The Competitive Edge Every Leader Wants

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In this episode, I speak with Mike Morris, CEO of Topcoder. Topcoder has grown and seen tremendous success, yet Mike knows the team is capable of even more. We talk about creating peer-to-peer accountability on the team, the importance of looking in the mirror, and how critical it is to let go of predispositions about people, and instead ? believe in their ability to learn and grow.
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[0:00] Mike: He specifically said that working with you guys was a competitive advantage to his company versus all of their competitors because they didn’t have access to you and they didn’t know about you. So his company had a competitive advantage because they were working with you. So, that endorsement, to me, was like, wow.

Laura’s Intro: In this episode, I speak with Mike Morris, CEO of Topcoder. Topcoder has grown and seen tremendous success, and Mike knows the team is capable of even more, so we got in touch when he noticed there were some human behaviors that were detracting from their productivity:

Mike: And there was a lot of things that just were getting brushed under the table or people were beating around the bush or the hard conversations weren’t happening or a line of accountability between people wasn’t being drawn specifically enough. And we all kind of felt it and we knew it. And when we identified it, it was already after-the-fact that we’d missed something.

He described something I hear from CEO’s a lot – which was a general desire to have greater peer-to-peer accountability – create a culture where it is not all up to the CEO to manage accountability towards team and individual goals.

Mike: So, I wanted to get ahead of that, to just get better habits of how we manage each other, manage accountability, hold each other accountable from a peer basis. This is not a management down thing. This is a – across the team in every direction.

He also believes wholeheartedly in the power of building cohesion and genuine camaraderie amongst the team, and with a virtual team, he was even more willing to invest in a process and experience that would bring them together.

Mike: You have to be able to have a strong bond and relationship with the people you work with. You have to be able to expect something from them. They have to be able to rely on you. You have to be able to rely on them. It’s insane to think that becoming friends or having a strong relationship with your team is a bad thing for the business.

[2:30] So he asked us to bring his team through the work of The Human Element, customized for his team, to maximize their value, which we did over the span of a month – bringing the team together first in Boston at Harvard Business School for three days in September, and then in Buffalo, NY for 2 days in October. He describes the impact of our sessions:

Mike: In that first session we knocked out this triangulation thing. We knocked it out of the park. And I can just remember times where I had one-on-one conversations with people and they would catch themselves and say, “Ah. You know what? I’m gonna go deal with this issue with this person the amount of time that we gained back by getting that green style of communication, you know, it’s huge. And that was a big impact. Like to me as a manager, to the rest of my team, it was a huge impact.

And how much more bonded the team became, this group of men, as they practiced more openness with one another:

Mike: But I will, I will say, um, uh, I don’t use the word cry very often but, like, there was, it was insane how some of the emotions came out from the team. And all of it was, the majority of it was just incredibly positive—

So let’s get into my conversation with Mike Morris, and hear directly from him about the power that The Human Element has had on the team at Topcoder:

 

Laura: Mike, thank you so much for being on the show. Could you please introduce yourself to our listeners?

Mike: Sure. Uh, Mike Morris. I’m the CEO of Topcoder.

Laura: Awesome. So, tell me a little bit about Topcoder.

Mike: Topcoder is a global, um, enterprise crowdsourcing company. So we have over 1.2 million developers, designers, and data scientists in every country across the globe. That, um, they focus on solving problems for enterprises that need software development needs. The unique thing about the model is most of what we do we run as competitions because people enjoy the thrill of being able to compete against other people. It motivates people to perform their best. Um, it allows us to have really high-quality outputs in the business. Um, so at the end of the day, what we’ve created is this massive global community of like-minded people that just love to work together and collaborate together.

Laura: That’s so cool. So, so give me an example of, of how that might work. Like, if a client comes to you, they have a software development need, like, just high level, what’s that process?

Mike: you can either come to us, uh, one of two ways. One way could be by using our consulting services where we go to you. We spend time with your teams. We figure out what you do and then we launch that into the community as multiple challenges or projects that they work on. The end result is those deliverables come back in and you have completed code and completed design and completed applications. The other way is completely self-serviced. So, it’s, uh, it’s your kind of, uh, gig economy version of software consulting where you can go to the website, connect.topcoder.com, you can enter in your requirements, and the next thing you know there’s a global community working on solving your problems. And the end result, same thing, comes back just, minus the consulting, as completed digital access. It could be mobile apps, it could be prototypes, it could be chatbots, it could be services. Um, you name it, from a technology deliverable, you could get it through that platform.

[6:11] Laura: That is so cool. As sort of a, a novice I think in this space –I’ve been learning a lot about your business– but, um, so as an example for me, I am about to do a whole rebrand with my company and so I did crowd sourcing for logos. So, like, I went to 99designs, gave some information about the company, what I want to do, and then in a matter of a few days I got like 80 logos or something to look at and totally fell in love with one of them, grabbed it, and that was it. Is it kind of like that?

Mike: Yeah. So, it’s more on the app level but same concept. And the thing is, um, the model consistently over-delivers on quality and speed and we find that that’s what customers are really looking for. If they can get quality at a, at a fast speed, that can be impactful to any business whether you’re big or small. That’s why we started that connect.topcoder.com business was really a focus on that small companies that may not have enough, um, resources to have their own IT development staff internally and probably doesn’t want to pay the high cost consulting fees of having local consultants work with them. So this is an option, you know, like Uber is. I don’t have to own a limousine, I don’t have to own a car, I don’t have to own a taxi, I can just click a button and get access to whatever I need, whenever I want on demand.

