Future of Work Leadership

Executives shouldn’t hold the whole organization to their standards, honestly

That might seem odd to many. After all, aren’t execs supposed to define and drive the culture? If they work late nights, shouldn’t everyone? Isn’t that kind of the definition of “culture,” even if we don’t totally understand what “culture” means anymore, especially within COVID?

That’s one theory.

But the deeper you get, it makes no sense for executive-level thinking to wrap its tentacles around the entire organization. Consider a few examples:

  • “It is important for our culture and collaboration that the entire team sit here in San Diego:” Indeed, perhaps it is. But coastal is expensive, and simply because founders/execs are from San Diego, like Stone IPAs, and like to surf … doesn’t mean everyone needs to try and live there, especially given housing costs and potentially stagnant salaries. If someone can get their job done from Topeka, we should let them. COVID helped more people realize this (although I’m not sure who exactly didn’t realize it before COVID), and again, for the people in the back: we mostly hire employees to get work done. That’s why we still hire largely from bullet points instead of in more creative ways. The bullet points, constituting the task work, are what matters. So who really cares where you sit?
  • “We grind and hustle. We do deals and we grow:” That’s perfectly fine for execs, because (a) that’s their job and (b) they receive incentive structures tied to that. For most people, answering emails at 12:03am does not do much for their career or their earning potential except they maybe get a few “Atta-Boys” along the way. This is the exec model of thinking that, when scaled, becomes stress and burnout. And because managers conflate “A” (get on the grind) with “B” (the cost of biz), most of them are not well-equipped to handle burnout.
  • “This is fast becoming a data business:” It may well be, but unless the data is transparent and not hoarded at the top levels, the other levels throughout the org cannot do much to be “data-driven” aside from a few meandering, meaningless Excel docs that no one really looks at.
  • “We are very passionate about social justice, committed to diversity, want to repair democracy, want to adjust capitalism…” Lots of execs take on a lot in their speeches and mission statements these days. It’s the Cheesecake Factory model of corporate leadership — 17-page menu, and most of the shit is done OK, but nothing is subsequently done very well. No exec is going to put “social justice” above growth, revenue, and his/her bonus structure. They’re just not. At lower levels, we just don’t have the authority to work on this stuff at a corporate level (an individual level, maybe, but a lot of that is woke-chasing or woke-washing). When execs say this and expect us to up and do something, it goes back to the burnout discussion above.

Work would be more functional if we had tiers and understanding, although it becomes very fraught with need for relevance, vocabulary, and various connections to work. Here’s what it could look like:

Executives focus on revenue growth, deals, big plays, and steadying the culture so that it’s a good place to work and there are opportunities to grow. They “own” bigger strategy, although ideally said strategy is developed at multiple levels. They increasingly allow for flexibility in their orgs.

Middle managers communicate, develop employees, and translate the big strategy into day-to-day, week-to-week tasks. They let tech “make the trains run,” as opposed to them doing it.

Rank-and-file employees do the task work and look for opportunities to grow and stretch assignments, which are ideally provided and endorsed by the middle.

Think any of this could work?

My broader point is that if we heap too much on the execs and expect those execs will demand the same of everyone (which is how we sometimes frame up “culture”), we all just run in circles for years and years.

Future of Work Leadership

COVID will probably scale up NIMBY

Wrote a similar thing once, but here’s kinda where I’m at with this general topic: I don’t love Bill Maher at all, but last weekend on his show, he had Ezra Klein and Jon Tester on the panel, and Klein is talking about how high-level California government does want high-speed rail, but when you get it to the county level or the neighborhood level, people go all NIMBY because while they like the idea, they don’t want it impacting their families directly. That’s all kind of addressed in this article.

Then, this morning I listened to a Prof G podcast episode on “The Algebra of Wealth,” which features a long discussion with Noreena Hertz, an academic. Hertz talks about the sociological connective breakdowns of society that were happening even before COVID — we’ve been talking about this stuff for generations, at least back to Bowling Alone — but now she says (and she’s right) that it’s worse. If you used to go to yoga consistently and now you can’t, well, yoga is a form of human interaction. You need to say hi to people, smile, figure out where to put your mat, etc. It’s a broader foray into community and social norms. So is the grocery store. So is any of that stuff.

