There is No Them

Lessons on leadership from the world of game development

My Three Secrets of Success

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A few years ago I was asked what my secret was that had lead me to be successful. My first response was to push back that success was a relative term, and that I felt I still had a ways to go before I was ‘successful’. But the questioner persisted, asking me to distill why I was consistently able to build, grow, and drive strong teams through a variety of challenges and situations. I thought about it and ended up articulating my three secrets of success. In much the same way I make sure my secret agendas are well understood (a topic for another day), I have made sure that everyone I work with understands my three secrets of success.
Here they are, followed by some explanation:
  1. Hire the right people.
  2. Create an environment that gives people the tools they need to be happy.
  3. Know when to get out of the way (and when to dive in).
Each of these has changed a bit from my original articulation of them, as I came to refine them over time.
Hire the Right People
The most important decision you make as a leader is who you hire – a good hire pays dividends again and again for your organization, and a bad hire is a tax that keeps growing and growing.  In my experience most leaders don’t take enough personal responsibility in setting high standards for future hires, instead letting others in the organization drive the hiring process and decision. Having the team’s buy-in about a new hire is important, and is a good reason to have team members involved in making future hires, but the leadership should be playing a final arbiter role. If the team wants to bring someone on board the leadership should make the final check for long term fit. Being involved also gives the leader a chance to calibrate their team – if the team and the leader do not agree on a particular candidate’s worthiness its a good sign that work needs to be done to bring things back into alignment.
In a future post I will detail good hiring practices more extensively. 
This started as ‘hire good people’, and changed to ‘right people’ later on. Here is an easy way to think about this: a team full of the best quarterbacks in world still won’t be a strong football team, and certainly won’t do well performing Shakespeare. A ‘good’ person may still not be the right fit given the rest of the team, or given the purpose of the team.
Create an Environment that Gives People the Tools They Need to be Happy
I have always believed that if you invest in your people they will invest in your product. Happy people do better work and are more fun to be around. Being happy has a lot to do with the power of ‘I Want’, which I will discuss more in a future post. The essense of ‘I Want’ is this – if you are clear with yourself about what you want out of life (not just your job), then share that with those around you, you recruit them to help you get what you want. When you get what you want you are happy (until your next I Want, but thats part of the cycle). When a whole team of people is open about what they want the whole team is getting better and happier at a tremendous rate. This kind of team can be magical, in that it gets amazing things done and folks never want to leave.
This started as ‘Keep them happy’, which is certainly more succient. But, I learned the hard way that I can’t make somemeone (who is not me) happy. Nor can I take on the responsibility of making someone else happy, because by doing so I let them off the hook for finding their own happiness. The best I can do is allow someone to be happy, to give them the tools to be happy, and to set an expecation that happiness is a desirable thing (as opposed to the belief that jobs are supposed to be miserable).
Know when to get out of the way (and when to dive in)
Leadership often trip up their own team, by getting involved when they shouldn’t. Its a natural response, to want to dive in and be the boss, especially when a leader sees things not being done as they would have wanted it done. But a leader has to resist the urge to dive in at any time; the team will never learn how to handle things if they believe the boss will swoop in at any moment. Not only does this lead to the team not taking ownership (why should they, the boss will just change things) but it also re-enforces a culture where the boss has to be right (which is a very dangerous thing). Knowing when to get out of the way (most of the time) and when to dive in (rarely, and only when done appropriately), is an important trait for a successful leader.
If you have hired the right people (secret #1), and they are happy (as a result of secret #2), why mess things up by breaking secret #3?
Originally this started out as just ‘know when to get out of the way’, then later came the ‘and when to dive in’ part. Good leaders, like a good coach or good parents, can tell when their involvement is necessary for the well being of the team.
The themes discussed above will echo through many of the topics I write about. Surely there are other guidelines I have used that have worked well for me, but these three have so far proven to be an effective way to articulate what is important to me and why, and why I believe I have been successful as a leader.

Written by joshuahoward

October 21, 2008 at 5:02 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

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