Taylor Otstot is the Senior Director of FP&A at Dashlane and former Senior Director of Finance at GoDaddy. He has over 14 years of experience providing analytic and decision support to help organizations achieve their product, customer, and financial goals. Connect with Taylor and other finance leaders by joining the Vareto Visionaries community.
Fall seven times; stand up eight - Japanese Proverb
With each passing year, I like to take the time to reflect on what I’ve learned, and this year was no exception. Given the significance of this milestone, I figured I’d codify what I learned from doing things wrong the first (if not a second) time.
So, in no particular order, here are eight things I learned the hard way during my time at GoDaddy.
1. Titles unlock doors, but that doesn’t mean you’ll be invited in
Early in my career, I remember sitting in the office of my then-boss’s-boss. I was frustrated. I was a senior analyst running support for an organization that had historically been supported by a director. At a minimum, I thought I should be given a manager title, and I was doing my best to convey this fact as politely as possible.
My then-boss’s-boss looked at me calmly and said, “Taylor,I could call you whatever fancy title you want. ‘Manager of Special Projects’ or whatever, and it wouldn’t change a thing. What matters is how you influence people to do great work, and no title can give you that power.”
Two things I learned that day. First, we had different opinions on what constituted a fancy title (seriously, Manager of Special Projects?). Second, his point was I spent too much time thinking about what people called me and less about how they saw me.
This isn’t to say titles are meaningless — of course, they aren’t. Having a bigger title often means you have access to information and discussions that you otherwise wouldn’t. But, if you earn the title before you earn the respect, that access only serves your ego.
2. Focus on being useful rather than making an impact
I wrote about this at length in a previous blog post, but the core concept is this: true success occurs when we focus inward rather than outward. We understate the role luck plays in our lives, so if we’re entirely focused on the outcomes, we miss the nuances of what truly drives success. The key to all of this is to understand that what you do isn't as important as how you do it.
3. Every major disappointment is the result of a failure to set expectations
Managing people is hard. This, in and of itself, is hardly a revelation, but in doing something difficult, we often emphasize our intentions while emphasizing the outcomes of others (a form of the Fundamental Attribution Error).
It’s easy to blame others when they failed to live up to your expectations, but more times than not, it’s because your expectations were never clearly laid out. You know you’ve communicated enough when you’re sick of saying it and not a moment before.
In short, your initial reaction to an undesired outcome should be to blame the process, not the person.
4. It’s ok to have a point, but you don’t always have to try and prove it
So many of our day-to-day debates are unnecessary. Early in my career, I felt my duty was to keep everyone on the right path. To protect them from their worst impulses.
What felt like keeping the team on track was really me trying to impose my will. One of the most challenging pieces of feedback I ever received was that I valued my ideas more than my business partners. My initial reaction was, “well, of course…I’ve put a lot of thought into my ideas,” and then it hit me. I wasn’t weighing in on their idea but on my perception of it.
This is a nuanced point but an important one. When you hear something for the first time, it runs through a number of filters based on your experience and philosophical outlook. The resulting judgment is almost always more emotional than practical, so you have to give yourself a little space to understand what’s being pitched before you weigh in.
I talked about this a bit in See the Good, but one way to keep yourself from judging an idea too early is to focus on the good parts first. When you start with what’s right, it’s much easier for you and the team to talk about the downsides, so it doesn’t feel like you’re shooting down the idea entirely.
5. Goals fall to the level of our systems
When we think about achieving greatness, we’re so often focused on the human element—do we have the knowledge, skills, and drive to do something that hasn’t been done before. What we miss in this analysis is that the underlying infrastructure—our processes, culture, and tools—either enables us or holds us back. Great heights are reached through a combination of getting off the ground and staying in the air.
6. Stop trying to motivate people and focus on not demotivating them
My first blog post was about research on motivation—namely, that external motivators are poor substitutes for employees’ internal drive. So much focus is put on what incentives to offer, but the reality is that we do more good by removing negatives than by adding positives. Employees don’t need to be motivated so much as they need to be energized, which comes from removing barriers that make work suck.
7. Assume good intent
We don’t often appreciate how bad we are at communicating. If you don’t believe me, imagine this scenario. I ask you to tap out your favorite song on the desk with your knuckle. As you do, you’ll hear the rhythm, the instruments, and maybe even the words inside your head as you tap away. Of course, if I were to do the same with you just listening, it would sound like erratic tapping. There’s no musicality there…just noise.
This is called the curse of knowledge. We don’t appreciate what we already know when we’re communicating with others. We assume they can read between the lines—hear the music beneath the tapping — whereas all they’re getting is exactly what you’re saying.
There are too many examples where I misunderstood someone because I took my own knowledge for granted. What initially looked like a lack of ownership turned out to be a lack of understanding of the task. What originally presented itself as frustration with a deliverable was really frustration with the process. Again and again, I learned that the story in my head wasn’t the real story.
I now painstakingly ask questions when interacting with others — even things as simple as defining words (“what does incremental mean to you in this situation?”) so that I’m not relying solely on the tap-tap-tap inside my own mind.
8. Write it down
I started this blog to help me codify my thoughts. It wasn’t until I started writing about issues I was dealing with at work that I realized how little I knew. While I have a long way to go to develop my writing process, I’m learning more and more how the simple act of documenting my thoughts helps me realize the gaps in my knowledge, which in turn helps me get better.