StrengthsFinder Redux

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Back in June 2013, I took the Clifton StrengthsFinder test. The test is 177 questions with a 20-second timer for each question. Based on your results, the 34 strengths in the StrengthsFinder system is ranked for you. By paying $9.95, I was able to get my Top 5 Strengths along with detailed descriptions of each.

In 2013, these were my top five (with my paraphrased description of each):

  1. Arranger: bring people, tools, and other resources together to get things done
  2. Focus: prioritize and take action, staying on track
  3. Activator: take ideas and turn them into action
  4. Ideation: make unlikely connections and come up with new and innovative ideas
  5. Achiever: take pride and get satisfaction from hard work and productivity

In the past 18 months, I feel like I’ve changed in many ways. I tried to re-take the test with my existing account, but when the web app told me that I couldn’t, I checked the FAQ to find this:

Your first completion of the Clifton StrengthsFinder assessment will yield the purest and most revealing results. For this reason, each Clifton StrengthsFinder access code is valid for only one time through the assessment. Taking the Clifton StrengthsFinder more than once may actually skew the validity of the results.

I figured that since it had been a long time, I would be approaching the questions with a fairly “pure” mind. I bought an access code under a different account and took the test. Here are my 2015 results:

  1. Activator: take ideas and turn them into action
  2. Strategic: spot patterns and challenges and map ways to move forward
  3. Arranger: bring people, tools, and other resources together to get things done
  4. Communication: easily put thoughts into words and also like to converse and present
  5. Learner: interested in continuously improving and excited about acquiring knowledge and skills

Activator and Arrange are still in my top five, but I’ve replaced three of the strengths. I was curious about where my former top five strengths went and equally curious about where the new strengths came from. I opted for access codes (an extra $79 each for 2013 and 2015) to show me the full ranking of the 34 strengths. StrengthsFinder Results ComparisonA few things I noticed:

  • Communication took a big leap from #25 to #4. This may have a lot to do with my efforts to write every single day. I’ve also been proactively seeking out opportunities to give talks and participate in panels. I used to shy away from such things, but nowadays, I find them to be valuable exercises for organizing my thinking and honing my skills as a communicator.
  • Achiever dropped from #5 to #27. Part of this has been a result of developing better time management skills on my part. I feel like I do a lot more in less time these days. I also don’t equate “keeping busy” with “being effective” as much as I used to, so I think such line of thinking was reflected in my answers.
  • Focus dropped from #2 to #21. I’ve been trying to shift the nature of my work to the “important, not urgent” quadrant, which I find is less about measurable progress on a daily basis and more about spending time thinking about challenging questions. In 2013, I was spending a great deal of time executing on various marketing and business development activities which involved strict to do lists. These days, some of my activities are open-ended and take several days or weeks to see movement. For example, thinking about our team’s vision-based framework or overhauling our performance review system are complex initiatives that benefit more from strategic thinking than methodical focus.
  • Ideation had a slight drop from #4 to #7, but I like to pair this with the jump of Strategic from #9 to #2 (and also the jump of Activator from #3 to #1). I used to love coming up with new ideas all the time and getting really excited about them. One thing that’s bothered me in the past couple of years is the lack of followthrough on a lot of my ideas. I’ve been spending more time creating frameworks and writing detailed plans for new initiatives so that there is greater clarity around how new ideas will come to life and what impact they’ll have.

It’s easy to read into tests and find yourself trying to create coherent narratives for the results. Ultimately, I don’t think it’s the most productive use of time to get too obsessed with StrengthsFinder results. For me, I enjoyed retaking the test and refreshing my memory on the 34 strengths. It’s a great way to help me articulate and describe strengths I might observe and discuss with my team members. I also enjoyed seeing the change in my results. While old habits are often hard to let go, I’ve worked hard to evolve and adopt new habits. While I won’t read too much into this test, the signs are at least encouraging.

Identifying Team Strengths

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Over the years, I’ve obsessed about our team’s weaknesses. With this mindset, it was easy to pick out shortcomings when thinking about anyone. Not enough attention to detail. Not a team player. Lacking in strategic thinking. Slow to anticipate. Dismal under pressure. Zero confidence when talking with clients. Can’t problem-solve.

