Jim Vinoski

JimvinoskiOperations Business Manager

Deborah Brownstein held this conversation on November 5, 2010.

Deborah: Increasing the productivity of knowledge workers is one of the challenges all businesses face. Given your experience at a Fortune 500 firm, I’d like to explore your thinking about the conditions that produce high performance teams.

Jim: Former Navy Captain Michael Abrashoff, in his book It’s Your Ship, tells how he took the worst performing ship in the Navy to the best. One of his major points is that you already have good people, period. No matter who you inherit, it’s about getting them to where they’re performing and delivering what they can. It’s not about firing people and bringing in experts and superstars. The resources you need are already there; we have to find a way to draw them out.

I come out of engineering where a huge value is put on expertise and technical mastery; super-smart people who can manage lots and lots of details are prized. I grew up thinking I had to prove to everyone that I was the smartest guy in the room; I found myself doing that over and over again. Tied to that was the notion that I did need to dictate what others should do—because I truly did know best. Yet, I know darn well that if I examined what I truly believed, these ideas are not really true; but too many times I found myself acting on them.

Deborah: Given the choice to be the tortoise or the hare, we’re going to pick the hare most of the time. We like to be the biggest one, the fastest one, the smartest one. A typical approach to increasing organizational intelligence is to populate our teams with the most talented people.

Jim:  Going out and finding experts is not the be-all-and-end-all. It’s been an evolution for me to see the search for experts and superstars can be detrimental.  As leaders, we’ve got our own  blinders, so we miss swathes of things we need.

Deborah: Are you saying we may not even know what kind of expertise we need?

Jim: That’s right. Abrashoff made that point in It’s Your Ship. The people who are right there in front of you have expertise that you can’t even see. Barry’s book tied that philosophical notion that we all have blinders to the philosophical notion of distributed knowledge and drove it home to me: I do not know, and I don’t need to know. The light bulb went off: Yeah, of course that’s true! It’s one of those times when you smack yourself on the head and say, That should have been obvious. Well, it wasn’t obvious, and that’s why The Inner-Work of Leadership is so phenomenal.

Deborah: So, we don’t even see the resources that are right in front of us.

Jim: And then, if you’re nursing your ego, you’re just solidifying your blinders. It takes inner-work to become aware of the ego.

Deborah: Until then, we keep looking at our people through your own box.

Jim: That’s right. There is a much bigger part of the world—the big piece of the iceberg that still is underwater—and we can’t see it.

One of my most phenomenal teams is one of my most recent ones. The team was completely cross-functional with folks from numerous, disparate functions within the company. The team was to launch a new product—a sort of “Hail Mary” speed-to-market project. Under the stress, the team came together and jelled very quickly—it was us against the world. The process was one of, Here’s the stuff that needs to get done. Who’s going to do it? Team members didn’t care about official job titles. It was, Hey, who wants this or can do it the best? There have been plenty of other teams who, under similar pressures, retreated to their comfort zones, their little boxes, and utterly failed.

Deborah: There had to be something other than external forces at work to have everybody step up. What made the difference so that this group of people was able to set aside their titles, their labels, their spheres of expertise, and really build a shared pool of knowledge and a commitment to following through. Why did the barriers that were present in the other groups dissolve in this group?

Jim:  It was not by design, it was not by selection of team members, it was a little bit of planetary alignment. I don’t pretend to have all the answers. One facet of it was absolutely that we were on this fast-track project for a product that nobody in the organization knew much about. This time, the natural tendencies of people above us in the organization to fiddle and reinforce structural boundaries and divisions weren’t there. The leadership basically turned over this task to us and said, We don’t know how you’re going to do it, but we need it done. Go to it!

Deborah: They admitted they didn’t know, so they choose not to micro-manage the team.

Jim: That’s right; hands off. It got a lot of egos out of the game from the get-go. Of course, getting into our functional silos only reinforces the ego drivers that we each have in our little worlds. Those drivers were broken from the start.

Deborah: Let’s go back to I don’t know, and I don’t need to know. With I don’t know you might tack on maybe some of you guys do know, so let’s figure it out. But then there is the idea I don’t need to be the one who knows. That idea is very liberating.

