Assets and Allies

It’s just you and me, let’s be honest. It’s fun to have an archenemy. Someone who is opposed to you and all that is good and just. Someone you can have a righteous cause against. Enemies make us feel alive and give us purpose. It’s important to have enemies.

But here’s the thing, no one at work is your enemy if you are a leader. Making an enemy out of a person is wasteful, and you can’t afford it. Even that person who undermines you or costs you a promotion–not your enemy. The real people you work with are not all good or evil. They have their own priorities, their own desires, their own context. I’m not saying they are saints, and they may even be a genuinely “bad person”, but that doesn’t make them your enemy. That story is too simple. Beware of simple stories.

Instead, the people you work with fall into two categories: assets and allies. Allies will spend some of their capital or resources to help you achieve what you are after. It is assumed that you’ll do the same for them, but it’s not a tit-for-tat relationship. Where to find allies, how to build them, and how to pivot with them is a separate discussion. You will have precious few in your career. Value them.

Everyone else is an asset. They have different goals both personally and professionally. They have different values and codes. They have different methods of pursuing and achieving their results. It is your job to understand each of these and use them to your advantage. When you know the intricacies, you can add a portion of their resources to your own.

Three Scenarios:

Win  / Win: This is where you want to live most of the time. You understand your own goals and your assets’  goals. You arrange things so that achieving your goal in whole or part helps them achieve their goal. This is made even more effective if the inverse is true at the same time, i.e. if your asset fails to support your goal, it will harm their own objective.

Win / Lose: This happens when your goal and your assets’ goals are mutually exclusive. If you are willing to be creative, this is rarely the case. There is almost always a way to turn a situation into a win / win. If you find yourself in win / lose often, you’ll lose your assets quickly, as this situation always strains your relationship and spends political capital. If the situation has to be a win / lose, you need to take active steps to help your assets save face and mitigate their losses. Total surrender, total defeat is indelicate. Save your assets.

Lose / Lose: In some situations, you and your assets are both going to lose. External forces have conspired against you. Much as before, this is about saving face and mitigating loss. Prioritize saving the most capital you can. Sometimes this means every person for themselves, but more often small expenditures on your part in times of crisis can accrue favors that pay off later, multiple times over.

Enemies are a luxury you can’t afford to permit yourself. Value your allies, protect your assets.

Get Your Gear

On a cold December Monday right before Christmas, I rushed to get to practice after work. When I got to the meeting place, I didn’t see any other vehicles parked out front. I worried that I had missed a memo or practice had been canceled. As soon as I parked and stepped out of the car, the side door to the warehouse opened and my coach stepped outside into the cold night air.

“Looks like you are the only one here,” she said.

I was eager to practice, eager to get better, eager to belong. But asking my coach to stay for two hours on a holiday week just for me felt like an imposition. I didn’t want to ask for too much. I didn’t want to take up the space.

I began to backpedal. “Oh, you don’t have to stay for just me.”

Her response was quick, “Do you want to practice?”

Still retreating but trying to be honest, I repeated, “Well yes, but you don’t have to stay for just me.”

She paused a beat, quirking her lips. Then she looked at me dead on and said, “Get your gear.” She turned and walked inside.

I scrambled to get my gear and followed her.

Roller derby women are some of the toughest women I know in mind and body. It was easy for me to lean into my feelings of not belonging, of being an imposition, and of feeling like the space wasn’t mine to be in. My Coach jumped past that argument, assumed my right to be there, and moved me toward action.

There are many ways we amplify each other’s voices and make space for each other. We can do one better than making a place at the table for each other by letting them know that we assume their place is with us at the table.

It was one of the best practices I ever had. The one-on-one attention accelerated my learning curve at a crucial moment when I was eager but before Derby was sticky to me. More than that, I began to understand that I belonged and that I was expected to show up and take my place.

If you are trying to be a leader but you doubt your place, you are reading this. And you belong here.

Get your gear.

Get your gear.

Pick Fewer Battles

Pick your battles. Pick fewer battles. No, fewer than that.

While it is difficult to quantify, managerial talent is a limited resource. As a manager, you cannot observe, counter, and address all behaviors. You have to choose.

Further, the people you lead cannot make changes on multiple fronts at once. Most of the time, all of us, however ambitious, can only make small and incremental change.

The task of a manager is to identify which changes lead to the most positive outcomes and iterate through the process as rapidly as the recipient can manage.

Contact center work provides easy illustrations of this. A common case is an employee who takes too long to process calls compared to the norm and at the same time fails to provide the customer experience your organization expects. Coach to both and fail at both.

The better path lies in identifying behaviors that are likely to improve both the employee’s efficiency and customer experience delivery while having a conversation that’s focused on a single goal. For example, “John” needs to take additional time understanding the needs of the customer by listening more. You know this will likely lead to more efficient answers delivered correctly the first time as well as improved customer experience. But if you tell John they need to give better customer experience and speed their calls up by 2 minutes, John is likely to become more curt rather than more engaging.

But let’s be clear: John needs to fix both. As a manager, you must iterate quickly to reach the goals. A coaching plan is going to look aggressive with nearly daily contact.

