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On kindness and decisiveness

Mike Fisher reminds us how important it is for leaders to be excellent listeners in Listen or Speak. This part particularly resonated because it’s a misconception about me that I’ve had to deal with my entire career:

Just because we speak softly doesn’t mean we act with hesitancy or indecisiveness. We can be a strong leader, setting the example, and making the tough decisions all the while communicating in a manner that keeps the conversation going and open to other people’s inputs.

I believe strongly in acting people-first as a leader, and I’ve found that when I’ve gone through interviews and/or job changes in the past there is a very common worldview that equates kindness with indecisiveness. It always takes a little while for people to realize that just because I believe we make better and more successful products when we treat each other well and truly listen to everyone’s input, it doesn’t mean I don’t know how to make decisions.

I haven’t quite been able to put my finger on why this misconception exists in the corporate world, but my current hypothesis is that collaboration gets confused with consensus, and there is a fear that “speaking softly” will result in a consensus culture where decisions take forever to be made. With that part—the dangers of consensus cultures—I do agree with. Consensus cultures often produce watered down, unexciting products. Products where endless rounds of give-and-take have worn down the original idea to a shadow of what it once was. Consensus cultures also wear down the teams working on the product, because no one really gets what they want, they just get some of it.

So I always try to make the point that I prefer collaboration over consensus. In collaboration cultures people understand that even though everyone gets a voice, not everyone gets to decide. People are able to voice their opinions and argue (kindly!) for how they believe things should be done. But it certainly doesn’t mean that everyone has to agree with every decision. That seems to help—so if you find yourself in a similar situation, give that framing a try!

Since this is something I have felt in my own career, it’s also something I try to be cognizant of in my dealings with those around me. Just because someone doesn’t dominate the conversation (see the “babble hypothesis”, which states that those who talk the most tend to emerge as group leaders), or refuses to engage in combative conversations, it doesn’t mean that their viewpoints and opinions are weak or invalid. In fact, the opposite is likely true.

Figma’s CEO on life after the company’s failed sale to Adobe

Alex Heath has a really interesting interview with Figma’s CEO Dylan Field, covering life at Figma after regulators forced Adobe to abandon its $20 billion acquisition of his company. It covers a wide range of topics, but I wanted to highlight Field’s thoughts on generative AI, which largely matches my own viewpoint:

If I was to zoom out even further to knowledge work, we’re very much in a paradigm of AI as a tool and AI helping people get work done, but it’s not necessarily a replacement. I really think that there’s a human in the loop going forward in that AI might be a useful tool, but we all know its limits in terms of hallucinations, in terms of potential inaccuracies. Even if you apply it to rote tasks, it’s important to check the work. And you know better than anyone as a writer that the current models do not match your ability to write, let alone gain context in a conversation to ask the right questions or show the intelligence that you have as a journalist.

If you think about what it takes to create great design, there’s so much in that context window that’s emotional or thinking temporally about a brand experience or a user flow. I just don’t see how, in the near term, AI is able to have that as part of its context, which means that humans are providing that.

How Happy Couples Argue

Derek Thompson, whose writing for The Atlantic I always appreciate, has a really good article on How Happy Couples Argue (gift link).

The key isn’t that happy couples fight over the right things. Happy couples fight in the right way. In bad conversations and bad fights, both people in the relationship were trying to control each other. Rather than try to control their partners, happy couples were more likely to focus on controlling themselves. They sat with silence more. They slowed down fights by reflecting before talking. They leaned on I statements rather than assumptive ones. Healthy couples also tried to control the boundaries of the conflict itself. Happy couples, when they fight, usually try to make the fight as small as possible, not let it bleed into other fights.

I’m married to a therapist (20 years this year!), and I can tell you, learning how to argue well is a life-long journey, especially if you’re married to someone who helps people with this kind of stuff for a living. The article does a good job of summarizing the things we’ve learned together over the years.

As a side note, my wife and I have long been wanting to start a podcast, and I kind of want to put it out there as a way to make us actually go through with it, because I think it’s a pretty neat idea. It would be called So You Married A Therapist, and the premise is:

Interviews with therapists and their partners about life and love and learning to live with someone who exists to help people who are not you.

