Book Club

Book Club: Dare to Lead

For June book club we read Brené Brown’s book Dare to Lead. Full disclosure: I had already read this book and really enjoyed it personally. I felt SEEN and really had to dig deep on two concepts:

1. Speaking about others when they are not in the room. There is a section where she mentions that in order to build trust, you should always bring issues TO someone and never speak about someone else without them in the room. I have always found this to be daunting. I like to believe I don’t gossip, but as a manager, often people bring personnel issues to me, and it is hard to discuss that without in some sense discussing the other person. I always seek to encourage direct dialogue with the party in question, but in order to coach I find myself sharing insights about my interactions with that person (trying to help them understand if that individual is biased to action and maybe that is why they came across as gruff, or more shy and reserved and so maybe they are not engaging yet, but will utilizing alternate media such as a blog or chat, etc.) I find this specific feedback hard to execute in practice, although I agree that the underlying concept (talking behind people’s backs) is unhelpful. I would just caveat that intention matters, and I hope if I share the intention behind the discussion then it will be ok to have these kinds of discussions, but I am far more deliberate about that framing than I used to be.

2. Showing sympathy vs. empathy. When I was going through the hardest part of last year (watching my nephew and my family suffer and not being able to do anything) I really got to see this in action. People, quite accidentally, often say “I’m sorry for your family” or “I’m sorry that your nephew has to go through this.” Fundamentally this is sympathy, and it is distancing–it separates you from the subject. Then there would be folks who said something more along the lines of, “Please take care of yourself. I remember when I was going through my father’s illness–it is a marathon and not a sprint. If there is anything I can do to help you or your family, please let me know.” Here that person was relating to my experience, and showing me they were there, holding my hand, willing to support me if they could. I had never learned these concepts in school (not really an engineering subject) or felt I necessarily needed them before last year, but after going through such an experience, I now know: be WITH people in their pain. There is no “right” thing to say, just show you are there to hold their hand, share a book on grief (that was incredibly thoughtful gift from a friend of mine), or just send a text checking in. I hope I will always show up for others this way after having been on the receiving end, and I’m sorry to all the friends/colleagues I may have accidentally isolated or made worse before I knew better.

Our book club session was lightly attended given the holiday in the US, but I was glad to have had the discussion with other folks in different phases of their careers and leadership journeys because I always learn something. Some of the feedback shared was that Dr. Brown’s colloquialisms were too outdated and/or “Southern” and were triggering/hard to relate to for that person since he came from the South himself. Many of us felt that she uses the term “rumble” a lot, and honestly outside a 1950s reference to car racing, it really isn’t a term I know or relate to very well. However, I can see where it could get triggering based on background, or just be difficult to relate to for someone earlier in their career journey or not from the US. I personally found her style charming and relatable, but not everyone has the same reaction to these sorts of things.

The other feedback was that she had a strong underlying principle for the book, but it was potentially redundant. Fundamentally the book’s premise is that being a good leader requires you to lean into your discomfort, have hard conversations, be vulnerable, authentic, and brave. There is a fair amount of repetitiveness of this theme throughout the book. I read that as reinforcement of the key concept through different stories/lenses, but if you prefer books with more brevity, I could see where that style might not appeal. There was actually the observation from one of our attendees that this almost felt like a set of essays rather than a book. Again, that was not how I read it, but I can see the perspective.

Something everyone really loved was distilling and sharing one’s core values. What are the one to two things that are core to who you are, and how can you ensure that the work in your life relates to those values? If you are clear about those values, can you share them with the folks you care about? If someone you work with has shared their values, do you find that making sense of their behavior and interactions is clearer? If we are honest about our core motivations and willing to share, then working together can become significantly easier. I personally value learning and people above everything. Note I use the word “people,” not community, purposefully. I value you, the individual, and I want to know you. I never want to know people solely through context (we work at the same company, our kids attend the same school, etc.) because then our brains use archetypes to generalize about the other person rather than really understanding who people are and what motivates them.

