Monday, October 21, 2013

How Long Does It Have to Be?

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If you follow me on Twitter, you've seen a number of tweets lately from the Corner Office series in The New York Times. Adam Bryant interviews CEOs from a bunch of different industries and publishes a short summary of one each week.

I've found a lot of wisdom in these summaries, and reading one each morning before I start my busy day is a ritual I've come to look forward to. The wisdom, however, is often hard to capture completely in 140 characters. Here's one of the latest examples:

This comes from Tim Bucher, Founder and CEO of Here's the full context:

I just hired a new senior vice president of marketing. I sat her down and I said, “You need to know I’m a terrible manager, but I will lead you, and we will do great things together.” That’s not a normal management style, but if you set that expectation with folks, it works. I told her, I will challenge you. I will challenge you beyond the breaking point. And it’s up to you to push back. But you need to understand I’m challenging you not to make your life miserable. I’m challenging you to make the impossible possible, which is what you do in start-ups.

This resonates strongly with me. Bucher is putting front and center what is often the unrecognized and misunderstood role of the leader--to push and motivate people to accomplish more than even they think is possible.

Indulge me for a moment. I don't often think about my years in high school, but when I do, one of the strongest memories I have is of the reactions that different students had to difficult assignments. In English class, for example, the assignment would be to read a short story by a famous author and to write an essay, exploring its theme, or its use of symbolism, or its relevance to our own societal context. And inevitably, more than one student's hand would go up, all with the same question on their minds.

"How long does it have to be?"

With the benefit of adult hindsight, I can now sympathize with the frustrated sigh with which the teacher answered that question. I'll bet Bucher can, too. I don't remember one of my teachers ever using these exact words, but they certainly would have been appropriate.

"I'm giving you this assignment not to make your life miserable. I'm giving you this assignment to make the impossible possible."

We leaders face the same challenges in our organizations. There are certainly tasks that need doing. Tasks that keep the organization running and profitable. People often recognize this themselves, and they're able to motivate themselves enough to get the necessary jobs done.

But in addition to these tasks, there are also difficult assignments. Assignments that we give out to people on our teams not because they have to be done to keep the lights on, but because, if they are done successfully, they will radically advance or transform our understanding of what is possible. Sometimes we have an expanding organizational scope in mind. Other times we want to see the person stretch themselves or exercise some newly-developing skill.

And when we're met with the equivalent of "How long does it have to be?" we wonder if we have the right person on our team. Or if we've been clear enough about where we think the organization is going. Or both. Just like my high school English teacher, we're not handing out difficult assignments to make anyone's life miserable. Sometimes were just dying to see if anyone is willing to take up the charge and create something new.

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This post was written by Eric Lanke, an association executive, blogger and author. For more information, visit, follow him on Twitter @ericlanke or contact him at

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