Welcome to Uncommon Leadership.
I’m Michael Hunter with Uncommon Teams.
Today I’m talking with Muness Castle.
Muness is a data and engineering leader with over 20 years of experience. He specializes in data engineering, strategy, management, organizational design, and architecture. Muness has led or consulted with teams at Shopify, Zapier, JPMC, LivingSocial, Staples and many more.
Muness Castle 0:37
Hi, Michael. It’s great to be here.
Happy to have you here today.
In your journey to seeing people’s people and learning to leverage their unique gifts to best accomplish your goals, what has been your biggest struggle?
The biggest struggle I have had was that I quickly came to terms with, that’s how I want it to be, how I want it to act. But I didn’t know how to do it.
How have you approached working with that?
At first, maybe not. Maybe it was with confidence.
It taught me a lot about how not to do it.
When you do things the first time, you should expect to get it wrong.
And I did get it wrong.
It took me a while to realize that I was getting it wrong.
Thinking back on leadership opportunities, challenges, I had a team and I really wanted to approach it that way, of taking advantage of their ideas and leveraging them as much as I could.
But I tended towards not creating enough room for them to do that.
Not being clear enough on my own goals and the shape of the sandbox that I wanted them to feel free to do whatever they wanted inside of. Then if they were going to break out of it, to talk about that and explain why and that kind of thing.
That was at Relevance a good long while ago, fifteen years ago.
I learned a lot from that experience of doing it, but maybe not doing it the best way, and then coming to terms that I hadn’t done it in a good way, and then eventually coming around to saying, “Okay, that wasn’t good enough. How am I gonna do it better?”
At that point is when things changed.
I came to it from a place of humility, because I knew the things I didn’t know.
I sought out resources.
I asked for help from colleagues.
I went to things like, I think we met at AYE and/or PSL, and Business of Software conference and read a lot of things that didn’t on the face of it have much to do with leadership or management or software for that matter.
That’s how I approached it.
I’d like to think that I’m asymptotically heading in the right direction of being able to lean on people and leverage them and make them feel challenged and happy and included in the process.
In that example, where you first really recognized what was going on and the effects it was having, what were the signals that were telling you, “Something isn’t right here. And this is something I can do about it.”
So this is a little hard, bear with me.
When it really hit home is several years later when I was hoping to, and was sought out to, join a different company that those people I used to work with, a lot of them were there now.
I was essentially vetoed or blocked out.
I heard about it because I had another cohort of people who really wanted me to be there and were really upset when they learned about this.
That was incredibly hard on me.
Because I thought I had done an okay job.
I thought I did my best.
The things we tell ourselves.
Then to realize that it had been not received that way. And, in fact, they didn’t even want to work with me again.
That was really hard.
That was a clear blaring signal, once I got over the emotions and was able to process it, that I had done something wrong and poorly.
So, the signal was the misalignment between your perspective on how things went and what you learned their perspective was?
And that it was so varied was also a compelling point.
Some people were so excited to work with me and were really upset to hear that the other folks had gone at it.
So wasn’t just me.
We all have our perspective on the world and even though some people might agree with us, others might not.
So then in this situation if 5% of the people had been on the very anti-Muness side, and 95% had been “Bring him on”, that would have felt that you were doing the way you wanted to? Where here, it was sort of 50/50, that balance was different enough from where you expected it to be, that you realized something was off here?
There’s a binary aspect to it that you could put it that way.
There’s also an extent.
I actually think it was more like 90ish percent wanted to work with me again, but then 10ish, a couple of people, were really adamant that that not happen.
It’s that extent of it that actually stood out to me.
Even though a lot of people were happy or even very happy, there were some people who were extremely upset.
So it wasn’t so much the ratio of happy versus unhappy but the magnitude of the unhappy.
To realize, maybe I had made these people miserable.
Not just unhappy or, “We could have done more, better.”
They were miserable.
Is that signal something that has held true for you since then? The magnitude of unhappiness?