But now we have this huge rise in e-commerce — something like 74% of the businesses created in the USA in 2020 were e-comm — and we have these lockdowns and restrictions. I live in Texas so I don’t feel them as overtly, but I know many that do.

OK, so there’s less connection to broader community, right? And there’s always been NIMBY? That means people with families are spending more time with their families, and while that’s ideally a good thing, it’s also a potential mental health thing that we’ll probably write some academic papers about but broadly ignore for the next 20 years.

As people spend more time with their families, though — or a “pod” of like-minded loved ones — I would think NIMBY is only going to scale and grow and rise even faster.

Because if you don’t really see and interact with a broader community of different people — if you’re chasing algorithmic pens digitally and silos on video calls at work and most of your real, IRL time is familial — then obviously you’re going to want to protect your family above all.

And that’s logical, and not really selfish. But how we can speak about “unity” or “community” when our consistent focus is on like-minded people?

If we keep making decisions for our family over a sense of greater good, then will anything major really change?


Future of Work Leadership

An over-focus on fiscal targets is emotional terrorism for employees

Decent article here about “leaders” who spend every all-hands meeting talking about financial metrics that most of the organization doesn’t understand or cannot connect back to their work — so, about 90% of leaders — with some good quotes and approaches, but like every other article ever written about work, it utterly misses the point that consistent discussion of financials, growth, and wealth-building is the closest thing many executives have to “fun” in their lives, so no, they’re not about to stop doing it anytime soon. Shipping product, grinding, being in 17th gear and beating rivals constitute the purpose of those guys. You take their ability to talk about CAGR and Q3 beating expectations away, you basically just killed them. In their minds, they just became a 1950s housewife. And fuck if they know how to roast a ham.

That’s the problem with most orgs and most work suggestions: they ignore psychology. An executive does not care about words like “engagement.” He views engagement as what just happened to his daughter, Brooke — and honestly he only cares about that because he has to pay for the wedding (goddamn Kevin, his family is loaded. Can’t they help out?). An executive cares about money, and engagement to him (or her) is about making money, growing, beating rivals, and showing you “won.” Bezos is the grand puba of these guys in some ways; go look up his speech in Berlin in 2018 where he refers to his Amazon net worth as his “winnings.” What do you win? A game. That’s how these guys look at work.

Now, I’ve had dozens of jobs where executives call an all-hands and discuss financial metrics, and eventually most people are tuned out or playing on their phone. Ironically, that’s the same thing that happens in most diversity trainings. And what’s the commonality? It’s that people kinda sorta “get” that this is important — good financial metrics mean we can make payroll, and diversity seems like a good thing! — but they have no idea how it relates to their day-to-day work and tasks. Like, what if you don’t face revenue? OK, so how can you adjust these metrics then? Or what if you’re a middle-aged white man/woman trying to feed their family? Diversity and inclusion seem important, but what can you really do? That’s the same mindset that got us “I’m Listening” lawn signs, too.

Good point further down this article:

Emotional intelligence expert Daniel Goleman says, “A primary task of leadership is to direct attention. To do so, leaders must learn to focus their own attention.” Instead of routinely hitting forward on every financial report, think about where you want to direct the attention of your team.

First cool thing: I’d like to be called an “emotional intelligence expert” someday, although presently I think I’m closer to “low-level functional alcoholic who over-performs financially while under-delivering professionally.” How’s that for some self-awareness?

Second: this quote is the essence of work. Like, the essence. One of the key things about having a managerial role is that you need to direct:

  • Context
  • Information
  • Attention

Those three things are very closely intertwined. A manager needs to provide context on what’s happening, who’s who, what’s important, what really matters to this job being performed well, and all that. They need to provide information on who to ask for things, how to get things, where things reside. And, perhaps most importantly, they should direct your attention. “This stuff is important. This stuff? Less so.”

Now, sadly we do know from research and anecdotal experience that many managers are terrible at this, and they became “Shiny Object” guys, where everything is a priority, which inherently means nothing is a priority. Attention isn’t focused, they themselves focus on financials, they forward you a few reports about financials (much of which you don’t understand), and they essentially become “absentee” managers. I just described my life from 28 to 40 or so. Someone hold me.

So, if you are excited by the financials to the point of getting a tiny bit erect or some such (not a stretch for many executives), then do me a favor and when you present that info down a chain, give some context. What does this mean for payroll, bonuses, advancement? What does it mean in terms of the market and position? How can someone grow within the company knowing that the financials are TOIGHT? What are the next steps? What does it mean for day-to-day work?

