Nikola Tesla visited Henry Ford at his factory, which was having some kind of difficulty. Ford asked Tesla if he could help identify the problem area.
Tesla walked up to a wall of boilerplate and made a small X in chalk on one of the plates. Ford was thrilled, and told him to send an invoice.
The bill arrived, it was for $10,000. Ford asked for a breakdown. Tesla sent another invoice, indicating a $1 charge for marking the wall with an X, and $9,999 for knowing where to put it.
This is one of many incarnations of the “handy man legend.” The lesson is clear:
We cannot judge the value of an action purely by the effort of the action itself, often it comes from a lifetime of experience.
I found this not specific to “handymen” by any means, it applies to management as well.
We cannot judge our own productivity by the number of actions we take: the number of meetings we’re in, the number of messages that we send, the number of tasks we assign, the number of times we praise somebody.
The higher up the management ladder we climb, the more our impact will be determined by the quality of contribution, not the quantity.
An excerpt from a Quartz article on how Jeff Bezos operates:
In a global culture of overwork, the world’s richest man has a surprisingly chill daily routine.
Jeff Bezos said he prioritizes getting eight hours of sleep each night, then builds “puttering time” into his mornings for things like enjoying his coffee, reading the newspaper, and having breakfast with his kids. Bezos also likes to schedule his first meeting for 10am, and aims to have all his tough thinking done by lunchtime.
“As a senior executive, you get paid to make a small number of high quality decisions,” he told Economic Club president David Rubenstein. Being tired and grouchy doesn’t lay the groundwork for that. “If I make, like, three good decisions a day, that’s enough. And they should be as high quality as I can make them. Warren Buffett says he’s good if he makes three good decisions a year.”
There is no skill in being busy. There is no inherent value delivered by just “doing stuff.”
My running joke with people is that after a meeting I say: “ok, now let’s get back to real work.” Not everybody gets I’m being ironic.
A meeting is real work. Not just for managers, for everybody. If you are in meetings that are a waste of time, something is wrong. When properly executed, a meeting makes sure no, or at least less time is wasted during non-meeting time on things that are not effective or not important. A 30-minute meeting can save hours, days, or more of “real work.”
Quite often, we make our biggest impact with a seemingly minute remark or question. A former boss described his value in meetings as mostly sitting and listening, and then asking one or two pointed questions that steered the rest of the conversation. Like yoda, but with better grammar.
Sometimes, when my family comes home, they find me sitting on the sofa, reading.
“I thought you were working!”
“What do you think my work is?”
Then, all of a sudden I look away from my book.
I get up from the sofa, and walk to my office.
“What are you going to do, dad?”
I grab my laptop, and mark my X.