To Manage is Human

I am a good manager.  Mostly because I try to be.  You can be too.  The bar is lamentably low.

I am kind.  I care about you as a person.  I seek to find and nurture your best qualities.  I see your weaknesses too.  I don’t judge you for them.  I also have weaknesses.  And always will.  I like to know how to manage around them, our weaknesses.  I support your ambitions, even if they aren’t immediately aligned with what’s best for the company or me.  I celebrate your birthday in a non-generic way and lend you books that I think you’ll like.  I listen for the strain in your voice to get a sense of whether you feel overwhelmed, overworked, or tired.  When I hear it, I ask about it.  I ask if we can reshuffle the deck or get you support or just not do something on the list right now.  When it’s worse than that, and you come to me in tears, I give you a hug and lend you my sunglasses.  We can talk about it later.  I do not judge you for being human and having feelings.  I am so grateful when you do the same for me.  When I hear enthusiasm in your voice instead, I match it with my own.  Even if I just had a bad meeting with my boss.  I drop that and try to be present for you.  None of this is about mollycoddling.  It’s about acknowledging that we work best when we feel whole and secure.  It is about kindness.

I am a coach.  At any moment in time, I like to have a sense of what you are capable of now, and what you’ll be capable of next.  I am grateful for now and pay a lot of attention to next.  This is day-to-day, maybe week-to-week, definitely not at the longer timespan of a formal learning plan.  When I see glimmers of next, I praise it as quickly and specifically as possible.  I avoid generic “thank you” emails just as I avoid “Happy birthday!” Facebook wall posts.  They are nearly meaningless.  I do send short, personal, specific emails acknowledging effort and growth.  And then I try to show you how to take the next step better.  This might be by asking questions and having you think it through.  It might be through written feedback, informative and non-judgmental.  It might be through my own example.  It might be by having you get together with someone else who can do next better than me.  We all want to grow, and I want to help you.  In doing so, the team will get better faster and deliver more and better work that way.

I coach the team, not just you.  How well we work together isn’t just about how well we work together.  It’s about feeling like we share a common purpose.  I try to make sure we all feel like we have one.  And it’s the same one.  It’s also about making sure that we have efficient team structures in place.  That we have 1-1s, that these have a rhythm to them.  That we have the right regular meetings to reflect the work we need to do.  And it’s also about how well you work together, without me.  You need to understand and value each other’s strengths. You need to develop rhythms for collaborating.  I need to help you do these things.  To put you in situations where you see for yourself your teammate’s “ness.”  To create a place where you practice working together.  To suggest better ways of working together.  To encourage you when I see you collaborating effectively.  You are the team.

I seek excellence.  Done is better than perfect.  But perfect is the goal.  So the same effort I put into understanding what you are capable of now and next I put into being a discerning consumer of work.  Is what you just did good or excellent?  What would make it excellent?  Do I understand this myself?  Or do I need to talk to someone else in order to better understand this?  If I don’t understand what excellent is, I cannot coach you, the team, or the organization in its direction.  Nor can we achieve excellence without reflecting on what we do and how we can do it better.  The closer we get to making this an everyday practice, the faster we will improve.  If all we do is build or build and measure and we never pause to reflect and learn, we will never approach excellence.  Learning is an hourly, daily, weekly, monthly, quarterly, and yearly practice.  The more frequently you do it, the less clunky it is to do.  The faster you approach excellence.

To manage is human.  Long-term impact does not come from “managing for results.”  It comes from being kind, from coaching, and from pursuing excellence.  Without these things, you might get some results for some time.  But your best people will leave.  And the new ones you get won’t be the same caliber.  And what you could have built will slip away.  It will be done, not perfect.

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When Working Hard is a Sign of Weakness

After leaving Quad Learning, I promised more writing.  But I didn’t deliver, at least to you.  As I started writing, I found that my writing was taking the form of a single, longer piece about management.  It’s now thirty pages, single-spaced.  And I’m still chugging along.  So my writing is mostly mine for now.  But after getting back from vacation last week, I had coffee with someone who proudly spoke of work as an “all-consuming calling.”  It prompted me to write this shorter piece, which I’m sharing now.

I’ve known a lot of managers who consistently work 70 or 80 hours a week and wear it as a badge of pride.  Some of them are friendly and much-loved.  People speak highly of their dedication to their work.  Some are micro-managing taskmasters.  People speak bitterly of how they “have no life.”  But most of them, whether much-loved or despised, are terrible managers.

