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You don't have all the answers
#managing_others Cultivate informal chains of communication by admitting that you don't have all the answers.
It was my second day at Upwork, and around 10 a.m., the site went down. I was in the executive staff meeting at the time, and Stephane, CEO of Upwork, asked me if I wanted to leave to attend to the site. Nonchalantly, I replied - “Let’s let it burn for a bit so that the team can learn from this.” Six hours later, I had seen enough. I went into the incident chat room and called for a rollback to the previous version of the site. The clock quietly ticked away. Five minutes later, nobody responded to me. I then took the liberty to explain I was the new head of engineering, and I want the site rolled back now. A couple of more minutes later, the words “rolling back” appeared, and the platform came roaring back to life.
As I eased back into my desk, trying to figure out how I sign up for benefits, a few employees approached me elatedly and thanked me. I was mystified. My colleagues told me that the rollback script was untested - they always wanted to test it, but it was verboten to perform a rollback in production. The teams always fix issues directly on production. As the company grew more substantial, the protocols used when the company was smaller no longer applied. Yet, groups follow their existing playbooks in a crisis even if they were ineffective.
I learned two things at that moment - the team obeyed the chain of command; but, we need a solution to foster a culture of thinking outside of the box by bringing everyone into the conversation, regardless of the organizational hierarchy. My answer was to promote an “informal chain of communication” while preserving the formal chain of command.
Formal chains of communication are a side-effect of the chain of command. We’ve all experienced this when we exhibit reticence to go “around” the boss. Having been a “boss” for over twenty years, I can tell you that a formal chain of communication works the other way too. Middle managers hate it when their managers go around them. The side-effect of this power dynamic is that information tends to flow unnaturally across the organization, and people naturally play their part in the chain of command theatre. The boss knows all the answers, and the direct reports follow orders.
The trouble I faced at Upwork was that I didn’t have all the answers. Upwork was a complicated company formed from a merger between oDesk and Elance, both of which were large, 10-year old platforms. From my vantage point on day 2, I couldn’t even figure out how to sign up for benefits, let alone tackle the enormous complexities of running and growing the team. While management books espouse tactics, and I use many, the most important lesson I learned during my time at Upwork to build informal chains of communication was to reinforce the simple idea that I didn’t have all of the answers.
Admitting that you don’t have all the answers starts by regularly expressing your worries and insecurities to everyone regardless of rank. Being vulnerable has a remarkable way of shifting the power dynamic to the people who do the real work. It’s through this place of vulnerability that you can engage in a dialogue with your team on forming solutions to problems. Critically, you will feel less alone and empowered by the full strength of your organization.
Taking this position doesn’t come for free, however. There will be times when you believe in a solution, and your colleagues support another approach. If you genuinely don’t have all the answers, you must be willing to let others try their solutions even if you disagree. You will need to admit that you were wrong when you’re proven wrong, and you won’t be able to take the credit for the decisions your team made. When the team made a decision that was a mistake, you’ll need to accept the blame even if you disagreed.
This idea of being a vulnerable and fallible leader sounds completely contrarian to typical notions of leadership, and you might worry that you’ll appear weak. The truth is, if you try it, you’ll discover that the emotional courage you exhibit has the exact opposite effect.