No, and in fact, I attribute my growth—hopefully, growth, anyway—to the fact that I listened to that signal, as hard as it was, and as many years, I’ll be honest, as it took me to really come to terms with it.
It still hurts a little bit when I think about it.
I do attribute the fact that I am a different kind of leader and I have lent into, “I wanted to do the right thing, but I didn’t.”
And so it wasn’t the intent.
The intent was there.
But it didn’t matter.
The way it played out was still not how I want to come across and how I want to do things.
What tells you now?
How do you know?
What are the signals that are telling you how aligned you are with where you want to be?
That is a good question.
I have learned over the years that if you care about something, you have to act like you care about something, you have to do things.
It’s not enough to have an open-door policy.
You have to create room for people to give you feedback.
Ask for feedback.
Have dedicated times when you’re asking for feedback, being explicit about that.
Some of the things that I eally care about are creating a healthy environment for people in the sense of Dan Pink’s Motivation or not, in effect, creating the opposite of a toxic environment, as Pete Blaber talks about in some of his books.
I ask them very much that, “Do you feel like you have autonomy? How so? Do you feel like you get a chance to express mastery? That you are continuing to grow it? Do you understand the bigger purpose? Do you feel aligned to it?”
Coming at people with those kinds of questions that require more depth and are harder to just wave away with “Yes”es or “No”s because you’re avoiding a difficult conversation by asking how, when, and why, and give me examples.
Seeking that out and creating a room for it and telling them, “I really care about this. I want to be this kind of leader. This is what it means to me. Do you agree? What are you perceiving? How are you perceiving it that way?” Digging in.
How do you encourage that sharing and vulnerability?
Trust is something you have to give to be then given back.
Especially when you’re in a position of power.
Which, when you’re a more senior person or especially in the management track, you have, whether you really admit it to yourself or not.
I try to give that trust.
I try to be vulnerable.
Tell stories like this one or others about mistakes that I’ve made or difficulties that I’m going through.
If I’m really struggling with someone, I might pull up the trust equation. Actually look at, what aspects of the trust equation am I missing? Am I coming across as self-motivated or group-motivated? Those kinds of things.
It doesn’t have to be a lot of time.
Doing it intentionally and setting aside five, ten minutes to do it can be really powerful and help you understand, “How might I be being received?”
Even asking people, “Do you feel like I have credibility with you? Do you feel like I’m reliable?”
Do you find that asking those questions helps people feel comfortable giving honest answers?
As long as it’s honest.
As long as I actually listen, I reflect back what I hear, I do feel like it resonates with people.
People are not used to being heard, or at least getting that signal of being heard, of the feedback loop where we are telling them back, “I think you said ‘X.’ Did I hear you correctly?”
That is so unusual that it somewhat disarms people.
They care about what I have to say because they showed me they care.
I like that.
It shows the power of modeling, that you’re not just asking for validation, that you’re demonstrating, that they can feel that you truly care about their answer and that you’re being vulnerable.
For the answers you don’t want to hear, not just the answers you’re fishing for.
Then they reciprocate by being vulnerable back and telling you more of what’s going on, even if they’re not ready to be fully honest.
Again, we are talking about a power relationship where they do have to be vulnerable just to tell you the truth.
We have to remember that.
We have to lead first and do it first.
Do you have some examples of how you encourage that with teams where they’re not used to having this friendly approach from the people in power? So you coming in being friendly and desiring their respect, is the word that’s coming to mind, is really weird for them? So you have to take some time to enter before you can help turn them to working with this.
Some examples, some things that help show them that there’s more to it than just words and platitudes, are having a reading list of, “Hey people I work with, especially if you’re a manager, I want you to read these two or three books.”
In my list, it’s Dan Pink’s book that I talked about (Motivation), it’s Patrick Lencione on The Five Dysfunctions, and The First 90 Days.
Those are the books.
I have a little summary that I wrote.
I think that communicates earnestness.
I then lean into those topics.