Jim: Yes, it’s one of the biggest things I took away from The Inner-Work of Leadership.

Deborah: When we understand I don’t know, and I don’t need to, then our role as leaders is to commit to a discovery process. One of Barry’s prescriptions is to drop the image of ourself as the doer—as the one who has to make something happen. We can engage a discovery process through dialogue in problem solving conversations where nobody owns a position, but everybody is working with ideas as if they are clay. Out of that clay something takes shape that was never on the table in the first place. Dialogue is very different from conversations in which we ask ourselves, How should I package my idea? Instead, we’re all in it together, working with clay and experiencing an alternating current that keeps flowing back and forth. We stop being concerned with packaging an idea; we’re concerned with being open to receiving ideas—we’re focused on receptivity.

Jim: If you’re sitting in that meeting, and all you are doing is catching that first snippet and sitting there and thinking in your head how you are going to look brilliant with your reply, not only is the rest of the message lost, but whatever you throw out there isn’t going to be worth anything. You’ve missed most of what was coming at you in the first place. Clearly, you’re not receptive. You have to get past your ego to be receptive.

Deborah: The capacity to listen in order to be responsive rather than to listen in order to reinforce your position is a different quality of listening.

Jim: You have to listen and you have to be effective with others who are not listening. Recently, I addressed a conference of engineers here at our headquarters and talked about some of the challenges I have in my job and how they might interact with this position better. One point I kept making was that the real success story in communication isn’t the person who goes half-way—it is the person willing to go three quarters of the way or 9/10 of the way to facilitate communication with another person. Too often, that other person is in their own world, for whatever reason. It’s not malice. It’s not mal-intent. They are busy. They are in a zone where nothing is getting through to them; it is tough for you to be heard. That is when you take it upon yourself to make the extra effort. You do not just force your message through. Instead, you truly listen to what’s coming from them, and you engage them by giving back to them whatever you might be able to add—whatever you can bring to the table might help to build a better whole.

Deborah: So you cultivate a capacity to receive what’s coming and you open a channel for the ideas to flow.

Jim: Even more, you have to draw out intelligence, not just wait for ideas and information. To make sure you are getting it from each team member, you have to go their strengths, and sometimes you have to pull that out of people.

Deborah: People do not always know what they know—until they have a chance to apply their knowledge. We all walk around with so much tacit knowledge that we take for granted; we think everyone works out of the same pool of knowledge, when they don’t. We undervalue what we know. We undervalue what we know that could be useful to somebody else.

Jim: Absolutely.

Deborah: So how do you do it, Jim? How do you become a magnet to pull out that tacit knowledge?

Jim: I don’t pretend to have the answer, that’s for sure. But I do try to learn from experiences like I had on that high performance team I’ve described. I now make a common practice of working with new team members, particularly incoming managers who have been formally charged with leading people, saying to them, Here’s an example of a high-performance team. Here is why it worked. And, here are the things that I want you to be onboard with as you and I work together. One of the lesson I share is that whatever a person’s function, function is immaterial. Each team member has valuable knowledge for whatever it is we are trying to accomplish.

We cannot assume that a culture of open communication in one team will be transferred to another team, even when they are working on the same project. For example, on the same product we launched with the high performing team, once the project was turned over to a new team, I saw communications shift back to a very functional structure. What we were learning from our consumers was being channeled straight to marketing only. I challenged our leaders saying, You’re going to miss some incredible knowledge that folks in our quality group or folks in R & D have learned as they’ve been part of this launch for months and months. Now they’re missing fresh insights from consumers, and they could head down a wrong road because of that. So even if it doesn’t seem like those people are bringing anything to the table, copy them on presentations and communications. I guarantee they’ll have valuable things to say.

Deborah: The idea is that knowledge doesn’t come with a pedigree. You must be open to receiving it from anyone—anyone could be your superstar contributor.

Jim: I go back to my Dale Carnegie training about how to get people talking. You have to truly listen and value the answers and feel no urgency to tell your side of the story. When you do that, when you’re not faking it, that’s when you really connect with people. Taking that into the team environment, when you truly value not just the story they tell today but the knowledge they bring to the table, then you’ve got real answers.