Laura: I love it. Um, and tell me a little bit about the the Topcoder Open. So, I got to see the award ceremony, the final award ceremony for the one that you had in Buffalo last month. Tell me a little bit about that.

Mike: [04:07] So, it is, uh, my favorite event of the year. to us, it’s the Olympics for programming, for technology.

Laura: Uh huh.

Mike: And people compete all year long, for 12 months, to qualify and earn their way to get a final spot at the Topcoder Open. So you get points. You, um, compete against your peers throughout the year. It’s all gamified. And if you’re at the top of the point list by the end of the year, you get invited to come to the Topcoder Open. We hold it in a different city every year. Typically, it’s in the U.S. but we do have regional versions of this as well so we can target different countries. Um, and we’ll fly in– I mean, anywhere from close to 100 people will fly in to compete against each other, um, live. So, 90 percent of what we do is virtual. This is the live portion of it where we actually bring people in, we put them up on stages, their code is visible for the audience to watch. It truly is a sports venue for, um, competitive programming, for design, uh solving really difficult algorithms. And, uh, and I really love it. At the end of the day, what it is, is celebrating the talent and the skill that’s in the community. The coolest thing is if we bring in, let’s say, 60 people, 40 of them will be from different countries. That’s a really cool–

[9:09]  Laura: Wow.

Mike: –statistic.

Laura: That’s awesome. Very international, then.

Mike. Very, very international.

Laura: So Mike, tell me a little bit about the team that you work with at Topcoder.

Mike: So, the Topcoder team, we are relatively small given the size of our community. Uh, 1.2 million people in the community that we manage. But the team itself is about 75 people. So we’re spread thin. We’re, uh, we’re across, um, majority in the United States but we have people also in London in the U.K, we have people in India, Japal in Bangalore. We have people in Japan. Um, and we’re starting out a presence in South America in Colombia. But then, take that one step further. All of those people work remotely. So, people work in their own home offices. Uh, we have some pockets of talent but it’s 10 people in the Boston area, 10 people in the Chicago area, and everybody else is scattered, uh, across the, the globe. So, it poses some challenges in terms of communication, in terms of keeping the team, uh team morale and things like that up but we love it. We talked to most people on the team and I think they would have a very hard time going back to the old way, going to, uh, a cube and you go into an office every single day. Uh, so, you know, we do extra things around travel, getting teams together, and we don’t hesitate if there’s a chance to get a team outing. We don’t really hesitate on it. We just say, “Okay. Well, let’s do it.” Because we know we have that, you know, we have that face time still.

Laura: Yeah. There’s a lot of value in that. Um, I do love, though, this idea that we can think about work as something that you do and not a place that you go. And, you know, you know I’m traveling around the world next year and I’m gonna keep working so my office environment is gonna change every month.

Mike:  Yeah, why not? Why not?

Laura: Yeah.

Mike: We, we let that happen for our community.

Laura: Yep.

Mike: That’s, that’s the whole business model behind Topcoder, so why wouldn’t we do that ourselves?

Laura: Yeah.

Mike: You know, part of it is, I think of the old way. The old way is like, hey, how long can you sit in that chair?

Laura: Yeah.

Mike: How ridiculous is that?

Laura: I know. I know. And I’ve talked with leaders, actually, who don’t necessarily have a clear different way to assess, how hard somebody’s working. And I’m like, “Well, I promise you. That’s not it. Like, ass-in-seat is not a good metric. Get away from that.”

Mike: Totally

Laura: So, um, so you mentioned bringing the team together, uh, for face-to-face in person. Of course, I, I had the chance to do that with your team; Gabriela and I did a couple times. I would love to hear a little bit from your perspective: What was going on for you and the leadership team when you started to think about bringing them together and having some kind of an engagement like this?

Mike: So, I would say it kind of ‘came clear that, you know, we needed a little bit of a catalyst, um, to the management team. Like, we could use some training. We could use some tools to help us work better together. And there were a few things that really jumped out at me, things that we just need to get better at, and one was– and partly, I think it’s because of this entire remote workforce and people working from home– we had cases of triangulation that were happening and it could be on a call or on a virtual meeting and then you’ve got IMs going in the background or one-on-one messages happening here and there. And they weren’t at a, at a point where I thought it was being destructive, on purpose but they were being distracting and it was causing some issues on the team and it was causing some issues with communication. So, triangulation is definitely one major item that was on my list to say, “Let’s figure out how to get around this and get a better communication style.” So that was, that was one key point–

Laura: [10:09] And so, most simply, how do you define triangulation?

Mike: So, triangulation is basically when you have, uh, you have three parties and party one and party two are having a conversation about party three and party three is not included in that conversation. It can lead to bad behavior.

[13:27] Mike: And some people are gonna refer to it as grapevine or gossip or things like that. And you never want the feeling of people being, uh, not confident that they know everything that’s happening or that people are discussing things without them or they feel not included in things. I think that was a major thing that I saw was a feeling of, “Hey. I need to be included in this.” And that was just leading to behavior that wasn’t productive. Um, so, you know, like I said, sometimes it was, uh, done just unintentionally and you’re on a meeting and there’s four people collaborating together on a video call and then two of them are having a sidebar conversation on IM. Um, that’s not productive. Like, so some of those behaviors have to be brought out front. So that was one kind of key case that we looked at and said, “We’ve gotta get– we’ve gotta figure this out. Gotta get better at it.” And prove our communication skills.