“Here’s what I’m doing. I’m creating a learning agenda for what I said in my summary of The First 90 Days, can you help me? What would you go and learn if you were in my position?”
Then listening and not expecting them to be vulnerable back, but giving them time to get there.
Which is hard for us as leaders.
As human beings, we want to be liked.
We want to be, especially when we’re trying.
But also remembering that that is not the norm and you have to give it time and space and you have to extend the olive branch maybe multiple times before they’ll even reach out for it.
It sounds like you found a way to Center, Enter, and Turn all at once, because you’ve done the work to grok and summarize this books, reading material.
Passing these on automatically helps you center, bringing that back into your forefront, your presence.
Then, part of how you enter is saying, “I really want to help you out. Here’s some things I’ve found helpful and here’s how I found it helpful. And then by the way,” not saying this explicitly, “this is gonna help you start thinking more in the way that I’d like you to think.”
So it flies under the radar and gets under the guards they might have.
Because you’re not asking them to do anything for them.
You’re just saying, “Hey, here’s something I found helpful. You might as well.”
I really like this model, Center, Enter, Turn. So, figure out where you are, introduce yourself to a new group, and then start influencing is turn? Where’s that from?
This came from Jerry Weinberg and/or Johanna [Rothman] and Esther [Derby] and the other Weinborgs.
So often, as especially new leaders, we land on a team as a ballistic missile of, “Here’s all the things that are gonna change. And by the way, I’m your new boss.”
What tends to work a lot better is, if we start by getting centered ourselves, being aware of where we are, and what our motivations are and what we hope to accomplish, and then taking time to enter into the team or the group, which is both introducing ourselves and also taking time to understand who are they and where, where are they, what has their lived experience been?
Because the way that we turn a team that has been superstars for ten years is going to be very different than the way we turn a team who has had eighty different managers for the last five months and hasn’t been able to make progress on anything that they want to do because every new manager brings new priorities and everything that they do has to change.
I really like that aspect of The First 90 Days. It was a stark sort of reminder that what’s worked for you in the past might not be appropriate here.
So, start by developing a learning agenda.
Pursue that learning agenda.
Share your learnings.
That also implies, and actually is very explicit, that there are going to be changes.
We are going to assess things.
Hopefully part of your learning agenda is, “These are the dimensions I think that matter. I’m going to assess things from this perspective. Help me do that. I’m going to share my learnings, and once we’ve decided there that aren’t learnings, we’re gonna change things.”
It does lend itself well to this model.
Are there any other techniques that you found really effective in helping you enter and then turn teams?
Being explicit about expectations, both of people and on myself and what my role is going to be.
One of the things I’ve learned over time is that, as a leader, a lot of my job, and in fact maybe the majority of it, is not about doing. Is not about project management.
It is about getting people what they need.
So a lot of it is about making sure that stakeholders are being clear about their why, that they understand that we are hearing the why and we are processing it. And that our plans are based on their why.
Showing them that connection between our work and theirs.
That’s one of the hardest things to do as a leader.
It’s probably one of the things we avoid doing.
Because we’d rather do and plan and execute than spend time talking to people.
That’s a really important expectation to set on myself and on other leaders.
More than anything, that hard thing that is pretty ambiguous is what we have to do.
We’re going to figure out who our stakeholders are.
Make sure that they feel heard.
Make sure that they feel their requests are reflected back in what we’re doing.
And that we do this over time.
And that we’re gonna get it wrong and we’re gonna adjust along the way.
That is the expectation of me.
Hold me to that.
Then find ways to lead from that perspective.
That expectation is a really important one.
Communicating values and the things we care about really helps in terms of establishing that relationship with the new team that we’re coming into.
I talk a lot about curiosity as a value.
I celebrate it, when I see it.
I try to remind myself, I actually have to say something.
It’s, in fact, more important to celebrate the things we want to reinforce than calling out the things we want to stop.
Partly because bad is stronger than good, as the research paper was called.
People remember the negative reinforcement far more so than the positive.
