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The Art of Leadership with Michael Lopp

Episode 36

How can you build trust as a leader? In this episode of Programming Leadership, Marcus and his guest, Michael Lopp discuss the small practices that make a good leader. Listen to learn about building trust, respect, and relationships in a leadership role.


Show Notes

  • Leadership practices are small things done repetitively over time. @2:29
  • Leadership is a skill. @3:32
  • Empathy is a powerful skillset. @5:17
  • The practice of one on ones is important in connecting to a team. @6:44
  • Asking for feedback can build trust and relationships. @9:04
  • Respond to feedback with a thank you and follow up comprehension questions. @11:35
  • Feedback is a gift. @18:04
  • It’s not personal, it’s professional. @21:37
  • Leadership is an outfit that you choose to wear for others to see. @25:41
  • Managers tell you where you are, leaders tell you where you’re going. @31:55
  • “There is no substitute for enthusiasm.”- Ken Beck @34:20
  • Your peers become your allies. @36:51



Announcer:  Welcome to the Programming Leadership Podcast, where we help great coders become skilled leaders, and build happy-high performing software teams.

Marcus:  Welcome to the show. I am Marcus and I’m so excited to have Michael Lopp with me today. Michael, thank you for being on the show.

Michael:  Great to be here, thanks for having me Marcus.

Marcus:  Michael is the author of the forthcoming book, at least it’s forthcoming when we’re recording it, The Art Of Leadership: Small Things, Done Well. He’s also the author of fantastic books such as, Managing Humans and a variety of other books, which is in its third edition is highly recommended, and was previously at Slack and lots of other companies. And of course if you’re not sure who he is, you might know him by his other name Rands. On the internet, he’s known as Rands and he runs a fantastic leadership slack room. So Michael, let’s start out with this, why is the subtitle of your book, because I’m curious about this, The Art Of Leadership seems pretty straight forward, but why would you frame it as, Small Things, Done well?

Michael:  So we were talking beforehand, and we read the introduction like 11 times, and the book is similar to the first book, in that I’ve been writing for a long time. And I have these chapters that are already written, and they’re sort of stand-alone kind of bloggy and they’re like, they don’t form this huge narrative. So I discovered that what I was working on after a while, was the first word I came on was hacks, like leadership hacks. Which is a very you know nerdy word, and appeals to me as an engineer, and all that stuff. But you don’t hack leadership, that’s like hacking exercising. You’re like, cool I found this quick way to get fit fast, and I was like, no it never works that way. Probably like you do it a thousand times and then you get better at it, right? So I’m not going to write that, hacks is the wrong word.

Michael:  So then I found the word habits, which is a good word too, which is like, hey, I want to have these habits. But it still is missing this thing about learning from doing the thing over and over again. It’s not that you do it this habit many, many times, it’s that you understand why you do it. And you go, oh my God, there’s like knowledge here, there’s wisdom to be discovered. So I settled on this word practices, which is like, I do these things because I know that they’re good to do, and that by doing them I get value over time. So leadership practices is the way that I think about it, but really the central thesis, these small things are, Hey, being a great leader doesn’t mean like standing up at a keynote, and delivering this keynote and the world adoring you. It actually is about doing these small things repetitively over time.

Michael:  And the book is like 42 or 43 or depending on how it all plays out of these small things, and you get to choose the ones that you want to work on. And they’re not hard things, they’re like really, really small things. And at first glance some of them will be like, well, I do that all the time. It’s like, great, skip the chapter, move on, go to the next one, try this one. And it’s not just try it, it’s like do it 10 times, do it a 100 times and then tell me, or think about like what you get out of it. So small things done well is choosing these practices, and doing them over and over again, because I think that’s actually where you can become a better leader, is practicing these things over and over and getting good at them, and learning about why they’re important.

Marcus:  Sounds like you think leadership is a skill.

Michael:  I really do, I do. It’s a skill and it’s something that you just always, I’ve been doing this for a long time, you’re always improving on, you’re always working on. And me at 49 I’m still like, okay, cool, this year I’m going to focus on X I’m going to focus on Y. This idea that it’s ever like complete, like I got it, I figured it out, I am Gandalf and I know all the things, it’s like, no, that’s not true either, because we’re just like, as a species we’re always evolving. So there’s always new things to learn and to figure out.

Marcus:  You know as another person who’s 49, and I didn’t know that about you until just now. When you were growing up, did you think of yourself as a natural leader?

Michael:  No, I didn’t. And I wrote about this in the book, I had this very important meeting with, he was the first engineering manager at Netscape, and then he came over and helped out at my startup for a little while. And he was a straight talker, he was just like one of my favorite humans on the planet, he was like, he would pull no punches, just like this is what’s going on, and this is why. And you’d be like, ouch, it sounds like it’s bad news, but it was really good news. And we were sitting in this room, it was like a ping pong room at my startup. And I remember this distinctly, he looked up, we were working on some HR thing or something, I don’t remember what it was.

