A Satirical Look at a Mythical Startup / A Leadership Teaching Story
CarPusher started out as just Stanley Bucket, a sole trader, pushing cars out of his parent’s garage in Mountain View, California. Before long, word got around that Stanley was great at pushing cars, and one day he received a phone call: “Please can you come push my car, Stanley?” He had never pushed someone else’s car before, but he decided to give it a go. It turned out that he was able to push that car all the way from from A to B, which, in this case, was about fifteen feet. The customer actually clapped and handed him a cold beer when he was done. This was the life.
After a few months of pushing other people’s cars, the founder of BinEmptier offered Stanley some seed money. “I saw how you pushed my car, and I bet that you could scale this business until nobody thinks of car pushing without also thinking of CarPusher” the angel investor said, “I want to see you pushing cars up hills!” Stanley was shocked. Even though today you wouldn’t think twice about contracting a large corporation to push a car up a hill, back in those days a car had never been pushed up a hill by anyone, let alone some unknown kid from California. Uphill was the four-minute-mile of car pushing.
Of course, we now know that Martina Giordano was in fact the first person in the world to push a car up a hill, and she had already done it near Como in Italy. By literally putting her back into, with her hands gripping under the rear bumper, Martina had been able to give a Fiat 500 an elevation gain of three feet over a distance of 100 feet (an average grade of 3% or 1.72°). Only recently did the International Association of Car Pushers (IACP) recognize and honor Martina by bestowing the prestigious Giordano award for “outstanding lifetime achievements in car pushing, car pulling, or car bracing,” each year.
After finalizing the seed funding, there was a long discussion about whether to call the company Pushify, but, for better or worse, CarPusher had stuck.
With the new influx of cash, Stanley was able to hire a team of the best gym rats in the area. Though they had never pushed cars before, car pushing being a completely new market segment, they did have lots of experience with back squatting and bench pressing barbells, and even pulling weighted sleds. With a team, Stanley knew that he would be able to push more cars per day, and push heavier cars; he might even be able to achieve the goal of pushing a car up a hill.
To begin with, Stanley wanted to push a particularly heavy car thirty feet in three minutes, so he walked over to one member of his team (Bill), grabbed him by the shoulders, and tried to push him towards the car. Bill looked confused and started pushing back against Stanley, who was then being pushed away from the car. The harder Stanley pushed, the further they both of them ended up from the car.
“What are you doing?!” Stanley barked at Bill. “Why don’t you push the car?”
“Is that what we’re supposed to be doing, pushing the car?” Bill asked.
“Yes, I want you to push the car.” Stanley replied.
“Oh, okay, I didn’t realize. I thought that you and I were having a pushing match. I love pushing things, and I thought that we were getting started by pushing each other.” Bill explained.
Bill told Stanley where he would like the car to be pushed to, and then Bill and Emma, who was the other new employee, pushed the car calmly and smoothly to its final destination.
A few days later, CarPusher got its first contract to push a car up a hill. The customer was a government agency that had a large fleet of vehicles that needed to be moved about 100 feet up a sloped parking lot in Washington, DC. Before catching the red-eye across the country, Stanley stood on a soap box and delivered what had become his signature pep-talk to his burgeoning organization, an organization that, for now, consisted only of Emma and Bill.
Looking down on his team from the improvised platform, Stanley waxed lyrical about the total addressable market for car pushing, how his team was the best in the world, and how CarPusher was going to dominate in the newly developing uphill car pushing segment. Meanwhile, Bill was furiously texting with his girlfriend, who was upset that Bill never seemed to have time for her. Emma, on the other hand, was deeply focused on her laptop screen; she was trying to figure out how to shift money between bank accounts to make her car payment. All the members of the startup were in the same room, but they were working on different things.
It was only much later that Stanley realized that leadership involved first getting on that same page with his team, including deeply empathizing with their lives and situations, and then, from there, leading the whole organization where he wanted it to go. At company meetings, Stanley finally came to understand that he was the only CEO in the room, and that nobody else shared his perspective or quite the same motivations as him.
In Washington, DC, the team struggled to move the cars up the hill. Bill and Emma made a few feet of progress before Stanley, frustrated with the pace, started pushing Emma from behind. He had placed his hands on her back, and was trying to make the car go faster up the hill by pushing her in the direction he wanted to make the car move. Emma found this very disturbing and distracting. Every time Stanley pushed her, she absorbed the push by letting the car roll back slightly and bending her arms. Stanley alternated between pushing both Bill and Emma from behind, and Bill and Emma awkwardly complied by cushioning Stanley’s pushes and gradually lowering the car back to the bottom of the hill.
When Stanley stepped back to survey their progress, he discovered that they were worse-off than before he had gotten involved. In fact, the car was back where it started. Frustrated, he decided to open the crisp new copy of Leadership for Car Pushers that he had bought in the news-stand at the airport in San Francisco. His eyes were drawn to the chapter entitled Guidelines for New Managers, and that chapter stated with the cryptic admonition:
People are not cars and you are no longer a car pusher.
Stanley called a halt to work, and suggested that Emma and Bill go visit the Museum of Manual Efforts, while he read and digested the book. Instead of going to the museum, Bill and Emma want to a local bar where they spent most of their time complaining to each other about Stanley’s counter-productive leadership style.
When Emma and Bill returned, Stanley seemed like a different person. He greeted them with a smile, and started off by asking them how their trip to the museum went. When they told him that they went to a bar, he was curious about what led them there. When they revealed that they were unhappy with his leadership, he delved deeper into their experience. Before long, by simply accessing his natural abilities to be a kind a caring human being, Stanley had built a strong foundation of reciprocal communication, trust, and influence with Bill and Emma. It felt like they could talk about anything and that the talking would lead to real and deep change, the kind of change that makes cars move up hills as if by magic.