A lot of people would look at those questions and say “Peons don’t need to know that stuff” or “They should keep hustling, that’s why I pay them until I automate their asses out with an Oracle product, hopefully by Q1 2024,” and maybe those are valid answers. But constantly forwarding financial spreadsheets and graphs with limited context, information, and attention-focus is basically just managerial emotional terrorism. So either loop them out entirely (not the best play) or loop them in but with some effort at explaining what it all means.


Future of Work Leadership

Dealing with the HIPPO in the room

“It’s common for people who lack power or status to suppress their dissenting views in favor of conforming to the HIPPO — the Highest Paid Person’s Opinion. Sometimes they have no other choice if they want to survive.”

I got that from an article excerpting Adam Grant’s new book. I used to like Adam G. more — we write about similar stuff, but he’s significantly more famous than I am — but then I tried to email with him a couple of times, and he basically stiff-armed me, so I have less resonance for his stuff now out of spite and bitterness. That’s healthy, right?

I had never actually heard the term “HIPPO” until about 2014, when I think I was 33-34, so I had been working maybe 12-13 years already. At the place I worked in ’14, HIPPO was definitely in play. The CEO was this dude Matthew, who I’ve mentioned in other blogs before but won’t cross-link out of avoiding tedium. Matthew was Management By Shiny Object 101. The last person he spoke with, whatever they said to him, that was suddenly the new “strategy” we all had to follow; then it would change when he spoke to someone from IT, marketing, etc, etc. It was a roller coaster ride of nothingness. I eventually got fired, got divorced about 17 months after that firing, and am still a work in progress from things that commenced (or intensified) in that era.

Any meeting at this place, it was HIPPO to the max. You could come in with data, ideas, research, interviews, discussions, and thought processes — and at the end of the meeting, if action items were anywhere in sight (they often were not), we’d all just be sitting there waiting for the highest-paid person to say “OK, do this” or “OK, let’s call another meeting.” There was very little individual agency at this place. You could work hard, and maybe get noticed, but ultimately you were chasing the opinion and viewpoint of 7-9 people who made more than you and outranked you.

I was blogging more at the time and I started to think about ways to navigate the HIPPO in the room. In reality, it’s not an easy discussion — and there’s not much “thought leadership” out there about it, to be real. The crux of the issue is that if you push back on a HIPPO too much, you become a malcontent. What happens to malcontents? At the first sign of revenue erosion, they are at the top of the layoff list. So if you want to protect your neck, your job, and your income stream, usually you need to roll over for the HIPPO, even if his/her ideas and approaches are awful. As long as the company isn’t tanked and they can still meet payroll, you’re OK, right?

That’s probably the easiest approach.

I think we want to believe in a “data-driven” time that you can come at a HIPPO with data on a problem, and the HIPPO will shift their thinking because of the data. That’s certainly possible, yes, but a lot of HIPPOs essentially virtue-signal about where they got in their career and they think they’re geniuses, so they will often trust their gut over data. Honestly, and very few people admit this in “future of work” posts, but a big part of the “Everyone must bring data” movement of the last 10 years is simply managerial laziness. Managers don’t want to collect data and make compelling arguments; they want to outsource that portion of their job. And then often when they do, they reject all the hard work a person put into data-gathering and analysis by saying “No, I trust my gut on this one.”

I’d say your HIPPO options are usually:

  1. Try data, if it might work.
  2. Try relationship-building, if that might get you a few extra points.
  3. Roll over for the HIPPO.
  4. Find a new job.

Anything else seems like bullshit.


Future of Work Leadership

Management issue: “Helpfulness” is determined by receiver, not giver

Got the concept from this article, which is mostly kinda interesting although is essentially just describing how CEOs want shit done and don’t care about the impact on people in the process. See also: burnout.

You see this a lot in management with some dipshit named Barry micromanaging you to death on a project, including 12:03am emails. At the end of the day, Barry will tell you (and others) that he’s “being helpful.” But is Barry allowed to decide what “helpful” is? Doesn’t the recipient of the effort get to decide whether it’s helpful? Isn’t this kind of the same discussion where elitist peeps give 1 hour of time to a cause and say “I was helpful,” even though those impacted by the cause are like “Who’s that?”