Michael:  But he looked up and was like, hey, you do this thing with humans really, really well, You walk into a room and you spend time understanding where everyone’s at, what they’re feeling, what they want, and you think that everyone can do that, and they can’t. There’s a lot of people who walk into a meeting and waiting for the words to show up, to understand what’s going on. But you’re sitting there going like, cool, cool, what’s going on? Empathy, pick your word, whatever it was. He’s like, that’s a big deal in engineering, because we don’t tend to value that skillset, and you do it instinctively, and you think because it’s easy that everyone does it, or that anyone can do it, and they can’t. So it was a moment for me where, by the way, and you’re a good engineer and everything, but like, this thing relative to like combined with being a good engineer is a really a powerful thing.

Michael:  I don’t know if he says leader, but he was just like, you get the peoples thing. And that was the first time I was like, oh, I have a skillset that is worth focusing on, it wasn’t necessarily like we’re going to architect the heck out of the code, we’re going to do that, but we’re also going to architect the heck out of the team, and understanding how they work, and how they fit together. So your question was natural leader, was that the question? No, I mean like I said, I don’t think it’s, but there was some things that I think I had that were sort of early advantages that helped a lot.

Marcus:  If somebody is listening and they aren’t that person who walks into the meeting, and they have that empathy, or those signals, they just get them. Do you think that’s something that can be developed? Is that a skill?

Michael:  Yeah, it is. And this kind of the point of going back to the book is, there’s just a lot of practices in there that, again some of them you’ll read them, you’ll read this book and you’ll be like, I just do this. And you’re like, that’s great, cool, I’m glad that that is obvious to you that doing this practice is important. There’s other ones that are just going to be like, why would I do this? But I’m going to try it, I’m going to try it for three months. My classic one, I’ve been harping on this for decades, it’s sort of just this one on one, it’s sort of a time to sit down and have non-statusy, unscripted conversations about how it’s going. You’re going to learn about it, after you get good at it, after you practice it for a bit, you’re going to be bonded with the team more, and you’re going to learn more about how the humans work, and especially for an engineer that maybe is less empathetic.

Michael:  He or she trying that out, is going to be like, oh, this is like a fully formed person here with feelings, and suddenly all this sort of stuff, I’m making it really sounds simple, but it’s really complex. But I think those are things you can get better at, and that’s the thing is, we’re all sort of differently shaped, chaotic, beautiful snowflakes. You have got to kind of understand where your strengths and your weaknesses are, and then go and say, okay, cool on the weaknesses side, where are some things, what are some practices that I can go do to actually improve this? So it’s a long way of saying yes to your question.

Marcus:  Since you mentioned weaknesses, I’m curious, I find that one of the things that’s hard for managers, is to get feedback from their team. Especially on the, I guess you’d call them weaknesses,

Michael:  Yeah.

Marcus:  Things that aren’t working. Have you found some ways or is there any of these 42 small things, that help people get real feedback from their team about their work?

Michael:  Well, think of your boss, think of a the boss you didn’t really like.

Marcus:  Okay, I have one in mind.

Michael:  And this person, they’re like, who do we take from here? We have one, and think about some private time or one-on-one where it’s just you, and you don’t really respect, or trust, or like her. I’m putting words into your mouth, but what’s your motivation to tell this person something, that maybe you’re coming from a good spot, and saying like, hey listen, this thing you did really poorly, and it was like demoralizing. Whatever, its like if you don’t like the person, or trust, or respect the person, there’s no value in doing it right?

Marcus:  It’s just risk.

Michael:  It’s all a risk. So the question is, let’s flip it around to that scenario where, I’m the boss you don’t like for whatever reason, and let’s assume that it’s not a lost cause. Might have, I just had it a toxic nightmare, what I do really early on with folks, really before we actually have figured out our relationship, is I do one-on-ones which I hold religiously to demonstrate commitment. At the end, 90% of the time, I’m going to ask you, I’m going to say, hey Marcus, we’ve been working together a month or so or whatever, or you know a week or two, whatever, I’m like, do you have any feedback from me? And never in the history of ever, has anyone ever given me feedback at that time. They’re like, no this is great, you’re brand new and this is great, everything’s bright and shiny and, in my head I don’t really trust you, but like, okay. Now small things done well.

Michael:  So I do that another every week, for the next three months. And at some point you realize I’m not going to stop asking, so you say something innocuous and small like, I don’t know…you were really nervous that that went on the all hands, or something like, hey you seem nervous at the all hands? And in my head, in this hypothetical scenario, I’m like delighted because what you did there, was that act of trust building. And by the way, it’s a minor little thing, it’s not a big deal, and you don’t know but I was totally unprepared, and by the way something blew up right before the all hands. So of course I was nervous, I wasn’t even thinking about the all hands or whatever. But in my head that’s the irrelevance, the point is, you said a little bit, very small. You said, I trust you enough to say this, and to ignore the risk of like telling my boss if he was nervous.

