake or spent time to help you understand where you needed to improve outside of your skills. Sure, they probably gave you lots of projects and you may have even felt overwhelmed at times. But never because you felt your manager was trying to sabotage you or overload you. These are the kinds of people you’d go back to work with in an instant, right?

Unsurprisingly, those characteristics are a hallmark of a servant leader. Those leaders rarely find themselves at the head of a major company. They get the work done instead of bragging about the work they do. They tend to find positions running departments focused on service or deliverables. They’re the rock you count on instead of the face you send out to sell the work. Ironically enough, they don’t thrive in sales positions because they tend to cut through the garbage quickly and judge people on results instead of promises. These are the leaders we should be promoting. Because these are the leaders that recognize talent and nurture it instead of listening to the ones that can only talk about things instead of getting them done.


Tom’s Take

It took me a long time to realize the guiding hand behind servant leadership principles. I knew what it was as soon as someone told me about it because I’d seen it being used my whole life. From my parents to my formative managers to the present day I’ve had the luxury of working for several people that have embodied the ideals of someone that works to better others. Sure, I’ve had to deal with my fair share of braggarts and shadowy figures. But knowing there was someone that knew what I was capable of and that I stood out to them enough to be trusted with the important work has been enough for me so far. As I find myself looking over more and more work and coordinating projects I also see the things that my former managers saw. I see the need to recognize those that are putting in the work and not just telling me what they’re doing. I seek out those that don’t do it for praise or don’t hide from my gaze. And in doing so I hope I can inspire a new generation of servant leaders as well.

Managing Leaders, Or Why Pat Gelsinger Is Awesome

In case you missed it, Intel CEO Bob Swan is stepping down from his role effective February 15 and will be replaced by current VMware CEO Pat Gelsinger. Gelsinger was the former CTO at Intel for a number of years before leaving to run EMC and VMware. His return is a bright spot in an otherwise dismal past few months for the chip giant.

Why is Gelsinger’s return such a cause for celebration? The analysts that have been interviewed say that Intel has been in need of a technical leader for a while now. Swan came from the office of the CFO to run Intel on an interim basis after the resignation of Brian Krzanich. The past year has been a rough one for Intel, with delays in their new smaller chip manufacturing process and competition heating up from long-time rival AMD but also from new threats like ARM being potentially sold to NVIDIA. It’s a challenging course for any company captain to sail. However, I think one key thing makes is nigh impossible for Swan.

Management Mentality

Swan is a manager. That’s not meant as a slight inasmuch as an accurate label. Managers are people that have things and look after them. Swan came from the financial side of the house where you have piles of resources and you do your best to account for them and justify their use. It’s Management 101. Managers make good CEOs for a variety of companies. They make sure that the moves are small and logical and will pay off in the future for the investors and eventually the workers as well. They are stewards first and foremost. When their background comes from something with inherent risk they are especially stewardly.

You know who else was a manager? John Sculley, the man who replaced Steve Jobs at Apple back in 1983. Sculley was seen as a moderating force to Jobs’ driving vision and sometimes reckless decision making skills. Sculley piloted the ship into calm waters at first but was ultimately sent packing because his decisions were starting to make less and less sense, such as exploring options to split Apple into separate companies and taking on IBM head-to-head on their turf.

Sculley was ousted and Jobs returned to Apple in 1993. It wasn’t easy at first but eventually the style of Jobs started producing results. Things like the iPod, iMac, and eventually the iPhone came from his vision. He’s a leader in that regard. Leaders are the ones that jump out and take risks to make big results. Leaders are people like John Kennedy that give a vision of going to the moon in a decade without the faintest idea how that might happen. Leadership is what drives companies.

Leaders, however, are a liability without managers. Leaders say “let’s go to the moon!” Managers sit down and figure out how to make that happen without breaking the budgets or losing too many people along the way. Managers are the grounded voices that guide leaders. Without someone telling a leader of the challenges to overcome they won’t see the roadblocks until the drive right into them.

Leaders without brakes on their vision have no reality to shape it. Every iMac has an Apple Lisa. Every iPod has the iPod Hi-Fi. Even the iPhone wasn’t the iPhone until the App Store came around against the original vision of Apple’s driving force. To put it another way, George Lucas is a visionary leader in filmmaking. However, when he was turned loose without management of his process we ended up with the messy prequel trilogy. Why was Empire Strikes Back such a good film? Because it had people like Lawrence Kasdan involved managing the process of Lucas creating art. They helped focus the drive of a leader and make the result something great.

Tech Leadership

Let’s bring this discussion back to Intel and Pat Gelsinger. I know he is the best person to lead Intel right now. I know that because Gelsinger is very much a tech leader. He has visions for how things need to be and he can see how to get there. He knows that reducing costs and reaving product lines at Intel isn’t going to make them a better company down the road no matter what the activist investors have to say on the matter. They may have wanted regime change when they petitioned the board back in December, but they may find the new king a bit harder to deal with.

Gelsinger is also a manager. Going from CTO to being COO at EMC and eventually CEO at VMware has tempered his technical chops. You can’t hope to run a company on crazy ideas and risky bets. Steve Jobs had people like Tim Cook in the background keeping him as grounded in reality as possible. Gelsinger picked up these skills in helming VMware and I think that’s going to pay off for him at Intel. Rather than running out to buy another company to augment capabilities that will never see the light of day, someone like him can see the direction that Intel needs to go and make it happen in a collected manner. No more FPGA acquisitions that never bear fruit. No more embarrassing sales of the mobile chip division because no one could capitalize on it.

