Partners and Padawans

Musings on corporate mentorship and the humility needed to grow a winning team.

Power, prominence, title, and any number of carrots dangling at the top of a corporate ladder can consume us and our peers.

Unfortunately, in a hidebound sprint to the “top,” folks run the risk of missing an opportunity to contribute to a team’s growth. Mentorship, teaching hard skills, and taking the extra five minutes to get a teammate’s life update at the water cooler are a few behaviors that fuel a stronger team…and a stronger you. This post isn’t about being an effective mentor; rather, it’s about two extreme ends of an organization’s spectrum, both experientially and in title, and thoughts on how we can bridge the actual (or perceived) gap between the camps.

But first, a quick segue to a Star Wars reference so that I can lose my more socially-inclined audience.

The Jedi track isn’t too dissimilar from our corporate structures, one enters as a bright-eyed Padawan (student of the Jedi way); and a select few grind it out to the prestigious Jedi Council (governors of the Jedi Order, they probably manage the Jedi’s bottom-line too; but George Lucas spared us that detail). In the journey to the top, there’s a lot of learned experience and growth along the way.

Concurrently, there’s a lot of attrition in the ranks. The Jedi’s worst two-weeks’ notice is Annakin Skywalker (turned Darth Vader)–the remarkably gifted Jedi who was supposed to bring balance to the force (a corporate equivalent of tripling EBITDA)–joining the Sith (an evil rival enterprise) because of a simple: “no, not yet” from the Council.

We’re surrounded by Annakin Skywalkers in the workforce…you may even be one yourself: Talented individuals who’ve grown tremendously under the tutelage of their Obi Wan (company mentor) who; ultimately, walk away from their company because of the same, “no, not yet” or the more painful, “no, never.”

I can’t fix your company’s promotion approval process, and I’m not proposing that every Padawan needs to become a Partner. Rather, I’d like to offer a few items for our friends on both sides of the spectrum (and everyone in between) to consider as we all strive to build better teams. After all, there’s nothing worse than losing your brightest Padawan because of poor communication, unmet expectations, and many other potential pitfalls we face daily.

For the Padawans (my analyst friends in the trenches, following the light of Excel and PowerPoint):

  • Be Patient – You still have a lot to learn, and that takes time. Up until your first gig out of undergrad, life is a sprint of short-term seasons (like the season when you were in the middle school band playing the trumpet with braces, hypothetically speaking); that’s not the reality anymore, you’ve got 40+ more years to master your craft.
  • Work Hard – This isn’t rocket science, but it is…difficult. I’m not authoring an ode to workaholism; but, you need to earn your stripes and sometimes that yields long and grueling days. Remember, that Partner you look up to (and is now ruining your life with all the hard work you need to do) has been there before, and they worked hard.
  • Extend Grace – My first year as an analyst, I remember having the same conversation with a Partner at least ten times. Always initiated by them, always on script, and always leaving me wondering if they have ever listened to my answers in the previous rounds. I understand it now; busyness can be a major inhibitor to meaningful conversations and building authentic relationships; and Partners are really busy. Don’t villainize a teammate for having a full plate, extend grace and try to help them lighten the load.
  • Prove It – If you want to be a Partner one day, start being one today. Francis of Assisi famously shared, “Preach the gospel at all times and if necessary, use words.” It’s easy to talk about being a partner in your firm, it’s much harder to live out the standards that are probably written down (and hopefully lived out) by the incumbent folks that have already “made it.” Prove you’re a partner in action, with humility – healthy organizations will reward that in the end.

For the Partners (looking at the Managing Directors, Executive Leadership Teams, VPs, and managers as well, those titles just didn’t serve alliterative purposes in the title):

  • Gift Time – I’m asking you to give generously of what’s likely your most precious commodity nowadays, time. The analyst whose eye is twitching because of the financial model you asked them to build would love to grab a cup of coffee with you. Mentorship, culture, and fostering a team that will follow in your footsteps are all predicated on your ability to deliver here. Carve out time intentionally.
  • Be Humble – You made it to the top (even though you still; unfortunately, have a boss), emanate the humility you’d like to see across your whole team. Listen, do real work, and don’t be afraid to sit in the pit with the overcaffeinated friend you made at the last bullet point.
  • Share Wisdom – Your experiences have morphed you into the person, and professional, that you are today – impart wisdom to the folks who ask for it on your team (maybe even with the ones who don’t ask for it, too). Being the smartest one locked away in the corner office doesn’t benefit the growth potential of your hungry Padawans, feed them consistently.
  • Prove It (had to double-down on this one for both audiences) – you wrote the book on being a Partner, now you get to do the hard part of living it. Don’t worry, you don’t have to be perfect (the Padawan is going to extend ample grace), but you need to be good. Live up to the values you espouse, it’ll motivate your team and inspire the next batch of leaders you need.

