Why Guy Kawasaki is wrong about teams

I like the tweets from @RedStarVIP on Twitter. This morning I saw one that said “The Art of Execution” followed by a link. That topic teaser sounded generic to me, but because it was from redstarvip I clicked.

Guy Kawasaki offers some great advice in this piece. But he also perpetuates an old and destructive false dichotomy: that we can either have results (execution) or “a great work environment.”

Here’s the relevant passage:

3. Postpone, or at least de-emphasize, touchy-feely goals. Touchy-feely goals like “create a great work environment” are bull shiitake. They may make the founders feel good. They may even make the employees feel good. But companies that reach on measurable goals are happy. Those that don’t, aren’t. As soon as you start missing the measurable goals, all the touchy-feely stuff goes out the window.

Guy’s first mistake
The first problem is oversimplification. “Touchy-feely” is a term of contempt. No one ever says “Oh, hey, our performance really turned around when we did more touchy-feely stuff.” When you tag a large, diverse set of activities with a single pejorative label, you throw out the good with the bad.  You conflate the very things he advocates — clear goals, accountability, rewards, and candor, all of which contribute directly to a great work environment —  with completely different crappy “team building” activities that patently don’t work. Baby, meet bathwater.
Why is this bad
The oversimplification error perpetuates the idea that instead of “touchy-feely” relationship malarkey, we should be focussing on execution instead. Like we can’t have both.
Have most of us been subjected to at least one idiotic, pointless, and spectacularly lame so-called team-building activity in our careers? Yes. If it’s only been one then count yourself lucky.
But consider this: how much more damage have you observed from bad processes and interpersonal stupidity? How many good ideas that you knew would help the business have you seen shot down because they made someone in authority feel insecure, they came from someone who wasn’t liked, or they would reveal a protected favorite to be under-performing? How many customers have you seen fuming with rage because passive-aggressive employees are venting their dissatifaction with leaders on the only victims they can find, the ones who actually buy products and services from the company?
Is $5 million enough of a return to justify a well-designed training on the topic of trust? That’s how much one of my clients saved by repairing a relationship with a vendor. His job was procuring large parcels of real-estate for a fast-growing company, and he had thrown in the towel on one land vendor because of breakdowns in trust. In a program that cost his organization several thousand dollars per person, we presented a more rigorous, practical notion of what trust is, how it works, and how you can repair it. I’m not a fan of vague emotional blather, and the model of trust I teach clients is action-oriented. In working on his assignment for our course he resurrected the failed relationship.  In the bidding for the next corporate campus expansion, the re-engaged vendor came in $5 million lower than anyone else.
What Guy should have said
  1. Invest in relationships but not in “niceness. Great working relationships are not a distraction from results, they are the source of it, if you define “great” properly. This is not about niceness. It’s not about everyone feeling happy and comfortable 24/7. Outstanding relationships either welcome or can tolerate a level of conflict and a depth of listening that is far outside the workplace mediocrity most of us grew up with. But the requisite skills can be taught, learned, and mastered as rigorously as any other critical “soft skill” like marketing, recruiting, or the law. If you ask anyone at the top of those fields, they will tell you effectiveness is a blend of art and science, and team performance is no different.
  2. Team meetings not team-building. Great execution builds teams. If you want people to work better together, help them solve real problems that matter to customers. Train them to deliver the unspoken feedback they are over-compensating for every day. Help them self-assess candidly and starkly. Teach your leaders to actually listen to the intelligent, talented people that were so highly valued and eagerly pursued until the day they reported for work and were told to stop complicating things and just execute already.
  3. Avoid the rathole of short-term performance and pissed off teams. Guy makes an excellent point about what he calls ratholes. Things that seem like a good idea at the time, but later leave you crippled. This is exactly what I see with leaders who believe that “all that relationship crap” can be postponed as Guy advocates.  Guess what? Your business is never going to slow down. How many leaders say “Well, we’re just kind of going through a crunch time right now. I know people are unhappy, but doggone it I’m here to execute, not to make people happy.”I agree that a leader’s job is not to keep people happy, but just how long has that “crunch time” been going on where you work? In good times we’re too busy to have high-performance relationships because the business is growing like crazy, we’re staking out market share, and customers are beating down the doors. We’ll do it later! Fast forward to, oh, say, now. Wow, we’re cutting costs, we can’t waste money on nice-to-haves like actually getting the most out of the smart people we hired.
A lot of what Guy says in his post is great. Especially about goals, communication, accountability, and follow-through. But if you look at your own experience as a leader and someone who has probably had a range of bosses, from great to intolerable, do you really believe that it’s either results OR relationships?
Let me know in the comments. (Bonus points for real-life stories over theories.)

5 responses to “Why Guy Kawasaki is wrong about teams

  1. Great post! There is such a interdependency between results and relationships that I’m not sure you can fully separate them. I boil it down this way: if relationships aren’t moving forward, there is no relationship growth. And by moving forward I mean collaboration and working on a common goal (in a purely personal relationship this might be pursuing a passion. At work it means succeeding at something together).

    Cheers –


  2. Some of the conflict here between you & guy might be regarding maturity/situation of a company/org. If a company is not yet viable, then execution to achieve viability is _the_ critical thing (I think Guy mostly pitches to start-ups & you mostly work with mature companies).

    Execution (to viability) might mean relationships e.g. sales to a client or partnership between tech & business.

    You'd want your team building exercise '99 to be in the service of clear goals & execution therein.

  3. Action Cycle guy

    Rachel – Thanks, I agree that separating them detracts more than it helps.

    Ted – Hmmm. You know my misgivings about working with subtle disagreements in the medium of text but I will say I’ve heard of plenty of start-ups whose execution failures were a downstream product of bad relationships.

    Love the “Business Time” reference btw.

  4. Absolutely agree re teams working on their actual problems in self reflective way, rather than doing one-offs in the name of team building that provide no transferable benefits to work.

    Guy may also be confusing cause and effect – that is, he says successful companies have happy teams. But it could just as well be that the ability to work well together as teams and groups was the determining factor in a company’s success.

  5. Well done! A.J. makes a great distinction between 2 kinds of relationship-building: one just feels good, the other produces results (and may or may not feel good!) In my experience, many teams fall into a comfort zone of collusive mediocrity. As change agents, our job is to disrupt complacency, to stir the pot and get the energy moving again.

    A great way to do this is to ask, “What result do you want to see that is not happening yet…and that you are willing to invest in making happen?” Then consider, “What conversation is missing which, if supplied competently, would make a huge difference?” This might be the essence of the team meeting that A.J. proposes.

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