This is the second issue in our Management Book Club series where we highlight books that may not seem like conventional management texts, but still contain incredible insights. Our first issue reviewed The Making of the Prince of Persia by Jordan Mechner.
It’s no secret that at Kommon we think writing is important. Indeed we published a whole manager’s guide on it a couple of weeks ago.
So when we were recommended Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life we assumed we’d be focussing mainly on the former. But we found so much more.
For those who don’t know her, Lamott is an American author, activist and writing teacher. Bird by Bird, originally published in 1994, is a synthesis of the lessons she offers to her writing classes.
The book’s great skill is that the ‘and Life’ portion is never explicit. You won’t find lofty fortune cookie advice here. Its inclusion in the title is more a nudge to the reader that if you really pay attention, you might learn something more than just how to put words on a page (although it does that part incredibly well). Her lessons about how to pursue the craft of writing are applicable to a whole range of pursuits. And for us, we found a lot which resonated when we think about how we can improve as managers.
You might be sceptical, so here’s some advice for writers from one of the later chapters:
“Don’t worry about appearing sentimental. Worry about being unavailable; worry about being absent or fraudulent. Risk being unliked. Tell the truth as you understand it.”
You can hopefully begin to see that we may have a point.
And because Lamott is our guide, the prose is just wonderful, and we’re going to quote extensively from it. So if you’re tired of jargony corporate leadership articles, then this is the piece for you.
So despite covering a book about writing, this article isn’t about writing. Well, not really. It’s about what we as managers can learn from it’s craft. There’s plenty.
Lammott keeps a one-inch picture frame on her desk as inspiration for her writing. Why? Because it reminds her to focus on short assignments. As she says, if you sit down with the aim of writing a whole autobiography or sweeping history, the task is just too daunting.
“This is like trying to scale a glacier. It’s hard to get your footing, and your fingertips get all red and frozen and torn up”
The frame reminds her to just write down as much as she can see through one-inch. Perhaps just one paragraph, or one character description. But at least she’s started.
Taking on the role of a manager can feel the same. If you focus on ‘trying to become a great manager’, it can become impossible to know where to start, and you’ll get torn up trying to work it out. But if you break it down into one-inch picture frames - ‘giving good feedback’, ‘planning career development’, ‘listening well’ - you can make some progress.
The story from which the book takes its title is on the same theme. When her older brother was ten, he was trying to complete a school project on birds. He’d had three months to do it, but hadn’t started. It was due the next day, and he was panicking. The advice from her father:
“Bird by bird, buddy. Just take it bird by bird.”
When being a manager can seem overwhelming, just take it bird by bird
“Truth is a hard apple to catch and it is a hard apple to throw” (quoting Donald Bathelme)
We haven’t seen a more succinct and beautiful encapsulation of why giving and receiving feedback is difficult.
There is a whole chapter in the book on getting others to read your first drafts. It’s a brilliant synthesis of what it’s like to receive difficult feedback. The initial gut-punch of dismay, followed by the resistance to discussing it any further, followed eventually by a ‘sigh of relief and even gratitude’ that someone cared enough to give you their honest views.
Reading it is a vivid reminder of what even the most well-meaning feedback can mean to the recipient, and to be sensitive to that.
One of her tests is that ultimately it should leave the recipient feeling ‘encouraged’ in their broader professional pursuit. Critical feedback of one article shouldn’t lead someone to question their pursuit of writing itself, but ideally should urge them onto greater efforts in the field. Your feedback should have the same impact whatever your profession.
“...it is natural to take on someone else’s style...it’s a prop that you use for a while until you have to give it back. And it just might take you to the thing that is not on loan, the thing that is real and true: your own voice.”
We love the idea of someone else’s style as a prop that’s on loan but should ultimately be returned.
For managers as much as writers, it can be tempting to look at others who are perceived as successful and adopt their mannerisms. Particularly when leadership has historically worn a certain look (typically domineering, white and male).
So whilst you may want to borrow from others, you will be most effective once you have found your own leadership style. We like Lamott’s approach. We’re not saying don’t borrow, it might be helpful in the short term. But see it as a loan on the way to your own solution.
“Perfectionism is the voice of the oppressor, the enemy of the people. It will keep you cramped and insane your whole life...The truth is that you will die anyway and that a lot of people who aren’t even looking at their feet are going to do a whole lot better than you, and have a lot more fun while they’re doing it.”
Lamott is talking about writing first drafts, but it also applies to being a manager. People are too complex to aspire to manage the perfect team. Again, what’s important is making progress.
That’s not to say that you shouldn’t aspire to quality, but it shouldn’t get in the way of doing what you need to. Moreover, if you can break the stifling drive for perfection, even if progress feels slow and ponderous some days, that can also feel rewarding:
“Still, even on those days, you might notice how great perseverance feels. And the next day the scent may seem stronger—or it may just be that you are developing a quiet doggedness. This is priceless. Perfectionism, on the other hand, will only drive you mad."
Unsurprisingly Lamott spends a lot of time on the importance of characters in writing. Like Stephen King (who also has an excellent guide to writing), she abhors laying out a deliberate plot. Plot, for Lamott and King, is derived from the proper development of authentic characters, rather than the other way round.
Of course to do that, you have to really know your characters.
“Whatever your characters do or say will be born out of who they are, so you need to set out to get to know each one as well as possible.”
Now we’re not saying treat your team members like characters from a novel. But the depth of understanding that Lamott asks from her writing students of their characters is similar to what you might want to aspire to for your team. There are other dynamics at play too:
“You probably won’t know your characters until weeks or months after you’ve started working with them.”
