As we at SuperFriendly work with newer and/or more junior SuperFriends, I’m recognizing the need for different ways to support how people learn and grow. Learning comes in many different forms, and I’m learning that people need help with a lot of them. Learning can’t just be something a professional does in their own time outside of work; it has to be an integral part of the work itself.
Here are some specific support systems we’re trying to invest in more:
This is probably the most common form—more commonly known as “teaching”—that most think of when they think of “learning.” Knowledge transfer is the idea that someone possesses information that you don’t, and you get that information by them bestowing it to you. The education system is primarily built on this type of learning, where experienced teachers bestow their knowledge upon eager students.
In order to do good work, SuperFriends need information about the client, which happens early in projects mostly through sales and onboarding conversations. So, they’re being “taught” the information they need to do the work they’re hired for.
We also hold monthly Snack ’n’ Learns—a cross-time-zone version of Lunch and Learns—open to all SuperFriends across a variety of topics, some directly applicable to SuperFriendly projects like a panel about demos of things we’re all working on and others much more broad like an overview of network effects.
C- (average). We currently don’t do much yet to help SuperFriends patch skill gaps through knowledge transfer. One of the biggest criticisms of our apprenticeship from former apprentices is that it focused too heavily on developing power skills and professionalism more than it did skills of craft. If someone isn’t strong enough at a skill like, say, UI design or data analysis, all we do now is assess that they’re underqualified, suggest they try to get better, and don’t match them to a project yet. We’ve started to try and correct that in small ways by doing things like purchasing online courses and conference/workshop tickets for SuperFriends.
Knowledge seeking is the typical modus operandi of the self-starter. Self-starters are generally good at finding their own solutions, as opposed to having those solutions given to them or mandated. That means a lot of reading, watching videos, exploring, and generally an insatiable curiosity as compared to the expectation of being taught by someone else. One of my hypotheses in starting the apprenticeship was that it’s not ironic to teach someone how to be a self-starter as opposed to it being a character or personality trait. I evaluated that by looking at how much the capacity for knowledge seeking—and confidence in it—changed over time.
For better or worse—probably worse—our industry is drawn to people who do their own knowledge seeking as a matter of habit. Those who have a lot of experience with knowledge seeking tend to be more self-sufficient than others. We don’t really “support” knowledge seeking as much as we try to continually encourage it.
D (below average). I don’t know if it’s counterintuitive to try and support knowledge seeking, but I do know that we don’t explicitly encourage it or show SuperFriends exactly how there’s space for it on projects. It always seems to feel like something extra. That’s not great.
As Daniel Pink articulates in his book Drive, “autonomous people working toward mastery perform at very high levels, but those who do so in the service of some greater objective can achieve even more.”
One of our interview questions for both new and seasoned SuperFriends at the beginning of each project is, “What do you want and need out of your work right now in the season of life you’re in?” Historically, the answers have ranged from:
Our job on the SuperFriendly side and the Directors and Producers on the account becomes to help prioritize these outcomes for each individual SuperFriends.
B+ (above average). We regularly have new SuperFriends that say things like, “Wow, no one’s ever asked me what my personal goals are for a project.”
We also start every new project with a “Superpowers Session,” where, in front of the whole team, a Producer reads out why each person was chosen for this work, what they bring to it, and also what they want to get out of it. This is the first step in making everyone on the team accountable for each of their teammates’ stated goals.
Rather than talking about a concept abstractly, one way to help people learn is to tell and/or show them how it’s happened before in an applied way. Sharing stories and examples can go a long way toward making vague ideas concrete.
Not a lot. One of the biggest strengths of the Hollywood model is also its weakness: solitude. SuperFriends working on a project don’t know how a previous project went, because they weren’t there. That means stories have to be actively shared, because they’re almost impossible to passively stumble upon.
We have dedicated Slack channels for our most common disciplines: Directors, Producers, designers, and developers. Each has its own level of activity.
F (failing). We do a really poor job of sharing our stories both internally and externally. Case studies are an attempt, but they’re too time-consuming and difficult to create regularly and honestly trend more towards marketing pieces for prospective clients than helpful guides for SuperFriends.
We don’t as of yet have many good places for interproject and interdisciplinary sharing, and that constantly ails and irks me.
People often think of mentorship as general guidance, but it’s actually a specific kind of guidance. In The Odyssey, Mentor was the person that Odysseus placed in charge of his whole estate—including guidance of his son Telemachus—while Odysseus went off to fight in the Trojan War. Mentor himself actually did a very poor job of all of that, but the goddess of wisdom Athena often transformed into Mentor to work with Telemachus to great success.
In The Odyssey’s Millennia-Old Model of Mentorship, Harvard classics professor Gregory Nagy points out that Athena’s intention as Mentor was to instill menos into Telemachus, which translates into something like “mind, strength, courage, and force.” So, like Athena did through the guise of Mentor, mentorship is the act of giving someone else mental, heroic strength from the foundation of wisdom.
If there’s one thing SuperFriends do, it’s talk. Especially as a company that started distributed in 2012, meetings abound, and delivering mental strength is a core ingredient of those meetings, both internally with SuperFriends only as well as externally with clients.
A- (excellent). Mentorship was built into the foundation of SuperFriendly from the beginning, and it persists almost a decade later at a larger scale.
Counterintuitively, we can do a better job overall by focusing less on mentorship. One thing that’s become abundantly clear is that mentorship alone isn’t enough. We can leave mentorship where it is and dial up some of the other things.
