Proactive vs. Reactive: Understanding the Mechanisms Behind Effective Leadership
Reacting to situations means that the situation leads you. Act like a leader and use mechanisms to drive change.
I thought I'd ask ChatGPT (the hottest social media thing in the last week) for help coming up with an article title. Why? Because article titles are hard to come up with, and honestly, I wanted to procrastinate. Oddly enough, it came up with this article title. Good enough! I'll take it.
It also gave me a cute poem about being proactive vs. reactive. Because I asked it for a poem as a joke.
Being proactive means taking the lead, While being reactive follows another's deed.
It's better to act with purpose and forethought, Than to simply react to what has been brought.
Thanks, goofy AI. You're often factually incorrect, but you're a neat toy.
As we enter the holidays, I'll give my annual warning that articles may be inconsistent during the upcoming weeks. I'll be attending holiday events, and visiting family. That tends to interrupt my posting schedule and make it hard to get things out exactly on the right day. I'll still be posting, just not necessarily on the right day.
At Amazon (relatively early in my career), there was a seemingly great development manager in charge of a critical service. They continually received praise for their handling of high severity event after high severity event. They would sometimes juggle more than one emergency at a time, patching something on the right, while investigating something on the left.
It seemed impressive for a while. I remember discussing that we couldn't possibly find a replacement for this manager if they decided to go because no one else would be willing to put up with the stream of constant disasters. That team was viewed as simply a critical team managing a fragile piece of infrastructure.
Until the recurring issues became bad enough that we began to pay closer attention.
They often didn't identify root causes for events, instead simply patching them and closing the event ticket.
When root causes were identified, a work item was created to fix them, but rarely was prioritized or resourced.
Their team focused all their discussion time on current emergencies, spending no effort on identifying the source of emergencies.
We quietly swapped the managers of this team, and another. A (technically less experienced) manager was placed in charge of this critical, destabilized system.
Within a couple of weeks, the rate of new events dropped precipitously. With each passing week, the system became more stable. Fewer outages. Less customer impact. It became abundantly clear that something drastic had changed on the team.
What was the main difference? It wasn't general competence. The original manager had excellent technical and interpersonal skills.
The original leader relied on hard work, ability to rally their team to their cause, and technical chops.
The new manager relied on mechanisms.
The difference is being reactive versus proactive. It's recognizing that our systems and processes have a trajectory.
You can temporarily impact a project or team by making a change once, such as resolving a high severity event. But if you don't alter the trajectory, things don't really change. Alternatively, you can alter the long-term trajectory of a team by implementing mechanisms. I wrote another article in more depth on why mechanisms are important.
Being proactive wins in the end.
I'm going to walk through examples and situations where mechanisms come into play.
You complain to your manager that you'd like a promotion. You hop to a new position, hoping that it'll provide you with the opportunities you seemed to lack in your last role. Are there more organized ways of approaching this?
Mechanism: Using a Coach or Mentor. Find a coach or mentor. Talk through your short and long-term career goals. Discuss what your next steps should be to pursue those goals.
Mechanism: Build a Personal Brand. Decide how you'd like to be known. What you enjoy doing with your time. Determine what it would take to build the skills necessary to be known for that ability.
Mechanism: Ask for a promotion. Is asking for a promotion really a mechanism? Yes, if you approach it from a project management standpoint, not an emergency standpoint. Don't wait until you're ready to quit. Follow the steps in that article to approach promotions like any other project.
Don't panic and search for new positions only when you're laid off. Watch your career carefully. Determine when you should be looking for a new position, and when you should double down in your current role.
Mechanism: Prepare yourself for losing your job ahead of time. Don't wait until you lose your job to make social connections, update your LinkedIn, or do some networking. Think about making yourself resilient.
Mechanism: Find a new boss. If you need to find a new position, ensure that you're choosing a position where you and your boss can build a relationship. Your boss will be a critical partner in your career growth. Follow the relevant steps to find the best boss you can.
Emergency operations issues
You jump onto an alarm, identify what's going wrong, communicate with customers, and resolve the issue. You look like a hero. Temporarily. How often does that happen? Are you making it happen less frequently, or do you treat it like the weather?
