Selfish That Way

The Missionary. The Competent. The Accountable.

I don’t get it. I’ve spent the last three years building this program into what it is and now they’re compromising everything.” She’s a mid-level manager in a large multinational corporation. We’re on a pre-call for a meeting planned for the coming week.

I’ve been asked to help because this team has hit an impasse. Largely created by upper management. They’ve done what management does. They’ve reorganized this team and scope. One problem solved, another created. In this case, maybe a bigger problem than what they had before. I’m reminded of the Dustin Hoffman scene from the 1970s movie, Little Big Man. “Sometimes the magic works, sometimes it doesn’t.” Homework.

The Backstory

We see this often in our line of work. Senior teams identify a problem in the business. The smart ones do their due diligence by conducting informal skip level research. As one venture capitalist once said to some young founders I work with, “Don’t ask your managers. Talk directly to your people. Your managers don’t know sh*t.” The really smart ones work with their teams enough to get this intelligence in real time. The corporate equivalent of Walt Disney “walking the park.” But often in the end, they play their royal court games and compromise or assuage someone’s ego or ambition, creating problems for teams like this one three levels down.

I do these pre-calls to get the backstory on what’s happening. The gossip. The anger. The accusations. The unstated resentments. And yes, the pettiness of ego, self-interest, and ambition. The hidden motives. My secondary agenda is to limit the associated distraction of all of this pent-up emotion. If we talk it out in advance, maybe, just maybe, they won’t explode in the room. And if I’m really successful, I find a deeper understanding of each person and incorporate it into our agenda for the meeting.

The Main Characters

There are three of them. One is the missionary. She created the original program. The purpose of this team. Solved a business problem she’d uncovered. Another one used to work for her but in the reorg became an equal, running a parallel cross-functional team. A dependency for her. He’s less a missionary and more rationally competent. He has a job to do and wants to do it well. And the third is their manager. She’s driven by logic, rhythm, and making sure the entire program is seen and understood by senior management. She has a complex job; the program, the people, the customers, and her leaders. In simple terms, she owns the brand.

Two Flashbacks

I think back on my senior year of high school. I’m standing in front of our red brick basketball gym. Our town’s weathered water tower with our town name in black block letters looms above. Like we need reminding. I look up and think, “I never climbed that thing.” One of my regrets. It’s homecoming week. As president of the student government, I’ve been working on the festivities for months. Tonight is our homecoming dance. The gym is decorated in theme. The live band is setting up. We’ve had the normal hiccups and challenges. But in the end, everything is working out as planned.

As I stand here an hour before the other students arrive, I reflect on my time here at Holmes County High School. I’m that kid. Student government every year since the seventh grade. The guru of extracurricular activities. Grades and classroom stuff, not so much. I ask myself why I do this. I reflect on all the students who just show up. The ones who seem to benefit from all the work my team and I do. They contribute little to the outcome while we grieve, work late hours, and generally care more than we should. I’m a bit jealous.

Later in my twenties while working with street kids in New York City, I learn about a Catholic priest who created something called a Dignity Kitchen in the South Bronx. His name is Father Ned Murphy. I show up on a Saturday to a storefront in the middle of a war zone. A line of disheveled homeless men circle the block. Inside is a large room full of small four-person tables with chairs. It feels like a normal restaurant. The men are the guests. They are met at the door. Escorted to their table and served. I’m one of the servers.

Near the end of the day, amazed at the humanity of it all, I find myself working next to Father Ned. His half-smoked cigarette in one hand, a large spoon in the other. He’s stirring a big pot of soup. I’m young. Emotional. Overcome. “Father Ned,” I gush. “You are so inspiring. I want to do this just like you.” Or something like that. I can’t really remember. But I do remember his response. He swiftly turns his face to mine. “Find your own mission. This one is mine,” he says somewhat aggressively. His eyes holding me in place. I’m shocked. A bit hurt.

The Realization

During the subway ride back to my apartment on the westside of Manhattan, it hits me. This is his mission. This is not about giving or being generous, it’s about his need. For me too. I do what I do because I need to do it. Not because I’m some sort of saint. It’s the arrogance of “help.” Those of us who are missionary, driven to do something, anything, need to do it. We can’t help it.

Maybe this is why I so hate when people say things like “I need to give back” or “I’m just giving back.” Really? Giving back? The quote from Ricardo Semler comes to mind. “If you’re giving back, you’ve taken too much.” More homework.

Back to Business

So what does this have to do with this meeting? These three good people represent the type of people who make business work. The missionaries. The competent. The accountable. The missionaries inspire, change things, raise the bar. The competent get it done. And the accountable sustain it. I know, too simple. But stay with me. Missionaries generally start things, then move on to their next mission. In order for the mission to last, it requires people who bring logic, rhythm. The, dare I say, boring operational elements.

I call these people “comfort people.” I know, it sounds judgmental. Forgive me. But these are the ones who talk about life balance. They develop rules and regulations. A level of bureaucracy. They make the mission scalable. Doable over time. Make it possible even. I know, what? The challenge is the missionary. The missionary can’t hand it over to the comfort people. Or at least they can’t do it easily. It’s their baby. To hand it off is to compromise. So they think.

You see where I’m going with this right? My task with these three wonderful people is to help the missionary let go. To help her see the benefit of the other two. The ones who don’t feel it as passionately as she does. They can’t. And maybe, they shouldn’t. If they did, they couldn’t do their job well. To be somewhat dispassionate about it. But they need to see her value too. Without her missionary zeal, they wouldn’t have anything to sustain or scale.

During our half-day session, we define the mission / vision / the “why” and the operational elements to make it scale. They commit to trusting each other. To seeking understanding without questioning motivations. To being a tribe bringing different skills to the task. It won’t be easy. It may take months for this missionary to accept the comfort people. And for the comfort people to accept her missionary ways. “Don’t focus on time and effort. Focus on results instead.” Number 11 from this list.

As I head to my car here in the suburbs of San Francisco, a group of employees ignore me as they enter the large corporate office building. They’re laughing, enjoying the moment. I just smile as we pass without making eye contact. They don’t have to worry about all this stuff. The mission. Scaling it. They just show up. Do their job. And enjoy the dance. My uninformed and somewhat judgmental view.

And Father Ned? He ended up officiating my wedding. You see we missionaries take care of each other. And yes, I made that clear to this missionary. Like comfort people, we each have a job to do. And do it we will. We can’t help it. We’re selfish that way.