Some thoughts on managing and parenting while my kids are still gone

Today is day 20 of 21 of my kids being on their annual three week roadtrip with their dad, so I’ve been thinking a lot more for the past few weeks about managing adults in the workplace than about facilitating kids’ development at home*.

You know how you always think your boss knows what’s going on with your job so if they don’t fix things that are bad you assume it’s because they’re deliberately not fixing them to spite you? And how if you’re a manager you don’t know what’s really going on with your people because no one wants to complain and be seen as a whiner? So then everyone resents everyone? I developed a process for managers called Reporting/Interpreting/Solving Workflow Solutions (RISWS). It gives managers and team leaders a consistent flow of data that tells them what’s actually going on with their people, so they can fix things or give their people the power to fix them, and everyone can be engaged and happy and just do their jobs.

I’ve been working on RISWS with managers in the last year and have been getting good results, and just started a group through the process as part of a grant-funded study of the process. (I’m excited about it! The study leader is writing about it here:

It’s no secret that a lot of the way I show managers how to work with employees is related to the way I try to work with my kids. Employees are just people, and kids are just people, and managers and parents are just people. And all people want the same things: to matter, to be good at things, to be heard, to be valuable.

It’s a huge mistake–in my mind–to try to make your kids fit a checklist of well-roundedness instead of paying close attention to what they love and are good at, and encouraging them to run to those things. The same thing with employees–hiring someone and then trying to force them into a box you’ve created instead of looking at what’s fantastic about them is going to end up making everyone frustrated at work, and creating less value for the organization. If we’re being completely frank,it makes zero sense to pay good money for a salary and then not get the best out of an employee. People can sit at home being mediocre and frustrated on their own time. 

I had a meeting at my older son’s school yesterday about class placement for next year, and it forced me to focus on who my son is and what he’s good at, instead of choosing classes by what I think he should be good at. It’s not easy, this parenting the child you have instead of the child you think you have. I’m a lot better at listening quietly and observing carefully than I was before, and releasing my preconceptions about what brings meaning. One of my RISWS clients had a similar moment of realizing she was releasing a lot of unnecessary tension at work by admitting that one of her team members was really good at something that wasn’t strictly in the job description but could be useful for their team.

I realize that it’s a luxury to have the time and space and complimentary work area to be able to really think about parenting strategy for a big chunk of time. I miss my kids horribly during this three weeks, but being able to think about strategy and tactics and mission without being consumed by their immediate needs has been good. And a lot of managers are so busy putting out fires that they never really get to strategize about their team or team members.

I wish I could give everyone this kind of risk-free space. Parents to think about how to interact with their children to help them self-actualize, and managers to think about how to interact with their employees to help them stay in the flow state as much as possible. If some time and space drifts past you, grab it and let yourself use it to just think for awhile. It’s an investment in yourself, but also in the people you spend your time with.


* You know what’s super-easy? Being a fantastic parent by text. My older one’s been texting me throughout this road trip and I am KILLING IT when all I have to do is offer sage advice in written form. If only there was a way to do the first three years by text, this parenting gig would be fantastic.

The big Reddit mistake from an organizational and management perspective

When Ellen Pao came in to Reddit I didn’t have a lot of hope for her in the position, but I thought maybe the hail Mary could work. I mean, Ford had a hundred years of dysfunction and toxicity, but Alan Mulally was still able to turn that ship and allow the employees to create something new and healthier, and Ford’s in great shape now. So maybe it could happen for Reddit, too. But then it turned out that Reddit didn’t know how to do anything but eat its young, and now Pao’s gone and it’s evident that the site itself is rotting from the inside out and if I were one of the investors I’d be calling my tax accountant now about taking a write-off.

Whoever gets to write this case study for business schools to use is getting a peach of a story. This is basically the worst-case scenario in a lot of ways, and that starts with the mistaken idea people had that Reddit was in any way a disruptor.

There was nothing new about Reddit. We wrote slam books in junior high back when it was still called junior high and not middle school. My high school friends used to run dial-up bulletin boards from modems in their bedrooms in 1989. I was all over Urban Baby when my first child was a baby and I felt alone and isolated and unhappy and needed the adrenaline hit of arguing with strangers on the internet about arcane details of baby care and NYC playground politics.

Reddit was just Urban Baby for 23-year-old white men. Instead of organic pacifiers, BPPs, and what-your-i-banker-husband-is-really-doing-when-he’s-working-late, it was details about FPSes, sports, and why-don’t-girls-want-to-fuck-me. And because people were anonymous, they said some horrible things (along with a lot of really, really funny things).