Mechanism: The 5 Whys. Every time there is an issue, start asking questions. Why did that happen? What could we have done to fix it? What could we have done to automate that? How could we avoid ever having this happen again?
Mechanism: Invest continually in operational improvements. Instead of waiting for an emergency, continually invest in improving the operations of your systems.
You can react to your team members. Someone says they'll quit, you sell them on staying. You could be great at selling, but that's not the same as building a relationship and understanding their needs. How do you build mechanisms for management?
Mechanism: Regular one-on-ones. Weekly. Career focused. "Are you making progress?" "What are your goals?" "How satisfied with your position are you, on a scale from 1 to 10?"
Mechanism: Provide feedback early and often. Take a look at my cool flowchart in that article. One of the few graphics I've ever made. Don't let your performance management be a reactive process. Provide feedback early and regularly. Be specific. Provide guidance, before it becomes an emergency.
Your manager says that they're not sure how you're doing. Your peers keep asking you for updates on projects. You're continually asking your team members for status on various tasks. Is there a better way?
Mechanism: Status Reports. Proactively figure out who requires what information. On what cadence should you send them updates? How do you gather the relevant information to keep the status report process easy and repeatable?
Mechanism: Proactive goal communication. Regularly review the status of your yearly goals. Are any at risk? Are you starting to feel nervous that more projects are about to become tight? What would happen if you completely cancelled a project? How could you go about communicating in such a way that your organization won't be disappointed later?
Mechanism: Writing tenets. Tenets are a great way to communicate your priorities and values. Tenets save you time, so that you can decide critical decisions once. They help ensure that your organization can function more independently, as you all share the same values.
Does each year feel like the last? Same planning process, same expected delays in delivery? Or are you improving things over time?
Mechanism: Post-Mortem Meetings. Also called a retrospective. You review what worked, and what didn't. The key is to do this when you're not concentrating on trying to deliver a project. Wait until it's done, then see what you'd do differently next time.
Mechanism: Zero-based resource planning. When building a roadmap for an organization, don't start with the team's current size. Start from zero. What if the organization had one employee? What about two? Write what you'd get done with each employee. Why? Because we're often blind to the current situation. As you focus on the entire situation, you'll become aware of where your time is spent, where your resources are going, and what opportunities might exist.
Mechanism: Significantly shorten release cycles. How often does your team / organization release new code / features? Daily? Weekly? Many have a release schedule which sounds like a physical product, even if their code could technically be released hourly. Investigate mechanisms to break the current deployment model to free up massive flexibility.
Mechanisms for life - The abnormally long digression
Instead of concluding, I felt like going on a digression instead. Because this is my article, and I can do what I want. Sometimes I love being a startup of one. If you're running low on time, I suggest you don't read the below. I'll admit that I ramble a bit. 😊
The California effect
Have you heard of the California effect? It's likely that Mr. Money Mustache made it up. For those who don't want to read yet another long article, the summary goes like this. People in California make a ton of money, and spend a ton of money. They drive crazy expensive cars on busy roads, and complain about the cost of the area, and the traffic.
Of course, this isn't really about California, as it's common everywhere. Why? Because we love getting things. Actually, not just getting things, but more things. There isn't a certain amount of more which makes any of us say, "Oh, there we go, I now have enough to be content." Why? Because our brains aren't made that way. We're never content. Take a look at this related book and the biological reasons behind wanting more things.
It takes serious effort to look at any part of your life, and say that you're now content. You now make enough money. Your house is big enough. Your family goes on enough vacations. You've got a nice enough camera. Why?
Because it's the feeling of getting more that we crave, not the thing itself. I chased a Director promotion, not because I wanted to be Director, but of the chase. The anticipation of the feeling of receiving that reward at the end.
Was that enough for me? I did leave tech companies behind, and write my newsletter and do some coaching. I'd like to claim that I've transcended this need for more, but I assure you that I occasionally daydream about going back to work. In my head is the potential VP promotion. How awesome would that be? The money. The recognition. I've seen my peers getting promoted to VP! I'm sure I could do it.
But am I being proactive or reactive with my interest in my career?
