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  • Writer's picturetony

"…and I do not know what the right answer is…"

I once had the great opportunity to serve as the Deputy Chief to an extraordinary executive - one of the pioneering women in mathematics at the National Security Agency. She was brilliant and dedicated and had very high expectations for professional behavior. We were running a Group of several hundred people, a 24x7 high-stakes mission with lots of complexity and a large budget.

We had a regular budget review meeting with our direct reports, the leaders of our 4 line Offices. Because of the Chief's background and willingness to do massive amounts of homework, she often knew their budgets better than they did. After a while, most direct reports seemed to find the meetings intimidating, more about surviving than thriving. It wasn't a lack of competence but a lack of confidence.

I DO know the right answer to THIS quiz!!! (from RAGBRAI 2017)

She eventually moved to a new job, and I became Chief. It seemed to me that the times and the situation had changed, so I needed to signal a change. First and foremost, I'm not intellectually or psychologically capable of doing the kind of homework that she would do to prepare for those meetings. So, I needed some way to convey a different style and expectations and encourage people to be forthright with their issues and concerns. I started the first of those meetings off with something like this.

This is not a quiz. I do not know what the right answer is here. Our purpose today is to work together to try and understand your budget and management challenges, and together look for opportunities to help you.

Despite some initial skepticism, I think the signal worked, and “This is not a quiz” became almost organizational shorthand. Occasionally, one of my managers would start a meeting with a smile and say, "Hey Tony, is this meeting a quiz?". Beyond the bumper sticker, it became a quick way to represent complex ideas like empowerment and psychological safety.

And to be clear, I never thought of this as "she was wrong, and I was right." The Chief was one of my favorite bosses - a consummate professional and extraordinarily dedicated to the mission. And still a treasured friend. When she took over the Group, it was newish, immature, and lacked cohesive management and expectations. When she left and I took over, the managers and the organization were better equipped and more mature. I just tried to recognize that and act appropriately. And this approach was a much better fit for my own management abilities anyway.

Organizations are growing, evolving animals. And none of us, including me (ESPECIALLY me), is the right leader for every situation. Some leaders have the self-awareness to recognize this and either adapt (if capable) or move on. Some don't recognize the need or worse, try to force-fit what they know to every situation. And sometimes it takes an independent view (e.g., the Board, next-level manager in the bureaucracy) to recognize the situation and act.


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