This morning, I texted Cory the following:
Remember to have fun today, bro. Especially during the dress rehearsal. We’ve got four-five months of ready-aim-fire-aim-fire in front of us and your first of many ideas is already going well.
The posture/vibe to try on for the meeting is “how can we work better together to make this great?” vs. “how do we avoid forking this up?”
Given emotional contagion, your vibe matters.
I typically don’t talk about our team interactions, but there’s a lot going on here that I thought would be useful for managers and leaders to see and be reminded of. As we continue to navigate the new world of work and create teams we want to be a part of, it’s imperative that we leaders and managers help our teams get out of scarcity and survival mode.
The Love/Hate Position of Leading Projects That Matter
The background context of the interaction is that we’ve set some high targets for this year’s planner season and have already invested significantly more time, energy, attention, and money in order for this to be our best year ever. Cory carries a lot of the responsibility to see our campaigns through and has done a great job of weaving some new campaigns into our standard launch playbook. The campaigns are in his product marketing wheelhouse and he’s had enough time with us such that he’s not riding with too many training wheels anymore. This season is thus testing both our ability to pick great strategies and to execute them well.
It’s not all on him, not by a long shot, but he’s driving this project and its success is strategically imperative for some of our plans. He’s in the love/hate position that many leaders want to be: he gets to drive and do work that really matters AND how he does the work and what happens also matters.
I also happen to know that Cory takes way too much responsibility for things that are outside of his control. I hired him because he takes responsibility and initiative to get stuff done, but given that he’s my best friend of a decade, I also knew that there’d be ample times where I’d need to talk him off the ledge and have him let go to enjoy the fun of the moment.
Cory knows this about himself, too, so he asked us to help him not stress the fork out over the next few weeks while we’re in launch prep and execution. I’ve already been doing this for the last few weeks as we were filming our video short in Salt Lake City, but big props to him for knowing himself and feeling safe enough to ask for what he really needs.
So my reminder wasn’t a random and/or merely patronizing check-in: it was doing a job my friend/co-worker asked me to do.
Choosing to Coach Rather than Direct
What’s also in this interaction is my acting in my more native leadership posture as coach/advisor vs. directive manager. While there are times that I switch postures to have a more directive posture, it’s typically done out of expedience or service to the team. There are moments and contexts in which the coach/advisor posture isn’t the right one. In most of our 1:1 interactions where we have ample time, though, the coach/advisor posture is what’s most natural for me and appreciated for Cory, Angela, and Steve. It’s natural for me because I spend about half of my time coaching and advising clients.
Aside from it being my familiar and practiced leadership posture, the main reason I prefer the coach/advisor posture to the directive one is that coaching/advising builds competency whereas the directive posture channels competency. Given the choice between merely channeling competency versus building competency, I’m always going to choose the latter. Not only is it the best for my teammates, but it’s also best for Future Charlie who won’t have the time, energy, attention, or will to be directive.
So, in that interaction, you see a few things: a nudge, a couple of perspective shifts, affirmation of the great head start he already has, and a “why” behind the nudge. I didn’t consciously try to include all those elements — it’s just the way I natively talk. (Yes, it annoys people who aren’t in an explicit or implicit coaching relationship, and, yes, I have to consciously turn it off.)
Ready-Fire-Aim-Fire-Aim Lowers Stakes and Creates Space for Play
I noted the point about ready-fire-aim-fire-aim to help remind us both that this isn’t a one-shot campaign. Yes, how we open the season is important since there’s a tight window, but it’s merely the opening play.
No matter how well we do with the opening, we’re going to learn, adapt, and get better as the season goes on. What we’re really hoping for are positive surprises that we haven’t even considered, as the very best thing that can happen is that something takes off and disrupts our best-laid plans. That’s already happened once in the last few months and I’m looking forward to another one or two.
It may sound odd that I want our plans to be disrupted, but it’s coming from knowing that the world is so much bigger than we can see and, if we break through and see new horizons, we should celebrate and appreciate the moment … and then get back to map-making all over again. The best planners are always reworking their plans.
If we’re going to be learning, iterating, and adapting no matter what we do, we may as well have fun in the process.
Pursuing Greatness Is Different than Avoiding Failure
I’ve already written about the fact that planning to avoid failure is different than planning to succeed. If you’re merely planning to avoid failure, odds are that you’re going to play it safe.
But here’s the deal: pursuing greatness requires risk. If we’re thinking “how can we work better together to make this great?”, some new and unexplored ideas are going to come up that wouldn’t come up otherwise. If our target is “great” vs. “safe”, that gives us the charter to actually consider and try some of the great ideas.
They might not work, of course, but we are a learning team. Knowing that it didn’t work, and why, is far better than playing it safe and just doing what we’ve already done.
Yes, we have to balance trying too many new things with sticking with our core competencies and proven playbook, but that’s a strategic tension worth leaning into.
Our Teams Attune to Our Emotional States
Emotional contagion is simply the spread of emotions, moods, and behaviors generated by emotions and moods. We are incredibly attuned to how others are feeling and are likely to adopt the emotion and moods of those around us. We also know that video meetings convey more emotional and nonvocal context than audio meetings.
Thing is, while some can convincingly project emotional baselines they don’t have, it’s far better and easier for leaders and managers to actually have the emotional baseline they want to project. Between acting optimistic and excited and being optimistic and excited, far better to be optimistic and excited.
So my comment about how his vibe matters goes further than his being the leader of the project; it really was a nudge and support for him to get there.
A quick note: I’m always on the lookout for toxic positivity and encourage teammates to talk about their concerns and “negative” emotions. What tends to be more true of our team (as it’s true of most people) is that we’re anxious and scared and excited and optimistic and concerned and … all the feels at once. My nudge was less “you only get to feel these emotions” and more “amidst the anxiety and fear, these are there, too.” In other words, fire through the tears.
How You Show Up Matters
There’s a line of thinking that getting results is what matters most for leaders and managers. While I can’t deny that getting results is important, how we get them and how we show up matters.
The more complete truth is that ‘results’ is too focused on short-term goals and economic tangibles. We have to remember that belonging, competence, future capacity, sustainability, and being in integrity with your and your team’s values are also results. When we add these into the mix, how we do what we do matters as much as what we do.
Changing the way we show up so that it’s more authentic for us and more responsive to our teammates may take some work, but here’s the truth of it: you’re probably already working hard and getting a mix of results you want and lots you don’t.
I’m not asking you to change everything all at once, hold a leadership summit, restructure meetings, or whatever go-to big project your imagination conjures that’ll make this harder and less useful than it needs to be.
It can happen in a good morning text or DM in Slack. Try it and see what happens.