My TEDxRyersonU Talk

I gave a talk at TEDxRyersonU last November. Below is the manuscript. Thank you to TEDxRyersonU for the opportunity to speak. This experience has fundamentally shifted the way I work. I hope that my team will always hold me accountable to practice what I’ve preached.

My name is Hamza, and there are three things you should know about me:

1. I was born in 1987.
2. I love hip hop.
3. I’m a horrible boss.

I’m a horrible boss because I used to be a horrible employee. Aside from my time in the Canadian Armed Forces, I’ve never completely cooperated with rules of my traditional workplaces.

The Monday to Friday 9–5 grind just isn’t for me.

I’ll never forget the last time I was called out for being late at work. It was very early in my career, and I remember showing up one morning at 9:15am. I casually strolled in, only to find my boss standing by my desk, arms crossed, tapping his watch in disapproval…

BOSS: “Hamza, this is unacceptable! I can’t remember the last time you were here before nine.”

…Well, damn! Good morning to you too, sir…

ME: “Did I miss anything?”

(Of course, I knew I hadn’t. I had been connected to my work in a dozen different ways; I checked my calendar the night before; I’d been on my email all morning; I had my notifications [turned] on [for] Facebook, Twitter, WhatsApp, our internal messaging system. If my clients or my team wanted to get ahold of me, they would have already done so).

That’s when my boss hit me with this:

“Hamza, the stock market opened 15 minutes ago.”

What did my work have to do with the stock market? This was a marketing agency! I was doing graphic design!

I saw what was happening…I was being sacrificed at the altar of office discipline. So, I asked a rhetorical question: “Did something happen that I should know about?” (Of course, I knew nothing had happened. I had been on Twitter all morning, and I looked at the trending topics. And the only thing newsworthy was Kanye West and Kim Kardashian attending a Jay-Z concert the night before.) That’s when my boss hit me with this:

“Hamza, you being late is bad for morale. It looks like you aren’t pulling your weight around here.”

Ouch…that one stung.

That one hurt, and that’s the moment I decided to quit.

The insinuation that I wasn’t producing because I wasn’t physically tethered to my desk was a bit too much for my pride. Anyone who knows me knows that I’m highly productive, and that I’m a consummate team player. But apparently I didn’t look the part. So rather than go out with a dramatic bang, I left with a little bit of a sneaky whimper:

For my last two weeks on the job, I would show up early. I’d show up every morning at 8:55am and I would sit at my desk and do one thing, and one thing only: I’d marathon movies. Yeah. Naturally, I started with The Godfather (great place to start). I made my way over to Star Wars. And what marathon would be complete without The Lord of the Rings? (Extended Edition, of course). Now, every day I would leave at 5pm. I passed by his [my boss’s] desk, and he would go like this [over-enthusiastic pointing gesture] —

“Hamza, great job!”

I literally sat there for eight hours. And I watched movies. I did nothing. But that was enough for my boss.

And I swore from that moment onwards I’d never be managed again.

Managers have tried, and managers have failed. They’ve had to modify their management strategies and approaches with me and it’s left me wrestling with the following paradox:

Organizations that are growing and achieving scale require management, however people (myself, yourself) don’t like to be managed.

Which begs the question:

Can millennials be managed?

Or better yet:

Should millennials be managed?

Now I mentioned that I was born in 1987, and that situates me firmly within Generation Y. Critics of my generation have been quick to dismiss me as many things:

Entitled…
Lazy…
Disloyal…
Unmotivated…
Selfish…

And considering that I quit my job over the fact that I couldn’t show up 15 minutes late every single day, I suppose you could say that some of those stereotypes are true! But here’s the thing — Generation Y now accounts for more than 50% of the global workforce. But, we’re built for tomorrow’s workplace. Because we grew up in an increasingly flat and connected world, we’re that much more resourceful, innovative, entrepreneurial, nimble, dexterous, agile…(I got buzzwords for days y’all.)

