Mike Slinn

On Leadership

Sometimes I am asked to talk about management and leadership. In this article I attempt to share some of what I've learned. I'm not the same manager or leader that I was thirty years ago; I've accumulated more than a few scars, survived some near-death experiences and matured as a person and a manager. In this article I'd like to discuss some of the management/leadership principles that I live by.

Management and Leadership

“Wait,” I hear some (metaphorical) readers asking. “What does management have to do with leadership?” I claim that a leader who is a poor manager cannot be effective for very long. Luck only takes a person a short distance before disaster strikes. Conversely, a good manager might not appear to be overtly leading, but if someone is effective in influencing outcomes of the activities of others then they must be practicing a form of leadership. Some leaders are visible and inspiring; others remain behind the scenes and quietly influence outcomes. It is not necessary to be highly visible in order to be a good leader.

My personality is that of an extroverted introvert (“ENTJ”, for people who follow Myers-Briggs) and so I am likely to be more visible than the majority of the population. If you read the writeup on the ENTJ personality, you can see that such a person would need to endure quite a few knocks to the head before they develop empathy for others. My friends and family know that I have indeed have had ample opportunity to augment and temper my basic nature.

Leadership styles of adventurers and technology vendors differ in important ways, but are founded on the same precepts. As a software entrepreneur, I build interdependent relationships between organizations that leverage assets and capabilities so that disproportionate value is created - the whole is much greater than the sum of its parts. Staff must be able to compensate for unforeseen events, and deal with issues as they arise.

Read on to learn how Eisenhower, Dr. Deming and Peter Drucker have enriched my understanding of leadership and management.

Believe in Others and They Will Prove Worthy

Most people will be influenced by the image you hold of them. This is true regardless of whether you expect good things or bad from them, and is amplified by close contact. A little empathy goes a long way, for the better you understand someone, the more profound and meaningful your belief in them can be. Not only can you make your own reality, you can also influence the reality of the people you come into contact with. No-one can inspire anyone else; instead, all one can do is to offer them a glimpse of another possible reality, one more desirable than the current state. If they embrace the vision, then they have inspired themselves.

In the mid-eighties I had just founded my second startup. We had a business relationship with IBM, and the regional IBM branch outsourced all their CAD and PC-based Unix work to us. Our second employee came from IBM, where she was a contractor. At IBM, she was merely viewed as ‘eye candy’, a problem that many beautiful women have when working in a male-dominated hierarchy. I saw an intelligent, hard-working and politically savvy person who I thought could do almost anything she applied herself to. She began by organizing our office, and as time went by she became operations manager. We formed a mutual admiration society, with loyalty at the core. IBM really missed a gem!

One Must Give Loyalty in Order to Receive It

Cohesive teams are more effective than disorganized and dysfunctional teams. Managers are more effective when their subordinates respect them. Trust, respect and loyalty can only be earned, never given. A single transgression can destroy trust forever. When subordinates see their superiors selflessly working on their behalf, towards the greater good of the team and the company, and that they are treated with respect, loyalty can't help but follow. Everyone must prove themselves in every interaction – loyalty can only be mutual. People are very perceptive, easily sense when they are being used or disrespected, and are quick to sense insincerity. Loyalty and respect, like life itself, is always changing; those two shared feelings are either growing or shrinking. The status quo can never remain static. A leader will never receive more loyalty from their team than they demonstrate towards the team and its members.

Years ago I was CEO of a 10-person company. Although we had been growing at a steady pace, we hit a rough patch and found ourselves unable to meet payroll. Most of the employees were parents of small children. I called everyone together and summarized the situation. I told them that they could not be guaranteed anything, but that I would personally do my best to make sure they all got paid eventually. I also suggested that they immediately look for alternative employment since we didn't know for sure when things might turn around, and I promised to give every person a glowing reference. I meant what I said; every person in our team made a valuable contribution and was important to our success. In the meeting, each and every person insisted that they believed in what we were doing and he/she felt confident that we would overcome the cash flow issue soon. No-one left ... and in a few weeks we were able to catch up on payroll, and carry on with an even stronger sense of teamwork than before the crisis. I personally felt humbled by the experience, and I felt proud of the faith everyone demonstrated by putting themselves and their families on the line.

Respect is the Currency of Leadership

“Brother, can you spare a dime?” Asking for or demanding respect actually destroys it. Tithing is a good analog; giving credit to others shows appreciation and respect. Teamwork is not a zero-sum game. If a leader tries to take all the credit, their belief system can only be that there is a limited amount of recognition available and they must grab it all. In fact, the opposite is true: groups of people become more loyal and effective when each member, especially the ‘leaders’, publicly give heartfelt praise to each other in recognition of their valuable contributions. The result is greater volume of positive outcomes, and hence more appreciation and respect accruing to every member of the group. Success leads to further success, and the entire team acquires a sense that they are all winners.

