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General

Chief of Staff in the Tech Industry

In this article, I would like to provide information and pointers to information on the Chief of Staff’s role in the tech industry. As a member of the Engineering Leadership Team at Red Hat, I have been in that kind of role for almost three years for the SVP of Engineering.

People instantly connect the role to the one that John R. Steelman was the first to hold in 1946: White House Chief of Staff. The definition of the role varies immensely between every presidency. Even more, as Chris Whipple states in the subtitle of his book The Gatekeepers, “The White House Chiefs of Staff Define Every Presidency.”

As for the White House, the job depends on the company and executive the Chiefs of Staff serve. The general acceleration of the pace of business is the main reason mentioned for the emergence of the role in tech companies. CEO and Executive tend to shift their focus from inside their organization to outside. They need someone trusted to cover for them. Mark Organ, the CEO of Influitive, describes the Chief of Staff job as making him a superhero.

Rob Dickins, who served as Chief of Staff for several executives at Autodesk, describes the role using three orientations. I find the framework useful to structure the conversations with other Chief of Staffs, or with executives looking for Chief of Staffs (CoS).

The first orientation focuses on the executive the CoS reports. How do we make the executive operate at the highest level of performance?

The second orientation includes, in addition, the executive’s leadership team. I love that aspect of the job, transforming a group of people reporting to an executive into a true team leading the company or the business unit. Being part of a team, each member levels up his game and benefits from the diversity of the group.

The third orientation is the organization itself aiming at answering the question: How do we best set the organization to accomplish its objectives. One aspect of that is why I love using Objectives and Key Results (OKRs) to establish a continuous two-way street dialog between the people in the organization and their leadership team. The dialogue helps to clarify the strategy and to evaluate what are the right things to do to implement it.

Julia DeWhal, Chief of Staff to the CEO at Opendoor, describes the role as the right-hand person and the force multiplier. Brian Rumao, Chief of Staff to the CEO at LinkedIn, uses the same description in the short course he made available, and adds, that the CoS have to stand in for their executive as needed. Mark Organ even says that the CoS is his stunt double.

As Ben Casnocha, who was the Chief of Staff for Reid Hoffman, surfaces very well, the more connected the Chief of Staff is with the executive he or she served, enable better decision making and better tradeoffs.

What are the attributes you will want as or for a Chief of Staff:

  • Expert Facilitator: you manage conversations, synthesize multiple points of view, align on strategic orientation, either in-person or remotely,
  • Trusted Organizer: you bring order to things, you get things done, and you manage sensitive information in confidence and discretion.
  • Strategic Thinker: you can see the big picture, evaluate importance and urgency, and provide context for decisions.

I often wondered how Elon Musk was managing his time between his three main companies: SpaceX, Tesla, and The Boring Company. Surprisingly, Sam Teller was the Director of the Office of the CEO for the three companies.

It seems that the “Alter Egos” were doing well together. Jonah Bromwich used the term in his New York Time article, Hail to the Chief of Staff, The title is suddenly everywhere. It can mean almost anything.

Can it mean almost anything? Yes. So it means that you can define a role so that your contribution has the most significant impact on your organization.

To find out more about the Chief of Staff role in tech, follow the CoS Tech Forum.

Categories
General Le Podcast

Psychological Safety

Psychological Safety is the term coined by Amy Edmondson, the author of The Fearless Organization.

I already talked about Psychological Safety, when I presented the work of Google on the project Aristotle, and how it was a very good conversation starter for my team.

The two other books I mentioned in that episode of Le Podcast are:

  • The Coddling of the American Mind
  • In Great Company

The questions we asked to assess psychological safety are:

  • When someone makes a mistake on my team, it is often held against him or her
  • In my team, it is easy to discuss difficult issues and problems
  • In my team, people are sometimes rejected for being different
  • It is completely safe to take a risk on my team
  • It is difficult to ask other members of my team for help
  • Members of my team value and respect each others’ contributions

The scale to answer the questions ranges from “Strongly disagree” to “Strongly agree”.