Monday AM Coaching conversation – 30 mins. Identify behaviors, secure commitment to attempt modified behavior
Monday PM Evaluate effectiveness – 30 mins. Did John try? Did it work?
Monday PM Deliver feedback – 10 mins. Reset expectations if needed, praise for accomplishments in effort and outcome
Tuesday AM Reset intention with John – 10 mins.
Tuesday PM Evaluate effectiveness – 30 mins. Did John try? Did it work?
Tuesday PM Deliver feedback – 10 minutes. Reset expectations if needed, praise for accomplishments in effort and outcome

Keep it up. By Wednesday or Thursday John should be getting this down so much it’s a habit. It would be harder for them to go back to their old ways than to keep doing the new behavior. As soon as the first behavior is secured, start on the next one.

And you have to do this with multiple employees simultaneously. So you need to think carefully about who gets your managerial bandwidth and what you can accomplish with it.

Think about all the opportunities to coach and develop your employees. Write them all down in order of most impactful to least, then tear off the bottom two-thirds of your paper and put it in the shredder. What you’ve got left, plan it out and follow through.

The value you have as a leader is often determined not by what you do but by what you choose to leave undone.

Let’s go to the Whiteboard: It’s okay to be afraid.

You’ve probably seen this before:


The idea here is that if you are always comfortable you aren’t really learning. But there is a line out there that you shouldn’t step over, or you’ll be panic and stressed.

But here’s the thing, that line between learning and panic? It doesn’t exist. You aren’t going to know if you’re just uncomfortable and okay, or if things are really bad.Untitled

The moment you step outside of what you’ve currently got a handle on (Comfort Zone), your fear and anxiety are going to increase, but you are going to start learning.

And the more you are learning, the less you’ll know what you are doing, and the more fear you will experience.

So, if you want to learn rapidly and advance quickly, get used to feelings of uncertainty. Get okay with the inevitable failure of some of your endeavors because you’ve strayed too far from what you know. That’s where you learn.

You’ll see your peers less stressed, and they’ll seem to have an easy go of it. That’s okay. You didn’t sign up for this because it was easy. All the fun stuff is happening outside of what you’ve already mastered. It won’t be long before you’ve got a few failures and many successes under your belt and you will have outpaced them.

The better you can manage your fear, the farther you can go.

Tips for Managing Fear:2018-09-20_10h36_46

1 – Realize you are going to be afraid. It’s not going to go away.

2- Know the purpose of your fear. Your fear is trying to protect you from harm. Your fear is like an overprotective parent. It has your best interest in mind but doesn’t know what you are capable of.

3 – Self-talk: Tell your fear, “I know you are trying to help me, but its okay, I got this.”

4 – Tell yourself often, “If I’m afraid of it, I should probably do it.”

5 – Whatever you are afraid of, do it anyway.

That last one is so important. The first time you deliver a presentation, you will be terrified. The 100th time, it will just be a random Tuesday. Humans have a great capacity for habituation. Habituation is the reduction of emotional response to something that happens frequently. Remember the first time you drove a car? Sheer terror. Did you even think about your drive into work today?

Leaders manage their fear and operate well outside their comfort zone.

Chalk Street Artist // Photo Credit: Tomasz Baranowski

The First Principle of Leadership: It’s About You.

The first principle of leadership: it’s about you.

Anyone who says otherwise is selling something.

Artists create art because they are compelled to. Scientists discover new things because they are compelled to. Leaders lead because they are compelled to. The general good that the world receives from Artists, Scientists, and Leaders is not the cause of these identities but the result. If you lead, you lead because you must. And it’s about you. Getting that confused will lead to well-intentioned, but ultimately destructive ends for you and those whom you catch in your wake.

Many leadership fads obscure this truth, and you’ve probably encountered them.


Well, yes. When I was in first grade I made a tree out of glue and torn construction paper. For my first grade self, it was pretty good. My check from the National Endowment for the Arts has yet to arrive. All of us make art, and some of us are artists. I wouldn’t sully the name of Rembrandt and Monet by including me in their company. It was a really good tree though. Hardly any extra glue.


Servant Leadership is the idea that our primary responsibility as a leader is to serve the people who work for us. Servant Leadership has obtained a nearly cult-like following. The waiter who brings you your food serves you your food. They do not choose your food for you. They do not play an integral role in helping you consume it. They do not pay for it. There is nothing wrong with service–we should all be willing to serve others. But service is drawn from a different well than leadership.

If you are compelled to make people’s lives better by looking after their well being and providing for their wants and needs, you are putting yourself in a weak position to make the tough calls that leaders need to make.

For example, it’s difficult to justify taking someone’s livelihood from them through termination as an “act of service”. Leaders call shots. Servants deliver the target.

But one more very important point.

It’s not about you.

I know what I just said, hang on. Leadership for personal vanity, gain, kingdom building, exploiting others? That’s abuse and selfishness masquerading as leadership. Leadership is an art as well as a science. We pull the strength to do it from the same place. We push toward ends that would not otherwise be organized and achieved because we must. And the most valuable part of what we do is care for the people in our trust. We reverence them like the scientist reverences the concepts that make their work possible. We treasure and care for them as an artist cares for the ideas and questions that make their work possible.

We direct who we are and what we must do to ends that could not be completed without us. In our pursuits, we care for the people in our charge to help them achieve their goals along with ours.

We are leaders because we are compelled to be. We lead because we must.