Learning to Lead

Up until some time in October 2014, Octane was the figurative and literal one-man-band — fighting the good fight, but nurturing an ambition to grow. Then, over the course of the following November, I was an employer for the first time.

I had intended taking on a single employee to help me with a nascent internal project, the Under Cloud, but given it was — for the most part — both a new experience and a complete leap into the dark, I took on two employees, both acquired via (and from) the University of Sheffield.

How not to be a boss!

Perhaps more important to me at that time — at that moment of becoming an employer — was to avoid becoming the boss I had so long ago.

I had a terrible experience as an employee, and at the time of that acrimonious departure, I made a promise to myself that I would never become like the person I worked for. But it was a learning process, one that taught me that in spite of the terrible experience, we had followed a similar path.

What separated us was the application of those experiences and the value we derived from them.

In the end, it was a choice: choose to be broken by those experiences; or break the cycle and turn those experiences into a blueprint for something positive.

I chose the latter option.

Lessons in leadership

A trick I use is to step outside of myself and look beyond the bubble of ownership and management, because sometimes the passion I have translates as frustration when things aren’t moving fast enough, or despair when those I engage with lack the same zeal as me.

So it’s about remaining human, humane, grounded, real, focused, trusted — a windswept, rugged island of calm in the teeth of a raging storm. I know, that last part is a bit dramatic, but it’s apt, because while I have several decades of experience to draw upon, those who work for me do not, and I must be that singular point of calm to their storm.

Personal experience aside, I am a relative newcomer to this employer thing! Yes, I have mentors to turn to, such as the wonderful Karen Guile, the owner of Tobook Limited, a client of Octane’s. But in the end, it’s a path I — and anyone else in my position — has to walk alone.

I get it, don’t allow employees to become too familiar. I see the argument and I understand the logic, but it’s not me, and it’s not how I was as an employee, either, because I questioned (and continue to question) almost everything.

Questions are good!

I’d rather be the target of a barrage of pointed, reasoned, logical questions, than a participant in an awkward silence emerging from a lack of action, resulting in a poor performance.

Projects live and die by three things:

  1. Planning;
  2. Communication;
  3. Execution.

While we keep doing those 3 things, we won’t often go far wrong.

Which brings me to performance, and it also ties in with the lack of (but fast-growing) experience I (don’t) have when it comes to employing people.

Role reversal

Now, for some of you reading this article, imagining yourself as an employee shouldn’t be too difficult because that’s what you are!

But think for a moment:

  • Those things you do which you wish you didn’t have to.
  • Or those things that get foisted onto you when a little sharing would have been a big help.
  • Then there are those who get nudged out of position, a bit like Wayne Rooney playing out on the left wing; why squander the striking talent of the lad when he was born for the forward position? Play people to their strengths!

You get the idea.

I don’t want — or need — to be that boss who hands down from on high things with an avuncular scowl of pre-emptive disappointment.

However, at the same time, I need to know what else an employee is capable of doing. Stress is a revealing environment, which might forge a metallic edge to a person, or make them shrink like a flower in the shadows. I got florid again, didn’t I?

So it’s a balancing act: place them in a stressful environment, or under pressure (not quite the same thing), but be there for them. In either instance, I ask if it’s something they want to do.

Failure isn’t such a bad thing until we stop learning from it, or we become afraid of it.

Leading by example

We know from personal experience that finding enjoyment in what we do is vital. But not everything we do is a rib-tickling festival of mirth and merriment.

So how do I mitigate this?

I share the entire strategies I have with the team, which is sometimes overwhelming, but at least the journey is known.

It’s rare that I might withhold something (perhaps financial), because I believe that censorship of information is often (but not always) more harmful than sharing.

Then we talk about activities, and I ask questions such as:

  • “Do you want to do this?”
  • “Does this make sense to you?”
  • “Here’s how I do things, but what would be best for you?”
  • “Would it help if I gave you a hand?”

Sometimes, it’s about maintaining momentum, understanding the terrain, and knowing when to lead by example.

In short, I sometimes get stuck in and do the horrible things, freeing the team up to do the things I’m paying them to do.

Then I’ll do something which some might find unusual — I conduct a reverse performance review by asking: “How am I doing?”

I don’t often make demands, but I demand an honest answer to that question, and I make a point of teasing out the observations and drilling down to the specifics. Sometimes, it’s about them, but then sometimes it’s about me, and if I agree and it makes sense, I fix that.

Everyone has to be engaged, and feel part of the journey and not an incidental passenger, or a mere cog in a machine.

Look, I make no claim to be the perfect boss, nor am I aspiring to be that (perfection is impossible, but that’s for another time). Instead, first and foremost, I’m attempting to be boss that I’d work for and then build from there.

If work ethic had a colour, what would it be?

I suppose the good news is, if someone like Trump could be President, there’s hope for everyone.

As a kid, I was a paperboy, working for Dali, the Asian owner of the corner shop — I know, a cliché, but it’s true.

So the first “job” I had came to me from someone of foreign extraction.

Since then — swatting aside accusations of being an entrepreneur with Trump-esque glee and defiance — I’ve been working on a not-so-secret project:

Under Cloud is the place to store, share, and link excellent ideas.

Capture ideas. Create knowledge.

I mention this because in 2014 I realised that I had taken the Under Cloud as far as I could alone. So I took a leap and … (cut to the end) … as of October 2014 I had not one but two employees.

But I’m getting ahead of myself…

I had placed a recruitment advert with the University of Sheffield and received 3 applications from: an Italian; an Iranian; and a Nigerian.

Not a White Caucasian in sight, or a female, either — but that’s another subject for another time, perhaps.

