Finding Your Inner light
  • 13 May 2024
  • 9 Minutes to read
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Finding Your Inner light

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Article Summary

Thank you to Matt Konwiser for sharing his experience and expertise in our knowledge base.

AI and Automation Specialist | Columnist and Speaker | Teacher | Student

This goes way past imposter syndrome.

I wish I hadn't burned my hand so many times. The pot looked different. The stove wasn't the same. And I couldn't tell I'd hurt myself just as badly every damn time.

I'm approaching a service anniversary at IBM that by many standards would be considered a long tenure, but not here. Many people I know started their career here and have not left, or have returned after a stint elsewhere, to have decades of total time on payroll. My anniversary has made me relive what it took to get to this point.

I'll reflect next week on what I've experienced professionally for anyone bored enough to read it. But this one is personal.

The hardest thing someone can do is admit they have flaws, and I have plenty. I'm less organized than I wish I was, I think too much, I used to react instead of perceive all the time. I've rubbed people the wrong way when I never intended to do it, and in some cases it may have cost me career advancement and friendships.

When you start your career very early and you're thrown into a lake of sharks, two things happen.

  • You develop a complex that you don't deserve to be there. You spend every moment trying to be better than everyone else, or struggling to stay afloat in meetings then spend all night learning everything you didn't understand from the previous day.

  • You also develop an ego. Being able to swim with the sharks and being told you're a rockstar, or a super hard worker and a great talent at a young age is hard to take in. It's almost unbelievable but hearing it from people you respect makes you internalize it without seasoning and business acumen to handle it.

I've had coworkers in previous jobs tell me to my face "you're too young to have your job". I've also been too bold with my own opinions of others, causing damage and hard feelings. I still live with incidents from as long as 30 years ago.

Butterfly Effect studies would suggest not to bother with regret. Don't change the past or you won't have your future. I try to remember that.

That's not all I remember. I remember every mistake. Every person I've met. Disagreements and good times, and I use every one of them as points of learning for the future.

A Hard Lesson on Feedback

When I was a technical leader at a past company, I was heading up a team who wrote myriad internal applications and services. One particularly hard worker, an absolute rockstar and one of the nicest people I've known, created a new UX for internal people to use.

When I reviewed it, my feedback was provided via instant message (remember that?). In a phrase: "That is not intuitive."

Shortly after, I got a call from that person, anger and sadness in their voice telling me how horrible that feedback was, and not at all reflective of the effort. I was straight-up told off.

I felt remorse. I didn't realize how insensitive a text message can be, or how, regardless of what I thought of the project, I entirely overlooked and failed to acknowledge the amount of effort that went into the work product before crapping on it. I also didn't offer ideas or alternate paths up front.

In addition, at the time, I didn't appreciate the level of trust it took for someone to feel comfortable enough to make that phone call.

One of the most important management lessons I ever learned was from that one person who called me and gave me a piece of their mind. I'm forever grateful to them for it.

Leadership Means Knowing Your Place

I am opinionated. From my early career days and with few personal mentors in my life to help me manage the two issues I listed above when I was an early professional, I used to always express those opinions. When someone like that is given large responsibilities to help other teams, mistakes will happen.

I remember even here at IBM in my early days making such missteps and causing tension. Not because I was trying to be better than other people, but because I wanted to help too much, and to prove myself.

I started at IBM as an individual contributor. I was formerly a "retired" executive. I remember getting a call from an IBM executive during the interview process asking me "why do you want this job?"

My answer was simple - I had never been in the cybersecurity or software business. I achieved what I had in my prior company by working my way up. I didn't have any title-envy. I just wanted a new challenge, and I wanted to work my way up as fast as I could. That IBM exec gave me the chance, and I worked hard to prove I could make it happen.

When I was given my first leadership position at IBM, one of the first meetings didn't really go as planned. I didn't know the people in the room and they didn't know me. I misstepped, and I'll never forget it.

I learned that day, and spent every minute after, reminding myself that being a true leader is not about doing things for people nor telling people what to do. Being a leader isn't about managing metrics and dashboards. Being a leader is knowing that everyone you work with, everyone on your team, is a diamond and you're the polishing cloth. A leader's job is to make diamonds shine.

