Joy Is Personal
A man is what he thinks about all day long.
—Ralph Waldo Emerson
From my midtwenties to my early forties, I worked at the same place: a company called Interface Systems, on the west side of Ann Arbor, Michigan. The office was near Jackson and Zeeb roads, a twenty- minute commute from our home via I-94.
I started out as a programmer, and before long, I was asked to lead the technical efforts of programming teams. By my thirties I was no longer typing in the code alongside the people I was leading, but rather managing their efforts to create those same products. I was promoted again, then again, granted more authority and more people to manage; rewarded with raises, stock options, and a nice office; and given decision-making power. I had everything the world measures as success.
This time of recognition, promotions, and increasing responsibility should have been the highlight of my career at the time. And yet...
As time passed, I also found myself sneaking out of the office earlier and earlier, as close to 5 p.m. as I could without being noticed. During the day, I would turn my monitor away from the door and play FreeCell, forcing mindless lulls in what should have been busy, productive days. The prospect of going to work filled me with a sense of unsettledness and dread. I started abandoning my most efficient drive down I-94 to the office, instead opting for back roads, driving past Interface farther and farther out into the Michigan country landscape before finally doubling back and driving to work.
I was burning out, and it had everything to do with my definition of leadership.
The culture at Interface favored getting products out to market before they were ready and dealing with the inevitable quality problems that resulted, a process we sarcastically referred to as "just smushing it."* Everyone (executives, customers, and users) then blamed us for producing inferior products. Through my persistent advocating, I was eventually permitted to allocate 30 percent of my team's time to simply fixing problems that were coming at us every single day. And 30 percent wasn't enough. This had a demoralizing effect on everyone in the organization.
I became convinced that we just didn't have the right people to do the job. Meetings to sort out quality problem "priorities" lasted for hours. We would decide which 10 percent of the problems we had time to address, which would be described in "release notes" (that no customer would EVER read), and which could be recast as "features" in cleverly worded but utterly incomprehensible end-user documentation. Even worse, hiding behind all the bugs was a product that couldn't actually be used by regular human beings (we enjoyed calling those people 'stupid users'), and it didn't actually solve real problems for them.
I was frustrated by how little 'teamwork' was at play within my various teams and the utter lack of an effective relationship between the technical team and the marketing and sales side of the house. Everything felt disorganized and chaotic. We tried so many different versions of meetings, forms, and status reporting, but nothing seemed to address the root cause of our poor communication and the disappointing results that followed. Most of my team members were heroically in charge of one piece of a complex technical product line and no one else knew what they knew, so when crunch time came, there was incessant overtime and a fear of vacations being taken by these same heroes at critical moments. Most of my team carried their maximum allowable vacation balances because they couldn't actually use it. When people did take an inevitable vacation, they were armed with laptops, cell phones, and pagers so they would be available to apply emergency fixes to their code. There was rarely an uninterrupted vacation for our technology heroes. And the pieces that each one of them was working on never easily integrated with the work of their peers. They simply could not agree on an integrated strategy, which led to inevitable fights. My introverted technical leaders seldom fought with words but rather with code. In one dramatic version of this, one of my programmers created some code that the other didn't agree with. The other programmer displayed his disagreement by changing the code to the way he thought was right. These rounds of competing edits went on for a couple of months before my boss, the CEO, called me and them into his office and declared: "Guys, you are killing the company...agree or else." The "or else" now seems humorous to me, as there was no "or else." If we had fired one or the other or both, we were equally screwed.
I began fantasizing about an escape, leaving Ann Arbor and corporate life to start a canoe camp in the Boundary Waters of Minnesota. My wife and my three daughters still chuckle when they hear that idea. They have no idea how serious I was.
One afternoon in October 1997, Bob Nero, the new CEO of Interface Systems, invited me into his office and told me I was being promoted to VP of R&D, a job he had been grooming me for since he arrived on the scene early in 1996. I listened patiently to this amazing offer. It took me about a minute to tell him no. I told him I didn't want to sign up for the uncapped personal commitment required of a VP of a troubled public company. My daughters were still young (thirteen, eleven, and eight) and I was afraid I'd wake up ten years later and realize I missed the best part of being a dad. The Eagle Scout in me wanted to help Bob. The provider in me wanted the financial rewards that would pay for college and eventual weddings for three beautiful and intelligent young women. Yet, I was confounded by the demons that I knew would further kill my spirit as my career stepped up a gear and a speed.