Scaling Myself

At Startup School late last year, Tony Hsieh talked about motivation vs. inspiration.  He said that when running a company, most people think about motivation, whether it’s through incentives, threat, recognition, etc., but if a company strives to inspire its employees, motivation becomes less important.  That’s a great concept.

A couple of weeks ago Zynga’s CEO Mark Pincus (who also spoke at Startup School and at BASES ETL) was interviewed by the New York Times and talked about the idea of “making everyone a C.E.O. of something.”  He explained it this way:

You can manage 50 people through the strength of your personality and lack of sleep. You can touch them all in a week and make sure they’re all pointed in the right direction. By 150, it’s clear that that’s not going to scale, and you’ve got to find some way to keep everybody going in productive directions when you’re not in the room.

This is even more true in volunteer students organizations like the ones I’ve been involved with.  If students are not inspired or empowered, there’s no way to really “manage” them effectively.  I had to pay my dues to really learn this the hard way.

When I was leading my fraternity, I led a small executive committee of 10 people to operate a 50-member fraternity.  Micro-managing was possible then, especially for my teammates that needed extra help, I was there.  I got a good sense of what each person was capable of, and I learned a lot about how to make things as easy as possible for busy students to complete, and how to get as much out of people as I can.  You can ask me all kinds of tricks and tactics, from how to write an email to running effective meetings to persuading everybody.  I don’t know how my teammates tolerated my craziness but I hope it was a good learning experience for all of us, and I really appreciated everything they did for the fraternity.

Leading BASES now is another story.  I am now working with a team of about 70 students to produce events and programs for thousands of attendees and millions of viewers, with stakeholders in our faculty advisors, alumni, sponsors, and every single one of our team members.  Micro-management is impossible.  After a quarter of trying to do everything and really suffering, I decided to take a step back and think about ways to go beyond just myself, and that resulted in a renewed focus to first respect my own time and then investing the time in other people.  I purposely stopped getting stuff done (if I made a promise and people counted on me, things got done, but I did not do any more).  Limiting emails to only once or twice a day rather than checking all the time made me realize that things that I usually would spend 4, 5 minutes responding to in order to close the thread ended up closing themselves after a couple more emails from people because they’d eventually figure it out.  I was gradually getting rid of the notion that my teammates had before to “just ask Ricky” because I wouldn’t respond to your emails until the end of the day and sometimes things couldn’t wait so they took care of it themselves or went elsewhere.  I did offer my phone number, so if it was urgent enough, then call me.  It almost felt like my involvement before was stopping people from really stepping it up, and so when I started seeing what people were capable of, I got super excited.  Of course, I see things falling through the cracks now that probably wouldn’t have before, but it’s a trade-off.

In addition to scaling back and creating room for growth, the time that I freed up was for my teammates.  In the past, because it took less time to just do things myself rather than having to sit down with somebody, unload all the information, and train them to be able to take on a task successfully, I would just do that.  Now I’ve realized the importance of investing in those around me, helping them understand the organization, our goals, relationships, processes, and how to get things done.  I think this approach resonates well with students, who join organizations partly to acquire these skills.  Have you experienced something similar?  I recognize it’s a lot more nuanced than this, let me hear it in the comments.

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