Deathmatch Motivation



Management styles vary as much as the millions of managers out there. Each style has some strength sand each has some flaws, but some are much stronger than others.

Sean Byrnes has, at one time or another managed me. I was not the only one managed by him and, in fact, I was never managed directly by him. But I’ve had the pleasure (and sometimes terror) of interacting with him as a manager.

I have also spoken with many of his direct reports and quite a few of them are my personal friends who I respect greatly. We have all spoken at length about Sean’s management style and we all agree it is singularly effective and utterly terrifying, but not for the reasons you’d think.

Sean is not prone to yelling, tantrums, fist shaking, or flights of utter fancy or inarticulate demands that bear no resemblance to reality. In fact, Sean has always, at least in my eyes, been even, measured, rational and erudite. Never has a word come out of his mouth that is not followed up by very sound reasoning that is utterly convincing.

So, why would that be terrifying?

Sean pits you in a deathmatch against yourself.

“Pardon?”  You say. “How does one deathmatch against themselves?”

Well, typically, when Sean starts an interaction with you, he says something along the lines of, “There is a problem, and I know how we should handle it, but I want to hear how you will handle it first.  You have 24 hours.”

This is not any problem. Sean does not bring you the small things. He trusts and expects you to deal with the small things. You are, after all, a completely competent, rational person. Sean would never have hired you if that were not so. Sean would never bring you a small thing.

No, Sean only makes these statements when the world is burning.

There is one time that sticks out in my mind. My boss, a man I also call an extremely close friend, was on vacation and I was his backup. Typically when your boss walks out the door, someone sets the world on fire.

The conflict was that one team which we worked with was not pleased with one of our team’s performance. To make matters worse, they were intent on delaying a feature that we saw as critical to the continued success of the product. The two were not distinctly related but both would have been disastrous.

So, it was with some horror that I answered a call at 11 PM from Sean. I’m pretty sure there was a quaver in my voice when I answered the phone and said, as casually as possible, “Hey Sean, I assume that since you’re calling me there is some very dire issue.”

Sean, in a good-natured how-do-you-do said, “Why yes, there is! And since you are your boss’ second-in-command, it falls on you to solve it. I will call you back in a day. Just know that this is pretty big and the solution you choose will set the course for your organization for the foreseeable future.”

We went on to discuss the problem at great length. Never was it discussed that anyone else would handle it, it was just assumed that I was the one. Sean stated his complete belief in my ability to solve it and we hung up the phone.

In 24 hours, I was at the bottom of both problems and I had formulated a plan of action. True to his word, Sean called back at 11 PM and asked what my solution was. I delivered my report, followed by my plan of action and was then tasked with executing it.

Sean was right. It altered the course of our organization. I horse-traded, politicked and architected, but I came up with something that worked. I set a few folks on courses that altered their immediate futures and some are still on those courses. My boss would have done things differently,but he acknowledged that it was a fitting solution and that it would work.

That decision, to this day, gives me confidence. I did something I had never done before. It turns out that I was very well suited to the task. And that’s why Sean brought it to me. He believed in me even when I was quaking in my boots.

There are other times I’ve heard of when Sean would bring something of this nature to other individuals. They would ponder and then deliver their pronouncement. Sean is well known for responding “See, that’s not a bad idea, but I would look at it this way”, then go on to outline a wholly more fitting solution but without a hint of ridicule or disappointment. After all, Sean assumes you did your best and he sees it as his job to make you better.

And that’s why it’s a deathmatch against yourself:

  • You respect your leader.
  • You know that your leader believes in you.
  • He won’t bring you the small things. He expects that you’ve already handled them.
  • He trusts you.
  • You do not want to violate that trust.
  • You want to demonstrate that you can rise to the occasion.

The only possible option for any sane individual in this circumstance is to do their absolute, dead-level best. You are forced to compete against yourself to be the best you can be.

As you tackle and make decisions, you gain confidence. As you are receive feedback, you gain wisdom. Confidence and wisdom are two incredibly valuable tools in any interpersonal relationship and that is what managing is all about.

Of course, this management style is not perfect. There is a very real side effect to this style, one that is unsettling. Any question can be construed as a possible deathmatch.

This is particularly bad when dealing with Sean. He has a unique sense of humor, one that relies on ironyand rhetorical questions. And so, you might find yourself one day with your heart racing as Sean asks a very simple question of “Why wouldanyone do something like that?” all the while looking at you knowingly.

Suddenly, your heart races and your palms get a bit damp. “Is this it, is this another one?” because, let’s be honest, the last one exhausted you. By its very nature, it pushed you to your limits. “Is now the time I do it again?!

But, any flaws aside, making your people deathmatchthemselves is an incredibly awesome way to motivate and grow your team and invest in their futures. We never compete so fully or with such passion as when we compete with ourselves. The winner is always you in that scenario.


Reprinted by permission.

Photo credit: CC by Royal New Zealand Navy

About the author: Sean Byrnes

Sean is the founder of Flurry, the leader in advertising and analytics services for mobile applications. He is currently an advisor, mentor and angel investor in the San Francisco bay area. You can read more of his advice and thoughts on building businesses on Sean On Startups and his personal website.

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