Great teams are like Jazz

Photo by Konstantin Aal on Unsplash

Listening to sublime jazz is like experiencing a great team at work. Each performer is individually brilliant yet it’s the collaboration and teamwork that makes it sublime. When I worked for Chris Young at McAfee, this was the key point of a speech he made. So I’m riffing on his talk (like jazz itself).

In order to draw the analogy to teamwork, a brief digression about jazz is order.

Many jazz performances follow a time-honored structure. Each song begins with a melody – or coda – and then the group moves on to the improvisation phase. One or more group members improvise a solo. Once that phase is over, the group returns to the coda and the song is brought to a close.

The improvisation is where the magic happens.

Good jazz is when each improviser expresses their individual mastery during a solo. Perhaps they are technically brilliant with their instrument and use the solo to demonstrate it. Perhaps they want to challenge the listener with the extremity of their improvisation, by departing far away from the mood and tone of the coda.

But in my opinion, great jazz – the sublime jazz – is when the soloists honor the coda and play off of each other during the solo. The soloist is in the lead, but their bandmates are improvising to some degree at the same time. You can literally hear the group respond to each other as they go.

What’s exceptional when this happens is the trust, vulnerability and courage required of each member. A soloist without others improvising is in full control of their performance. But when a soloist and their bandmates improvise at the same time, everyone is engaged in collective risk-taking.

Sublime jazz is how I think of great teams. Every person is playing to their strengths and contributing their brilliance as “soloists”. But they are doing so in the context of collaboration, mutual trust and risk-taking. Each team member is contributing to the collective whole, not for the sake of proving their own abilities but in order to improvise together towards great outcomes.

How might you play like jazz at work? First, focus on creating an environment where each team member is encouraged to be their brilliant selves. Yourself included.

Second, focus the team’s attention on collaborating around each person’s brilliance. There’s a secret to improvisational comedy, which is to use “yes, and…..” instead of “yes, but…..”. Any person can lead with an idea, and the rest of the team is encouraged to ideate, refine and riff on the idea until some conclusion is reached.

P.S. If you’re interested to hear examples of sublime jazz, Miles Davis’ Kind of Blue is my canonical example. Titans like Miles, John Coltrane, Bill Evans, Cannonball Adderley and Paul Chambers came together, and with very little advanced planning improvised their way to perhaps the most important jazz recording ever made. Recently, I also discovered Matthew Halsall, a current-generation example of sublime collaboration and improvisation. Check him out here.

Swimming changed my life

Photo by Serena Repice Lentini on Unsplash

I’ve had an on-again, off-again relationship with distance running for most of my life. I love the healthy benefits of stress reduction, aerobic fitness, ability to eat carbs without remorse, etc. And the mental test of going further and faster is rewarding too.

Unfortunately, my body isn’t built well enough for distance running. I’d been in an endless cycle of fitness > injury > recovery for most of my thirties and forties. Eventually, I had to give up running entirely about 9 years ago.

Since then, I mourned the loss of running because I couldn’t find an easy substitute. As much as I love hiking, it’s more time consuming to drive to a hilly trailhead, do a hike of multiple hours, and drive home to get the same impact as a 30-60 minute run. So there’s a natural limit to hiking’s frequency and benefit.

In April of 2018, the fitness club I belong to installed solar panels over the parking lot. With that, the outdoor pool went from open & heated seasonally to open & heated year-round. I decided I would try doing some laps in April 2018 in case swimming could become a new running substitute.

5 minutes into my first session, I had to stop. My heart was racing. My body temperature was elevated. I wanted to puke, like the feeling of sprinting for 400 meters around a track. “This is intense!” I thought to myself.

Since then, I’ve slowly developed a lap swimming habit to the point of 3-4 sessions per week for 30-35 minutes each. The results have been transformative.

My aerobic fitness is such that the most challenging hill hikes I take are now pretty straightforward. I’m not at 10k road race fitness, but still.

There’s been a commensurate impact on my muscular fitness. Core fitness in particular is an amazing by-product of swimming. Even as I traveled to India 4 times a year in 2017-2019, I never experienced back pain thanks to a strong core. And other muscles have emerged throughout my upper and lower body.

What’s most amazing about swimming is the lack of recovery time needed. I’ve done laps for multiple days in a row and not felt any soreness or recovery time needed until maybe 4-5 days in a row. That’s a big contrast to the recovery discipline most runners need.

Last, swimming has been a springboard to other fitness habits. From this foundation I’ve introduced things like kettle bell exercises, a little bit of yoga and daily walking.

