It’s quite possible that my parents are the most supportive parents in the world. It’s also possible that they have some of the highest expectations in the world for my brothers and I. A quick example…
It’s late on a Thursday night. My mom and dad both have to work early the next morning. My two brothers and I are in my parent’s basement rocking out. Literally. I play keys, my brother Jesse plays bass, and our youngest brother Paul plays drums. For Christmas last year, I bought a couple new amps and a whole sound system, which we are putting through their paces. We’re having a total blast, so we don’t even notice the time.
Now, the door to the basement makes this kind of odd sounding squeak and no matter how loud we’re playing, we can always hear this sound when someone opens that door. So, we’re rocking out and we hear the squeak and we all suddenly snap back into reality, realizing just how late it is. Or—technically—how early: 1:23 AM Friday morning...
We stop playing. We listen. Dad is coming down the steps and we’re all looking at each other thinking he’s about to lay into us—tell us how he has to get up in four hours or something. Instead, he pops out of the stairwell balancing three glasses of milk and a plate of freshly baked chocolate chip cookies. He says, “All this hard work, you’re next show is gonna be so good!” And with that he disappears up the stairs.
I think about this moment often because it’s the first time I actually understood how my parents were raising us. They supported us in so many ways, but they also expected us to have great things to show for that support.
I’m now seven years into parenting and twelve years into running a business. There are a lot of parallels. In both cases, I want to avoid being prescriptive in how I instruct people—nobody likes a helicopter parent or a micromanager. In both cases, I want the environment to feel safe, to feel like experimentation is perfectly fine. And, in both cases, I expect great things from those involved.
To do quality work, we need a balance of high expectations and the support to meet those expectations.
One without the other is not enough—in fact, it can be damaging. Can you imagine how frustrated you would be if your leadership was continually concerned about your quality of work but every project was tight on time and budget? This is high expectation without the necessary support. Conversely, having a highly supportive environment but no expectations often results in laziness or entitlement. The balance is difficult to strike.
Creating a place where experimentation is the norm means we have to be OK with mistakes—not every hypothesis will be true. At the same time, we can’t only call out the successes of the team. There must be a place for critical analysis of each other, a place where honest and constructive feedback can be given.
We operated for five years without really taking steps to help individuals on our team set and reach their personal or career goals, without ever explicitly stating our expectations. If you want people to be challenged, you have to challenge them. Take some time to sit down with the people on your team and give them actionable, constructive, criticism. If you’re worried how people will receive it, ask them to critique you first. And, be ready to demonstrate (with your response) how you want them to respond.
It’s great for individuals to know their goals. But what’s really powerful is when we understand how our individual goals are part of the bigger picture. A commonly shared vision can dull the sting of individual critique when that critique is being done in the pursuit of something bigger. Of course, this only works if you’ve done a good job of sharing that vision and if your team has bought in.
My parents had this down. They wholeheartedly supported us when we found a passion, but they also pushed us to be great at the things we loved. I want to do the same for my team. If you lead an organization, I’m guessing you want this too. Take some time to help your people understand their goals and make sure they know how those fit into the big picture. Remember to deeply consider how you can support them in achieving those goals. And, when in doubt, don’t forget that everyone works better with milk and cookies.