Tell me what you think!

Categories
General

A very special dinner

In May 2011, Isabel and I had the pleasure of organizing the first edition of TEDxBordeaux. The theme we chose was Together. The underlying idea was, as I said in my introduction to the event, We can rediscover our power to change things. Together.

When I read about 15 Toasts in Priya Parker’s book, The Art of Gathering, it reminded me of the dinner we organized with the speakers and organizers the night before the event.

The 15 Toasts dinners aim at creating safe spaces that give the “15 guests the permission to be vulnerable, engage as human beings in an open and genuine conversation, and surprise one another and themselves.”

I hadn’t thought of that this way, but when I read that sentence, I thought: “Yes, exactly that!”

Side conversations are not necessarily the ones you plan for…

Our goal was that the speakers connect, learn more about each other so that they support each other on the big day on which they will give the best talk of their lives. We thought that the audience would feel the connection between the speakers, the organizers, and that will contribute to the overall perception of the event, and help make the connection between the theme, and each of the topics the speakers will cover: Education, Healthcare, Technology, Art, Universal Basic Income, Open Source…

We were lucky enough to find the best possible location to do that: a big round table in a private room at the back of a good and reasonably priced restaurant. Unfortunately, that space does not exist anymore, the restaurant moved to another location, and the people who took over chose to remove the big round table and replaced with too many small tables of four.

As Isabel coached all the speakers, she was the connection point between all of them. We worked on assigning the seats so that the people can be comfortable to engage in side conversations. But we wanted more. The dinner participants all knew that they would have to introduce themselves, answering three questions that Isabel had shared in advance. We don’t remember the questions but it was something to push them out of delivering their usual pitch.

And it worked! It worked during the dinner. It also worked during the rehearsals the morning of the event. It worked during the event itself on that Saturday afternoon. The speakers and the organizers all behaved kindly, supporting each other, overcoming the obvious growing pressure, and contributing to the magic of the event.

The next time you organize an event, you can start to think of using the necessity of food to accomplish something more. I don’t believe large dinners in conference centers can accomplish that, and this is the reason I love so much the Dinner with a Stranger idea.

I will cover that next time.

What are your best ideas to foster that sense of connectedness that definitely gets things done? Please share through the usual means: comments, Linkedin, Twitter, or direct email. Thank you!

Categories
General

The Art of Gathering

I have been asked thousands of times to facilitate small or large gatherings. When I worked on Changing Your Team From The Inside, I wanted to make clear that self-organization is the most powerful way for people to organize, but that based on their history, you will need to help them get there. You will need to create the conditions for self-organization to happen.

Chapter nine of the book is titled Organize because self-organization requires organization. I focused the chapter on meetings because it is something easier to change, to adjust, to experiment on, than to change the whole organization. And I believe it is much more impactful to change the way we meet than to change the reporting structure.

The Art of Gathering, by Priya Parker, is a perfect book. The structure brings you gently to think about all the aspects that matter about your gathering.

It starts with the purpose of the gathering. Why do we really gather? And, of course, the answer is not because it is Monday.

Then you cover the uncomfortable question of who should join. And, no, inviting everybody is not an inclusive option. It is even the opposite. Why would someone who attends a meeting on which he or she will bring no value should feel included?

In the role of the host, you have power, and you have to use that power to serve the purpose of the gathering and your guests.

The time of the gathering is a temporary alternative world in which the traditional rules are not necessarily valid. You can, and in fact, you have to create rules that once again will serve the purpose and the guests. The author gives a ton of inspiring examples.

I know that, and even knowing it, I understood reading the chapter that I was not investing smartly enough on the openings of my gatherings.

In conferences or other gatherings, my frustration level grows each minute that passes. Why that? Because people are not true and authentic. Okay, I am over-generalizing. Not all people are manipulative and insincere. And not all people behave all the time the same way. The big idea is that it takes intentional efforts to create conditions for people to be true and authentic.

