Leadership is not about your good intentions

the co-pour

I don’t honestly remember which Mike it was. But early in my life as a manager I remember Mike, (or maybe Mike, or Mike, or Mike) said a thing that was formative for me. I’ve held on to it, since.

Junior people we evaluate on effort. Senior people we evaluate on outcomes.

It would be a mistake to have this as the only tool in your management arsenal (Who decides when you switch? Does this imply that the ends justify the means? Shouldn’t junior folks care about outcomes?) but it’s a pretty solid piece of the puzzle.

There are two ways to read it. The first is to read it directly as a management rule about expectations and results. The second is to see it as a revelation about why you are an ass. But let’s not get ahead of ourselves.

First reading: manage different people differently


A great junior employee brings energy, knowledge, and new ideas. What they often lack is an understanding of how to get things done in an organization. My cognitive psych books would call this a lack of cognitive strategies. Strategies are meta-knowledge. The tools you pick up as you learn that help break down certain kinds of problems.

With a five-year-old, this might be learning that you can use your fingers to visualize addition problems. With a new engineering hire, it’s learning how to trace one call path as a way to understand a new pile of code.

If your team works hard on goals you set and they don’t move the business forward, you messed up.

As you get more seasoned, your strategies bias towards social and business problems instead of cognitive ones. You learn how to run a meeting, and how to pre-flight the important decisions before it even starts. You learn strategies for tracking outstanding work and follow ups. You come to realize how much of your success is tied up in getting things done instead of having great ideas.

And one day you realize you’re not junior anymore.

Best intentions

Holding a junior employee accountable for the success of the organization isn’t realistic. Without those strategies, they don’t know how to make success happen. So we substitute in productivity goals, progress goals. Are you writing clean code? Are you collaborating well? Did you hit your OKRs?

We evaluate junior folks on their efforts and their intentions. If they did hard, diligent work on a doomed project, it’s hard to make that their fault. I know some cultures disagree. They feel like you should leave a team that you don’t believe in. That you should speak up early and boldly.

I’ve worked in those cultures. It’s not what you want to build. When you’re new, it’s hard to know the difference between a bad idea, a good idea with the wrong team, and a good team with a bad plan. It encourages people to be hair trigger and awful to each other as a way to seem smart. It encourages other people to leave. Don’t do it.

Junior people we evaluate on effort.

No easy buckets

But outcomes still matter. The buck has to stop. I’ve seen companies that score everyone on effort, but I’ve never seen great companies that do so. Every company needs a set of folks who do understand the context. Who can be held accountable for the right things actually getting done.

Develop better strategies for anticipating future failure and avoiding it. The stuff you expect junior folks to do.

That’s what executives are for. You are the people who turn strategy into execution. It’s a hard job. It’s why you get a fancy title and a high salary and a team of people. You need to prioritize, spot problems early, adapt and adjust. You need to empower your teams to be creative, but never step so far away that you lose the thread of how they’ll get it done. As the man says, you have to keep your nose to the grindstone while lifting your eyes to the hills. And you get zero points for effort.

If your team works hard on goals you set and they don’t move the business forward, you messed up. If they fail to hit a target because you distracted them with shifting priorities, it doesn’t matter what your intentions were. If you re-org your business in ways that make sense to you but confuse and paralyze your people, you don’t get points for meaning well.

Senior people we evaluate on outcomes.

And if that’s all you take from this post, it’s still a good rule. But…

Second reading: you are an ass

Here’s a funny thing. A lot of you execs, in tech and elsewhere, will nod vigorously with all that up there. It supports the mythology of the long-suffering executive. It reinforces that you are the results-bearers. The doers. Hooray for you.

But then a week from now, I’ll see you somewhere and you’ll say something breathtakingly moronic. Something like, “They couldn’t have picked a better headshot, lol?” in a profile of a woman CEO. Or asking, on a panel, “Don’t you think that women founders just pitch differently and that’s why they don’t get funded as often?” Or giving an interview where you solemnly explain, “I don’t see colour when I look at candidates. We’re a meritocracy.”

You’ll say this stupid thing and then, if you’re lucky, someone will call you on it. They’ll tell you it’s offensive, and ignorant, and discriminatory. And what will you say? You, the buck stop? You, the owner of outcomes?

“Oh, come on. That’s not what I intended.”

Really? Really? It’s such a junior move to say that you meant something else, that you weren’t trying to offend. As though that makes it all better. Of course you weren’t trying to offend. I’d hope not!

Your employees aren’t trying to fail, either. But if they’re suitably senior, you hold them accountable for that failure just the same. We just talked about this. You just agreed.

You’re being an ass, right now. If you want to be a leader, own it. Like you would anywhere else in your life. Work harder to understand the context. Develop better strategies for anticipating future failure and avoiding it. The stuff you expect junior folks to do. Because I see you, and you’re sure as shit not acting very senior right now.

I can’t possibly say this better than Kronda, so let’s give her the last word.

This article was syndicated with permission from The Co-Pour

Johnathan Nightingale

Johnathan Nightingale

Johnathan Nightingale is the Chief Product Officer at Hubba, and co-editor of The Co-Pour. He is the former VP of Firefox for Mozilla, and knows what scale feels like for products and for organizations. He has screwed up plenty as a leader, and is trying to write it all down as fast as he can to stop you from making the same mistakes.

  • http://www.joelascott.com Joel Scott

    Hi Johnathan,

    “If you want to be a leader, own it. Like you would anywhere else in your life. Work harder to understand the context. Develop better strategies for anticipating future failure and avoiding it.” The true definition of a leader.

    I have often heard that a leader doesn’t need to be the smartest, fastest, oldest, or most organized person on the team. A leader has to be someone that does a few things.

    1) Inspires those around them to be better
    2) Makes sure that their employees know that they wouldn’t ask anything of anyone that they wouldn’t do or hasn’t already done
    3) Makes the employees feel safe
    4) Doesn’t criticize but rather praises when ideas don’t go correctly. Praising gives rise to the want to try new things. Criticism gives rise to the fear of trying new things.