And also because people are probably doing lots of good things that they take for granted and nobody’s really celebrated and called out before.
They feel more seen and heard, and hopefully respected, and are willing to lean into other strengths that they have that nobody has seen or acknowledged before.
That’s a super powerful technique, I have found, of highlighting what people are doing right that hasn’t been celebrated.
A lot of it, there’s this expectation of, “Well, they’re a professional. This is part of their job. So I don’t need to acknowledge it.”
Well, if you want them to keep doing it, yes.
That’s the point of feedback: to effect change or persist things that you enjoy and like and benefit from, and therefore it deserves doing.
If it’s important, you have to do it.
Especially if it’s right for you.
What’s right for me, some of that will be right for you.
Some of it won’t.
Some of that will be totally wrong for you.
This is an important part of, in centering and turning, of understanding for ourselves as leaders, the impact that we’re having on a team and then deciding how much of that impact do we want to have on them, where what we’re asking them to do doesn’t really fit and yet we want them to do it anyway.
How do we help them come along with that?
Whether that’s force them, which sometimes is the right thing to do, help them come along, or come to an understanding that this is where we going. If you don’t want to go this direction, that’s okay. We can work with it in these kinds of ways and if that’s not going to work for you, then we’ll find another way for you to contribute to the team.
That brings me to another technique that I try to embrace, that I aspire to, which is around having my own personal agenda and sharing it with people.
Every few months I go through this worksheet that I’ve called the Career Growth Worksheet.
In it I list things I’m proud of.
I list the strengths that I feel helped me get there.
I list the things I want to do next and what I think it’s gonna take.
My own personal agenda of the kind of person I want to be or the skills I want to develop.
I share it with people.
And I then challenge them to develop their own.
So we have a medium where we are talking about where we want to go and what we are doing about it and asking each other for help.
And hopefully they’re doing that for each other.
We try to weave that into our context.
Hopefully the team is doing some version of this as well, where we have a discussion about what our vision is, what our values are, and how we think we’re gonna get there, the strategy.
And then we try to find the mapping between us as individuals and our career growth over the next few months with that one and find opportunities.
“The team needs x from us, that lines up with this thing that I’m trying to grow or this set of skills. Let’s find a way for me to work on it.”
I do that for myself and I try to do it for them.
Not everybody loves that framing and all the work that goes with it.
But some people do.
Even people who don’t respect that they’re working with a bunch of people who have that vulnerability that they’re willing to share, “I don’t know everything. And in fact, this was my learning agenda. And this is what I’m trying to do and this is why I think it’s the right one for me and this is how I think it maps to that bigger one.”
It creates that sense of camaraderie of, while we are only here for a limited time, we lean on each other.
That relationships matter and finding ways to leverage each other is a big part of what we’re doing at a job.
That’s a perfect example of you bringing you into that environment without muting it down.
Also, doing that, bringing it, in a way that lets it work for each person where they are.
You say “Here’s what I appreciate your feedback. If you’d like to do this, too, I’d love to help you with that. If this doesn’t work for you right now, that’s totally cool. Be aware, others of us are gonna do this.”
It also sets an example of, “This is what I want us to do as a team.”
Setting that vision is surprisingly powerful because we often do things for the right reasons.
But if we don’t spell those out, it’s hard for other people to see them.
It gives everyone on the team ways to measure what to do in cases where that’s not clear.
Because then they know that, “Muness, his priorities are this and each of the other people on the team, their priorities, the way that they’re growing and want to contribute to the team, are these different things. So, in this situation, the best approach to help all of us move forward is probably going to be this. This is the way I can raise that with each of these people because they understand how they prefer to bring in information.”
This has been a lovely conversation today, Muness. What else should I ask you?
I would like for you to ask me about my passion project and my interest these days.
Absolutely. What is your passion projects and interest these days, Muness?
In my twenties, like a lot of us or at least people in our age group and mindset do, I read Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance.
Over the last few years, as I’ve gotten more into data, I found myself thinking a lot about some of its topics.
