To Build Great Products First Build Great Teams

Explore an unconventional leadership approach that flips the hierarchical pyramid and fosters an environment for growth. Learn how empowering your team can lead to remarkable success and foster a happier, more productive work environment.
In: Product

In today's issue, Luis Arellano will describe how he approaches a critical project by building a great team. We will cover the following:

  • Inverting Traditional Leadership: A New Approach to Team Building
  • A Success Story at IBM: Empowering the Team
  • Benefits and Personal Experiences: The Impact of Inverted Leadership

Let's dive into it ūü§Ņ

I'm very proud of the commendations the products I've built at IBM have received, from helping clinch the top spot in Gartner's Magic Quadrant right out of the gate (2 months after release) to winning a global design award that IBM hasn't won in 25 years (the Red Dot award, last won by IBM for the IBM Thinkpad), among others.

While it's gratifying to see our product recognized, I personally get much more satisfaction from seeing the team behind it come together and develop into stronger, more capable individuals.

My Philosophy On Team

My philosophy on how to build teams and work with them is to essentially invert conventional wisdom.  Traditional companies are organized in a top-down fashion, where orders and direction originate at the top and get handed down through the ranks, getting subdivided into finer and finer detail as it cascades down. Workers are expected to obey, to do what they're told quickly and efficiently and without complaint or hassle, and then pass the results back up.

This is not how I work.

The way that I prefer to work with my teams is to flip the entire pyramid - instead of me dictating like a latter-day Moses and them following, I want THEM to lead, with my role being to support them. My role should be to point the way to what needs to be done, to clear roadblocks ahead of them, to coach and help them develop and improve their skills, but then to let them run with it.  I should be getting pulled by the team from them running so fast, versus me having to push and cajole to get things to happen.

Inverted leadership Pyramid 

About the Team

This is, in fact, what we achieved as a team at IBM. When I was given the project, I inherited 5 separate teams that had never met, much less worked together, that I had to somehow forge into a single one.  My first step was to set the vision for the project and figure out how each of the different teams could contribute to that vision. Then I had to identify leaders, but that part was actually easy - I simply had to set the vision, take a step back, and see who stepped forward. They self-identified themselves.

I gave those people the authority to run with the responsibility, not through any formal approach, but rather by pushing it back to them whenever they turned to me for direction, with me constantly asking "What do *YOU* think?" and "Why are you asking *me*?". I also set high expectations of them - simply setting those expectations was enough for them to rise up and meet them. I also did some 'active' positioning, so that others on the team would see them as leaders. For example, in meetings, I'd ask them to co-present with me and would then sit down myself, or if I was running the meeting, I'd ask them for their opinion repeatedly.

Then I got out of their way and let them work, and they knocked it out of the park. We essentially operated as a startup within IBM, a unique little corner where we ignored ranks and organizational divisions, and instead operated on a merit-based system where if you knew what you were doing, you had a say.

That's how Armand went from a shy data scientist to a strong leader with a clear perspective on where data science was going and what we needed to build, how Cece took over the day-to-day management and planning of the project, making sure that we never stopped making progress and blasting through any obstacles in our way and manhandling executives literally twice her age when they threw up obstacles, how Greg stepped up to lead the entire technical portion, as well as the entire content operation, making sure that our customers had clear examples to understand what they could do with our product, and it's how we got 2 interns, Adam and Snehal, from a crowded field of 200+ applicants, who were so good that everyone forgot that they were interns and technically did not work fulltime at IBM.

Snehal, Adam, Cece and Armand

It was this core team of rockstars on my product team, as well as other rockstars that I haven't mentioned on the design, engineering, content, and other sides, that made the product happen and which are directly responsible for its success.

War Room where the magic and big decisions happened in the San Francisco Office

I could not be a prouder manager, nor can I think of a clearer argument for the inverted leadership model than their success.

Counter To Typical Advice on How To Advance

It's interesting to note that the duties and responsibilities of a leader in an inverted pyramid organization are in conflict with what's in their best interest in a traditional top-down organization.  In an inverted pyramid, your team leads and you take a step back to let them take center stage. Your team shines, and you shine via them.

There is no taking a step back in traditionalist organizations. In those organizations, how quickly you rise is directly correlated to your visibility.  Your superiors need to notice you think highly of you, and you get noticed by seizing the spotlight.  The more of a "hero" you are, the more your stock rises. Heroes don't share, especially not the spotlight and definitely not the credit. This is the pattern that I've seen over and over again within the large corporations that I advised or worked within.

Practical Benefits

There are very practical benefits to developing the people on your team. First and foremost, the more the team is capable of doing on their own, the less will fall on your plate. In fact, in the extreme case, you almost become irrelevant and the team can function without you. This means that you can feel confident sending any of them to any meeting, no matter how important or critical, and be fully confident that they can handle it. It also frees you to focus on higher-level problems - things more around longer-term strategy and vision vs doing low-level day-to-day firefighting.