This emphasis on identifying weaknesses motivated me to push the team to get better and, in some cases, led to personnel moves that either got rid of the perceived weakness or balanced it out with a new hire. But over time, I’ve come to see that viewing the team primarily through a lens of weaknesses can have a very demoralizing and negative effect on culture and employee development. Rather than lamenting and stressing out over weaknesses, why not shift some of the energy towards identifying strengths and finding ways to amplify what we’re doing well?

I decided to put myself through an exercise: list out my entire team and write down what I think are each person’s strengths. The results of the exercise showed me that there’s a lot to gain by embracing each person’s strengths. Below are some thoughts I came away with from the exercise:

#1) I need to know more about everyone’s strengths
I struggled to write specific, descriptive strengths for many people. Part of the reason was expected: I work closely with a select number of people on a daily basis, so my observations are bound to be uneven. But I know that with keener observations and key conversations, I can greatly expand what I know about our team’s strengths. The next step for me is to make these observations and conversations systematic so I can get a steady feed of information about what people believe are their own strengths and the strengths of their team members.

#2) I need to define what I mean by “strengths”
What am I really talking about when I say that I want to understand people’s strengths? I noticed from the exercise that a lot of the things that I considered “strengths” were really just basic perceptions. Hard-working, personable, professional. I don’t know if those necessarily qualify as strengths. I think exploring the concept of strength in detail will be helpful. I remember when our team took the StrengthsFinder test a couple of years ago and how it helped to facilitate discussions about strengths in very specific ways. I’d like to figure out a framework for observing strengths. Right now, my initial approach will primarily look for strengths that manifest in interactions with clients and team members and also in the execution of assigned tasks. I’ll also make a note of behaviors like extra-curricular professional development activities and volunteer leadership responsibilities to see if I can identify strengths.

#3) What does strength amplification look like?
It sounds really good in writing: “We’re going to amplify everyone’s strengths.” But what do I mean and how will I go about taking action? I think it’ll depend on the identified strengths. If it’s an underutilized strength, it might mean finding more or different opportunities for that individual. If it’s something that the individual exhibits in abundance, then perhaps recognition, encouragement, and modeling for other employees could be the approach.

I think the concept of weaknesses and strengths boils down to an individual’s habits. Habits that result in valuable contributions to the company’s business and culture are what we often determine to be strengths. Habits that detract, distract, or undermine the company’s business and culture are what we think of as weaknesses. I want to find ways to encourage and enforce good habits. I want to praise and recognize them as well. For this to happen, I’ll have to put in the work to truly understand our team’s strengths.

War Room Sessions

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I came across this blog post by Ramit Sethi about how he blocks out every Wednesday for “strategy time” where he thinks about the big picture and stays away from replying to emails. This reminded me of our War Room sessions that take place twice a week.

About 8 months ago, Sei-Wook and I started blocking out half a day for our Biz Dev War Room. Biz Dev is a bit of a misnomer because in addition to talking about prospective clients and business development activity, we also spent time discussing our processes, long term goals, and talent acquisition.

It was challenging to completely block out a 3-4 hour block during the day. Every other week, there seemed to be some big deadline or crisis that pulled us away from an uninterrupted session. We also had to remind each other to close out of our inbox and focus on the discussion. But whenever we managed to string together a few very focused hours of War Room, the results were immensely valuable.

We went on to create a Ops War Room where our Operations Manager Boram joins us for an uninterrupted session featuring discussions on HR, finance, culture, and recruiting. This, too, has been extremely helpful, and has enabled us to tackle tough topics like compensation, performance reviews, and team structure.

With over 50 War Room sessions under my belt, I’ve learned a few lessons on ways to make the most of the time:

  • Prepare an agenda with detailed discussion topics; even better if there are estimates to how long you want to spend on each topic; review the agenda with the participants prior to the meeting
  • Make sure someone is taking notes throughout the session; we share an Evernote notebook with each other and keep both agenda and notes in there
  • Follow up on unfinished discussions from the previous week if you need to so that things aren’t left hanging
  • Bringing in outside material (books, videos, articles) to discuss and relate to relevant topics can be inspiring and energizing
  • No checking email

Setting aside time for non-urgent yet important initiatives is hard to do. The temptation to quickly troubleshoot an urgent issue can snowball into hours of emails, meetings, and calls. The solution, I believe, is to systematically reserve and protect blocks of time with disciplined vigilance. My hope is that I’ll inch ever closer to a day when the majority of my time is spent on long-term strategic initiatives rather than the day-to-day bustle dictated by urgent requests and deadlines.