How we work and why we work is fundamentally out of sync with the expectations of the traditional workplace. For instance, I don’t just have one employer — I have a portfolio of work; I don’t just have one specialization — I have many of them; I don’t stay at one place for very long — I do tours of duty; I don’t need an office — I’m connected to my work anywhere that I can get wi-fi.

So why is that so many of us are still being managed like we work in factories? If you trace back the echoes of this particular configuration of workplaces far back enough, you might actually, well, end up in factories:

The Industrial Revolution — this time in our history saw organizations achieving scale. In order to manage this growth, we had to elect, well, managers. In fact, the entire eight hour work day has its roots in this time. Social reformer Robert Owen proposed that we divide our work into — or our day, rather — into three equal parts: “eight hours for work, eight hours for recreation, eight hours for rest” as a way to wrestle back work-life balance (because at that time we were experiencing a rather adversarial relationship with our employers).

By the early 1900s, management had become widely accepted. By the mid-20th century we began, for better or worse, to perfect management. We began to develop theories about it. And one such theorist by the name of Peter Drucker began to notice something. He began to notice something that was a bit of a paradigm shift. He saw that we were moving away from the mere production of goods and the provision of advances services, to the use and manipulation of information. He coined the phrase knowledge work. He said:

“The most valuable asset of a 21st century institution, whether business or nonbusiness will be its knowledge workers and their productivity.” — Peter Drucker

And so what we need is a new managerial contract. Because when you consider that when all of the value in an organization walks out of the door each evening, the old command-and-control mindset is not going to work anymore.

The existing model does not make any sense.

It does not make sense for creative agencies…
It does not make sense startups…
It does not make sense for think tanks…
It does not make sense for publications…

It does not make sense for anywhere where the next generation is trying to do creative work, entrepreneurial work, or information based work.

So why are we doing this?

Well, because it’s tradition.

Tradition is easy…
Tradition is comforting…
Tradition is ultimately limiting…

It stifles innovation. It’s doing things because “that’s the way it’s always been done.” But let me tell you —doing things because “that’s the way it’s always been done” is a horrible, horrible, reason to continue doing anything.

And so it behooves managers of the next generation to develop a focus on management with a distinctly Theory Y approach. In order to understand and appreciate Theory Y, you first have to understand and appreciate Theory X — Theory X assumes a lot of things: it assumes that employees are lazy, that they avoid work, and that they actually dislike work. It’s kind of like when your parents assigned you tasks and chores when you were younger: “Mow the lawn, do the dishes…” (when you’d rather do other things).

Theory Y assumes the complete opposite — Theory Y assumes that employees are ambitious, that they are self-motivated, that they exercise self-control, and that they actually enjoy their physical and mental duties. That given the proper conditions, an employer operating within the Theory Y framework can actually help their employees achieve the most elusive part of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs — the little point at the top of the triangle — Self-Actualization.

Self-Actualization.

But that’s all given the proper conditions. So what do those proper conditions look like?

Well let me tell you how I run my ships:

  1. I start from a place of 100% trust. I provide my team with their areas of responsibilities. They have their goals, they have their deadlines, and I assume that they are here for the right reason (and that they want to work, and [that] they will do good work).
  2. I provide them with space (physical and otherwise). Now we have an office, yes. [But] you’re not physically expected to be there. You can work from the office, you can work from home, you can be in Bermuda with your shorts on for all I care (as long as work is getting done on-time and to a high degree of quality). Why is there any need for me to actually track your hours? It’s dehumanizing, it’s degrading. And…
  3. I believe I co-creation. I believe in building things together. I simply am not going to assign you something and expect you to do it (let alone do a good job). I’d rather invest you emotionally in the process of producing whatever it is that we are producing. And then…
  4. I believe in leadership. This is something I resisted for a long time, but my teams have told me time and again, “Hamza we need someone who needs to be there as steward, whose going to guide us, whose going to provide us with insulation with from the more harsh realities of the organization (and the industry, frankly).” And…
  5. I believe in culture. I believe that people want to show up to a workplace that doesn’t feel like a workplace, that feels more like a community — where they can be among friends, where they can bring their ‘whole selves’ to work (something I really learned and appreciated with my time at RyersonSA). And…
  6. I believe that we should create a workplace that is conducive to doing excellent work.