Laura: I wanna pick up, too, on one thing that you said which is that it didn’t necessarily have a negative intention. Because I think that’s really often the case. So, sometimes triangulation happens because people are frustrated. They’re venting. They’re complaining. They know that’s what they’re doing. They know it’s not productive. Maybe they even know it’s mean-spirited. There are other times, though, where somebody is triangulating with all the best intentions. They’re talking about what’s going on for somebody else because they genuinely think, “This is, this is the way that I can improve the situation.” Right? It’s just, it’s misguided but it’s not necessarily ill-intentioned.

Mike: Right. And I, I do think that was the case for us.

Laura: Okay. So, triangulation was going on. What else were you noticing when you thought about wanting to bring the team together for this type of engagement?

Mike: So, I would say overall communication. And I didn’t know this term before –in fact, I don’t even think I knew the triangulation term before our sessions– uh, but the other one was just green line communication.

Laura: So, if you listen to this show regularly, you’ve heard about “the green line” – which refers to the option of communicating where you simply share the thoughts and feelings that you are aware of directly with the person you’re talking to. It includes the notion that the more self-aware you are, the more you can be open with others. And most of the time, the green line is a more effective option than withholding or the “squiggly” line. We’ll include the image I draw for this on the website – gallaheredge.com in case you want a visual. So…back to Mike:

Mike: So, we have, again, we really do have to do extra efforts to make sure we’re all on the same page. ‘Cause of the virtual environment. And there was a lot of things that just were getting brushed under the table or people were beating around the bush or the hard conversations weren’t happening or a line of accountability between people wasn’t being drawn specifically enough. And, we all kind of felt it and we knew it. And when we identified it, it was already after-the-fact that we’d missed something. So, I wanted to get ahead of that, to just get better habits of how we manage each other, manage accountability, hold each other accountable from a peer basis. This is not a management down thing. This is across the team in every direction. So it was really that communication and that, that focus on peer accountability that I wanted to get better at.

Laura: I love that. I remember, um, so you spoke with Gabriela before you and I had a chance to speak and the three of us were on a call and I remember feeling so excited because one of the things I remember you saying was that your team has done an incredible job taking Topcoder to where it is today and you just want to continue to grow that exponentially and that you looked at doing this type of engagement, improving the communication, building the trust, building the skill on the people side, as one of the key things that would enable you all to take revenue to a new level. And I loved that because I talk with leaders sometimes who say, “Well, you know, maybe once we get our revenue up to a certain point, then we’ll bring you in.” And I’m like, this will get you there! Like, this is the thing that can actually accelerate where you’re trying to go, ’cause it’s all about the people, it’s all about that communication with one

Mike: I have a couple points to add to that. So, the first is that, uh, I mean, I agree totally. I think you could look at this and say, “You can do something like this to better your team” and, when I thought about it, you know, often leaders can look at their team and say, “Well, you know, maybe I don’t have the right team to do this yet. I should wait.” Right? And it was like, uh, very encouraging, for me it was really encouraging to come to the conclusion that, hey, you know what? These are all exactly the right people. And our efforts have to be “How do we become better as a team? Not changing the team.

Mike: You play the game with the team that you have. And I was so comfortable with the team that I have, I just want to make us all collectively better. And that realization was really freeing. And as you think about taking a business to “x” to “10x”, um, and feeling confident that you have the team in place to do that, you just need to improve some skills, that’s like one giant weight off your shoulders. So that was a neat exercise and I really uncovered that in the talk with, uh, Gabriela. It made me realize that. The second this is, I will say this, um, like any business man, I did my due diligence. I checked up on you guys. I called references. And one reference said something to me that I’ll never forget. He specifically said that working with you guys was a competitive advantage to his company versus all of their competitors because they didn’t have access to you and they didn’t know about you. So he had a competitive advantage, his company had a competitive advantage because they were working with you. So, that endorsement, to me, was like, wow. That was just a great, great reference.

Laura: That’s really high praise. I love that. That feels really good so thank you for sharing that. I appreciate it.

Mike: Good.

[19:31] Laura: And now you’ve, you’ve had some experience with us. So, um, we did, uh, an engagement in Boston in September and then in Buffalo, uh, in October. I’d love to hear, just at a high level, like some of your reactions to those experiences.

Mike: Yes. So, the um– way more emotional than I thought.

Mike: So, in a good way. So there were like a lot of positive emotions, um, I’d say mostly positive but there were some things that were challenges also that came out. Uh, but for the most part, the positive emotions were just incredibly overwhelming and the sense of camaraderie between the team was great. I think we just furthered that along. Um, I think the couple of things that, that came out for me, like especially… I never would have identified a problem of trust in our team. And I don’t think there was a problem of “Hey, I don’t trust this person” but I think what I did uncover is there’s a lot of “I only trust myself to do this.” And uh, and that’s one thing that came out at the first session. It’s like, huh, that’s really interesting. And being able to identify that is huge for us. Um, and then the other thing was I think in that first session we knocked out this triangulation thing. We knocked it out of the park. And I can just remember times where I had one-on-one conversations with people and they would catch themselves and say, “Ah. You know what? I’m gonna go deal with this issue with this person” instead of what they would’ve* complained about it and, you know, speak about it, and probably waste five minutes time in just complaining about an issue instead of saying, “Yup. You know what? I’m just gonna go solve this.” And boom. And then I also caught myself in the same, same way. Like, hey, let’s be more productive. And I think I said to you guys at one point, the amount of time that we gained back by getting that green line style of communication, you know, it’s huge. And that was a big impact. Like to me as a manager, to the rest of my team, it was a huge impact

[21:38] Laura: I, I love that so much. I’m obviously a whole-hearted believer in that – this saves time. Sometimes the resistance that I, I experience from other leaders is “You want us to spend how long?” Because to do The Human Element, um, is you know, so it’s five days. So, with your team we broke it out into two sessions. Five days and they think, “Oh man, that’s way too long. That’s crazy. There’s no way.” But I’m so confident that you get the time back and so much more and so I love that you had that experience that you noticed we are saving so much more time. And then I also want to ask you, Mike, you mentioned this peer-to-peer accountability thing. That is something I hear from CEOs all the time. Like, it would make my world so much better if the people on my team could work out the things between them more of the time and only come to me when they really feel like, “Okay, we’re not in agreement. We haven’t been able to do it. So now let’s bring the CEO in.” Um, can you speak to any impact there? I mean, were you, were you noticing, uh, people coming to you less, working with each other more?