Lessons Learned from a Year of Writing

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Last week marked the one year anniversary of my writing experiment. In December 2013, I challenged myself to try writing at least three hundreds words every single day for the next year. Some of those efforts have made it to this blog. Looking back on the year, I’ve jotted down some thoughts on the experience, what I’ve learned, and what I plan to do going forward.

  • I’m really proud and happy that I kept up with it. Even when I was dead tired or incredibly busy, I carved out time to write.
  • Most of my entries were over 400 words. Many were in the 500-700 range. Some were 1,000+ words long.
  • I’m not proud of the days when I felt like I took shortcuts. For example, I would some work-related writing such as company memos and policy drafts as part of my 300+ word exercise. This, even when I was doing it, felt like a cop out. It didn’t happen every week, but enough times to make me feel like I cheated a little. I’m going to avoid counting such writing as part of the exercise in 2015.
  • I wrote a good number of entries while commuting to work. I would open up Evernote on my iPhone and tap away furiously while waiting for and riding the subway. I’m going to curb the practice of writing entire entries during my commute because I always feel rushed to complete my writing before my stop. Instead, I’ll use the commute to jot down ideas and complete the entry when I’m sitting down and able to concentrate.
  • I found myself reflecting more often on my personal habits, behaviors, decisions, and desires. Because of the pressure to write something every day, I often looked inward for topics. Many of my entries are about things that I like or don’t like about myself, things I wish I could do, places I enjoyed or didn’t enjoy visiting, and even some concrete plans for how I can shift my habits. I also analyzed certain days in detail with a critical eye and pinpointed moments that I could’ve handled better.
  • When I wasn’t writing about personal topics, I wrote a lot about the business. I wrote about interacting with employees, generating new business, planning for the next six months, what interview questions to ask candidates, and more. I also wrote about ideas for potential service offerings and products. I think by writing them down, I was able to see that most of my ideas were fairly terrible. In writing about my business, I was able to organize my thoughts and ultimately be in a better position to articulate my position on various topics. There were times when I would share a link to an Evernote entry with people at work if I thought it did a good job of outlining relevant ideas.
  • I wrote a few pieces of fiction. One was continuing series that took up 16 days about a guy who leaves New York to live by himself in a cabin in Maine for a year. I think in 2015, I’ll write some more stories.
  • My favorite entries were about the things I’m grateful for. Whether it was personal or work-related, it feels great when I look back on past entries to read about the things, small and big, that made me feel lucky. These days, in addition to my 300+ words exercise, I’ve been doing the 5 Minute Journal, which helps me reflect daily on things I’m grateful for. It’s been an uplifting routine for me.
  • One thing I didn’t do enough of this year was to go back and re-read my entries more often. Sometimes, I’ll write about something that feels incredibly familiar only to find that I had already written extensively about it a few months ago. I’m hoping to put aside more time on weekends to re-read old entries and see if some of them can be turned into public blog posts.

I plan to keep up my daily writing exercise in 2015. And with a year’s worth of experience under my belt, I will be making tweaks that can push me to write more challenging and stronger entries. These tweaks include: a more deliberate editorial schedule (or at least a pre-planned list of subjects) to encourage me to write broadly about different topics rather than scrambling for new ideas every morning; more entries that reflect on books I’ve read; and more experimental entries on crafting better sentences. Happy new year, and here’s to at least another 109,500 words.

Off-site Planning Retreat

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offsite-retreat-featured

Sei-Wook and I arrived in Livingston Manor, NY earlier today for our off-site planning retreat. The house, which we found on AirBnB, is in the Catskills region. It’s in a remote area on a lake. The lake is frozen pretty solid.

