Neil Tambe

Let’s go.

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.

Filtering by Category: Making Things Happen

Building A Transformation Team


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.


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.


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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Building A Shared Vision By Using My Strengths In Flexible Ways


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. 


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.


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 Business By (Trying To) Launch A Startup


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.” Most of the time, it felt like we were swimming with sharks.


Communicating Precisely – In the RLA pilot class, we had to give presentations every two weeks to our lean startup “board of directors.” For the first presentation, I represented my team as our “CEO.” Not knowing what to expect, I stepped up to the front of the room to share the progress we had made. After no more than 90 seconds, our coaches interrupted me and asked me piercing questions. I did my best, but our coaches rightly pointed out that I couldn’t answer specific questions simply or without using meaningless jargon. I was certainly rattled by the experience of presenting to them, the business equivalent of a firing squad, but in the end I now have a better understanding about what “communicating precisely” really means.

“I don’t know anything” – Our first exercise as a team was to interview 20 customers in two weeks and use the data we gathered to refine a business model canvas. In the first two weeks, I thought I had done good interviews and the day before our presentation we met as a team to develop our week’s presentation. When trying to articulate a value proposition, I had a stark realization that I thought I understood our customers’ most plaguing problems, but I really didn’t. In business school, however, you’re treated like you know everything so eventually you start believing it, at least a little. Talking to real people about real problems helped to remind me how much I can learn from others and that I shouldn’t become infatuated with my own cleverness, whether it’s substantiated or merely perceived. 

Building Rapport Rapidly – When starting to interview potential customers, I knew that it would be difficult to get interviewees to trust me enough to tell me anything valuable in a 30 minute session. As a result, I experimented to build rapport quickly. As it turns out, it’s not so difficult. All I did was be honest, as simple questions, listen (and laugh) sincerely, and have accommodating body language, just like we learned in our first integrative learning session. If you are a friendly, respectful curious listener, people open right up.


To be honest, this experience of trying to launch a lean startup was very frustrating to me – in no small part because of our coaches’ high standards and brash demeanor. But I’m all the better for it because I now have a better idea of what excellence looks like. I now have a better idea of what it takes to persuade a hostile audience. I now respect the challenge and responsibility of truly solving someone else’s problem. And even though we “failed” to launch a company, I now feel more confident in my ability to do something as difficult as creating a new business.

It certainly wasn’t pleasant to swim with sharks, so to speak, but I’m now much better for it.

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Please do say hello: neil.tambe[at]gmail[dot]com