Shortly after I had just taken the helm at Pilot Software, I came to work one day and found a three-foot long green crowbar on my desk. There was a Post-it note on it that said, “Use it wisely.” It seemed like a very odd thing to find sitting on my desk.
It turned out to be a message from a guy by the name of Paul Volpe, the first sales person I had hired for the company as we transitioned from being a unit of a bigger company to a standalone company based in Silicon Valley. This transition brought about a lot of discussions about how we wanted to run the business.
I had some very specific ideas that weren’t necessarily in alignment with the way things had been done in the past. I’ve always been execution oriented, and these “alignment” discussions were killing me. It seemed like we were constantly revisiting the same topics. Always impatient for action, I would express my opinion, and if I didn’t win the day immediately I would disengage from the discussion and acquiesce to anything, just so I could go dosomething.
Sometimes, if I had strong enough opinions, I felt the need to just start picking people up by the collar and telling them exactly what to do.
Using the crowbar
Paul’s message was that I should stay engaged in these discussions longer, using my crowbar to gently pry people out of their positions to achieve alignment on a course of action—even if it wasn’t necessarily the one I was advocating.
Our CEO, Jonathan Becher, put it more succinctly: Would you rather be right, or win?
Unfortunately, it was something he had to say to me more than once, even though I immediately understood what he meant by it. The fight to be right is about getting your way. The fight to win is all about execution. In theory, if you have alignment around a strategy, and clarity about goals and objectives, then people will go and execute without you having to use brute force. It’s a more scalable approach to execution that leads to more wins.
What often happens though, is that people put more energy into the fight to be right than the fight to win. If they don’t get their way, they continue to argue after the decision has been made, or even actively undermine the initiative. Or, they just pocket veto it—they stop fighting but they don’t throw their support behind it either. If things go wrong, they get to say, “I told you so.”
I can tell you, that is an empty victory. You get to be right for that brief moment in time, while doing great harm to the team and the company. Jonathan was trying to teach me to empower other people to make decisions, and to trust them so I could delegate execution and we could grow.
The mind shift
This requires a big mind shift, or at least it did with me. We all tend to believe we’re always right, especially in areas where we have a lot of experience or expertise. So, we go right to, “Here’s the solution and you just need to go do it.”
That scratches the action itch, so it feels like a win. However, you end up drowning out everybody else’s opinion and their value along with it. You might get hard work out of them, but you stifle innovation and creative problem solving. People become alienated from you and that makes your job much harder because you have not fostered teamwork, collaboration or respect.
The truth is, if you have surrounded yourself with good people, the collective thinking of the team is going to be right more often than you are. Not only that, whatever problem you’re addressing is going to be evolving and changing. If you’re focused on winning, the team will pivot to solve for that.
That builds resilience, trust, and confidence. It develops people’s skills, and new leaders rise. It’s good for the organization. Although it may not feel good for your ego initially, eventually you realize it feels good to have the burden of being right all the time lifted from your shoulders.
Focus on outcomes
How do you accomplish this mind shift?
· Stay engaged, and focus on outcomes. Do you want to grow the business to a certain size, reach a certain market, or take your company public?
· Working with cross-functional teams in a diverse organization, everyone brings different experiences to the table and they will think differently about how to get to the same outcome. That’s a good thing, especially when plan A doesn’t work. You can try someone else’s idea.
· Learn to shift gears. When the community that’s part of a decision-making process decides, you have to rally around what has been decided. You can’t fight the decision and simultaneously try to go out and win.
· Redefine success. If you define success as being the smartest person in the room all the time, then you are going to find yourself expending a lot of energy. If you redefine success as some mutually beneficial outcome, then you don’t need to argue every decision. You can use your energy on how to help the team win.
Ultimately, you have to realize that being right is a short-sighted outcome that often makes you wrong in the bigger scheme of things. These kinds of battles slow companies down. They prevent others from contributing from their expertise, they stunt people’s growth–and yours too.
I’ll admit I haven’t perfected this yet. There are times where my ego still gets the better of me. When I go home and reflect on the day, one of the things I ask myself is, did I have to use my crowbar, and if I did, was it to be right, or to win? It’s a work in progress.