I should know.  I’ve been one.  And even after I became a good manager, I became a much better one when I started actively trying to work less.  After running the 50-hour week experiment last fall, I realized that it was harder to work 50 hours a week than to work 70.  If working 50 hours was harder, then it would take a better manager to figure out how to do it.  I wanted to be a better manager.  I wanted to figure out how to do it.  This kicked off an incredibly productive period of experimentation with my schedule and my approach to management.

This isn’t to say that there aren’t times when 70 or 80 or more hours are called for, even by the best of managers.  In a crisis or turnaround, not putting in the hours can mean losing an opportunity for transformative change.  I’ve stepped into my share of these, from planning the transformation of the New Orleans Public School system after Hurricane Katrina to taking over a chaotic and underperforming marketing and admissions function halfway through the recruiting cycle at Quad Learning.

It can also make sense to work around the clock at the beginning or end of a big push, where in addition to our daily work, we need to invest in creating new things. I’ve done this too, including the early days of setting up NMSI and each time I took over a new function at Quad Learning.

But more often than not, consistently working 70 or 80 hours a week is a sign of managerial weakness.  It’s sending last minute emails instead of thinking about what needs to get done in advance.  It’s using email to work through complex issues.  It’s calling ad hoc meetings rather than reviewing whether your schedule over the next week and month meets your team’s needs.  It’s failing to make sure the right people are in the meeting and that the appropriate pre-work is done.  It’s not proactively scheduling time when the whole team is in the office together.  It’s prioritizing your inbox and leaving the important stuff for the late hours, when you have less energy but keep working anyway.  It’s failing to hire, develop, and/or empower your team to be excellent at their jobs.  It’s assigning people tasks instead of empowering them with areas of responsibility.  It’s renegotiating commitments each week rather than establishing routines.

So if you tell me you work 70 hours a week, I want to know, “Why?”  I’ll be listening to hear whether something has suddenly, unexpectedly changed or whether you’re investing in a new project.  And then I’ll ask, “What would it take for you to work 50 hours a week?”  If you don’t have a ready answer, then you don’t understand why you work so much.  This means you aren’t trying to work less.  And if you aren’t trying to work less, then you aren’t trying to build an increasingly efficient communication architecture, and you aren’t maximizing the development of your team.  You likely aren’t a good manager.




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Home and Away


Home is resilience.  If it rains, I have boots.  If my allergies flare, I have meds.  If I spill coffee on my jeans, I have a clean pair.

Home is familiar strangers.  The light-skinned man with Tourette’s calling out, “Street Sense, dollah donation” in front of the Ace Hardware on P St.  My fellow travelers in the early morning ashtanga class.  The Ethiopian women at Whole Foods, the one at the coffee bar and the one who checks out my groceries.

Home is noticing small changes.  A leafy city, no longer awash in bud green; the steel chairs that have been replaced with vermillion ones; the return of humidity.

Home is a place where things bend toward me.  Linens the way I like them, tight and crisp.  Products to keep my unruly hair in as much order as it will take.  All of my books, arrayed and waiting.  A fridge full of my staples—corn tortillas, tofu, arugula, cheese, yogurt, sriracha.

Home is independence. My city, my schedule, my bikeshare, my yoga studio.

Home is love.  My sister picking me up from the airport.  A too late Thursday night at Thai Crossing for a friend’s birthday.  My old team over to share champagne and macaroons, the spoils of time away.


Riding camels into the Sahara.


French Open game faces.









Away is adventure.  Camel-riding in the Sahara, bicycling all over Paris, peering down at the Atlantic from cliffs 2,000 feet above.

Away is serendipity.  Two of your favorite people, also in London at the same time. Being in the right places at the right times to see the French Open and the Matisse paper cutouts exhibition.  Chancing upon a skating competition at the Eiffel Tower.

Away is taking in big things, firsts and superlatives.  New landscapes, cracked and rising in unexpected ways.  The quiet of Westminster Abby when everyone else is gone.  A first hammam visited, first vino verde drunk, first conch and barnacle eaten.  The best macaroons, baguette, and croissants.

Away is tiresome.  Rental car lines, flight cancellations, wrong trains.  Unspoken languages, unfavorable exchange rates, unfamiliar beds and baths.

Away is dependence.  Relying on fellow travelers to help with directions and shopkeepers to meet you halfway to understand what you are trying to say.

Away is love.  Friends who speak languages you don’t, share their cities, and make their homes your home.

