A Place to Do Epic Work


Fred Perrotta

A Hacker Noon post on high performance employees got me thinking about what we do at Tortuga to create a place to do great work.

The author, William Belk, defines high performance employees (HPEs) as:

Rather than being tasked with doing the most, high-performance employees (HPEs) are asked to solve the hardest problems in every company. They are the technicians, builders, designers, creatives, culture shapers, narrators and innovators...

HPEs are driven by trade and craft. They want to be surrounded by the peers, process and structure to do their very best work. They have a life-long relationship with raw technical skills that directly translate into digital/physical products...

It’s all very simple: the disposition and laser-focus required to become an HPE usually come at the expense of time spent debating, negotiating and evangelizing.

After discussing the failure of many companies to retain and motivate HPEs, Belk outlines what he thinks HPEs really need:

  1. Technical Competency of Direct Managers
  2. Mentorship
  3. Visual/Written Communication vs Spoken Word
  4. Calm Space
  5. Process, Time Constraints & Predictable Delivery Cycles
  6. The Best Self-Selected Equipment
  7. Community Involvement & Evangelism

Google's internal research disputes his #1 (technical competency), but the list is an excellent starting point.

You'll notice that #3, #4, and #5 lend themselves particularly well to remote work. In fact, #3 and #4 would be difficult to prioritize in a traditional office.

His list got me thinking about what Tortuga's list should be, especially since we're small (9 people) and still flat. I'm still the only direct manager. We don't have domain-specific "mentors" since everyone works on something different, though we do have domain-specific experts.

Rules to Enable Epic Work

To get away from a loaded term like "high-performance employee," I want to frame the conversation around doing one's best work. Jeremy and I want Tortuga to be a place where people can do truly epic work.

Garrett, who formerly worked at an agency, wanted to come in-house at Tortuga so that he could do the best design work of his career. His words, not mine. That attitude is what I want to hear from candidates. That is the company I want to build for our team.

Here are the 3 rules that I consider when building a place for epic work:

  1. Autonomy: Yes, we're starting at the top of Maslow's hierarchy. Autonomy is the most important determinant of work satisfaction. You must trust and empower your team first.

  2. Gentle Guidance: Autonomy is impossible in a top-down, command-and-control structure. However, autonomy doesn't mean anarchy. Leaders should lead and influence their team, not command it. When teammates are off track or out of sync, gently guide them back. You are the bumpers, gently guiding the bowling ball away from the gutter and towards the pins.

  3. Remove Roadblocks: Rather than issuing orders to your team, your job is to remove roadblocks so that they can do great work. Spending time negotiating bureaucracy will sap your team's energy and drive. As a leader, your job is to eliminate barriers. Too many managers not only don't eliminate them, they create more. Clear a path for your team to stay in flow and to keep moving. As Ben Horowitz says, "Shit rolls uphill."

The three rules above should be 80% of what someone needs to do epic work, assuming we hired the right person. I'm hopeful that creating a workplace where people can do great work will attract more people who believe in our mission and want to accomplish something epic.

If that describes you, message me on Twitter.