PM Articles > Geof Lory > Which Shark Are You?

Which Shark Are You?

by Geof Lory

This past month I participated as a judge in the Technovation Challenge, an initiative of Code Savvy that inspires and enables teen girls to dream up, design, code and pitch mobile phone apps. As a judge, I reviewed several teams and their apps. Each team was required to have a demo, promotional materials and their business plan, which included a competitive analysis, revenue model and roadmap for future enhancements. I was very impressed with the ingenuity of these girls and thoroughly enjoyed my time going through their submissions.

As I was reviewing their materials one night, my wife was watching Shark Tank (her favorite program) in the other room and I think that some of the energy from the Sharks was floating through the walls and into my psyche and attitude. I found myself picking apart their app as if they were asking me to invest in it, not judge it. Pieces missing, unsupported business assumptions about the market, inaccurate projections in their revenue model, poor user interface and numerous other flawed assumptions. My judge's grades reflected my nitpicking and general negativity. Reviewing my judging forms, I wondered if maybe I was being a bit harsh and judgmental. I wasn't sure that was what was being asked of me.

So, I set the judging forms aside and went on a walk with my wife, my personal unfiltered mirror.

Beth and I don't watch much TV at all, but she often has Shark Tank on in the background while we are cooking dinner, so I am familiar with the program and the cast of characters. While we were walking, I asked her a provocative question. "Which one of the Sharks am I most like?" Without hesitation, she blurted, "Mr. Wonderful!" Now, that might sound like a compliment, unless you follow Shark Tank yourself. Mr. Wonderful (Kevin O'Leary) is actually a self-absorbed, pompous, obnoxious, loud mouth know-it-all. Even the other Sharks don't like him. Ouch!

Sensing my reaction, she countered with, "I take that back, you are probably more like Mark Cuban." I'm not sure that made me feel a whole lot better, since Mark Cuban is basically Kevin O'Leary minus the self-absorbed, pompous part. Then she tried to soften it a little more by admitting that she doesn't ever see me in my work environment, but hopefully I'm more like the calmly inquisitive yet poignantly pragmatic Robert Herjavec. OK, I can live with that.

Her comments got me thinking about how I behave, and more importantly, how I'm perceived by the different people I interact with on a daily basis. It just so happens that I was dealing with a couple of challenging situations with two different clients at that time and I began wondering how my behavior was coming across to them. Was I Mr. Wonderful, Mark Cuban, Robert Herjavec, or maybe not even a shark at all?

In my business model as an agile PM and Coach, I typically have a full-time client where I manage projects and develop and lead teams. Then in my "spare time" I will usually provide agile coaching and training for 2-6 other clients. I enjoy both sides of this delivery model because I believe it keeps me fresh and credible. But it also requires that I be fluent in two languages: the language of execution and the language of coaching.

These two languages aren't polar opposites; quite the contrary, they are foundationally very similar. What differs is usually the focus, the timeline and the intent. The language is nothing more than the vehicle by which these three are expressed, but it is what the audience hears.

When I am working as a PM, my focus is execution, my intent is productivity and the timeline is almost always ASAP. This is "Get'er Done" time. My clients don't pay me to engage in navel gazing, as one of my favorite managers regularly reminded me. Our contribution is measured by business outcomes against a schedule and budget. Regular delivery of business value is one of the reasons I enjoy and believe in Agile methods so much. For the types of projects I tend to get involved with, working with emerging requirements and a high degree of uncertainty, an Agile approach maximizes team productivity.

Contrast that mode with working as a coach or guide. Here my focus is team and individual development, my intent is improvement, and my timeline is governed by the pace and level of readiness of the team or individual I'm working with. This is a whole different game, especially the timeline. Here my language is softer, more curious and definitely not judgmental. I make fewer statements and ask more probing questions, because I'm on their timeline, and the language reflects that.

In general, I am not a patient person, least of all when the path forward is clear and obvious, at least to me. So when I am coaching I know I have to put on my coaching persona. I have to be very deliberate about slowing down, listening more and speaking less, and allowing plenty of time for processing and understanding. For me, this is a learned skill developed through practice, because it doesn't come naturally to me and therefore requires a lot of conscious effort.

But when I am in execution mode, my pace quickens, my voice is more excitable, and my tolerance for obstacles is low. My language can probably feel combative and judgmental, which is often taken as a challenge and can be personally offensive. That's not my intention. I'm just trying to get something done, on my pace, my timeline.

"The onus is on me to speak the right language at the right time."

Unfortunately, almost all of my work will require either mode at some time, and the onus is on me to speak the right language at the right time. Choose the wrong one in the wrong situation and at best I will be misunderstood and ineffective. However, since teams can always use some level of coaching, I've decided to start an immersion program and make coaching my default mode. The worst I can do is get less done in the short term. I say "short term" because the investment in the team will almost always pay dividends, just on a different timeline. It will be a good challenge for me and it will be fun to see if anyone notices.

Which brings me back to the judging forms for the Technovation competition. When filling these out, was I in execution mode or coaching mode? Was I focusing on the outcome of the app or the outcome for these girls? Was I leading them to my conclusions or was I helping them find their own voice? Clearly, I was not going to invest in any of these apps (though a couple of the apps were probably worth it), so there was really no reason to be in execution mode. And I know that if I replaced any of these girls and their work with my daughters, the answer would be clear. This was an opportunity for coaching, and Mr. Wonderful would make a lousy coach, at least in this context.

Not all comments are posted. Posted comments are subject to editing for clarity and length.

"Spot on", I cannot believe the timing of your article. My personality seems to gravitate to the coaching voice (language, although upper management appears to understand "execution" language mostly.


As always you have great insight! I too love Shark Tank like your wife. I appreciate the example of the various hats we must wear to add the most value in a given situation. For me, I lean more towards the coach side of the equation.

All the best!

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