…because some thoughts are worth remembering
There’s a huge difference between leading an entrepreneurial team of a company you co-founded vs. coming in new at the top of a government agency. The gap seemed too wide to comprehend to most of my colleagues: could she make a jump from Internet time (almost like dog years) to election cycle time frame where you are on someone else’s schedule (which I’ll sum up as “hurry up and wait”), from do-it-yourself to filling out paperwork so someone else can do it slower, and from having an itch that’s dying to be scratched to “well, it is what it is” attitude. One even bet that I wouldn’t last 3 months.
The transition was difficult, but not because of the factors they predicted. Being an entrepreneur gave me just the skills I needed to work in government, because you have to be so passionate about your cause, and be fixated on your vision for a better future, to be able to get everyone rowing the boat in the same direction. Sure there was a ton of bureaucracy. I thought I was dreaming when I had to sign an authorization for a request to purchase carbon paper on my first day (“This is the State’s technology agency, right?”) and that they required me to draft a request to approve me to be able to order a set of business cards, only after which I can actually get quotes to get my business cards printed.
I saw every obstacle as a challenge. If my request was denied because of some policy, I would ask for the chapter and verse, and read up on it. I would revise my request to be in compliance of that policy, and earn their trust, that I wasn’t their enemy. I just wanted to learn and do the right thing. I would phrase my questions to my advantage. Rather than asking “can x be done?” (to which their answer is usually, no), I would ask “we need x to complete the project, so how can we go about it so we can meet the deadline?” or “what are some ways where we can get x done?”. If they still say no, I would ask what the obstacles are, and work with them to address it or plot an alternate route.
The most difficult battle was to win my own staff. They were used to a very different leader, much kinder and gentler than I was. A set of good management skills that won our partners was not enough to earn the respect of my own staff.
I did the only thing I know to do at that point: be myself. I needed to connect with them at an individual level, and in an authentic way. I decided to bring my culture and my identity into the organization. Here’s an example.
For our staff meeting, I taped some butcher paper in the doorway so everyone had to bow to get into the room. After they came into the room, puzzled by the obstruction, I explained to them that in a traditional Japanese tea room, the door is designed much shorter than people’s height so everyone would have to bow down to get into the room, regardless of their social and political status. They ALL had to bow, symbolizing that they were all equals within the tea room. With many of the staff being ethnically Japanese, they appreciated the sentiment. Although it would take more time and some management tricks* to get them to speak up at meetings, they now knew my intentions.
My first job out of college was teaching. I gave them “homework” which required them to learn about each others’ jobs, because I wanted them to have compassion for everyone else’s work. Without understanding, it would be difficult to have compassion. I wanted them to know that being respectful of everyone else’s time was important to me. At the meeting, I would give them a quiz at the very beginning, so people started to show up on time. They weren’t penalized if they didn’t do well, but the top scorers got a token prize. I wanted them to know that I will publicly acknowledge a job well done, and I wanted to create a meritocracy.
I would tell them stories to illustrate a point. Some were from my childhood, like what my grandmother used to say. Others reflected my values of mindfulness and Buddhist sayings, like we need to “do the dishes to do the dishes, not to have clean dishes”. I would use metaphors and similes. Some failed because they weren’t familiar with the referent (e.g., “we need to be like the Borg” referring to the ease of communication they have and the single vision they share), but the resulting conversation after I left the room did build a shared experience (of googling Borg and reading up on other Star Trek references).
When did I know it worked? A colleague brought a part of herself to the meeting: “You know how we upgrade to a larger purse so you have more space? But then you just end up with more stuff and you need to upgrade to an even larger purse. Things take as much space as you give it. We need a small purse meeting.” From then on, we talked about small purse meetings, and other new terms they brought to the table, sharing their culture with me. It was now OUR culture.