learning

Culture and Grind

Over the past few months, I have been going back and forth with a fairly senior person at one of our big banks. It has been a deeply frustrating process, mainly because of the quality of the person’s work. I was finally prompted to write something down after an interesting conversation on Twitter about, well, the quality of work one has come expect from artisans, specifically, but Nigerians generally.

Every time I think about the quality of output, I am reminded of an episode from years ago. Early into my career, I found myself under a boss who was what could be called a master. He had a remarkable resume and experience at some of the finest firms in the world. One time, I was over at his house for Saturday drinks when he’d organised a barbecue for he and some of his peers (mostly private equity and investment banking types). I was the cub in the den. We got to talking about all sorts of things, and the conversation turned to the young starters in their various firms — people like me. They were all complaining about the quality of work they got. (Some of this I suspect was the usual habit of older people to look back and think everything was better in their day.) I recall someone saying something like:

“Most people think there is some secret to doing great work. Like you must be Einstein or something.

No. That’s wrong.

Sure, it helps to be smart, but assume that most people are at the same level for smarts—which is usually the case for the top firms. The rest is just hard work and keeping at it. Doing great work is a grind.”

I’ve never forgotten that last phrase, “Doing great work is a grind.” Basically, it is drudgery. It is crossing t’s and dotting i’s, checking and rechecking, being obsessed about ridiculously small things. I do not think much about the mythologizing of Steve Jobs, but one thing about his story which has always struck me was his maniacal attention to detail, his obsession with perfection. He cared about the text of his creations, the shade of black on the screen, the feel of the product, even its packaging. It is almost impossible to list out all the specific instances where he was sweating the small stuff.

After that weekend, I started to see my boss’s fussiness in a new light. His painful anality served a purpose. Every letter, every report, every document of his was thought out to extraordinary depths before he even started writing. And then, he would write, and rewrite, and get your opinion, and then rewrite again. Constantly cutting out fluff, correcting errors, distilling the essence of what he was saying. When I sent reports to him, he would go over it with an electronic red pen: correcting grammar, interrogating points, helping me to sharpen my thinking. It was being anal-retentive by design.

And this is just how it goes regardless of who you are or what you do. If you want to do great work, you have to make it a habit and you have to be prepared to work bloody hard. You have got to sweat the tiniest things and sharpen the instinct to spot crap work. You have to hate crap work: I mean like really hate it. Do this long enough, eventually you would have worked yourself to a level where it is simply impossible to do otherwise.

I see the challenge of lower quality work all too clearly. It is a compounding catastrophe. Perhaps the biggest problem is that once you get used to crap work, you accept it; and once you accept it, well, you are done. You will deliver crap work because your norm is now crap. You will lose the ability to distinguish crap from great. Here’s the thing: You cannot on the one hand accept bullshit as OK and think you can deliver caviar. It ain’t gonna happen.

Jeff Bezos had this to say about a culture of performance in his most recent letter to Amazon’s shareholders:

“A culture of high standards is protective of all the ‘invisible’ but crucial work that goes on in every company. I’m talking about the work that no one sees. The work that gets done when no one is watching. In a high standards culture, doing that work well is its own reward—it’s part of what it means to be a professional.”

I love this idea of ‘invisible work.’ (I also love how he defines the idea of a ‘professional.’ When last did you think about what it means to be called a professional-something? What does that mean? How does it separate you from the non-professional?)

Bezos’s allusion to invisible work is an admission that it is impossible to micromanage everyone. The best teams are ones where everyone is prepared to grind and grinding is a culture. For leaders, I think engineering this culture—or, indeed, engineering the destruction of the opposite culture, a culture of low standards and bullshit—may be the single biggest contribution they can make to any team. And I think we are all leaders, if only of our own lives. We can demand a culture of high standards, but it starts with accepting the grind life.

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