Even though Stanley spent hours talking with Bill and Emma, it was time well spent. When they started pushing again, they were able to move most of the fleet of cars up the hill in one-tenth of the time it would usually have taken in the past. Stanley focused on surveying the vehicle’s path, removing obstacles, and noticing ways that his team members were working most effectively. He was keeping his eyes open for things that worked, utilizing the power of the pygmalion effect: the more he expected good work, the more Bill and Emma produced it. He was not only noticing more ways that his team was being effective, but he was also being more vocal about it, amplifying the effect: “That’s was a really hard push there, Bill; I’m really impressed by that one. It takes a lot to put in an extra shove like that when you’ve been at this for so long. Great footwork, Emma. I saw how you planted your foot against the edge of that pothole to get more leverage; very smart indeed.” Stanley even braced the car at one point, allowing Bill and Emma to take a moment to mop their brows and re-chalk their hands.
By the end of the day, the team was humming along so smoothly that Stanley only needed to apply a small amount of positive feedback every now and then, like adding a brief push to an already free-spinning wheel. This freed Stanley to pay attention to other things. He strolled to the top of the hill to survey the collection of cars that his company had pushed to its apex. Once there, he was surprised to find employees of another company lowering those same cars down the other side of the hill. He realized that the customer was actually trying to get the cars from one side of the hill to the other, and not just to its top. As he surveyed the terrain from that clear vantage point, he had an small epiphany. After looking around to make sure that nobody had heard his epiphany, and hoping that the wind would carry the smell away, he marched back down the hill to make some notes.
After hatching his plan, Stanley intercepted Emma and Bill halfway up the hill and persuaded them to lower the car back to the base of the hill. Even though undoing good work didn’t seem to make sense to them at the time, Bill and Emma had come to trust Stanley, and they knew that he respected them and their efforts. They believed that if Stanley wanted them to bring the car back down then it must be for a very good reason.
Once they were at the bottom of the hill, Stanley showed Bill and Emma his notes, and Bill suggested using something called a “steering wheel” to direct the car in an arc. Emma was assigned to sit in the car and steer it, while Bill and Stanley pushed. At first the steering didn’t work, but Emma was able to figure out that it was locked, and they it could be unlocked by turning something called a “key” one notch clockwise while turning the steering wheel a little bit at the same time. Emma had found the key under the sun visor, which they determined to be the incubator of car keys. “The sun visor it like a marsupial’s pouch,” Bill explained during a keynote speech at the International Conference on Car Pushing (ICCP) later that year.
With aplomb, CarPusher delivered the final three cars to join the others at the far side of the hill. Emma, Bill, and Stanley pushed the final car to its destination before the other company had completely lowered all of the other cars down the hill. CarPusher had gone above and beyond the expectations of its customer, understanding and fulfilling the customer’s broader requirements, and using an innovative approach to do it using less effort.
CarPusher went on to file a patent application for a Method for Maneuvering a Plurality of Vehicles Around a Geographical Prominence. The new technology was branded and marketed as AroundHill™. Stanley made sure that adverts were running on every FM radio station in the country:
Man with deep, charismatic voice: “Do you have a car?”
Naïve Customer: “Yes!”
Man: “Do you need to move it around a hill?”
M: “Do you value high quality and great customer service?”
M: “You need AroundHill™ technology from CarPusher, where hands meet hoods.”
Then the iconic chimes of the CarPusherBehind® campaign played in order to accentuate this moment of deep realization.
As the company grew, Emma was tasked with starting and leading a research division. The mind-bogglingly broad remit of this group was to, “Discover new and increasingly efficient mechanisms for maneuvering vehicles between geographical locations.” What this meant in practice was to figure out how to push cars in ice and snow (they ended up using crampons) and in the sweltering heat of the desert (they ended up using hydration backpacks).
One day, at CarPusher HQ in Mountain View, California, on a state-of-the-art car pushing test track, Emma sat in her favorite, cutting-edge 1971 Cadillac Sixty Special and stared at the ignition key. This key had been birthed god-knows-where, had crawled up under the sun visor to incubate, and, in what seemed like a perverse action, had now been inserted into the ignition slot. Years earlier, Emma had been the one to discover that, as if by some divine plan, turning the key in the ignition slot enabled the steering wheel to become unlocked. Now she wondered, “What would happen if I turned the key a little further?”
Knowing what keys do in general (they unlock things), and knowing that a small turn unlocked the steering wheel, Emma hypothesized that turning the key further might somehow unlock the wheels of the car. “But they’re already unlocked,” she puzzled. There had been some major breakthroughs in the preceding past years, including the discovery of the emergency brake. Emma’s team had discovered that the emergency brake both locked the wheels and enabled car pushing teams to take tea breaks when they absolutely had to push cars up hills (instead of around them).
Not being able to restrain her curiosity, Emma reached out and turned the key. The resulting roar of what later became known as the “engine” almost made her jump out of her skin. Before long, her team discovered how to shift the car into drive, and therefore to make it push itself. This led to the biggest breakthrough in car pushing that the world had ever seen: self-pushing cars.
Sitting in his wine-barrel hot-tub overlooking the Loire Valley in France, Stanley Bucket mentally surveyed the arc of CarPusher’s rise to world dominance. He was astounded to realize that all the solutions he had ever sought were already inside his employees. His true job had been simply to find the key hidden above the visor, insert it into the ignition slot, and turn it as far as he could.