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Managing People, Mistakes, And A New Office Experience

Making a mistake has one indisputable silver lining – there’s usually a lesson to be gleaned. And if we take the time to digest it, we can potentially save ourselves from a headache (or grief) in the future.  What’s even better is when we get to skip the mistake-making part entirely and zero in on the lesson. An example of this is learning from our peers – or benefitting from the wisdom of our elders – because it can help us avoid taking one of life’s inevitable lumps.

Hult Labs recently came across a New York Times interview that caught our eye. In the interview, Phil Libin, Chief Executive of the Mountain View-based technology company Evernote, discussed some of the lumps he’s taken in managing people, subsequent learnings, and how he transformed some of them into workplace policies to enable employees to accomplish great things.

Libin did not set out to be the boss. He joined a start-up as a programmer, but wasn’t as good as the other ones, so odd jobs fell to him. Eventually, he became the boss. He managed employees with whom he shared a strong work ethic and a supreme drive to achieve. This is when being the boss is easy. Everyone shares the same goals, everyone is truly engaged, and the company is making money. Life is good.

The lumps started coming soon after Libin’s company was acquired and he had to navigate his new department within a much larger organization. Suddenly, he was working with people who weren’t on the same page, much less shared the same goals. And politics and personalities – heretofore non-issues – became factors with which Libin had to contend. His managerial muscles began to flex, and then strain. He realized that managing people was not as easy as he thought. And he became acutely aware that he did not have the tools or the training to be the effective manager he felt he needed to be.

In his new company, Libin – older and wiser – has shaped the culture and working environment to banish as much as possible the dysfunction he experienced in the past. For example, the “status symbols” of seniority (an office or a sweet chair) don’t exist. “They create artificial barriers to communication…we try to have an organization that just helps you get your work done, and then it’s my job to eliminate all of the risks and all the distractions so you can just focus on achieving.”

But Libin didn’t stop there. He got rid of phones. That’s right – phones. Everyone has a cell phone (paid for by the company), which effectively rendered landlines unnecessary. But Libin cautioned employees from relying too heavily on e-mail. “One of the things I’ve tried to do is uproot any sort of e-mail culture…we strongly discourage lengthy e-mail threads with everyone weighing in. It’s just not good for that. Plus, it’s dangerous, because it’s way too easy to misread the tone of something. Libin advised – and continues to advise – his employees to talk to each other. Face to face.

Another – let’s call it an awesomely alternative – policy Libin introduced is unlimited vacation. He had observed that burned out people are simply not productive, and he himself wanted to avoid fostering a work environment that produced burned out people. What hasn’t changed is that employees are still measured on whether or not “they accomplish something great.”

Libin’s workplace policies are based on one overarching philosophy: “We always try to ask whether a particular policy exists because it’s a default piece of corporate stupidity that everyone expects you to have, or does it actually help you accomplish something? And very often you realize that you don’t really know why you’re doing it this way, so we just stop doing it.”

To read more about Libin, his learnings, and the other cool stuff going on at Evernote, you can go here.

Photo courtesy of coleydude.

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