The Uncomfortable Balance

Every CEO, founder, manager, and probably most all of us at some point in our professional lives have asked these two questions:

  1. Am I pushing the people on my team too hard?
  2. Am I not pushing the people on my team hard enough?

These two nag at me all the time.

There are days when I marvel at what Mozzers have accomplished, overwhelmed by the quantity and quality of work delivered. And there are days when I wonder how we can keep customers at all given the failures, setbacks, and occasional poor decisions we make (usually garnered from the unfair perspective of hindsight). Today, I felt both of those simultaneously.

(via xx on Flickr)

I know that many managers and individual contributors feel this tension, too. My advice on the topic isn’t comprehensive, but I hope it can be helpful:

  • Hire for those who A) believe in the mission & vision B) have demonstrated the ability to go above and beyond and C) possess an internal drive to improve stronger than any external force you could exert
  • Lead by example – if you expect exceptional work, you must be willing to do it yourself. This is extremely hard unless you have some measurable output, which is why I love enabling everyone to create, build, write, market, and/or present. Tangible, professional work is a great way for your team to be inspired by your example.
  • Recognize and praise publicly. Social media, and conferences/events are the times when I’ve seen public praise have the strongest impact. When I cite the amazing work of a team member on stage and several people in the audience tweet about it, that can make someone’s year, whereas the same praise in a 1:1 setting might be quickly dismissed or forgotten (which doesn’t mean you shouldn’t deliver it there too!).
  • Offer critical feedback quickly – if a project or idea was poorly conceived or executed, don’t let it linger until a review comes up; pass it on immediately. Make sure that feedback is detailed enough to be actionable – “this wasn’t up to par,” is largely useless unless you can demonstrate the delta between what is “up to par.”
  • Deliver feedback with empathy and offers of support – ask how you can help next time? Ask what they needed that they didn’t have? Show examples of how you’ve failed in the past and how you overcame it.
  • Provide mentorship, both internally and externally – at Moz, many team members have found outside coaches/mentors and we’re happy to pick up those tabs.  We’re also brainstorming an internal plan around mentorship that will launch in 2013.
  • At every 1:1, remember to ask how folks are doing. Sarah likes to ask all of her reports to give their happiness and well-being on a scale from 0-10, and then follow up by asking what would need to change to make it a “10.” It’s a tactic I need to start copying, and already recommend across the company.
  • Anonymous surveys are great for taking the team’s temperature, too. If you see that a lot of responses are coming back as “I’m completely overwhelmed,” or “I don’t feel challenged enough,” or “I don’t have a clear idea of how to improve,” you can take the right action on the right side of the equation. At some point on this blog, I’ll try to share the internal surveys we’ve sent out at Moz (still a process in refinement).

While these tactics can be helpful, this is an area where I know I don’t have the right answers. The struggle will keep playing out in my head for as long as I’m in the professional world, and may even be a healthy one.

Today, I had that feeling that our team can do better. We can build more reliable systems. We can produce more remarkable content. We can find ways to scale the knowledge and data we have to our community. But, I also recognize that Mozzers have achieved remarkable things, and more than half the team today has been with us less than a year! Imagine what we’ll be able to accomplish next year. Imagine how hard it must be to learn the ins and outs of a new company, a new industry, a new set of customers, a new management team, a new perspective on financial resources, a new… well… everything.

Today I also that feeling that we might be pushing too hard. Perhaps that launch we’ve scheduled for March is an unachievable deadline that is sapping the resolve and eating into every waking hour of a massive portion of our team. What if they burn out? Will they let their managers or me know first so we can help? Will they be able to recognize it in themselves? Have we made a mistake by forgoing agile development in favor of waterfall for a single, insanely large release?

I think it comes down to belief in people. And I believe I’m surrounded by smart, talented, experienced, driven individuals who share my values and who know the remarkable consequences that achieving our goals will bring. If that belief wavers, I’ll know there’s structural problems. Until then, the tension between the two questions is likely less about reality and more connected to my personal perceptions, feelings of guilt, and fear of underachieving. Those are issues for me to deal with, not for others to suffer.

p.s. If you’ve dealt with this pain yourself, I’d love to hear any recommended actions you’ve got that helped.