And of course a healthy body leads to healthy eating habits and positive mental health. Put all of this together and yes, my life is much different today than in recent years past.

If you’re in search of a fitness activity with aerobic and muscular benefits with limited time commitments, I can’t recommend swimming enough. Happy laps!

My 2020 resolution: be courageous

What motivates our New Year’s Resolutions is to seek some form of self-improvement.

But here’s the challenge. Positive change and growth require courage. Courage to confront our fears, our guilt, our shame. So much of what holds us back from growth are the fears that hold us in place. Or the shame and guilt that comes with acknowledging that we need to be someone different in order to be better or happier.

I took some big decisions in 2019 about my professional and personal life. Perhaps you did, too. Scary, one might say. But necessary for the sake of one’s long-term happiness.

But I survived those changes. So did you. We all do in retrospect. The fear and shame manifested but subsided. A new normal began to emerge. With growth as a by-product.

For example, I started being more vulnerable with close friends and family. I told them things I never shared before. What I got in return was their own stories and a closer connection. So beautiful.

I also fucked some things up majorly as I tried to change. Fail-learn-grow, fail-learn-grow seems like a cycle without end. And not always in a comfortable way.

We’re all like onions. There are many layers to be peeled to develop a true sense of self. What do we want? What do we need? What is the idealized version of ourselves? Where are the gaps between our ideal selves and actual selves that we need to work to fill?

So 2020 will be a continuation of 2019, asking myself more of these anxiety-provoking questions in search of growth and positive change.

If you’re like me, some answers will be ugly. They will require confronting my flaws and failures and past traumas.

That’s where courage is required. If we can find the courage, then growth can follow.

Second chances

Photo by Sean Paul Kinnear on Unsplash

I met up with an old friend over a beer recently. We hadn’t seen each other in years. An aside: do you have friends where you can go years without contact, and just pick up the conversation as if those years hadn’t passed? That’s the case with this friend.

His story is remarkable. The love of his life passed away years ago. What followed were some dark months if not years. Any one of us would have felt the same.

Except he picked himself up, dusted himself off and took on the challenge of living a fulsome life again. Eventually, he met someone else. And they fell in love with each other. And with each other’s families, including children and grandchildren.

In parallel, my friend had the good fortune to join a really great software company. The company provided him with amazing success and growth opportunities over the years. Including a recent promotion and expat adventure.

Finding love again and prospering in his career while in his 50’s isn’t an accident in my opinion. It’s because he was open to the possibilities. It’s because he seized the possibilities. He made himself vulnerable, especially in falling in love with another person having lost his soulmate. He showed courage.

I think of his story and remind myself how our lives are made up of chapters. Adulthood isn’t one chapter. It can be many. And each chapter, if we choose to start it, can be a path to something new and valuable.

And if we follow the inspiration of people like my friend, those new chapters might never stop opening. All the way to the end of a life well lived.

Finding oneself in college

University of Michigan
University of Michigan
Monday morning aftermath
Monday morning aftermath

I was in Ann Arbor recently, visiting my local team there.

Lately, I’ve gotten in the habit of getting up early and starting the day with a long walk. So, off I went with a coffee in hand and Tegan and Sara’s new album in my ears (very good, btw) to explore the vast campus of University of Michigan. Go Blue!

I was reminded how college is where many of us go to find ourselves. Far from our parents’ watchful eyes, we’re free to become whomever we want. For me, this took the form of experimentation and trying on various personas.

College was the first time I was presented with diversity and I was intrigued to know these different people. Coming from the lily-white suburb I was raised in, this was a fun experience.

I got to meet the Ethiopians. One from Addis Ababa, who was very worldly. And the other from the rural mountains, who was a refugee of political violence and had the scars to prove it. I met the Singaporean who loved alternative music as much as me. The Bahamians, whose love of life was just infectious. The Bermudians, who were similar but maybe more reserved.

I met the anarchist. The hippies. The Quebecois. The rural Nova Scotians. The Hongkongers. The mainland Chinese. The Indians. The Ontarians.

People wax nostalgic about college. And for good reason. It can be a very fun time indeed. But it can also be a confusing time. Free to experiment, and confronted with people who are very different from one’s self, who are we really?

We emerge from college with a clearer sense of self, which guides our early adult life. But I don’t think that’s the end of the story. At least it shouldn’t be.

To me, life is comprised of chapters. And with each chapter we have a chance to reexamine ourselves. Do we still believe what we did? Value what we did? If not, what does that mean to the life we will lead going forward?

