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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.
The full title of Anne Lamott’s book is Bird by Bird: Some Instructions for Writing and Life. Whilst the book is a synthesis of material from her writing classes, the way she approaches her craft invites us to take away lots of lessons for broader pursuits. In our case, we saw a whole host of insights for managers, from how to approach your work, to feedback, communication and relationship-building, and so much more.
As an author and writing teacher, unsurprisingly one of the great joys of the book is Lamott’s wonderful prose. So it’s also an opportunity to read about these themes in a language which is a world away from jargon-filled leadership advice.
(We should say this is in addition to all the brilliant insights on writing itself. If you are an aspiring author, we highly recommend you pick up a copy.)
‘You should delegate more’. If you’ve been a manager for more than a month or two, chances are someone has probably told you this. It’s also probably true.
Delegation’s great. It frees you up to solve higher-value problems, creates empowering opportunities for others, and enables your team to move faster.
That doesn’t necessarily make it any easier.
Those who are so keen to tell you to delegate somehow aren’t as forthcoming with how you should go about it, or which of the incredibly complex decisions you have on your plate you should delegate to your eager (but potentially terrifyingly inexperienced) team.
The first step is to be clear about how you as a manager should be spending your time and the type of decisions you should be taking, so you know what to say no to. As he puts it:
“The only questions I want to go up to me, frankly, are questions where allocations of budget or people is a hard trade-off. If we don’t have enough people to both make customer set A and B happy, that’s my job. ...But otherwise, I want the units as low to the ground as possible to learn how to deal with that complexity on their own, because that’s how we’ll move fast.”
What we really like though is how he responds to questions which don’t fit this description and where he thinks it would benefit others to respond:
“It might be surprising that my most common answer to a lot of organizational issues that come up is to just say, ‘Hey, that’s great, why didn’t you tell [insert the name of the right peer] about it? You need to solve it with that person.’
It’s great because you’re delegating but you’re also not leaving a team member without guidance. You’re pairing them up with a peer for mutual support and empowering them both to go and find a solution. Clearly this won’t be suitable for every task. And it relies on a deep knowledge of your team and your company to match people up and create these opportunities. But in general, we think it’s a great approach to have in the back of your mind.
To be clear, not our words.
Unfortunately, who actually said them makes it even worse.
They were quoted from the DEI Practice Leader at Bain & Company, the global management consultancy, in an Economist article from late last year addressing the growing DEI advisory industry.
If you’re wondering whether it’s pretty gross to compare the work required to right decades of privilege, injustice and bias to selling agile team coaching and sharepoint implementations, then good. It is. (We’re sure that’s not how it was intended but that’s how it comes off). Is it also a hilarious self-own for Bain to tout that some of its people are excited to work on DEI ‘at least some of the time’? Also, yes.
Now whilst this may have just been a clumsy turn of phrase (the same person also said “the next generation is going to be equity native” - whatever on earth that means), the point is that language matters and can be very revealing about an organisation’s intentions when it comes to DEI.
Whilst for many companies DEI has become a business priority, it’s also part of a generational social justice movement. The problem is that established habits in many firms mean that the language used around DEI can often tend to the former, undermining the work. Even just speaking in garbled consultancy speak (again, ‘equity native’...) can undermine sincere efforts at authentically addressing the problem.
If you winced at the Bain quote, maybe take some time to think about your own messaging internally and whether it meets the moment.
We speak to a lot of managers. When we ask what their most difficult experiences in the role have been, a lot of the answers are actually the same. It’s usually some combination of underperformance, time management, team morale, team relationships, organisational growth/failure, and mental health.
Given that we know this, it’s incredibly frustrating that companies don’t better prepare their managers for these moments (we can expand on this rant another time). We’re not going to solve all those problems here, but there is a useful framework you can use to help predict when danger might be coming down the tracks.
Phil Libin is the former CEO of Evernote (and now founder of mmhmm). He says one of the best pieces of advice he got was from Hiroshi Mikitani, the CEO of Rakuten, the Japanese retailer, who told him that everything changes at roughly every third and tenth steps:
“When you go from one person to three people it’s different. When it’s just you, you know what you are doing and then you have three people and you have to rethink how you are doing everything. But when there are 10 people it’s all going to change again. And when there are 30 people it will change again. Same when you reach 100 people. At every one of those steps everything kind of breaks.”
In our experience, this holds true. You don’t have to use people as a metric, it could be customer support tickets, revenue, or other meaningful numbers for your team and organisation. It also doesn’t always happen on the way up - going from 100 people to 30 is equally challenging, if not more so. But yes, everything kind of breaks.
If you look back at those management challenges mentioned earlier, they all tend to occur during transitions of the type mentioned by Libin and Mikitani. We can use the rule of 3 and 10 to roughly predict when the job is about to get harder.
This could be at a team level - if your team is asked to make one of those 3 or 10 jumps in headcount, revenue or other metric. But it’s also helpful at an organisational level. If your company as a whole is trying to make one of those jumps, you don’t have to kid yourself. Stuff is going to break. Communications, onboarding, payroll, whatever. You know it’s coming. So now you can start to put plans in place and manage the expectations of your team. Good luck!