Career Presentation


Slides and commentary for a talk I gave (internally) to Qz in Q4 20202.

When I think about growth, I think about drowning rats and boiling frogs. Because this is what growth often feels like – or looks like  – especially when it’s hard and not going particularly well. The rat drowning school of growth is to throw someone in the deep end and let them figure it out. If they do, they’ll be a good swimmer. The frog boiling school of growth is to gradually turn the heat up so the frog doesn’t notice, and if they survive they’ll be heat resistant…

This metaphor sounds violent, and yeah, it’s less than ideal. But what I like about it is that hard periods of growth feel difficult. These metaphors capture the feeling of “can I do this?” and “can I sustain this?”

For all I like to write about – and practice – what good management looks like, the reality is that most managers aren’t that good, and even good managers, operating under their own set of pressures, aren’t good for everyone all of the time. Very few people get everything they need to be successful, when they need it. Everyone has their moments where they are struggling. If we’re lucky, these are the moments where we learn most of all. If we’re not, they are moments where the best thing we can say about them is “I survived”. 

The question is – particularly right now, when almost everyone is finding life harder than it used to be – how do make it more likely that we learn and grow as much as possible? What resources can we draw on?

Professionally, whether we are growing or stagnating is the gap between our Capability vs what is required of us.

Capability smaller than requirements = hard growth

Capability bigger than requirements = stagnation

Requirements a bit bigger, but with help = sweet spot

Hard to find the sweet spot of growth, let alone sustain it. Can also go between periods of hard growth and recharging periods closer to our comfort zone. Don’t necessarily see real growth even month on month, but year on year. Also, might be growing in different ways – e.g. in depth rather than breadth.

Growing through necessity – stretching. Adding necessary capability to succeed at what we’re currently doing.

Growing from comfort zone – courses, side projects. Growing in the ways that interest us, laying groundwork for what’s next.

There’s a great book by Marcus Buckingham, called Now, Discover Your Strengths (Amazon). In it, it has the concepts of strengths and controlling weaknesses. The idea is that everyone has weaknesses, and often those weaknesses are the flipside of people’s strengths. They are only a problem if they are limiting factors for someone’s growth, a “controlling weakness”.

Great managers: focus on developing strengths, and when they work on weaknesses it’s just to build them up so they are no longer controlling.

Coming back to growth is being out of your comfort zone with help, what kinds of help are available?

  • Mentoring – teach to swim (maybe in swimming pool)
  • Active help – give a life raft
  • Coaching – view from the bridge – what can you see? What can you find? What can you make? (Get to small rock, build a makeshift boat, sail off to sea)
  • Therapy – in a puddle but think you’re drowning

Management, go between all of these (except for therapy!)

The problem people have when they start with coaching is that it requires patience, and seems inefficient.

  • Why don’t you tell me what to do?
  • Why don’t you help?

Co-active model of coaching says: client is capable, whole, and resourceful.

I can’t tell you what to do – you know better.

I can’t help – I’m not there.

At the start of any coaching relationship, we talk about “designing the alliance” – setting the parameters of the relationship. This comes up, along with confidentiality, and how to work with someone effectively. Designing the alliance is a really powerful concept in coaching that personally I use to define a lot of my professional relationships. It’s the agreement for how you plan to operate together.

The first step of being more coachable is being open to the process. Someone is trying to help you figure out how to be your best self. It’s not about helping you, but about growing your capability. This is inherently uncomfortable.
Sometimes the people who are the best at coaching others are the hardest to coach. They understand the process well enough to evade it. The best book I’ve read about this is Lori Gottlieb’s Maybe You Should Talk to Someone (Amazon) – it’s about doing this in therapy, but similar things apply.

In terms of approaching growth, coachability is made up of two factors: receptiveness to feedback, and how highly actionable you are (what you do with it).

What makes someone highly receptive to feedback? We can easily identify people who aren’t receptive to feedback. They:

  • Respond defensively.
  • Blame others, and are reluctant to take any responsibility (everything is someone else’s fault).
  • Discount the value of the input or person giving it.

In contrast, people with high receptiveness to feedback:

  • Listen and work through what the feedback is.
  • Are self-aware and prepared. They can fit the feedback into their mental model and adjust it accordingly.
  • Believe they can learn from everyone.

