Progress starts with ingredients

A lesson in creation, leadership, and life.

A good friend of mine told me how he went to a poetry workshop recently. My friend is not a poet. He’d actually never written a poem in his life. He was a nervous about attending the workshop.

Here’s what the instructor asked him to do.

She asked my friend to make a list. The first list he had to come up with were “objects you find beautiful.”

Then she asked him to come up with lists of other things:

  • 3–5 people you’re close to
  • Words that remind you of those 3–5 people
  • Words you use a lot
  • Words you like the sound of
  • Places that feel like home
  • Things other people want of you or expect of you
  • Songs from your early childhood

What he ended up writing in those lists were his “poetry ingredients.” She then gave him a poem someone else had written with a blank space every other stanza. This was the “recipe.”

He plugged his ingredients into the recipe…

And ta da! My friend had a poem.

It got me thinking how many things in my own life are this way. It all starts with a list of ingredients. Building, making, doing something new really isn’t much more complicated than that.

Take painting, for example. When I try to decide what to paint, I make a list of emotions: What have I been feeling strongly lately? I make lists of colors, shades, forms, places and people that inspire me. From these ingredients, the recipe begins to percolate in my head. And I begin painting.

For writing, before I attempt to hammer out any sentences, I make a list of things that feel stirring to me: What has my brain been hooked by lately? I write down recent situations I’ve encountered, enjoyable conversations I’ve had, things people have said that I’ve disagreed with, words or phrases that have puzzled me, concepts I’ve read in books that have intrigued me. From that list of ingredients, I begin to write.

Progress starts with a list. Progress starts with ingredients.

I wonder — if we slow our minds down for a second — how many things we find hard to start, make, and do that would become more straightforward and less stressful if we remembered this?

You’re on a project at work. You’re stuck. You don’t feel inspired. You don’t feel creative. But you remember that creation starts with ingredients. So you start listing out the ways the project could be better, things you’ve seen recently that have caught your attention, people you should go talk to to get new ideas. The list of ingredients snowballs, until you’ve caught fresh momentum to start plugging them into your recipe. You’re unstuck.

You’re a new manager on your team. You’re frustrated. Folks seem disengaged, blasé about the work they’re doing. But you recall that progress starts with a list of ingredients. So you start listing out what potential blockers people might have, reasons why people should be excited about the project, what ways you might be getting in the way with your own actions. Your list of ingredients stares you in the face: It’s clear what you need to act on. You’re no longer frustrated.

From a simple list of ingredients, you can make progress. You can become a better leader. You can create. You can write. You can paint.

Even if you’re not a poet, you can write a poem.

Start with the ingredients.

P.S.: Please feel free to share + give this piece 👏 so others can find it too. Thanks 😄 (And you can always say hi at @clairejlew.)

Is it your first time firing someone? Here are 4 things to know.

Ugh. Firing someone never gets easier — but keeping these tips in mind can make it go as smoothly as possible the first time around.

I’ll never forget the first time I fired someone. She was the first employee I’d ever hired at Know Your Company. And she was someone I’d looked up to since I was 19.

At the time, I remember the realization hitting me: “Wow, this is the first time you’re going to fire someone, Claire.” The dread, the panic, the sick pit-of-the-stomach feeling hit me hard. Since then, having done it a few more times, I will say letting someone goes never gets easier. But there are a few things I wish I would’ve known earlier:

Carve out time to prepare.

This is not an off-the-cuff conversation to be had. I find it best to thoughtfully write out what I’m going to say, concisely and clearly, so I don’t accidentally say something I don’t mean to. Here are some tips on how to deliver the news of letting someone go. I also spend time contemplating what the person’s reaction might be. While you can’t control for it, at least anticipating how they might react can help you prepare and be mentally ready for an emotional outburst or harsh words thrown your way.

Don’t overlook logistical details.

Don’t forget about the logistics involved when you fire someone. Keep track of what company property they have, what systems they have access to, and how you’ll handle those items. Best practice tends to be that all property is returned and all access is revoked immediately — but there may be exceptions in your case. (For example, perhaps you want to give the employee a chance to publicly say “thank you” to the company via email). Lastly, consider who else should be in in the room. Depending on the size of your company, having a third party or HR representative is typically a good idea.

Loop in legal.

Potential legal fallout can catch you off guard unless you’re prepared. Make sure your company’s legal counsel is aware of the situation so they can make sure your bases are covered. Don’t assume otherwise. Even if it’s an employee you’ve trusted for years, firing her or him will change your relationship instantly. I’ve seen other founders and managers get caught in compromising situations because they failed to have a conversation with legal before letting someone go. It never hurts to be on the safe side.