Michael:  And I go, great, and I go thank you for that, and I say, listen by the way, yes I wasn’t, I didn’t prepare, by the way before hand, this thing blew up, and I was thinking about that. And you’re like great, thanks. And it’s almost irrelevant what you said because the thing I’m excited about, is you are going to go do it again. I’m going to keep asking and the next time I’m going to be like, hey, I didn’t understand that message at all. You do like, I didn’t really understand what your strategy was there. And I’m like, thank you, you’re right, I just yellowed it and it was just me typing, I didn’t even grammarly it, didn’t put it through Grammarly or whatever. So it’s these sorts of… It’s getting in those practices, where people can actually figure out for, can de-risked things, and build relationships, and build trust and respect. So I’ve been rambling so long, haven’t actually answered your question yet. Did I answer your question?

Marcus:  I think you did, because I actually really encourage this repetitive asking to show you really want it. And I’ve usually said like, it’s probably going to take like 10 or 15 times before somebody has the idea like, I guess Marcus kind of wants to know. It’s not just a one and done, it’s not an annual event where I now have to ask you what you think of my performance.

Michael:  Absolutely.

Marcus:  I love the way you responded, you threw in a thank you, you were delighted, you weren’t defensive. That’s a great way to shut people down, if you never want feedback again, make an excuse and then get kind of irritated by it.

Michael:  Yeah. The other thing I’d add to that is, if it’s something which is actionable, even if it’s like your hair is on your neck, and you’re feeling defensive. Number one, you’ve got to swallow that and be like, thank you, that was great. Here’s what I think, two things. Number one is, I usually, if I really am trying to understand it, I repeat it back, you sound like you tell me something. And I’m like, because I’m getting mad in my head, not to you, in my head, I’m like, I sometimes will hear what I want to hear versus what you’re telling me. And very often when I’m in that state I’ll be like, hey, what I hear you saying is this, and you’re like, no, that’s not what I’m saying. And it’s great because suddenly you have to give it to me right. And now we’re not worried about me, my defensiveness or my head, we’re kind of understanding and triaging it.

Michael:  But then the other piece is, when I find what I need to change or how I need to follow up. The act of following up and changing it, maybe not immediately, but it just saying like, listen, by the way you keep on telling me X, I’m going to do Y. I’m not great at Y, and doing that, and even when I fail at Y, Saying like, hey, I know another Y fail, but I’m still working on this. That’s the thing, that’s like the juice there, like our relationship is sort of getting going. It’s like that trust and respect piece is really important.

Marcus:  That is I think the foundation of all of this leadership stuff, right? Because you can’t… You know what you’re trying to build is that foll… I guess followership is a funny word, but you want people to say, you know I trust you enough that I will follow where you lead. And then at times you will follow where they lead.

Michael:  Yeah. And you know I had this relationship with an employee, doesn’t matter who it was, they were done, they were done at the company. And by the way, they told me six months before they left, they said, listen I’m done. And I was like, and I’m not leaving right now, I’m just telling you because we are high bandwidth and that’s great. And let me tell you, having had people like walk in on Monday morning and just quit on me, I was very sad and yes worked to keep the person, and eventually did not, because they were done, but that’s the dream. Right? By the way, still talk this person all the time because, we connected professionally in such a way that, it wasn’t scary to say I was done with this job. It wasn’t that scary to say, I need to leave. And he was tie bent, by the way, we all got to plan everything, easy transition by the way.

Marcus:  Six months?

Michael:  Six months. Right? As opposed to that person who walked in on Monday said I quit, I’m done on Friday. And by the way, I screwed up big time on this one. But that’s the thing is like, you get to the state. It’s not about, people are always like, hey you have got to retain people? Like, yeah I want you to stay as long as you can, I want to be productive and get things done with you, but like even the leaving thing can be just fine when it’s a high trust environment.

Marcus:  Oh you know I think it’s so interesting you say that, because I feel like one of the things that happens is when you join a company, there’s kind of this idea of like, well now you’re going to be here forever, and we’re never going to talk about you possibly leaving, because that’s just not something we do. That might actually mean you’ll leave if we talk about it. And so that is a really taboo topic.

Michael:  Yeah.

Marcus:  I don’t know, it’s weird isn’t it?

Michael:  No, it’s not weird, it’s just short minded. Right? It’s like it’s, yes I want you to stay there as long as you can, and I want to stay there as long as I can, but, like we talked about this before we started recording. It’s like you know sometimes I get bored, or sometimes it’s like I need a change of scenery. And maybe that’s something I can work with my boss on, to get to a different part of the company or something like that. But I think it’s far healthier when people are focused on the things that are growing them, that are keeping them satisfied, that they’re feeling accomplished, that they’re building something. And that just changes over time, we are creatures with some of us like me have a very short attention span.