Deborah: You are talking about respect.

Jim: Respect and something more.  There is a corollary to I don’t know, and I don’t need to know: It is, These people together do know everything we need to know. The question is  how do we tap it? We tap that intelligence by asking the hard questions we need to answer, by letting people—regardless of “pedigree,” position, or function—give you what they think, and by listening to them. It’s phenomenal when it happens.

Deborah: People have to feel safe or they aren’t going to share what they know.

Jim: That’s right, and that’s where the hierarchy kills you.

Deborah: People hang back feeling that they’re going to be judged, feeling there’s a risk to contributing.

Jim: Or worse yet, feeling they don’t even have standing to speak, they will never speak. I’ve seen lots and lots of teams. In the high performing ones, people absolutely feel safe. There can be decent performing teams where people hold back. You can have some success with less than full participation, but are you being as successful as possible? I don’t think so. And there are teams where people truly don’t feel safe, and members do censor themselves, or they do not speak at all. Those teams aren’t getting us anywhere—they’re just reinforcing the bureaucracy.

Deborah: If team members don’t feel safe to offer their view on something, it’s stifling. The team can’t move forward. I’ve been practicing coming into meetings with appreciation for the opportunity to be with the people who are there. How we think about each other makes a huge difference in the climate of safety.

Jim: And the counterpoint is that people can feel when our appreciation of them is not genuine. You can bend over backwards to feign appreciation or to reward people. But when they feel they are not valued, it doesn’t matter how extravagant the supposed reward is, it means nothing.

Deborah: People have pretty good sensors for what is genuine or faked. Your saying, unless there is a real shift in our own thinking, in how we see another person, changing our behavior won’t change anything. It gets back to that problem of thinking we have to make something happen.

Jim: Right, and that is the problem of the ego. If in any way you feel superior to another, then you most certainly are not going to be genuine in valuing what that person brings to the table.

Deborah: Do you have any practices that help you step back and observe your ego?

Jim: In the last few years, I have made a practice of greeting anyone with a smile. That smile has nothing to do with getting anything done in a meeting; it is a way I challenge myself. It doesn’t matter who the person is or what station in life they hold. The effort on my part is not only to not be a burden to them, but in a positive way, to help lift them up.

More recently, I have reflected on experiences where I felt I was not being valued, where I felt that a person above me in the formal hierarchy was looking down on me. The Inner-Work of Leadership has helped me assess my own behavior when I have looked down on others. Shame on me. If I’m going to be upset with people who’ve looked down on me, then I had better be correcting that behavior in myself. Even as I review interactions in my mind, I want to ask myself, Am I viewing this person as below me in anyway? Whether it’s position in the organization, intelligence, behavior, or whatever, I have no standing to have that attitude whatsoever. And of course, at times, my behavior falls short; but at least I am asking myself the question.

Deborah: When we look at the human condition, we are similar; we are all making the same mistakes.

Jim: I love the quote from Philo: “Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle.”

Deborah: If we can see that we are all in the same boat, then we really can shift our orientation from “I” to “We.”

Jim: To me, if we are not getting it down to that essence—that we are in this together—than we will always fall short. We will not draw the best out of people. If we work for our own ends, we are working other people like machines; we’re not really valuing the other person.

Deborah: We have ends we are pursuing, and we think we know what those ends need to be. We may not consider that we don’t know what is best for us, best for the project we are on, or best for others in our organization.  We drive people in the direction of our solution. Sometimes our goals undermining team performance.

Jim: That can be. But, it is not inherently evil to  have ends in mind. We all, certainly, value doing something productive; being part of an organization means you have common ends.

Deborah: Organizations are organized to perform functions or accomplish tasks; that is why we organize. How about the issue of recognizing that every member comes to that team with a different purpose? When you work with teams, is there a sense of mission that helps to align the diverse interests and diverse purposes that people come into the team with?

Jim: Absolutely. I think that having a shared goal, objective, or outcome is a key to effectiveness. To go back to that high performance team that I used as an example, we had one overarching objective: We had to get the product out the door on an extraordinarily short time line. We had that clarity, and we realized that no one else knew how to do it. We were relying on each other because there was nowhere else to go, and the walls came down.