Remind yourself: The other person has it worse.

No matter how you frame it, this isn’t going to make the person feel good. Accept it. Don’t try to sugarcoat or over-justify your decision. You’ve made it, so own it. The worst thing you can do is saying something like, “I wish I didn’t have to do this” or “This makes me feel terrible” — both are insincere statements. Be direct, get to the point quickly, and don’t linger in the room afterward. Mind their privacy and pay attention to their reaction. Word travels fast among employees, so how you handle this first firing can set a tone within your team.

I know I’m not alone in my distaste for these cringe-worthy types of conversations. For more on this topic and other leadership tips, visit our Knowledge Center.

P.S.: If you enjoyed this piece, please feel free to share + give it 👏 so others can find it too. Thanks 😊 (And you can always say hi at @clairejlew.)

How to handle a needy employee

You have a needy employee. What do you do now?

This (very cute) photo credit goes to Wikipedia Commons.

“I think I’m going to have to let someone go.” I was at lunch the other day with an executive who admitted this to me.

I asked her why.

“She’s in my office every five minutes, asking me for help. I don’t have time to answer her questions — I just can’t get anything done.”

There’s another way to put what she was describing: Her employee was needy. I understood where she was coming from. I’ve managed employees who came across as needy in the past too. The person would ping me incessantly. Every decision required my input. The hand-holding drained me.

I’ve always struggled with what to do about a needy employee. It’s difficult to discern if this person simply wasn’t a good fit for the role and needed to be reassigned (or let go) — or if there was something more (and better) that I could do as a manager.

To help you make this distinction, I’ve shared five things I’ve learned from hundreds of conversations with CEOs and other leaders about managing a needy employee. It’ll help you answer, “What should I do before deciding to let go of a needy employee?”

Ask what their previous manager was like.

When you get burned, you don’t forget it. Often times, a needy employee comes to you all the time because their previous manager punished them for mistakes — and they fear similar repercussions. To figure out if your employee has gotten burned, you can ask, “Who’s the worst manager you ever had, and what did you not like about that person’s leadership style?” Then based on their answer you can share how you currently are or would like to be different than this “worst boss.” Understanding who this “worst boss” was can help you adjust your own behavior, as needed. And, knowing that you’re not this “worst boss” can help this employee become less fearful and overly reliant.

Give permission to fail.

Your employee might be a perfectionist. She’s not used to messing up, and she doesn’t want to mess up. So she’s sacrificing speed for smoothening edges that don’t need to be smoothened. To curtail perfectionist tendencies, you need to give this person permission to fail. One of my favorite ways to do this is to borrow a few phrases from Reid Hoffman, Founder of LinkedIn. He told his Chief of Staff at the time that he wanted him to make judgment calls on a range of issues on his behalf without checking with him. Then he said, “In order to move fast, I expect you’ll make some foot faults. I’m okay with an error rate of 10–20% — times when I would have made a different decision in a given situation — if it means you can move fast.” Tell your employee you expect foot faults and be clear on what error ratio you’d prefer. When you do this for a perfectionist, you give them permission to not check in with you as much.

Instill confidence in their role.

Insecurity drives us. And it often drives a needy employee. They want to impress you. Or they’re worried about you firing them or passing them up for promotion. Now I’m not saying it’s your job as a leader to compensate for people’s insecurity. Rather, I am saying to acknowledge the role insecurity plays in how people perform in their jobs. When you address someone’s insecurity directly, you can minimize its effects. For example, when you directly say to your employee, “I believe in you” or “I trust you on this”, it means a great deal. Keep in mind if you do say that, you must hold up your end of the bargain. You can’t say you trust someone and then yell at her later for making a mistake. One phrase — and one that you mean — can go a long way.

Make clear what “good enough” is.

A needy employee can act needy because you haven’t given them what they need: Context. Your employee isn’t clear on expectations. Have you explained the standard for what is “good” work? Have you shown examples for what that “good” work looks like? Have you talked through how you make decisions, and what criteria you judge? Have you defined the markers of success? Your employee’s neediness may actually be confusion — and it’s your job as a manager to create coherence.

Tell it straight.

If you want this person’s behavior to change, be straight forward about it. Let your employee know that you want to be less dependent on you. As harsh as it might sound initially, you can deliver the news kindly and helpfully. For example, you could say something like, “I think you have the potential to take more ownership over projects. I can envision you coming to me 80% less of the time. What can I do to help make that happen?” When you’re clear about what you want to be different, the person can just then go do it.

