Wednesday, September 7, 2016

The tiger and the manager

A few companies ago I had a wise old manager, the big belly of Buddha, the white beard of Obi van Kenobi, and the management skills of Steve Jobs... no, Jeff Bezos, no, he was an experienced guy anyway. He invited me for a beer one afternoon (I'm not sure if Kenobi would do that). I asked him what his top priority was (this is a question managers eat and drink). "I have a bunch of great people," he answered, "I'm working on how to set them up for success." What a noble soul, I thought, he's obsessed by how to make others successful. We tasted our craft beer, it was bitter, so it must've been excellent; I shivered. He continued, "People are like tigers, they have a lot of power without direction. How can you use that power?"

I didn't grok it first. The tiger has the power, he can use it, he eventually has to use or he'll starve and die. What needs to be added to it? I was a beginner at that time. My very own Obi van Buddha smiled. "Untamed tigers attack any animal, including humans. It's a real problem in rural India, for example." Yes, but it's our problem, not the tiger's. They are fine attacking a gazelle or a girl. "This is very analogies break down" my manager said. "There is an old Japanese saying. What matters is not the power you have, but the power you control. Untamed tigers waste their energy. Unmanaged people pursue their dreams unrelated to the goal of the company."

It was an important lesson and it didn't cost me a dime, my boss paid for the beers. I spent the following years taming and training tigers. My thoughts circled around these questions, How to set up my people for success? How to give direction to them? How to use their power? How to teach my tigers to hunt? They came as young, undomesticated, wild animals; I spent months with them training every day. I pruned some of their useless habits, like jumping around in the cage. We practiced how to sit in silence waiting for the right moment to jump on the prey. We practiced the jump itself. By the end of the training my sweet tigers could catch a dove with ease.

Catch a dove. A four year old child can do that without any training. This is organizational physics: the more you direct a moving object, the less energy it will have. It loses some of its energy by every bounce at an obstacle you put into its way to direct it. The question that had showed me a way led me astray. How to set up people for success? It's a wrong question to ask. My people are adults, I don't have to set them up for anything. Treating them as children and helping them grow big is a mistaken mindset. Here's the thing I learned about tigers. You can't encage a tiger and teach it to hunt.

I changed the way I deal with my people and my tigers. I follow them to the jungle. I teach them what I know about hunting and they teach me a few tricks too. It's scary. It's more dangerous in the jungle than in a cage. And it's more dangerous to walk with an untamed tiger than with a tamed one. But we are friends, I trust him. I watch how gracefully he catches a gazelle. He uses his power. And he uses a few tricks he learned from me.

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