People are More Important than Things

For me, it all started with the simple idea that people are more important than things. How many times, I wonder, did I say that to my kids?

Right now, to me, it seems like only yesterday. A roaring blizzard had us stuck inside our New York apartment for what seemed like months. Andrew was four and a half, Marni just past a year. But, on the day in question, I learned a fundamental truth about teaming from those two unlikely mentors.

A neighbor’s daughter was visiting, and she and Andrew were deeply engaged in reconfiguring the living room furniture, to create a veritable city of interlocking tents. I knew enough to keep my architectural sensibilities to myself. So, I took Marni into another room and read ‘Hop on Pop’ for the fifty thousandth time. And then the phone rang…

Just moments into the conversation, I heard a lot of giggling, some mysterious crunching sounds, and then a wail… MOMMY…. She’s smashing our tents….

I dropped the phone, put my senior negotiator hat on, and went to investigate, ever hopeful that I could bring peace in my lifetime. If not world peace, at least some level of domestic tranquility.

But it was not to happen in that way. I tried all my best lines. ‘She’s too young to understand.’ ‘Big brothers protect their little sisters.’ ‘Mommy is getting a colossal headache and it’s going to be nap time in three minutes!!’

Of course, my little defendant-in-training was determined to fight back, and unfortunately for me, his little mind had had been carefully nurtured in the arts of persuasion.

He started by recapping the situation. “Mommy, we were building a Very Important part of our project (sounding as if the enterprise was being funded by Peter Thiel.) And she just came in and smashed it flat. And when I tried to reason with her and get her to do some work, she just ran away screaming.”

In an instant, I understood. This was no different than things I had seen happen in the workplace.

What had gone wrong?

First, there was a team on a mission: to build whatever their vision told them to.

Second, they had clearly defined whose responsibility was what.

Third, they were having a great time. You might even say that they were engaged and highly productive!

But then their team was descended upon by someone who could not possibly contribute to any of their needs.

Marni was not a great fit for the mission of the team, and didn’t have an appreciation for its mission, so instead of supporting the team’s drive to succeed, she wound up being a roadblock – leaving everyone frustrated and unhappy.

Generational change in the workplace can lead to problems like this, due to increasingly divergent views of what’s really important and how best to get things done. But that’s not the fundamental problem. The real problem is that if the needs of the team – as a living, breathing thing – are not made clear, and accepted by all, its mission is at risk.

As the late Madeleine L’Engle said, “You have to write the book that wants to be written. And if the book will be too difficult for grown-ups, then you write it for children.” She was not only my children’s favorite author, she was also mine, and an inspiration to me as a very young writer. This was an idea I wanted to share with you, with thanks to my (now very adult) children for teaming with me in the learning adventure called life.

What I Learned From My First Seven Jobs

There’s a meme making its way around the web in which people name their first seven jobs. Such recollections often involve typical teenage ventures like mowing lawns and selling lemonade. Sometimes people even brand them as ‘my first entrepreneurial journey,’ or claim to have gained great insight from the experience. I won’t. Because the fact is, I really did not want to do any of my first seven. I didn’t do them for love. At the time, I was strictly in it for the money.

That doesn’t mean I can’t recast them now, in the light of how I might have (with stress on ‘might’) learned something that’s now indispensable to my business self. Can’t say with any honesty that any of these jobs were truly meaningful, to me or the world, in any way. Certainly none of them were even remotely as soul-fulfilling as what I’m doing now.

First job: Babysitter. I was thirteen, and ‘teen’ was my primary qualification. Well, that, plus my ability to play the gender card. Babysitting, perhaps the only job in which girls were the preferred candidates over boys, was easy to get…especially in the summer. It consisted mainly of sitting on the porch, swatting mosquitos, reading trashy novels, and hoping that all the kids stayed asleep – and I stayed awake – until the parents came home.

Lesson learned: Taking care of other people’s kids is boring. Note to self, do not try to manage interns when you can get someone else to do it.