“Just don’t pretend you know more about your characters than they do, because you don’t. Stay open to them.”
“Find out what each character cares most about in the world”
“You avoid forcing your characters to march too steadily to the drumbeat of your artistic purpose. You leave some measure of real freedom for your characters to be themselves. And if minor characters show an inclination to become major characters, as they’re apt to do, you at least give them a shot at it.” (Quote from Frederick Buechner)
Find out what people care about, be open to listening, take the time, give those overlooked the opportunity to shine. It all sounds very relevant to us.
Lamott says she once asked the author Ethan Canin the most valuable thing he knew about writing, and this was his reply.
“Nothing is as important as a likable narrator”
In a story, the narrator is the person who takes you along for the ride, who guides you, provides context, and defines your world. It reminded us of a quote from one of the managers we interviewed whilst building Kommon:
“From what I’ve observed, my feeling is that like it or not, your line manager relationship defines 70, 80 if not 90 percent of how you interact and how much you enjoy your professional experience.” Senior Manager, Professional Services
Particularly for newer employees and/or those at organisations over about 150 people, a manager can become the prism for their professional life. It’s important for managers to appreciate this responsibility.
“Drama must move forward and upward, or the seats on which the audience is sitting will become very hard and uncomfortable. So, in fact, will the audience. And eventually the audience will become impatient, disappointed, and unhappy. There must be movement.”
Now we’re not suggesting that you should create drama in your teams. But for drama, you could substitute development. Because it is true that if there isn’t professional movement, your team will become ‘impatient, disappointed and unhappy.’
Conversely, if you feel your team is heading in that direction and you’re not sure why, examining the extent of their professional opportunities might be a good place to start.
“Writing is about learning to pay attention and to communicate what is going on.”
You really could substitute ‘writing’ for ‘managing’ in this one. We could even paraphrase with a quote from an Engineering leader at Apple:
"My educated guess is that 50% of my job as a manager is information acquisition, assessment, and redistribution.” Michael Lopp, Engineering Leader, Apple
“Some wonderful, dazzling successes are going to happen for some of the most awful, angry, undeserving writers you know—people who are, in other words, not you.”
Ok this isn’t just for managers. You could substitute the word ‘people’ here.
But it’s absolutely true that this is something you will have to manage in a professional context as you lead your team. For what it’s worth, Lamott provides some solutions:
“...the only things that help ease or transform it are (a) getting older, (b) talking about it until the fever breaks, and (c) using it as material.”
Whilst c) is more applicable if you happen to have a very eloquent blogging side-project, experience and discussion are certainly worth exploring.
“If it feels natural, if it helps you to remember, take notes. It’s not cheating.”
Whether you’re a writer or a manager, trying to remember everything that might be useful to you is exhausting. Actually, it’s not exhausting, it’s just doomed to fail.
Every day you will come across information which is useful for you and your team (see Listen and Communicate). When you do, make sure you have some informal system to capture that. Whether it’s pen and paper, Notion, Trello, Roam (ooooh, fancy) or something else.
Lamott does it the old fashioned way:
“I fold an index card lengthwise in half, stick it in my back pocket along with a pen, and head out, knowing that if I have an idea, or see something lovely or strange or for any reason worth remembering, I will be able to jot down a couple of words to remind me of it.”
“There are an enorous number of people out there with invaluable information to share with you, and all you have to do is pick up the phone.”
It’s one of our eternal frustrations that despite taking on an incredibly complex role, the professional world has conspired to give managers the impression that they shouldn’t ask for help. We even wrote a whole article about it.
If you’re unsure about an aspect of management, don’t be shy about seeking advice.
“It can help a great deal if you have someone you can call when you need a pep talk, someone you have learned to trust, someone who is honest and generous and who won’t jinx you.”
This is Lamott speaking about the power of writing groups. Strangers coming together for classes, conferences or discussions to talk about their craft and seek feedback from their peers.
We’ve spoken before about how powerful we think manager peer groups can be and our amazement that more firms don’t organise them. Getting together with other managers to share your successes and challenges can be informative, motivating, and reassuring. As Lamott says:
“Many, if not most, of these people have ended up with functioning groups that bring them a great deal of pleasure and support.”
“The problem is acceptance, which is something we’re taught not to do. We’re taught to improve uncomfortable situations, to change things, alleviate unpleasant feelings. But if you accept the reality that you have been given—that you are not in a productive creative period—you free yourself to begin filling up again.”
This is from Lamott’s passage on writer’s block. Whilst that is a very specific condition, the sentiment can be applied to our broader professional endeavours.
We all have bad days. If you’re having a bad day and still try to accomplish complex, creative tasks, you will most likely fail. The surest path to success is often accepting the (hopefully brief) change in circumstance, turning to a different task, to return later.
Oh and if you want someone to write evocatively for you about bad days, Lamott has got you covered:
“You’ll just be completely blocked and hopeless and wondering why you shouldn’t just go into the kitchen and have a nice glass of warm gin straight out of the cat dish.”
“I just try to warn people who hope to get published that publication is not all that it is cracked up to be. But writing is.”
Lamott remarks at several points about her repeated attempts to remind her students that they are unlikely to be published, and even if they are, it’s not all that great. To succeed, they need to love the process of writing itself.
We could rewrite her sentence: “I just try to warn people who hope to become managers that having the title is not all that it is cracked up to be. But managing is.”
The great managers don’t just want the promotion, they want to manage.