On being a hippo

When I first heard the term HiPPO — short for Highest Paid Person’s Opinion — I liked it a lot. Don’t we all? It’s convenient shorthand for those moments when a senior manager destroys weeks of work with the words, “I don’t like it,” or “I don’t think it’s right for the brand.” Their opinion counts for more than yours, so you clench your jaw and make changes.

Photo by Kabacchi on Flickr, edited to remove background

When I first heard the term, I was a product team of one, working with a small, centralised development team. I certainly wasn’t a hippo. I was a gazelle, leaping instinctively in the right direction. On the less good days, I was a vulture, snatching up scraps of resource to feed my products.

Now I manage a team of 7, within a product team of 20 and a wider digital product and engineering team of over 100. Occasionally I look around and realise I am the highest paid person in the room.

Being the HiPPO has its benefits. Sometimes I can get things fixed by telling people to fix them. I won’t pretend I don’t enjoy that. At the same time, I feel conflicted. Have I failed to empower my team to fix things without being told? Have I distracted them from a higher priority issue? Does my bum look big in the HiPPO suit?

A word from our sponsors

Hippos are among the most dangerous animals in Africa. They might look like cuddly, ponderous vegetarians, but that’s just good PR. They don’t have the teeth of a crocodile, the claws of a lion or the sheer bulk of an elephant, but get between a hippo and the water, or come too close in a boat, and you’re on your way to being just another bullet point in this year’s top 10 facts about people killed by animals (in fairness, animals killed by people is a much longer list).

Metaphorical HiPPOs can also be dangerous. Where a real hippo is focused on getting to the water, a HiPPO is looking for money — but not just to maintain their status as the highest paid person. The brutal truth of most businesses is that no-one will get paid unless someone, somewhere, is bringing in some cash. In the charge towards that goal, a HiPPO can trample the flowers you’re nurturing in the grass.

Dealing with hippos

  1. Be polite. If you accuse your boss of being a HiPPO, some day your team will say the same of you. Been there, designing the t-shirt. You are right, of course, and your HiPPO is old, and unfamiliar with Snapchat, but have the courtesy to find out why they hold their opinions. Be prepared to justify your views — you can’t win an argument with passion alone.
  2. Don’t confuse impatience with stupidity. HiPPOs often say things like, “That doesn’t matter.” What they really mean is, “I know that matters to some people, because everything matters to someone, and I know it’s more complicated than it looks, because digital products get more complicated every year, but in the interests of finishing this meeting before next Wednesday, let’s concentrate on this other thing that matters more.” You don’t get to the river if you stop to splash in every puddle.
  3. Understand their objectives. What is your HiPPO trying to achieve? Will your flowers help them get there? If you don’t know, ask. And if the answer is no, maybe you’ve planted the wrong thing at the wrong time.

Being a hippo

  1. Listen. There’s no better way to find things out. Often you’ll be right about the thing that doesn’t matter. Sometimes you’ll be wrong, so always have an ear out for the small thing that’s actually a big thing.
  2. Explain your reasons. If you want people to know what you’re thinking, you have to tell them. Be clear about your priorities, explain why they matter, and share as much information as you can. Show people the view from your waterhole and they’re more likely to make the decisions you want them to make.
  3. Encourage debate. You’re old, and you don’t use Snapchat. You don’t know everything, so make the most of the brains and experiences of your team. Sometimes you just need to shut up. More often, you need to set things up to encourage everyone to contribute — by going round the room, or brainstorming with Post-It notes, or getting everyone to add to a shared document. And when you change your mind or realise you were wrong, admit it — it shows you’re open to being challenged.

Most people start out as the lowest paid person in the room, but there’ll come a day when you’re the highest paid person — in the room, the team, or perhaps even the company. Spare a thought for your past and future selves.

Bonus extra: here’s my favourite hippo cartoon, from the New Yorker. Replace ‘WordPerfect’ with ‘Snapchat’ for the 2016 version.