Can a career failure return more value than any success? My question was not a philosophical one following an annual review that left me completely humbled. Like many Silicon Valley firms, my company had just initiated 360 reviews. In this process, all direct reports and three peers submit anonymous assessments evaluating all aspects of your job performance and your contribution to the larger engineering mission.
It was my first year directly managing people. I was promoted as reward for being a top performing contributor. As a contributor, I had mastered all aspects of my engineering work. And being an A-Team contributor gave me a reservoir of confidence that emboldened me to accept the managerial role.
The next year was a perfect storm. The scope of the engineering deliverable was more difficult to achieve than anyone in the company had anticipated. A decision to completely rewrite the core feature and function of a product creates an uncharted landscape where what is known is dwarfed by what you do not know. When an aggressive date is added to the mix, the pressure to achieve increases. Each missed milestone, each broken build returns a cost paid by extended hours at the office. My commitment to this death march project found me at the office closing the gaps. My time at office was measured in days not hours. I worked 60 straight hours to hit one of the milestones. My scheduled also returned four 48 hour stints and more than a dozen all-nighters. And I was not the only one at the office during these efforts. There was never any minute. Day or night, when my office building was empty. We worked around the clock.
We shipped the product coincident to the annual review process. My expectation was high for recognition as an all-star. After all, no one had risen to the heroic call more than I. Perhaps if I had remained a contributor that acclaim would have found me, but as a manager it turned out I had failed. My review results were mixed. Half of my team gave me very high marks, but the other half returned exceptionally low marks, the kind of marks that make you wonder if you chose the right profession. These were the kind of marks that normally result in being escorted out of the building. I left my review wondering if I could survive my career’s greatest failure. I wondered if God could return any good from my circumstance. By God’s grace I was given a do over. I was awarded a new project with the exact same team. But I was changed. I was humbled.
I poured through the review results finding trends in my work behavior that resulted in low marks. If I treated everyone the same, how could half of the team be thrilled to be part of my team and the other half of the team be so very unhappy? Isn’t it biblical to treat others as you would like to be treated? That proved to be the first key to my failure. As a contributor, I wanted a low touch manager. The fewer the meetings, the fewer the interactions, the happier I was. Rather than talk to me, send me an email, or walk into my office and list the three things you need done by a deadline. Then leave me alone.
It turned out the comments contributing to my low marks were related to these same work behaviors that I valued so much. I was perceived as dictatorial, abrupt, and absent. Too much email and not enough face to face. Inwardly, I objected to the assessment as unjust. Did they not understand how much time I spent rescuing the project? That was the second key to my failure. I assigned myself contributor duties because no one was better at doing the things I was good at. The work product I contributed was outstanding and perfect, but the consequence was that I starved the time necessary to raise the level of my team members.
For the subsequent project, I changed my work behavior as follows:
Every day I would walk into each employee’s office and spend 10 to 15 minutes checking in. I encouraged them to communicate anything affecting their work or life. I listened. I spent a few minutes resetting the current work goals and affirming their contribution. After returning to my office, I sent email summarizing what we discussed that was important to the work product. I decided I would not communicate any information via email that I had not discussed face to face.
I gave away all the work to deliver the project to my team. I kept absolutely no work items for myself to control. This was hard for me because it meant I had to accept things being done differently than I would do them. I had to trust my team. It meant some aspects of the work was not perfect. And it meant my success was measured only by my team’s success.
I shifted my focus to leading and mentoring my team and away from rescuing the project.
At the next annual review, I received the highest possible marks from every team member and unanimous affirmation wanting me to stay their manager. The company rewarded me with a significant pay increase and an extended time off bonus. No more all night work sessions. No more lost weekends.
I could not have asked for a better life parable. These lessons learned forever shaped my effectiveness as a manager and leader to the benefit of the few hundred folks I have managed over my career. I have learned to not treat people as I would want to be treated. Instead I seek to learn how to best serve them. I learned to treat them the way they want to be treated.