Fostering Excellent Performance and Steep Growth Trajectory
When I think of people who are in superstar mode, I think of Catharine Burhenne and David Sanderson.
I first met Catharine when she interviewed for a job babysitting our twin infants. The twins were immediately comfortable with Catharine, and I hired her on the spot. However, what she really wanted was not a babysitting gig, but a job at Google. I loved having Catharine taking care of our children, but I knew my job was to encourage her to pursue her dreams, not to try to keep her in her current role. I helped her get an interview, and she got a job there; then Facebook hired her away from Google, and then Twitter hired her away from Facebook.
When I first met David, he, too, was babysitting my twins. He was spending the summer in Silicon Valley to be with Catharine, whom he was dating, and trying to figure out what to do with his life. When I asked him what he loved to do, he talked about music. I learned from Catharine—he was too modest to tell me— that he didn’t just love music, he was the top-rated pianist in Canada in his age bracket. I asked him if he wanted to be a professional musician, and he said no, because the financial sacrifices he’d have to make were just too great. I wished I could tell him to follow his passion, but I was sympathetic— I love writing novels but would never try to support my family that way.
Meanwhile, our sprinkler system was going haywire. I certainly had no expectation that David would fix the irrigation pipes, as well as take care of the children. I myself often could not find time to take a shower when I was watching them on the weekends. But David went to the hardware store after work one night and figured out how to fix the whole thing the next day while the twins were napping. I was beginning to get the picture: David noticed when things were broken and rolled up his sleeves to fix them, even if they weren’t in his job description. I asked him what job he’d had that he enjoyed.
He’d loved all his jobs. When he worked at a shop in Vancouver, he not only became the top salesperson, but he improved the shop’s inventory system, decreasing wait time; improved customer satisfaction; and increased sales for all the salespeople, not just himself. Clearly David would always push for excellence in his work, no matter what job he had. He would not just do more than was required; he’d do things you didn’t even think were possible.
He exemplified the advice from Ecclesiastes: “Whatsoever thy hand findeth to do, do it with thy might.” I also knew that as much as I loved having David around, it was my job to help him keep growing. I made introductions for him, edited his résumé, and did a practice interview with him. He got himself a job at Facebook and, to no one’s surprise, set the company record for the most promotions the fastest.
Catharine and David went on to live the Silicon Valley dream. They’ve started a company, ReelGood, that makes it much faster and easier to figure out what movie or TV show to watch.
Here’s some advice about what to do when you are lucky enough to have people like Catharine and David on your team:
Keep them challenged (and figure out who’ll replace them when they move on). The best way to keep superstars happy is to challenge them and make sure they are constantly learning. Give them new opportunities, even when it is sometimes more work than seems feasible for one person to do. Figure out what the next job for them will be. Build an intellectual partnership with them. Find them mentors from outside your team or organization—people who have even more to offer than you do. But make sure you don’t get too dependent on them; ask them to teach others on the team to do their job, because they won’t stay in their existing role for long. I often thought of these people as shooting stars—my team and I were lucky to have them in our orbit for a little while, but trying to hold them there was futile.
Don’t squash them or block them. It’s vital not to “squash” these people. Recognize that you’ll probably be working for them one day, and celebrate that fact. When I first hired Jared Smith to be a product manager at Juice, I quickly realized that I’d be lucky if he one day returned the favor. Sure enough, a decade later he hired me as an executive coach and board member at Qualtrics, the company he cofounded with his brother. I’m working not just for Jared but for his whole family.
Of all the companies I’ve worked for, Google did the best job of putting safeguards in place so that managers couldn’t curb the ambitions of their direct reports. This was directly tied to the company’s efforts to limit the power of managers to quash rather than accelerate the careers of people on a steep growth trajectory. For example, consider the promotion process that Shona Brown, SVP of Business Operations, designed at Google. Bosses at Google can’t simply promote people on their teams at their own discretion.
In engineering, managers can encourage or discourage a person from pursuing another job, and they can lobby for the person or not, but people nominate themselves for promotion, and a committee makes the decision. Once a “promotion packet” consisting of a list of accomplishments and recommendations has been assembled, a committee reads it and decides if the promotion should go through. The manager is not on that committee. The manager can appeal a decision, but the manager is not the decider. This prevents managers from curbing the ambition of their direct reports or from offering promotions to reward personal loyalty rather than great work.
Google also makes it pretty easy for people to seek new opportunities by transferring from one team to another team. No boss can “block” such a transfer. I once took a person onto my team who had convinced me that he was great but that his boss had it out for him—despite the fact that he had received terrible ratings. Nobody tried to stop this from happening. And that was a good thing because on our team, this person thrived. Allowing transfers is important because it prevents bosses from blackballing employees who want to move on, and allows for the fact that sometimes two people just don’t work that well together.
Google didn’t get everything right, though. There was a crazy-strict rule in Product Management that you had to have a computer science degree to join the team. Many people wanted to transfer to Product because they had ideas they wanted to pursue, but they were prevented because they didn’t have the right degree. One was Biz Stone, who, stymied by the rule, left Google to cofound Twitter. Another was Ben Silbermann, who, similarly blocked, left Google to found Pinterest. Kevin Systrom also left Google to cofound Instagram when he couldn’t join the PM team because of his college degree.
Not every superstar wants to manage. Lack of interest in managing is not the same thing as being on a gradual growth trajectory, just as interest in managing is not the same thing as being on a steep growth trajectory. Management and growth should not be conflated.
Imagine if Albert Einstein had been told, just as he was developing his theory of relativity, that he needed to stop spending so much time alone with his work and instead take on management responsibilities for a team of people. The result would have been a frustrated Einstein, a demoralized and poorly managed team, and a great loss to humanity’s understanding of the universe.
Yet a version of this happens all the time. The careers of many great engineers and salespeople have foundered when they are promoted to manager. Why does this happen? Because there’s no other role to promote them to that acknowledges the kind of growth trajectory they want to be on.
This points to another problem with the language used in the traditional performance-potential matrix. Often, the matrix is not just analyzing “potential” but “leadership potential.” The unintended consequence of this is that whole armies of people systematically cap the careers of others who are on a steep growth trajectory but who don’t want to become managers.
This, in turn, systematically caps the rewards that can be given to people who are more interested in deepening their expertise and advancing human knowledge rather than being a boss. Don’t get me wrong—I believe great management is important. But it’s certainly not the only path to major impact.
Google’s engineering teams solved this problem by creating an “individual contributor” career path that is more prestigious than the manager path and sidesteps management entirely. This has been great for the growth of these engineers; it’s also good for the people they otherwise would have been managing. When people become bosses just to “get ahead” rather than because they want to do what bosses do, they perform, at best, a perfunctory job and often become bosses from hell.
When management is the only path to higher compensation, the quality of management suffers, and the lives of the people who work for these reluctant managers become miserable.
Excerpt from “Radical Candor: Be a Kick-Ass Boss Without Losing Your Humanity” by Kim Scott (copyright 2017 by Kim Scott; reprinted with permission from St. Martin’s Press).
Kim Scott is the co-founder and CEO of Candor, Inc. Scott has been a coach to the CEOs of Dropbox, Qualtrics, Twitter, and several other tech companies. She was a member of the faculty at Apple University, and before that, led AdSense, YouTube, and DoubleClick Online Sales and Operations at Google. Previously, Scott was the co-founder and CEO of Juice Software, a collaboration start-up, and led business development at Delta Three and Capital Thinking. Additional information is available at http://www.kimmalonescott.com/ and https://www.radicalcandor.com/