The views and opinions expressed in this blog are mine personally and are not necessarily representative of current or former employers.
The No Nice Guy Rule
I interviewed with University Hospitals on November 23, 1998. I recall the date for two reasons. One, it was my birthday. Second, I encountered Zoya (name changed to protect her privacy), an analyst on the employee interview panel.
Zoya embossed herself on my memory with her questions. She pitched hardballs, fastballs, and curveballs while the nice people on the panel tossed softballs. Although professionally polite, Zoya hovered on borderline offensive. I was taken aback by her persona, yet her disruptive approach was about to make me a strong leader.
Let me explain.
My first day on the job, Zoya walked into my office and welcomed me. Before I could hang my coat, she asked if I had time to talk. She was alive with ideas and energy and aspired to transform the IT culture and increase our value to our customers. Although overwhelmed at first, I appreciated her hunger to influence and shape our organization.
The customers loved this analyst. If no one kept watch, some customers would bypass our intake process and go directly to her. She tackled the most difficult assignments and notoriously challenged our processes. Zoya took great pride in consistently delivering results and delighting her customers. A workhorse! And … she was tough to manage.
While the customers loved Zoya, the team did not. One by one, each complained to me about her, and their observations had merit.
I recall Zoya’s first review. She gave herself a perfect score. In discussing career goals, she stated her expectation to be the best analyst in the world, but agreed she hadn’t reached that goal. Nevertheless, her drive to be the best showed in her outcomes, which inevitably raised the bar for the other analysts.
I invested in Zoya, an immigrant from Russia. She and her husband had packed up their kids one day and sought a better life in the USA. Sympathizing as a person of European descent, I coached her. I pointed her toward specific changes and how to better handle situations. I sent her to a speech pathologist to help her communicate more clearly. She made headway, slowly.
Still exasperated, the team now came into my office as a group to lay out complaints. I listened and then asked: Who can tell me the names of Zoya’s children? Silence. Who can tell me the names of her dogs, whose pictures she had plastered all over her cube? Silence. Who can tell me her passion (Russian folk dance)? Silence. Who can tell me her defining moment? Silence. Who can tell me her background and why she left Russia? Silence. Who can tell me what drives Zoya? Silence.
My response: Once you’re able to answer these questions, we’ll revisit Zoya’s future with us.
I endeavored to kill the notion that every instrument in the band had to be a clarinet. Collegial yes, but as long as behavior did not violate organizational values, every employee had the freedom to express themselves uniquely. Sure, it’s cozy when the team can sing Kumbaya in harmony, but who thrives under constant coziness?
I’d rather work with a team of challenging personalities that adds value to the business than a team who liked one another, but performed with mediocrity. I would argue that the conflicted team—dare I say disruptive and non-complacent—produces superior individual and team performance. Iron sharpens iron.
Better to celebrate individual differences than succumb to the tragedy of nice guys. Which reminds of a scene on conformity from Dead Poets Society. I want people and leaders who walk their own path, even if it’s not nice.
The team never came back with another complaint. Instead, they engaged Zoya on a personal level. Mutual understanding and acceptance grew. They became a team. They gleaned from her, and although she never sang Kumbaya, Zoya did learn to be more collaborative and collegial.
The team developed into the shining star for University Hospitals IT and launched me to where I am today. Thanks to FaceBook, many of us remain connected after all these years.
Not all of my experiences with my teams have been positive. I’ve made mistakes. A couple of times I invested energy into helping a staffer turn the corner and be successful, but that person refused to change.
Before you think I’m endorsing dirty players, let me balance my message. Consider the bestseller, “The No Asshole Rule”, by one of my favorite professors, Stanford’s Robert I. Sutton. You also have to protect your team. Get to know the fine line between a “not nice guy” and an asshole.
Yes, Zoya rocked our world and made us uncomfortable. But it didn’t surprise me when our team rallied around her after she was diagnosed with Stage IV cancer. We cried together over her death, for she had left a legacy in her own unique way.
Thanks Zoya, for not being nice, but for being true to yourself.
Thank you for your responses (yes, even “Marxism”).
I don’t mind Marxism’s character attacks, but I would disagree with the implication that excellent leaders work only at the largest organizations. Great leaders can be found in organizations of any size. The size of the organization is not important. The size of the leader’s capabilities is important.
Finally, the story of Zoya is true. For those of you on FaceBook, you can see the positive responses left by some of Zoya’s former team.
Ed Marx is a CIO currently working for a large integrated health system. Ed encourages your interaction through this blog. Add a comment by clicking the link at the bottom of this post. You can also connect with him directly through his profile pages on social networking sites LinkedIn and Facebook and you can follow him via Twitter — user name marxists.