“Be more passionate than ambitious”

Masai Ujiri says passion trumps ambition

That’s what Raptors President Masai Ujiri said to Bill Simmons when Simmons asked him, “what your best piece of management advice?” Ujiri was on Simmons’ podcast on October 25, and it took him a minute to answer; he’s probably more used to answering general basketball-related questions rather than workplace management questions.

Finally he said it: “Be more passionate than ambitious.”

I loved the answer. It really hit home and got the wheels turning in my brain. Because I agree: passion trumps ambition.

Here’s what it means to me:

Don’t get hung up on titles…

When I think about where my career might go next, it is nice to have that director title on my cv… but if my next role “only” comes with a manager title, it won’t be a step back—as long as I get to continue doing the things I’m passionate about. If I find a role that offers me team leadership and mentoring opportunities and the opportunity to work with good people in a marketing organization that demonstrably impacts revenue… then what does the title matter? I’m doing what matters to me. If you know what’s important to you, then don’t get hung up on whether the role comes with the right title.

… but don’t lose your ambitions completely!

Aligning your career to what you’re passionate about doesn’t mean you stop moving forward. It just means you strive for the things that matter most to you. To follow on from my previous example, if my marketing initiatives are delivering results, I’m going to analyze what’s working and/or learn something new, so I can continue to deliver even better results next time. Being ambitious, to me, means being driven to get better—and that means more than getting a title.

Ambition and ego can clash with collaboration; unity will get you farther

There’s an old expression, “if you want to go fast, go alone; if you want to go far, go together.” I firmly believe a group of people untied for a common goal will always go farther than a group of individuals. I love working with others, and that’s a huge part of the reason I’ve made my career in marketing; collaboration comes with the territory. But how many times have you seen someone’s personal goals throw a project off track, because they’re not aligned with the project goals? Far too often, I’d wager. It’s very easy to get caught in the trap of “this isn’t what I want to be doing,” or “it’s not the way I’d do it” or even “how do I make this project make me look good” rather than focusing on what’s good for all. But if you’re all in because you’re passionate about what you’re doing? Then success is only a matter of time.

Passion is contagious; ambition is lonely

If you’re doing things you love, chances are it will energize you—and that energy will spread to others around you. And not just at work or in your team environment, but to your family and friends as well. Think back to when you did something that made you happy or proud; chances are someone commented that had an extra hop in your step or a permagrin, right? It’s notable, and it’s infectious. But personal ambition often has an opposite, alienating effect. When people sense that you’re only driven by your own goals, they’re more likely to be turned off than energized by it.

You’re not a failure if your job or industry isn’t your passion

I’m a B2B marketer, and I like being in this business, but I don’t consider it my passion; it’s the vehicle that lets me explore things I am passionate about, such as helping others succeed and creating things that make a difference. These are the things that matter to me. Would I one day like to combine these with other things I’m passionate about, like, say, comic books or sports? Of course! And I’ll continue to seek out those opportunities out, but I don’t need it all, all at once.

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I know I’ll be keeping Masai’s quote in mind as I consider the next steps in my career. What does passion mean to you, and does it trump ambition?

Image courtesy Sportsnet.

How to help when a team member is struggling

Tip of the hat to Julia Borgini on LinkedIn who originally shared this article by Claire Lew. Its conceit is that asking employees is “how can I help?” is actually the worst way to help. I tend to agree! If we dig a little deeper it’s really about paying attention and empathy—two incredibly important traits that leaders need.

The topic struck a nerve with me so I wanted to share a few thoughts.

Asking “How can I help?” is indicative of lazy leaders

As Claire says:

When you ask, “How can I help you?” you’re not offering any specific ideas or suggestions for how you can be more helpful. Rather, you’re relying on the employee to do the hard (and delicate) work of figuring out how you need to improve as a leader.

100% true. In fact I think it’s an even greater indicator of laziness: that you haven’t been paying attention to what’s going on on your team. Because if you’re an attentive and proactive manager, you should already have an idea of whatever your team is struggling with. Granted it may be an external issue that’s coming from outside the workplace, and you need to navigate that with extra sensitivity, of course. But, a good manager needs to be aware of what’s going on the team day to day, so when you do find it’s time to offer help, you can be more specific.

It also assumes everyone is willing to admit they need help

Not everyone wants to accept help when offered so bluntly. Some people are too proud to admit they need it; some are too shy, or prefer to internalize challenges. Some (too many) corporate cultures have made it uncomfortable for employees to admit they need a hand—with anything, but or small. It’s like saying “my door is always open” and patting yourself on the back for being so welcoming; you’re assuming everyone is comfortable coming to you directly. Sure, some people are OK speaking up or answering the question. But many aren’t. Put yourself in the shoes of your team first, and try to think: If I were in their position, how would I want my manager to approach me when offering help?

Try adjusting your management style to your teams’ personalities

When you’re managing a team, it’s important to understand that every team member is different; they respond and react to situations differently, the learn differently, they engage differently. It’s one of the biggest challenges I found when I first had people reporting to me, and it took time to even identify it as an issue; but now it’s a challenge I look forward to: getting to know the people I work with, figuring out how to work with them, learning how they respond to the work and the culture and the challenges in front of them. How do you figure these things out? Communications 101: Talk to your team, and listen when they talk to you.