When all these proper conditions are met, what happens [is that] we do work that we’re proud of; we’re more creative; we discover meaning and fulfillment; we strike work-life blend; and I would hope that we ultimately achieve happiness.

I’m optimistic about the next generation because not only can we break the cycle, I believe we will break the cycle of “doing things the way they’ve always been done.” And it’s going to come from understanding a fundamental difference between outcomes and outputs. And this quote in particular reminds me of this (it underscores this idea so well) —

“If you want to build a ship, don’t drum up people to collect wood and don’t assign them tasks and work. But rather, teach them to long for the immensity of the sea.” — Antoine de Saint-Exupéry

Focus on outcomes vs. mere outputs.

Now, I managed my first creative team at the age of 21. And this was a particularly challenging team to manage. It was comprised of student staff. And anyone who’s managed student staff knows what a herculean chore it is to get them to part with their time, energy, and attention. They’ve got so much going on in their lives: the rigours of academia, the trials and tribulations of being a student; family, friends, co-curricular activities, other job opportunities. And if you’re not careful about intentionally engaging them, what you get is diminished capacity. So by design, I had to become the laissez-faire, hands-off manager that I am today.

Without any formal training or education — or blueprint, for that matter — I deferred to the closest blueprint available to me at the time: the teachings of a man named Shawn Carter (some of you might know him as Jay Z). I’ve listened to all of his music, I’ve read [his] interviews, I’ve watched [his] interviews, I’ve read books by him, about him. And I’ve always been in such awe of the way he built up ROC Nation, one of the most successful labels of our time. He’s a leader who manages other leaders. He manages the likes of Kanye West, Rihanna, J. Cole, the list goes on. And he does so with a distinct focus on individuals. He doesn’t just see the sum, he sees individuals. He sees a team of artists — people who are unique, have their own ambitions, [who] want to succeed on their own terms. He nourishes that, and creates an environment that has all of the aforementioned conditions.

Like Jay, I work with people who want to make classic albums; I work with people who want to win Grammys; I work with people who want to move the needle forward and push boundaries; I work with people who are genuinely animated by their work.

I suppose you could say I started the game on hard-mode. One of the first people that I ever had to manage was significantly older than I was, more skilled, and more wise. And naturally, I was intimidated. I was 21 at the time. I could barely manage myself…how was I going to manage this person? And so I managed him the best way that I knew how: I didn’t. I told him, “You’re an adult, and you’re perfectly capable of managing yourself. All I can really do is manage your workflow and your priorities. And if you’re down with that, we can do some amazing things together.”

That [experience] gave me the wind in my sails to manage my next creative team at the age of 24 at Ryerson university. I managed a student team that was significantly larger than my first team. In fact, it was so large I don’t remember a single meeting where we were all physically present. I sometimes had to do the same meeting twice to three times, and each time there were disembodied heads around the table dialling in via FaceTime and Google Hangouts. And it was around this time that I had to embrace the use of technology to foster a sense of community and collaboration.

And at 28, nothing has really changed.

I’m now managing full-time staff, and I’m managing them the exact same way that I managed my part-time staff and my student staff: by recognizing their unique behaviours & expectations, and not just meeting them halfway — meeting them all the way. Modifying the way I work to fit them, versus the other way around.

Now you’re wondering, “Has it worked Hamza? This seems too good to be true. It’s some sort of a utopian workplace.” I mean it’s not without its bumps, but yes, it does work. I’m on my fifth creative team now. People that have worked for me (rather, with me) have graduated on to work in places that are reputable organizations: large agencies, leading publications, media companies. We’ve won regional and national awards. And on the agency front, we worked with clients off the jump that some agencies don’t pursue until four, five, [or even] ten years down the road. So yes, it does work.