Now, this isn’t a left-leaning plea for us to embrace each other while a young church volunteer strums along to a cheerful rendition of kumbaya.

Bad people come in all colours — some orange, for example. So I suppose the point is, I am here as a businessman on LinkedIn because of a multicultural Britain, not in spite of it.

First published on LinkedIn.

Capturing the learning process with the Under Cloud

Learning is a fluid process — sometimes difficult, sometimes not so much.

When it’s difficult, we often plan ahead and build up our resources, which might include required documentation, such as a good book. Once done, we have the evidence to support the continued learning process.

However, when the learning process is more ad hoc and on-the-go, this reactive learning process means we often don’t have the time to document what we’re learning.

I wrote the Under Cloud for a number of reasons, but the core underlying principle was that of documenting the data and information I was gathering and transforming them into knowledge.

Now, some of you might be wondering: Hold on, what’s the difference between data, information, and knowledge? A lot — data is to DNA what information is to human, what knowledge is to culture. Once you understand the hierarchical nature of these three structures, it makes learning a bit more layered.

As an example, a spreadsheet contains numbers (data), which are — in and of themselves — not much use until someone transforms those numbers into a useful chart (information), based upon which decisions are made which then contribute to a greater whole (knowledge).

But I digress…

Still, there is the challenge of capturing that fast-paced learning process. If you’re using Microsoft OneNote or Evernote, you have access to their neat ‘clipper’ extensions and plugins for the various web browsers. While these tools are excellent — and often indispensable to some — they’re not solving the fundamental problem.

Take, for example, of the office junior who is watching the senior members of the team work on the aforementioned spreadsheet. Peter adds the numbers. Sarah creates the chart. Anne, John, Catherine, and Gina begin a discussion as to how to implement the information contained in several charts supplied by their team.

Here is a flow of events, one connected to another, as a narrative. You could either ‘clip’ each stage of the process, or write one long rambling note. But how flexible are either of these approaches? Sometimes, one part of that process is relevant elsewhere, but if it’s hidden in one long rambling note, how do reference that? If it’s one distinct note — which is ideal — you’re then hoping that you used some sensible organisational pattern for those notes.

What the Under Cloud does is to allow you to build your own narrative, one that doesn’t care which folder you put your notes in. You link one note to the next, annotating that link. So, as an example, if you had a bookmark for apples and a note for oranges, the link annotation would be fruit, since this would be the vital context connecting the two.

As of writing, the Under Cloud has its own extension for Google Chrome, which allows you to capture part of or an entire web page. However, there is no equivalent option to add comments or links to that bookmark, which is the next logical step.

Once this is in place, capturing that learning process would be low friction and robust.

Thinking further ahead, perhaps something that allows screen capturing that records audio, so that the video becomes your own screencast.

How to respond to failure. Or, after the problem came the procedure.

Encountering problems and making mistakes is a consequence of life, business, and everything else — and unavoidable. But the value is in how you respond to them.

As I said on Twitter this past week:

I’ve found that the best lessons in life — by far — are those where you learn how NOT to do something.

But still, as good as vicarious experiences are, they only get you so far.

In the beginning, there was the mistake…

By gum, was it a doozy! I’ll spare you the gory details (because they are — for the most part — irrelevant) but it was less a bug and more an infestation in the code. In the grand scheme of things, it has caused problems for our schedule, but the Under Cloud remains on course.

Stripping the whole problem down and tracing it to its source, it was — as these things often are — a failure to communicate, which resulted in team members and myself labouring under the assumption that something was when it wasn’t.

And then came the procedure…

So how did I respond?

We’re using a number of things to manage what we do. As a team of 3, we don’t need a lot, but we find that Slack and Trello are enough to keep things together, although we often find things said and done become lost inside the whirring cogs of the communication machine!

I created a list in Trello and added a card entitled: “Deprecated”, within which I wrote the following description:

“Here are all of the parts, components, and libraries of the application that have been deprecated, and what they’ve been superseded with.

Please update this card as and when required, but also refer to it, too!”

Some might argue it’s just a patching of holes, while some might claim it’s only of any use if people follow the procedure, but I would counter by saying that’s life, business, and everything else…

On being bold, and risking everything on an idea

I have an idea. I believe it’s an excellent idea. But belief doesn’t write code. People do.

I’m 4 years into a project — Under Cloud — which is a web application focused on the creation, curation, and management of research. It’s about capturing that moment of serendipity; when you realise you have something that fits with something else you did, or read, or wrote, and then linking them together with similar items, to create a narrative, and a stream of thought.

At present, the project is at an usable stage of development — I’m using it on a regular basis to manage my own personal and professional needs. However, much remains to be done. So, I had another idea.

The power of 3

By the end of the week, Octane will have gone from 1 employee (me), to 3. In the end, I had no choice, because to move the gain line forward, I needed to do something so different that it would mean transforming Octane and risking just about everything on a belief in an idea. I’d be running the risk of losing control, and — once more — staring into that darkness, not knowing where things were going.

Yes, I have a plan. Of course I do. But I’m charting a different course, and heading for unknown waters. It’s amazing.

I was asked: “Why not do [x] yourself?” which was an option, but it would have meant missing the chance to recruit two people who — if their delivery is commensurate with their obvious talents — could propel the Under Cloud forward at a pace and in a direction I couldn’t hope to do alone. Or worse, I do the work myself, and then 6 weeks later those same two people are no longer available to take things further.

I’m not just spending £x per hour on two people, I’m investing in a possible future for 3 people.

I could go on, but you get the idea.

So this is it, the biggest and most expensive gamble I’ve ever undertaken.