It gave you a place to say things you knew you were an asshole for saying.

But being an asshole and getting away with it only works when something’s underground. As soon as it starts to become legit, and starts getting money and infrastructure and non-developer paid staff, a decision has to be made. If you make the decision you have to create and enforce community standards, and if you don’t (or aren’t willing to) make the decision you’re legitimizing violence.

So. Reddit made a decision, which we now know about because of the comments Yishan Wong made after Pao was ousted, to go toward legitimacy. But they were going to do it in a stealth way from behind the scenes, deciding on and enforcing standards and basically using quantitative game theory to decide what to allow as a sacrifice in order to be able to save the good stuff. Interesting, right? And, like, an actual strategy. So far so good.

The problem is that they made another decision that may not have seemed as important, but that actually created the current problem that’s killed them: They let their unpaid, volunteer mods stay unpaid, volunteer mods. 

Anyone who’s ever worked with volunteers know that they’re the gift that eats. You can get so much done with them, they save your resources for other things, and they can get so good at doing their jobs that they need little supervision, but they can also get so embedded that if they decide to go off mission–or decide to enforce what they perceive the mission to be–your entire organization can implode. And they’re very hard to control, because you can’t ever discipline them, because they’re doing you a favor. And you either can’t or have decided not to pay people to do that work. So you’re stuck.

(The management at Reddit knew that awhile ago–at least Wong did–but the general public didn’t really figure that out until Victoria Taylor was fired and all the mods shut down the AMAs and everyone was clutching their pearls about it.)

From a management perspective, volunteer mods are bad, bad news. When they’re embedded in your product so deeply (and in some subreddits they basically ARE the product), this is the management equivalent of the big Cascadia tectonic plate earthquake we all wish we didn’t know was coming. 

This management problem is why I’m writing about Reddit, btw. I’m not on Reddit. (I have a couple of friends who are Redditors, and they’re normal, educated, intelligent, kind people  who aren’t particularly traumatized by what’s going on.) I did my time on Urban Baby and Baby Center and I ran a FB group for Ask Moxie that self-destructed (I left right around the time Wong left Reddit), and I don’t have any desire to go into the bowels of another venue for arguing with strangers.

But I am passionate about helping managers figure out what’s going on with their people and how they can help everyone do really great things. And I think that could have happened (inasmuch as arguing with strangers on the internet ever does really great things) with Reddit. Except for the volunteers.

The mods didn’t seem to know that there was any kind of strategy to allow certain things but not others. They were attracted to the site because it was basically a place where it was cool to be a neckbeard. And because they assumed the founders of the site were neckbeards, too, who wanted them to have a place that was safe to say the kinds of things that showed they weren’t fit to interact with people except on the internet.

ETA: One of my aforementioned Redditor friends pointed out to me after reading this piece that many of the mods–and all of the mods of the happy subreddits–are normal people, not angry neckbeard MRAs, and I’m lumping them in with those bros here. I don’t mean to, and I want to mention that there are a lot of great people on Reddit, including mods. There’s still a huge problem with those good mods being unpaid, though–they work so hard that it can’t help but become very personal for them and they take so much pride in their contributions (modding is REALLY hard) that it’s never going to be easy to make decisions that are product or user or business decisions without big hurt feelings. It’s utterly reasonable, which is exactly why volunteer labor is incredibly tricky and dangerous.

And those volunteers and commenters were embedded in the site, the way the paid staff weren’t. The paid staff could leave or be cut loose–Wong, Pao, Victoria Taylor are all gone. But those mods were still there, suspending the AMAs and flexing their power every day. So now the “community” really is in charge, and they’re upholding values that aren’t what the founders–or most adults–have any interest in. This is like that LL Cool J movie in which they’re studying the sharks in that underwater lab, and then the sharks take over and trap them. The mods and Redditors are the sharks.

So, what is there to do? Well, back when I was on an amazing team a few years ago we used to joke around that if the product failed we’d just go home, sleep for the weekend, and then come back and create a new product. I don’t think that’s the worst idea in the world: Shut off the Reddit servers and sell the URL to a porn site, then all the paid Reddit employees take a week off and then come back the next Monday to start up the next thing. But if they’re going to do that they have to figure out how to manage their company and manage their employees to maintain boundaries and not confuse the users and product, and not let the control get away from them.

Hint: Hire more parents. We’re practiced in this healthy boundary stuff.

