Monday, July 30, 2007

Retired Quarterback

Over the last several months, I've implicitly adopted a change in my management style that's been (I'm informed) quite a relief to the folks around me.

Several years ago, a candidate I was interviewing asked me an interesting question: "Would you describe your relationship to your employees as more like a manager, or more like a coach?" My answer was that I saw myself as more like a quarterback: directing the game, but playing on the same field as everyone else, taking the same hits, and working to develop more-or-less the same skills. In other words, I saw myself as engaging in the same debates as everyone else, letting my ideas compete with everyone else's ideas on an even playing field, and expecting and hoping everyone would throw themselves into the argument with the same vigor.

In retrospect, about the time she asked me that question is when my answer stopped being the right one. It sounded good at the time, and up until that point, I think it had worked well. When we were a smaller team, when I understood the details of most decisions that needed to be made, it was all right for me to jump feet-first into every conversation, throw my idea down first, and then let everyone argue with it.

But Zango has grown and changed an awful lot over the last several years (and especially in the last year). Among other things, the size of our technology team has grown. When there were only a dozen of us, sitting within a few yards of each other, we knew each other well, we understood each other, and most everyone was comfortable with the rough and tumble of our chosen rapid development strategy. But our technology team now consists of almost 90 people, spread across the US, Canada and Israel. Sometimes I have a hard time remembering everyone's name, and I simply can't have a close, personal relationship with everyone. (I hate that realities, for what it's worth, and I'm working hard to keep up to speed.) It's not that people won't argue or debate with me, but they're not as comfortable with it – and to be honest, neither am I. It's easier for one or the other of us to get defensive, and once that happens, it's hard for me not to win the argument: and that's obviously problematic.

In addition, I'm a lot dumber now than I was then. When we had two or three projects going at once, I could go deep enough into the details to contribute meaningfully to each. But last I checked, our portfolio consisted of some 30 active projects. There are too many details to manage, and I just don't understand the nuances of most of the debates well enough to put my opinion out first and have it be meaningful. When I have to skim as quickly as I do, my first take on an issue is generally going to be wrong.

Finally, and perhaps more controversially, it's more problematic when I lose a debate these days. This is something that I didn't understand for a long time, and even now, I'm still not sure I accept it: but I can see its effects. As a leader, it's critical to admit when I'm wrong – but the further I get from being able to have a personal relationship with everyone, the more important it becomes that I not be badly wrong in my stated opinions very often. There is such a thing as managerial/leadership capital, I think, and it's not unlimited.

So I've reluctantly dropped my "quarterback" metaphor. I still don't know whether I would more describe myself as a "manager" or a "coach," but the practical effect is that I try to sit back and listen to the whole debate before I weigh in; I ask a lot of questions; and if I finally speak up, it's if I have something meaningful to say. Generally, if I do have something meaningful to contribute, it won't be specifically technical: those sorts of things can and should get solved before I weigh in. My opinions need to be about higher level issues: the overall architecture that we're choosing, the relative priority of a given business issue, what level of resources to throw at a given problem.

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