Second, I was an office girl. That is not a misprint. It was an actual job title. The office girl was the one who was expected to answer the phone and smile. She was not expected to lift packages or get within a mile of any heavy machinery. Ok, so there are tradeoffs in everything. I did learn the fundamentals of bookkeeping, pre-QuickBooks.

Lesson learned: It is important to know who the real boss is. In family companies, it’s the guy whose name is on the papers in the locked file, not the one you report to who you call ‘Mister’ and everyone else calls ‘Sonny.’ Unless, that is, his name really is Sonny.

Third, I was a bookkeeping assistant. Now, to dissuade anyone who’s thinking, “Aha, she really knows how to build a resume,” I want you to know I got this job because the overworked bookkeeper was my aunt. (Side note: the previous job was gotten because a friend of mother’s wanted to take whole the summer off. They really wanted her to come back, so they agreed. I don’t know what she told them about me, but I suspect she added a few years to my real age – fifteen at the time.)

Lesson learned: If you make a bookkeeping mistake, you absolutely, positively, have to correct it. Because in some areas of business, there are no secrets. (I learned some other stuff in that job too, about boys who were planning to be the Sonny in their dad’s business, but that stuff is not for this publication at this time.)

So I had gained real experience in the world of business. I knew how to calculate taxes and manage a payroll, where the most important thing was getting the right amount in each pay envelope. I knew how to write a deposit slip for my bank account, which paid interest. And I knew that I needed to graduate college because no way was I ever going to learn to type.

My fourth job really wasn’t much of a job, in that it had no other requirement than being a college freshman. But it brought in more money than babysitting, so it counts. The job consisted of being an experimental psychology subject. And here I came away with more than just cash. I figured out their trade secret!

Lesson learned: No matter how authoritative someone looks, do not believe them until they have proved themselves to be unassailably trustworthy. (This was quite useful in a time when ‘question authority’ and ‘don’t trust anyone over 30’ were wildly popular slogans of youth culture.)

Fifth job (so soon?):  A couple of college instructors had a side gig finding smart young people to do intensely boring work that required high-level reading ability. The job was called ‘Survey Answer Coder’ and yes, I qualified. In fact, I was probably close to the edge of being overqualified, at least in the reading dimension.

Lesson learned: Just because you can do something doesn’t mean that you should. Because life is short, and bored is a terrible way to live. Even for a four-hour shift.

Next in line – I took on the job of a nanny, making my sixth job the first one I ever accepted, knowing I would hate it. Now if you have been reading attentively, you know that I was not a great match for babysitting. But I was in college, I needed money, and I was still a girl. Who couldn’t type.

Lesson learned: Job title does not matter. How you are expected to interact with other people, including children, matters. A lot.

Mercifully, I finally graduated. My major in psychology qualified me for two jobs. One was ‘research assistant,’ which meant I would have to type at least 35 words a minute. (Apparently most non-typists could do this, as long as they knew the alphabet.) I ended up doing the other one because it paid more and typing was optional.

And so my seventh job was as a social worker in a major city with more than its share of social problems. I don’t think I solved any, although I know that in some people’s minds, I probably added to them. Turned out that social change or benefit really wasn’t even on my employer’s agenda, so I joined the union and helped organize.

Lesson learned: The lesser of two evils is still evil. And nothing is more evil than not being able to make meaningful contributions to something bigger than yourself.

I am, of course, a lot older now. And maybe even a tad wiser. There have been a lot of jobs between number 7 and the one I have now. While those lessons learned in my youth are still valid, I now have a much bigger context in which to put them. That context is teaming: understanding it; doing it; and sharing it.

The lessons are simple. And like many good things, they come in three.

1. People do best what they like best and they like best what they do best. No matter how smart and talented you are, you are still not an exception.

2. If there is not enough excitement in what you do – or if there is too much, in which case you will feel it as stress – you will neither enjoy it nor be able to give it your best.

3. The more your job requires you to interact with others – whether they be managers, fellow employees, customers, or other stakeholders – in ways that don’t feel right, or that you do not value, the less you will feel good about yourself.

