When I was a Program Manager at Expedia, and Aman Bhutani had just showed up to right the ship through by demonstrating the value of clear leadership, he started a regular “Big Boulders*” meeting with the Program Managers working on the most critical projects, like the giant re-platforming, or new shopping paths, or rethinking the checkout process.
He wanted to get direct feedback on what was going on, unfiltered, and to discover where he could help. We’d show up and give a high-level status using a standardized couple slides showing timelines and dependencies, and if Aman could help by raising an early point of emphasis to another of his peers about a cross-organizational dependency that had historically been trouble, we’d ask.
Aman built trust with us by delivering — if you brought something up that concerned you, and he said he’d go look after it, you could check it off your list of worries.
For us Program Managers, to have his ear and direct engagement was a huge step forward, though dangerous because we didn’t want to report status to him that we hadn’t already talked to our managers about (because at that point we hadn’t entirely recovered from the stabby years). And it was also pressure-filled. Not just because he was there, or because he’d ask amazingly insightful questions you wanted to be prepared for (and to which “I had not thought of that solution, wow” was a perfectly good answer). In front of a peer group of others trusted to deliver the most important projects, you wanted to have your shit together.
Some people didn’t deal with all of this well (each time starting with a forced grin and “It was another great week on the ____ team!”) but in general, Expedia’s Program Manager corps was a lot of no-credit-taking, jump-on-the-grenade, jaded leaders-through-delivering who’d kept at it through some dark years because they believed in the mission, and they’d be honest. But also, still, sometimes you left the door open knowing he’d ask a question, because you didn’t want to volunteer something you were worried about that your boss wasn’t, but it was keeping you up at night**, and you wanted him to know.
After the initial progress, Aman wasn’t satisfied with a true but also wary status report. So at one meeting, he challenged us. He wanted to hear the status with our insights, whatever they might be, into the present and future, no matter how dangerous the truth seemed.
I felt excited that for the first time someone way up the chain was not only recognizing the chain itself distorted and delayed truth, and he wanted to try and bridge that. And because we’d built so much trust, we were safe — it wasn’t a trap.
So off I went.
“We are so fucked,” I started, and I took off from there. “This org is fucking us, this other thing is fucked up, but this team is fucking amazing, totally saved our ass. This thing we bought from a vendor to help is a piece of shit…” I just went the fuck off, running down everything in terms that would have made a stub-toed sailor tell me to calm down.
Aman nodded through the whole thing, entirely even-keeled. When I was done, he said “So first, yes, that’s the transparency I’d like to see.” And then he paused for just a moment and said “But I’d suggest it’s possible for us to get that honesty without the obscenity.”
I felt relieved, and also like I could do better***.
He let that hang out there for a comfortable pause, thanked me, and then we moved to the next person.
It was an important step for me in how I expressed myself, taking this challenge to be concise, and true, and also not angry. Because I realized that while you get some truth in the emotion, you also lose clarity. “Fucked” expresses frustration, but does that express a need or problem to someone who might help you? And for many people, if you’re cursing like crazy, or you’re coming across angry, they’re not going to receive the message at all — and when you’re speaking, sometimes you can’t expect the audience to come to you, and if you want the right outcome, you’ve got to deliver in a way that’s most effective for them.
Afterwards, the Big Boulders meetings got way more raw, without the cursing, and we got to the next level of trust. And that led to things overall improving, and I felt like I’d contributed in some small way to taking that step forward. And taking Aman’s advice, I start trying to consistently hit that level of openness and honesty in all my communication, without the cursing.
- first you figure out the boulders, then you see what rocks you can cram in around them, and then you pour in sand until the container’s full
** if you’re sleeping well, you’re not paying enough attention to your project. It’s why we’re all such coffee fiends
*** the ability to support people while also helping them realize they can — and want to– do better being one of Aman’s super powers