Bob was upset with me. His plans to turn the company around depended on me taking this pivotal role. He didn't have a plan B.
I went home that night and quietly thought it all through. Despite my negative thoughts, my inner optimist had not been subdued. I thought this could be my chance. From this perch, I could lead in a new way, a way that had never been done before. I was stuck in a room full of manure, and I was suddenly thrilled with the idea that there had to be a 'pony' in here somewhere. It was an irrational thought, but my energy suddenly turned 180 degrees.
The next morning I told Bob I would take the job...on one condition: that he would support me in building the best damn software team that Ann Arbor had ever seen. Neither one of us ever looked back after that day.
At the earliest stage of this newfound mind-set, I knew there had to be a different approach to leadership. It couldn't be based on heroes. Perhaps the programmer in me believed that there was just as big of an opportunity for elegance in leadership as there was for elegance in code. Every good programmer will recall the one time they felt so proud of their technical creation, not only for what it did but also for how it was written. I began to believe the essence of true leadership involved way more 'how' than 'what', and as author Simon Sinek would eventually teach us, 'why'.
An age-old human argument is centered on the morality of "Does the end justify the means?" Humanity has learned and relearned that the "means" matters so much. We have seen countless examples in human history where unethical or unsupportable 'means' always catch up with you, no matter how good or noble the original intended outcome. My life journey suddenly became centered on a bright, new, energizing hypothesis:
There is a 'means' of leadership—as yet undiscovered or at least so uncommon as to seem quixotic—that can systematically produce 'ends' that match our hope and dreams for pride, success, and delight. In short, I began to believe that a pursuit of joy was not only possible but sustainable. Later I would come to learn that joy was the only thing that truly mattered.
My Dream for Joy
If I wanted to create an environment where others and I could work with pride, I needed to find a new operating model. The one we had— and the one I saw in so many companies around Ann Arbor and around the country—wasn't working. We needed to replace the traditional model, which was marked by fear and bureaucracy, with one that allowed teams to bring their whole selves to work every day. This better model would support a collegial and productive environment, where innovation and imagination helped foster practical inventions that would serve and inspire customers. That creativity and innovation, in not just product but process, would also power the team's energy, creating a kind of human perpetual-motion machine. All of this, by the way, would pay off in real terms too, leading to higher revenues, bigger profits, and other markers of business success.
What I was seeking, which would become crystal clear later in my career, was 'joy at work.' No word other than 'joy' fit my engineering ideal—of designing and building something, perhaps many things, that would see the light of day and be enjoyably used and widely adopted by the people for whom it was intended. Yes, that's what I wanted above all else—joyful outcomes produced by joyful people working in a joyful place.
This is not the same as happiness, mind you. Where happiness is a momentary state of being, joy is deeper and more meaningful—and not as fleeting. You can be joyful without being happy every minute; you can be joyful when the work is difficult and challenging, even when you feel angry at the world, your team, your customers, and yourself.
Building a joyful company was my big dream. And to up the ante even more, I wanted to implement this joyful dream in an industry not exactly known for delighting customers or employees—software design. My industry coined the phrase "death march" in a business context. We were well known for all-night coding sessions and poorly managed and buggy products. What was I thinking, trying to make such radical change in a field like that? Perhaps the canoe camp 'was' a good idea after all.
My journey to a better way of working started out of disillusionment and ended where I am now—as the leader of a very joyful, award- winning software company called Menlo Innovations (still based in Ann Arbor). My partners, colleagues, and I got to this place with a deliberate focus on two intertwined keys: culture and leadership. In other words, we entirely rethought how the team interacted with one another, with customers, with other stakeholders, with their work environment—this is culture. We also rethought how leaders define the company's purpose and get everyone aligned around common systems and expectations to get real work done, constantly iterating and always improving themselves, their peers and employees, and the whole team. I'd go a step further and add that we also redefined who leaders are—beyond the name on some plaque outside a corner office but rather those people who can truly inspire, motivate, and develop others, regardless of their title or position.
End Permission Seeking: No More Fear-based Leadership
I went deep into Menlo's joyful culture in my first book, 'Joy, Inc.' As a result of writing the book, I got to connect with many people who wanted to institute a joyful culture in their work, in all kinds of industries, in companies large and small all around the world. I found that so many of our conversations about culture came back to leadership. People wanted to know how to be the leader who could get others to follow them to a better place. They were curious about what good leadership looked like, how it was sustained over time, and what leadership looked like as an executive, as a manager, or as a really committed employee who might not even have anyone officially reporting to them. These conversations were the impetus for this book.