Similarly, we know exactly what people not acting on feedback looks like. People who are low actionable in response to feedback:

  • Make minimal changes or adjustments.
  • Make any changes they do make slowly.
  • Are very literal (apply same feedback to other situations without nuance).

But what does highly actionable look like? People who are highly actionable in response to feedback:

  • Experiment, iterate, and change behavior (both in response to explicit feedback, and implicit feedback, and also because they are continually looking to try things and improve).
  • Return to those interested with things they are trying / have tried and solicit input on how it’s working.
  • Seek out other perspectives and information to learn more.

You can think of these two dimensions as a quadrant.

It’s worth noting that we should be in different quadrants with different people high-trust-high-respect relationships will be further up and to the right and low-trust-low-respect relationships will be down on the left. This is understandable, and to a certain extent healthy. Whilst we can always learn from feedback, even that given in bad faith or with an agenda, we need to consider some input (from low trust sources) more carefully than we do from people who we know care about us and want us to be successful.

Let’s talk about coaching in each quadrant of how people take feedback.

Highly actionable && highly receptiveness: This might seem like the ideal, and on some level it is, but taken too far these things can lead to someone over-indexing on what everyone else is thinking, which can make them too reactive and appear a bit chaotic or inauthentic. This is the quadrant with least friction, so giving feedback in this quadrant should feel – and be – really minor and contain a lot of affirming or validating feedback that what the person is doing is working. Take a curious mindset and encourage self reflection, support them in thinking critically about what feedback means and what they want to do with it.

If you’re the person in this quadrant everything feels very clear. It’s easy to fit feedback into your mental model, and adjustments feel natural and build on what you’re currently working on. This comes from having a good idea yourself about what is happening and how you think you can improve.

Highly actionable && low receptiveness: You have to really work to get this person to take feedback, but when you do they do so much with it that it makes it worthwhile. Work on understanding why this is – are they scarred by too much bad feedback in the past? Do they struggle to trust your opinion (or that you have their best interests at heart?) – work on building that trust with them. Try asking for their opinion and show you value it, in return. 

In this quadrant it can feel like the feedback doesn’t fit into your mental model, often your self-identity. If it did, you’d act on it, but it conflicts with the other information you have. The first step to moving forward is to reconcile that conflict.

Low actionable && highly receptiveness: This can be frustrating – it seems like they’ve taken the feedback well, but then… nothing happens. Dig into why that is. Are they overwhelmed? Do they not know what to do? Make sure you set time to follow up post feedback and agree on concrete steps, and follow up on them regularly.

If you’re in this quadrant you feel a bit stuck. The feedback you’re getting makes sense and feels clear but… you you can’t act on it for whatever reason. The first step is figuring out what’s stopping you.

Low actionability && low receptiveness: Coaching people in this quadrant is like banging your head against a brick wall. Generally it’s a place where I try not to spend my time. In this quadrant, you need to  be very direct and concrete in what you want to see. Focus on getting a single concrete change, and accept that you may never do more than that.

This quadrant is a miserable place to be. How does someone get there? The two ways I’ve seen (nice, capable) people end up in this quadrant are:

  • Being completely over their head, maybe because they are so lacking in capability for whatever situation they’re in
  • Or they’ve been bullied.

If you recognize you’re in this quadrant, and I really hope none of you are, then it’s time to consider how that is situational – and how to change the situation.

If you’re being coached, consider how you’re likely to hold yourself back and what you can ask for to get the most out of the relationship. If you think the feedback is fair, but don’t know what to do with it, ask for concrete suggestions and hold yourself accountable to them. If you’re struggling with the feedback, consider if you can take that struggle elsewhere, or be open about why that is.

There’s a great book called Thanks for the Feedback (Amazon) that I really recommend, and one of the things there is that it talks about your first score – the feedback – and then your second score – what you do with that. People who do well at the second score, will get better and better over time. This is the core of the growth mindset.

Like everything else, we can work on becoming more coachable. This is a really powerful catalyst for individual growth, with really strong long-lasting effects—because coachable people are easier and more rewarding to help, they get more help and do more with it.

So how do we do that? Five ideas.

1. Build your self-awareness

The most exhausting people to give feedback to are those who are so invested in some image of themselves that you can never really talk to them—only their ego. The easiest people to give feedback to are those with few self-illusions, and a level of self-worth such that they don’t find it threatening to know what they can improve.

