Neil Tambe

I'm a Detroiter who happens to enjoy writing, national parks, orange juice, the performing arts, and fanciful socks. More than anything though, I aspire to be a good husband, father, and citizen.

5: Curiosity

“If you decide that choosing goodness over power matters to you, and that you want to learn to choose it, you must know what it is. You have to understand goodness to choose it. But as I’ve mentioned already, goodness and an understanding of it doesn’t grow on trees. You’re not born with that knowledge at birth, you have to go figure it out, you have to earn it and learn it. And therefore, you must want to learn it.”

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4: Abundance

“Perhaps, if we could have such an incredible level of abundance that relative levels of scarcity between people were negligible, maybe that would be sufficient to resolve the corruption problem. If that were true, maybe we wouldn’t have to struggle with the incredibly difficult challenge of becoming men that choose goodness. But that’s not the world we live in, at least right now. That level of abundance is not yet real. We are not off the hook.”

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Working Whistle to Whistle

Overview

Part of the reason I left my job in management consulting was because I was completely burned out. When I started my job with the City of Detroit I knew I had to take a different approach toward work. Instead of working until work was done, I decided to work "whistle to whistle" - going as hard as I can during the work day and trying to avoid after-hours work.

SKILLS AND INSIGHTS GAINED

Ask for help from others – To get to the decision of working whistle to whistle, I sought advice from my wife. I have always admired her discipline to not working after hours, even though she always had plenty she could do in the evening. So I asked her why she didn't feel guilty about leaving her evenings work-free. She told me that she didn't feel guilty because she worked very hard and didn't waste time when she was at work. Her advice shaped my own philosophy.

Management matters – When I started to actively avoid after-hours work, it's not like my or my teams' targets became any less ambitious. Simply working more efficiently would never be enough. The real way to work smarter is to never work on low-value activities in the first place. That's now a bedrock belief in my philosophy about what good managers do - ensuring that their organizations and people only do work that actually achieves a result.

Focus on the result, not the process – When starting to work whistle to whistle, I started realizing that in previous jobs, I expended a lot of effort to satisfy the expectations of others even when it didn't make a difference for achieving a goal. For example, as a consultant I often worked for hours on complex presentations for meetings with partners even though the same result would have been reached with a simple chart. I no longer work just to keep up appearances.

IMPACT AND LESSONS LEARNED

The decision to work whistle to whistle has made a tremendous impact on my life. I've been able to work without burning out. It's just that simple. The lesson here is also simple, we do not have to accept the status quo when it's foul, we may choose to do something different.

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Building A Transformation Team

OVERVIEW

About 6 months into my job with the City, I inherited a management role on a project to upgrade foundational information systems within the City’s Public Safety Departments. There were no useful models to emulate because we’ve never had a perfect project. So we made our own.

SKILLS AND INSIGHTS GAINED

Build a culture based on what the challenge dictates – I have been a part of successful project teams before – that’s what Deloitte prides itself on. But I knew that if I copied exactly what I had experienced before, our project would struggle because our circumstances were different. For example, we had a leanly-staffed team. We had an extremely aggressive timeline. Most of all, the terrain was extremely complex because we'd have to balance the needs of many agencies, units, and people. So instead of creating a team with a top-down, authoritarian culture, we built our team with practices emphasize coordination and communication because that what our challenge dictated.

Set the right target – Before embarking on this project, I thought hard about why our team really needed to exist. In my opinion, our project wasn’t a technology upgrade. It was a culture change project (people should use data when making decisions) that happened to utilize technology. When we thought of the project this way, we approached it much differently. For example, we built time into the plan to think about using reports and teaching people problem solving skills instead of just focusing on building the perfect system. As a team, we talk about our real goals - beyond implementing technology - so that we remember to define success as a behavior change (people using data to solve problems) not a technology change.

Prioritize (and re-prioritize) constantly – Big projects never have enough time, resources, or people. Trade offs are inevitable. At first I was uncomfortable putting anything off or letting anything slide – I thought it was my job to manage every detail and complete every task. I quickly learned that approach is not sustainable or effective. Instead of solving everything, it’s necessary to constantly refocus on what's most important and most urgent. Everything else solves itself or doesn’t really matter. I used to see my job as getting everything done by any means necessary. Instead, I now see my job as cleverly shaping the time and attention of our team so that we focus on what matters most and ensuring that every single person on our team is maxing out the bounds of their talent.

IMPACT AND LESSONS LEARNED

For most of my career (and in life) I’ve been a doer. I’ve had to do what people tell me to do and do it to the best of my ability. And there’s a lot of pride and joy that comes with that – it’s fulfilling to produce a lot of stuff.