Perhaps we should maintain the college mindset. We can be constantly exploring who we are and who we want to be. That feels like growth to me.

Fail forward: an origin story

It was the winter of 1983. I was a senior in high school. I had told my parents that I didn’t plan to go to college that fall. So I didn’t apply to any schools.

As a parent today, the thought of this terrifies me. A college degree is a ticket to lifelong opportunities. So I can only imagine what my parents were thinking at the time. I was in a private, all-boys high school known for graduating 98% of its students to college. And I had enough ability to do the same.

But the reality was a bit different than that first principle of “thou must go to college if you can”. I was suffering from years of depression, my grades had deteriorated in my junior and senior years, I was soul-searching for who I was. I didn’t feel ready to continue the shitty academic experience I’d been having by continuing on to college.

So my dad did something surreptitiously. Knowing he and my mom were about to move back to Nova Scotia from New Hampshire to be closer to my ailing sister, he called the dean of admissions at Acadia University in Nova Scotia.

Somehow my dad got me in over the phone. He must have been a pretty good salesperson, because Acadia has been ranking in the top 3 schools in Canada for decades, often ranking #1. And it was weeks past the application deadline.

My dad came to me afterwards and basically said, “write your application and essay and you’re in”. For reasons I can’t recall or are buried in my psyche, I went along with it.

The first years at Acadia were a continuation of my struggle. But somehow I stuck with it and gradually became engaged as a student. I graduated with mediocre grades but at least I had that piece of paper. The thing that opened the door to future opportunity.

Parlaying that degree into career opportunity back in the United States wasn’t easy, but we’ll save it for another story.

There’s multiple lessons to be taken from this story in my opinion.

First, even in the times of struggle and failure, an opportunity exists if you choose to take it.

Second, we can fight ourselves over seizing opportunity. Perhaps because of limits to our own self-esteem.

Third, there are always people in your life who are willing to help you and give you that opportunity. Bob Stead was the Dean of Admissions at Acadia. He had no reason to admit me. But for some reason he did. I am forever thankful.

Have you ever met the type of person who was a class valedictorian? The one who was both gifted and driven? Who got into Stanford, or Harvard, or Princeton? Who got hired at Bain or Goldman Sachs? I know some of these people, and I’m not one of them. Never been.

So if you’re not that “achiever” persona how do you succeed?

Fail forward.

“Failing forward” for me is a metaphor for seizing opportunities when they are there, risk-taking, and learning from failure. In my case, I don’t have that valedictorian pedigree. So to the extent I have built a successful career, it’s been from a series of fail-forward events, originating all the way back to high school.

Only as I get older and wiser do I see the outright merits to embracing this idea and accepting it as a blueprint for success.

Did Billie Eilish write the perfect love song?

I’m neither a musician nor a composer, but I do love music. And one song has me trying to deconstruct why I like it so much.

Here goes my attempt to explain the perfection of Billie Eilish’s “I Love You“.

First, the song is slow and spare. Very few notes and words. This negative space gives every note and word the ability to have maximal emotional impact.

Second, she chooses words with very common ending sounds like “oo” and “eye” so that she has many words to choose from. Those well-chosen words can be short and simple but still convey intense meaning.

This is a kind of Hemingway-like genius. As the master himself said:

If a writer of prose knows enough about what he is writing about he may omit things that he knows and the reader….will have a feeling of those things as strongly as though the writer had stated them. – Ernest Hemingway

Third, she sings the verses very quietly. You’re drawn in to listening the way you listen harder to someone who’s whispering.

Fourth, the refrain builds from that quiet baseline to a crescendo of a held word, along with a single held note on a bass guitar or string instrument. “I love yooooooooooooou”. This prolongs the climax of emotion and the point of the whole song..

So that’s it. Slow and spare. Simple, emotionally laden words. A quiet that draws you into listening. And a refrain that brings home the emotional point of the song.

Have a listen for yourself.

Fail forward?

I’m playing around with a book concept. Something I probably won’t get to writing for a while, given all that’s going on in my life.

But the central premise is that all forms of personal and professional growth are borne of risk-taking and failure.

This isn’t a new idea.

So why don’t we take those risks? Why don’t we maximize our learnings from failure? Perhaps these questions do merit writing more about.

I’ve written only a little bit about the failure of my startup Bluenose Analytics, here and here. But in the years since, I’ve reflected extensively on the experience and what I could take away from it.