The person who needs the help gets to decide whether it really was help, no? And in most cases with management, that’s going to be the employee.

Managers love to hide behind “Well, I was helpful” or “I know best,” even though they often use their time incredibly poorly and cripple the economy and can’t set their own priorities. A lot of times, especially for me, when a manager gets involved the whole situation becomes more complicated and tedious, but the end goal is further in sight. I had a gig once in 2018 where they hired a woman named Carmen to be over “social efforts,” and all she did was create 54 tracking documents and all these forms/questions we had to fill out about what competitors were posting, and it basically stopped us from actually posting. So, it was broadly kind of absolutely pointless and regressed the output, but to anyone in earshot, Carmen was “helping!”

Managers often think they’re helping when, in reality, the main way they could “help” would be to understand what their team needs, work with hiring on how to find those types of people, hire competent people, explain the political ecosystem of the organization to them, explain the initial priorities and workflows, and get the ever-loving fuck out of the way.

That’s all. That’s it. That would probably be “helpful” in the eyes of the employee, who really gets to determine what “help” is here.

Future of Work Leadership

Tony Corneto and the irony of the Steve Jobs-laden slide deck

Used to work at this hellhole of a place called Virtuoso — I liked it for six months, hated it for 12 months, and got laid off, and in those 12 months my bosses hated me for probably six of the 12, so a nice little dance overall — and one of my dudes at the time was this cat named Tony Corneto. Almost too many stories about this mf’er to share here, and some of the worst ones are unabashedly not mine to tell, but this one is pretty good.

This guy sat in Seattle and I sat in Texas. I think he was over something called “customer experience” or “user experience,” but goddamn if the whole thing wasn’t a complete cluster fuck. My boss’ boss, who seems to now be retired in Park City (nice!), managed one silo. His boss’ boss, who was a beautiful gay man everyone respected even though he couldn’t manage his way out of a paper bag, managed another silo. My silo was all about beauty and colors and “branding elements.” His silo was supposedly about data-driven solutions and sprints and lead generation optimization and all this stuff. I found out later that during the interview process, this ass clown called me “Stoner Ted” because I talk slow. I still got the job, so I guess that’s cool, kinda.

These silos were supposed to collaborate daily and we honestly barely spoke, and then every five months there’d be a blow-up and the executives would get involved, we’d make nice, and nothing would change. This went on for my entire 18 months there, I accomplished maybe three-four things of relevance, and then I got laid off. So, a good year and a half. It helped drive my divorce too, so that was cool.

Anyway, that’s the background/intro.

The core story is that once, when I had been there about six months, Tony is giving a presentation to the execs on customer experience and what we need to be doing. This is probably late 2014, like December ’14. Customer experience was becoming a big topic, but it wasn’t a huge thing like it is in ’20 and ’21.

So Tony opens this deck on the virtual presentation, and I shit you not, this deck has quote after quote from the big names, including:

  • Bezos
  • Gates
  • Jobs
  • Ford

I think at one point I counted 18-20 quotes from those four guys spread throughout the presentation.

Near the 30-minute mark, this thing is dragging and it’s just quotes and whatever, with a few slides of action and website screen-shots and what have you.

One executive barks: “Tony? Tony? Can you hear me?”

“Yes sir.”

“Need you to get to the point, man.”

I muted and LOL’ed.

What’s funny is … I’ve sat in so many presentations where people quote Jobs to death because, ya know, iPhone is a big product and he’s considered a world-class innovator.

But Jobs himself hated slide decks:


I personally think slide decks are awful, and a conversation about big ideas and topics and what needs to be accomplished would serve everyone much better, but … people are comforted by slide decks, even though they don’t help move new ideas along, so it’s often a model that persists. I’ve been working about 17 years, and I’ve probably been told to “make a deck” about something over 3,000 times. At some point, it’s all a little bit meaningless.

Nothing really happened with Tony’s deck. When I got piped out of that job, we were still doing the same nonsense on customer experience and pretending that it was working like gangbusters, which is what most middling companies do: create metrics that executives don’t care about, report the metrics falsely because everyone knows it doesn’t matter and the executives don’t care about those metrics as is, and then just rinse and repeat the next year.