Now, I’m lucky to be in much more of a position to shape how a team operates and to help others succeed. It’s a much different ball game. Now I feel like much more of a gardener, where I sow seeds and help others tend to them. With it comes a much different, longer-to-develop satisfaction. Instead of feeling accomplished by making lots of slides or pivot tables, I feel satisfaction when our team avoids crises or I see someone on our team do something remarkable.

It’s a very subtle shift in my perspective, but I honestly feel like I’ve learned the essence of management is not to “get stuff done.” Rather it’s to “make stuff grow.”

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Telling A Difficult Story At A Story Slam

OVERVIEW

In my last two weeks of business school, a club run by two good friends of mine – Design + Business – hosted an event called StoryLab. The event, held at a local club venue was the MBA version of the popular Moth Story Slam events held around the country. I told a story about a difficult time in my life, when I struggled with work, mental health, and self-worth. 

SKILLS AND AND INSIGHTS GAINED  

Using Specific Detail – Prior to this story slam, I had never considered myself a storyteller. As a result, I focused very hard during my prep time to try to capture the essence of moments with sensory detail, and share that detail in novel ways. For example, I tried to talk about specific things I said or did, instead of discussing scenes in generalities. Using concrete details is very effective in storytelling because it better allows the listener to understand the emotion of a situation (which is interesting), rather than just hearing about what happened (which is boring). Concrete, specific, details also give the listener digestible pieces of information which helps the story stick in their memory.

Letting The Audience Keep Time – Telling a story is much different than recording a speech for playback later. The audience makes a huge difference because they laugh, they gasp, and they deadpan. While telling the story, I had to give up a little control of my story to the audience and let them guide my tempo. While I was speaking, the audience “told” me which moments to hold and which parts to move through quickly. They let me know which moments I could be funny and which details could be elaborated on. The signals audiences send are subtle – like breathing patterns, changes in the level of ambient noise, and stillness – but incredibly important to listen for while telling a story. The audience is your guide and timekeeper.

Authenticity and Vulnerability – The story I told was about a period of time in my young adulthood that I wasn’t proud of and that was traumatic. I would have liked to tell the story without embarrassing personal details, but I couldn’t – there would have been no story otherwise. After the event, several people, ranging from close friends to strangers, expressed their appreciation for my story because I discussed a difficult subject candidly. The stories that we fear sharing the most are the ones that are most moving, because we all have wounds. Vulnerability is empowering, not only for the storyteller, but for the story-listeners as well. Sharing stories rooted in deep emotion helps us discover our common values and builds compassion by reminding us of the sacredness of our humanity.

IMPACT AND LESSONS LEARNED

Originally, I was going to tell a story about my relationship with the game of football. But 2 days before the story slam, I decided to tell a different story which was much more raw. Even though I was unsure of how the audience would receive it, I’m so glad I told the story that I did.

I often think of life as a series of moments, strung together by our subconscious minds to make meaning from our experiences. We all have a choice in how we act during those moments. We can choose to be our authentic selves or we can try to show a manicured version of ourselves that we’d prefer the world to see. After telling this story at Ross’s StoryLab, I’ve doubled down on my belief that life is better lived authentically and on the uncomfortable precipice of vulnerable honesty.

Photo Credit: Brian Flanagan

Reinventing How I Use Facebook

OVERVIEW

In my last semester of business school, I took a class called Transformational Leadership, with Professor Bob Quinn. As part of the class, we had to practice applying the principles of being a transformational leader weekly, to a situation in our personal or professional lives. One week, I decided to reinvent how I interacted on facebook.

SKILLS AND INSIGHTS GAINED

Small experiments work – I wanted to create more positive and fulfilling interactions on facebook, so I would feel less drained and narcissistic every time I scrolled through the app. I decided to post a personal, authentic question every day for a week. In the first week, I asked questions like “What do you love most about where you live?” and “What’s something you spend more time doing than the average person?”. After a week, the amount of people who engaged with my questions was astounding – I had close two two dozen thoughtful comments every day. It took me about 3 minutes and no money to launch this experiment, Putting something into the field for others to react to teaches you more than you can ever expect.

Pivot often – I changed my approach in several ways for the next few weeks after my initial experiment. I asked different types of question and provided encouragement in different ways. I perfected my posts’ timing and how many comments I insisted on having before I shared my own answer to the question. I sussed out which words tended to generate the best contagion, given facebook’s algorithms. The lesson I learned was simple: when you have a good idea, keep changing it until it’s a great idea. Then, keep working on it and never treat it as finished. The more you pivot, the more you learn and the better your results get.

Get out of simplicity’s way– I had a strong inclination to immediately build on the idea once I saw that people were enjoying my daily practice of posting a facebook question. I resisted the urge to make things complicated and it paid off. I tried a complex question one day and it stunk. Simplicity helps people understand things that are new. Sometimes, it’s just as important to get your own creativity and aspiration to build new things so that people can simply enjoy the innovation you’ve developed.

