The following excerpt—from Chief Joy Officer: How Great Leaders Elevate Human Energy and Eliminate Fear, a new book by the founder of Menlo Innovations, Richard Sheridan—is written to help leaders bring a renewed sense of purpose and joy to their organizations.
I ARRIVED AT WORK EARLY ONE MORNING AND WAS GREETED BY
Tracy B., one of our senior leaders who asked if I had a minute. We pulled up chairs to a table in our training area.
“Are you okay?” she asked me.
The truth is, I wasn’t. I had tossed and turned the night before about my less-than-stellar interaction with two of our Quality Advocates, Tracy and Matt S., the previous afternoon. Now Tracy was doing exactly what I taught her and others on the team to do when a team member is misbehaving—she was calling me on it, speaking truth to power.
“This is about yesterday, isn’t it?” I replied.
“Yeah. What you said seemed out of character, so I just wanted to make sure everything is okay.”
Sigh. It was time for another trip up humble mountain for me, this time with Tracy by my side.
Let me tell my side of the story . . .
One of my favorite pet projects within Menlo is an iPhone app we developed called Proulx (named for the cofounder of Intuit, Tom Proulx). The app, which is for internal use only, consists of a dashboard that provides a real-time view of Menlo’s receivables. I use it to get instant insight into any cash flow challenges that might be on the horizon; in one display, I can see all the outstanding in- voices to clients that have not yet been paid. Those that are troubling (invoices that should have been paid by now but haven’t) are highlighted in red. Based on my years of leading Menlo, I know that unhappy clients often stop paying their bills in a timely fashion, so red receivables can be the proverbial canary in the client- relationship coal mine.
Internal projects at Menlo are often problematic; it’s the classic situation of the shoemaker’s kids not having any shoes. We are far more profitable if we focus the talented resources of our team on paying clients rather than our own efforts. As a hedge, we make the internal development efforts slightly more intriguing for our team, giving them opportunities to learn new technologies, run process or architecture experiments, or simply invest in trying out new people off-the-clock of client projects. We intentionally made Proulx a more complex project in order to experiment with a variety of approaches.
The extra complexity of the project wasn’t necessary, but we had other intentions for the team doing the work. This has led to a couple of challenges with the project that I wish weren’t there. The app doesn’t always update properly, and sometimes I am looking at old data or no data. Since this is a learning project for us when we have extra talent available, I shouldn’t be surprised when it doesn’t work right. Right?
Well, this particular week, the team was tasked with fixing the update problems I was seeing. During testing, the day before my morning meeting with Tracy, she and Matt reported results to me. Since I was the primary sponsor of the project, they wanted to know some of my expectations for the improvements being made. I told them I was disappointed that the app often didn’t have the most up-to-date data. I asked Matt how often and on what schedule the data were pulled from our QuickBooks server.
“I don’t know,” Matt replied.
To say I was disappointed with Matt’s response was an under- statement. I think my reply was pretty straightforward, along the lines of, “Well, Matt, as one of the Quality Advocates on a project, I would expect you to know how the system was architected and what the expected behaviors are and be able to tell me when I ask. This is exactly what our clients expect, so why shouldn’t I expect the same as the sponsor of this project?” I’ll bet I even used my best boss voice and facial expressions too.
Tracy and Matt stopped talking and looked at each other. Then Matt said “Okay,” and he and Tracy walked back to their workstation to continue their work. I knew right away I hadn’t handled that very well.
There are a few important posters on the walls and pillars of Menlo. One of the biggest posters—and a catchphrase of our culture—reads “It’s OK to Say I Don’t Know.” Yet I had castigated Matt for saying “I don’t know”—right underneath that poster, in fact. Yikes.
That evening I thought about the moment and reflected on how I could have done better. It was an internal learning project, after all, and what I was modeling for these team members was how to be a poor leader to one of the newer members of the team. I had work to do to repair this relationship and admit my mistake.
Before I even had a chance to say anything to Matt and Tracy the next morning, Tracy pulled me aside to see if I was OK, recognizing the behavior wasn’t normal for me or Menlo. Just as Tracy and I started the conversation, Matt walked in the front door for work that day. I motioned him over to join us.
As he sat down, I immediately told him, “Matt, yesterday when you and Tracy approached me about Proulx, I didn’t handle that conversation very well. And I just want to say I’m sorry.”
Without missing a beat, and with total sincerity, Matt replied, “I forgive you.”
You can learn humility from anyone, at any moment. Matt barely knew me, as he had only joined the team a few months be- fore. Yet he had already internalized our values so well that he was able to accept an apology from the CEO with far more humility than I had shown to him the day before. I grew a little that day, thanks to Matt and Tracy.
Humble is a challenging word in the context of business. Humble may be seen as the opposite of what you should be seeking. After all, if our business is “humble,” won’t our competition walk all over us? If any one of us is “humble,” won’t we be overlooked for the next promotion or bonus in favor of others who are doing a better job of staying in the limelight and promoting themselves, especially when the boss is in eyeshot?
For me, being humble doesn’t mean being a doormat. Being humble means considering others. As leaders, we can and should support our employees and team members, making sure they are taken care of first, as Simon Sinek memorably relayed in Leaders Eat Last, not pushing to the front of a line because we think we’ve “earned it” by virtue of an arbitrary title.
Humility acknowledges that all work is noble, even the mundane. If I truly believe all work is vital to the company’s success, I shouldn’t be reticent to put in effort on tasks that some would consider below my pay grade. It’s why you’ll see me cleaning up after client lunches on occasion. If this is a behavior I want to see in the organization, I’d better be willing to follow through on it myself, not just expect it from others. And while I do need reminders from time to time (thanks, Tracy and Matt), I think it’s important for a leader to show humility consistently.