In meetings, when we stay on the surface of things, we can be very polite and respectful, avoid any potential conflicts and keep the status quo forever. If keeping the status quo is what you need, you probably don’t have to push hard to get to that. If not, then it is on you to organize the controversy so we can really discuss what matters and initiate a change.

We are approaching the end of the post, and you have to know that ends matter a lot. I would like to, once again, thank the author for having created that perfect book. I would like to thank you for reading and sharing this post. I would like to encourage you to read the book, and to share what you learned and how it affects your next gatherings. Working on ending the meeting properly is probably one thing I would change in Chapter 9 of Changing Your Team From The Inside.

And finally, what I would love is to have Priya Parker on Le Podcast to discuss how to apply her expertise and experience to online gatherings. But I guess you will all have to ask for it to happen!

Categories
Le Podcast

When your team is distributed

John Poelstra, Michael Doyle and I talk about how to make distributed teams efficient. We had that conversation while we were spread over 15 timezones: John in Portland, Oregon, Michael in Brisbane, Australia, and me in Boston, Massachusetts.

The conversation is republished from John’s show.

Let me know what you think!

Happy to connect to share remote facilitation approaches!

Categories
General

Time matter for a team

The fact that time matter for a team is not a controversial matter. I think we would all agree on that. The other aspect of time that we will all agree quickly on is that, not all time will matter the same way.

We will not value an hour stuck in a traffic jam the same way as an hour hiking on a trail, or an hour shopping, or an hour playing with friends, and so on…

So when it comes to how an individual contribution could be the most effective, what is the time that matters the most?

When asked, people usually look at three different types of time:

  • Synchronization time,
  • Collaboration time,
  • Focus time.

Synchronization time

Synchronization time is when team members share their progress, challenges, learnings, so they all can stay on the same page, aligned toward the same goal.

During synchronization time, we can identify opportunities for activities that will fall into the two other types of time. It could be an opportunity of collaboration on understanding and solving an issue or a possibility of training in a specific area to take two examples.

Collaboration time

Collaboration time is when two or more people work together to accomplish a specific activity. Activities could be different, like pair or mob programming, writing, designing, reviewing, and so on.

Focus time

Focus time is when team members work alone, ideally without interruptions so that they can work on one thing in an ideal state. Like writing an article to share knowledge (and initiate a feedback loop that will bring more learning opportunities in return).

Why it Matters?

I believe it matters for a team to agree on the practices they will adopt to benefit from the three types of time. Those practices can evolve over time, and as a consequence, their team agreements evolve accordingly.

The practices vary upon the physical organization of the team. Practices have to be different when the team is collocated in the same room, spread over a building, in multiple offices or locations, spread over multiple timezones.

A practice that works well for synchronization when the team is collocated, like a quick 10-minute morning check-in in front of a kanban board, will not work when the team is distributed over 15 timezones. In the latter case, synchronization still matters, but another synchronization practice will have to be defined for the team.

It is the same for the collaboration time and focus time. Practices are different depending on the collocation or distribution of the team. The main aspect is that it has to be defined!

Do you and your team have defined practices for the three types of time? And what are you preferred practices?

As usual, please comment, tweet or direct emails! Thank you!

Categories
Le Podcast

Changing Your Team with John Poelstra

I had the opportunity to have a great conversation about the book, Changing Your Team From The Inside, on John Poelstra’s show.

John proposed the idea to cross-publish our conversation on our respective podcasts. In order to do that, I had to re-listen to the conversation and I really enjoyed it.

Yes, of course, there is some Ego involved in that, and this is one of the topics we covered in the podcast, among the other aspects of what makes a team great and how to get your team to be a great one!

Give it a try! And let us know what you think!

Categories
General

How do we Communicate?

How do we communicate is a really important question to ask when the team is up to define its Team Agreements.

