The Biggest Lesson


So we come to the single biggest lesson from my career.  Following from the previous discussion, it is simply:


Nothing matters but the really good people!


This seems obvious, but it needs quite a lot of expansion.  Basically the thought is, if you really have the right people, they will solve all the other problems.  Unfortunately, you rarely have enough of the right people, so that the key to an organization's function lies with the few good ones you do have.


It is important to clarify what we mean when we say "really good people".  If you take all the people in an organization and plot them graphically on a scale of competence, you will get something like the traditional bell curve:


(Figure 1- XXX)


It is then tempting to say that all the people to the left of the peak of the curve are "bad" or "incompetent" and all the people to the right are "good" or "competent".  If you do this you will entirely miss the point of this essay!  The people near the peak of the curve (on either side) are more or less average.  In fact that will be most of the people -- that's what the bell curve says.  They will be more or less competent to do their jobs -- rather less than more if you believe The Peter Principle1 (I do).


The "good people" I'm talking about are way, way out on the right hand side of the bell curve, the few people at the very tail of the curve.  It is these few people who make all the difference.  I have often thought about these people as "tent poles", in analogy to a circus tent, where a few major poles hold up the entire fabric of the tent.  In my experience, it is entirely true that a few of these "tent pole" people hold up the entire "fabric" of the organization.  Without them, the whole structure will come down.  I have often felt that, given a loaded revolver (and no morals), if I knew just who the tent poles were in any organization, I could easily cause the enterprise to fail.  There simply are not many of such people and they are the real jewels that matter.


Interestingly enough, these tent poles may or may not be the managers.  They are usually the "thought leaders" whether they are in management positions or not.  They are the people who set the tone for the real organization, the ones that others come to for advice and inspiration.  And they are the ones that, if you had enough of them, could cause everything to work out well without any formal management structure.  But you never do have enough of them.


I have no special knowledge of Microsoft, but, from what I have read, Bill Gates understood this lesson very well.  In addition he was sufficiently confident in himself that he was willing (even eager) to surround himself with "tent poles".  If the reports are true, Microsoft may have been one of the highest concentrations of "tent poles" anywhere.  No wonder they were successful (if not admired).


So, again, find out just who your key people really are, wherever they are in the organization.  Treasure them, feed them, make them feel valuable -- because they are.  Cultivate them and they will help you get more of their kind.  Put them in whatever position in the organization suits their unique talents -- even if you have to invent something peculiar that fits them.  Pay them what they deserve and/or what the market requires -- even if they are paid more than you are!  I have had this latter situation with individual contributors several times and have always felt it was very worth while.  Of course, you have to regularly determine whether they are earning their keep or whether you made a mistake -- and act accordingly.  But for the real "tent poles" this issue is never even close.

As an aside, I have been amazed at the number of managers/directors of engineering organizations who could not face having one of their employees paid more that they were.  Certainly this would be bad policy if the employee were basically a duplicate in areas of skill of the manager/director.  But usually, the tent pole will be someone skilled in some specific area and may or may not ever want to be a manager.  In that case, paying that person more than the manager/director makes perfect sense and reflects positively on the capability and reputation of the organization -- and of the manager.

So there you have my most important bit of advice: focus on your really key people, know who they are, make sure they are effective and happy.  They will reward you and your organization far beyond what the average person will and they will cause the entire organization to raise its level of performance.

As a special case of this philosophy, I have treasured a kind of person that others seem to find extremely difficult.  This key person, when faced with a new assignment, will drive you crazy with questions, details and requests for exactly the right charter, personnel and resources for the task.  This can take quite a while and be very annoying.  But in at least two cases that I have met I have greatly treasured these people.  Why?  Because once they have negotiated a situation that they believe to be sensible, they will simply go off and do the job.  You will not hear from them again and you need not worry further about the task.  It will get done.  If you can find people like that, put them in the "tent pole" category even if they are aggravating to deal with at the start -- it's worth it!