Shiitake Mushroom Rolls Uphill

The mushroom rolls uphill. This is the valuable lesson I have learned from my new business partner and chief operating officer at Turnkey, Steve Krickovic. I am a day shy of 53 years old, and not understanding this dynamic has cost me lots of pain, suffering and income.

If you are a leader in any way, shape or form, mushrooms can roll uphill on you. It doesn’t matter whether you are leading your event income department, your 10-year-old in doing homework, your Boy Scout troop or your company—if you lead, the mushroom can roll uphill on you. The worst of it is—if the mushroom is rolling uphill on you, it is because you let it, even unwittingly asked for it.

Here’s how it works in employment:

  1. You assign work to an employee.
  2. The employee fails outright, professes difficulty or succeeds just barely.
  3. You help by jumping in and coaching the employee on how to do the job. You don’t want the client to have a bad experience. You want to move the employee forward and learn. You want to help.

What’s wrong with that?

You didn’t ask the employee, “What are you going to do about it?” And you didn’t sit in uncomfortable silence waiting for the answer. And when you don’t, you make mushrooms roll uphill. If you provide the answer, you have just trained the employee to fail. Failure means that “the boss will save me, interact with me positively and think for me. All I have to do is fail and wait.”

In the past two years Steve has coached me on sitting uncomfortably with my employees. Thank heavens he does most of it for me, because it is flat-out awful, and I loathe it. If I know the answer, I want to give it and move on—boots on the ground, tanks rolling. And, frankly, having the answer and giving it provides you with a little boost of, “yeah, I did that.” I liked that feeling of accomplishment that came in that little hit of decision-making. But my pattern made me responsible for the vast majority of what went on at my company. Minuscule decisions ended up on my desk because I kept giving answers—sometimes bad answers—because I was overwhelmed with details and responsibility.

With Steve’s coaching, the answers generally come from my employees now. They already know the answers, and they typically have better information than I do.

Because of this new, uncomfortable technique, I actually get to let a considerable amount of mushrooms roll downhill, which Steve calls “spreading the stress.” And, I get the benefit of brainpower unavailable to me before. I like it. I can breathe.

But the biggest impact of pushing decision-making to employees is the impact on my employees themselves. They are “better.” They own their jobs now. They are smarter, faster, happier and more fun people with whom to work.

The decision to embrace this method of decision-making answered two questions:

  1. Do I want to live with this amount of stress? (that would be “no” and pretty self-explanatory)
  2. Do I believe in what I sell? (that would be “yes” and less self-explanatory)

I sell satisfaction. If I can give my client’s fundraisers satisfaction, I can get them to fundraise and do just about anything else at high levels. In his book, “Drive, The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us”, economist Daniel Pink helps us understand satisfaction. Turns out, what works for fundraisers, which is what I typically talk about in this blog, works for employees too. Satisfaction has three components:

  1. Autonomy—the freedom to act without being micromanaged by others
  2. Mastery—the opportunity to become competent at something meaningful
  3. Being part of something bigger—the idea that they contribute to some transcendent good.

Prior to Steve’s involvement, my employees had no real autonomy. They did what they were told to do. As a result, they achieved no mastery, and felt like a cog in a wheel—not the kind of “being part of something bigger” that works.

It was painful making this transition from top-down decision-making to every person making the majority of their own decisions, with collaborative planning and frequent reporting keeping us aligned. It resulted in the loss of some very smart, hardworking people, people I cared for deeply. Most of the ones we lost were simply not on board with our plan for one of two reasons—either they did not want to give up decision-making power to subordinates, or they did not want to take it. They liked the mushroom just where it was.

But those employees who made the turn, and those who joined the new world order, helped Turnkey achieve a 22 percent organic growth rate in 2015. (That stat is my helping of data with a side of social science, no mushrooms—my favorite meal.)