In short, the more self-aware you are, the more people can connect with you and not the story you need to tell about yourself. Self-awareness is often hard won, but professional coaching can help, as can therapy and good friends who are willing to call you on your bullshit.

2. Broaden your perspective

Broadening your perspective helps you see things in different ways, to be more open to possibilities outside your world view. Three good ways to help with this:

  • Read a broad array of fiction. Reading fiction makes people more empathetic, especially if it involves a broad variety, written by people who are not like you. Memoirs can also be good for this (two I read recently and loved: Becoming by Michelle Obama and How to Be Alone by Lane Moore – both links Amazon).
  • Cultivate a broader network of people. Start by expanding the choices of voices you listen to on social media; over time, try and broaden your friendship circle. It’s worth noting you probably have to make more effort to become friends with people who are less like you, and do more of the emotional labor. 
  • In other times I suggest travelling outside your comfort zone, but maybe that’s just life in 2020 now.

3. Shed your defensiveness

As a rule, I try to never defend myself when someone gives me feedback. Defensiveness either shuts the conversation down or makes it about your feelings rather than what the person is trying to tell you. Try and accept that anyone who cares enough to try and give you feedback is not setting out to upset you; offer context they might be missing, yes, but remember that too much context is just a nice way to defend yourself. You will learn a lot more from the conversation if you ask questions and “get curious” instead.

Importantly, you don’t have to respond in the moment. You can take time to process—maybe work through your defensiveness with someone else—and come back to the person to continue the discussion. Removing pressure to respond in the moment can help you avoid being defensive, and give you space to decide what part of the feedback is useful to take. Remember, the second score is the most important one.

4. Own up

If you can admit what you’re bad at, the conversation starts with what you want to get better at, rather than forcing the feedback provider to convince you this is a thing you need to work on. When you start with a self-assessment that demonstrates self-awareness, a lack of defensiveness, and empathy for how your actions and stress fall on others, people are much more inclined to believe that their feedback will be heard and acted on constructively.

5. Ask for advice

Often people are afraid to give feedback for fear of upsetting us, and are particularly unwilling to risk this if they think we are doing well overall. Their assumption can also be that they have nothing to add, or that they are missing too much context to be useful.)

For most people, it’s easier to give advice than feedback, so try asking for that instead. This can be as simple as, “what would you try?”

This is a great topic for this timeline, if we come back to drowning rats, the water is rising, there are fewer life rafts around. There may be nothing we can do about the practical realities – we’re still working from a place unsuited to it, with various distractions and a deep underlying current of existential dread. The purpose of coaching or mentorship is not to ignore these things, but to expand our capacity even as we carry those weights.

I want to end this talk with a story, about someone I know, he’s a software engineer at Apple now.

He moved to the US from Jamaica, and he taught himself to code. As he was looking for entry level developer jobs, he saw something I tweeted about calls with under-indexed folk in mobile, and he booked one with me. He asked me for help on technical interviews, and I did a couple of things. Firstly, I bought him a book. Secondly, I did a couple of practice interviews with him and gave him feedback. Thirdly, I made an introduction to Glowforge, the company where I’m an advisor, and got him an interview.

I gave him practical help – a life raft. Because that’s really what most under-indexed people need when they try to break into this industry. But here’s the thing – I did a lot of those calls, and he’s the only person I heard from again after the first one. The only person who ever came back around and followed up. So each time he came back, I gave him a little more, and each time he multiplied it. He went to work at Glowforge, learned a ton there, and now he works at Apple. I really could not be prouder of him and everything he’s done.

He makes a point to tell me that I changed his life, which is, of course, really cool. But he is the person who showed me what it looks like to maximize what you get out of every such interaction, how to do the most with the life raft, the swimming lesson, and the view from the bridge. When I think about who I want to spend my time on, I look for people like him who will multiply whatever I give them and really make the most of it, and that’s the kind of person I try to be in turn.

I covered a lot of things today, the framework of coachability, the different things we can do to improve. Here’s the one thing I want you to take from this time together: as you go into any mentoring, coaching situation, your next 1:1 with your manager, consider, how can you get the most value out of these interaction? What do you need to ask for? And how can you get out of your own way?

Slides by Jolie Zinn