Momentum Podcast: 141
Dont Play Monkey In The Middle
by Alex Charfen
One of the most dangerous things you can do as an entrepreneur is play monkey in the middle with your team. It happens without you even knowing it. Someone comes to you with information, they really should go to someone else, rather than redirect them, you pass on the information and become the conduit of communication. You have immediately set yourself up as the channel of communication. Rather than communicate with each other, your team will communicate through you. This will take away your time, rob you of your energy, and make managing the team feel increasingly overwhelming. There is a better way.
Full Audio Transcript
I'm Alex Charfen and this is the Momentum Podcast, made for empire builders, game changers, trailblazers, shot takers, record breakers, world makers and creators of all kinds. Those among us who can't turn it off and don't know why anyone would want to. We challenge complacency, destroy apathy and we are obsessed with creating momentum so we can roll over bureaucracy and make our greatest contribution. Sure we pay attention to their rules, but only so that we can br=end them, break them then rewrite them around our own will.
We don't accept our destiny, we define it. We don't understand defeat because you only lose if you stop and we don't know how. While the rest of the world strives for average and clings desperately to the status quo, we are the minority, the few who are willing to hallucinate there could be a better future and instead of just daydreaming of what could be, we endure the vulnerability and exposure it takes to make it real. We are the evolutionary hunters, clearly the most important people in the world because entrepreneurs are the only source of consistent, positive human evolution and we always will be.
Don't play Monkey in the Middle. Playing Monkey in the Middle in your company is one of the most dangerous habits you can get into as an entrepreneur. Heres what I mean, you start to build your team and for every one of us, that is a major transition. It's one of the hardest things that we do. When you finally admit that you need some other people to help you, some team members around you, it's a major transition.
When I was a kid, I didn't want to make this transition but I wasn't really good at a lot. When I was younger I tried to build companies where I didn't need a lot of help, but then I overwhelmed myself when I became a consultant, I got some major clients and had to start building teams. I learned early on that playing Monkey in the Middle will crush you because my company grew ridiculously fast.
The first client I ever got was Fuji. The second client I got was SanDisk flash memory. The third clent I got was a different division of Fuji. I was representing Fuji Media, Fuji Digital and SanDisk memory products and my company exploded. I had to start hiring team members fast. I had to start building offices around the US and eventually throughout Latin America. We built an events company. We were on a growth curve that was stratospheric and, a lot of the time I ended up playing Monkey in the Middle.
I didn't understand what I was doing at the beginning. I didn't know the mistake I was making. I didn't realize the exposure I was putting myself in and I started where one team member would come to me and tell me something that another team member should know and then I would be the conduit for that information. Sometimes a team member would come to me and tell me something they were uncomfortable telling another team member but they wanted that person to know, and then I would be the conduit for that information.
Sometimes they'd come to me and tell me something that they thought another team member did or something that they were upset about or frustrated with and then I would talk to them about it. Then sometimes after we talked about it for a while, they'd decide they didn't have to tell the other person or they'd tell me about and I'd tell them, "Well, I think I'm ..." About what I'm going to do and I wouldn't do anything about it.
What I didn't realize was, that set me up in my early career to have a team that was near impossible to manage. We grew like crazy but man did I have a lot of turnover. The reason is that when you become a conduit for information, you create a business where people believe that when they communicate with each other, there's an opinion in what they say and there shouldn't be.
Because, the way you grow your business as fast as you want to, the way grow a company that will survive over time and adapt around changes, because no business exists in a vacuum. There's the unstable market, there's competition, there's technology, there's ... I mean, everybody thinks that they're immune from the problem. Everybody thinks they're the ones who are going to survive until your entire industry is being turned upside down.
The way that you combat that, the way you create a company that survives is you create an environment of transparency. You create an environment then when somebody needs to tell somebody something, they just go do it. You let everyone know that it is their job to communicate with each other. Here's where you get in the Monkey in the Middle, it's when you first start out. Your first few team members, you get in the habit of doing it and if you've already done this, if you're thinking about yourself right now, "Man, I think I've already done this," you just stop.