In Coaching for Performance, author Sir John Whitmore says coaching is unlocking people’s potential to maximize their own performance. I like that definition a lot, and I love that he takes the idea even further. He says, “Coaching is much bigger than coaching. It is a way of being that the whole world needs to get to, where the core theme is compassion for all people.”
We have a principle that “everyone at SuperFriendly gets a coach.” If you’re a junior designer, you get paired with a more senior designer. Same for developers. Directors and Producers coach everyone on their team. Directors do 1-on-1s with me, and Producers do 1-on-1s with Crystal. Crystal and I have Jen Dary as a coach, and Jen and her team at Plucky also coach 2 different SuperFriends every quarter.
A- (excellent). I think our coaching philosophy program is strong.
More rigor and regularity for more SuperFriends.
Modeling is about intentionally providing behavior for others to observe and imitate.
Currently, modeling doesn’t happen as much as we need it to. There’s more mentorship happening than modeling, which has led to a culture of, “Do as I say, not as I do.”
This is also another area where SuperFriendly’s business model works against us. Even our most seasoned SuperFriends don’t always understand well enough what makes a SuperFriendly project different than other kinds of projects because their insight into a volume of SuperFriendly projects is limited. That makes it more difficult for modeling to happen if SuperFriends are unsure which behaviors to model for others. This is one of my biggest responsibilities and failure as SuperFriendly’s CEO.
F (failing). In addition to providing Stories & Examples, modeling is our biggest gap area.
Directing someone is aiming them; it’s giving them a direction, a specific path to tread. A major part of direction is specifically telling someone what to do, and, by virtue of that, signaling to them what not to do and what they can ignore.
Following the Hollywood model, every SuperFriendly project has a Director as a key role on the project. The Director’s job is to set and reinforce a vision for the project and make sure each SuperFriend knows how the part they play contributes to the overall vision.
C (average). We provide the space for direction on every project by having a reserved spot for a Director, but providing direction is a tricky dynamic on a SuperFriendly project. Directing is hard, because it’s not just telling someone what to do; getting them to do it is the other half. Because most SuperFriends are independent freelancers, the idea of any kind of manager or boss or someeone telling them what to do that’s not a client is different than it looks at a full-time job. Because of a combination of factors, it’s all too easy for Directors to default more to mentoring or coaching than directing.
We can definitely provide better role definition for Directors. It’s an ambiguous job, and part of the job is to actually manage ambiguity, but we’re starting to develop a rubric for different ways Directors can operate. Over the next few weeks and months, SuperFriendly will be documenting and delivering more of this clarity for our Directors.
Accountability comes from defining standards, having a way to measure whether that standard is being met, and implementing positive and/or negative consequences based on whether the standards are met. (I’ve previously written more about accountability before.)
NaNoWriMo (which stands for “National Novel Writing Month”) is one of my favorite examples of accountability. The challenge is to write 50,000 words of a novel within the 30 days of November. That’s a daunting enough task for any aspiring novelist, but the simple fact that you know others are doing it with you is extremely motivating for just under 1 million writers that have participated. The positive and negative consequences are simple but effective: once you sign up, you feel embarrassed if you can’t make the commitment you agreed to and you feel amazing if you can.
We don’t have anything intentional set up to encourage an accountability partner program, but a few instances of it have cropped up organically. In our apprenticeship program, multiple apprentices at the same skill level within the same cohort have used each other for motivation. And some SuperFriends have taken advantage of our community to proactively reach out to others at the same skill level on other projects for camaraderie and support.
C (average). That fact that we haven’t set anything up specifically for this but it’s happening anyway is a promising sign.
In my opinion, practice is the most important thing on this list for us to support. Practice is the actual application of all of these methods. Without practice, all of these other systems remain purely theoretical exercises.
The late basketball player Kobe Bryant was a student of the game. He unapologetically studied and stole all of Michael Jordan’s moves. But what separated Kobe from all the rest? It wasn’t his talent, even though he was extremely talented. It was his work ethic; Kobe practiced more than everyone else. That’s why he was better.
It happens by default. Even though we do provide advisory services to our clients, we’re not just a strategy consultancy. We implement and execute on the work we advise on. That means there are plenty of opportunities for practice.
B (above average). The question here isn’t whether or not we practice, but what we’re practicing. If it was just about practicing a craft like design or coding, I’d give us an A. But sometimes the thing we should be practicing isn’t obvious. In a scenario where most would design a web page, I want our SuperFriends to practice the discernment that maybe designing a book or an instruction manual would be more useful. What I’d love our SuperFriends to practice more is flexible decision making, not always executing on pre-determined decisions.
Create safer spaces through all of the other support systems in order to allow SuperFriends to practice many other things that support their craft.
One quick nuance to point out: I often get confused about the different between mentorship, coaching, modeling, and direction. Here’s a cheat sheet I made for myself about what I think the distinctions are:
Since I’ve decided to grow SuperFriendly, I’ve had to be more explicit about how we can support all of our SuperFriends. As you can see, we definitely don’t have all of this in place, but making a list like this gives us some standards to meet. I have a hypothesis that the best projects contain every one of these support systems.
If your company does any or all of these support systems well, I’d love to hear about it so we can start implementing the same things to create a better experience for our SuperFriends.
Join 4,800+ subscribers to the weekly Dan Mall Teaches newsletter. I promise to keep my communication light and valuable!