Tue, 22 Sep 2020

My Core Beliefs about Leadership

It’s not particularly remarkable to point out that in the field of software and technology, the rapid pace of change is relentless. So often, though, this topic is addressed from the technology part of the equation instead of the people side of the equation.

Maybe that’s because changing technology is exciting, and it’s more of a certain science than considering the relatively uncertain people-centered perspective. After all, our best laid plans as human beings are often made with incomplete, inaccurate, or uncertain data. The more ambitious your plans, the more this is so.

The best leaders seek to inspire organizations to reach new heights and new milestones. They exhort us to seek ambitious objectives arguing that lofty goals will measure the “best of our energies and skills”, and convince us to accept these challenges over the status quo, as President Kennedy did when he inspired us to reach for the moon.

But the best leaders can’t stop there. The earliest difference between ambitious goals and unrealistic ones starts with whether leadership proceeds to build an environment in which those goals can be achieved. The Soviet Union was the first to launch a satellite; they were ahead of the USA in the “space race” for many years. But in a country where no failure went unpunished, where no mistake dare be admitted, is it any surprise they quickly fell behind?

A learning organization, by my definition, is one adapting to change so rapidly that its very mistakes are merely milestones of iterative progress on their journey to success. In such organizations, Impostor Syndrome is an anti-pattern, because leadership in the organization has taken active steps to ensure no shame or ridicule is associated with failure or temporary ignorance. Teams have context for when there is time and tolerance for risk, or when more predictability is required, to adjust for the type and exposure of novel approaches.

Trust Must Prevail Over Fear

Every so often we find ourselves in a cognitive place where all the doors are shut, and no obvious escape is evident. Our willingness to say “I Don’t Know” (or otherwise being in wonder of a predicament) opens doors we didn’t even know were shut, and challenges us to think of new perspectives and new ways of addressing our challenges.

When I say “Trust Must Prevail Over Fear”, I mean that teams who can openly talk about mistakes and potential impediments rather than fear reprisals for being the bearer of bad news or hiding a failure, are the ones who will prevail.

Learning Drives Improvement

A team either has the knowledge or it doesn’t; a team has realized a risk or it hasn’t; an impediment exists or it doesn’t. How effectively your team can talk about these scenarios will determine what happens next, not whether these topics are considered embarrassing, finger-pointing, or rehashing the past. If merely discussing why something happened and how we can learn from it is taken in such ways, it indicates dysfunction in the learning environment.

When I say “Learning Drives Improvement”, I mean that any sustained improvement in an organization cannot be achieved without learning. Organizations of all kinds and sizes are nothing if not feedback machines. If the Deming Cycle is the engine of organizational improvement, the Growth Mindset of individuals in the organization is its core fuel.

People Matter Most, Invest in Them

Too often, hiring managers hire merely for experience. This is what I call an “under the curve” measure, taking account only of the candidate’s achievements. An equally more critical, if not strategically differentiating measure is the “slope of the curve” measure, which is to say, “How quickly does this candidate adapt and learn new things?”

When I say “People Matter Most, Invest in Them”, I mean that you should not only hire for expertise, but for growth potential, and I mean that this growth only happens when people are nourished, supported, and can reach their top potential.

In many ways, these three core beliefs are facets of the same humanist principle of hiring the best people, giving them the clarity and inspiration to do great work, and creating the environment where that work can be done.

Khan Klatt

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