Director of Slide-Greasing

Hopefully, you had a spectacular summer and a wonderful holiday weekend. If you’re in the US, Happy Labor Day! Now, it’s back to work! 

In honor of Labor Day week, I thought we should consider the ways that we think about employees. One of my clients, “Vijay”, is head of engineering in a SaaS startup. His predecessor set an unfortunate precedent. In daily standups engineers were simply told what to do next. No discussion. If they encountered problems, they had to consult the boss before making any changes.

When Vijay took over he found a team of order-taking soldiers. Their own decision-making skills had atrophied from disuse. But, he needed them to regain that. In other words, Vijay was intent on each engineer reaching his or her full potential. But, like kidnap victims, they weren’t asking for freedom, but for instructions.

We started crafting a set of heuristics Vijay could show them to assess their work and make decisions. Bit by bit, they began to grow. Coding velocity increased. Within the next 3 months they added a robust, new, machine-learning capability to the product.

Big Picture


Leaders get to choose how they view their employees. That chosen context will dictate everything about leader’s and team’s behavior and results. Although there are probably innumerable ways to view your employees in relation to yourself, there are two that I frequently encounter.

One set of leaders is largely focused on the organization’s strategic trajectory. They constantly scan the horizon for opportunities to improve the organization or team’s position. While this is a critical perspective, when it dominates our attention we skip the nuts and bolts and jump straight to the outcomes. This line-of-sight hovers above the granularity where obstacles and friction reside.

But nothing happens in that “macro” reality. Dunbar’s number applies to organizations, just as it does society. Even a 100,000 person company gets things done via the micro– in relationships between individuals, small teams and processes.

Employee as Instrument


Another leader type is more like Vijay’s predecessor. They are focused on a specific kind of minutiae: spreadsheets and compliance.

Employees are the tools with which to achieve things– a means to an end. They serve the needs of the current goal or strategy.

For Instrumentalists, when the results are great the kudos belong to the leader. When they are poor, the fault belongs to the employees.

Contexts


One of our greatest capabilities as humans is the ability to invent frames, or contexts through which to see the world.  

When viewed “Big Picture”, the strategic plan, its milestones, and current outcomes are data on a graph. The delta between plan and reality is abstract. And correcting those issues usually feels like we should extract more work, effort, or hours from our employees.

But that can leave stubborn problems to languish. Friction, which is usually in the details, remains in place. The leader is at arm’s length from the team and won’t wade into the weeds.

The instrumental leader is different. She sees the employees as tools to be controlled. Instrumentalist leaders often infantilize their employees and micromanage them. That approach certainly reduces risk. But it deadens innovation. If a leader’s ideas are the entire remit, no other ideas emerge.
Moreover, micromanaged employees hoard their observations and solutions. Problems and opportunities stay hidden.

Slide-Greasing


In truth, no matter the organization, employees ultimately create the value. While the leaders may craft strategy and make deals, the work of the business gets done at the atomic level of the person. Those individuals are comparable to the driver-plus-race-car unit on a track.

When you view your team that way, the questions change from being about outcomes or compliance, to addressing acceleration.

  • How can I free them to speed up?
  • Is there anything slowing them that I can remove?
  • How can I clear the track?

From this perspective, leaders aren’t trying to extract more value, but to remove any impediment.  [Click to tweet this thought]

The Prerequisites


Two things set the table for this context:

  • Employees know how the organization creates value.
  • They have the autonomy to advance that strategy.

At Semco, in Brazil, CEO Ricardo Semler creates the strategy with his employees. He says, When you treat employees as adults they will reciprocate and go the extra mile without needing to be asked.

Reed Hastings and Patty McCord built Netflix based on the premise that adults can make good decisions. Once they understood the value proposition, there was no need to police employees. They had one heuristic that applied to everything: Is it in the best interest of Netflix?

That enabled employees to decide how best to use their unlimited vacation; and which expenditures were appropriate to charge to their uncapped credit cards.

Ed Catmull, co-founder of Pixar, has boiled down his own role to a single objective: Free creativity. He is constantly looking for whatever could be in the way of that goal.

Two Lenses and A Frame


It’s straightforward. Leaders must look through both perspectives:

  • Through a telescope, to the strategic horizon, and its implications.
  • Through a microscope for the source of friction.

But neither of those views is enough. Ultimately, context is definitive.

If a leader sees employees as value producers,  then either lens can discern obstacles worth removing. With that perspective, we see our leadership as  slide-greasing!

From the perspective of the Macro, those obstacles are slowing the growth trajectory. Obstacles can be anywhere—in processes, bureaucracy, controls, etc.

Systemic blocks are corrosive.

The microscopic lens allows us to find hidden sources of friction.

But since that information resides in the collective experience of each employee and team, leaders honor the value their people create by spending time with them. Management by “Wandering Around” works, because it creates the vehicle for unplanned conversations in which employees share their knowledge.

You may never be able to write code, but you can find out why your engineers are struggling and how you can reduce the struggle.
You might never answer a Help Desk call, but you can ask your CSRs what is pissing off customers.

For the “Director of Slide-Greasing” this approach moves mountains.

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