Author’s Note: I’ve done my best to avoid spoiling any of the intricate plot in Westworld, but please note that this post compares the leadership style of a Westworld character with that of my own and thus requires the inclusion of a few details from the show. Also, I’m well aware of the dangers of metaphorical thinking, but there’s no doubt that metaphors can help us discover and explore new ideas. And so, it’s with a grain of salt that I request you read the following…
Westworld is an HBO original series, just completing its first season. Without spoiling you, I’ll tell you that it’s the story of a futuristic theme park where the “hosts” are intelligent machines that are indistinguishable from humans in almost every way. People pay to be welcomed into this world where they can do anything without consequence. But the real story is about the journey of a few hosts toward self-actualization.
In a way, this journey is one we all take. When we’re born, we are helpless, totally dependent on others. And while it’s impossible to know precisely what’s going on in the mind of a child, it’s pretty obvious when your kid starts to focus on “self.” But it’s not just in childhood that we experience this. As we develop into productive citizens of the work place, we follow a similar path—and leaders can stifle or encourage this development.
“We’re not babysitters.”
This is a statement I hear my friend and business partner Rob use all the time. Usually it’s in an interview with a potential hire, but sometimes it’s just a reminder to our team—Rob and I are not here to tell everyone what to do. In fact, our job is more akin to Arnold, the father figure to the hosts in Westworld. We’re trying to help our folks along the path of becoming smart, ethical, independent, self-managing contributors. We want to do amazing work while people are with us. And we’re trying to do what we can to prepare our employees for whatever is next.
This is partly because of our mission: “To inspire and empower a web built right.” It’s not lost on me that there’s no way we can accomplish this with 26 people sitting in Dayton, Ohio. So we try to approach it with a broader perspective. We recognize that this will likely not be the final job for most of the folks we have. That means they are going to move on to do great things with other organizations. It also means that if we’ve done our part while they’re here, they’ll take that mission with them. We also place great emphasis on training up the folks we work with inside our clients’ organizations so that they can maintain and evolve the systems we build. Only in these ways, with these perspectives, do we have a shot at truly making the web better.
But none of this happens if our team doesn’t have the autonomy to make their own way guided by our values and mission. This is not something they can do immediately upon arriving here. And so I find myself regularly contemplating the one question that truly defines my role—what can I do to develop each individual on our team?
There’s not an employee, manager, or company owner that wouldn’t agree that communication is a critical ingredient in a smoothly running team. And to start with, a big part of my learning to be an effective leader was simply in understanding how important the frequency of communication can be. However, I’ve also learned that transparency is just as important as frequency. Specifically, being willing to share in the bad times (when it’s difficult) as well as the good (when it’s easy and fun).
The other consideration is how we communicate. Early in my role as a leader, I had the simplified expectation that “leaders make decisions.” So, when someone would bring a concern to me, I would decide how to fix it and tell them to implement the fix. As a result, I was encouraging a culture where decisions were dependent on me. What a terrible way to operate. I want to be able to take a vacation and know that Sparkbox will just keep moving right along.
There’s a scene in Westworld where Arnold (the idealistic creator of the technology and programmer of the AI) is chatting with a host (an artificial human, becoming more and more self-aware), and the host desperately wants him to answer some fundamental questions for her. Instead, he prompts her to consider the situation she finds herself in:
“Consciousness isn’t a journey upward, but a journey inward. Not a pyramid, but a maze. Every choice could bring you closer to the center or send you spiraling to the edges, to madness. Do you understand now, what the center represents? Whose voice I’ve been wanting you to hear?”
Over the years, I’ve seen my approach shift to align with Arnold’s. Today, I focus less on making decisions and more on being consistent in sharing about our values and our vision of a future state where we have achieved our mission. I focus on calling attention when someone does something brave—whether it works perfectly or not. If someone walks into my office tomorrow with a concern, I will likely ask them how they plan to address the issue. I’m always happy to be a sounding board as they work through solving the problem, but my role has transitioned to an empowerer instead of an implementer. I don’t want them to need me to solve the problem. Trusting the team in small daily tasks eventually evolves into trusting them in larger more critical tasks. Suddenly, things just happen. People manage themselves. We are not babysitters.
Now, all of this is predicated on the understanding that we have talented, smart, motivated folks here in the first place. I’m happy to report that we absolutely do. Honestly, I wish I had a secret I could give you for making great hiring decisions. The best I can do is to encourage you to be vocal about why you make the decisions you make. That exposes, in a very organic way, what is important to you. When you peel back those layers, you allow a natural gravitational system to emerge. It’s a system that either attracts or repels—those who share your values will be drawn in, and those with different values will be repelled.
And the same thing can work with customers. That intentional sharing about who you are, what you do, and most importantly why you do it will attract those customers who need what you offer. And the greatest thing about this approach to business development is that those customers will stick around. Because they’re such a good fit, the relationship will be truly collaborative. These days, that is so rare.
Somewhere along the way, I learned that simply being a better person has a side-effect—it makes me better at my job. I believe this is because our clients don’t choose to work with Sparkbox solely because of our technical ability. They select us because of who we are. Every project is a collaboration, and that means that our people have to get along with our clients’ people. Otherwise, it’s not truly collaboration. Being a better person, means we can see the value others bring to the process. It means we are confident, but we’re humble. It means we are passionate about new tech, but we’re more passionate about finding the best way to add real value. And it means we’re kinda fun to work with.
It means we are confident, but we’re humble. It means we are passionate about new tech, but we’re more passionate about finding the best way to add real value. And it means we’re kinda fun to work with.
There is a tenacity demonstrated by a few of the Westworld hosts, a desperation to be seen, to be real. That grit is inspiring to me and it’s part of what kept me coming back to the show. But what I really love is the careful, almost delicate way Arnold interacts with his creations. It’s beautiful because he gives them what they are seeking—he sees their potential—and yet he knows that for them to truly be self-aware, they must achieve that awareness on their own. And so he questions them. He prompts them. He creates a world that asks the right questions and releases them to discover the answers.
At some point, the analogy breaks down. But there is wisdom in the intricate conversations between human and host. It’s a fascinating look and a unique perspective on how to encourage folks on your team to be the best version of themselves. I love this. It’s what I want for each of the people working alongside me at Sparkbox. It’s how I want to grow as a leader. And it’s never too late to start that journey inward, not upward.