You won’t brilliant your way out of this


I’m gonna make this one quick, because I know you’ve got a lot going on.

You’re not as smart as you think you are.

Don’t get me wrong, you’re smart. You have good, creative ideas that are well-connected to the way the business works. Those smarts have helped you climb out of the junior ranks early. You stand out because your ideas are surprising and they cut across a broad swath of the business. You interview well, especially with executives who feel like they need to inject some new energy.

So now you’re operating at a more senior level. You’ve picked up a few direct reports, though they’re junior and sort of slow. You don’t expect much of them other than output. As for the rest of the org, what really surprises you now that you have more access is how dumb everyone else is. How slow they are. How much better you could do their job.

If this sounds familiar, you’re in trouble. And it will get worse for you before it gets better. It’s fixable, but the skills that got you into this mess can’t get you out of it.

The making of a jackass

Here’s what went down that you didn’t notice.

When you were junior in your role, someone more senior spotted your brilliance. My hunch is that you come from a lot of privilege already, as women and minorities rarely get that same opportunity. But either way, you got your chance to speak up, someone bet on your ideas, and it worked! I love that part — your ideas are great.

That success put you in a different box. You got talked about as really promising. Going places. Super smart. People gave you opportunities to take on new, meaty work and you knocked them down. And that fed your internal notion that you were indeed super smart, and that other people weren’t.

You need to start keeping score on execution, not ideas.

That attitude shows. People got hurt, and frustrated, and shut out. But while you were still protected by the people elevating you, it worked out okay. They came in and cleaned after you messed things up. The results spoke for themselves, and reflected well on your managers. They were willing to take some collateral damage.

You didn’t see this. You probably even started to think you were cleverer than the people elevating you. But your early success would not have been possible without them.

No more parachute

Act II is a lot harder. Now you’re more senior. You have the title you wanted, though you share it with lesser people. You’re still smart, still have great ideas. But nothing seems to happen with them anymore.

This is usually when you (and I’ve met several of you along the way) decide to get into politics. You try to play people off against each other. You start shit. Some people fall for it, but most of them see it coming. They compare notes. And whereas before you were getting streamlined into every high visibility project, people now try to steer around you. They’ve learned that adding you to a project makes it 300 percent smarter, but gross.

Maybe you’re fired, but one way or another you eventually leave.

Interviewing is easy for you; it’s not hard to find your next thing. The first couple of projects go really well. But then that friction shows up again. You try to game your way through, but still everyone is so slow, so bad at their jobs. You bounce off that gig, too.

And the next one.

And the next one.

The unmaking of a jackass

Tech is weird. When Gary says, “ideas are shit, execution’s the game,” most tech leaders agree. I know I do. But then many of those people go back to their companies and hire ideas people. They seem genuinely surprised when this doesn’t work out well. I don’t honestly know what to tell them when that happens.

On the other side of a gut-wrenching dose of humility, change can be complete and permanent. You recognize the only road to high output execution is to bring others along.

As for you, you need to start keeping score on execution, not ideas. It’s a hard change, to abandon the scoring system that inevitably puts you on top. But it’s the only way out. You’ll know you’re getting there when you start to realize how much some of those people, those slow people, get done. I’ve seen this happen when people start their own companies and there’s no idiot CEO or executive to blame. I’ve also seen it happen when something happens in life that sees them brought low.

This is the key: find a way to be humbled.

On the other side of a gut-wrenching dose of humility, change can be complete and permanent. You recognize that the only road to high output execution is to bring others along. Force of ideas won’t do that, but it can be the secret sauce that makes you great once the team believes in you.

This wasn’t my particular pathology, so I can’t speak from personal experience about how that change feels. I can only tell you what I’ve seen. One consistent characteristic I’ve seen in people who make this change is that they’re mortified by how they used to behave. Another consistent trait I’ve seen is that they start racking up regular, unmitigated success.

How’s that for a good idea?

This article was syndicated with permission from The Co-Pour


Johnathan Nightingale

Johnathan Nightingale is a founder and partner at Raw Signal Group. He is co-editor of The Co-pour and co-author of a book about modern leadership (coming fall 2017). Johnathan has built and operated organizations from 2 people to 250. He was the Vice President of Firefox for Mozilla during a period of intense turmoil inside Mozilla and in the web at large, helped build and launch the first Firefox offerings on Android and iOS, and still cheers every time the open web wins. After Mozilla he joined Hubba as their Chief Product Officer, and helped that team triple in size while improving their diversity stats instead of watching them slide. He is proud to sit on the board of Creative Commons, and is a big believer in the power of mission-based organizations. He has strong opinions about your coffee infrastructure.

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