Sep 292011

Challenging Authority

Challenging Authority

My dad told me a joke once about a kid who as a teenager thought his father was the dumbest person he’d ever met. But then, as the punchline goes, “By the time I’d graduated college, it was amazing how much the old man had learned.”

The older we get as humans, the more we realize how little we know — and how fallible we are. One of our 13 core values at Return Path gets right to the heart of this one:

We challenge complacency, mediocrity, and decisions that don’t make sense

I will note up front that this particular value statement is probably not as widely practiced as most of the others I’m writing about in this series of posts, but it’s as important as any of the others.

Very few things make me happier at work than when an employee challenges me or another leader — and quite frankly, the more junior and less well I know the employee, the better. No matter what the role, we hire smart, ambitious, and intellectually curious people to work at Return Path. Why let all that raw brainpower go to waste?  We thrive as a company in part because we are all trying to do a better job, and because we work with our eyes open to the things happening around us.

I have no doubt that some real percentage of the decisions that I or other leaders of the company make don’t make sense, either in full or in part. And I’m sure that from time to time we become complacent with things that are running smoothly or quietly, even if they’re not optimal or even moderately destructive.  That’s why I’m particularly grateful when someone calls me out on something. We have made great strides in and changes to the business over the years because someone on the team has challenged something. We’ve terminated employees who were poisonous to the organization, we’ve reversed course on strategic plans, we’ve even sold a business unit.

One of the things we do well is blend this value with one I wrote about a few weeks ago about being kind and respectful to each other.  The two play together very nicely in our culture.  People are generally constructive when they have feedback to give or are challenging authority, and people who receive feedback or challenges assume positive intent and nothing personal.  We specifically train people around these delicate balances both via the Action/Design framework and a specific course we teach called Giving and Receiving Feedback.

It takes courage to challenge authority. But then again, nothing great is ever accomplished in life without courage (and enthusiasm, so the old adage goes).

Jun 022011

Try It On For Size

Try It On For Size

I’ve always been a big fan of taking a decision or a change in direction I’m contemplating and trying it on for size.  Just as you never know how a pair of pants is really going to fit until you slip them on in a dressing room, I think you need to see how decisions feel once you’re closing in on them.

Here’s why:  decisions have consequences.  No matter how prescient leaders are, no matter if they’ve been trained in chess-like (three-moves-ahead) thinking, they can almost never perfectly foresee all the downstream reactions and effects of decisions.  Figuring out how to create “mental fittings” is a skill that I think is critical for CEOs and other leaders.

When I try something on for size, I’m usually trying to accomplish one of a few things.  Sometimes, I’m simply trying to see how words sound when they come out of my mouth.  As Homer Simpson periodically muses, “did I think that, or did I say that out loud?”  There’s no substitute for articulating a new phrase, or theory, out in the open and seeing if it sounds the way YOU expect it to.  Other times, I’m trying to see how different messages or stories play with different audiences.  Will employees think it’s exciting when we announce X, or scary, or confusing?  Will a customer understand the new positioning of our company when you include the new product?  Will investors understand the story in 9 words or less?  Finally, there are times when my objective in trying something on for size is to understand specific downstream effects of a decision.  Throwing something out into the open and taking copious notes as people give you their “blink” concerns and reactions are invaluable.

Of course, the main thing to avoid when trying decisions or changes in direction on for size is creating chaos!  There are a few ways to create chaos.  One is by having your “try it on for size” conversation with an employee turn into a de facto decision because the employee takes your words and then deliberately acts on them.

Alternatively, the same thing could happen inadvertently because even though the employee knows intellectually not to act on your comments, he or she starts to incorporate them subconsciously, thinking they are likely to become the law of the land.

Another is by creating false expectations and disappointment if you decide an idea doesn’t fit when you try it on, and then you scrap it, leaving behind a trail of the idea for others to see and discuss.  All the same can be said with customers or investors or any other stakeholder.  Your words as CEO or any kind of a leader can be quite powerful, and trying something on for size can have real unintended consequences if not done carefully.

In all cases, the best antidotes are communication and judgment.  Make sure if you are trying something on for size internally that you communicate early and often to your audience that all you are doing is just that – trying something on, and follow up with people afterwards to make sure your intent really sunk in.  But judgment is also critical.  Pick your target audience for a fitting on carefully, make sure to blend trusted internal AND external associates, and make sure to rotate who you talk to about new things so you don’t develop a consistent bias in your idea generation.

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