Early in my career, when I was working at Trilogy Software
, one of my fellow managers was never at his desk. When I did see him, he seemed to be doing really random things — talking to one person, going for coffee with another, or just standing around looking at people. And yet, his teams performed excellently. I wondered if luck had bestowed upon him a pack of A-players — enabling him to get by doing nothing
as a manager.
For a while, I believed he was hopeless; but then I discovered something powerful: This individual spent all of his time helping people
. Those ostensibly random activities I had noted were his way of unblocking his team and paving their way to success.
I soon changed my own behaviour and started to ‘work for’ my team — and I’ve carried that practice throughout my career. Whether I manage five (as I did at first) or 300 (as I did at Xtreme Labs
), my main goal is to help people do their jobs. I always volunteer for the unpopular jobs; and if my people are blocked, I work as hard as I can to unblock them. To an outsider, it might look like I’m not doing much, but the value accruing to the company is tremendous. There are three main reasons:
1) To be creative, your people need a threshold level of responsibility
In order for someone to do her best work, she needs to feel and understand the problem. She’ll never grow wings if she’s never forced to fly. The conflict and struggle of fixing one’s own problems is the key to creativity. This is why people should work for themselves and only ask for help from managers when they need it. This way, the company benefits by having far more people working on creative solutions to problems. Command-and-control works for organizations like the army, but not for knowledge workers: You need each of your people to spread their wings.
2) Your people need missions and authority to reach peak productivity
People have to shed their chains to do good work. A typical manager might give her subordinate a task and micromanage until it looks like what they want
. I prefer to ask my people to build something that solves the pain
. For example, I asked one of our Helpful product designers to help solve a pain point: Some users wanted to use the app, but they didn’t use their phones. The mission was to build web functionality for everything into our app. The output looked nothing like what I expected; but it was fantastic.
3) Mistakes are how people learn — and how you learn
As a manager, your job is not to prevent people from making mistakes. Don’t worry about mistakes. In reality, there are extremely few catastrophic mistakes that people can make. Your job is to set a tone that making mistakes is okay — as long as people learn from them. Make your own mistakes. Bring a mindset of learning to everything. Explicitly call it out: ‘I thought X was right, but turns out I was wrong and Y is better.’ I have learned that you have to explicitly and emphatically advertise your own mistakes. At Pivotal
, I once called someone by the wrong name and a colleague said, “Woah, you make mistakes!” I was floored. Did he think I never make mistakes? Clearly, my mistake was to not showcase my mistakes. Doing so helps people get rid of their fear — unleashing autonomy and creativity.
Your org chart is upside-down. Flip it.
Farhan Thawar is CTO and Co-Founder at Helpful.com.
Article: "A Start-Up is Born: The Story of Helpful"
by Karen Christensen and Sharon Aschaiek, available in the Winter 2018 issue
of Rotman Management
This article appeared in the Winter 2018 issue. Published by the University of Toronto’s Rotman School of Management, Rotman Management explores themes of interest to leaders, innovators and entrepreneurs.
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