Marcus:  So I’m curious you as a manager, let’s say you have an employee that takes that risk, that says Lopp when, and I’ll just use Lopp because that’s how you referred to yourself a minute ago. You know? When you say this, it kind of rubs me the wrong way. Let’s say somebody were to be that direct, and then say like, ah, you know so I wish you wouldn’t say that anymore, I wish you wouldn’t approach me that way. Does that mean you as the manager are obligated to change?

Michael:  We’re jumping to the, there isn’t an actually a problem. Because we first need to triage the thing, like what is the actual issue here? And that’s before we even get to what the action is, it’s like are we agreeing that there’s a problem? So if we agree that there’s a problem on this thing, I believe that I’m obligated to make an affordance to do that. But I think what’s hidden in your question is, sometimes it’s like this person is just mad about this thing that’s a misunderstanding or is whatever it is. Right? So we have to… There’s this fear based manager thing, and I think this’s what we’re talking about with sort of the taboo topic of someone leaving, of like, Oh my God, this person said this thing, and they’re an employee, and they’re on Slack. And they can say whatever they want to large groups of people and I’m going to be in trouble. That’s just a fear based mentality, which is a very real thing.

Michael:  But that’s just operating from that fear place, or like saying, I just have to handle everything, you do, you do have to have the conversation, but it doesn’t necessarily mean you have to have the change. You might want to figure, what’s the core issue here, what is it? Were you having a bad day, was I having a bad day? Is it a word that is really important to you? I don’t even understand what that importance is, so let’s have that discussion, whatever it is. Right? So that for a conversation is as important as figuring out wherever the contract is to act.

Marcus:  Yeah and I think that, I do talk to a lot of managers who say, well, my commitment is whenever somebody asks me to change, I do my very best to change. And I think, boy you are like just setting yourself up to be in a hard spot. If you’ve got 20 employees and each one wants a different change every month, you can’t do that.

Michael:  Yeah and it’s… The thing about, I say this because my coach told me this long time ago, feedback is a gift. And what he’s telling me with that is that, and I just realized this right this second, is what do you do with a present, a gift? You say, Oh cool, gifts don’t come like there, they come unpredicted, unpack it and you go, cool, what’s inside here? And you go, oh my God, it’s my favorite comic book, or whatever it is. But I’m making kind of blaring this flame, but that act of unpacking it, and going like, what’s here?

Marcus:  Right.

Michael:  Is actually what we’re talking about here, which is like, cool you just, number one, let’s be super happy that you told me as we said at the beginning.

Marcus:  Who doesn’t like a gift?

Michael:  Great. Even if you’re completely wrong, you chose to do it, and flame up with me is 90% of the joy here and I mean that 90%. But that’s number one, but number two is like, cool let’s go and see what’s going on here. And I’ve had that conversation before. I’m like, number one, my intent was obviously not to rub you the wrong way. Number two is, I did not know that this perspective existed, and you are sharing that with me and that’s great. Is it prevalent? Or is it just you? Is it the whole company? Is it this sort of thing? Who knows? But that’s sort of the discussion to have and that’s when relationships are formed, and we’re like sitting here figuring each other out, and sharing things.

Michael:  And by the way, my number one favorite person at Slack, he and I argued 60% of the time. And if you watched us, if you walked in on us, you’d be like these two humans do not like each other, they do not like each other. We love each other, he is my brother. But because we trust each other so much, we’re like getting up and we’re like, you are literally being a stubborn blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, whatever it is, he’s like, no I’m not. And I know I use it, you’re angry now and I understand that. And when we’re done like, hey cool, thanks Brandon, that was awesome. I’m like seriously that was great. It sounds easier than it is, but that’s who you want to be with with the people. It’s not personal, it’s like we’re working here as professionals getting this thing done, and we’re humans with emotions, we’re flawed and full of errors. And you know we get it, we get to figure each other out. Its a great job, I love that job.

Marcus:  It reminds me, I had two business partners, and one was just like that. People said, you guys are like an old married couple you are always just like bickering, and you have all these in-jokes but you are openly disagreeing in really big ways. My other business partner and I didn’t have that, everything was impression management. It all looked great and gold on the outside and we actually couldn’t stand each other at all. And the partnership split we, him and I, were just like, great shake hands, hope we never meet again.

Michael:  Right.

Marcus:  And the other person is a very close friend, after many years we’re still friends.

Michael:  Yeah but there’s a lesson even inside of that, which is in both cases you had to kind of figure out how to make it work. And I would prefer the latter one all the time, but the former one does happen, and I’m like, and I have people I depend on. Where I’m like, when this is done, we are never going to talk again because we are just not connected in whatever way. And there’s no judgment there, it’s just impedance, it’s friction, whatever it is.