Valve, the game company published its Handbook for New Employees in 2012. The subtitle provides information on how their approach to communication will have to be different: A fearless adventure in knowing what to do when no one’s there telling you what to do.

How communication works when the organization values self-organization and self-management at that level. As you can see based on the illustration below coming from the handbook, the organization relies on individuals taking matters in their own hands.

The Basecamp Guide to Internal Communication is another example of clarifying not only how we communicate but also where, why, and when.

Reading the Basecamp Guide, it is obvious that Basecamp values the time of people, and values the time when they are not interrupted.

Those two examples show that the underlying values and principles of the organization condition the way communication happens, its purpose and who has the initiative to initiate or improve the communication.

The one thing I would like to leave you with is: It has to be defined!

As a team member, you cannot rely on the fact that other team members know how to do it if there is no formal agreement on how the team is doing it. The understanding of each team member is probably slightly different leading to bigger misunderstandings.

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General

Team Awards Retrospective

Everything is awesome, everything is cool when you are part of a team!

The LEGO Movie

Even if a lot of people would genuinely like to think that way, not everything is awesome when you are part of a team. The great thing about this is that it leaves room for improvements which a regular retrospective will help you find as a team.

In 2015, the LEGO Movie song: “Everything is Awesome” was nominated for the best song at the Academy Awards (The Oscars). The Directors of the movie ordered the artist Nathan Sawaya to create 20 Lego statuettes to be given while the song was played.

During the winter break, my (young adult) kids and I assemble quite a lot of Legos with the younger ones. That reminded me of the happy face of people during the 2015 Oscar ceremony when they were given the statuettes and of one retrospective format created by my amazing wife Isabel.

I decided that the next retrospective for my team will be a Team Awards Retrospective and that I will give away two Oscar statuettes made of LEGO! I ordered the bricks online and built the statuettes thanks to that article.

How did it work?

We intended to do a quick retrospective at the beginning of our face to face meeting to examine the last period. Our team is widely distributed, so when we have some time with each other, we invest that time for high-bandwidth collaboration.

I asked the team members to consider the last period as a movie.

Using two sticky notes, they had to nominate for two awards:

  • The best failure for the team
  • The best contribution from a team member

All the team members gathered around the whiteboard to display their sticky notes in the dedicated boxes for each award.

Starting with the team award, they took the time to read what was on the notes and then asked clarifying questions. The conversation was focused on what we learned from those failures. I then proposed a silent reordering of the notes as a way of voting. The session was not really silent, but still, they quickly agreed on what should be at the top.

The conversation went on what we learned and what we should adjust in the way our teamwork. The award went to the new team member who proposed the failure.

We moved then to the team member award with the same approach, and in the end, the award went to the other new team member whose mission is to lead our actions to get to more diverse and inclusive teams. The discussion focused on how to best support the mission.

The retrospective was fun and short. We focused on consolidating our culture. And we welcomed our new team members with awards!

They were maybe not as expressive as Oprah but I feel that they were really happy 🙂

Categories
General

Talking to Strangers

Based on a recent recommendation, I read Talking to Strangers by Malcolm Gladwell. The book was already on my reading list, as I really enjoyed his previous books.

In reality, I listened to the enhanced audiobook on audible. Enhanced means that you have real interviews, and others played dialogues along with the narration by the author.

The book is excellent. It is about our (in)ability to grasp what strangers are up to because of three aspects:

  • We default to the truth: we think people are telling the truth, and it serves us well because people usually are telling the truth. But, it is not always the case.
  • We believe in transparency: we think we are pretty good at reading people. We believe the behavior we observed is aligned with what people think and say. But, it is not always the case.
  • We don’t believe in coupling. In reality, location or context dictates the behavior of people. Their behavior is not defined by who they are.

The combination of the two first aspects makes us easy to be fooled. By adding the third aspect, we turn it into a society problem. The book is a must-read. And, by the way, the part on Alcohol is a must-read.

Go for it and tell me what you think!