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The Next Chapter

Start walking toward Shams.  Your legs will get heavy
and tired.  Then comes a moment
of feeling the wings you’ve grown,
Rumi, “Unfold Your Own Myth”

For the last year, I’ve written very little on this blog.  I’ve been busy building Quad Learning, a startup that partners with community colleges to offer honors programs for students that want to go on to get bachelor’s degrees.  Despite huge passion for the mission and the best team you could ask for, I recently decided to leave the company.

In my year with Quad, my teams turned around marketing and admissions to deliver the first paying class of students, defined our student services model to breakout graduation and transfer outcomes, and developed a scalable approach to college operations.  Amidst this, I taught hypothesis testing to anyone and everyone and learned how to be an effective manager and developer of people.

Along the way, my legs got heavy and tired.  Now, I am lucky: I can feel the contours of the wings I’ve grown.  But they’re new, and I’m just learning about them.  Before I throw myself into the next opportunity, I want to take time to reflect so that I can move forward from a stronger position.

So for this next stretch, expect a lot more writing from me.  Writing about startups and edtech, about management and developing people, about community colleges and their students, about my experience of it all.

I look forward to engaging with y’all, and together, lifting.

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My experiment with a 50-hour work week

Radhika Nagpal earned tenure at Harvard while working 50 hours per week.  In a recent Scientific American piece, she writes about this and other uncommon decisions she made about her work life (e.g. capping her travel, doing one fun and one hard thing each week, etc.). 

Inspired by this piece, I decided to work a 50-hour week last week.  Here’s what I did to make my 70-hour work week fit into 50 hours:

  • I shortened as many meetings as I could.  I immediately searched for hour-long meetings that I could make half an hour.  And then I searched for half-hour meetings that I could make fifteen minutes.  And then I declined more meetings than I had previously. 
  • I made sure that every meeting I had for the week had objectives set in advance, whether it was my meeting or not.  If someone sent out an invite without objectives or pre-work, I asked for both—even if the person was senior to me.  I also started thinking about checklists for meetings—in what meetings should we always make sure we cover the same things (e.g. social media).
  • By the end of the week, I’d added the practice of writing a quick reflection in the calendar invite after a meeting.  By having objectives and a guess at how long the meeting would take up front, I could quickly compare my guesses about objectives and timing to the actual result.  This creates an opportunity to learn from the delta between what I expected and what happened.
  • I said no to other people more but actually spent more time doing important things for other people.  I made up a rule that if someone else on the management team wanted something, I would do it if it was either easy (less than fifteen minutes) or if I thought it contributed to one of their top two priorities.  This week, that meant that I actually spent considerable time—several hours–reviewing and editing a contract with a potential partner but that there were several documents I didn’t review at all.

 It also made me realize a few other broad things about the way I was working:

  • I need to take more time to develop my team.  Everything I do to make my team more effective individually and as a group means increasing leverage on our time for all of us.  I already believed that, but now I feel it. I need to spend more time teaching and giving feedback—and having my team do the same for me.
  • Written reflection is so valuable.  Since this was an experiment and not a decision, I blocked off half an hour for writing a reflection each day (in addition to my 50 hours).  I sketched out what I’d done that day by hour, recorded my hours worked and hours left for the week, jotted down “things of note,” and wrote about how I’d spent my free time.  I learned so much from doing this (including everything written here).  There’s a lot of research that writing helps you process and learn.  Again, I already believed that, but now I feel it.  Freshly, at that.
  • The boundaries between my work and life are porous—and I like it that way.  Unlike Radhika, I don’t have a husband and two kids.  I have a couple of plants that I’m a little too willing to subject to a survival of the fittest watering strategy.  My work is play—with discussion of an amazing poem on Tuesday and office flip cup on Thursday.  And my play is work—with a two-hour dinner with colleagues on Monday night where we seamlessly weaved between yoga and business reflections.  I don’t need sharp boundaries because I bring pretty close to my whole self to work—and so do my colleagues.
  • When you are always in productivity mode, you cut yourself off from serendipity.  Serendipity is one of my favorite things, and I value it really highly.  But serendipity is more planned than it is often given credit for.  The serendipity that happens inside your house is pretty limited.  At a coffee shop, somewhat higher.  At a coffee shop in a neighborhood where certain types of people hang out, even higher.  There is a certain serendipity that comes from just passing time together as a group.  And if you only do 50 hours and plan out most of it into the most efficient meetings you can manage, you cut yourself off from serendipity.

