My way of operating

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June 14, 2013 by juicefong

A co-worker sent me a brief, mysterious email today asking for the “shortest, clearest, most basic plan ever.” She wanted a back-of-the-napkin type thing. Didn’t know exactly what she was looking for and I certainly did not have anything ready for her.

I took her to mean “How do you operate?” and shot her a short email back a minute later. Strip out a couple lines about my specific line of work in communications, and I basically described my operating values:

  1. Take risks.
  2. Play loose.
  3. Stay in touch.
  4. Challenge people.
  5. Make sh*t happen.

Everyone needs to have their own style that’s true to who they are, but these five values happen to suit me, and I think it’s getting results. A note on each:

1) Take risks – your organization doesn’t evolve, you don’t get anywhere far without taking risks. It means you’ll fail often, your people will fail, but innovation and growth is difficult without the catalyst and rate of change inherent in risk-taking.

2) Play loose – constantly re-assess your priorities and act on them. I work in an environment where it seems like 70-80% of people’s days is locked up in back-to-back calendar meetings. For me, usually no more than 10-20% of my day is locked in committed calendar time. This leaves me a lot of time to execute on what’s most important, and I make lots of 5-minute, out-of-the-blue phone calls throughout the day to get things done (text messages, Yammer messages, running into people too). And, this allows people to get in touch with me quickly and accelerate the rate of their work.

Those who play rigidly are plodding along a path they’ve hedged to be aligned with the most important work…but what if they’re wrong? How long will it take them to realize that and course-correct? Play loose and you can nimbly steer yourself and your team in another direction as you constantly assess and adjust priorities. This also means de-commissioning projects and work that is not making a difference—which is a very slow process for those who play rigidly, those who are not ready to admit to failure.

3) Stay in touch – with people, with the needs and opportunities around you. Senior-level folks in particular often get further and further away from the point of impact. You have to know what’s going on around you, constantly listen, observe, take in the environment. Then analyze and find new opportunities to make impact. Be in touch with reality. Then there’s your personal network. Keep up strong relationships and you’ll find it much easier to get things done.

4) Challenge people – you weren’t hired to just take orders and do as you’re told. No matter who you are, what position you hold, you have good ideas and perspective that can contribute to a better direction for your organization. (Disclaimer: many of your ideas stink, too.) Speak up when you see something that can be improved upon. Yes, you take the risk of your ideas being shot down, etc. But in the right culture, and in the long-run, you’ll be recognized as someone who’s thoughtful and is willing to step up and contribute.

5) Make sh*t happen – the missing letter is a vowel. In a large organization, so much of your work is a means to an end, not an end itself. It’s going through the motions, navigating the process maze to create an outcome. How many times have you been thinking about how to talk to someone who can help you plan something for someone else to approve so you can get them so you can take that back to your team who’ll help you come back with the next draft of that proposal to start the cycle again? Ask yourself what you’ve accomplished lately. Is it a fantastic set of outcomes, or merely the means to a potentially good outcome one day, hopefully, maybe? Drive hard, move fast, bring people along, but most importantly, be laser-focused on creating outcomes.

This is my method, and it certainly has its pitfalls. But it works for me. Curious to hear what you think? Leave it in the comments or tweet it back to me.

Justin Fong (@jgfong) heads the small but mighty internal communications team at Teach For America. He ate a rib-eye steak tonight.

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