This is the second time that Sei-Wook and I are taking a couple of days away from the office to pow wow about various topics. Here are a few topics that we plan to cover on this trip:

  • Financial planning for 2015: setting goals, examining expenses, and forecasting revenues
  • Better systematizing employee compensation
  • Brainstorming ways to more effectively centralize training and knowledge for our different departments
  • Exploring ways to better manage our client information through a customer relationship management (CRM) software like Salesforce

Our first off-site, which took place at an AirBnB home in Hudson Valley, was very fruitful. We had time to talk deeply about the direction of the company and also share our perspectives on various strategic initiatives. The most valuable piece was that by the end of the two days, we felt a sense of alignment in knowing the priorities of the business.

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Four Books I Remember from 2014

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Memorable books of 2014

The following are four books that I enjoyed this year and still think about from time to time.

Fiction
The Headmaster’s Wife by Thomas Christopher Greene
A man named Arthur Winthrop, headmaster of an elite Vermont private boarding school, confesses to the police that he has murdered one of his students with whom he was having an affair. But this isn’t a murder mystery. It’s a story told from different perspectives about loss, grief, regrets, and a marriage that has fallen apart. The Headmaster’s Wife was this year’s quickest read. I read much of the book in a single sitting.

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Playing Dominion

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I was first introduced to Dominion in 2011 during Thanksgiving break when I visited my old high school friends in Edison, NJ. I was instantly hooked and I found myself driving out to the nearest mall to pick up my own set.

Dominion is a deck-building strategy game. You draw five cards on each turn and play with piles of supply, treasure, and victory cards. The point of the game is to build a deck that will enable you to buy the most victory points. The game ends when the most expensive victory cards run out. The game can be played with just two players or as many as six if you have the Intrigue expansion set.

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The Impact of Small Self-Imposed Rules

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About a month ago, I instituted a couple of small rules to my daily routine:

  • A limit of two drinks per day.
  • No eating after 9PM.

There have been a few days when I didn’t abide by these rules. One day, I had an extra glass of beer. Another day, I ate a small snack around 10PM. But for the most part, I’ve been strict with myself, and I couldn’t be happier about the results.

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Thoughts on Negative Glassdoor Feedback

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We recently received a couple of negative reviews for Barrel on Glassdoor, a website where people can find reviews posted by employees and former employees as well as salary ranges. Except for a couple of very positive reviews from interns in the past, we hadn’t seen any other posts until the two recent ones. They’re very similar to each other, so I thought it’d be a good time to publicly assess each one and share my thoughts on the anonymous feedback.

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Remove Those Silly Bars on Resumes

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I’ve been looking at a lot of resumes recently, and I find myself annoyed every time I come across a “Professional Skills” section that depicts filled up bars with a percentage that indicates the level of the candidate’s proficiency in certain areas. I see this especially on the resumes of young designers and front-end web developers. Some experienced folks also use this, perhaps believing that it makes their resumes more interesting and visually appealing.

Here’s a made-up example of what I typically see:

I've come across too many resumes that have these arbitrary numbers for proficiency in particular skills.

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What I Look for in Young Candidates

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We’re starting to build out a more robust recruiting process at Barrel. For the first eight years, Sei-Wook and I have been primarily responsible for reviewing applicants and interviewing candidates. These days, we’re entrusting more experienced members of our team to recruit and hire junior-level employees. I think it’s crucial that they select people who are not only skillful but have the right attitude and exhibit the behaviors that align with our core values. These are baseline characteristics, and we make sure to ask the questions in interviews to cover both technical excellence (skills) and cultural fit (values).

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A Few Ideas for Enhancing Our On-boarding Experience

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I’ve been thinking about our on-boarding experience at Barrel. We have about 5-6 new hires who’ll be joining the team over the next 4-6 weeks. Training and outlining of expectations are at the top of the list, and we’ve been working hard internally to strengthen those. This weekend, I jotted down some other ways that we may be able to enhance our on-boarding experience. I thought I’d share them here:

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Themes on My Mind

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I’m exhausted, but I’m having a good time. Every week, there are all kinds of stresses and challenges, but I’m mostly able to navigate and handle things, which is extremely satisfying. And best of all, I get to work closely with a team that I respect and trust deeply.

Looking back on my writing (I’ve continued to write 300+ words a day since late December 2013) and the books I’ve been reading, I see that there are recurring themes. I’ve decided to jot them down since it’s helpful for me to see these as a list. Here they are:

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Building Capacity Before Going for the New Hire

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“If only we hired a person to do this, things would be so much easier.” I think this is a thought that’s crossed my mind many times over the years. And naively, I went ahead and usually hired someone.