 Working 50 hours wasn’t all roses:

  • Someone on my team mentioned that I was using “Because I want it” a lot as a rationale.  That’s the worst.  I hate it when other people do that.  But now I was doing it!  It’s hard not to become transactional and demanding when trying to move fast. But it’s less fun for everyone and not the basis of great relationships.  I screwed this up.
  • By Thursday, every fiber of my being was exhausted.  Working 50 hours meant that I had to work at an exhausting pace for much of it, hyper-focused for long stretches of time.

Nor did my life outside of work change in the ways I expected:

  • In my newly freed up time, I did more of the things I already like to do.  For me this meant practicing yoga and reading fiction books.  I saw tangible progress on both in just one week—piking into a headstand for the first time in ten years and finishing two great books.  But I didn’t do any of the things I’d been meaning to do—like get my hair cut, cancel my duplicate health insurance, finish my taxes, or respond to anyone ever on any online dating site.  There’s a difference between having free time and creating new patterns of action. 
  • More time at home means more time to make my home a mess.  Having grown up in a messy, disorganized house, I hate the idea of having a messy, disorganized house.  But spending more time in my apartment gave me more time to cook and to try on clothes I usually couldn’t be bothered to make into an outfit, so that by the end of the week, things were more chaotic than usual.

But overall, it was a useful experiment—one that I plan to repeat regularly, if not every week.  We put so little time into thinking about how to work more effectively.  And so little time into reflection.  Yet both have, as I’ve recently been reminded, incredibly high dividends.

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A capital humanist: My best fiction reads of 2012

The hardest thing about writing is seeing clearly enough that you can get to the heart of an idea, a person in a sentence or two.  All of the authors listed here do this.  Their books are wonderful observatories of the human experience: some draw it more beautifully, some draw it more sharply, some more absurdly.  But every exaggeration reflects back some fun house mirror of the truth.

My favorite fiction reads of 2012:

  • A Visit from the Goon Squad, Jennifer Egan.  Time is running out for faded rocker and record exec, Bennie Salazar.  As Bennie puts it,  “I’m done. I’m old, I’m sad – that’s on a good day. I want out of this mess. But I don’t want to fade away, I want to flame away – I want my death to be an attraction, a spectacle, a mystery. A work of art.”  Every chapter is a different window into Bennie’s life, from a different person, at a different time.  In the hands of a lesser writer, this might feel trinket-y.  But with Egan’s command of language, it’s just a treat to get to meet so many different people and see so many different times.
  • The Invisible Circus, Jennifer Egan.  When 1960s San Francisco wasn’t enough of a kick any more for hippie Faith, she moved to Europe where she died shortly thereafter.  Her younger sister Phoebe feels like she’s missed out: missed out on the ‘60s, missed out on Faith.  Eventually, Phoebe takes off for Europe herself.  There she meets her sister’s ex-boyfriend, Wolf, living a rather pedestrian life as a translator.  Trying to understand the gap between the wild child lifestyle Faith and Wolf led together and the life Wolf now leads, Egan reflects,  “And sitting there, sea drifting in around them, Wolf had understood for the first time what kind of life he wanted to live with Faith. Maybe they wouldn’t rise up into the sky the way he’d thought, maybe the real thing was doing what his parents had done, pay the rent, read the paper, hell, maybe that was the dare. To live–day in, day out. Just live.”
  • Look at Me, Jennifer Egan.  In this 2001 novel, Egan presages the rise of reality television, terrorism, and social media.  But like the other Egan books, this one explores what identity is and what it means when our identity changes.  As our protagonist says, “I would lie of course. I lied a lot and with good reason: to protect the truth—safeguard it like wearing fake gems to keep the real ones from getting stolen or cheapened by overuse. I guarded what truths I possessed because information was not a thing—it was colorless odorless shapeless and therefore indestructible. There was no way to retrieve or void it no way to halt its proliferation. Telling someone a secret was like storing plutonium inside a sandwich bag: the information would inevitably outlive the friendship or love or trust in which you’d placed it. And then you would have given it away.”
  • The Adults, Alison Espach. The adults, consumed with their own wealthy suburban Connecticut lives, have more or less left Laura to raise herself.  The adults behavior is appalling, Laura’s own decision-making is questionable, but her tone of voice is more observational than excoriating.   Later, as an adult, she reflects, “Childrens’ lives are always beginning and adults’ lives are always ending.  Or is the opposite?  Your childhood is always ending and your adult self is always beginning.  You are always learning to say goodbye to whoever you were at the dinner table with.”
  • Gone Girl, Gillian Flynn.  Razor-sharp writing with a killer plot.  Amy disappears on her fifth wedding anniversary; husband Nick is suspected. Amy writes of their relationship, “I am a thornbush, bristling from the overattention of my parents, and he is a man of a million fatherly stab wounds, and my thorns fit perfectly into them.”  But was it Nick?
  • The Likeness, Tana French.  Daniel says to Cassie-as-Lexi, “Sacrifice is not an option, or an anachronism; it’s a fact of life.  We all cut off our own limbs to burn on some altar.  The crucial thing is to choose an altar that’s worth it and a limb you can accept losing.  To go consenting to sacrifice.”  Daniel and his housemates have chosen a different sacrifice than most.  But in the midst of it, the real Lexi has been killed.  This is a smart whodunit, exploring identity and critiquing modern life as its pages turn themselves.
  • The Art of Fielding, Chad Harbach. A bildungsroman for the modern era, this one weaves together the stories of five college students, shifting points of view with each chapter.   The most fully rendered is Mike Schwartz, captain and unofficial coach of the Westish College baseball team: “Schwartz knew that people loved to suffer, as long as the suffering made sense.  Everybody suffered.  The key was to choose the form of your suffering.  Most people couldn’t do this alone; they needed a coach.  A good coach made you suffer in a way that suited you.  A bad coach made everyone suffer in the same way, and so was more like a torturer.”
  • State of Wonder, Ann Patchett.  In the prologue to the Best American Short Stories of 2012, Geraldine Brooks writes, “There’s nothing wrong with writing stories set in bedrooms, classrooms, kitchens.  These are the places where we spend large slabs of our lives.  But the air becomes stale there.”  Patchett takes us out of these rooms and into the Amazon.  Against this canopy, a pharmaceutical company executive disappears, a researcher’s answers don’t make sense, and our protagonist seeks the truth.  Fingers crossed that after all the hard work Patchett does to set the scene in this book and the number of loose ends she leaves behind, a sequel is on its way.
  • Super Sad True Love Story, Gary Shteyngart.  Forget the plot, read it for the social commentary.  The Euro has split into North and South; the only airline left is UnitedContinentalDeltamerican; people think books “smell like wet socks;” teenagers surf each other’s data streams rather than “verballing.”  Welcome to the near distant future.
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Be It Resolved: Happy 2013!