IMPACT AND LESSONS LEARNED

For most of my life, I’ve been taught that bigger and newer is better than smaller and older. That’s what consultants (and business students) are trained to do. I found value in quantity and complexity. Bigger was better, and that was that.

However, that’s not always how people work. Sometimes, people think differently. They value elegance and simplicity rather than features and novelty. Innovation and ingenuity don’t have to manifest in super-sized solutions, they can be small moves smartly made.

I’ve learned about the power of learning from simple experiments and I now take the “what if?” approach to much more of my work. Simply holding that radically different perspective – that values simplicity and experimentation – has accelerated my learning, broadened my thinking, and improved my ability to find creative solutions to new problems.

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Building A Shared Vision By Using My Strengths In Flexible Ways

OVERVIEW

In my last semester of business school, I decided to register for the pilot of an intensive leadership development course called, Ross Leaders Academy. This course integrated executive coaching, reflective learning, and a practicum in launching a business using the lean startup method. One week I asked my coach how I could work on being a more commanding style leader. Instead, she recommended a technique, called the "third space" activity, to repurpose my leadership style – a mix of relational and vision-focused – to create a results oriented environment. 

SKILLS AND AND INSIGHTS GAINED

Future-framing unleashes creativity – The activity I applied was to have everyone on my team brainstorm according to this prompt, “If we have a successful transformation, what will our stakeholders be saying? Write down actual quotes you imagine and note who says them.” After a 5-7 minute brainstorm the members of my team had tremendously thoughtful and specific quotes written down. This “future-framing” unleashed their creativity and helped them imagine a vivid image of what success looked, felt, and sounded like. Framing questions the right way makes a huge difference in unleashing the creativity of others.

Visions have to be detailed – This exercise showed me how helpful (and motivating) it is to create a detailed, sensory vision for what a team is trying to accomplish. Simply listing out tasks that need to be done or creating a statement of vision and values isn’t enough. Doing this exercise with my team reminded me how useful a detailed vision can be to build excitement and clarity around a team’s goal.

I don’t have to be a commanding-style leader – I am not a commanding style leader and I didn’t have to be. Instead, I used my strengths (building consensus and an inspiring vision) in a "commanding way", by forcing my team to write specific quotes they would want to hear on a piece of paper, before sharing it with the team. Leaders do not necessarily have to be able to switch their styles, but they do have to adaptable enough to apply their styles and strengths in different ways.

IMPACT AND LESSONS LEARNED

For a long time I’ve worried that I wasn’t assertive, commanding, or pushy enough to be able to lead successfully. I looked at myself compared to heralded leaders and thought, “I don’t think that’s me.” That was a little bit unnerving because I feared that I’d consequently never get to lead in a high-stakes, high-impact environment. After all, in my experience only commanding leaders were allowed to lead the fun stuff.

I’m so grateful to my coach, Kathy, for recommending that I try this activity because it showed me that I could command results without being commanding. All it takes is a mind open to new ideas, a little advice from your friends, and some effort to creatively apply your strengths in new ways. Now, I don’t worry so much about whether I fit the mold of what others expect from a leader. I know now that I can adapt myself to get the results needed by any situation.

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Learning to Think With a "Customer Mindset"

OVERVIEW

In my last semester of business school, I decided to register for the pilot of an intensive leadership development course called, Ross Leaders Academy. This course integrated executive coaching, reflective learning, and a practicum in launching a business using the lean startup method. To learn the lean startup method, our team of 4 met every two weeks with a demanding pair of experienced coaches, who we were to treat as our company’s “Board of Directors.” During our meetings our coaches drilled us so that we would focus on understanding our customers, their most pressing problems, and what they value instead of rushing to build the coolest sounding solution.

Instead of doing the typical MBA exercise of best practices research, our coaches insisted that we interview potential customers directly.

Listen-to-Your-Customer.jpg

SKILLS AND AND INSIGHTS GAINED

Defining a Customer – Defining a specific customer is important because different customers have different problems requiring different solutions. Specifically defining a customer, however, is no easy task. Rules of thumb or adjectives like “small” or “new” are not good enough. Any reasonable person should be able take a list of companies and distinguish which companies are potential customers and which ones are not, using a description of the customer. It’s very difficult to develop a product that a customer will actually buy if you’re not exactly sure who they are.

Focusing on Customer Value – People don’t spend money on a product’s features. People spend money on things that give them something of value – like time, money, happiness, health, and the like. For example, car shoppers don’t buy anti-lock brakes because they find abstract value in the technology; they buy anti-lock breaks because they value safety and health. Knowing what a customer values is the key to knowing how to serve them. Before participating in the lean startup program I didn’t understand the important distinction between features and value.

