Learning culture by: Tristan Kromer


In a previous post, UnLearning to Lead/learning culture I wrote about the benefits of intent-based leadership — the idea that managers should empower their team members by letting them lead in their own areas of specialty.

Okay, actually I wrote about how I was failing to do this, and learning how to do it better.

I’m a work-in-progress. That’s why I do a lot of retrospectives. Share on X

A person in front of a mirror, reflecting

The art of delegation is a tricky one. Delegate too much and you can lose control over the quality of output. Delegate too little and you spend all your time focused on the details, wandering in a circle with no concept of where you’re trying to get to.

There is a middle ground, of course — an ideal leadership strategy that lets you keep one hand on the rudder while your team manages the rest of the boat. Unfortunately this middle ground usually exists in theory rather than practice. Ideal leadership behavior isn’t always an option, particularly when your project happens upon rough seas (and what project hasn’t stared down a gathering storm?).

When the boat is sinking, talking about strategic intent isn’t going to help as much as grabbing a bucket. Share on X

Theory vs Reality

Probably one of the biggest challenges among our team at Kromatic, and maybe among entrepreneurs in general, is that we are all living in a learning culture. We actively seek out situations where we are not competent.

In fact, it’s what we live for.

So while we have a degree of competence in a number of areas, we often spend our time learning new things at the expense of efficiency and positive impact on our projects. As a team leader, I want my teammates to constantly expand their skill sets, increasing their capabilities and mission-clarity in learning culture so they can move “up and to the right.”

Clarity vs Capability Matrix

But this creates an opportunity cost.

Time spent expanding one’s abilities is time spent not working within one’s area of competency. Without discipline and a sense of direction, we can quickly veer towards mediocrity. Share on X

This is especially difficult on the team leader. How do we delegate responsibilities to our crew so they can lead in their own areas, while at the same time providing room for them to work in areas where they lack capability and clarity?

In my previous post, I broke down my own struggles with this catch-22, which often left me either delegating work to people in areas where they weren’t capable or clear on the mission, or spending too much time coaching my team and not enough doing my own work. (Even in a large company, it’s rare for an executive to do management work exclusively. In a startup, it’s nonexistent.)

In Part II of this post, I want to expand on the solutions to this problem — how to help your team improve their skill sets while still leading in their own specialties of learning culture.

A Pragmatic Approach

Let’s start with a solutions-oriented review of the 2×2 matrix — a map to creating a capable team with a crystal-clear mission. Each area isolates the strength and weakness of a team member, and our goal is to move each team member up and to the right.

Clarity vs Capability illustrated with turtle and rabbit running a race
Low Capability and Low Clarity

Low clarity low capability

Obviously this is the biggest drag on a project. A team member who lacks capability in their field and clarity in our purpose is a drain on our resources. They require coaching from the manager and the project requires rework from their teammates.

There is no easy fix here. If the team member doesn’t come to grasp the purpose of the work and respond to coaching to get their skills up to speed, they may need to be moved to a less demanding position or, unfortunately, fired.

Our efforts here are probably better spent doing a root-cause analysis to determine where we erred in making this assignment in the first place.

Low Capability and High Clarity

High clarity low capability

It’s great having a team member who understands the company’s purpose, but what good is that if they can’t help bring the purpose to fruition?

The only way to address a low-capability team member is to coach them into a position of capability. The obstacle, again, is the drain on executive time.

Worse, if there are a number of team members in this quadrant, the situation can quickly get out of hand. If every team member needs coaching, then either little is getting done, or the team leader is trying to do everything — usually a bit of both. This creates a negative feedback loop:

A negative feedback loop

In both cases, the team leader’s attention is split between working and coaching, and team members are not fulfilling their potential.

The only solution here is to figure out who is responding to coaching and get them into a position of capability as quickly as possible through self-paced learning. Those who are not self-paced learners present an unacceptable cost-benefit equation, and they will need to be reassigned to an area of greater competency.

High Capability and Low Clarity

Low clarity high capability

It is easier to clarify a mission than it is to teach someone to carry out that mission. The simple answer here is to clarify the company’s purpose to the team member and have them explain it back to you, perhaps even in different terms. If there are elements of the purpose that they can’t clearly articulate, then focus on those particular details and get them up to speed.

If they are still having trouble grasping the mission, they may need to be given smaller tasks with more immediate goals until they are able to buy into the larger project. If they are allowed to work on the larger project for too long without grasping its purpose, it could easily affect their confidence to deliver their competence, and instead of moving them up and to the right, we are moving them down and to the left.

Of course the problem could simply be that we don’t remind ourselves of the mission often enough. If it’s worth reiterating, then reiterating is worth it.

You may think you’ve repeated the vision, objective, and metrics often enough. But you probably haven’t. Information has a decay rate. If you haven’t heard each member of the team explain the goal in the last week, someone is probably out of sync.

Try having a different team member explain the goal every week, or every standup if you need to. If you have to open your mouth to clarify, you’ll know it was worth doing this exercise.

High Capability and High Clarity

High capability high clarity

This seems to be the best quadrant for a team member — and, well, it is — but it also presents a catch-22 of its own. The high-capability, high-quality team member doesn’t sit in this role for long. They are the first to be promoted into new areas, so instead of lingering in that sweet spot, they move down and to the left, and we are right back where we started.

