How to Reach Your High Standards
The things I learned from leading TU20
In Dec 2018 I realized that we needed to have a stronger succession plan for TU20. From that emerged the TU20 leadership series, a 12 week set of readings and exercises that helped to prepare the next group of TU20 leaders. This is chapter 6, originally written in Feb of 2019.
In past editions of the TU20 Leadership series, we talked about many things that might seem fluffy — teamwork, ethics, trust, having a sense of ownership. At the end of the day in any job, you’ll be judged by your results or your team’s results. Extracurriculars and your own projects are great ways to prepare, because failure or a lack of results is ok, and the hope is that you learn.
“A smart man learns from his mistakes. A wise one learns from the mistakes of others.” — Unknown
If your job is in sales, you have a quota you have to meet. If you are a programmer, you need to build functionality. If you are a recruiter you need to get good talent. It becomes interesting when you become a manager of people because you are responsible for the results of your team, not just yourself and that’s even harder. This is a good quora answer on the topic, it essentially talks about how you become an enforcer for upper leadership, and by extension, upper leadership becomes an enforcer for shareholders. So even when you move up in a company you gain more responsibility and hence need to deliver more. It doesn’t have to be stressful, but you have to keep it in mind.
You build a reputation
When you get stuff done, you build a reputation. Even if you work in a small circle, it will be with the people you work with directly. In a better case, your peers will tell others peers about it. That’s how network effects work, if ten people know you are great at what you do, and they tell ten people, you have a reputation. It also works the other way around, so be careful.
It’s not to say that you should do things to create or enforce a reputation. It’s just important to keep this in mind.
You set your own standards, others reinforce it
At the end of the day, no matter what kind of environment you are in, you should push yourself to be successful. But practically speaking, only the most motivated can be successful in any environment. People adapt to their surroundings, physically, emotionally, mentally and socially. If your friends and family have one set of values, it’s very rare divergent values survive. If you are surrounded by high achievers, you will be more likely to succeed, based on your own motivation, learning, but also on the networks around you. We talked about peer pressure in ethics, but it also applies to your productivity, the question is how do you use peer pressure constructively, without burning out or feeling incompetent.
On a personal note, my environment has been very helpful in setting high, achievable standards. One change that occurred was from gr 4 to gr 5 when I changed schools. In gr 4, people didn’t care too much about grades or school, there weren’t many extracurriculars so I just played soccer at lunch and read at home. In gr 5 people cared more about marks, there were more interesting things to do, I got more involved and did more cool things (I built a giant PVC pipe delivery system, that was fun), likewise in high school, being in a challenging program allowed me to have higher expectations and push myself.
At the end of the day, if you get positive recognition or feedback on what you do whether it’s a like, a compliment or a high five you will keep doing it. Learning how to balance and utilize these stimuli is key.
One of the things that self-gurus keep mentioning is the need to continuously improve and the compounding interest shenanigans. The question is how to do it, and how to do it well. When you are learning, you need to balance the breadth and depth of the subjects. Too many things in a short span and you get frazzled and don’t learn much, and forget what you learned (this is why I don’t like hackathons). Too much depth/not enough new things, and things get stale and you lose your interest in learning. The best thing to do is also to learn from your mistakes quickly, people are willing to forgive the first time, but if it becomes a pattern, you lose trust, credibility and aren’t taking advantage of the learning opportunity.
That isn’t very actionable, so the question is what are you learning in every piece of free time you have. And by learning, I don’t mean academics or career-focused, it’s “what am I learning” in general. If you spend time with your friends for a couple of hours what did you learn? Probably about how their day went and you probably got to know them better. We all have had get-togethers where we felt we got to know other people much better and it almost felt productive. Other times you’d sit around and make small talk for 3 hours and things were kind of awkward. So the question is what was different between them?
You probably didn’t consider this to be learning, in good social sessions you typically were spurred by an interesting event or idea, and then people shared more personal information about themselves and you learn something new. Likewise, with personal learning, we typically learn after/during some sort of event: an assignment, project, competition or test. Or we just get interested in a topic and go on a 3-hour google search extravaganza.
By being able to use these events efficiently, and create your own, you can improve continuously by leveraging your motivation.
Small changes that add up
We all know the feeling where we open up our computers and we know that nothing productive will be done in the next hour. Some of us read random things on quora or reddit, others scroll the infinite content of instagram and facebook, others, others try to be the early bird that catches the twitter worm.
Sometime you just open up youtube and want to watch some videos. In this case I’ve tried to watch videos that are at least slightly related to something I’m working on or will be in the next couple of months. As I work in the cloud world, there are many online videos from conferences, workshops and tutorials that make it easy to learn something in a 15–60 min video.
In an unproductive mood, I don’t intend on absorbing everything I’m seeing, but the changes add up. If I watch 30 min of Youtube on a related subject each day, that’s around 3 hours a week, or the equivalent of one university course. So every year, I’ll be watching around 3 credits worth of useful content, which is pretty good.
A second technique that I’ve found useful is balancing consuming and producing ideas/content. If I spend too much time reading or watching things, my brain feels like goop, which is usually helped by taking a walk, taking a nap, or talking to friends and family.