Figuring out the right questions to ask isn’t easy

Claire says a good place to start is to point out your own shortcomings when asking employees what’s up, as a way to break the ice. For example:

– “Do you think I’ve been a little micromanaging with how I’ve been following up on projects?”

– “Could I be doing a better job outlining the vision and direction for where we’re headed?”

– “Have I not been as cognizant of reasonable timelines, like I should have?”

I like the idea but as I note above, I don’t think one approach works for all. So here’s an alternative one: open a general conversation about what you think they need help with. “Tell me about the northeast regional sales campaign,” or “How’s it going working with IT on the automation integration?” This sets the stage and allows them to open up, if they’re ready; if not, it allows you to ease in to more specific, or pointed questions. “I noticed that we’re a bit behind on the first round of emails, what do you think is holding us back?” “I’ve worked with George in IT before, he can be a tough nut to crack. How’re you finding him?” In this way, you’ve shown that A) you’re paying attention to them, and B) you’re giving them the opportunity to self-identify and own the problem.

Once the problem is identified, shift the focus to the solution

So now that you’ve done the good boss thing and helped figure out the problem (without assigning any blame), it’s time to really provide your value as a leader: Actually helping solve the problem. Depending on the employee and the specific problem, there are a number of approaches you can take:

  • The “Here’s what we’re gonna do” approach: This works when the employee is stuck or is one that really just likes to take direction. But this might be too “bossy” for some, who want the responsibility of figuring out the solution.
  • The “What do you think our next steps should be” approach: This allows the employee to own the solution, but be careful: If they really are struggling, they may feel like you’re hanging them out to dry. (A combination of these two can work: “Here’s what I think, what do you think?”)
  • The “Let me tell you about the time…” approach: Give the employee a specific example of a similar situation, and tell them how you solved it. Ask them if they think a similar approach will work here. This way you’re showing your experience, giving them confidence you know how to solve the problem, and still giving them the freedom to take the solution for themselves.

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The above probably sounds like a lot of effort on the part of the leader, and I know we’re all busy doing a million things; even if we had all day to focus on people management it still wouldn’t be enough. But listening to your team and helping them solve problems really is a top priority for managers and leaders—so make the time to talk, listen and find the right problem solving approach that works for each employee.

Five thoughts on leadership, featuring Steve Kerr, Jim Kouzes and Barry Posner

Leadership lessons with Steve Kerr

Last summer I read this article in Sports Illustrated on Steve Kerr, head coach of the Golden State Warriors and, from all accounts, an excellent leader and all-around wonderful human being. It’s a great article on leadership, his approach to coaching the Warriors, and how the health challenges Kerr faced last year (complications from back surgery) have forced him to reevaluate things. One part has stuck with me; the author, Chris Ballard, shares with Kerr five practices of exemplary leaders, as defined by Jim Kouzes and Barry Posner in their book The Leadership Challenge.

I’ve been thinking about leadership a lot lately as that’s where I’m finding my passion as my career evolves. Here are my five quick thoughts on those five practices:

1. Model the Way (set an example for how you want others to act).

Leading by example should be the easiest of these leadership practices, but it’s one I see so many managers and leaders fail at. I’m not sure why. I think a lot of it has to do with simply slowing down, and considering your actions and your words and thinking, how would I respond if others acted this way? If your response is negative, then reconsider your approach.

2. Inspire a Shared Vision (get buy-in for a common goal and believe in it passionately).

I think a lot of leaders find this one daunting, because they don’t feel they are inspiring and because the word “vision” itself can seem intimidating; after all, most jobs are just that, jobs, and don’t exactly inspire great visions. But succeeding at this one starts with a combination of modeling the way, and of setting team goals, with well-defined objectives and clear expectations for all team members. No grand vision required: just a path to success.

3. Challenge the Process (see risks as opportunities).

Ah, the one every leader likes to say, and most want, but few can actually do, especially in large organizations. Creating actual change can be extremely difficult, and politics and hierarchies often throw up roadblocks that force people into the same patterns and bad habits. The important thing is for leaders to avoid throwing up their hands in frustration. Do that behind closed doors. When your team comes to you and their struggling to move forward, use the “Yes, and…?” approach to acknowledge their challenge and encourage them to think of solutions.

4. Enable Others to Act (empowering those around you).

This is the thing that gets me out of bed in the morning. Sometimes it’s easy, when you have those go-getters on your team who know exactly what they want and all you need to do is say “yes, go.” The challenge is helping those who don’t know what they want, figure it out. To me, that comes with getting to know people, caring about them, listening to them—even, and perhaps especially, when they’re not talking about work or their career or ongoing development. And then start with providing ownership of little things. Make them responsible for updating a report each month. Have them attend a meeting instead of you. And grow those responsibilities over time.

5. Encourage the Heart (focus on the humanity of people, and make them “feel like heroes”).

I am finding that even though organizationally, businesses are getting a bit better at focusing on employees as human beings, in marketing, we might be going in the opposite direction. We’ve placed such an emphasis in the last 10-15 years, with the advent of digital marketing, on data and measurable results that some of the “soft skills” are being ignored. As a leader I think the most important thing you can for your team is have their back. Recognize them when they succeed (especially in front of others, where appropriate) and use constructive feedback and positive reinforcement to put them back on the path to success when they fail.

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None of this is rocket science; it usually all comes down to communication and consistency. But I do think it’s important to stop and remind ourselves of these things every once in a while; even the most experienced leader can lose sight of them.