This set of values means I tend toward smaller groups: I like one-on-one discussions, and team-building is particularly important to me (grabbing a meal, taking a walk, going on a hike together, etc.) to establish trust with people. Anyone who knows me or has worked with me probably knows the learning piece–I love learning, and whenever I have successfully figured out how to frame an experience as a learning one, I have nearly infinite motivation to grind through it. Similarly, if the work is for a person I care about (be it a customer, partner, etc.), I can almost always make it happen, and if I cannot it is particularly hard for me. The heart of this exercise from Dr. Brown is to reflect on this about yourself, and share it with your team/teammates., so you find ways to work best together.

In general I’m a large fan of Dr. Brown and her books, and I personally enjoyed and recommend this book, but obviously the opinion is not universal.

Book Club

Book Club: Principles of Life and Work

For May book club we read the Principles of Life and Work by Ray Dalio. This book is DENSE, so only 2 of us actually finished the book (more than 50 folks are in our book club, although only 10-20 show up monthly), and usually 95% of folks finish the book, so this is fairly rare. That being said, I don’t think it was an indictment of the book so much as the topic is written with a lot of due diligence (a deeply data-driven approach to interpersonal topics), and can be a bit robotic if you don’t relate to a numerical analysis framework. Still there are incredibly good nuggets that came out, and are worth calling out:

  1. Write down one’s principles. No one teaches you this, nor is this a typical phase of development in school, at home, or at work. Truly though, don’t you want to be clear about your values and principles? Won’t that help your spouse/partner, children, coworkers, etc. to know what you value, how you think, and therefore the best ways to interact with you? What a blessing to have that insight into another person so you can understand where they are coming from and how to approach a discussion, decision, etc. to help anchor the decision in what matters to them.
  2. The concept of an “orchestrator” you vs. the “worker” you. Fundamentally this notion is that you must seek to understand what you are truly good at, and where you should delegate for the sake of the overall project/organization/team. Feedback in this is your greatest friend in this process, particularly negative feedback. NO ONE is good at everything. This truth is not something to bemoan or be ashamed. You have to seek to learn where “worker” you is not good, decide if you want to improve, or enable the “orchestrator” you to ensure that part of the work is with someone else. Ultimately, you own the outcomes of your career and life, and you need to approach it objectively to have excellent outcomes.
  3. For a data-driven approach, he discusses the strength of computers and AI, but also the dangers. In a sense that AI will detect patterns, but there is more that goes into decision making than directing patterns–AI without human interpretation and/or validation only reinforces bias, and our goals for our organizations and decision making should be greater than that.

So since so few folks made it through the whole book, I decided to try to write a summary. The 5 Major Life Principles Mr. Dalio states are:

  1. Embrace Reality and Deal with It
  2. Use the 5-step-process to get what you want in life:
    1. Set clear, audacious goals
    2. Don’t tolerate problems
    3. Diagnose the root causes
    4. Design a plan before you act 
    5. Execute to completion
  3. Be radically open-minded
  4. Understand how people are wired differently
  5. Learn to make decisions effectively

His major work principles fall into similar themes:

  1. Build a great team:
    1. Focus on great people 
    2. Build a great culture
    3. Create the machines to ensure your outcomes consistently match your goals 
    4. Align your work with your passions
    5. Do it with people you want to build a future with
  2. Get the culture right by surfacing and resolving disagreements
    1. Radical Truth and Radical Transparency
    2. Nurturing Meaningful Work and Meaningful Relationships
    3. Making it a cultural norm to learn from mistakes
    4. Getting people in sync
    5. Using Believability-Weighted Decision-Making
    6. Having an agreed resolution process
  3. Get the people right
    1. Put WHO before WHAT
    2. Hire right
    3. Fit the right people into your organizational design by continually training, testing, evaluating and sorting them
  4. Build and evolve your machine:
    1. Running your machine as a manager/designer
    2. Not tolerating problems
    3. Diagnosing problems root causes
    4. Continually improving your machine design 
    5. Executing your plans
    6. Using tools and protocols to shape habits, and 
    7. Paying attention to governance

These concepts are simple to write down (it is what makes them so compelling), but are actually hard to execute (which is what makes the book long/detailed). I think believability-weighted decision making seemed difficult to institute culturally (but then again, we all have bias and are bringing it to work anyway, so why not be explicit about the reasons for weighting one person’s input differentially).

I highly recommend this book, as much as an exercise in how to approach an analytical person on the topics of culture, leadership, principles, and values, as for one’s own introspection. You will definitely learn something.