First lesson: adversity builds courage and much more. For example, the utter magnitude of Bluenose’s failure, and my accountability for it, mean that I won’t experience anything so monumental (unless & until I start another company!).

The effect is that I don’t freak out over risk-taking. New challenges that I might never have faced before become less scary. Scary, but less scary. So I’m now inoculated from the paralyzing fear of failure.

So remind yourself: at some point in your past you’ve taken risks and survived them. Even overcome them or outright prospered. Which can increase your appetite for risk-taking from here forward. If you’ve been so risk-averse in the past that you can’t draw lessons from risk & failure, then ask yourself what you are waiting for?

Second lesson: failure can create resiliency. But failure can also create negative feelings of defeat. So how to become resilient?

I think the key to failure is to own it. I *never* characterize Bluenose as anything but failure. Failure of the business and failure of me. Despite the fact that we achieved many things to be proud of. But “owning” failure means to not qualify it as somehow being less than it is. In my case, I lost $13m of famous investors’ money, denied my employees the ability to experience success from their hard work, and disappointed our customers. I own that no matter what else happened.

And to own it is to be able to move past it. I speak openly now about this failure, without sugar-coating or avoiding it. Because I can use this experience in many positive ways. This is resilience.

Third lesson: you can build stronger connections from failure.

In my case, I think one benefit of failure is that I am more vulnerable and engaging to the extent that I talk about it. As a leader, it’s tempting to try to project perfection. But what people really want from their leaders is a sense of connection. I’m good at projecting confidence, so using failure as part of my narrative is important to remind me and others of my utter humanity and fallibility.

Building connection from vulnerability can also position us to better empathize with others who are working through their own challenges. That empathy creates the pathways to be helpful by listening, questioning and advising.

So risk and failure can build courage, resiliency and connections. When you frame it like that, what’s the downside?

Leadership is a privilege

I’ve been thinking a lot about leadership lately, as I make the transition from McAfee to my new role at Barracuda Networks.

As I was leaving McAfee, I heard from a lot of folks expressing appreciation for my leadership and contributions. Some comments were about positive changes I drove at the organizational level and other comments were about how I helped individuals in their roles. All of this was heartwarming.

But I’m not naive. No leader has a 100% fan base. And the fact that I drove a lot of cost cutting and personnel changes probably did not endear me to a lot of my people.

But the stories people shared with me on my leaving, and some that I heard secondhand, made me realize that as a leader you can have a profound effect on people for better or for worse.

Consider the cases in your career where you’ve done great work. Were you well and truly proud, or did it take some sort of validation from your boss to bring it home for you? I think the validation means a lot.

And conversely, when your boss doesn’t validate your work, it can really affect you. If you’re like me, you like to deliver and to please. I think it’s a very basic human need.

So if we as leaders carry this type of influence, perhaps we should think of leadership as a solemn responsibility. As a privilege.

This can be a very different way of thinking. Many career-minded people who have become managers “keep score” in their career according to metrics like the number of people they lead, their title, their pay, where they fit in the leadership hierarchy, etc. This mindset can desensitize us to the real foundation of leadership effectiveness and growth, which is to understand the privilege bestowed upon us.

With that “privileged” mindset, we move towards thinking of ourselves as coaches, enablers, even servants to our team. I think that’s a much more powerful way to orient ourselves as leaders and to guide our own professional growth.

On gratitude

Rob J. wrote me an email a couple years back, out of the blue. We’d lost touch since our days in Boston, as close friends back in our 20’s.

His email told me how he appreciated our friendship from those distant times past. My first response was sorta cynical. I thought maybe he was in some type of self-help program.

But his words were kind and sincere. And that email stuck with me.

Inspired by Rob, earlier this year I started sending thank-you emails to friends new and old. In some cases, I’d just thank them for our friendship. In others, I pointed out something they did or said that helped me. My hope was that maybe I could help them appreciate the positive effect they had on my life.

I sent these emails because it made me feel good. And I hoped they would make others feel good, just the way Rob’s email stuck with me.

Last week, news of my departure from McAfee was announced. I got many kinds notes and calls. And in some cases people cited examples where I had a positive impact on their work or professional lives.

Some of these examples surprised me. Seemingly small or trivial things I did or said had a positive impact on others. I guess I shouldn’t have been surprised given my experience with thank-you emails.

What I also took away from these notes is that as a leader, one’s words and actions can have a much larger effect on people than one might realize. This can produce both positive and negative effects. It’s an awesome responsibility one bears as a leader.