Marcus:  There is no joy in this relationship, it’s all work. I want to go back to something you’ve said that was, you just have the poet’s voice in my head and like you said, this thing about like it’s messy, and it’s about emotion, it’s about connecting. But you threw it in this line, it’s not personal, but it is about people.

Michael:  Yeah.

Marcus:  Like I’m trying to figure out like okay, it’s not personal, it’s professional, but it’s absolutely about people really connecting.

Michael:  Yeah. What I mean by that, if this is what you’re asking, is this is work, we have work to do. And we as humans need to work together, and so when someone is coming in guns blazing on this issue, whatever it is, that’s going to piss me off, and I’m going to have that emotional reaction to it. When I say it’s not personal, it’s because, it’s not directed at me Michael Lopp the human, it’s directed at me, Michael Lopp the VP of the company, and it’s work and it’s professional. And they’re not mad at me, and yes it looks like they are, but they really, really aren’t. They’re really, they’re mad because we are failing the customer by not doing this thing, and they’re mad about that.

Michael:  Number one, humans have emotions that’s there, number two is, my job as a leader is sometimes just to absorb that, that rage.

Marcus:  Mmhm.

Michael:  And by the way, do not recommend it over time, it’s work to take that, and to be like you know cool, I hear you, I would never say it like that because I will just make them madder. But to take that, absorb it, and then really, really hear it. But when I say it’s not personal, it’s just… You’ve been here before, you know when someone’s coming guns blazes. Even before they say something, you can tell. They’re looking at you, I know when bad feedback’s coming. I can walk in the room and be like, oh this is going to be bad.

Marcus:  Right.

Michael:  Hair on my neck is there, and in my head, it’s not personal, I’m just going into this little bubble. And it’s not to not hear, and it is to protect myself, but it’s like, here comes, I’m just going to hear this, and my lizard brain is going to want to go and like pick a fight and be like, you don’t know what the hell you’re talking about.

Michael:  Nope, I’m just taking it. I’m just going to hear it, and when there’s something, when they are done with whatever, their rant, and rage and blah, blah, I’m going to say what we said at the beginning of this. I’m like, thanks that was rough. Is this what you meant? I heard this, this and this. And then we get into the less of the transference of energy, and more into the like understanding but-

Marcus:  The unpacking of the gift.

Michael:  The unpacking of the gift, I’ve got to write that chapter, books not done yet.

Marcus:  There’s still time.

Michael:  So totally writing it down right now sorry, unpacking of the gift.

Marcus:  You heard it here first folks.

Michael:  You think I’m kidding, but I literally have like three more chapters that have to be edited. Anyway so that’s there. There’s a yeah-

Marcus:  I feel like, and I just want to make sure, okay, I just want to come in and make sure I’m understanding it. Because I know exactly what you’re talking about. And the thing it reminds me of it is, Marcus the person, Marcus the role of manager, and Marcus the representative of the company. As well as, and I know this is a little weird, but I also view it as, the boss in front of you that reminds you of all the bad bosses you had in the past, and so there’s all this history, because I’m almost never somebody’s very first boss.

Michael:  Yeah, oh yeah. I totally agree with that 100%. And lots of people have had really bad bosses, and people have a template in their head of like, this is what they’re like. And I had to get used to that, like coming into a place where the prior human was just not good, and they were like, oh he’s just going to be the same way. And I’m like, I’m literally a totally different genetically, I’m totally different. That’s what they’re used to is this, archetype, and that’s again just small things done well. I’m not going to sit down and say like, okay new sheriff in town, I’m totally different and blah blah blah. Everyone’s going to be like, that’s great. It’s irrelevant, it’s important to lay a framework and whatnot.

Michael:  What they’re going to notice is, the 72 times in a row, that I always do this thing, and they’re like, well that’s who Lopp is, because I saw it 72 times, and maybe some of it is 50, some of it is 20, some of it’s a never will believe it, whatever. But It’s the line of like, you know actually maybe I wrote this I don’t know, but leadership is an outfit that you choose to wear for others to see, be the example that you want to be, whatever the right way of describing it is. So that’s the thing, but it’s not one thing, you have got to be doing it 72 times in a row always, always, always.

Marcus:  And there’s no guarantee. Some people the 72 times in a row, you could do it for the whole time you’re there so consistently, religiously, and some people will say, well Marcus is my manager, but I don’t think of him as my leader. Like I’m choosing, because it is a choice. Right? It’s a bi-directional relationship and some people aren’t going to do it.

Michael:  And where are you are in the org chart, and last time I was a VP, everyone has their own narrative about who the VP is. And some of those folks have seen, in our hypothetical 72 examples of Lopp acting this way. Some of them only seen it twice because I don’t have time with me, and some of them have seen it all 72 times, and some of them never seen it, and they’re just working with that template of, well all VPs are political jerks, and that’s how I view this because that’s all I’ve ever seen. Right? You’ve got to remember everyone’s got their own little narrative about you, which is it’s a hard part of the gig, especially when it comes to communicating with the whole organism, because you and I can have a one on one, and I can get high bandwidth demonstrating 72 times this is the way. But then there’s a couple thousand folks, right? Who are going to see me twice a year. How am I going to affect them? And how am I going to lead them? It’s a tricky job spot. That’s why I’m taking a little break.