Of becoming a writer, Lorrie Morre writes, “First, try to be something, anything, else.”  I get this.  I write because I don’t know how to not write.  Writing helps me understand what I think.  It helps me pay attention.  It helps keep me connected to you.

It’s not always easy to find the time and energy to write.  Despite my intermittent efforts, I haven’t become someone who can spring out of bed at 5am and churn out a blog post every morning.  I get tired.  I get lazy.  I get distracted.

Nor am I someone who finishes every post I start.  Hemingway may be right that one should “write when there is something that you know and not before and not too damned much after.”  But it’s not easy.  I have a file full of half-written posts to prove it.

But I did write in 2012.  37 posts, to be exact.  Less than I’d like but more than nothing.  My most viewed posts in 2012 were:

  1. The Impact of Teach For America in Tennessee.  Since writing this post, I’ve gotten another year of data and look forward to updating this post.  Spoiler: Teach For America is still out-performing other teacher prep programs in Tennessee.
  2. Gender Matters: Silicon Valley’s Mistreatment of its Daughters.  This piece turned the commendations of a tony Silicon Valley prep school into wordles.  The boys were disproportionately commended for “academic” and “knowledge,” while the girls were commended for “enthusiasm” and “soul.”  A year has passed, and another set of commendations has come out.  If I get my hands on them, I’ll update this post.
  3. Minimum Viable Montessori.  This piece compares what Sugata Mitra is building with Hole in the Wall to the principles behind the Montessori method.  Since writing this piece, I’ve gone back and read Montesori’s handbook (written by Maria Montessori herself) and have started tying off the Montessori method to research on how we learn.  I hope to find a reason to write about this in 2013.
  4. HBS, HKS, or Both?  It’s not a particularly interesting topic to me, but I understand why it’s of interest to others.  In my file of un-posted blog posts I have two more on this topic.  My guess is that I’ll dust these off and post them the next time I’m scheduled to talk to a prospective student.  Having people read the basics of my viewpoint in advance saves me from feeling like I’m living Groundhog Day.
  5. Tune in, Turn on, Don’t Drop Out.  Here I start to make the case for college, which has been getting beat up in the news.  For reasons I’ll share shortly, expect a lot more from me on the value of college in 2013.

Thanks to all who read “A human capitalist” in 2012.  My conversations with you–on and offline–help me see and think more clearly.  I look forward to sharing 2013 with you.

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