Since last year, I’ve been conceptualizing what kind of leader I’d like to be if/when I run a company. I value reciprocity. In a perfect world, any amount given should yield an equal or greater return, within a fair amount of time.
In the real world, this is not the case. That’s where my annoying idealism comes into play, for better or worse. Below is a personal case study of some business lessons learned, including from negotiating for a $10,000 cash bonus.
The dramatic backstory.
While still working for my previous software company last year, an easily avoidable issue surfaced over the course of a week. That Monday, the CTO passed the product ownership of a VIP partner’s business requirements to myself and my lead developer. The CTO was working remotely and was unreachable for the next three days. Myself (as product owner) and the developer (as technical lead) required a bunch of technical guidance and were bottlenecked. The hard deadline was Friday afternoon.
Come Friday evening, it became clear that the definition of done (DoD) was nowhere near achieved. Product incompletion could cost us nearly six figures in annual recurring revenue (ARR). A costly mistake. When the CEO discovered this, he was justifiably upset and demanded us to stay until its completion.
The developer and I stayed up all Friday night. We left the office at 6:15am on Saturday morning. The CEO and I debriefed that afternoon, and I negotiated for a $10,000 bonus. The catch: it was for my developer, not for myself.
Here are the lessons I’ve learned from those two days.
1. Projecting the right attitude is contagious and powerful.
I wasn’t very happy. My Friday and Saturday plans were ruined from an issue spawned outside my control. I had to pull an all nighter working to cover up someone else’s screwup.
But I kept those feelings within because I didn’t share the fate alone. The developer sat by my side, trying to code and debug on his own while I provided assistance on business requirements and user acceptance testing (UAT). In retrospect, had he complained about the shitty situation, I would have immediately joined him. But he never complained. Neither did I (it was hard not to), and we stayed silent except when communicating needs.
Complaining would have detracted from productivity. It would have made us feel worse, and the work would still be incomplete. By steering away from talking about the obvious shitty situation, we helped each other until the work was done.
2. Presence is important when working with your team.
As mentioned above, I was only assisting with requirements gathering and UAT. In software development terms, that means that I was only useful in the beginning and end of that product lifecycle. I was virtually useless between 11pm-5am.
But I didn’t go home. What kind of leader would I be if I had left him alone at the office? That’s like abandoning your fellow soldier in the middle of a battle. Being physically present (or being available online if remote) is important when functioning with a team. It boosts morale tremendously, at least from my experience, when my own bosses are right by my side, fighting the the same war.
So I stayed with him until we both left at 6:15am.
3. Fight and reciprocate hard for your best employees.
When we debriefed on Saturday, the CEO started the call hot with emotions. In almost all other cases, I would have let him ramble. But not this time; I cut him off.
Me: It’s completely unacceptable that [my developer] had to stay up all night for [someone else’s] mistake. [He] did so at the expense of his own plans, and he didn’t have even complain. We absolutely need to reward him for this.
CEO: You’re right. We need to give him a bonus. How much do you think is enough?
Me: He’s been consistently solid and remained loyal. Look at his deploys. Look at how much the product has grown as a result of his work.
CEO: Is this email draft to him okay? *Sends me a message with a dollar amount.*
Me: $10,000. Make sure you send him that message.
CEO: You’re getting a bonus too.
I called the developer afterward and informed him of the news. Taiwan ≠ Bay Area, and $10,000 USD was 3.5 months worth of his salary.
Never in my life will I forget his thank you note.
And, it felt pretty good receiving a bonus without even asking for it.
4. Treat your employees as partners, not tools, and they will go to Hell and back with you.
I traditionally emphasize to my teams that I look at them as partners, not employees. They were hired for a reason, and they should be able to think and act independently instead of being asked to slave away as a powertool. I’ve witnessed some employers say this, but not mean it. I meant every word I said, and I think it’s resulted in great success.
For the aforementioned lead developer, I’ve reached out to him (apologetically) during public holidays and weekdays. Never any complaints, only “I’m on it” replies. He’s deployed hotfixes between 11pm-1am numerous times. He’s come online during personal time off, when fire alarms are going off.
As a result or our partnership, we’ve shipped amazing stuff. Just like the team I interfaced with in Ukraine, he became one of the key members of the Taipei engineering team. Customers loved us, and we were invited to attend Asia-Pacific product conferences.
To think he initially joined the team as a junior back-end engineer. Myself and the CTO treated him with utmost respect, entrusted him with ongoing autonomy, and empowered him to voice his own feedback in an agile setting. He became the lead engineer of the entire product. To think he came from humble origins…
Treat your people like partners, and they will go to Hell and back with you.
Concluding remarks: do unto your team as Warren Buffet does to his wholly owned subsidiaries.
Warren Buffett is usually credited as being the superinvestor of the 20th century. I think his management ideologies are underemphasized.
When he purchases entire companies, he almost always leaves the current management team intact. He invests in the company’s CEO almost as much as the business itself. He looks at his new employee as a partner, and reciprocates accordingly. If you’re interested in learning more, I recommend reading The Warren Buffett CEO.
I really admire Buffett’s management style and try to model it with my own team(s). If anything, it’s worked out well with the Taipei and Ukraine teams. Reciprocate.