You can tell a lot about a person’s relationship to power from whether or not they’ve ever fired anyone and how. Do they understand the scope of their power, both formal and informal? Do they realize that not firing someone can be just as impactful in both positive and negative ways as firing someone? How do they deal with the aftermath?
I would love to experiment with getting folks to talk about their experiences firing others and being fired as a way to talk about power and to align around what success and failure might look like for everyone involved when power is wielded.
Today, the Miami Marlins named Kim Ngtheir new General Manager. She is the first female GM of any of the major professional sports leagues in the U.S. (baseball, basketball, football, and hockey), and she is the first Asian-American GM of Major League Baseball.
I’ve been a fan of hers since she joined my Dodgers as an assistant GM in 2001. It’s a historic moment for sure, and it’s also shameful that it took this long for her to get a GM job. Her credentials are impeccable. She’s been in baseball for 30 years, and she has three championship rings. By all accounts, she’s an incredible negotiator, talent evaluator, and manager, and she is highly respected by some of the biggest names in baseball. It seemed like a sure thing for her to get a GM job in the first decade of this century, and she got plenty of interviews. But it never happened, and in 2011, she took a job with Major League Baseball.
Progress has to start somewhere, and this is definitely something to celebrate. However, all too often, people point to barriers like these being broken and think that the work is done. The work is not done. If we live in a world where only exceptional folks like Ng get opportunities, then we will have failed.
A truly equitable world would be one where all professional sports leagues were full of mediocre GMs of all genders and races.
I didn’t fully understand this until I learned about Janice Madden’sgroundbreaking study of Black coaches in the NFL. She found that, from 1990-2002, Black coaches far outperformed white coaches. Her research led to the Rooney Rule in 2003, which required that teams interview at least one minority candidate for coaching positions.
Here’s the kicker. Success isn’t just more Black coaches in the NFL. Success is more mediocre Black coaches in the NFL. As Madden explained:
If African-American coaches don’t fail, it means that those with equal talents to the failing white coaches are not even getting the chance to be a coach. Seeing African-American coaches fail means that they, like white coaches, no longer have to be superstars to get coaching jobs.
We should absolutely celebrate when we see superstars in any field who are women, Black, transgender, etc. Representation matters. But we should be even happier when we see fields full of mediocre women and other underrepresented folks, because that is a true indicator of equal opportunity.
I hope Ng succeeds, but in a weird way, I’ll be just as happy if she’s mediocre.
The other day, my friend and colleague, Catherine Madden, was telling me about her and her husband’s forays into surfing. Apparently, some surfing communities are more territorial about their waves — especially toward beginners — than others.
It’s understandable. Surfing is already challenging without worrying about a newbie blindsiding you while you’re catching a wave. But if everyone were like this, how would anyone new get to learn?
Apparently, surfers in Bolinas tend to be more inclusive. Catherine told me a story about how she was on a wave there, and someone else yelled at her to get out of the way. Another surfer went up to her and said, “Don’t worry. You’re welcome on this wave. It’s a party wave!”
A party wave starts with two surfers and could end with half a dozen enthusiastic party animals. And that’s when surfing becomes a team sport.
How do you run a party a wave? It couldn’t be simpler. Just be kind, shake hands with strangers and have fun at the same time.
There’s room for everybody – on top of the wave, riding near the whitewater section, carving on the face of the wave, stalling on the shoulder, or performing a relaxed bottom turn in the flats.
As a collaboration practitioner, I’d like to see more party waves in my field. I’ve heard from many of my more experienced peers that they only want to work with experienced practitioners and that they don’t have time to “train more junior people.”
I understand this. When you’re doing high stakes work and when your reputation is on the line, you want to be surrounded by other folks who are skilled.
At the same time, I think there are several mindsets that are challenging here. First, I question what most people define as “experienced.” Collaboration is something that everyone experiences in many aspects of their lives, not just professionally. I find that those experiences are equally important as professional experiences, if not more so. Just because someone has less experience working formally as a facilitator, for example, does not mean that they’re not incredibly experienced.
Second, when you’re doing high stakes work, everyone makes mistakes, not just “junior” people. I’ve often found that working with emerging practitioners provides a fresh, broader perspective that often helps prevent mistakes that I, with my narrower perspective, might make. Furthermore, part of being a skilled practitioner means that I’m creating a safer, more resilient space for mistakes in general. If no one is making mistakes, you’re probably not trying hard enough.
Finally, it’s become trendy for collaboration practitioners to explicitly mention “equity” as one of their skills. This makes sense. Both collaboration and equity, fundamentally, are about power, and if you haven’t been thinking explicitly about equity, you‘re not going to be able to do your work effectively.
However, if you truly care about equity, you should be thinking about equity in your own field as well. So much of equity is about lifting up others who are less privileged than you, often for systemic reasons. How can we, as collaboration practitioners, do more of this for other practitioners?
One way to do this is to adopt more of a “party wave” mindset about our own work, finding ways to bring in and support more emerging practitioners. Not only would this be better for the field, I think it leads to better quality work. And, like party waves, it’s more fun for everyone!