Mike: So, there was, um, there definitely was cases where I’d be in the middle of a conversation with somebody and we would divert into a topic and realize that, hey, we should go, I should go handle this with this person directly and I don’t have to involve you. And for me to be like, “Yeah, you’re right. I’m gonna stay out of it.” ‘Cause three months ago, I would have gotten right in the middle of it and put my nose in the middle of it where it didn’t belong and probably have messed up, messed it up.

Mike: Yeah, so I definitely have realized the difference there. And sometimes, you know, with peer-to-peer communication it would almost be like I would get the Heisman to stay out of something. And I may have gotten defensive about that three months ago. And now I’m like, “Wow. That’s great. I’ll go spend time on something else.” ‘Cause I got a 2020 vision I gotta work on. I got all this other stuff. So there’s definitely been more of that communication happening between the team and even to the point of, you know, I’ll know about it ’cause I’ll say, “Hey, you don’t need to be involved at this point.” And I’m fine with that. So that’s been, that’s been really nice. And I think we also catch each other. So, one thing that I really like about the program is there’s a lot of things that are verbal cues, there are things that you realize in the way that you react, um, physically or, or the way that you speak or respond to, to people in certain, certain elements, where you can catch yourself. And we’ve built, myself and I think the rest of the team, I call them kind of life hacks. We’ve built up some life hacks that go around when I sense myself getting, uh, you know, to want to stick my nose in the middle of something, just sit back for a second and just think, “Is that the best use of my time? Is that the best for them? Is that the best for the ultimate outcome?” Ask those three questions. Take 10 seconds. And maybe it is, but often it’s not. And those little life hacks have been really helpful. And, again, huge timesaving, back to the last point. You just save a ton of time and wasted effort.

[24:51] Laura: I was gonna tease you and poke on you a little bit with the “I” language. ‘Cause you were doing a combination of both there. You were saying “you” at times and then you–

Laura: –also said “I”. Can you speak to that at all? What did you notice with your team and practicing “I” language?

Using “I” language is something you’ve probably heard me reference before – briefly – it’s the idea that I can only ever be open about my experience of the world, so instead of talking about you, or using the word “you” when I’m actually talking about myself, helping people notice how they can be more open, more vulnerable, and more accurate, if they use “I” language to describe their own experience of a person, a situation, or the world. It also creates space for somebody else to describe their experience of a situation, without assuming or demanding that their experience is the same as mine. A simple example of this could sound something like, “Yeah, you know when you start crying a little bit at the movies and then you feel kind of embarrassed” Well, who am I actually talking about in that scenario? Am I really talking about somebody else’s experience or am I just veiling the fact that maybe that’s what happens to me sometimes? Anyway, back to the interview…

Mike: So, it is kind of funny, this whole concept of “I” language and phrasing things the right way and, uh, and being specific about what you say. We’ll be in the middle of a conversation and somebody will call out another person for not using the correct terminology. And it happened and it was a little bit disruptive at first. It was like, “Hey, I’m in the middle of a conversation and, you know, you start” – but now? We’ve gotten so good at it. We’re coaching each other. I’ll tell you another thing that is really kind of a side effect that I didn’t see as a benefit at the beginning is that, now that I take this time to number one – communicate more effectively in – straight lined and also take the time when issues come up, which they do every single day, take an extra couple of seconds to think about how this can be a growing experience. And it’s, it’s really incredible how many of them you run into and your natural reaction, or my natural reaction, is normally just to get through the issue, finish it, knock it off the to-do list. But if you can take that and make it a learning experience for the team, you know, for my team specifically, for the larger team, for yourself, that’s empowering. And that makes you, again, better collectively.

[27:27] Laura: I love that so much and that’s really how you create the learning organization and a learning culture and, um, you know, I’m going kind of easy on you, Mike, ’cause you’re doing the show and I wanna be nice. No, but like you were saying “the correct way of phrasing things” and even that is something that you heard, um, from Gabriela and me that – who is to say what’s right or wrong? For us it’s all just about is it more effective or less effective? And I love to think about the world not in that black and white, not in the right and wrong, but rather everything can just be more or less of something. It can be more effective, less effective. More useful, less useful. we’re always gonna have problems to solve. Always.