During the dot-com boom I went to India to evaluate a 120-person company and their technology, then recommended to the investors that this would make a good investment. One of the tasks that I performed during my evaluation was to interview every person in the company. I took everyone's picture, reviewed their resumes, talked each to them about their role and contribution, and tried to get a feeling for each of them as people. Subsequently I was asked to join the firm as VP Product Management. After several months on the job I found myself at odds with the CEO, who was also the principal investor, as to management style. During several long walks together I told him that he was alienating his staff and missing market opportunity. For example, he had repeatedly set up teleconferences at 2pm California time, requiring Indian employees to physically be in the office at 2am (where there was a compatible phone system.) His habit of canceling meetings without warning was breeding resentment. His lack of respect for others, as evidenced by this and other actions was costing him their loyalty. He became angry when he heard this, and we agreed that since he was not about to change then I would leave. Within a few months, a large percentage of the staff in India and the USA also left. The company completely melted down within 8 months of my departure. Years later I was contacted by one of the Indians with whom I had gotten to know. “We were devastated when we heard that you left,” he said. “You were The Michael Slinn.” I was astounded to learn that I had been iconified. Yes, I had known that I had generally very good relations with the staff in India, but I had no idea how much the relationship meant to them.

Peter Drucker and the knowledge worker

Peter Drucker’s maxims keep popping up in new disguises. The Software Engineering Institute expanded upon these points when developing CMMi; these maxims are also the basis for lightweight processes.

  • Define task
  • Focus on task
  • Define results
  • Define quality
  • Grant Autonomy
  • Demand Accountability
  • Build continuous learning and teaching into the task

From time to time I have been called upon to help set up businesses, or to get a business back on track with respect to product management or engineering. Some of these companies have gone on to achieve great things, for example PureEdge (now part of IBM) and Transium (now part of Yahoo!). Mr. Drucker’s list is only as good as the leadership that drives the process.

Dr. Deming's 14 points

Dr. Deming is credited with transforming Japanese industry, and later industry in North America. I have translated his 14 points, originally written for manufacturing, into 11 points more suited to North America's IT work environment. I do not think that all of Dr. Demings points apply to knowledge workers, and have modified some of them.

  1. Create constancy of purpose toward improvement of product and service, with the aim to become competitive and to stay in business, and to provide jobs. Gradually increase quality rather than play leapfrog by ignoring current bugs, instituting quick fixes and saying “Wait until next release!”
  2. Management must embrace leadership that adapts to and drives constant change. In that sense managers are all change agents.
  3. Cease dependence on inspection to achieve quality. Testing by quality assurance usually finds problems too late. It is better to design for test than to apply a patchwork of fixes. If you do not have time to do it right, you may find that you have to make time to do it over, but at a cost.
  4. Maximize value per unit cost. Build long-term business relationships based on loyalty and trust. How can you feel secure knowing critical components or expertise come from the lowest bidder?
  5. Institute training (and cross-training) on the job.
  6. The aim of supervision should be to help people and technology to do a better job and to remove barriers in the system that keep them from doing their job with pride. Contrast this sentiment with a policy of installing spyware on employee‘s computers to monitor them!
  7. Drive out fear, so that everyone may work effectively for the company. There should never be a conflict between doing what is best for the company and meeting the expectations of a person's immediate job.
  8. Break down barriers between departments. People in product management, engineering, marketing, sales and support must work as a cross-functional team, to foresee problems of production and in use that may be encountered with the product or service.
  9. Eliminate slogans, exhortations, and targets for the work force asking for zero defects and new levels of productivity. Such exhortations only create adversarial relationships, as the bulk of the causes of low quality and low productivity belong to the system and thus lie beyond the power of the work force.
  10. Remove barriers that rob the technical staff of their right to pride of workmanship. The responsibility of management must be changed from schedule to quality and effectiveness.
  11. Remove barriers that rob people in management and in engineering of their right to pride of workmanship. This means continuous feedback, with only a quarterly summary of merit. If one-on-one meetings are held once or twice a week, for example, those are opportunities for feedback. Nothing in a quarterly performance summary should be a surprise.

Gentle, Sensitive Attention vs. Forceful or Pre-emptive Action

Problems happen. People make mistakes. Outside events can be problematic. Quickly inquiring in a non-threatening manner as to the nature of a new issue shows a manager to be attentive, yet sensitive to issues that they may be unaware of. If a good rapport has previously been established, communication can proceed rapidly; strained relations, on the other hand, can cause an awkwardness that is sometimes fatal.

Once facts about an issue are known sufficiently well to establish that it is time-sensitive and serious, a commitment to rapidly resolving it in a humane and effective manner must be demonstrated. Often, what is done, is done; what is important after the fact is to communicate an interest in a trend towards improvement. Some problems must never be allowed to repeat, while others should instead steadily improve over time. Discretion is invaluable, and seeking counsel from others is important. There is a difference between soliciting input and being indecisive. Some issues require a forceful, rapid response – it is important to know which issues merit this response, and to recognize the signs so as to be prepared when they arise.

I've had to fire people. In those cases where I had approved the original hire, I felt that I had personally failed by making a poor selection. In each case I could see clues that hinted at the problems to come. When it is time to take action, do not hesitate, but make sure that all details are attended to and press forward with vigor.

Eisenhower and Napoleon

General Eisenhower endorsed the saying 'Plans are worthless, but planning is everything'; Napoleon before him said something quite similar, but in French. Eisenhower also said 'No plan ever survives contact with the enemy'. Effective management leadership requires a solid understanding of issues, options and contingencies. Once reality strikes, problems and opportunities a prepared leader can quickly recognize situations because one is ready to see them. This is true for adventurers, military commanders and in business.