Marcus:  You know what I’m curious, because managers who come into a new organization, oftentimes I have the perception that their boss will say, well let me give you the rundown of the team. We’ve got a grumpy engineer, we got this guy has been here forever, we’ve got this person who’s really touchy about this things, you’ve got this person… And you immediately start to say, Oh well, at least I kind of know the roster, but you don’t, in my opinion. You see someone else’s 10 second stereotype. And learning to see people clearly and not seeing your past employees, I think can be a challenge.

Michael:  Yeah, well let’s even discover worst version of that very eloquent way of describing it which is, I go say what kind of cards have I been dealt here? And my boss says, ace, heart and whatever. They say those things and then I go, oh well thank you for that information. And then, let’s just say one of those assessments is negative, the grumpy engineer. And then that grumpy engineer, after I’ve met with him a couple of times, and again those data cease, and now I’ve heard the boss’s opinion that he or she is the grumpy engineer, and I start treating him that way.

Marcus:  Absolutely.

Michael:  Now what happens in that scenario? They now know, because humans are smart, that I have been tainted by this other persons saying, and I’m acting on that, and what does that do for that person? And they go, okay cool, I’m still stuck with this title of grumpy engineer, and they’re just going to start to just behave in that way.

Michael:  So those first 90 days are incredibly formative, they’re, they’re really, really, especially with your direct reports, they’re really looking at you, to see what is the narrative you are telling yourself, and how are you going to treat me. And is it what everyone else believes, or what is truly true? And who knows what is the actual truth? We don’t know. But that’s the thing that is really tricky, especially during those first 90 days, so really those initial conditions can really set you up. And it’s fixable in any scenario but you can really, really damage folks by coming in guns blazing, and being like cool, well you’re 27 B, so I’m going to give you the 27 B treatment. And they’re like, oh great, here’s another person who thinks I’m 27 B,

Marcus:  Right. Yeah, you know I think you’re right, in fact I’m sure that many people have walked in and said, well this person’s a poor performer, you know we haven’t done, you know there’s nothing HR wise we’ve done. But just know that they’re going to be your trouble spot. Right? Like, holy cow, how do you… Now here’s the other thing I’ve seen Lopp is that, by the way it’s weird can I call you Lopp or would you rather I call you Michael?

Michael:  It’s weird everyone calls me Lopp and everyone has this question, and I’ve thought about this a lot. The issue that you’re having with it, putting words in your mouth, is that a nickname is more familiar than the other name. So nickname feels like we hang out and have beers, and you say, hey what kind of beer do you like Lopp? As opo… You know what I’m saying?

Marcus:  And we’re not there yet is how it feels to me.

Michael:  But that’s your thing. That’s my name it’s literally Lopp, but I understand it that’s what I’m saying. But I like it because it’s really easy because there’s many of Michaels out there.

Marcus:  I wanted to ask, and it’s actually something I usually do at the beginning. So if you’re listening to the show, forgive us for this little bit, but one of the things I think is important, and this applies to our conversation too, is what do people want to be called?

Michael:  Right.

Marcus:  And asking every person around you like, so I’ll just ask you Michael, would you rather me call you Michael or Lopp during this interview?

Michael:  Lopp is, my name is Lopp

Marcus:  Great and for the record, we’ve not had beers yet. I don’t know what kind of beer you drink yet, that may change. But here was my point, when your manager says, if you’re a new manager and your director, you come in and they say, hey you’ve got this person, they’re not a great performer. I think it’s actually risky then for you to, and this is weird, I think it’s a risk you have to take. But let’s say you start interacting with them, and have really positive interactions. When you go back to your boss and say, I found this person to be great to work with. I think that your managers sometimes might look at you a little sideways like, you’re disagreeing with my… I know this person, and yet you clearly just haven’t interacted with them enough.

Michael:  There’s two responses I have to that, number one is whatever hand, whatever cards I get dealt, I trust my opinion more than most because it’s me seeing it with my eyeballs and my experience. And let’s just say that it is a confirmed low performer, my job as a leader, here’s the thing, this is one of my favorite lines, managers tell you where you are, leaders tell you where you’re going. So my managers tell where I am, and where I am with these people. I’m like cool, that is your observation, this is your litmus test on where we are right now. My job is to tell you where we’re going and just figure out the person, this alleged low performer, and you making this true assessment. And whether it’s fixable, whether it’s they’re just kind of a low performer and that’s forever, or whether there’s some other story there, my job is, this is my job with my entire team, is to grow them, to invest in them and get them there.

