Wednesday, January 20, 2016

Experience, Instincts, and Maturity

There are three interrelated, but often independent traits that are valuable in any employee (and, in your personal life as well[1]): (i) experience, (ii) instincts, and (iii) maturity. I think all three can be gained with time, but two of them may never come for some people. When hiring managers and executives, I would weigh instincts and maturity higher for non-specialist roles, and experience higher for a specialist role (e.g. leading a data center build out).

This is what you have done in the past and the knowledge base you have acquired. Maybe you are really good at picking up new programming languages because you have used so many over the years. Or maybe you immediately know how to solve a problem that a less experienced engineer or manager can solve because you have seen it before (and maybe even seen seven different ways of solving this issue and know which two really work and which three are awful ideas in the long run.). The only way to gain experience is to do stuff. For most people, the benefits of experience eventually starts to run towards an asymptote unless you do new things or new roles every few years.

"Experience" may also mean organizational experience. For example, if you ran Google Ads and then switched to run YouTube, you have the knowledge of who at Google it is important to get on board for your decisions, how to get resources and headcount, and how processes at the company works. Even if you are not an expert on consumer video, you are an expert on getting things done at Google, which can make you a better executive and leader of the area then someone with ten years of consumer video experience who has never met Larry Page[2].

This is your gut reaction on how to act, often in the absence of information. There are some things experience has taught you that is wrong and sometimes your gut overrides your experience and tells you to do something new in this specific context. Alternatively, there may be a problem that you or someone on your team has never faced before.  Like experience, instincts can be gained with time for most people. It is the background process or pattern matching that causes you to make the right call or say the right thing on the spot. Or it is the "muscle memory" of management that allows you to act the right way in a situation you have never seen before.

Unfortunately, some people just have bad instincts. They try hard to do good but they just keep screwing up the same types of items. These may be very smart and well intentioned people, but sometimes a person doesn't have great instincts. They can be taught almost by rote situational memorization, but it feels like you literally need to rewire some people's brains via a painful process for them to change. In some cases they can never pick up the right instincts and will hit a natural limit on what types of work they can do.

A friend of mine put it about one of her director-level reports, who had 15 years experience but bad instincts, as "He is like that really cute puppy that keeps peeing on your bed. He tries really hard, but doesn't understand that what he is doing is fundamentally wrong until it is too late."

Maturity is understanding what is worth fighting for and what is worth letting go. It is properly allocating credit to others because you do not feel threatened or competitive with members of your team. It is realizing when someone on the team needs your help and helping them in whatever way makes sense. It also means realizing when someone is beyond your help. Maturity also includes things like being open and willing to admit that you are wrong on something.

Some people never really mature. They may be scared to surface issues on their team as managers because they want to show they are in control. They don't ask for help or keep saying "I got this" even if they don't, which can be disastrous if they are managing a team. They may feel easily threatened or confronted when someone tries to ask questions about their ideas or approaches. Some immature employees can be recognized as they always have a "bone to pick with management" irrespective of who is doing the managing. Or, another sign is someone who fights their manager or team members needlessly or on items that don't really matter.

Sometimes a bad company culture encourages and promotes immaturity. Other times the person is feeling threatened or insecure due to having a bad manager, and therefore acts out in immature ways - which is a call for help. And then there are people who never really grow up.

[1] Obviously, there are a lot of other traits that are valuable. I am focusing on these three here given how intermixed they are.
[2] Although in Susan W's case she did indeed have experience with consumer products (for example she launched Google image search) and video products (a part of the original Google Video team early on worked for her).