Deborah: So how can we do that in more routine circumstances?

Jim: Actually, the clarity of objectives in routine assignments is something we miss a lot of the time. We’ve got to knit together people who have their individual purposes into a common overall vision and direction. And then, even if we get it together at some point, the message is often lost over time. It is challenging to keep those walls torn down and to keep open the channels of participation and communication. To do that takes ongoing work. All too often, we don’t pay nearly enough attention to that work in routine assignments. Using Stephen Covey’s notion of distinguishing the important from the urgent, we gravitate to the urgent all the time; the important gets dropped by the wayside.

Deborah: So much of what we do routinely is important; that is why it is part of our routine. But we get to the point where we take for granted the value of that contribution.

Jim: I used to be annoyed by rah-rah rallying cries that changed overtime. I thought, Why can’t we get a message and just stick with it? At some point years ago, it struck me that messages get old, as work becomes routine. Now I see a value in that occasional refresh. It is good to say, We’ve been on this mission for a while, and maybe the fundamentals of the mission don’t change, but let’s regroup and see, because things change. Are we aiming at the right thing? Does it need tweaking? Does it need wholesale change? Where are we, and where’s the new rally? Let’s get a fresh launch. Doing this we truly are honoring what is important, not only what is urgent.

Deborah: As you think about other folks who are looking for a better way than the way they are managing today, folks who are searching to refresh their own leadership skills, or who are setting out on a new path, what advice would you offer them? Sharing a challenge you are facing today can be helpful to others.

Jim: Two things come to mind. The first is, we have to give ourselves room to not be perfect. A passage in Barry’s book that I have passed on to others is about looking for external reasons for feeling awful; we miss seeing that we first make the decision to feel awful. We want to hang our feelings onto external reasons; but no, these reasons are just the excuses we use. Yesterday morning, I walked into work with a few people. Someone asked me how I was doing. “Ya know, kinda pissy; but I’ll get over it. It’s just how I chose to feel this morning, was my reply. I’m not saying we have to be cheerful or bubbly; come on, it’s the real world. But, the fact is, we choose how we respond to everything.

Then I’d say, we have to believe that people can change, ourselves included. I have long worked to better myself in any number of ways. I’ve had a convoluted career, beginning as an individual contributor for years and years as an engineer. Later in the game, what started to spark me wasn’t the technical side of things but the strategic and organizational; so I switched to management. That decision took me even farther afield. There were struggles; many people do not accept the notion that a person can change. As I’ve dealt with those personal frustrations, I’ve turned to look at that quality in myself. Have I given others the room to change? How have I done with that? Pretty poorly, is the answer. As I moved into a management position, the previous manager would tell me about people. I’d think, That’s the line on this guy. Got it. I know how I’m going to treat him.  I wasn’t asking, How old is this information? Is this true? What has changed?

Now, hopefully—and I know I don’t do this perfectly—when I feel put upon by others, I challenge myself on those same behaviors. I’ve gone back to  tell people, “I wasn’t fair with you.”

In The Inner-Work of Leadership, Barry mentions Charles Koch. I remember reading The Science of Success by Koch. I was reading his chapter on performance evaluations right at the time of the year when we did our evaluations. I came away thinking, Wow, to do things the way Charles Koch was talking about, I would have to know my people so much better! And the instant that thought popped into my head, I was utterly deflated.

Deborah: You were thinking, I don’t know my people very well.

Jim: Oh my goodness, what a failure that piece was!

Deborah: We can go full circle on that, Jim, because at the start of our conversation we acknowledged, We don’t know the intelligence sitting right in front of us.

Jim: We can break bad habits in how we see ourselves and others. Our starting point has to be valuing people as people before worrying about what we are after; this is a key element of authenticity and it is an opening to our True Self.

An engineer by training, Jim now helps lead teams in delivering new product innovations for a major food company.  Jim is an avid cyclist and runner – he loves riding anywhere, but especially the challenge of cycling up big mountains, and he’s currently training for his second marathon.  He has been married to the girl of his dreams for over 20 years, and they have two young boys, with whom Jim looks forward to spending lots of time in the woods in the coming years.

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