I would personally just love to talk to people from all walks of life who are in similar relationships, but I also think we could all learn a lot from getting insight into those unique relationships. Also, I think it would be really funny.

In defense of defensiveness

Mandy Brown (once again!) cuts through with some tough love advice for all of us:

If you have feedback you want to share but you’re worried about how someone might respond, stop: back up and let go of whatever conclusions or interpretations you’re holding and think about what questions you have. You think someone was rude in a PR, or seemed unprepared in a meeting, or delivered research that was half baked? Set those judgments aside for the moment and practice asking about their own experience and perceptions. Questions like, what was your thought process when you worked on this? Or, what were you feeling when you added that note? Or even the evergreen, how are you doing right now? are much more likely to be generative than awkwardly lobbing feedback at someone and then ducking to avoid the retort.

Trust that just as you can be responsible for assessing the difference between when you’re in real danger and when you’re simply learning, they can too.

No, but phrased in the form of a question

In No, but phrased in the form of a question the Raw Signal team gives some great advice about how to handle those seemingly out-of-nowhere senior exec requests as a leader:

The problem is that as you get more senior maintaining productivity and de-risking execution is no longer good enough. Your job is not stability for its own sake. Your job is to make your team an instrumental piece of the organization’s success. And yes, one piece of that is making sure they can focus on their work. […]

The more senior you get, the more your approach to change needs to evolve from concern and critique, to curiosity. Whether that’s the CEO and their team bringing forward a new strategy, or a colleague pulling you aside after a meeting with an idea. Just for a minute, park the questions about implementation, and look at the idea on its merits.

Useful

I love Molly Graham’s career advice in Useful:

One of the most important lessons I have learned over and over again is that the greatest thing you can do for your career is to be the person that everyone in the room knows they can rely on to get things done. Be the person that makes everyone else look good. Be the person that everyone wants to work with again. 

Explorations On Leadership

Big +1 from me on James Whatley’s thoughts on leadership in the latest edition of his Five things on a Friday newsletter:

Demonstrating that you as a leader are imperfect, that you get things wrong; that you are fallible—and doing so in a way that shows that it’s safe to open up and be vulnerable—enables and creates the feeling of psychological safety. You’re saying “I, the person who is meant to be leading this team, can be vulnerable therefore this place, this team, that we all work in, is a place where you can feel safe to be vulnerable too.”

On empowered teams vs. feature factories at sales-led organizations

I think this is a really insightful comment (LinkedIn) by Ben Erez about the realities of being a PM in a sales-led organization. It’s worth reading his whole argument because it’s definitely a spicy take. But the crux of it is that sales-led organizations cannot function with empowered product teams (I think everyone who reads this blog knows what I mean by that, but just in case, here’s a refresher).

Here’s a key part of Ben’s argument, and the really spicy part:

I think sales-led companies should embrace the feature factory culture fully; stop evaluating PMs by their strategic contribution (a weight off the PMs shoulders given they never get time for strategic work anyway) and start rewarding PMs based on how many features they ship that the sales leaders care about. This will align the PMs in your org to think and work the way the sales team (and CEO) wants them to work. It’ll kill many unhealthy tensions in the org and get people rowing in the same direction.

Would I want to work in that environment? Probably not.

But most b2b SaaS companies are already sales-led. And there are thousands of PMs in those environments who feel the tension I’ve described. So I think most b2b SaaS PMs would celebrate their company embracing their feature factory and just calling it what it is.

Could this be seen as defeatist? Maybe. But I also think that the “just calling it what it is” part of the argument is really key here. It doesn’t serve anyone—not the product, not the company, and certainly not its customers—to pretend you have an empowered product culture when you do not. So remove the pretense, and just be honest about who you are.

If you want to become an empowered organization, that’s great! But that’s a transformation that has to come from the executive level, and it’s not a short or easy process. So go on that journey, yes! But until then, be honest about what the organization is, make expectations clear to PMs, and reward them accordingly.

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