4 Leadership Lessons from Worst* Year Ever
Updated: Feb 8
One year ago, I was appointed to be the new president of the University of Washington Consulting Association. I’d never been a club officer, hadn’t held a leadership position since high school, and had never used Zoom. The past year has given me a pretty excellent crash course in some management fundamentals, and I imagine I will continue being educated. Whether I like it or not. These four management lessons have made all the difference for me in the last year, and they’ll continue to shape my approach to leadership at UWCA. I hope they help you, too.
Lesson 1: The Buck Stops Here
When I was appointed to be the next president of UWCA, I had plans. I wrote them down in a (characteristically) long-winded report and sent them to my team. I printed them out and fawned over them, annotating the margins. I worshipped The Plans.
Then, COVID came for my golden calf.
In the early days of the pandemic, everything was unclear. Some people thought the pandemic might be over by summer. Some pessimists suspected it heralded the end of modern life. I was a lot closer to the second camp than the first on the rare occasions I could make up my mind. No one understood how COVID spread, no one knew how deadly it was, and no one knew when we’d get effective treatments. No one knew whether we’d be on campus for this year, either. Planning was impossible. Should we assume things would get back to normal? Would we be in some sort of hybrid education? An entire year online was pretty much inconceivable.
At the end of April, I made the difficult decision to call it — we were going to plan for the worst and hope for the best. We went back to the drawing board and reworked our plans, figuring it would be easier to move back from digital to physical rather than vice versa. If I’d spent a month spinning my wheels, hoping we’d get better news about the pandemic, we’d have been far less ready to hit the ground running this year. Ultimately, leaders are deciders. Indecision, therefore, is unacceptable. Draw a line in the sand and defend it.
Lesson 2: Fear the Customer
It’s often tempting to presume you know better than the consumer. You’ve done your homework. You have background knowledge. You’ve got a vision. And sometimes, you’re right! Henry Ford’s (apocryphal) remark sums this up quite nicely: “If I’d asked people what they wanted, they would have said a faster horse.” I’m not Henry Ford, Bill Gates, or Steve Jobs. I learned the hard way that 99.9% of the time, the customer knows better than you.
When I took over UWCA, I didn’t understand what my customers wanted. I understood what I thought they needed. I understood the other consulting clubs. And I understood my peers, people who already had engagement experience and internships. As a result, my original plans for UWCA catered to people like me, a tremendous mistake. Consulting clubs’ core audience isn’t upperclassmen with internships. It’s freshmen and sophomores who are trying to figure out their careers. Leadership isn’t about building things you like — that’s a hobby. Leaders make something useful.
Lesson 3: Information Silos Are The Worst
One of the most significant downsides of remote work is vanishing information externalities: benefits that you accrue from hearing about your peers’ work. No one has water coolers, figurative or literal, anymore. It is impossible to overstate the value of hearing about others’ work. It’s no accident most investment banks are in Manhattan, most vineyards are in Napa, and most startups are in the Bay Area. While there are other logistically decent locations to build a bank, vineyard, or app, access to the best people is what counts.
The onset of the pandemic has made it straightforward to stay in your lane, do your job, and never learn anything that might rock the boat. Internally, this is an enormous risk. For a (relatively speaking) large, complex organization like UWCA, any new initiative always affects several stakeholders. It’s easy to change something about our engagements and end up breaking something with our meeting schedule.
Siloes also reduce creativity. You never know when another team member might have unexpected insight or expertise outside their main area. There’s a balancing act here, of course. You shouldn’t waste folks’ time. But it’s crucial to give people a chance to work on things outside “their lane.” We would never have been able to make the Unite Foster Case Competition happen without the help of our Director of Marketing, who happens to be a highly experienced case champion. Case competitions don’t have anything to do with marketing, but that doesn’t matter. Let people do the work that excites them.
I also want to emphasize the importance of external learning. While it’s crucial to monitor your customers’ wants, you cannot lose track of your competitors. When we’re all in the same building together, it’s easy to keep track of what the other consulting clubs are up to. People tell me. I don’t have to do anything to find out. These days, however, it’s crucial to make a deliberate effort to keep an eye on the market. When you see someone else implementing a good idea, steal it. I’ve stolen lots of good ideas from lots of people. It’s called research.
Lesson 4: You Can And Should Break Things
Legacy is important to us. We inherited our leadership roles, and we’re just holding onto it for the people after us. Often, I think this entails a paralyzing fear of breaking things. You don’t want to be the president who ran something good into the ground. Everything works, so why reinvent the wheel?
That is an existentially dangerous worldview.
Organizations that don’t evolve die. Sometimes they die very slowly, but they die nonetheless. You are just as responsible for killing the organization through your inaction as you would have been had you taken a risk.
When I became president of UWCA, we threw out the entire playbook. We started from scratch. We didn’t keep the logo, we didn’t keep the motto, and we didn’t keep the past executives involved. We tore everything down and started fresh. It was scary, it was risky, and it was the most fun I’ve had since I came to college. It takes courage to innovate, but it’s almost always worth it.
Leaders take risks and push the envelope. Administrators quibble around the edges while keeping things running. Sooner or later, you’ll have to decide which one you are.
Further Reading: Amazon's 1998 Shareholder Letter “Obsessions” by Jeff Bezos