To avoid getting to this point, I enjoy just sitting down and writing things down on a piece of paper, either as retro active notes of things I just watched or of things that I’m thinking of. Once my ideas are written down, I stop worrying about forgetting them, but also if I’m in the mood I can start connecting them together to think of something new, or think about something new I want to learn about.
A third technique is learning about things you are interested through conversation. It could be from a friend, a family member, or stranger. It’s always interesting to a perspective now a new topic from someone who spends their day to day thinking about it, and it can certainly jump start your learning. A book recommendation, a “lay of the land” or some general thoughts will generally be very helpful, and with enough conversations on a topic, you will quickly begin to find your own interests.
Leadership Principles from Amazon’s Website
The TU20 leadership chapters are largely structured around Amazon’s leadership principals. These are the two this chapter is based on:
Insist on the Highest Standards
Leaders have relentlessly high standards — many people may think these standards are unreasonably high. Leaders are continually raising the bar and drive their teams to deliver high-quality products, services and processes. Leaders ensure that defects do not get sent down the line and that problems are fixed so they stay fixed.
Are Right, A Lot
Leaders are right a lot. They have strong judgment and good instincts. They seek diverse perspectives and work to disconfirm their beliefs.
Holding yourself accountable
The question now is, how do you keep yourself accountable. If the world thinks what you are doing is good, or even great, how do you motivate yourself to improve? You have to have pride in your work. You need to become someone who can look at a piece of work, and before asking others to look at it, you refine and improve it. This doesn’t mean being a perfectionist, but it means having appropriate standards for appropriate events. This is hard and if you can do this, you are on your way.
Sustaining success is being proud of your work
Not only do you need to be proud of your work to hold yourself accountable, but also to be able to get through the ups and downs of life. If you are not proud of the work you do and cannot look back and be proud of what you’ve done and what you are doing, you will give up. Whether external things that demotivate you (bad marks, poor feedback, bullying) or internal (bad mood, existential crisis, burnout) you need to be able to cope. One of the best ways is to look back, be proud of what you’ve done, look forward to future events and keep going.
When you beat expectations, people get excited
Combining the past couple of ideas, when you do well and others around you do well, you get a positive feedback loop. One of the best feelings is when you expect something, and the person goes above and beyond. At that point you are impressed and see the power of collaboration; you just want to keep going. By pushing yourself and making others proud, the favour will come back to you, if you are in a good environment.
The Debate Methodology
This is something I learned in High school while preparing for debate tournaments and has really helped me structure my thinking and communicate ideas. I’m not sure if the technique has a name, I’m just going to call it the debate methodology.
- Think of stakeholders and who the most important ones are
- Ask why 5 times
- Be concise
- Think about the impact
- Think thematically
- Think through different perspectives
When thinking and communicating you need to clear, concise and impactful with your words. If you have issues with this (or want to improve) try the above methodology.
Now that we know the theory lets go through an example.
“Team, we need to increase our revenue by 3x”
Level 1 Whys?
“So we can have more funds to distribute to the community”
“So we can be more sustainable”
“So we can have bigger events”
“So we can experiment more”
Level 2 Whys?
“Few groups are doing what we are doing”
“Student groups have commitment and turnover issues”
“So we can have a greater impact on our community”
Level 3 Whys?
“Students are lacking”
“Often they are not compensated enough through
benefits, culture and pay”
“Collective community growth increases
Prosperity for all”
(And So on)
Now you can take this reasoning and group it thematically.
Impact on community
Uniqueness of Org
Internal Sustainability and performance
Now turn into a single paragraph that you can communicate to the team in 30 seconds.
“Team, next year we need to increase revenue by 3x. We are in a unique opportunity to benefit our community through the unique events and opportunities we present. We need to generate more revenue so we can do more meaningful work in our community, find unique ways to innovate and also create a more sustainable organization. The lack of revenue often limits what organizations can do, and we want to reach a point where we are producing jaw-dropping innovation, have a sustainable leadership team and organization and are making the biggest possible impact on our community.”
No more rambling, no more why’s just clear, succinct, points.
Note: If you can’t genuinely answer why 5 times, you don’t have a good enough understanding, so you have to go out and gather more data and do more thinking.
So how do you become better ?
- Talk to People about interesting things
- Try things out
- Think twice, act once
- Distinguish important projects and things that just need to be done
- Watch interesting videos tangentially related to your goals
- Work on long term projects
Slow and steady wins the race
Making meaningful change doesn’t happen overnight, so you shouldn’t try to cram for it like you did for exams. Spending a little bit of time everyday will make a real difference and you will see results. The main thing is to stay motivated enough to see the fruit of your learning.
TU20 took almost 4 years to get some brand recognition, it personally took me 5 years to get my Tae kwon do black belt, and after 8 years of coding, I’m still learning something new everyday.
Hopefully by following some of the tips in this chapter, you’re equipped to make a difference and keep working towards your potential.
- What was a time someone else went above and beyond for a project?
- Who is the hardest person you met? How did their hard work affect their results?
- Think about an activity you did over the course of many years? (sports, music, writing, ect) How did you feel when you finally became good at this activity?
- What as a time that you felt pressured to succeed?
- What is your best way of learning?