Keep these three lessons front and center, and you’ll likely discover the secret of happiness. Because if you’ve never had them all going for you, maybe your real job is being an entrepreneur.

Make Failing a Daily Habit

If you’re looking for a rah-rah success read, you’re on the wrong page. However, if you stay, I promise you won’t be sorry.

I love failure. And I am an expert at it.

I fail every single day. Sometimes I do it more than once, which makes me even happier.

So now you may be asking yourself, has DrJ slipped a gear or what?

Nope. You’re getting, as they say on Twitter, #TRUTH.

Because if you are not failing, you are not trying hard enough.

Or, as the poet Robert Browning, suitor of the elusive Elizabeth Barrett, wrote: “Ah, but a man’s reach should exceed his grasp, or what’s a heaven for?” (Spoiler alert: He did marry her despite robust parental interference, and apparently the result was quite heavenly.)

So, what’s your excuse for not failing?

In an informal survey I just completed, I found that the reasons for not failing fall into three bins.

Some people just don’t see their failures. Or shortcomings. Or, for that matter, reality, in its many shapes and forms. Now actually, this is failing, but in such a way that it does no one any good. You can’t learn from something you never noticed, so it doesn’t count in my book. Also, in the long run, it makes for a lonely life. Sharing our frailties is a great way to make friends. How cool is it to have the freedom to share who you are, warts and all, with someone, and to know that they’ll still want to hang out with you?

Then there is the Bizarro World strategy, where everything is opposite. Instead of ‘You can’t win if you don’t try’, they recite ‘You can’t fail if you avoid participating.’ At work, these are the folks who clock in; drink a lot of coffee; grouse about office politics or the weather or any of the million other things that add no value, and over which they have no control. By the end of the day they might have managed to fit in some modestly productive activities. But maybe if they attempted something big, or at least new, and failed at it, and repeated the cycle a few times, eventually they’d discover what really living is about.

The third group is made up of those who do participate, but never bite off more than they can chew. And swallow. And digest. (How is this possible? Maybe it’s genetics, like curly hair or funny shaped toes.) Pristine resumes that show ‘progressive levels of responsibility’ and other things that HR managers love, are carefully cultivated by these folks. They would never, ever get involved in anything so messy as multiple career changes, startup ventures, or traveling to the steppes of Central Asia to study the history and culture of yurt-dwelling Mongolian nomads.

Becoming an entrepreneur is how I discovered that failing isn’t nearly as bad as people think. You can fail and do better next time. You can fail in one area while making huge progress in another. You can fail, and in the process, discover that your true meaning in life is totally not what you’ve been doing for the past X number of years, and be utterly grateful for that life-changing fail. And I’m pretty lucky, because that’s what happened to me, and now I get to work every day with a bunch of awesome people who have no fear of failure.

We accept failure willingly because the heaven we’re reaching for is really, really far from our grasp. And we’re not going to be satisfied by lowering the goalpost. In fact, we’d like to raise it even higher.

The fact is, getting there may only be 10% of the fun. The other 90% is in the striving, the sharing, and the everyday satisfaction of beautiful teamwork.

Three Questions for Performance Management

Ask any manager about their least favorite tasks, and more than likely they’ll put performance evaluations at or near the top of the list.

Why? Lots of reasons, not the least of which is the ‘Gotcha!’: an assumption that you need to find something deficient in each staff member, and come up with a prescription for fixing it, thereby improving performance. All too often, you’re going to find something that the person thinks they are doing very well (and they may be right), or something they have no interest in doing better. At worst, you’re expected to assign tasks or reassign job responsibilities to develop one person’s undesired something, which may well be a task or a job that someone else on your team really enjoys (or would enjoy) doing!

Here’s an even better approach. Just ask these three questions:

  • Are you doing enough of what you like?
  • Are you doing too much of what you don’t like?
  • What can we do to change these things and make them better?

If someone isn’t doing enough of what they really like, they are probably:

(a) in the wrong job,

(b) looking for another job,

(c) not very productive, or

(d) all of the above!

