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CIO Unplugged 11/9/11

November 9, 2011 Ed Marx 20 Comments

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.

Update 11/12/11

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.

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Currently there are "20 comments" on this Article:

  1. As a flute player, I love this: “I endeavored to kill the notion that every instrument in the band had to be a clarinet.” Amazing story, thanks for sharing!

  2. Good post, Ed.
    I think readers could learn a lot from you on how to build a team. Or maybe you’ve already written that blog and I just missed it.

  3. Ed,

    What a wonderful example of how to manage and grow a diverse staff to maximize their team potential. Your lessons learned and insights are very much appreciated.

    Thanx for sharing!! Sheldon

  4. I was around then. Changed lots of us. Reused it since on my own teams. Better to have some dysfunction yet progress than harmony but inaction.

  5. My response: Once you’re able to answer these questions, we’ll revisit Zoya’s future with us.

    Wow! Ed, don’t let this go to your head, but you really are amazing!! LOL! You should be required reading by all managers. you’ve added more to HIStalk’s columns than anyone else I can remember. Thanks so much!

  6. Sheesh, what a pompous blowhard. You’d think this guy was running a Fortune 50 company. If he’s had so many awakening and life learning experiences like this and at least 50 from his previous blog posts then why is he still just a CIO in a mediocre IDN whose only real decision was to put Epic in? The Christian propaganda is also suspect. Mr. H – give this guy the hook!

  7. Ed, this was a great, pithy parable. Thanks for posting. We in So. Cal. are lucky to have you be one of our CIO keynotes at our 12/1/11 HIMSS So. Cal. Chapter CIO Forum. I hope others venture out to see you by registering at http://www.himss-socal.org.

  8. So true. Some of the people that I hate working with the most are the best employees. I try to set my personal feelings aside and look at that asset sitting across the table. My biggest nemisis has saved my butt more times than I wish to count.

  9. I’ll never understand why these posts polarize the HIStalk community so much. Many of us who read this blog are in some form of management position and I for one always enjoy reading another point of view in the healthcare space (and just ordered “The No Asshole Rule” from Amazon). Just like the Innovator’s showcase and the community letters, these posts add dimension and depth to the site making it a more interesting read than just a stream of PR farmed content.

  10. As a current Zoya, this was a helpful post. A critical part that you showed indirectly was that you were open to hearing the different opinion. I have found across positions that when a supervisor is open to hearing a different view I have succeeded and the companies have done very well but where the supervisor is set in their ways I have needed to leave.

    For other Zoyas out there, prior to starting a position it is important to see if the supervisor will be willing to work with your style like Ed, if not it is better to pass on the position.

  11. Dear Marxism. fyi Read Ed’s mission and vision statements. You’ll find that he does NOT seek fame or fortune. He seeks to be the best leader possible and to improve his work environment and the quality of care for patients. He lives without regrets and loves life. That’s freedom. He gives out (time, money, energy) and takes risks. So yes, heaven has rewarded him with things he never asked for or sought.

    What are you seeking in life, Mr. Marxism?

  12. All those who believe you, too, are Zoya, raise your hands. No need, Marxism. Now, those of you who truly believe that your behavior is benefitting your organization, keep your hands up. And for those with their hands still up, why not — just for sure — check with a few colleagues for a sincere reality read.

  13. “The No Asshole Rule”! Awesome – my favorite leadership guide and it holds a place of prominence in my office for quick reference. And I thought nobody cared… You rock, Ed!

  14. Ed, I was impressed at your insight into Zoya’s experience as an immigrant. It was inspirational to see how you helped the team understand and embrace her differences.
    It’s obvious from the results that it was a win-win situation for all. Thank you for an invigorating story!

  15. I currently work with a “Zoya” and have in the past. They almost never bring as much value as they think they do to an organization. Mr. Marx has a lot of good things to say in his posts. Clearly, this one was more of a fictional re-telling of a story to illustrate a point he was trying to make. I did like the part about encouraging people to learn more about “Zoya”. People like Zoya do like you to learn their children’s names, the names of their pets, where they spent their best vacation, etc. They, on the other hand, would be hard pressed to even know your last name. But again, don’t judge Mr. Marx that harshly – he does have very good things to say and if the Zoya story was a true one then the morale of it would be that all people should learn about each other and you will respect one another more. But, to “Zoya” up in heaven, you should learn your co-worker’s personal details too as they are as important to the organization as you are.

  16. As a late follow up to this discussion, there is a book on how to manage people like Zoya, entitled ” Clever: Leading your smartest, most creative people”. It describes both the significant challenges as well as the benefits of this type of person.

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