Even recently, I heard myself talk this way when thinking about our business development efforts. Sei-Wook and I have been hoping to find someone to offload some of the sales activities that we do, including qualifying inbound leads and doing more outbound prospecting. The thought of nabbing a smart and driven individual to take on this work was very appealing, especially as the two of us have been mired in never-ending business development tasks. Why not post up a job listing and get the process moving?

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Why I’m Against Quantifying Productivity

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I got an email from MetaLab today that announced its latest software. It’s called Peak and it helps managers track what people on their team are working on in an automated way. It plugs in to popular apps used by people in the creative digital industry such as Basecamp, Harvest, Google Drive, and GitHub to show an aggregated feed of everyone’s activities. Peak looks beautiful as a web app and I’m sure it’s got the same polish as other MetaLab tools. But I think that in an effort to quantify productivity, Peak puts too much emphasis on the quantity of labor and none in the value created by the labor.

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The Meeting as Experience Design

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I’ve been trying something different at work. I’ve started to spend more and more time prepping for my meetings and being conscious about the experience I create for people who attend them.

Back in September, I got some really good advice from our leadership coach Peter Oropeza on running meetings. Peter, who’s been helping me and Sei-Wook for the past several months as a consultant, sat in on a meeting at Barrel and took notes as I led a group of 10 people through a brainstorming exercise related to our company’s business strategy planning. Afterwards, he provided feedback that made me realize how ill-prepared I was for the meeting. In fact, what I realized was that I just hadn’t put in the time to really think through the entire meeting in terms of its structure, its pacing, and the experience of its attendees. For someone who champions “great user experiences” on the Internet, it was clear that I was oblivious to the shitty experiences I was creating with my meetings.

A meeting without a clear goal is a meeting probably not worth having. Peter explained that it was always helpful to remind people about the goal of a meeting. In fact, he suggested that I write out the goal on the whiteboard for everyone to see at the start of a meeting. Like a good navigation at the top of a website, I think having a clearly articulated goal serves as a stabilizing reminder for both the person leading the meeting and the participants. I also learned that it’s important to thank everyone for being a part of the meeting and to introduce the meeting with its goal. I realized that I had a tendency to jump right into the meat of the meeting without any lead-in, which might have been a jarring experience for others.

The most challenging part of the feedback was on the content. My main takeaway was that creating a few slides or loosely blocking out twenty minute chunks of topics simply wasn’t enough to run a tight meeting. I had to go more in depth and flesh out each segment of the meeting, almost to the point where you could say it was scripted. This might include the exact instructions I give for an exercise or the things I write on the whiteboard. It might also include reminders to call on people who’re quiet or questions to ask to keep the discussion going. If I was going to be prepared, then all possible scenarios, like user flows on a website, should be carefully thought out.

At our next meeting that Peter observed, Sei-Wook and I came in with a meticulous game plan. We had spent about 3-4 hours writing up and rehearsing for our strategy meeting. This time, I thanked everyone for coming, noted that Peter was here to observe (I had neglected to do this before), appointed a time keeper, and stated the goal of the meeting, pointing to what we had already written out on the board for everyone to see. Sticking to the script, we ran our exercises, made sure people got out of their seats to interact, and reinforced the exercises with meeting goal. Participation was strong and evenly distributed among the group, and we could feel the energy level higher than it had been in previous meetings.

Overall, it felt great to run a well-organized meeting. It didn’t feel like a drag on people’s time, and we felt that people left the meeting energized rather than drained. The time invested in preparing for the meeting had truly paid off.

Today, I had the opportunity to run a smaller meeting about an upcoming initiative. It was only a four-person meeting but I decided to put in the prep work, creating a slide deck and printing out calendars to do a scheduling exercise. I followed the template from my lessons learned: I thanked the three others who joined me today, I made sure I introduced the goal of the initiative, and I walked them through four clear sections. We then used the whiteboard to figure out together the best way to schedule all the different activities that would help us complete the initiative. When I saw that we had a bit of extra time, we used it to do a quick UX exercise to move one of the activities forward. We finished right on the dot, not a single minute past the hour we allotted for the meeting. Later on, I followed up with an email to recap the meeting including an Evernote link that had photos of the whiteboard, the Keynote presentation I used, and the key deadlines that we agreed on for the schedule.