Secondly, individuals on the team develop faster.  The additional responsibility forces them to.  When I started out at McKinsey, I would do my analysis, double-check it, and then hand it off to my engagement manager to present to the client. One day the engagement manager told me that I was going to present my own work. Holy shit.  I triple and quadruple-checked it. I did an extra round of syndication with key stakeholders to make sure that they were aware of it, generally agreed, and couldn't see any major holes in the analysis. Then I sweated bullets until I had presented my section successfully. In short, putting me in front of the client stakeholders made it very real to me that I was doing something that had implications for them and their business, and that I better had done a good job.

Third, your team is much happier because devolving responsibility to them and developing them makes it very clear to them that you value them and that they have real responsibilities, both of which are things that motivate high performers. They have a seat at the table and they have a say in the work, all of which leads to much, much higher morale.

In short, your team executes better, they're happier, and you look better as a leader.

Luis, Rohan, Armand and Harsha

My Story

Mentoring isn't new to me, it's been in my DNA for a long time.  At Time Warner Cable, I also built an amazing team and made it clear to them that I expected them to lead and that my role was to help them achieve that, whether that meant clearing roadblocks in their way or coaching them to help them develop their skills. I still remember the first time one of the team came in to ask for my advice on an approach that she was taking - this was someone two levels down nominally and who, in an everyday corporate organization, would be out of line to drop in on a senior executive for such a low-level consultation. Mine wasn't an everyday corporate organization though, and she was *supposed* to drop in and bounce ideas off me. That was what I saw as my role, and I was tremendously gratified the first time it happened.

This mindset was also the case at McKinsey. I was recognized for having two "spikes" while I was there - one was creative problem solving and the other was team development. People would seek to be on my team because they knew that I would develop them and make them rock stars. It's a particular point of pride for me that many of the people whom I was either their first or second Engagement Manager (team lead) at McKinsey became highly rated consultants (a difficult distinction to achieve in a field full of excellence) and then went on to find tremendous success in the corporate world, whether as COOs, Senior Vice Presidents or other such distinguished positions.

Going even further back, this was also my mindset during my earlier startup days. I was just as happy teaching someone something as I was doing the actual work. At one of the first startups I was at (mySimon), we had hired a couple of petroleum engineers out of Stanford and I'd work with them to get their computer science understanding up.  They were smart guys, just hadn't had the extensive coursework that the Computer Science guys amongst us had had.  I'm still either friends with or in touch with many of those people, and it's amazing to see what they've gone on to do.

Even further back, this started with my family. Each of my parents is the oldest in families of 10 or 12 kids, and I'm the oldest grandkid on both sides. I've always grown up with little cousins at any given time. There was a period after the 2000 market crash when I was out of work, and I spent the time coaching my little cousin on basic math using coins. It was amazing to see her (then little) brain learn almost in real-time as I taught her - you could literally see the understanding flicker to life in her eyes. She went on to be a co-Valedictorian of her high school class and then on to a top university.

My Way of Paying it Back

I also see this, as a very personal and a very real obligation to pay back.  I had a tremendous amount of people believe in me and actively help and coach me along the way. How does a poor, farm-working kid whose first language is Spanish make it to Stanford Engineering, Stanford Business, and McKinsey? Lots and lots of luck, but especially lots and lots of help from people along the way who cared.  

The wife of the owner of the farm where my dad was the foreman was a retired librarian from San Francisco who taught my brother and me how to speak English and how to read, bringing us boxes and boxes of books from the library marked "discarded" every time that she came up for the weekend. It's because of her that I started kindergarten speaking English and knowing how to read.

My 80-something-year-old neighbor with whom I had worked since I was 8 gave me an appreciation and perspective of how someone very different from me thought and lived, especially as someone who had been an independent woman since almost when women were granted the vote. She also instilled in me a wicked vocabulary of sayings from the 40s and 50s that let me win many trivia nights.

My elementary school teachers expected much from me and wouldn't settle when I delivered anything less.

My 8th-grade math teacher made me his Teaching Assistant for the class below me, and each of my brothers and sisters held that same role after me. In fact, this same teacher attended both my undergrad and MBA graduations, right alongside my family.

My high school teachers guided me through the college application process, as I had no idea that I was even supposed to do anything. The application process wasn't even a black box to me - I had no idea that there WAS a box, as both my parents had only reached 6th grade in their native Mexico. These teachers had high standards and expectations of me and pushed me constantly.

Without all of these people in my life, I wouldn't be anywhere near where I am today (not that where I am is that distinguished), and would not have had the opportunities that have come to me.

More than anything, it's this that I've been trying to pay back by building up others, and it's paid rewards and dividends in ways that I could not have foreseen or expected.
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