Frankly, there are days where we’ll all fall short of the mark here – Padawans and Partners alike. There’s a life to lead outside your office, and sometimes it’s heavy and burdensome. The moral of the story is this, we need teams that have healthy Padawans and Partners. Teams that can work together in a trust-filled, safe environment. Teams that have comparable tenacity to reach a common goal. I hope some of these guiding principles help us get there together.

What do you think?  How do we ensure healthy leadership and followership behaviors? 

Love is the running towards

How do you find trusted helpers in an age of transactional extraction?

Geoff Wilson

I’m going to write this one with some trepidation because, in the words of Marcus Aurelius (the character in the movie Gladiator, not the actual historical figure):

“There was once a dream that was Rome. You could only whisper it. Anything more than a whisper and it would vanish… it was so fragile.”

My family and I recently took a vacation that included a few days in London (It’s this city in England, but I digress). As a complete matter of happenstance, we walked past what I believe to be the only fire station in London that sports a massive banner that reads “love is the running towards.”

A picture of it is featured at the top of this post.

In our practice we talk openly and ernestly about “running to fire.”  We ask ourselves whether we are actually working on the stuff that matters.  Stuff that is urgent.  At times, stuff that looks little but is actually the big.  All of this is stuff that we, perhaps, weren’t engaged to work on first.  It’s fire.  And, we run towards it.

Love is the running towards.

And, so what is it that I’m writing on?  It’s a particular professional services model that is built not on transactions, hours, days, weeks or “bodies deployed,” but on help.  True, genuine, trusted help.

Wilson Growth Partners LLC has executed well over 100 engagements over the years.  Those engagements have ranged from preparing and executing single-day workshops to multi-year transformational execution engagements.

Like snowflakes, no single engagement is like the others.

But one thing is for certain:  Engagements where we work in concert with our client leaders dynamically to improve performance, execution, and ultimately results are the ones where we run toward fire.

Sure, it’s sexy and neat to work on strategy-setting topics.  Yes, it’s easy to recruit, retain, excite, and promote our own people with stories of top management strategy and “working for the CEO.”

But, you know what?

We are at our best when we do that and we identify and execute on the things that truly allow progress to happen.

This might mean running that tactical meeting several times a week to ensure there is no ambiguity of purpose. It might mean helping interview and hire that person who can and should take over a mission area our team is covering currently. It could mean pausing the high falutin market strategy to priortize a sales funnel with the sales team.

And, it can mean grinding away on change management even as we shelve our impeccable strategic planning capabilities.

Above all it means having the humility to step away from the scope of an engagement (or…dare I say not even having an engagement at all) and helping.  

That’s the running towards.

That’s the model we have worked to cultivate with clients, and the one we deploy where I would say our work is the most trusted.

Sure, sure, we at WGP are a for-profit enterprise and have to ensure that we are sustaining ourselves.  That cannot be forgotten and on some level will always create tension between the value we provide and the value we receive.

But the business can never be bigger than the mission.  Love is the running towards.

That tension can and is constantly secondary to the tension between the actions we take alongside our partners and clients and the real-world litmus test of “are we helping?”

Love is the running towards.  I would like to thank the professionals in and around the London Fire Brigade for crystalizing that thought for me as I reflect on our own practice after all these years.

We live in an age where data, analysis, and culture allow every bit of value to be sliced, diced, allocated and captured.  Do a little bit of study on how Disney has taken the capture of consumer surplus to a maddening level in its theme parks and you’ll see a great example of this. Observe your average consulting or law firm constructing proposals or jealously allocating time only to things that are “paid” and you’ll see it.

But maybe there’s still room for a model built on help…a model built on finding the things that matter and addressing them with aplomb. A model built on…Love.

I wish I could end this post with a massive call to action for readers to “reach out if you need help.” But I can’t, because we have so much love and so many fires that capacity doesn’t allow it. This blog and its hundreds of posts over the years haven’t really been about marketing WGP.  They have been about a better way.  So, what I can say is this: If you aren’t experiencing such a model in your professional services experience, a better way exists. Go look for it.

