1 hurt, 1 sucked, 1 surprised
This year marks the 20th of my career. I spent time in consulting, and sportswear and consumer electronics brands. Along the way I received a fair share of advice, thanks to my tendency to attract them 🤷🏻♂️. Below are three that stuck:
“I am letting you burn.”
This is a variation of “Let it burn.” Most know what “let it burn” could mean. Delegate, learn through failures, stress test your processes/systems/people, etc. But “I am letting you burn” is slightly different, and it was wonderful for me.
My manager was an up and coming star. He’s the youngest of his ranks at 3x. He didn’t go to college, and he folded clothes and worked his way up. I was going through a challenging situation with my team. I wanted to tweak the structure of the team to adjust the dynamics of how they would work together. When I presented the solution to him, he challenged it, asked me annoying questions, and in the end, he said: “I am going to let you burn.”
I was pissed off. You cocky SOB, I thought.
I asked him again, “Then do I have your approval to move forward?”
“And you are going to just let me burn?”
“Are you prepared to be burnt?”
“Are you saying this will not work?”
“I have my thoughts, but are you prepared to get burnt?”
I moved on, and burn it did. The change in the team structure didn’t work. Accountabilities were confusing, and communication was cumbersome. The team became inefficient, siloed and bitter. I was also angry because I wished my boss would not have let me and the team suffer. I felt he made me look bad. But why this advice was great, was because he stayed close to me throughout the process. He was there the whole time (watching me burn), helped me crystallize and think through the issues we were experiencing. More importantly, he kept pointing out to me that my team was also burning, and how I could use this to grow as a team. He knew the limits of our teams, and he also was aware of the importance of letting go a bit, and giving us the opportunity to own, try and fail. The most significant thing he did, was he was there while we burned. He didn’t just let me burn. He let us burn.
“Go after your passion.”
This was a piece of very common but hindering advice. “Find what you love, and go after it.” “Do what you love, and the money will come.” Yea, right, you need to know what you love. You need to know what gives you purpose.
The problem with this kind of advice, is most would likely identify something too broad and distant, and as we inch towards these lofty dreams, the distance will remain far and potentially too unattainable. This sense of hopelessness could actually drag you away from doing great work consistently. And seriously, knowing your dream or passion is hard. It can be very intimidating. A lot of people also feel the pressure to just come up with something. Some might feel like a failure if they can’t come up with something that’s significant enough. Many might also just say, “I am still looking.”
Passion also doesn’t help us decide. A passion for technology helps me choose between chocolate and computers, yet it certainly doesn’t help me choose between being an operations manager and a sales manager.
Instead, I think it is more helpful to break passion down and find out why a task or a situation or a role makes you happy, or why you hate about your role or your team, and use that to guide you. What do you enjoy doing? Why do you like services/products your company provide? What’s the best part of your day on the floor today selling stuff? What’s the worse part of today? How did it make you feel? What do you think the reasons are for you to feel this way?
I find if I follow this approach instead, it tends to provide a direction that seems more attainable, I gain clarity of what I like and dislike, and it helps me navigate choices along the way a tad easier.
“Be Kind to the Guy at the Pantry.”
This is an advice of the difference between being friendly versus being kind.
My first real job was working for my mom’s company. It was during the summer when I was 16. My job was simple: Read some newspaper, find news articles that relate to the business, cut them out, stick them onto a piece of paper. I also delivered mail to the teams and ran random errands for the company (mostly mom really, because the rest of the company didn’t have the guts to command the son of their boss to do stuff).
I was at the pantry and talking to the only person that had the balls to talk to me. His name was Roland. He was a bit of an outcast though: Middle-aged, blunt with his words, and wasn’t the greatest buddy at any parties. Completely out of the blue, he asked me what I have learned. Being a 16 year old and the son of the owner of the company, I wanted to please and to appear smart so that I wouldn’t disgrace my mom. I said something rubbish. He cut me off, and said, “Let me give you a piece of advice. Be kind to the guy at the pantry”.
This turned out to be the best advice I have ever gotten.
In the beginning, I thought this was just an act we should do. Be respectful, talk to them, say hi, say thank you, care about them. Or, don’t ignore them.
After all these years, I have learned that this was an exercise of being consistently compassionate. Simple yea? Being compassionate means, you care enough to actually do something for someone. Consistency means you master the craft and can do it for anyone all the time.
I have a story. Back in my days as a consultant, there was this cleaner at our client’s office. In America, people were nice in general. Most of the team would talk to him, say hi to him, acknowledge him, etc.
I remembered the advice, so I also acted nice to him. One day, we were chatting, and he started talking about himself and his work. He loved the Tigers, and he made sure his kids were Tigers’ fans too. There’s a lot of stuff his job required him to do. The office was big, and he had to make sure everything was in order, from cleaning our bathrooms to watering the plants. He then said one thing, that really changed the way I understood this advice.
“ You know Bob?”
“ Yea, the guy who runs QA.”
“ I like him.”
“ Interesting. Sometimes I find him aloof.”
“ Yea. He is. But you know what, his cup is not here.” He pointed to the sink, where we would leave our dirty coffee mugs.
“He never put his cup here. He would clean it himself. One time I said to him, ‘Just leave it here, I can wash it for you man.’ You know what he said?”
“He said, ‘Nah. You got so much to do. I do my own shxt, and you do yours, so we can all go home and watch the Tigers.’ “