Peanut Butter Jelly Time? (Part II)


Following up on the Yahoo memo, I found it interesting to read the section regarding the effort level at Yahoo. I believe the larger your company grows, the harder it is to get everybody driving hard--especially at the levels of a startup. For as much as people love to lobby for the "startup mentality" at large companies, I think that's rare to get that to happen. I would love to tell my team to operate like a startup, but if my VP (or for that matter anyone up to Steve Ballmer & Bill Gates) hands down a mandate that we use a certain product, restrict a branding decision, or align with a corporate direction, I am obligated to push that direction down on my team. And by accepting these uber-decisions, the team knows that it answers to a higher authority. Startups don't have that. With the exception of the venture capitalists, the highest authority is usually sitting just down the hall or, in some cases, in the same room. No "blaming it on the man"--you are the man.  That's empowering.  Yahoo is a mature company and a random developer in Yahoo Mail eventually has to make sure he is aligned with Terry Semel and his band of merry executives, who, in turn, need to keep Wall Street happy. Sorry, but that's different than a couple of guys in a garage with a dream--no matter how much you encourage your team otherwise.  Go ahead and try to convince him to work like it's a startup.

So as a manager for the world's largest software company, does that mean I'd accept anything less than a 100% effort from people on my team?  Of course not.  Occasionally, you spot people that are dogging it and I expect the managers on the team to call them out and suggest they look for more interesting employment if we can't keep them entertained (and that has happened in my career).  Complacency is contagious and it's nice to nip that in the bud. 

But what of those people ready to work, but lacking the motivation that is built-in to to startup's "do-or-die" culture?  In other words, how do you maximize the effort at a large company?  I think it's twofold.  First is to "accentuate the positive":  I think you need to focus on a separate set of incentives at play with a larger company, not the least of which revolve around the magnitude of the impact they can make.  While the startup is exciting, 9 out of 10 startups fail (heck, I've failed once myself). Doing something at Microsoft is like doing it into a megaphone and the thrill of knowing your effort will be enjoyed by millions of people (which is what I can boast to my team) is pretty powerful as well.  It's the difference between the effort an indie band makes trying to score a record deal and the effort that U2 makes during a sold out set at Madison Square Garden.  Just because you've made it doesn't mean you can rest on your laurels--in fact, the expectations are higher.  Nothing in the Yahoo memo suggested that the success they have had should hold them to a higher standard.  It's as if they'd be better as the two Stanford PhD's who create a web directory.  Embrace your success!  Second is to eliminate the negative: while I can hope that they feel enough autonomy to let operate at a startup pace (complete with insane hours and the sense of being on a mission that makes the effort worth it) and feel that level of empowerment, I realize that it's foolish to set it as an expectation when I'm at a 70,000 person company.  That's said, minimizing the impact of the rest of the company on the individual contributor, shielding them from the unnecessary garbage that often comes in.  Only then do you get the empowerment and autonomy that creative people crave.  That spurs effort.  The delta between what comes from the team themselves and what reaches the customers should be minimal.  That's empowering.  Getting caught in the exec spin cycle of "tweak this, change that" cuts down on the empowerment.  Of course, what, then, is the role of the "boss"?

The Yahoo memo did make mention of the bureaucracy facing their company and how ownership was split around the company in different disciplines (Engineering, Finance, Marketing, etc).  With no clear ownership, execs were being forced to make decisions.  My question is "which decisions?"  In most cases, execs don't need to make decisions, but rather they need to assign who should make which decisions and stand behind those decision-makers (unless they are in strong disagreement, in which case, a discussion should occur).  They should also ensure proper collaboration between the appropraite parties to come to compromises when necessary and arbitrate when no other solution can be reached.  I like what Eric Schmidt at Google said about his role as CEO (I believe this came from the SF Chronicle, but I lost the link):

(Schmidt's) primary job is to run Google's numerous staff meetings. To get the most out of them, he relies on two philosophies. One is getting opinions from as many people as possible, particularly dissidents, under the theory that decisions are better when based on many viewpoints. Another is to set deadlines because, unless there's a reason to end an argument, people will continue to argue. He described a time when founders Sergey Brin and Larry Page were arguing violently about Internet browsers and software that had pitted them against one another in front of other managers during a meeting last year. After a while, Schmidt, who was also in the fight, put his foot down. He emptied the room and told the co-founders they were to reach an agreement by 6 p.m. because the dispute was confusing the staff. They resolved it by the next morning.

That's a powerful way to lead:  ensure all avenues are reviewed, get the objections out of the way, and force the elimination of dangerous stalemates.  Life is all about dissenting opinions, tradeoffs, and compromises and your ability to navigate effectively is the difference between success and failure.  The exec should be a part of the debate and, when necessary, step up and make the decision.  Yet it shouldn't be an in a vacuum, but rather the exact opposite.  Empowerment isn't absolute authority, but rather an voice that will be heard loud and clear--particuarly as it relates to one's expertise.  It's not consensus.  It's not even necessarily a democracy where majority rules.  It's a collaboration where the collective establish mutual respect and can generate something greater than a solo entity and the best ideas win.  Imagine that...

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