And that’s my takeaway. Not the not-shocking not-news that a bunch of undateable whiteboys on the internet are threatened by a woman who can read, and not the demise of another bulletin board site that was misunderstood by the huge corporation that bought it before it was ready to be bought, and not the fact that moving all the employees on-site is antithetical to good management practice for the way humans work now. None of that. Instead, the takeaway is that boundaries and understanding where the risk and control rests are always the most important things for any company, and your front line on that is allowing your managers to actually manage well and with authority. Even if it means paying people.

Imposter Syndrome, beginner’s luck, or lack of process

A few weeks ago, my dear friend Shannon Reed and I were joking around about writing a book to help people deal with being suddenly famous. (I think it was a joke, although now that I think of it, we did come up with a pretty solid outline of chapters.) At the time, Shannon had been in the New Yorker twice in a month, as well as McSweeney’s and Buzzfeed and a bunch of other places, and suddenly she was being noticed, even though she’s been writing and publishing for years.

When her first New Yorker piece came out, I checked in with her, and she said she thought maybe she had a little Imposter Syndrome, but then discarded that idea. I discarded it as well, because if anyone can write funny things, it’s Shannon. (She texted me through my entire two-year divorce process and my overwhelming memories of what I’m sure were a horrible and gruesome period are of her making me laugh.) But she was still all weirded out by the sudden fame, which was also confusing because she doesn’t care about being famous herself, but she does want her work to be famous, and it felt like people were conflating those two things. And we compared stories of weird things people had said to us because they thought we were famous. And we made up our fake book, about how to keep your head on straight during what could be utterly temporary fame and how to process all the mismatched feelings and the expectations that didn’t match reality.

Then a couple of days ago I read this post by The Blogess about why she doesn’t promote good causes people ask her to promote, and I nodded my head through the whole thing. People email me all the time to ask me to promote things, everything from blogging for depression awareness (every blog post I do has depression at the heart of it because I’m a person with depression, so) to clean water to raising money for a sick child to Kickstarting some new gadget that will improve parents’ lives to promoting some app that does something amazing. And the obvious answer is that you (The Blogess, me, anyone else who has even a little bit of fame or influence or whatever the current preferred term for internet recognizability is)  can’t promote any of it because you can’t promote all of it. And you don’t have a process to prioritize and sort through and then express to the people whose things don’t make the cut why they didn’t without being hurtful. If we were actual huge outlets with a bunch of staff to develop those processes, we could, but we’re just us, so we can’t.

Then, today my friend Carolyn Raship, who I admire immensely because of the way she rushes headlong into her own talent and into creative life, posted this post from Alicia Liu, “You don’t have imposter syndrome.” It is absolutely worth the read, and you should click over there now and read it and then come back here. There are diagrams. (I love diagrams.)

Liu has two key insights in her post:

1. It’s not Imposter Syndrome if you’re feeling uncomfortable because you actually don’t know how to do something. That’s just being a beginner, or not knowing something you still have to learn. Of course you feel weird when you don’t know something you’re supposed to know.

2. Calling that feeling of discomfort with not knowing something you need to know “Imposter Syndrome” pathologizes the process of learning.

YES. YES. YES. I’ll have what she’s having.

And as I was reading Liu’s post, it hit me that what many of us (especially women) feel as Imposter Syndrome ISN’T ABOUT OUR CONTENT KNOWLEDGE. It’s about PROCESS, or, rather, lack of process or unfamiliarity with process. 

Shannon knows she’s a good enough writer to be in the New Yorker and to have one of the most-read humor pieces on Buzzfeed–she doesn’t doubt her talent (or effort). Her discomfort was with the effects of being a stellar writer. She doesn’t have a process yet for dealing with increased demands, weird communications, requests, etc. I didn’t have a process for people recognizing me on the street and telling me I helped them survive their kids’ first few years and I felt like a fake, but now I do have a process for dealing with that, so I don’t feel like a fake anymore. The Blogess wrote that post to explain to everyone that she didn’t promote things, and writing that post was creating a process, so I’m hoping she doesn’t feel discomfort around those requests anymore. Even the example Liu gave about the ubertroll responding to her question about man pages wasn’t actually about her not knowing the content yet, it was about her not knowing the process that includes codebros mocking people and either getting around or ignoring them.

My takeaway from all of this is that even when you know your shit inside and outside, up and down, because of the natural progression of more and more people finding out that you are really good at what you do, you will be put into more situations involving new or missing processes. And that will be uncomfortable for you. So when you feel that discomfort, you don’t have to wonder if you think you”re really good at what you do. Instead, acknowledge that you’re doing something new and of course you don’t know how to do it yet and of course you’ll learn it and come up with a process to deal with it, just like you’d learn something new having to do with your actual content area.