Mike: Always

Laura: I mean, what would life, what would life even be if we weren’t solving problems? Wouldn’t even be fun. Right? It’s like, there’s a Twilight Zone episode of, of that, I think, where it was actually Hell. Like, they were playing pool and all the balls just magically went in the holes. And it’s like, it wasn’t even a challenge. It’s like, that’s not Heaven, that’s Hell. That’s horrible. Um, so we’re always gonna have problems to solve. So, the goal is not to not have problems. The goal is: Are we solving better problems today than we were yesterday? Societally, we’re solving better problems today than we were a thousand years ago. There’s always going to be problems to solve. There are always going to be things that each of us individually can be working on to be more effective, toget better or to, yeah, get us closer to whatever our goals are. And so, getting away from some of the black and white thinking and the right and wrong, for me, is another way to reinforce that whole learning culture and have that learning organization. This idea that, hey, oh, here, oh, look! It’s so cliché, right? It’s not a problem, it’s an opportunity. But it really is. And it’s constant. And so, when people have that mindset, that growth mindset that we’ve talked about, like, of just “I can always learn and grow. We can always get better”, oh, cool. Here’s one more opportunity.

Mike: I love it. And I do think it goes back to if you’re solving problems and fixing the underlying issues, which is some of what the language and communication style and green line communication does for us at least, that’s what it does, it makes things better going forward so that issue doesn’t come up again. It doesn’t come up in the next week.

Laura: Right. Yeah.

Mike: And another thing. Where, you know, you get into predispositions about people sometimes, and I think it’s human nature to a degree, where you might think, “Well, you know, that’s just so-and-so.” The reality is, and Gabriela was great at putting in that word, not good at it yet.

Laura: Yeah.

[30:02] Mike: That was something where you stop thinking about “Well, I’m not involve so-and-so because they’re not great at ‘x’, ‘y’, and ‘z’.” Well, they’re not great at it yet. But they will be. And then you start, you start treating that person differently. And then they notice it and then they perform better. So it’s a lot of, like, little things like that that I saw. And that was, specifically, there was a case of we were shy about giving this particular person more responsibility and it kind of opened up our eyes to say, “Well, you know what? they will get better at those things. So let’s do it.” And it’s working out great for the team. So, it’s, it’s another case of a positive, positive effect I think of the program.

Laura: Nice. So, you know, I don’t think anybody is under any delusion that it’s a pure utopia now. Right? I mean, you guys still have, I’m sure, moments of tension, moments where people are getting defensive, you know. Can you, can you speak to that in terms of, you know, it’s a journey versus you come out of this program and everything’s just completely, totally perfect and great?

Mike: Yeah, it’s a good question. So, I mean I do– as we finished this program, I realized more things about myself than I expected to and, um, and one of those things was, you know, when I get defensive and how that comes across. And, uh, it’s funny enough, you know, it’s very similar to how I am at work and how I am at home. Uh, so being able to kind of see those things and hear about them back from, you know, people that I respect and care about, it’s very powerful. So, I’ll give you a couple examples. You know, one is, uh, is we had a conversation with the team and it wasn’t going very well. It was not going as productive as we wanted it to be an we were going off track and one person, you know, just said to me, “Hey. You’re, uh, you’re doing the stare.”

Mike: And uh, apparently I have this ability to, to kind of have a laser stare. So, this and this is through a Google Hangout.

Laura: Oh, wow. Through the screen.

Mike: So, let me actually tell you how that stare thing came up for me. So, it was, it was after the first session and I was talking to my family about it and we were at the dinner table and, um, we got to the topic of defensiveness and how that can come across and how you might see it in yourself or see it in others and, in that conversation, one of my, my eleven, I have eleven-year-old twins, my eleven years old, one of my twins said, “Dad. When you get upset, you have laser eyes.”

Mike: And then I’m like, “What?” He’s like, “Yeah. You look like you’re gonna burn a hole through whoever you’re looking at.” I’m like, “Really?” And then everybody else around the table started nodding.

Laura: Oh.

Mike: Like, wow. So then, I bring this story up at our next session in Buffalo and everybody around that conference room–

Mike: –started to say, ‘yeah'”.

Laura: They started nodding, too.

Mike: And they’re seeing it inside of, you know, Go-To Meetings and Google Hangouts and one guys says, “I could even tell when you’re doing it through the phone.”

Mike: Uh, so, that’s good to have that out on the table, although my eleven-year-old daughter does abuse it sometimes and she’ll be like, “Dad. You’re doing the laser-eye thing.”

Mike: And I’ll have to negotiate with her on eating her vegetables–

Mike: Like well you still have to eat your vegetables, and you need to use your fork.

Laura: That’s so funny.

Mike: And the solution to that one is pretty simple. A smile can solve a lot. It can change a stare.

[33:48] Mike: You know, and it completely got me to think, “Oh. You know what? I’ve put myself into a state, a place of being defensive. I’m acting in a certain way because of that. And I’m not behaving the way that I should be or the most productively, you know, the most productive I could be.” And it got me to rethink it. And I changed myself from, you know, the words I used later was, “You got me from seeing red to going back to center.” And then we moved forward and we got through the issue. Um, that’s come up for me a couple times, where people have kind of said, “Hey, I think you’re getting a little heated on this, on this topic. Take a step back.” And it’s really helpful to be able to hear that and say, you know what? You’re right. ‘Cause I felt that red building up in my, in my face, and my heartbeat starting to get, to get raised, and then, uh, and then all of a sudden you get to a point where you’re acting in a place of defensiveness and you’re not necessarily going to make the best decisions or communicate the best. So, there’s been cases where several people on the team have called each other out, so I’m not the only one guilty of that, but I definitely didn’t realize that I did it as often as I did. So that was helpful.