There is no solution to this — that’s just the nature of individual professional growth. So rather than fight it, why not embrace it? Team members that occupy this quadrant usually have the capacity to get there again when they are promoted into unfamiliar territory. It’s a manager’s job to facilitate that journey.

Ideally we want team members to wiggle between the upper right and upper left, occasionally stretching into an area where they are uncomfortable, but not too far, and not for long. Otherwise the company loses the benefit of that excellence.

That said, it’s important that these people (and all team members, really) have a sense of psychological safety in the workplace, and feel free to say no when they are being asked to perform outside of their capability and clarity of vision. Some team members are very happy sitting on top of their world; others want to stretch themselves into new ones. We have to respect their career choices, and that means knowing how to tell your rock stars from your superstars.

Rock Stars vs Superstars

We could muse all day on the subtleties that separate rock stars from superstars, but what it boils down to is growth. Rock stars are perfectly happy being awesome where they are. Superstars are on a growth trajectory; throw them into the deep end and they will teach themselves how to swim.

Not everyone is one or the other, and many people alternate between the two over time depending on factors such as experience, confidence, and outside distractions that may keep them from living up to their potential.

It’s important as a team leader to keep mental track of where teammates are in their professional journey so you don’t overwhelm a rock star when they’re not ready for more responsibility, or hold back a superstar because they’re too good at engineering to lose them to a starter management role.

For a team manager, this means keeping your finger on the pulse of your teammates. The management style of radical candor teaches us to hold a one-on-one with each teammate once every week, where we maintain a balance of challenging our employees directly and caring for them personally.

A weekly meetup is not always possible, but I generally manage one-on-ones with each teammate bi-weekly, and it’s helped us emerge from a culture of “ruinous empathy” — caring too much and confronting too little — to engendering a psychologically safe work environment of honesty and respect.

Sometimes we hold back on criticizing someone out of fear that they can’t handle it, but that is ultimately disrespectful of their desire to excel in their job and grow as a person. Share on X

There’s no need to be a jerk, but everyone deserves honest and direct feedback.

Of course the search for rock stars and superstars begins with the hiring process. We try to hire for what we need, but we use people however we can. Skills are a discoverable thing, and stretching your teammates according to company needs and their desires to access new skills can turn a good employee into a rock star, and a rock star into a superstar.

Taking Turns

Of course, having a teammate expand their skill set isn’t an all-or-nothing game. We don’t have to wait until we need a new marketer to teach willing bodies in other departments our branding templates. Our VP of Engineering may be a budding ad guru, and helping them learn the marketing dimension of our product can set up an eventual lateral move that benefits them as well as the company.

The best way to help employees maintain their clarity and competence while also growing in new directions of learning culture is to prepare them for that growth. Waiting for a need to emerge before crash-coursing someone into the role is bad for the manager, bad for the company, and bad for the teammate.

Lots of companies give their employees free time to explore new directions in learning culture. Google is known for its 20% time policy — allowing their workers 20% of their work hours to be spent working on non-assigned projects. Some places will assign a team member to ten months working on a project, and then two months in an incubator to work on their own company project. Many companies set aside a few days or a week for hackathons, where teams can work on anything they choose, and management doesn’t get a say in whether or not those projects are a strategic priority.

Of course this takes us back to theory vs reality. An open 20% on our schedule is often spent fixing bugs on our existing project rather than actively pursuing a new skill set, so that 80 / 20 time ratio can easily slip into 100 / 20. From startup to corporate, there is always too much to be done.

Nobody is underworked. It’s important to help team members avoid distractions that will harm their focus and clarity. Share on X

Even rock stars who aren’t interested in superstardom can benefit from learning from outside departments.

It never hurts for teammates to understand each other’s roles, and even a small amount of time spent peer-to-peer coaching can be a real team-builder. Share on X

We Want Your Feedback

We Want Your Feedback

As team leaders, we all want to make superstars out of every teammate. But ultimately it comes down to each person’s own capacity for growth. Stretching one’s skill set requires self-discipline, self-motivation, and self-coaching. Budding superstars watch YouTube videos, attend incubators, and read blogs, usually with an eye toward moving to the teaching side of the equation.

The best we can do as managers is recognize effort and commitment among our teammates and facilitate their growth according to their interests.

The lingering question — and this is where I want to hear back from you — is how to measure this impact. We are talking about company learning culture, which is hard to state in terms of ROI. We know that helping our teammates move up and to the right in terms of capability and clarity is a win for the home team. But how many points does it put on the board? Is there a qualitative way of measuring the impact?

Let us know how your team measures leadership. Complete this 1 minute survey and we’ll share the results with you!

Complete the 1 minute survey

Lessons Learned

  • As managers, our goal is to help our teammates move up and to the right, a place of higher clarity and higher capability (learning culture).
  • Keep your finger on the pulse of each teammate’s trajectory by scheduling regular face-to-face check-ins.
  • Do retrospectives. Get feedback early and often so you can continuously improve how you manage your team to success.

Side note: We struggled with how to best illustrate these situations (humans? animals? doing what?). How do you picture these concepts? Tell us in the comments. Or better yet, sketch something and tweet at us.@trikro This is how I see the #capability #clarity matrix. Share on X.

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