When somebody comes to you with something that they're uncomfortable with, you tell them like, "Hey, we're a transparent company. We move fast and we're going to get a lot done. In order to do that we have to tell each other when we're uncomfortable and this is something you might not be used to. This is something maybe you've never been in a place where it was safe to do this before, but I want you to know that here when you're on comfortable you go talk to somebody. Here's what I want you to do, I want you to talk to them until you feel comfortable with the answer or, I want you to come back to me."
Here's what will happen. You foster a culture, you start creating a environment where people talk to each other when they're frustrated. They talk to each other when they're upset. They don't hold things in. When they think there's going to be a missed deadline, they go tell each other. When they think that there's a challenge with a project, they actually bring it up. When they know that there's going to be a problem that they or others are going to have to deal with, they talk about it. They let each other know because you have a culture of transparency.
You foster a culture of communication where people actually talk to each other, where people actually communicate. And are there are exceptions to this? Of course there are. If somebody comes to you and says, "I feel like I'm being harassed by somebody," or somebody is saying something that they shouldn't say and they feel threatened or bullied or they feel like they've been discriminated against or any of those things. Now in that case, you don't send that person back.
Legally you launch an HR investigation where you go talk to everybody and figure out what happened. But before and up to that point, when somebody is uncomfortable with somebody else, when somebody doesn't think they're going to be ready or when they come to you and say, "Hey, I don't think this person's going to actually hit the deadline." Or, "I think that they've got something going on."Have them go talk to them and then say, "You have to be at the point where you feel comfortable. That you're going to have what you need to get your job done and that they are in a place where they're making rational decisions to get their job done."
Then if there is an issue, tell them to come back to you. What will happen is, about 90% of the time you're not going to hear back from anybody because once they go talk to that other person, they're not going to let you know. They'll be fine, they'll feel comfortable. What you should do is follow up to make sure that they actually talked because you don't want someone holding back when they're uncomfortable. You will foster an environment where things don't get done. You will foster an environment where mistakes are hidden. You will foster an environment where people are comfortable being transparent and that is brutal to work in.
It will make it near impossible for your team to manage, sorry, for you to manage, for you to lead your team because when you have an environment where people don't communicate, they're constantly running into each other. They're constantly missing deadlines. They're constantly underestimating or overestimating what they can do. They don't pull together as a team. They don't understand what each other is capable of.
But when you foster an environment where everybody talks to each other and communicates with each other, you create a culture where you can go fast. You can fly forward because there's no intermediary in communication and that's what a team does most in order to move the company forward. Like if we just take this down to math, if you get everybody to communicate with each other, you cut the communication in half if you're not in the middle of it. It's not by a third, it's not by 20%, it's in half, except for the exceptions that I listed.
Now if a team member ever does come back to you and say, "Hey, I'm still not comfortable." Then you facilitate a conversation and you figure out what's going on. You'll find that yeah, sometimes there's an issue that you're going to have to handle with somebody and you figure it out by having everyone talk together. You're not a parent, you're not a referee, you're an entrepreneur. You're a CEO, you're an operator, you're a COO. You don't have to be the person who's the conduit for communication. It will challenge what you do, it'll make it impossible to move forward and, you might creating the evil company.
You know, I think that when you look at some of the things that corporations do, it's hard to imagine how the decisions leading up to what they've done were made. You go back to some of the corporate scandals that there've been. How do so many people get involved in doing the wrong thing? Volkswagen in Germany sold hundreds of thousands of what they called clean diesel cars here in the United States.
A clean diesel is a car that has an exhaust system that burns off any of the diesel fumes, any of the diesel not fumes, any of the diesel sediment that is coming out of the tailpipe so that it runs clean. It was a dream for environmentalists here in the United States. Anybody who wants a car that goes fast, runs for a long time and is easy to maintain, a clean diesel is perfect except for the fact that it was a trick.