Pat Gelsinger is the best kind of technical manager. I saw it in the one conversation I was involved in with him during an event. He stepped in to a talk between myself and a couple of analysts. He listened to them and to me and when he was asked for his opinion, he stopped for a moment to think. He asked a question to clarify and then gave his answer. That’s a tempered leader approach to things. He listened. He thought. He clarified. And then he made a decision. That means there is steel behind the fire. That means the driving factors of the decision-making process aren’t just “cool stuff” or “save as much money as we can”. What will happen is the fusion of the two that the company needs to stay relevant in a world that seems bent on passing it by.


Tom’s Take

I’ve worked for managers and I’ve worked for leaders. I don’t have a preference for one or the other. I’ve seen leaders sell half their assets to save their company. I’ve also seen them buy ridiculous stuff in an effort to build something that no one would buy. I’ve seen managers keep things calm in the middle of a chaotic mess. I’ve also seen them so wracked with indecision that the opportunities they needed to capitalize on sailed off into the sunset. If you want to be the best person to run a company as the CEO, whether it’s a hundred people or a hundred thousand, you should look to someone like Pat Gelsinger. He’s the best combination of a manager and leader that I’ve seen in a long time. In five years we will be talking about how he was the one to bring Intel back to the top of the mountain, both through his leadership and his management skills.

Managing Automation – Fighting Fear of Job Justification

Dear Employees

 

We have decided to implement automation in our environment because robots and programs are way better than people. We will need you to justify your job in the next week or we will fire you and make you work in a really crappy job that doesn’t involve computers while we light cigars with dollar bills.

 

Sincerely, Management

The above letter is the interpretation of the professional staff of your organization when you send out the following email:

We are going to implement some automation concepts next week. What are some things you wish you could automate in your job?

Interpretations differ as to the intent of automation. Management likes the idea of their engineering staff being fully tasked and working on valuable projects. They want to know their people are doing something productive. And the people that aren’t doing productive stuff should either be finding something to do or finding a new job.

Professional staff likes being fully tasked and productive too. They want to be involved in jobs and tasks that do something cool or justify their existence to management. If their job doesn’t do that they get worried they won’t have it any longer.

So, where is the disconnect?

You Do Exist (Sort of)

The problem with these interpretations comes down to the job itself. Humans can get very good at repetitive, easy jobs. Assembly line works, quality testers, and even systems engineers are perfect examples of this. People love to do something over and over again that they are good at. They can be amazing when it comes to programming VLANs or typing out tweets for social media. And those are some pretty easy jobs!

Consistency is king when it comes to easy job tasks. When I can do it so well that I don’t have to think about things any more I’ve won. When it comes out the same way every time no matter how inattentive I am it’s even better. And if it’s a task that I can do at the same time or place every day or every week then I’m in heaven. Easy jobs that do themselves on a regular schedule are the key to being employed forever.

Automatic For The Programs

Where does that sound more familiar in today’s world? Why, automation of course! Automation is designed to make easy, repeatable jobs execute on a schedule or with a specific trigger. When that task can be done by a program that is always at work and never calls in sick or goes on vacation you can see the allure of it to management. You can also see the fear in the eyes of the professional that just found the perfect role full of easy jobs that can be scheduled on their calendar.

Hence the above interpretation of the automation email sample. People fear change. They fear automation taking away their jobs. Yet, the jobs that are perfect for automation are the kinds of things that shouldn’t be jobs in the first place. Professionals in a given discipline are much, much smarter than just doing something repetitively over and over again like VLAN modifications or IP addressing of interfaces. More importantly, automation provides consistency. Automation can be programmed to pull from the correct database or provide the correct configuration every time without worry of a transcription mistake or data entry in the wrong field.

People want these kinds of jobs because they afford two important things: justification of their existence and free time at work. The former ensures they get to have a paycheck. The latter gives them the chance to find some kind of joy in their job. Sure, you have some kind of repetitive task that you need to do every day like run a report or punch holes in a sheet of metal. But when you’re not doing that task you have the freedom to do fun stuff like learn about other parts of your job or just relax.

When you take away the job with automation, you take away the cover for the relaxation part. Now, you’ve upset the balance and forced people to find new things to do. And that means learning. Figuring out how to make tasks easy and repetitive again. And that’s not always possible. Hence the fear of automation and change.

Building A Better Path To Automation

How do we fix this mess? How can we motivate people to embrace automation? Well, it’s pretty simple:

  1. Help Your Team See The Need – If your teams think think they’re going to lose their jobs because of automation, they’re not going to embrace it. You need to show them that not only are they not going to lose their jobs but how automation will make their jobs easier and better. Remember to frame your arguments along the lines of removing mistakes and not needing to worry about justifying your existence in a role. That should encourage everyone to look for new challenges to overcome.
  2. Show the Value – This goes with the first part somewhat, but more than showing the need for automation with mistake reduction or schedule easing, you also need to show value. If a person has never made a mistake or has built their schedule around repetitive tasks they are going to hate automation. Show them what they can do now that their roles don’t have to focus on the old stuff they did. Help them look at where they can provide additional value. Even if it starts off by monitoring the automation platform to make sure it’s executing correctly. Maybe the value they can provide is finding new things to automate!
  3. Embrace the Future – Automation allows people to learn how to do new things. They can focus on new skills or roles that help support the business in a better way. More automation means more complexity to understand but also a chance for people to shine in new roles. The right people will see a challenge as something to be overcome. Help them set new goals. Help them get where they want to be. You’ll be surprised how quickly they will get there with the right leadership.

Tom’s Take

Automation isn’t going to steal jobs. It will force people to examine their tasks and decide how important they really are. The people that were covering their basic roles and trying to skate by are going to leave no matter what. Even if your automation push fails these marginal people are going to leave for greener pastures thanks to the examination of what they’re actually doing. Don’t let the pushback discourage you in the short term. Automation isn’t the goal. Automation is the tool to get you to the true goal of a smoother, more responsive team that accomplishes more and can reacher higher goals.