Laura: Well, and I, so what I love about that is there are so many teams where people on the leadership team would never even consider saying something like that to the CEO. You know, if you’re getting, like, “the stare” –I’m doing air quotes, which they won’t be able to see on audio– but if you’re doing “the stare,” they’re just gonna have whatever reaction they have. Maybe communication even shuts down, they stop being quite so open ’cause it’s just like, “Oh. Oh, this thing’s happening.” And then, you know, the meeting maybe ends and not all the information is out there on the table. But I would think, at least in part, because we brought the team together, we had these open conversations –because I remember us talking about this- that yeah, this is something that they see and it creates that safe space for people after the fact to go, “Oh hey. There’s that thing.” ‘Cause we’ve talked about it. And you were really explicit in your request to say, “Please tell me when I’m doing this. You may become aware of it before I’m aware of it and I realize it doesn’t have the effect I want it to have, so please do let me know.” And I love that they had the courage, you know, back at the quote unquote “office” or back when you guys were doing the real work. They’re like, “Oh, hey. It’s happening, there it is.” And kudos to you to have the self-awareness and the self-accountability and the self-assurance to go, “Okay. Yeah. Let me, let me just kind of check myself. I don’t wanna be seeing red. Heart is going a little bit. Let me take a moment. Let me show up the way I want to.”

Laura: Yeah. So, how would you describe the experience of going through The Human Element?

Mike: The bonds that you create between the team that you do it with and what’s interesting with our team is we have, we have, although you’d say we’re not quite diverse as a team, we have a lot of different personalities there and, um, there’s a lot of different backgrounds and the coolest thing about that, for me, is we left there and I feel like, you know, regardless of work, these people will be connected and friends for the rest of their lives. And, and I really do think that some of the bond out of that session is the reason for that. And I remember kind of explaining to you in the beginning, you know, half of that team has been together for a really long period of time. And a quarter of the team has been there for a couple of years. And another quarter of the team is very new. So, um, I don’t think we left there with anybody having different tenure. And that’s a powerful statement because the people that were new, you know, maybe they didn’t realize that they were holding back a little bit. Or they didn’t feel comfortable that the other six people there that had been together forever could finish each other’s sentences. And you left there and there was none of that. It all came on the table and all of that was, was, uh, it’s a combination of the exercises that you do as a group, um, and the, uh, the material, um, with the instruments that you go through. And the instruments, you know, we’re a bunch of, you know, data and computer science people so we’re like analyzing the data and trying to find trends and there really are messages in all of that data, which was awesome and, for us, you know, that was just really powerful. Um, I have them all. I saved every instrument and if I don’t have it, I took a picture of it.

[38:25] Laura: Excellent. I love that. So, Mike, sometimes I hear from leaders actually a resistance to this idea of creating strong bonds where it feels like friendship versus just being coworkers. Um, there’s a fear that, oh, if we’re friends then we won’t be able to do business as well or I won’t be able to hold them accountable. Can you speak to that?

Mike: Yeah, um, in short, that’s insane.

Laura: I agree.

Mike: The only reason why having a relationship be a friend relationship and a work relationship could be an issue is if one person was taking advantage of that. And, uh, but you know, that can be easily stopped. Right? You can identify that and say, “Hey, you can’t take advantage of the fact that, you know, we go, uh, away together on vacation.” And that is something you’ve gotta, I think, be cognizant of. Right? You’ve got an entire team but it’s insane to think that becoming friends or having a strong relationship with your team is a bad thing for the business, in my opinion.

Laura: I totally agree. Um, I wanted to ask, also, one of the things that came up for us, especially I think in the second part of the session in Buffalo was this idea of appreciation. So, at least at the time, so the team that we had at Buffalo was all men and so, if we play on a stereotype for a second that, you know, men, you know, we don’t need appreciation, it’s like fluffy, light, whatever, um, and you know, I always call bullsh*t when I hear that from people ’cause I know that it’s just a human thing, um, but it felt like that was a pretty important element and piece that came up in that second session. Can you talk about that from your experience?

Mike: Surprising that, you may think that people, oh they must feel appreciated. They must know how good they are. They must know how much, you know, thankful that they’re putting in all this extra effort. And, uh, you know, kind of, without exception that wasn’t the case. You know, a little bit of a thank you and a pat on the back and acknowledgement of something from anybody across the team was, was really, I would say not only was it a – good for us from a team perspective but it was so needed. And you walking into that room, you would’ve thought, “Oh, wow. These guys are, you know, they’ve got great connection, they work fairly well together, they must not have any of those communication issues like that.” But it turns out we did. So, I’ll give you one example. Uh, there’s one person on the team, his name is Adam, and he was, he was in the hot seat, if you will, sitting in the middle of the room and there was a lot of comments coming out about people that were just incredibly positive about his impact to them personally, to the company, to the customers. And the sense of appreciation that went around, one person after another, and you could see it in Adam, he was completely and utterly surprised by that feeling that people had. And everybody else was blown away that he would be surprised by that feeling. And one of the neat things at the end of it was, you know, I knew that Adam puts work in front of things all the time. Like, I mean, he would sacrifice something at home or something for him personally to make something happen for a customer or make the trip work or get to a conference. And, um, and he does it a lot. And he had this trip coming up to India where he was planning on, going home for a day, jumping on a plane the next day, missing Halloween with his two kids who were both, uh, you know, fairly young, still into dressing up and going out and trick or treating because he wanted to get to India to have this one particular meeting that he wanted to have. And he just needed somebody to say, “Listen. We’ll take care of it. You don’t need to do that.” He needed to get off the hook and feel okay about it and it was the coolest thing to see his brain click. He was like, “You know what? I’m gonna be there for trick or treating next week and it’s still gonna get done. And I have this team to back me up and make sure it gets done.” And that was, it was great for him to feel and it was great for everybody else. I think everybody felt good about that. But I will, I will say, um, uh, I don’t use the word cry very often but, like, there was, it was insane how some of the emotions came out from the team. And all of it was, the majority of it was just incredibly positive–

[43:24] Laura: Mm hmm.

