Know Thy Weaknesses

My weakness (among others): I try to impress people with my knowledge. I need them to know that I’m on top of key issues and that I work hard.

The situation: I’m on vacation and an e-mail is sent to the senior management team with a partial analysis of some key numbers.

My (very incorrect) instinct: Reply All as quickly as possible with a more complete analysis, including places where I disagreed with the initial analysis.

Likely result: Piss off the e-mail’s sender, lose points with everyone by coming off as a show off who tries to one-up other people.

What I actually did: I recognized my mistake before clicking Send, and instead spent a little more time, and sent a better and nicer e-mail only to the Sender. (BTW, the Sender generally extends me the same courtesy).

Actual result: The sender forwarded my reply to the group. I got to actually do the right thing, earn trust points with the group, and share my knowledge in a way that’s cooperative and therefore doesn’t expose me to the same level of critique.

The lessons:

  1. Do the right thing
  2. Know thy weaknesses and recognize the situations where they’re likely to screw you up
  3. Always first try to solve problems one-on-one and constructively. Don’t play competitive Reply All.

Of course, this works much better in a cooperative environment where others play the same way. Here are two of my favorite stories from working for a man who worked hard at claiming the credit for others’ work.

The First Incident:

A colleague sent around an excellent analysis to the Product Management team (including our boss, the VP of Product Management). I Replied All saying that it was an excellent analysis that people should read, and I wrote bullet points of the highlights. I decided to copy my boss’s boss on the e-mail, to give extra credit and visibility to my colleague and to myself.

My boss took my e-mail, removed my name from it, and sent it around to senior management as his own. I’m sure he didn’t notice that I had copied his boss on my e-mail. And I’m pretty sure his boss saw exactly what happened.

Lesson 1: Don’t be a jerk

Lesson 2: If you must be a jerk, be more careful about seeing who was copied on the e-mail you plagiarized.

Related Incident:

One weekend I was reading Peter Drucker and I was inspired to write up a Business Strategy Proposal. I sent it around to Product Management, including my boss, the VP of PdM. I decided to also add his boss. My boss sent me an e-mailĀ scolding me for wasting his boss’s time, warning me never to do that again, and even claiming that his boss asked him why I was sending this e-mail. If my boss deemed my work worthy, he’d forward it on (presumably after removing my name from my work). Now maybe in some companies my action was unacceptable and my boss’s actions were correct. But I wasn’t going to just take it. I decided to apologize to my boss’s boss, by forwarding my boss’s e-mail to him and adding a simple “I’m sorry that I wasted your time, I won’t do it again. Thank you for your understanding.” It was a bit risky, but I was pretty sure he would object to my boss’s behavior. And if I was wrong, I thought that I had covered myself reasonably well with the apology.

The result? My boss’s boss wrote back to me telling me there was no need to apologize, I should feel comfortable sending him my ideas, and would he mind if he told my boss not to do this again.

Lesson 1: Don’t be a jerk

Lesson 2: If you must be a jerk, don’t do it by e-mail

Epilogue: The VP of PdM is no longer with the company. I currently have his job.

And to sum up today’s lessons:

  1. Know thy weaknesses.
  2. Do the right thing.
  3. The best way to look good is to help others look good. Resist the temptation to try to look good at their expense. It’s wrong, and it too often backfires.