If someone on your team is doing too much of what they don’t like, the problem may not reside in the individual, but rather, in the team. The causes: a team that is missing people with key needed Roles; the team’s vision, mission, or goals have not been communicated clearly enough; or, there is less-than-optimal coherence on the team.

The good news is that you can change these conditions and make the team work better for everyone.

Start with a little team analysis: Teamability® Self-coaching reports for the whole team, yourself included. Then compare who you have (the Roles) with what you need (the right Roles for the team’s mission). Finally, look at what needs to be done, figure which person is best prepared (by Role) to achieve each need, and confirm with people that they have the right tools – and teammates – to do their job better.

The whole point of performance evaluation is to improve performance. Try this approach and the improvement will be obvious to management, to your staff, and to you!

You want ‘Team Chemistry’? Start with Biology and Physics!

Forbes’ publisher Rich Karlgaard drew a line in the sand when he launched an article entitled Teams Matter, Talent Is Not Enough. And then along came the brilliant research of Adam Grant, set forth in his NY Times best-seller Give and Take. Dr. Grant proved that, contrary to a particularly nasty old adage, nice people frequently finish first.

I see these two writings (and waves of commentary along the same lines) as the beginning of the end of the ‘hire-only-the-best-and-brightest’ era. For the longest time, hiring has been all about talents, traits, skills, education, and experience. Now, we’re returning to a more complex and enlightened place in which the way a person ‘teams’ is gaining attention and awareness for its critical value.

People speak wistfully about ‘team spirit’, as if it were a kind of magic spell that could be cast by only the most enlightened of leaders or coaches. Now the phrase ‘team chemistry’ is coming back into vogue, and that’s a lot closer to the truth. Teamwork does indeed embody chemistry.

Not ‘I like you” chemistry. Real hard-science chemistry, and biology, and physics.

Biology has given you some inborn drives. One of them drives you to learn and master your world. Another drives you to connect with other people. Put the two together and you get the basic reason humans form teams. Including, by the way, that most basic of teams: the twosome.

Physics, which is essentially the science of how stuff works, explains a lot about the way to build a physical structure (or infrastructure) that won’t collapse when an earthquake or tornado hits. Think of what that takes. Strong parts connect with other strong parts in a very strong way. (Okay, that won’t get you an engineering degree, but it’s at the core of building anything complex. And you can’t have a team with just one person, right? You’ve got the drift, right?)

For the moment, let’s just focus in on that ‘very strong connect’ part. In human beings, that’s called interdependency. It’s what causes us to lean on each other and not topple over when bad things happen – like economic tremors causing our employer’s ‘Richter scale’ to register above 4.5.

So, just to review before we get to the midterms…

We have people with fundamental biological drives, which vary. (We can measure that variance, thanks to a new ‘team science’ that applies to any team in any kind of organization.)  And these drives operate within the framework of a team, and fundamental elements of teamwork, which follow the rules of physics.

Now we’re ready to tackle chemistry.

Even if high school or college chemistry is just a faded memory for you, you might be familiar with the principal of valence, aka covalent bonding. Or (depending on when you went to school) molecular orbital theory, which begat modern valence bond theory. No matter the name, or the level of detail in scientifically explaining how atoms form molecules, valence is about attraction. The most important thing you need to know about attraction between two entities is that it happens because there are physical forces that come into play to balance out an unstable imbalance. This creates ‘completeness.’

When you understand the teaming energy that is inherent in each person on the team, then you can predict how they will handle adversity, change, or just plain old stress. You can also predict the focus and drive they will apply to the fulfillment of a team mission. In the language of Teamability® these attributes are called ‘Role’.

Ready for team chemistry? Here’s the formula:

In humans, ‘completeness’ happens on a team after you get the right biology, e.g., people motivated to do something big with a team, into the right physical configuration.

Since each Role exhibits a complementary (balancing and energizing) influence on one other Role, add only the Roles that are most appropriate to the team’s mission, and introduce them all to each other so that each can find their ‘Role-pair’.

Then step back and watch the sparks fly!