Mike: –they didn’t expect, you know, that type of appreciation from the other people or they didn’t realize the admiration that people had for them, the respect they had for them and it was, it was powerful. There’s things that I won’t forget for a long time and I don’t think any of us will.

Laura: That was incredibly powerful. Yeah, that last, gosh, like hour and a half or two hours that we spent on the last day was insane. I can’t remember the last time that I felt that kind of energy in a room, um, and it, it gave me a sense of tremendous confidence in you and your team and your ability to conquer the world. Like, that was, you know for me, just like that high of like these, these people, these humans are amazing. They are incredible and look what they can do together. Like, awesome.

Mike: Great. Thank you.

Laura: Yeah. And I wanna comment, too, on that, the example of Adam for a moment. So, I told you this when we were there in Buffalo. During one of the breaks, Gabriela and I were walking up to get a drink or something like that and I said, well, we were triang– triangulating about you in the stairway. So I was talking about you, Mike. So, I’m just gonna go ahead and tell you what I said. Um, which was there were so many conversations that came up where people on the team were exploring certain things for themselves and sometimes it was about, well, what if, what if I do give less time to Topcoder?

[44:54] Laura: What if I do, you know, spend time with my kids doing trick-or-treating or whatever? And it’s a kind of thing that every once in a while all of us have a general sense of almost a nervous anticipation. “How’s this gonna go over with the boss?” You know? Or something like that. And every time, every time we would go down a road like that, you would come in at, like, the most perfect time and say the most supportive thing. And I love what I remember you saying to Adam was something like, “You are most valuable to me and to us and to this team when you take care of yourself first, when you put yourself first, and when you prioritize you and your family and your life. That’s when you are the best for us.” And like, you just did that over and over again where you would say the most supportive things. And I, so my conversation with Gabriela that I, I told you about was like this team is so lucky to have this person as their leader. Like, just incredible, the support that you give to them.

Mike: Thank you. Yeah. When I don’t have the laser eyes going—I say a couple of good things

Laura: Yeah. Um, so, what, um, what advice, um, would you have for other CEOs who are noticing maybe some of the same challenges that you described with the team in terms of, um, you know, communication, triangulating, maybe not delegating or empowering others as much as they could? What would you want them to know?

Mike: You know, so, there’s no silver bullet fix. That’s number one. And, um, but if you have the right team, like, you know, we have the right team at Topcoder, then this is a tool that will help you fix the problems that you have, the underlying issues that you might have. You’ve gotta work at it. And we still do the coaching and I’ve, sometimes I’m awful at scheduling my coaching but there’s times where Gabriela’s great. I’ll just reach out, out of the blue, like, we need to talk about this stuff. I’m about to do something that I know is wrong. I just want to talk it over with you.

Mike: And, like, yeah, that’s a teaching moment for her to kind of explain to me and see where I’m doing something wrong. But at least I’m catching myself now. Right? As opposed to going out and doing it and just see where the cookie’s gonna crumble. Right? Now, I’m always catching myself and so the coaching, it does take time, we’re gonna continue to get better. the– I, I think another CEO looking at this, I’d say the mindset of going in is make sure you’re focusing on what are the tools that you need to keep this going? Right? So, as you do the session, you do the second session, you need to keep working at it. We’re trying to keep ourselves accountable every couple weeks. We get back together, we review some of the concepts, we talk about things that may or may not have gone well or we could have done better but all in the light of “What we learned in that session?” And I have no doubt that we’re gonna do more with you guys and tackle other things that we can improve on, um, but I do, I think I said this at the end of the session, it’s really learning how to fish. You know? It’s kind of the attitude that you should have going into this. So, how do you learn, um, and again, for me, I try to put process around something. It’s some of those life hacks. Like, what are the habits that I can get into that’s gonna make me better at this? Gonna make me a better manager or a better leader? And that’s the attitude you’ve gotta come at this with. If you go into it and you just treat it as a workshop and leave it at the end of the day– I mean, I still, I have the booklet on my desk and I can flip into it anytime I want and just be like, “Yep. Did that.”

Laura: Yeah.

Mike: Saw that person come out today.

Here Mike is referring to the different defenses we take on (brought on subconsciously, most of the time) uh, in these moments when we feel threatened or insecure – being able to label and identify them is a helpful first step to recovering from them, hence that “saw that person come out today” comment from Mike

Laura: Yeah. Absolutely. It’s such a reinforcement of this idea that it’s all about practicing, just getting better every day. And I also like to say, do you– you know, it’s about recovery and not perfection. So, we’re all gonna get defensive, you know? You’re still gonna have those laser eyes happen and it’s just gonna be how quickly can you recover from that and get back to a place where your behavior is more effective for whatever it is you’re trying to accomplish.

[44:39] Laura: It’s true for me. And, you know, I, I, I think we, yeah, we spent some time on me, actually, when we were in Buffalo. It’s like, “So let me tell you something that was going on for me.” And, you know, I’ve been doing this for 12 years and I talk about it literally every day and I, I still get defensive as well. Way less than I used to. I’ve made tremendous progress and I’m never gonna be perfect at it and that’s okay. I don’t need to be. I don’t wanna be. That would be too intimidating anyway, right?

Mike: I do love the fact that you put yourself up on the chopping block. You put yourself out there in a very personal situation and let people comment and, you know, make a lot of assumptions and, and that was really powerful and it was good for us to be able to see that. You know what I mean? It was like, it was helpful to be able to see another angle. It’s not just us. It’s not just our own experiences. It was yours and that was, that was really helpful for us.

