Every once in a while, if you’re a manager, you’ll find yourself in a massive meeting with other managers talking about performance evaluation.  If you’re lucky, it’s only 2 hours.  If you are growing fast, it might be 2-5 hours.

Either way, you’re probably asking yourself: what is the point of these meetings?! Well, the goal of these meetings is to make sure you recognize accomplishments consistently across your org.  Before you scoff at it, consider what might happen if you didn’t:

  • A worker in another group might get a higher rating with half the work (or, via poorer quality of work)
  • Some teams or managers would promote unfairly or too quickly
  • Workers would reach positions of importance without the competence needed to succeed at that level

Consider the Law of Crappy People from bhorowitz:

For any title level in a large organization, the talent on that level will eventually converge to the crappiest person with the title.”

I consider this to be true — we tend look at the level above us, find the crappiest person, lean back and exalt, “WTF — I’m better than Billy!!!  He can barely tie his shoes.  If that guy is a Level 70 Unicorn, I should be a Level 70 Unicorn.  Ugh!”

Two things:

  1. Don’t limit yourself by comparing yourself to the worst.  Instead, compare yourself to the best person at the next level — or better yet, the best damn engineer/designer/whatever at the company.  I think it’s self-defeating to adopt an obsession with titles and get wrapped up comparing yourself to the worst person with a title/level above yours.  It’s not a great way to make progress.
  2. Calibration and consistency is critical to morale.  Because we all tend to do this anyway, calibration and consistency in gauging performance is critical.  If the worst person at a given level is _really bad_ it demoralizes people bit by bit, one day at a time.  That’s why it’s important for managers to have this meeting — to make sure we get treated fairly and consistently.

At Box, we take care of people and we handle calibration well — it’s one of the reasons I’m proud to work at Box.  My hope is that if you work somewhere where managers don’t do this you should speak up — and push for change.  The adverse side effects of not handling calibration are devastating.

Leadership is simple and simple is hard


It’s been a while since the last time I wrote a summary of what I had learned about leadership. This post is about some of the general concepts I’ve picked up along the way — partially so I have them written down, mostly so I can share them.

Mind you — there’s no panacea to be found, just guidelines. I wouldn’t have it any other way. I just try to absorb as much as I can.

Management philosophy: lolwut?

A common question I get from folks: “What is your management philosophy?”

My first response to this question is to ask if you think management and leadership are related, mutually exclusive or complimentary. If I had to boil it down, leadership is your ability to motivate people. Management is how well you execute. I’ve also heard that management is doing things right while leadership is doing the right things.

However you define these, I don’t see how you do one without the other. Lean too far in one direction, you’re a babbling prophet with great intentions. Lean too far the other way, you’re a lonely, walking and talking autobot. Both are undesirable fates not meant for humans.

Let’s just say I strive for competency in both and always will.

A useful list of stolen wisdom

I still need to answer the question, which leads to a discussion about non-hierarchical empowerment. I don’t think leadership or management philosophies have a 1-minute elevator pitch, though.

To answer in long form, I constantly draw on a series of idioms, quotes and principles I’ve accumulated over time. Some of them I have borrowed permanently from other leaders, and I’ll link to sources. Others are just things I say all the time. Let’s run through these:

  1. Start with the why, ask questions about how and the what takes care of itself
  2. Hire great people and get out of their way
  3. An engineering team isn’t an assembly line — and shouldn’t be run like one
  4. Success is the quality of one’s effort
  5. The only time I’ll get mad at you is when you don’t try
  6. Look for humility and faith — without those, you have nothing to work with
  7. Know where people want to go and help them get there
  8. Push power to the edges, and find a way to have decisions happen where information is
  9. Work is like improv
  10. No assholes!
  11. Does this have to be said by me? Does it have to be said now? Does it have to be said at all? (Mike Shaver/Mike Beltzner/Canada)
  12. Listen like you’re wrong, fight like you’re right (John Lilly)
  13. Don’t whine, don’t complain, don’t make excuses (John Wooden)

No, you won’t find this stuff in textbooks

Being asked about management and leadership so many times last summer made me realize my answers seem obvious. Five minutes into spewing statements like the above and it sounds “textbook”. I actually got this feedback once after an interview. To that, I ask: what textbook? I’d like to read it.

The truth is you won’t find the answers in just one book. They are all over the place. Many of these concepts are relatively simple or common sense, but most books, blogs or articles work hard at uncovering an undeniable truth:

Simple is really, really hard.

iPhones, web search, airplanes, TCP, cars, 4GLTE — if you look around we are surrounded by amazing, complex things we take for granted. Do you realize how amazing it is that we can fit 40,000 vinyl records into our pocket for less than the cost of a television? Is it easy to give people access to data anywhere they are? Hell no. Simple concepts, impossible delivery.

Management and leadership both have many simple concepts that are difficult to handle. They can be harder than deterministic systems because people are difficult. John Taffer (from Bar Rescue – love this show) always says, “I can fix bars, but I can’t fix people.”


