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 (fifteen, thirteen, and ten) 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.
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.
Joy at work seems like such a simple idea-just make everyone happy, right? No! Embracing joy at work means fighting joy''s greatest enemy: fear. And unfortunately, leadership based on fear is the status quo for nearly every organization and bureaucracy. Choosing to lead with joy is a big shift.
At Interface, fear of our shareholders drove us to ship inferior product. Fear that our programmers would screw up drove us to invent arcane systems of trying to test quality into their work. Fear that we would ship two weeks after our competitors drove us to cut every possible corner just to get something out there that simply disappointed everyone. Fear that we weren''t working hard enough or smart enough led to incessant demands for overtime.
I have good news and bad news. The good news is that it''s possible to create an organization free from fear, where people bring their whole selves to work and the full range of their potential, energy, and talent is put to the company''s benefit. (That''s what you''re paying for, isn''t it?)
The bad news is, the path there is anything but comfortable. It involves letting go of most of what you''ve learned or experienced. It means changing what you believe about the people who work for you and with you.
The best news, though, is it means getting back to your own dreams of what you always thought was possible. It means getting back to the truest form of who you really are and what you always believed you could become. It means getting back to your own very personal definition of joy. One you''d be proud to have written on your gravestone.
This book won''t be a blueprint for a one-size-fits-all model of leadership, or for explaining which of the twenty-six leadership styles you exhibit. It is my goal to make a stand for leading with joy as something that you not only can do but something you MUST do. I will use tangible and practical examples from our experience at Menlo (and those of a few other companies) to show you that a more joyful, more human, more fulfilling path to leadership is not only attainable but imperative for survival. By questioning business as usual and envisioning the organization you truly want to work for or build, you''ll also define the kind of life you want to lead-at work, outside of work, all together in its messy complex glory.