Sometimes that means finding people a new home because they can't shine where they are, other times it means offering support and giving the guidance and coaching they need.

It never means doing their jobs for them, or outshining them.

There are management classes that teach "lead from the front" and "lead by example" but those are not literal lessons. It's possible to show people the way without having to be the smartest person in the room.

From my experience, the best leaders figured that out. I'm working on it but I think about it every time I open my mouth. I never want to repeat the same mistakes.

Hard Decisions

A former manager once told me "Matt, you're never really a manager until you have to fire a friend."

I didn't understand that until I became a leader at a company that had to do layoffs. Many layoffs. Layoffs are hard, because you're not firing someone for cause. You're justifying why someone's position is not longer needed. Not the person, their chair.

You'd think this is easier because you just need to make a cut. Nope. If you have a team of great people working well together that you personally enjoy working with, telling one of them they no longer have a role is crushing. It gets easier over time not because you don't appreciate the human you're impacting but because it is "just business" and you come to internalize that. Being a leader is understanding the corporate balancing act and accepting your role in the operation.

One very memorable time I had to tell someone who almost solely supported their family that their role was being eliminated, I was hung up on and never heard from them again. I called everyone I knew to ask them to help find another role and they did land a job quickly. Whether that person knows how it bothered me to make the call, or what I did to try to help them doesn't matter. I have to live with it, and so do they.

Now as a sales leader, the best thing I can do is be honest up front with everyone. They need to know the expectations of them, the measures, and the milestones as well as the implications. If I have to make hard decisions, it's not personal. It's because the team knows that a goal was missed and things need to change.

Honesty and transparency doesn't make the wound hurt less, but at least no one thinks you're trying to pour salt in it.

Underestimation

Perhaps it's my personal experiences as a very early professional or my strong objection to any biases, but it annoys me when people are judged by resumes and volume of education.

Everyone is capable of anything until they do it and decide otherwise. But they can't do unless they're given the chance. I've seen people who seemingly would never be a fit for a role or project excel because they were given the opportunity to prove themselves and encouraged to do it.

I've seen others with all the potential in the world held back because there are people with more experience who overshadow them.

One of the single greatest things about the "AI revolution" is that the science is so new and the body of knowledge is updated often enough that long tenures have little relevance. The people who learn the fastest are the ones who get ahead, and I've seen every age and background excel and fail because of their ability or lack thereof to adapt.

Giving people the encouragement to just do (because there is no try) and learn from their experience is the only way to see their value and allow them to understand what they're capable of.


Reflections

And we come to the point - I've realized that I may never be a CEO. Maybe I don't deserve it or I don't have the temperament for it, but I can use all my scars and callouses to help others achieve their ultimate success. If I can create a network of lifelong friends and colleagues along the way who want to stay in touch and love being a part of the network, then I feel fulfilled.

That's my inner light, and I spent decades trying to figure it out. I'd love to make millions a year. I want job security. I want to be better as an individual and always try to do more for the company. But this makes me happy and I want to do it as long as the company will have me.


AI has also helped me tremendously - I've learned more about myself in my learning journey in the past year than I had for the years prior, including a deep exploration of neural diversity... but that's for next time.

Writing this piece is an exercise for my own development. I've wanted to express my thoughts but I'm always concerned about coming across as "know it all" or egotistical. As too emotional, or too "motivational speaker". I ultimately decided to put it out there because it's something I needed to simply get off my chest.

People will read it and develop opinions of it however they decide. There is nothing I could write that someone won't interpret incorrectly because I write what I think, without trying to conform to any specific population's desired message. Everyone learns and perceives differently and I'm only capable of communicating in my own voice.


Perhaps that's why I like it here at IBM. I'm a huge fan of Wild Ducks.


To all those who are part of my lifelong network, I am forever grateful. To anyone I've rubbed the wrong way or disenchanted with my style, I've learned from it. Our encounters have not been forgotten.

Thank you.


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