Michael:  If they don’t want to do that, if they’re happy with their coasting low performerness, they’re not going to be on my team anymore. And by the way, they will know that, there’s not going to be no surprises in this, we’ll have this conversation. And whatever my assessment is on that situation, when I go and tell my boss, she’s great, he’s not great, dah, dah, dah, it’s going to be based on these things.

Marcus:  Right.

Michael:  This is what I did, ask for X, Y and Z. And I got X, Y, Z and one, two and three, this is a high performer. And yes, this is their first working with me, so maybe they’re overextending themselves, but by my bar that’s high performing, do you agree? Do you agree with that assessment?

Michael:  And if they’re like, we have a conversation there. It’s not really about the person here, so me and my boss calibrating on what performance actually means. Like this is actually, this is awesome. Right? We can actually have that conversation and you see what I’m doing here, this is one on one thing I can’t stop talking about. I’m now building rapport with this person about how we’re calibrated, and how we argue and disagree or agree. So it’s back to the spear thing, it’s like, oh my God, I’m inheriting a low performer. I don’t see that, number one I don’t believe that until I see it myself.

Michael:  Number two is, like literally my job as a leader is to take us from here to there, everybody. And like whatever hand I’ve been dealt to figure that out. And sometimes they won’t work out, I have to let them go, but very often my enthusiasm, my ability to lead, and to take us to this next thing, many times I’ve heard that before, it’s like hey, this person’s kind of coasting. That’s because no one’s invested in them, because they believe the system is no longer believes in them. I’m going to bring them along, let’s get there. And maybe it’s never A+ maybe it’s just a B. Bs are great, that’s above average.

Marcus:  Absolutely. You hit on one of my favorite lines from Ken Beck’s old book, Extreme Programming Explained, the old white book and he says, “There is no substitute for enthusiasm.”

Michael:  No. This is one of the things I really struggle with new directors, or managers of managers. One of my merit badges for the director level is what you just said, which is someone coming up to me and saying, hey, whoa, this is a bad situation and dah, dah, dah, dah, dah, and this is going sideways. I’m like, who other than you director Marcus, is going to fix that? You’re waiting for me to say go?

Michael:  Literally my job is to clear the way, so that you can go, and like you don’t even have to tell me. I will hear about it later that you’re charging up that hill, and I’ll be like, we’re getting things out of his way because this is what he goes into and does, and that’s not just enthusiastic leadership, right? Like cool, I’m going to go fix this thing. And I’m not going to ask permission, I’m not going to like clear it with the council or anything. And sometimes it’s misinformed and sometimes it needs tweaking. My job as a VP is be like hey, love the enthusiasm, can we go like seven degrees this direction, because right now you’re going to go right off that cliff, and I’m going to help you just get up that Hill.

Marcus:  Yeah. I was talking to a friend of mine that’s a CTO and he said, I’ve always dreamed to have a manager join my company, and ask me, what are the cultural changes you are trying to make right now? And he said, “Because at my level people think I change culture, he says no line managers, the people below me are responsible for actually getting this stuff done.

Michael:  Yeah. My version of that statement is that, I think from a culture perspective, or from a getting things done perspective, that director level, the sort of manager of managers, because for a managers are focused on their team and getting that stuff done. Director’s job, are focused on their team, but they’re also focused horizontally as well, so they have actually the most ability to affect change across the company, because they’re talking to Julia and to Marcel and those folks, and they’re doing that thing, and they’re behaving as leaders, and demonstrating sort of like the culture or the process, or whatever it is that we’re trying to fix there. So that level to me is sort of where I spend a lot of time investing.

Marcus:  So you mentioned this idea of the peers at the director level, and I know one of the concepts that I really like, is this idea of first teams and that the people who are your peers become your allies, become your trusted confidants. How can managers at the director level or above, encourage and build those first teams below them, so they have effective management teams?

Michael:  Yeah. I’ve answered this question before for someone else, and I use this whole war metaphor which is bad, because it’s a war. But there’s something useful there, which is if I want a team to work together, they have to go do a battle. They have to go do something together. And what I’ll do when I’m looking sort of at the lay of the land and who caused this balkanization problem here, I need these three folks to be there. I’m going to figure out something that they’re going to go do, and I’m going to say hey here’s this impossible task, and I need it by tomorrow. And here’s why, and please ask questions, but the three of you are essential to do that. And by the way it’s not easy, if it was easy, it would just be happening. It’s hard, it’s complicated it’s going to take a lot of review, there’s going to be blood, sweat and tears.

Michael:  But that’s the thing is, like people accomplishing a thing together, that’s where the stories come from,

Marcus:  Mmhm.