Laura: [50:09] Yeah.

Mike: And difficult for you. You’ve got 10, 11 guys that you only met for a few days here and there that are all digging into your deepest, darkest feelings —

Laura: Yeah. Yeah. Absolutely. But you know, you’ve got some perfectionists on your team and, as a recovering perfectionist, I think that it’s totally worth it. And I’m, I’m willing to do that and I believe it, it genuinely only increased the level of respect that people have for me and what I’m doing because it means I’m walking the talk.

Mike: Yeah. It does, for sure.

Laura: Alright. Last question.

Mike: Okay.

Laura: What advice or tip do you have for somebody listening who, completely independent from doing any kind of work with me or Gabriela or anybody else on my team, just what’s one thing that they can do now? They stop listening to this podcast, they go and they have a conversation. What can they do to be more effective?

Mike: I’m gonna take two.

Laura: Okay.

Mike: One is get rid of predispositions of yourself and of other people. It is a, it’s a career-limiting attitude. So, when you take the, the perspective of “I’m just not good at this”, you give yourself an out and you end up, you end up not performing how you should. Get rid of predispositions about yourself, about other people. Second thing is look in the mirror more than you look at other people. As I realized, a lot of what was happening around me was often a result of what I was doing. And that’s something, as a leader, you know, you’ve gotta be conscious of having an ego and if you go into something like this, I would say I realize that I probably had some issues to resolve but I would say I probably looked at it and said, “I really want my team to get better” and I left thinking, “Holy crap. I need a lot of improvement.”

[52:28] Mike: Like, this car needs a tune up big time.

Mike: So, just look in the mirror more often than not because a lot of what you see around you is actually a reflection of what you’re, you’re making happen yourself, you’re doing yourself.

Laura: It’s the total essence of self-awareness, self-accountability, and manifesting. I believe that we actually create the world that we live in. It doesn’t happen to us. We make it what it is. I love that. Alright. Is there anything else that you want to say, Mike, before we wrap?

Mike: So, I do think that the dynamic duo, of Laura and Gabriela, is a pretty unbelievably powerful team. So, you guys have to, uh, have to keep that going and figure out how you’re gonna do that as you’re traveling.

Laura: Yeah. Well I’ll come back.

Laura: I’ll come back, she’ll come visit me. You know. But, uh, yeah. And, uh, as you know, she’s, she’s my best friend and, um, could not ask for anybody better to work with. We have a tremendous amount of love that I think you and the rest of the team got to, got to see there in Buffalo.

Mike: And the last thing I will say, um, is that the coaching is a huge aspect of this. I, I went into it originally looking more for the coaching than the workshop but now I realize that the workshop is setting up everything that we’re doing in the coaching. Like they’re definitely required. So, it’s not, it’s not just about, um, the coaching, the situational things. That workshop really was the foundation of it for us. The coaching just solidifies it. Keeps us learning, keeps us growing.

Laura: Absolutely. Yeah, they definitely support one another. They feed each other. Gabriela always says that she’s an executive coach and a Licensed Human Element Practitioner and she would not do one without the other. And this is exactly why. So–

Mike: Good point.

Laura: Well, thank you so much, Mike, for taking the time to, uh, to be on the show. You and your team are absolutely amazing. We love working with you and so we’re really excited to continue the journey and thank you again.

Mike: Great. Thanks, Laura.

Outro: Oh man – okay, couple things – first – stay tuned to future episodes, because I will talk about how I put myself out there for dissection with the Topcoder team, I feel like I want to share that story with you, and I wouldn’t want you to miss that. Secondly – if you are curious about the work of The Human Element, I want to let you know we are offering a client-agnostic Human Element workshop in January. Usually, we take this work directly inside organizations, but about once a year we offer it as an experience for teams to see if they want to bring the concepts into their own organizations and create a culture that truly gives you a competitive edge. It’s January 22-26 in 2018, and registration is at Keytalentsolutions.com/humanelement. Since you listen to the show, I’ll offer a promo code for 15% off – use UNLOCK15 to save on one of the best investments you can make in the new year. I’ll leave it at that – we’ll talk again soon!

Show Links

This episode was re-published on July 3, 2018. Original episode release was December, 2017.

Mike’s company, Topcoder – Get more work done with the world’s largest network of designers, developers, testers, and data scientists.

Topcoder brings out the best in people through competition – we got to attend the end of their 2017 Topcoder Open!

Triangulation was a problem that Topcoder effectively squashed quickly (remembering progress over perfection, though) – learn more about why triangulation is so toxic by listening to this episode featuring Gabriela Buich.

Our work with Topcoder featured The Human Element – a foundational workshop that helps people get real so they can get real work done.

Our most recent workshop with Topcoder focused mostly on Radical Collaboration, which teaches teams how to collaborate internally so they can more effectively compete externally.

We reference an episode of the Twilight Zone where everything working out is not actually heaven, but rather, Hell. The context was how solving problems is actually what makes work fun – and approaching each one as a learning experience and a valuable par

We talked about how having a growth mindset is critical as a leader who wants to develop his or her team, so I’m including a link to an 11-minute Ted Talk from Eduardo Briceno.

We talked about how Laura put herself on the table in vulnerability to help the other (recovering) perfectionists on Mike’s team.  Read more about Laura’s journey on perfectionism here.

Laura mentions that she will tell her story of being vulnerable on a future episode – and she did! You can listen to that here.

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