You might try one of these suggestions, you might try a few. Either way, I hope you give them a shot before choosing to letting someone go. Sometimes letting the person go is the right answer — but you’ll know it’s the right answer if you’ve tried at least one of these recommendations.

I’ll be sending this article to the executive I saw for lunch.

P.S.: Please feel free to share + give this piece 👏 so others can find it too. Thanks 😄 (And you can always say hi at @clairejlew.)

Don’t let worry become a leadership weakness

Worry is a natural byproduct and characteristic of a leader. Here are five ways to cope with worrying as a leader.

The other week, I interviewed Jason Fried, CEO and co-founder of Basecamp. I asked him what he wish he would’ve learned earlier as a leader.

His response? Worry less.

I smiled when he said this. Oh, how I could relate!

Over the past few years, I’ve noticed how many CEOs (myself included) are stressed out and worried about something. They’re worried about employees leaving, internal team conflict, growing fast enough, their product failing, the market changing, the competition beating them, running out of money, hiring great people…

The list of worries seemingly has no end.

But how do we put an end to it? Personally, I know I’d like to worry less. I think more clearly, act more intentionally, and enjoy life a hell of a lot more when I’m less worried.

In an effort to worry less as a leader, I decided to write out what works for me. Here are five things I try to keep in mind to worry less:

Ask yourself: “What’s the most I can do with what I have right now?”

Most of my worry stems from feeling a lack of control over a situation. I want something to turn out a certain way. So I start to feel overwhelmed and worried when I don’t believe I have the agency to influence that outcome. Here’s the funny thing, though: We have more control than we think. We can control ourselves — our actions, reactions, decisions, and beliefs. What we can’t control are other people and external events. And if that’s the case, well, why bother worrying about them?

Let’s choose to focus on the former: The things we can control.

To do this, a helpful question I like to ask myself is, What’s the most I can do with what I have right now?This question re-focuses my energy on what I am in control of right now. Instead of idling in indecision and mulling over every possible path and course of action, the question “What’s the most I can do with what I have right now?” forces your hand. You must deal with the cards in front of you. And once you do, you’ll clear a path to move forward within the constraints you have. Now you can focus on what you can control.

Remind yourself that the present is real — the future isn’t.

My worry also comes from my mind operating too much in the future. I think, “What if…” or “That could happen…” and brace myself for a future scenario, trying to strategize two steps ahead of it. While in some ways that can be beneficial for thinking through certain complex decisions, it is enormously distracting, for the most-part. The only thing that’s real is what is happening now. The present is real. The future isn’t real yet. It hasn’t happened. Remembering that always lightens the load of my worries.

Realize how good you have it.

When I stop for a minute and look at my life, I realize how goddamn lucky I am. Lucky that I was born in this country, to have the parents that I have, to go to the schools that I did, to meet the people I have across my career… I hope I’m not the only person who feels this way. So many of us, even in our worst, most pained, stressed, and worried work moments, live lives that 99% of the world would trade places with in an instant.

Of course, it’s tough to remember when we fall victim to our own worry-ridden train of thought. To combat this, at the end of every day, I try to think of three specific moments earlier that day when I felt joy or gratitude. (Studies have shown that in fact writing down daily what you’re grateful for significantly reduces stress in people.) I realize that I’ve got it good — and so many of us do.

Share your worries.

Tell other people what your worries are. It does no good to suffer in silence. Often times, when I say my worries aloud to another person, it becomes immediately apparent how stupid that worry is, how pointless it is… and the worry evaporates. If it doesn’t, at the very least, you now have a confidant, a pal, who you can think things through with and discuss a plan of action around. Don’t keep worries to yourself. Share ‘em.

Step away, move your body, get some sleep.

My worries become exacerbated when I don’t take care of my mind and my body. When I’m in a particularly stressful or worrisome situation, usually the best thing is to take a step back, get my body moving, and go do something different. Go for a walk. Get on a bike. Breathe some fresh air. Go surround yourself with greenery, or good music. Talk to a sibling, parent, friend, boyfriend, or spouse about something completely non-work related. And get some sleep. Rest the mind, rest the body. The break is needed. I always return feeling clearer and fresher on what matters.

I hope these tactics may be as helpful to you as they’ve been for me.

If anything, as I shared with Jason during our interview, do keep in mind what a friend once told me:

“Worry is the most useless emotion.”