personal development

Mastering The New Mindset

It's no secret that among a lot of people, it's a fairly common sentiment to regard the managers as overly ambitious people who require to get paid a lot for no reason and at the same time are of questionable value to the organization (as opposed to, say, engineers, that are doing the actual work). I don't have any desire to argue for or against this position tonight. Rather, as someone who's currently (gradually) transitioning from being being purely an individual contributor to the more leadership oriented roles, I've found that there are a few skills that seem to be very difficult to truly master for a lot of managers. I feel that it might explain, at least to a certain extent, why the (good) managers are so much in demand, and are often worth a lot to the organizations they lead.

1. Learning to let go. Most of us start their careers as individual contributors, which often means that it falls onto us to do the work on the ground and focus on getting all the details right. It also provides us with a reasonable degree of control of the final output (at least for the specific piece we're in charge of). As we advance in our career, however, the situations when we need to rely on the results of the work done by others, be it our peers, or people who report to us, keep arising more and more frequently. Making the mental transition in order to accept and embrace that - learning how to delegate and refraining from the desire to micromanage - often turns out to be extremely hard, and the new mindset might take years to fully master.

2. Learning to control your ego. This is another core issue many people (myself included) struggle a lot with. For me personally, it's not so much about the need to force my views and ideas upon the people around me, but rather about the desire to feel that I'm contributing in a meaningful way. That, however, can be just as dangerous, and again, this is a habit that takes a long time to unlearn.

3. Dealing with the lack of immediate gratification. Finally, I feel that one of the biggest challenges for a lot of people entering management is the reduced amount of immediate gratification that comes with their new positions. I'm not saying that management can't be a rewarding career - it absolutely can and should be - rather, the emphasis here is on the word 'immediate'. This issue is, to a significant extent, tied to the previous points I've made above. When we work as individual contributors, we are often responsible for taking care of specific items on the agenda. We might not have a direct way to influence the agenda itself (and that can be at times frustrating), but at least we can feel good once we are done working on this presentation, or writing that sprint of code.

However, as we find ourselves in a setting that requires managing a team, we often discover that those achievements don't belong to us anymore, but are rather the accomplishments of our team members or subordinates. What that means is that we no longer can feel the gratification stemming from striking a specific thing off our to-do lists, as those aren't not actually our to-do lists anymore. Instead, we have to learn to give credit to the people around us (while still taking responsibility for the failure, if need be), and teach ourselves to focus on the longer-term objectives and the broader picture. This is something that can be incredibly motivating in the long run, but it definitely requires a lot of work to get into this mindset, and is by no means easy to do.

On Communication Style: Pushing The Limits Of Discussion

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Lately, I’ve been finding myself thinking a lot on what would be the most productive way to run meetings that involve possible conflicts and require pushing the boundaries. The exact nature of the meeting doesn't matter that much - it could be an informal discussion, a brainstorming session or a heated public debate - the question on how to best handle it to get the most out of it still remains.

My inclination in the past was almost always to focus on getting to the core of the argument as fast as possible, and than to relentlessly push the discussion forward. This often meant that was it's all right to shoot down the ideas, and the conflict was to be welcomed, not shied away from.

And for a while, this approach worked fine for me - at least as long as I continued to work in venture capital. However, when I started venturing outside of that world, it turned out that many things that worked fine in VC didn't necessarily yield the same results in the different kinds of environments I started finding myself in. I believe that it had a lot to do with some of the specifics of the setting I grew accustomed to: in VC, you typically have to deal with relatively strict hierarchy, and a lot of ambiguity, coupled with time and resource constraints, plus you're constantly surrounded by A-type personality people.

Other environments, however, are not necessarily like that. In business school, big tech or even at many startups, you might not have a clear hierarchy, instead collaborating with a lot of people who are your peers, not your bosses or subordinates. You also often have more resources (and time) to explore different areas, but at the same time have to make longer commitments once you decide to go with a particular idea. Next, not everyone around you has an A-type personality (and not everyone lives to work either), which means you have to be a bit more cognizant of other people's needs and priorities. Finally, it's important to remember that your conduct can sometimes actually offend people - something that is a bit less of an issue if you work in an high stakes environment like venture capital, where many people develop thicker skin over time.

For me, getting accustomed to this new environment turned out to be somewhat challenging. Interestingly enough, I actually do appreciate many of the things I highlighted above - as an INTJ, strongly skewed towards introversion, I didn't always feel comfortable in the heated discussions of the VC world. At the same time, over the years I had learned to appreciate the benefits that often came with having intense, frank, ‘cut to the heart of the issue’ discussions, and didn't want to give those benefits up, unless I could see for myself how adopting a different communication approach would allow me to achieve even better results.