Finding Their Real Problem – Every customer has a litany of problems but only a few of them are ones that they’d be willing to pay someone else to solve. What’s helpful to know is that the real problems are usually directly related to what that customer truly values. If a customer values time, for example, you have to keep asking about tasks that consume their time until you understand what their real problem is and why it exists. I’ve been humbled by how long it takes to get to this level of understanding, our team didn’t start having useful insights until we completed more than 30 interviews.

IMPACT AND LESSONS LEARNED

Having these insights about product-market fit and learning to think from the perspective of a customer has shifted how I approach problem solving. I realized that my mindset had shifted about two weeks before the end of the program, when thinking about a new business to help grocery shoppers identify if the foods they were buying had unhealthy food additives.

The old me would’ve started thinking about all the cool features the product could have and schemes to monetize it. Instead though, I found myself thinking and talking about who the specific customer was, and why they valued a diet free of chemicals. Instead of trying to think of all the people who valued the product, I thought instead about people who would care about it the most. Thinking this way helped me come up with ideas that I could’ve never thought of without a customer mindset.

In that moment, I realized that I had begun to internalize a customer mindset and that I would never look at products or business models the same way again.

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Building a Successful Project Team From Scratch In City Government

Overview

As a continuation of my MBA internship, I decided to work on projects one day a week within Detroit’s City Government. I became the project manager of a team charged with restructuring a large city department. I received hardly any guidance on what to do, save for a broadly written executive order and the charge to “restructure that department”. Figuring out what that meant and doing it was my job.

Given that my challenge centered on retooling an organization, I decided that using a management framework I learned about in my MBA Program’s core Cost Accounting class – the McKinsey 7S framework – was a good place to start. This framework suggests that organizations must align seven interdependent pillars to be successful: shared values, strategy, structure, systems, skills, style, and staff.

SKILLS AND AND INSIGHTS GAINED

Building a Shared Vision – Because we received little guidance on what success looked like or what we should do, I decided to facilitate a brainstorm during our first team meeting. Using the 7s framework as a guide, I anchored our brainstorm in two simple questions: “What is our organization like today?” and, “What should our organization be like in the future?.

After about two hours and about 100 post-it notes, we had a much clearer, common understanding of how the future-state organization would operate, how it could be structured, and its existing gaps. For example, this brainstorm highlighted the need for a special projects manager tasked with capacity-building projects instead of day-to-day responsibilities serving customers. Because of a two-hour time investment early on, we avoided weeks of squabbling to reconcile individual team members’ visions for the organization. Instead, because we crafted a shared vision of success, our team was able to quickly build momentum and trust. Building a shared vision is a much better approach than jumping into problem solving without one.

Identifying the Right Problem – At the beginning of this project, I had a choice. On the one hand, I could have done what was most obvious and simply look at local government best practices and implement a new organization chart. After further investigation and reflection, however, I realized the root-cause-problem we needed to solve was changing a culture – implementing a new organization chart just happened the most obvious element of the solution. As a result, I led our team to think much more holistically about how we were restructuring the organization. Instead of only discussing sticks and boxes on a page, we talked about our customers, our purpose, employee motivation, and management systems. As it turned out, our task was so much more than an org chart.

Building a team to solve a problem is a fool’s errand if you pick the wrong one or misunderstand the problem’s root cause. That’s hard to do because understanding the root-cause-problem is a step in the problem solving process that’s easy to overlook because it doesn’t feel urgent. For example, at the beginning of our project, I felt pressure to produce a new organization chart as quickly as possible; stepping back to understand the culture of the Department originally felt like a waste of time. Understanding the “right” problem also isn’t easy – it requires an open mind and inquisitive dialogue with all the parties associated with a project. The hard work of identifying the right problem is worth doing, however, because solving the wrong problem wastes precious time in the long-run and is tremendously demotivating for team members. 

Defining Success Metrics – “You can’t manage what you can’t measure” is certainly a cliché, but I’ve found it to be true. Knowing this, I tried to develop a simple metric to know if our team was making progress. What I decided on was a single number: the percent of future-state staff positions that were filled. What I learned along the way is that creating metrics – and even measuring them – isn’t enough. Metrics don’t matter if teams don’t see them. Keeping score doesn’t change behavior if nobody can see the scoreboard.

IMPACT AND LESSONS LEARNED

Building a team from scratch to solve a new problem is not easy. In the past, I would have rushed to start taking action to “make progress.” But as much as it feels right to rush into an ambiguous situation, that doesn’t lead to successful outcomes. The hard work of a leader is to simultaneously imagine the future and build it. You have to build a plane as you fly it.

That’s what I was able to do in this situation and it put my team on a path to success. I’m certainly not perfect at launching teams from scratch yet, but this experience proved to me that it’s something I can do well.

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