It was a cheat, it didn't really work. It worked but here's the problem, when you turn on the clean diesel exhaust system, it has to burn really hot because it's burning off diesel sediment as it comes out of the car. It had to burn so hot it would tear apart the entire rear end of the most wagon cars. So they created a product, tested it, it didn't work and they sold it anyway.
The way that they did it was, they wrote software so that the only time the system ran was when the driver's handle on the steering wheel. Sorry, the only time that the system ran was when the driver's hands were not on the steering wheel. So, as soon as you started driving the car, the clean diesel system turned off and you were burning diesel at the rate of a normal diesel car. I think it's 50 times past the emissions standards here in the United States.
And, the only time it worked was when the driver's hands weren't on the steering wheel right after the car had been started, just like what happens when it's on a dynamometer at a smog test where it's getting emissions tested. So, Volkswagen, an entire corporation sent hundreds of thousands of cars overseas to the United States to get sold knowing that there was a part that, not that it was defective, but that it didn't work.
They wrote software to override the system and create an environment where it could work but only so it could pass the test and then the second you drive it off the lot, it's right back to polluting at 50 times the US EPA standards. How do you create a corporate environment where so many people can look the other way, so many people can be involved in what's nothing more than a fraud? How do you create a corporate environment where there's multi billion dollars in fraud? Volkswagen had to offer to buy back every one of those cars for American consumers. That was the settlement.
But how does a company go bad? Well see, I've worked with a lot of corporations and I've watched them grow. There is a disproportionate success rate for those that have a transparent environment fostered with a culture of communication and telling each other what's really going on. When I worked with companies like that, I watched them explode.
One was Target's computer carrying cases. Howard Johnson was the CEO and just an incredible entrepreneur. This environment of transparency and wanted to know what was really going on. I got to spend a lot of time up close and personal on ... Target's on its way to becoming a billion dollar gross sales company. When I started with them, they were in the tens of millions so it was an intense ride. He was incredibly transparent and the company grew like crazy. He fostered an environment where everybody told each other what was going. They were the easiest company in the world to consult with, you always knew where you stood. One of my favorite consulting contracts I ever had. I had almost a decade.
That was an incredible company to work with. But there was others I worked with where people looked the other way, people said one thing and did another. I started recognizing that the fissure that starts the gaping hole through which you can drive a clean diesel fake Volkswagen car that starts the crack in the business, the fissure that starts blowing it apart is when someone plays a Monkey in the Middle and they communicate part or none of what was said. You start this environment where instead of just transparency, you have opinions about what's communicated. Instead of transparency, you communicate some or what's safe or what you think you should. Instead of transparency, you communicate what you think will keep you employed because there's an environment where transparency isn't really what's going on.
It may feel dramatic to say that something as horrible as the Volkswagen fiasco is created by somebody saying something to somebody and then not telling the person that they really should be talking to. But, it'd be hard to argue that doing exactly that wouldn't help it. It'd be hard to argue that if you take information and you don't share transparently, that you're not training your team to do the same thing. And as your team ascends and becomes leaders as your company grows, you want to make sure they know that you just tell everybody what's really going on. We don't have opinions about reality, we just share it.
If you do that, you'll grow a company that'll grow exponentially faster than those around you and you will have a team and an organization that adapts to the market, that adapts to competition, that adapts to internal challenges, that adapts. However, if you play Monkey in the Middle and you are the conduit for information, people see you having opinions about what's said, you don't grow a transparent company you grow a political one. You don't grow a company where people tell each other what's going on, you grow company where people tell each other what's safe. And if you survive, who knows what that company may do one day?
If you're an entrepreneur looking to build a team and you want to build a transparent, world changing, game changing team that will go out and help you create your greatest contribution and take advantage of the opportunity you know is right there in front of you, I work with entrepreneurs who've built their business to over $1 million a year. If you have, if you've gotten there or you've done $83,000 in a month, which is $1 million run rate, get in touch with me because you're a part of only 3% of entrepreneurs that ever hit seven figures and if you've gotten there, I can help you get to eight.
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