I volunteered for the career day for the 11th and 12th graders at my son’s school and they asked me to explain what I do:
More specifically, they asked me to “please provide a brief job description and list the most important aspects of your current job. This will help our students understand what you do on a daily basis.”
Wanting to be completely honest with these kids who are about to try to pick a school, pick a major, figure out a career, I sent them this:
I lead a plucky team of data scientists, engineers, and analysts in finding undeclared nuclear R&D around the world. We built/bought/integrated the software, begged/borrowed/took the data, fused it together into something that can swing a billion data records at our most difficult questions, and trained people in how to wield the tools we’d built.
– large-scale data analytics
– information modeling
– machine learning
– information visualization
– not knowing when to quit
The news spread and Sweet Briar alumnae all over the world reeled in shock and sadness. How could this have happened? “Insurmountable challenges” responded President Jones and the board. “No stone unturned,” to avoid the lamentable conclusion that Sweet Briar must close.
And, in a thousand ways, the leaders that Sweet Briar had been quietly producing in the Virginia countryside for the last century showed us all how to surmount great challenges.
A powerful social media campaign commenced. It was never viral – a small liberal arts women’s college closing is not sensational. The campaign was simply sustained by relentless effort, to the point that that became noteworthy. Major media outlets began to pick it up, and #savesweetbriar stayed in the news for months.
Months was all that was needed, because #savesweetbriar wasn’t just a hashtag:
3 months and 17 days later, the alumnae fought the closure all the way to the Virginia Supreme Court, and won a settlement that would prevent the closure and oust the president and much of the board. Legal battles are expensive, but it was only half the battle. The other half was to raise enough money to prove that the college was viable. Small schools (SBC averages about 500 students) don’t actually have that many alumnae, so this wasn’t easy. Worse, the settlement imposed strict deadlines – $12 million in 60 days or the deal was off. That’s a million every 5 days.
They delivered it early.
A year later, the school is revitalized and shows every sign of having a bright future.
A year later, we can be grateful to the gift given to us by former president Jones and the board – every Sweet Briar vixen alive knows they graduated from Sweet Briar College, the small liberal arts women’s college of kick-ass leadership.
Approve all leave requests immediately. They’ve already earned it; playing gatekeeper over when they use it is patronizing.
Take responsibility for problems. If you’re late, don’t blame your team. If someone’s not performing, it’s your job to handle it with them directly.
Be a good shit shield. If this job was easy, you wouldn’t get paid so much to do it. That means there are going to be political battles, competition for resources, complaints, demands for you to justify your methods or even your existence, et cetera. Your team needs to know they can trust you to take care of the external turmoil, so they can concentrate on building the thing.
Don’t waste their time. If you’re holding weekly hour-long meetings, you’re probably doing it wrong. If you need to plan or review a sprint, solve a problem, make a decision as a team, fine. Status meetings, if needed, should be fast, which is why many teams do them standing up. Meet with purpose.
Spend time with them. Ideally you’ll all work together in a big room, but that’s rare. Answer emailed questions by walking over and talking about it. Sit with them, in your office or theirs, to solve problems. Call remote team members every couple of days, even if only for a few minutes. Ask for feedback on your own work. This is how great leaders always seem to know what’s going on.
Remember that even though you’re all a team, you’re the one who decides what it’s like to be on the team.