My initial thought on preparing so much for a meeting bordered on dread. To see myself spending that much time again and again to run a good meeting just seemed like a ton of work. But when I think of a meeting as a design challenge, it becomes a different animal. It’s no longer something I dread but something that has so many possibilities and so many areas for continual improvement. It’s not only about sharing information or discussing topics but also about setting the tone, providing inspiration, making it interactive, providing context, obtaining feedback, documentation, copywriting, and even information architecture. And if I can run good meetings enough times, I believe I will pick up techniques and exercises that can be used again and again, like a designer who has a strong collection of vector icons or a developer with a vast snippet library.

I feel like I’ve just only begun to understand how well meetings can be run, and I’m excited to further explore this medium.

What Can I Do? Thoughts on Nurturing a Culture of Self-Initiative

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Watching ESPN last Sunday night, I was struck by a comment that analyst (and former Super Bowl QB) Trent Dilfer made about championship teams and what makes them different. He talked about how players on a championship team were different in mindset. They always ask themselves: “What can I do to help my team? How can I be better?” These players do not wait on others to make the first move. There are no dependencies or excuses; just a dead-on focus for ways they can improve and contribute to the team as individuals.

As someone who hires for and manages a team, I’m curious about how I can better encourage a culture in which members of our team default to a “what can I do” attitude. I think for the most part, everyone we have has exhibited this type of behavior. From time to time, I’ll notice that there are comments that point the finger at other teammates, at clients, or at the lack of an existing process or policy. I know I’m guilty of this as well, especially in moments of frustration where I feel a bit helpless. So the challenge is, how can I help minimize this and foster an environment that emphasizes taking initiative and continual self-improvement?

I think a big part of it may be in the way I engage with my employees. I’ll have to do a better job of moving away from a “this is what you should do” stance and asking key questions in a way that empowers. The questions may be as simple as: “what do you think?” or “how would you approach this?” The goal would be to nurture and coach people by consistently encouraging them to think through problems independently and to feel more confident about trying different approaches without the fear that I may disapprove or reject. It’ll take practice and some work, and it’ll also require me to be both open-minded and very patient, a tall order for someone who draws confidence on getting things done quickly and loves to solve problems on the spot.

When I think about the type of culture I’d love to build and see in action, I imagine a team that is self-motivated and one that constantly finds opportunities in new challenges. It’s a team that handles adversity in stride and is selfless in crediting teammates while relentless in doing better the next time. It’s a team with a patient and trusting leader who empowers everyone to find their own way. I can see that there’s so much I can do as an individual to help set us in that direction, and in the scheme of things, any difficulty in changing my ways will totally be worthwhile.

Imminent Behavior Adjustments: Asking for Input and Being Open to Feedback

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I’ve been getting leadership coaching at Barrel the past few months. Sei-Wook and I have been working with Peter Oropeza of Oro Consulting to identify our strengths and improvement areas and to develop action plans to help us grow as leaders.

Last week, I met with Peter to review my ASSESS personality test, my ASSESS 360 feedback from direct reports and Sei-Wook, and my Hogan Development Survey, which shows how I behave when stressed. Peter also interviewed various people at Barrel and combined feedback from these interviews with the results and analysis of my tests.

Leadership coaching has been a really intense and engaging process. There were moments of anger and disappointment as I reviewed my test results (especially the 360, which comes with anonymous comments from my direct reports), but after I let the feedback marinate in my mind and reviewed them with Peter, I think they’re spot on, and I have major work to do.

These are not the only areas I need to address, but I’ll focus on them because they feel the most important to me and are related to each other: I need to be consistent in asking people for their thoughts rather than bowling them over with my mandates; I also need to be better about receiving and processing feedback rather than taking a defensive posture.