In my previous post, I touched on one example of a situation when being inclusive and open to new ideas, even if you believe that you already know they won't work, might benefit you and your team in the long run: if your goal is to bring in new and unconventional ideas, it makes a lot of sense to ensure that you're creating a safe environment for everyone to feel comfortable sharing their insights in; and then you can always revisit the viability of those ideas later.

Another example of a situation where focusing on having a nicer, calmer discussion can be critical I can think of is working cross-functionally, something that is extremely common in the tech world. If, say, you are a Product Manager at a tech company, you have to interact with software developers, designers, as well as sales and marketing people on the daily basis. However, in most cases, none of those people report to you directly, which means that often the only way to make them co-operate with you is by gaining their trust and respect first, something that would be extremely hard to do if you have a harsh and authoritative communication style, no matter how smart you are.

This is something I've witnessed at Microsoft over the summer: in a company of 100,000+ people your networks and the reputation you’ve built for yourself are no less important that the skills or ideas that you bring to the table. You can't hope to lead any kind of meaningful change without winning the people's trust first, and you won't be able to achieve that unless you first learn to have inclusive discussions, and to attract people instead of alienating them.

The same goes for the business school environment: while you might consider yourself the smartest person in the room, others most definitely won't take it for granted, plus, for that matter, a lot of people might not even care. Therefore, it's essential to figure out how to become more open-minded and inclusive, otherwise, the impact you'd have would most likely remain very limited (plus, you'd risk gaining a nasty reputation among your peers).

At the same time, I continue to believe that we shouldn't shy away from the conflict just because they make people feel uncomfortable. Some of the best ideas were born in the most heated discussions; by arguing, we can often uncover the insights that would otherwise stay hidden, generate exciting new ideas or even simply express our views better. This isn't limited to one's workplace - arguments represent an extremely important and useful tool in practically every sphere of our lives. What I’m learning to appreciate more these days, though, is the importance of remaining polite, listening hard and being ready to change my mind if the other side’s ideas prove to be sound. Whether we intimidate others by arguing with them - or elevate them - is entirely up to us.

To quote from Bret Stephens' lecture delivered at the Lowy Institute Media Award dinner (the full text of the lecture can be found here):

"To say the words, “I agree” — whether it’s agreeing to join an organization, or submit to a political authority, or subscribe to a religious faith — may be the basis of every community.

But to say, I disagree; I refuse; you’re wrong; etiam si omnes — ego non — these are the words that define our individuality, give us our freedom, enjoin our tolerance, enlarge our perspectives, seize our attention, energize our progress, make our democracies real, and give hope and courage to oppressed people everywhere. Galileo and Darwin; Mandela, Havel, and Liu Xiaobo; Rosa Parks and Natan Sharansky — such are the ranks of those who disagree."

The Rubber Band Theory

A few weeks again, I came by the brilliant TED talk called "The power of introverts", done by Susan Cain, which in turn got me interested in her book, "Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can't Stop Talking". While Susan's TED talk gives a good overview of many of her book's insights, I could easily recommend the "Quiet" to anyone even remotely interested in the topic: it's a great read, and the amount of insights and actionable advice packed into the book is at times astonishing (and I've only got half through it so far).

As an introvert that at times struggles with the society's expectations and requirements (attending business school, an environment notoriously famous for pushing even the extraverts out of their comfort zones, doesn't help), I found many things that Susan discusses in the book to be extremely relevant to me, but here is one quote in particular that I wanted to share with you:

"[Dr.] Schwartz’s research suggests something important: we can stretch our personalities, but only up to a point. Our inborn temperaments influence us, regardless of the lives we lead. A sizable part of who we are is ordained by our genes, by our brains, by our nervous systems. And yet the elasticity that Schwartz found in some of the high-reactive teens also suggests the converse: we have free will and can use it to shape our personalities.

We might call this the “rubber band theory” of personality. We are like rubber bands at rest. We are elastic and can stretch ourselves, but only so much."

I find this "rubber band theory" metaphor brilliant. While this insight might look trivial to some, this is actually a relatively recent discovery; it's also something that eluded the scientists for a long time. For years, many people either believed that the personality is something that's entirely shaped by the environment, or that, while there is a genetic component to it, the environment and person's free will still play an overwhelming role in shaping one's personality. Well, as it turns out, this is only true up to a point.

Some might find this fact disheartening, as it means that one doesn't necessarily possess a full control over his own personality, no matter how much effort she applies. But to me, that's not the point. The "Quiet" provides enough evidence to prove that being an introvert shouldn't be seen as an issue: while there are some disadvantages associated with it, the advantages are no less significant. That, coupled with the results of Dr. Schwartz research, suggests that instead of trying to completely revamp our personalities to fit whatever image of ourselves we have in our heads (something that often proves to be impossible to do anyways), we would be much better off focusing on learning how to utilize what we traits we already possess to our advantage.