I hope that in writing on this topic I haven’t cheapened the very real and daily focus on it in all that we do at WGP.  A model built on loving help is fragile…Just like the dream of Rome was.

What do you think?  Is it possible to express love through a model of service?  We think so.

Wish you were here

Humans are wired to be at the same campfire.

Geoff Wilson

We are seeing a lot of consternation in companies these days around the topic of remote work and so-called “back to the office” movements.  Remote work among knowledge workers has been a viable topic for decades, but really came into its own when “everybody” in a knowledge-work role suddenly had to be remote during the COVID pandemic.

Such a mass adjustment to norms came with a lot of warm, fuzzy feelings about how effective people can be while working remotely with today’s tools.  Indeed, for the first months of the pandemic, the effectiveness of remote work was one of the few areas of general consensus in an otherwise uncertain environment.

But what has followed has been mixed, at best.  It slowly began to surface that “cheating” was happening if not common. Some people took advantage of remote work to work multiple “full-time” jobs.

On the other side, many business functions actually became more productive in a remote environment.  When we consider certain business functions as essentially piecework, we can see a great advantage to sending piecework back into the cottages. A worker charged with auditing accounts isn’t likely to be any more or less effective at such an individual activity while doing it with the same tools remotely. And, they don’t have to commute.

But this post isn’t about cheating, or managing, or outright fraud (which you are if you aren’t telling your multiple employers that you are overcommitted…but I digress).

This post is about culture.

Humans are strange animals.  We are tribal by nature.  We operate in a cognitive fog of trust, and love, and social proof, and mutual support.  We work for the common good in small groups. We become self-involved and selfish in large groups. We care less as social distance increases.

Such is the reality of the human condition.

And, we depend on actual…interpersonal assessments of these social aspects to form culture.  So-called “social cues” are tremendously important to establishing social consistency.

No matter how much we adjust to the amazing tools and technologies intermediating our remote lives–and I for one am fond of telling people I am remotely kicking them under the table, for instance–we can’t replace the whole-bodied experience of being there IRL (that’s “in real life” for you Gen X’ers like me).

Remote culture-building removes almost all of this. It’s reductive to a face on a screen or–worse–a disembodied voice.  It’s fully intermediated by technology.  And, it largely eliminates serendipity.  All of these things, disembodiment (“is he actually listening?”), intermediation (“you’re on mute” and “sorry you’re breaking up”), and lack of serendipity (“this meeting ends in 5 minutes”) can combine to completely distort culture.

All of this is to say two things:  No matter how much you try to engineer culture in a remote environment, you will fail if you are trying to engineer the same culture you would have had in an in-person environment. And, human cultures are fundamentally in-person.

Yes, that’s right, you’d better change your expectations if you are going to “stay remote.”

We are wired to be around a campfire.  We are wired to hunt and gather and dine together and engage in small talk while working in the fields or while stalking dinner.  We are wired to hear and feel and see and…smell each other as humans without some “greater power” interceding or masking our own often already-masked and insecure presences.

Your culture CAN survive being remote. But, the deeper human aspects will erode with a sort of half-life.  I have no idea how truly fast-paced cultures like the large consulting firm I was a member of for years could even survive for a few months in a virtual work environment.  So much of that type of culture is conveyed “in the team room” and the workforce turns over so quickly that culture can be shattered in a matter of months if extreme care isn’t taken.

If your company is slower moving and has less turnover, people will still remember. But remembrances fade.

As somebody who struggles mightily to ensure enough alone time in a life that rarely affords it, I can tell you that being “in-person” is not an all-the-time thing.  But it is a critical aspect of building warm, supportive, team-based cultures. And, warm, supportive, team-based cultures will be very important in a future where most any truly remote-piecework style jobs are likely to be automated.

Human factors–culture–will be the deciding factors for the future of competition. This is true whether managing a workforce or selling the next big deal.

So, what’s a leader to do?

Well, if you are leading a remote workforce, be sure to create more campfires and gatherings to build culture.  These so-called wastes of time can be foundational to building mutual support and acceleration.

If you are leading a hybrid workforce, the mandate is similar:  Be sure your pieceworkers who are off in their cottages get called back to the mothership frequently.

And, if you are leading a team that’s together, be sure you reinforce the benefits and expectations that together should bring.

What do you think? How do you see culture impacted by presence?