Michael:  The good ones or the bad ones. That like we were up till four in the morning the night before, because Lopp just told us the deck was garbage, and we asked we should have sold it to them earlier, blah blah blah, blah, blah, whatever it was. And we got it right. And the next day, 24 hours later, something that was an F became this really good deck. Now everyone is talking about it, and they’re telling stories about it. By the way, it was misery there, they were late on it they had to stay up that night, which is bad leadership too. But that’s the thing to actually get the teams together, is they have to have that shared purpose, they have to accomplish the thing.

Michael:  And sometimes that accomplishment can be a total failure. Like we didn’t work, but that still is the thing, we were together in this thing and this journey. And failure doesn’t sound like fun, but it’s still a shared experience, where we got to like, we have got work to do, we have got to get it done, we have got to do this together, and there’s no way we can do it alone. So that’s what I do, is try to figure out sort of whether configurations of the humans to kind of encourage that bonding. And once it’s there, like a good one-on-one, which is apparently our theme.

Marcus:  I love it.

Michael:  And once it’s there, it’s just always there. Like you see that person a month later and you’re like, wow that sucked and you’re bonded in this way. And suddenly you’re like, oh by the way, I saw this thing in this other meeting that you weren’t in, thing has happened. And they go, oh my God, that’s a disaster, and I would’ve never known that unless you told me. And that was just you knowing that this person cared about this thing, and you were just randomly sharing a little serendipity. That’s the thing, that’s how you actually connect teams together.

Marcus:  I guess now I’m sitting here thinking like, I suppose this is why there are reunions of high school and college. There are you know people who serve together in the war get together. The whole VFW bar in my town is clearly about people with shared experiences.

Michael:  And retelling the story, because that was important to us, so we took that hill. Right?

Marcus:  Yeah.

Michael:  It’s fun and it’s why culture’s really, really hard. Because so many of those early stories from the first 10, 20, 200 people, everyone is still telling those stories. I was just with Apple a little while ago, and I was there many years ago, and I was talking with folks. And there are a couple of ours, they’re telling some of the same stories still.

Marcus:  Are they?

Michael:  [inaudible 00:40:12] later, I’m like, wow and it’s not a bad thing. It’s this is how they’ve encapsulated the culture, and this is how they remind themselves about the rules, and the things that are important to that place. That’s far more powerful than those seven values on the wall. Right? That’s actually how people remind themselves, they’re like, hey we don’t, I’m making this one up, but like we don’t ship her out. And let tell you why, because we did this thing, this customer left, we lost $2 million in three weeks. We don’t chew crap, right. It’s more important than quality matters.

Marcus:  Absolutely, you know I worked at this company manufacturing company, the biggest manufacturing company of windows and doors in the world. Which is incredibly dull compared to Apple. But the owner was a multi-billionaire, he had founded the company and one of the core values was, we are the low-cost producer, we’re going to keep things low cost on our end.

Michael:          Yep.

Marcus:  And he drove up every day in his 1972 Jeep Cherokee, and he was a billionaire.

Marcus:  And just seeing him drive in there, like you didn’t have to see it very often to be reminded. But after he retired and then passed away, that was a story that continued down the line. It was like, you remember when Dick Wendt used to drive up, and he had holes in his pants and his shoes. Like because he just only, and he drove that old car, right? And his secretary had to say, Dick, it’s time to buy new shoes. You remember that kind of ethos, and people would just smile and they’d say, yeah, whenever we traveled together, he’d make you eat at McDonald’s. Yeah, I remember that. Because Dick lived that value, and that was one of those myths that got passed around.

Michael:  Yeah. That’s how culture is actually transferred around. And it’s shows up in the weirdest time usually when things are going sideways to remind you of that story. Oh yeah. Don’t chew crap.

Marcus:  Yeah. Well, Lopp, I’ve just so much enjoyed our chat today. Is there, where can people find you, and engage with your work online, and buy your fantastic book?

Michael:  Our Leadership, Small Things Done Well, is on Amazon. It’s currently number one on The Business Management, new releases. Who knows what’s going to be going on when this actually gets published. But that book’s coming out, the Rands in Repose Rands, R-A-N-D-S, in Repose is the blog I write there. I do a podcast too called, The Important Thing, but I think most importantly for this audience, as you already mentioned at the beginning, we have a Rands Leadership Slack Community. It’s about 12,000 folks and the requirement to get in is you must be able to work email, and find out how to get invited, it’s super easy. But that is literally one of the things I’m most proud of and I have very little to do with it. This is a lot of very focused, thoughtful, diverse set of leaders helping each other out. So you should all join that Slack community, it will blow your mind.

Marcus:  It will blow your mind, I’m in there as well, and we’ll put a link to all of those fantastic resources in the show notes. Thank you so much for being on the show today.

Michael:  Absolutely happy merry or whatever is going on when you post this.

Announcer:  Thank you for listening to programming leadership. You can keep up with the latest on the podcast at and on iTunes, Spotify, Google Play or wherever fine podcasts are distributed. Thanks to you for listening and we’ll see you next time.

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