If all else fails, watch this:

And this:

Inspiring people sounds easy but it’s damn near impossible to do unless you believe in what you’re saying. The hardest part of being a leader is putting yourself out there — to be humble, vulnerable but confident all at once. While you do that, you have to constantly fight your urge to take over, take full control. Because leadership is not about power or control, it’s about creating an environment. That is what makes you a vehicle for your mission or idea. That is what makes you a force people are inspired by. Simple, right? Right.

Simple, but really, really hard.

Stalemate: Are you building a culture of silence?


Courage. Trust. Great teams have these, weak teams don’t.

There is nothing quite so disappointing as a group of talented people who can’t achieve because they lack mutual trust. Likewise, it’s tough to see folks who can’t speak up because they either don’t have the courage or don’t trust their colleagues enough to listen to what they have to say and react constructively.

With dwindling trust or courage, you’re building yourself a culture of silence. This manifests itself in very destructive ways:

  • People do not speak up. Even when it is important for the progress of the team and company, people are reluctant to voice their opinions. It takes individuals with tremendous courage to speak up and when they do, they are labeled as dissenters and not supported even though they are saying what everyone wants to say — but won’t dare.
  • There is no room for failure. Most successes are preceded by wonderful failures. Not having the trust of leadership or colleagues eliminates failure as an option and stifles innovation. If you can’t fail for fear of retribution, you probably aren’t going to succeed at higher levels.
  • Nobody challenges each other. If I think you’ll try to sabotage me or get revenge because I disagree with you, I’m going to be less likely to challenge your points and assumptions. I won’t be vested in your success enough to challenge your core arguments. Healthy discourse goes out the window and those with the loudest voice — or those who speak first — start winning out.
  • Your true talent bleeds. People with better options don’t tolerate a culture of silence. They recognize lack of trust and leave fairly quickly for better opportunities. You often won’t hear about why they really left. It’s always the “opportunity I couldn’t pass up.” As you might suspect, there’s usually more to it than that.
  • Politics run rampant. In an environment where nobody truly knows where people stand, extroverts get a lot of credit and overshadow the silent majority. Politics, defined as, “people advancing their careers or agendas by means other than merit and contribution,” replaces any meritocracy with a bureaucracy. Ben Horowitz wrote a good post about politics.

Here’s how you can prevent building this culture of silence:

  • Listen to people. People who do not listen or practice in selective listening do not trust the speaker enough to consider they may be right. Maybe you’re formulating your response before they are done talking. Maybe they are just totally wrong. Either way, if you start talking immediately after someone makes a point and come back with 10 reasons why they are wrong you are telling them something very clear: I do not trust you and I don’t value your opinion. Don’t do this — just listen.
  • Forget about blame. Blame is a huge waste of time in most cases. Can you recall any time you pointed out it was someone’s else’s fault where working with that person again was easy? If so, congratulations; that might be the first time in human history. Assume the best in your colleagues. Allow them room to fail and help them. It will pay off tenfold in the long run.
  • Sort things out directly without bosses. I can’t recall a time where cc-ing someone’s boss resulted in a positive outcome. Adults tend to work things out directly and when they can’t, they escalate. If you conduct normal business thinking, “if I say something, it could go directly to my boss,” you’re going to say less — or agonize over what to say. Try to work things out with people directly and avoid involving their superiors unless you’ve already tried and didn’t get results. You just might be able to resolve things with less drama and avoid losing trust.
  • Don’t play the victim. Everybody hates you and you’re just trying to do your job, right? I remember hearing stuff like this; I think it came from 6 years olds dealing with their first exposure to groups of other people. It has no place at work. Excuses, blaming others, entertaining all forms of outward influences as plausible scapegoats before addressing what you did or what you could have done differently is a good way to lose people’s trust and confidence in you — it’s also mentally exhausting. If you play the victim and enter meetings like mama bear protecting her cubs, you’re going to be a self-fulfilling prophecy. Don’t be a victim. Be strong. People will respect you for it.
  • Avoid character attacks. Maybe you think Jim is a huge asshole. Maybe Mike is crazy and he gets on your nerves. Maybe Jenny said something that hurt your feelings. A good way to screw yourself is to be irresponsible in how you share this internal dialogue. Vent to your friends, your partner, whatever — but keep it clean — always. Word gets around and you don’t want people to hear your internal dialogue. Keep the nasty stuff to yourself. Don’t play that game — everyone loses when it becomes too personal or vindictive.

Organizations lacking trust and courage can generate both noise and silence at inopportune times. Those who get drowned out have a lot to offer; the analytical, the listeners, the silent majority contribute just as much to the long-term health of the organization.

So speak up, be heard, but always listen to others. Trust they are saying things for the right reasons — give them the time they deserve before you hammer their opinions into tiny itty-bitty pieces. After all, their next point may be brilliant. But you’d never know if they lacked the courage to speak in a room full of people ready to pounce.