The rush to "show value."

May 5, 2020. Filed under management 127

Some years back I had the strangest meeting in my career. Andrew (not real name) was my new manager, it was his first day on the job, and we were having the standard “get to know you” one-on-one meeting. My outgoing manager and I had been heavily involved in assessing and hiring Andrew, his interview performance was excellent, and I was legitimately excited to work together. So I was surprised when Andrew sat down, cradled his head in his hands, and lamented how much he regretted taking the job, how inept his new manager was, and how terrible our engineering team was relative to his previous experience. What?!

As strange as that meeting was – and it was quite strange – what was even more surprising was to see Andrew follow that up by starting a top-to-bottom architecture and technology reset for the company he’d just recently joined. At the time I wondered to myself, “Why would someone who doesn’t even want to be here and hasn’t spent time understanding our existing challenges and constraints, start by trying to throw everything away?”

Like most immaculately concepted solutions, this redesign puttered around consuming cycles, got a few supporters promoted, and gradually collapsed without results over several years. What’s surprising is not that this approach failed, it’s almost impossible to lead successful organizational change before understanding the organization’s impediments to change, but rather that the pattern of new leaders rushing to implement change is so common. Sufficiently common that it’s considered the most important leadership mistake to avoid.

I call this “the rush to show value,” or “showing value” for short.

It’s stressful to start a new leadership role. On one hand, there is a tremendous pressure (usually self-inflicted) to prove you’re valuable and deserve the role. On the other, there is the unavoidable reality that while you’ve done similar work to your current role, you don’t understand the people, the process or the organization at the new company. Navigating these tensions is the core tension of ramping up as a leadership, and it’s easy to mess up.

The First 90 Days has some good advice, but there isn’t a single solution here. What you ought to do is context dependent, and my best advice is to be suspicious of your instincts for the first month or two in your new role. Your instincts are a model trained on old information, and you need to collect new data to retrain on before you can trust their outputs.

If at some moment you’re uncertain if one of your proposals is a genuinely good one or if you are instead veering into signaling value, ask yourself, “What about my current circumstances suggest this is a good idea?” If it’s a short list, wait until it’s a longer one before moving forward.

A few effective approaches I’ve seen for managing this tension are:

  1. Minimize trapdoor decisions in first two to three months. Many of the blanket rules you’ll hear – “wait two months before making any changes” – are too rigid, but if you layer in the concept of trapdoor decisions, you get something more useful: avoid any decisions that are prohibitively expensive to revert for the first two months, but give yourself permission to make reversible decisions.
  2. Establish “change in progress” limit. Limiting work-in-progress is an effective tool to increase velocity, and it’s equally effective at limit your onboarding blast radius. Set a maximum number of inflight changes and don’t start new changes until the earlier changes are adopted and working. This also allows you to incorporate learnings from early change into later change, and fast learning is the prime currency of successful leader onboarding.
  3. Establish a continuous alignment loop with peers. Building out active, trusting relationships with your peers will give you a unique sounding board of folks who already have context on your new company, manager and team. They won’t have all the answers, but their perspective is the most similar to yours, and they have the fewest social and hierarchical impediments to giving you honest suggestions and feedback.
  4. Balance perspectives from your manager and team. Many folks overfit on their new manager’s emphasis for rapid improvement, such that start trying to show value before they know how to measure value. The best way to avoid this is to spend time validating those top-down asks against the team you support’s understanding of reality. If something resonates with both your manager and the team you support, then it’s very likely a good idea. If it doesn’t, then use that as an opportunity to dig into the friction!

If you look behind these approaches, the core idea is to stay curious, humble and engaged. While it takes a true legend to start your first day believing that the folks surrounding you have nothing to contribute, many folks go in swinging a bit too hard, and the rewards for self-awareness are considerable.

You'll occasionally see a more extreme version of this, most often seen from folks who's framework for success has been defined by by very large, very successful companies whose sheer size forces them to operate almost like venture capitalists in selecting initiatives, exclusively pursuing opportunities that might accelerate growth at their already massive scale. Such companies' performance systems reward folks who pursue high-risk, high-reward projects and do less to recognize others. Sometimes you'll see folks from those backgrounds bring forward the practices created by those incentive systems into incompatible contexts. At their most extreme this can feel closer to reckless aspiration than showing value. As always, the cure is setting clear expectations and establishing quick feedback loops to support your new leaders!