Quality, and what it means.
Persig’s posthumous book on quality and reading that.
Remembering stuff from Christopher Alexander and design patterns and Notes on the Synthesis of Form and all of them around this intersection of quality.
I’ve been thinking a lot about that and how, because quality is a suitcase word, it means so many different things to different people, we all bring our own perspective on it, and then we talk about quality as if we all mean the same thing.
So that is an area I am super interested in.
I’m reading a lot about, I’m talking to people about ways we can address it.
I’m really impressed by the site reliability folks who have to deal with quality and have therefore developed an interesting framework around it: service level objectives, error budgets, qualities not perfection.
It is rather a continuum.
It is an asymptote that we are trying to reach in different dimensions, is how I perceive them dealing with it.
I am really excited about bringing that to data, which is in the air, with all of generative AI and how important data is to it.
But in general, data has been a big area of interest.
Yet, when we talk about quality of it, it means completely different things to different people.
I don’t think we’re moving the conversation forward.
Because we are not getting more explicit, defining it better, developing tools, developing examples of what it means for data to be high quality in different settings and over different time periods.
That’s super relevant today and so much area to explore. Is there a particular aspect of that that’s top of mind for you right now?
I usually think about things from a mental framework perspective, mental models, a lot.
Part of what I’ve learned over the last several years is that that’s not enough.
Having a mental framework is one part of making progress.
Even if I could get everybody to engage with me at that level, it’s not enough to make progress.
Some of the other things that we need are examples of good.
So, I am passionate about developing examples of good.
Can we apply for, example, SLOs [service level objectives] to data in a constrained setting?
What would that look like?
What are the tools we would have to develop?
That’s another thing: it’s easier to get people hooked on tools than our mental models because they are tangible and they’re real things that we interact with in the world. They have that multisensory aspect to them. Whereas mental models are pretty much just mental and have very little sensory interaction associated with them.
Those are the aspects I’m looking for: what kind of SLO tooling and SLO measurement could we develop to help us define things better, measure them over time, set error budgets, like they do in the SRE [site reliability engineering] world, and advance the state of quality?
And by doing so, develop better the sense of, what does quality mean to this group at this time?
I’m really interested in developing tooling and partnering with people who are interested in developing tooling around this.
I’m probably going to be applying it to data, because that’s the space I play in.
But I don’t think that’s a strict requirement.
If other people are likewise interested in this idea of quality and developing tooling around it and examples of measuring quality in wicked domains, where there are complex systems, where there are unknown interactions.
Part of what makes it so hard is that you don’t know what’s going to happen when you improve the quality in one aspect, how it’s going to reflect on all others.
In that sense, it’s a complex system.
I would love to talk to other people who are interested about this and put our money where our mouth is and actually try to develop some examples and tools around this.
And if people would like to talk with you about that, and any of the other things you’ve talked about today, what’s the best way for them to connect with you?
I have a website, muness.com, my first name and there I’ve got a bunch of links. You can reach out to me on LinkedIn messages or Twitter or book time. I have a cal.com link, cal.com/muness, to book time.
I am eager to chat with people about any of those ideas or other things that they think they they’d want to talk to me about.
Great. I’ll have those links in the show notes.
If you’re watching the video and aren’t sure how to spell Muness, you’ve seen it there at the bottom corner of the screen through this whole interview. So, it’s there for you.
What would you like to leave our audience with today?
A reminder to think about where you’re coming from and where you’re going. And how to weave a narrative so that you can explain that to people. “This is how I got to where I am today. This is where I would like to go.” Because that is so important to building relationships and getting help. And that’s the thing we all need.
Thank you so much, Muness.
And thank you audience for being with us today.
Please let us both know, what are your ideas and thoughts around data and quality and all the other things we’ve talked about.
Especially, where have you resonated with what we’ve talked about today?
Where do you maybe disagree?
And how can we help you further your journey through seeing people as people?
Thanks so much.
Have a great day.
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