Asking for input is something I’ve sacrificed on many occasions for the sake of speed. As a boss, it’s much easier to come up with an idea and implement it right away. I’ve fallen victim to this convenience on various occasions, hatching numerous internal programs and policies without getting much input from other team members. It’s a behavior that’s satisfied my drive to get things done but something that’s detracted from my ability to lead. I’ve seen some of my very well-intentioned initiatives cause resentment and anxiety because I failed to involve others in the process. It’s not that I need everyone’s buy-in because the final decision is ultimately up to me and Sei-Wook, but making and enforcing that decision without discussion can send a strong message to the team without us ever meaning to.

One way to address this is to be more pro-active in asking for input. I’ve seen this work out beautifully the past month with our Barrel Strategy Task Force. I recruited volunteers to help me and Sei-Wook brainstorm and figure out the direction of our company. I’ve structured our weekly sessions to revolve around different topics that require participants to come prepared with their thoughts and ideas. This format has been great for sparking spirited and honest discussions in an encouraging environment.

I have other initiatives in the works that will be good tests for me. As I reach out to various people, I’ll take careful note of how I interact with them. It’s one thing to ask but another to be genuine and encouraging, even when receiving feedback that may be very critical of the initiative. I’m going to focus on keeping an open mind and turning my answers from a dismissive “I don’t know about that” to an enabling “Interesting, tell me more.” The same goes for scenarios where an employee approaches me with a new idea. Rather than trying to poke holes right away or countering with what I think is a better approach, I’ll pause, let the person finish, and ask more questions. I’m hoping this leads to a more fruitful conversation.

Asking for input and being open to feedback are very critical adjustments to make as a manager and aspiring leader. It’s one of those no-brainer leadership qualities that I’ve read in numerous books and articles (“A great leader listens,” “A great leader is open-minded,” etc.), but one that I didn’t realize was a glaring weakness of mine. In thinking about the big picture, it’s incredibly important for me to take action and make progress. I’m passionate about building a company that nurtures creativity and collaboration. It’s hard for me to achieve this and inspire others if I’m perceived to be a roadblock in these very activities. My goal is to continually evaluate my day-to-day behavior and identify opportunities for deliberate practice. As our leadership coach Peter told me, it’s like learning a new move in basketball. Initially, I’m not going to be comfortable using my new “go-to” move, but once I keep using it and eventually have it down, it’s going to be extremely useful in helping me perform.

Proactive Communication Relieves Employee Anxieties

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We’ve had a lot of people come and go at Barrel in the past year. Only a couple can truly be called resignations. The rest have been a combination of internship programs ending and temporary employee agreements expiring. A few have been firings. There’s a unique story to each of the employees who’ve left, so to me and Sei-Wook, there hasn’t been any alarming trends. We’ve viewed these as natural activities for our business, especially as we’ve grown in headcount in the past few years.

But to someone working as an employee at Barrel, especially those who’ve gone through periods of little or no activity for long stretches at a time, any uptick in turnover can be unsettling. Most employees don’t keep track of which team member is a temporary contractor or which one is an intern. When a team member leaves, it’s a big deal. Someone who was present at lunch everyday or a part of project teams is now no longer at the office. If they witness 4-5 departures in the course of 6 months on a team of 30, it can feel as if there’s something going on.

We’ve found that it’s vital to clearly communicate to our team when someone is about to leave. Even the departure of an intern who’s come in a few times a week during the school year can feel jarring if there’s no explanation of why the person no longer shows up to work. For people who resign or have ending contracts/internships with us, we announce early and have farewell drinks in their honor. When it comes to firings (which, thankfully, have been very infrequent), we’re more cautious and follow up with an email to the team or an all-team meeting to reinforce our cultural values.

Even with all the communication, people will still feel uneasy when they think there’s more activity than what’s “normal.” It’s been helpful for us to have one-on-one conversations to assure team members and to share our thoughts on why a contract wasn’t renewed or an intern hired full-time. These conversations also give us the opportunity to learn about the impact of someone’s departure and what they miss about that person. It’s information that’s helpful for us to consider when thinking about future new hires.

There’s no silver bullet to relieving employee anxiety. What may seem cut and dry to the owners may seem totally different to those whose employment is in someone else’s hands. From my own experience, the most effective approach has been to establish consistent communications with the team and to share as much as possible. And with these communications, I’ve tried to encourage feedback either in the form of in-person conversations or through our anonymous feedback form. We may not always like what we received from the anonymous feedback, but it’s additional data that helps us to reflect and think through ways to get better.