I recently held a question and answer session with a particularly talented group of my colleagues who are taking on a challenging task. At the end they thanked me for making the time to speak with them, as is often done. It always strikes me as bizarre when people thank me for taking an hour of my time when they are doing the real work.
I have come to realize that very few people have any idea what I do all day, though most generously assume I must be very busy with big important things. I often joke that I don’t do any real work, but that isn’t entirely fair. What I mean is that the work I do is entirely indirect. I write neither code nor copy, design neither atoms nor bits, sell neither hardware nor software. None of my actions directly creates value or prevents harm. I thought it might be interesting to walk through what I think my job is as “an executive.”
Job #1: Convince smart people to work with me. As I do very little direct work it is important I hire people who are more able than I to direct said work. It is only a slight exaggeration to say that nearly everything I do affects my ability to hire the best people. Every private conversation accrues in some part to my public reputation which reaches would be colleagues long before I do. The more I am able to adapt to a wide range of working styles the more people I become compatible with. Every public success or failure makes people more or less open to the idea of collaborating. Even aspects of my personal life play a role in whether people see me as a viable person to entrust with their career. Did you ever wonder why I started writing so many mildly self-important notes on the internet?
Job #2: Allocate scarce resources. Whether it is a question of money, people, visibility, or just attention it is up to me to keep our portfolio in balance. The expression people see of this most often is decisions to fund or not fund specific work but that’s only the manifestation of this work. The underlying work is deciding how much risk to indulge, how to allocate across different timelines, and how to balance across the urgent and the important.
Job #3: Craft vision. Creating cohesion at any meaningful scale requires a narrative in which each person can see how their work fits in and why the work of their peers is important. My role affords me a unique point of view across the breadth of the work and the ability to command enough attention to create a shared understanding of how it fits together.
Job #4: Break ties. I make far fewer decisions than most people expect. And I consider most of those instances a failure to provide sufficient clarity in advance. But sometimes we run into situations that demand trade-offs between competing priorities that we hadn’t previously imagined. In those cases the decisions come to me and after gathering context and unblocking teams we work to provide new standing context so future decisions can be resolved locally much more quickly.
Job #5: Curate Culture. My friend and former colleague Jocelyn Goldfein wrote “culture is the behavior you reward and punish.” As the person in the organization with the broadest visibility and the biggest platform that makes me uniquely suited to shape culture by choosing what to bring positive and negative attention to.
Job #6: Advocate, explain, and be held accountable. This is the smallest part of my job but by virtue of being more visible is often what people think is the most important. Our products must speak for themselves and our consumers will always be the loudest voice controlling their adoption. But we do our best around the edges to communicate both externally and internally to help people understand our work. And at the end of the day our own leadership and the public will rightly lay responsibility for any failures at my feet.
Of this list only #2 and #4 are really exclusively my domain, the rest are responsibilities I carry jointly with the team itself. The reason I keep putting “executive” in quotes is that it isn’t a real job. In fact I don’t think I’ve seen the title used outside of the media; and then it is usually to build someone up to make a story more impressive. In reality I am just a people manager. And of course like any great manager when I’m doing my job well, I have to do very little of anything. It truly is a shame, then, that I really am always so busy…