Starters vs. Closers


I haven’t written a new blog post in a while because my new role has given me new perspective and I am personally learning a lot and organizing my thoughts so I can share them with everyone. One way to describe the change in my role, and what I suspect others have come across, goes back to a question one of my managers asked me years ago, “Are you a starter or a closer?”. It’s a great question! Think through how you approach work, or even how you approach things outside of work. My answer at the time was easy. I was a closer. I worked in Test or Quality Assurance for decades. I wasn’t involved or interested in coming up with new features or starting new projects. The one time I did join a new project during my career as a Test Manager, it got cancelled in 6 months. Taking something that was already being created and doing all the necessary work to make it “done” was rewarding to me. Paying attention to what needed to happen to make it complete, watching that all the details were evaluated and nothing was missed, and getting a piece of software shipped, was rewarding and something that I naturally enjoyed.

And then something happened. A few years ago at Microsoft, we combined development (what I consider the starters) with Test (the closers) and I started managing a team that had people from both perspectives. In the first few months, I realized that the “starters” weren’t as interested in looking at fit-and-finish items or making sure we have metrics to prove our roll-out would work. They were focused on creating a new system with a new and improved architecture that would make the system more efficient with higher quality. They pulled all the ideas together, did a few proofs of concept, and were itching to get going on this new project. It was refreshing to see. And I started understanding that removing limits, not thinking about rules or restrictions, and just brainstorming about what could be and how to make it happen was invigorating and really fun! And I was the manager of this project so I *could* make it happen. And I did. I became a starter. I moved a bunch of people on to the project, some of who were also closers and made them stretch to be starters. It was really hard work, with many disagreements and a lot of learning. But I wouldn’t go back and change that experience because it made me see that you can be a closer, and you can also be a starter. Learning to be both can put new life into your career.

track-shoes-at-starting-line

And it did for me. I moved into a new role about a year ago to start multiple new projects that weren’t much more than general ideas and high level statements. I had to take this ambiguity and turn it into results, which I talked about in my last blog post.  I was able to use my new skills of being a starter. And I’m grateful I still have my skills as a closer as well.

So are you a starter or a closer, or maybe both? A starter generates new ideas and knows how to turn them into real projects. They talk to people to get feedback and help hone their ideas, they re-evaluate their ideas, change and reform them until they turn into something that is needed and that solves a specific problem, and they know how to rally people to get behind the idea and invest in it. Nothing is off-the-table and no idea is unreasonable at first. It’s all considered and what’s off-the-table is any rules, limits, or restrictions. Those can be determined later. Closers can watch these ideas turn into projects and then they are really in their element when there is something tangible to play with, poke at, and help put on the finishing touches. They look at the details and are the skeptics. If it gets passed a closer, it’s a good project. They understand how to roll-out or launch it, find initial customer reactions to it, and how to keep this new project running once it is available to the public. They review all the details of the project and make sure all aspects have high quality.

Now I’m speaking at a high-level, but you can break down the idea of starter vs. closer to smaller tasks and deliverables. Do you have a hard time starting a new task or do you switch between tasks easily? Is it clear to you what the end result needs to be, maybe a document, email, spreadsheet, section of code, or some small deliverable so you can put closure on this one task? I still find myself starting slowly when given a new task and working through figuring out what to do with it takes me a bit of time. Once I get momentum, I can easily move it forward to completion, but getting started can sometimes be difficult (because I spent 2 decades being a closer, perhaps). But I know that about myself and give myself that time because when the momentum kicks in, closing something is easy for me. How about you? Does your work allow you to focus on your strengths as a starter or closer? Can you identify with one of these or struggle to be something you are not?

As a manager, do you know who on your team is a starter and who is a closer? You should identify them or ask them and see how they identify themselves. Then make sure they are in the right role based on this. You don’t have to be one or the other, as I found out. You can be both, just make sure you know when you should apply one mindset versus the other, otherwise you may never create something new or you may never be able to ship your new project.

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