Twenty-four years ago this month, I was lower than an Army Private; I was a cadet candidate, aka “new cadet” at the US Military Academy. Though cadets outrank Army enlisted personnel by a technicality, as a “New Cadet” (in training to become an official “Cadet Private”) I was scraping the bottom of the barrel. No freedom, no respect, no hair.
I’ll never forget the discomfort of new combat boots and the musty, sticky sweat coming off my field uniform, as 1,200 uneasy comrades and I marched mile after mile in full gear, stumbling single file through the woods, up and down the hills of the Hudson Valley. The oppressive New York humidity and the rocky trails were steadily eroding my will to live. Years before the convenience of Camelbaks, we wore hard plastic Vietnam-era canteens on our belts, one on each hip. I was a ridiculous, flopping fish out of water, juggling my rifle in one hand and reaching back with the other, trying to secure a canteen without dropping it, to screw off the cap and take a sip — all without losing pace with my squad or drawing attention from the upperclassmen.
The night prior in the barracks, my squad leader, a small-framed but otherwise Patton-esque cadet sergeant, paced up and down the hallways shouting as my comrades and I guzzled down canteen upon forced canteen of water:
“If you’re thirsty tomorrow on the road march, it’s already too late! Thirst is a lagging indicator of dehydration! Drink water, new cadets! Drink water!”
He was exactly right. Especially in a temperate environment while straining physically, you should replenish your water continuously. If you feel thirsty, your body’s already at a deficit. Especially if you’re not able to stop and drink immediately (e.g.: while carrying a bunch of gear and struggling to keep up), waiting until you feel thirsty might be too late.
What does this have to do with your employees?
At Coinbase, we have the pleasure of working alongside extremely motivated and smart teammates. Managers try hard to recognize people for their contributions and to highlight the exceptional value that high performers deliver. Your company may be similar. But if you let it, excellent performance can start to predetermine a person’s future scope: “Janet did a great job with project X. Let’s assign her project X1 since she knows the stack best now.” Before long, Janet is the subject-matter-expert in Xn. Now recognized as the key-bearer to a critical product area, she beams with pride.
A few quarters and several more project X’s later, Janet seems slightly less engaged. She’s doing solid work but isn’t quite as inquisitive. She arrives slightly later in the morning and is a bit less productive. Her manager asks her if there’s anything wrong and she struggles to give specifics — “I guess I’m just a little tired.” He suggests a long weekend and scrambles to think of ways to give her more variety. But he struggles to shift her responsibilities quickly. Janet knows the codebase so much better than others and everyone else seems so busy. Identifying and training a replacement isn’t going to be simple. Meanwhile, Janet has started thinking about leaving the company.
Exactly once in my four years working at Facebook did someone ask me the question:
“What do you want to do next?”
Ironically, it was my very first 1:1 meeting with my first of seven managers, and question was initially discomforting. Had I heard her right? Was she already pushing me to another team? What had I done wrong?
As she helped me to understand, Sarah knew that the right time to ask the question was before I had asked it myself.
Before I was thirsty.
As the initial shock subsided, I started to embrace the conversation. Sarah and I had an open discussion about a potential future role, where since I had leadership experience, I could manage a small team; where because I had experience building out web products, I could work more closely with our engineers. Even though (and in part because) the conversation was uncomfortable for me, she had carved out a safe space for us to collaborate. She invited me to help her paint my future role. Given her vantage as a leader, she was able to offer suggestions that I hadn’t known existed. When my eyes lit up at a particular option or responsibility, she dug deeper.
We started the process of defining a plan. In a few months, I’d split my week between two desks — M/W/F with the account management group, and T/Th with the API engineering group. Within a year, I’d built up and handed off a new account management team, and fully transitioned into a newly defined role building a . I had had no time (nor reason) to get bored, complacent, or disengaged. I was too busy marching up the next hill. My manager had urged me to drink water before I was thirsty, and I’d transitioned happily into the subsequent role, where I stayed for the next three years.
In my fourth year at Facebook, I started to poke around for open positions, trying in my spare time to find a new opportunity — a new challenge where I could add more value. I met some passive resistance — “But who’ll lead your team? You know it so well. There’s so much left to do. Maybe just take some time off?” So despite working for one of the best companies in the world, I started to look elsewhere. And by the time they scrambled to offer me a shiny new position (at Instagram), I was already a goner.
At Coinbase, where I’m coming up on two years this fall, I’m currently helping two of our star performers on the Platform Team transition into key roles on other teams. Each role is significantly different than the prior one, and I’m excited to watch both colleagues succeed.* I only hope that their new managers will ask them before long:
“What do you want to do next?”
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