What happened with me and that job was: people started to dislike me, for various reasons (I am easily not liked, I’ve learned over the years), I got fired, I applied for a job months later somewhere else and used Tony’s boss as a reference and he claimed he didn’t know me (LOL), and then about 2.5 years after all this, I ended up sleeping with someone from the Seattle office when we were both divorced. We both married now, it’s a new decade, and ya know what? People are still quoting Steve Jobs in slide decks, even though he doesn’t want ya to!

Future of Work Leadership

Confidence is not competence

Got the idea for this from this tweet via Adam Grant:

This is sad, but expected. I’ve hit up the narcissism topic a few times, including how the hiring process rewards narcissism (it does), the problems with conversational narcissism (many), and whether we’re about to create a full generation of narcissists (maybe). That third link certainly seems true given the above research.

And we wonder why we need to have discussions about the exact percentage of CEOs that are sociopaths?

I think we need a completely new definition of, and approach towards, success in many ways. Narcissists chase a very specific model of success, and they often come to run organizations and places you might work, and the culture is shaped by them, and they mint further generations of narcissistic pricks.

Maybe we should start from the beginning by explaining that “confidence” is not “competence,” just like “makes money” does not mean “intelligent.” There are many dichotomies in the world of organizations, and we fall back into basic definitions and concepts far too often.

This is disheartening, but hard to argue.

Future of Work Leadership

“If data suggests a hiring problem…” How would HR know? Are they analytical?

You see articles like this all the time, where some academics run a relatively-complicated analysis of hiring and recruiting practices through the lens of diversity, and then propose at the end that HR and TA should be more “data-driven” and figure out where their blind spots are with intel.

All well and good, but can HR do that?

I went to a grad program (stupidly, as I’m still in debt) from 2012-2014, and a lot of people who emerged from that took HR roles.

Whenever we had a big data project, like around compensation modeling or High Performance Employee indicators, everyone freaked out. One kid, whose name I think was James (?), was good at the stuff and ended up getting a sick job with United Healthcare doing data analysis within the HR silo. I have no idea where he is now; haven’t thought of him in 6.5 years.

The people that enter HR tend — not always, but tend — to not be very data-savvy or analytical. If you were a true data ninja, why would you ever come in through the HR silo? You can chase more money coming in related to product, operations, sales, etc.

Usually HR is women, often women pre-children, and periodically it’s people who define themselves as “a people person” and then perp walk you to the curb with a cardboard box of your crap. So that’s pretty fun, and well-branded.

You don’t see a lot of data ninjas in that world. Some, but not a ton.

Then in standard recruiting or TA, you have a lot of phone warriors, smile and dial people, biz card chuckers, glad-handers, and some more cute blond girls around age 26.

Again, not a lot of data ninjas. Some. But not a lot.

So who exactly is supposed to be running all this diversity data for hiring silos?

Execs? They broadly don’t care. Their data efforts are aimed at products and financials.

Consultants? Maybe.

A data scientist in-house? Maybe, but his/her attention and priorities will get pulled off HR/hiring about 1,000 times every three months if something related to revenue crops up.

We keep saying “data-driven” will solve our hiring and HR issues, but there are tons of problems with metrics from the HR silo, and there have been for years. We still haven’t really scaled People Analytics, honestly. And just this morning in a newsletter, I saw this:

The percentage of HR managers who said their company uses predictive analytics algorithms in the course of hiring rose from 10 percent in 2016 to 39 percent in 2020. AI-based hiring is faster than human-based hiring, but researchers have found that these systems not only reflect the racial and gender biases of those who train them, but also entrench it and hide it behind math. As a result, companies now have to bring in algorithmic analysts to ensure that their tests don’t incidentally discriminate and violate the law.

So what’s the answer in the HR silo, commonly?

Automate it. Use machines. Get these pesky HR humans out the door. (You know that’s what most execs want: “Defund HR.”)

Again, though, who is running these data sets, scrubbing the data, organizing it, and getting on the calendar of decision-makers?

If that’s happening, awesome.

I doubt it is at scale, honestly.

So data cannot be the path through on these hiring issues, because while data should ideally knock down subjectivity in a 12-round fight, that’s not always the reality.

With execs looking to fully automate HR by 2030 if not sooner, and diversity initiatives basically running in circles, have we actually proven yet — even remotely — that data can fix hiring issues?

I don’t see it. Do you?