The problem is that for the actions we take in our life, we're often reactive. We react to things in our life, and we react to our emotions.
You're in college, you have a couple of great biology teachers, and you end up as a nurse.
You're happily working as a software engineer, and someone offers you a promotion to management. Most people take that promotion. Was management in their plan? Did they intend to move into management, or did they simply land there?
Ask people how they ended up in their career, and a rare few can say, "I planned far in advance and ended up exactly where I planned."
I'm not logically interested in becoming a VP at Amazon. Instead, I imagine how great it would feel to receive that next promotion, or receive those big paychecks. I'm reacting to dopamine, driving me towards achievement and validation.
Maybe you crave that wonderful feeling when you first sit in your new car, so you start looking at 2023 models. Or perhaps you're trying to capture the relaxing feel you get while sitting on a beach, so you keep hunting for your next resort vacation.
Our decision-making is frequently reactive. Not planning for where we want to be in our life, but for what feelings we hope to have.
How does this relate to mechanisms?
Most companies don't enter the new year, look at their 2022 projects and say, "Meh, let's just keep going on these." No, you plan. Leaders think ahead, and say, "Where should this business be going?"
The basics of planning for the future isn't terribly complex. A company has a vision for the future, and a few short/long-term goals to achieve that vision.
For example, a vision for a business could be, "Be the most popular to-do app in the world."
Great. Now that you have a vision, you need some goals.
"Build the world's easiest account creation process." - If you want to be the most popular, you need to have an amazingly easy way to get the app setup. Makes sense.
What does this have to do with you? You should be doing this process as well.
Decide where you would like to go with your life.
What really matters to you? Ignoring what you're doing now, what do you really want to do with your life? Then you build goals, and evaluate your decisions based on those goals.
Using Dave as an example
I have my vision statement (I call it my mission statement, same thing), all over my private notes.
Be healthy, wealthy enough, and cheerful when you're 90, and always be there for your kids.
This is my private mission statement. Obviously, yours would be different. I used those words carefully, as they imply certain specific goals.
A goal to keep myself healthy into old age. What is my mechanism? I'm exercising at least 3 times a week, frequently more. I'm regularly running, biking, and lifting weights. I intend to play with my grandkids when I'm 90, and that means being fit now. My wife is also into fitness activities, and keeping myself healthy helps me be able to keep up with her.
A goal to preserve our wealth to maintain our lifestyle. I purposefully said enough wealth because I want to ensure that we don't rely on our kids for money as we age. But I didn't say wealthy, because that would suggest that we need a more fancy lifestyle, which I don't think is true. I like our lifestyle.
A goal to keep myself happy with how I spend my time. Why would I put that in there? Because I think there's a need to invest in my interests. I love writing, building (creating in general), learning, and reading. To ensure I'm not a grumpy old man, I'm going to continue to prioritize doing things I love. Doing things I love also ensures that I'm a cheerful and engaged partner for my wife.
A goal to be available for my kids. Not for everything, but I want to be a constant presence in their life. That means attending many sporting events, helping them with homework, keeping my devices away while interacting with them, getting them to school, and helping build them into the adults they'll be soon enough.
Why do I bring the above up? Because we're talking about mechanisms today. I use this statement and related goals as a mechanism for evaluating big life decisions. I really do.
Should I take free diving lessons? Sure. It's a sport which will keep me healthy and active (health). It's in line with my interests (happy). It's not overly expensive (wealth). It won't take a lot of time away from my kids (be there for them). It sounds aligned with my vision.
Should I become a VP at Amazon? No. We have enough wealth, and working 10+ hour days would mean that I'd be around for my kids less, and it would be harder to stay in shape. Doesn't seem to have any positives, and at least one major negative.
That long digression means what?
When you're making big decisions, you need to first know what your vision is. You need to know where you want to go, before you start acting.
When deciding if you should buy that new car, change jobs, or upgrade your house, try to use your vision to help you make the decision.
Start with the end in mind. Does it match where you want to take your life? Are you going to make that decision logically, or let your dopamine take control? It's your choice.
As usual, if you have any comments or questions, feel free to respond to my newsletter email. I always read those.