“How does it work, Hamza? How did this all happen?” Well with a lot of training, a lot of support, and a lot of guidance from Jigga Man. Like Jay…

  1. I raise the bar. I believe that if you want to do your best work — if you want your team to do their best work — you have to bring out the best in yourself. To bring out the best in your team, you have to bring out the best in yourself. I don’t stand behind my team and say “Go!” I stand in front of them and say, “Let’s go!”
  2. I believe that you have to go to bat for your team. When people work with you, they want to know that they are working with somebody that has their back, that’s going to go to bat for them no matter what.
  3. I provide training and mentorship. I believe that if you’re not learning, you’re stagnating. So I’m always on my team’s case to develop personally, professionally, and academically. Even if they outgrow my wisdom, and even if they outgrow what it is I can provide them, I don’t get territorial about that. I push them in the right direction, I help them seek other mentors and other opportunities to grow. And…
  4. I provide them with time, space and resources. I believe that your best work happens when the manager isn’t breathing down your neck.
  5. I provide stretch projects. These are the big, audacious projects that scare you, that push you outside of your comfort zone. And I believe that’s where the real growth happens. Outside of your comfort zone: that’s where the real magic happens. And, last but not least…
  6. I get out of the way. Once I’ve empowered and motivated these teams, I take a step back and watch them take flight.

One particular quote from J. Cole about his mentor Jay Z really helps to underscore that:

“Jay never compromised or interfered with my creative process. There was never a point where he was like ‘I need to come in and play big brother and show you how to do this.’ He let me figure it out and it feels better to win like that.” — J.Cole

Now, I want y’all to do something for me…

I want you to think about a leader in your life. A manager, a coach, a teacher, a friend, family member…somebody who would call you for advice. Somebody, who would call you tonight, and ask you for a favour. They want your help with a project, a task, something.

Would you do it for them? Yes, you would.
Would you give them your best effort? Absolutely.

In fact, I think you’d go above and beyond the call of duty for them. Why? Because there is something about your relationship with this person that has put you in the right headspace to deliver. Something about them, something about you and them, that has put you in the proper conditions conducive to doing excellent work.

Now let’s revisit the management paradox one more time:

Growing organizations require management, but people don’t like to be managed.

So I ask:

“What is the role of management for the next generation?”

If organizations existed in the Execution Era to produce goods and to achieve scale, and if they existed in the Expertise Era to provide advanced services, why do they exist now? Why do they exist in 2015? Why will they continue to exist? I argue that they exist to provide complete and meaningfulexperiences. Not just for the end user, not just for the customer — but for you as well, for me…for the teams.

So I argue that we are in a brand new era altogether:

The end of management, and a refocus of leadership on every level.

So what is the role of management for the next generation?

Absolutely nothing.

How are we going to break out of the Catch 22? How will we dismantle this paradox? How will we stop “doing things the way they have always been done?”

We’re just going to have to stop managing altogether.

And I suppose in this way, yes, I am a horrible boss…

I’m a horrible boss because I’m not a boss at all.

I’m just a friend…
I’m a mentor…
I’m a comrade…
I’m a resource…
I’m a cheerleader…

And I’m a coach. And coaches don’t play ball. They motivate and empower their team to win championships, and they take step back and watch them do it.

So I challenge each and every one of you (everyone who is privileged enough to manage the next generation):

Please don’t manage. Lead.

Because you manage things, and you lead people.

Thank you for taking the time to read/watch my TEDxRyersonU talk. If you think this is an idea worth sharing, I’d appreciate it if you could throw me a like. Or better yet, pass this along to someone you know who could benefit from this message. Let me know what you think in the comments, or by dropping me a line at hamza@hamzakhan.ca

This post was originally published on Medium.