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Reflecting on Our First Year of Co Leadership

Edmond Lau

Edmond Lau

Co-founder of Co Leadership. Author of The Effective Engineer.

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“What are some of your favorite peak moments from the last year?”

I shared a moment that stood out from one of our workshops. My co-founder Jean and I had just split the 24 tech leads into smaller groups to work amongst themselves and identify the sweet spots in their work — the times when their work felt joyful, effortless, and impactful. In the meantime, the two of us reflected to each other how grateful we were that we ourselves had designed Co Leadership to hit our own sweet spots. We were doing the things that brought us the most joy, leveraged our strengths, and created a big impact for our audience.

At Co Leadership, we have a tradition of celebrating by creating a custom deck of Powerful Question cards that we use together to reflect, celebrate, and appreciate where we've been and all that we've done. And so recently, when our first year of working together came to an end, we found ourselves sitting at The Interval at Fort Mason, and this was one of a dozen questions we found ourselves answering from our new deck.

It was a fun and beautiful way to close an amazing year. It was only January of last year that I quit my full-time job at Quip, and the two of us started with nothing but a shared intention to create something amazing together.

By most objective measures, we've had a really successful first year that we're both immensely proud of.

We built and launched a website for our new brand, Co Leadership — and I got to geek out on building a simple and fast website deployment pipeline that has been a joy to use.

We led eight full-day leadership experiences and created a powerful, day-long Building Alignment experience that resonates deeply with emerging and current leaders in tech.

We designed, sold, and ran custom multi-week leadership programs with three well-known tech companies, including Quip and Medium.

We designed, marketed, and shipped a 4-week online course that we've taught to four dozen students in four different continents, and we're partway through our second iteration of it.

We facilitated a 100+ person women's summit at Google and a 3-day offsite for a 65-person company in Napa.

And we earned over $300K in revenue.

A New and Magical Way of Working Effectively

What excites us the most about our year is not so much the output, but a new and more effective way of working that we're bringing into 2019.

When we first started our company, we committed to an intention of “embodying fun co-leadership” in our partnership together.

We wanted to live and work by the same principles that we were bringing to leaders in the world.

And we also wanted to have fun while doing it. We've both experienced situations where we burned ourselves out, and we wanted Co Leadership to be something that brought us joy and that we could spend decades working on together.

Making fun an explicit intention was new for both of us.

We both come from cultures of toughening up and “powering through” things — I immigrated to the United States when I was just a baby, and Jean is a second-generation immigrant. My parents powered through their experience as immigrants and worked taxing hours at the family business in Chinatown to give their children opportunities they didn't have — like going to college. I powered through my classes at MIT. I powered through 60-80 hour weeks for 5 years at the first two startups I worked at.

A few years ago, when I wrote The Effective Engineer, I used to think that effectiveness resulted just from focusing on the highest-leverage activities. Readers would sometimes ask me, “What if the highest-leverage things aren't the ones you enjoy doing?” And my response would be that sometimes, you just have to power through the things you don't want to do because they would have a big impact.

But that stance never sat that well with me. It seemed like there ought to be a better way.

For the past year, Jean and I have been exploring: What happens when we make fun and ease an intention for our work? What would have to be true for work to feel fun and easy, where we stopped defaulting to powering through things?

Through our year of exploration, we learned many lessons.

One was to break the paradigm of being in an office and working from 9-5. It was clear early on that forcing ourselves to work when we were tired or low-energy only lowered our overall productivity and morale. And so we paid attention to our energy levels, stopped when we were tired, and reduced our working hours and working days.

Another was that much of what makes work tiring is the mental load that comes from looping about things we feel stuck on in our heads. And so we started leaning on each other more, using our coaching skills to help reduce the mental loads that drain us.

I still remember the first time that Jean coached me on my email. Email has historically been something I would get stuck on — the fact that email processing is a private activity with almost no modeling of best practices doesn't help. Having someone walk with me through the hardest emails and expose my limiting beliefs — you mean the other person isn't worrying about this email as much as I am?!? — was a powerful experience. Over the year, email went from something that used to feel daunting and overwhelming, to something that is now quite manageable.

Yet another lesson was realizing that things were easy when we felt connected and aligned with each other and hard when we weren't. Just like in improv, it takes two willing partners “yes, and”-ing each other to co-create a scene. And so we developed a morning ritual of sharing how we're feeling and connecting around where we're at before diving into work. As human beings, we also always make up stories about each other that hold us back — and we started investing more time clearing up stories that led to second guessing and wasted mental energy.

We've learned that doing things when they feel resonant significantly increases the speed and quality of our work by several factors. And so we've started to surf the resonance wave and do more things when we feel most excited to it — sometimes even at the expense of things we might've planned. We've also started to experiment with tools like visualization — something that's commonly used in competitive sports — to create that excitement on demand.

The results of focusing on fun and ease have been phenomenal.

We've been able to design custom and powerful half- or full-day workshops for teams, sometimes even in just an hour. We're able to write a chapter-length worth of material in just eight hours. We're able to respond much faster to the most important emails, send proposals to companies, and close deals on terms that we want. And we've been able to accomplish much more in short amounts of time than we previously thought possible.

Our Results and Growing Impact

All of this would just be pontification if we weren't having the impact and influence we want in the tech industry. And so it's been incredibly fulfilling to hear from students about the impact we've been able to have on their careers and on their lives and from supporters who champion our work.

“What's clear to me now is that when you look at people or leaders or role models who communicate really well, who build alignment with their teams — now I understand that there is something I can do to become one of those people. I'm more in control. It's terrific. I love it.”
— MATIAS LESPIAU, VP of SaaS Operations at Aurea Software

“I'm most excited about having a common framework for dealing with awkward or tough situations. It's almost like an interface or an API for relationships. It's the greatest thing.“
— MARCO PONTI, IT Operations Manager at rateGenius, Inc.

“As a tech lead, I have struggled with deciding what to spend my time on. The leadership program has helped to me to reach clarity on my role. I realized that I can bring more value to my team by focusing my energy on what I’m good at.”
— TAYLOR MCINTYRE, Tech Lead at Dropbox

“If you're an engineer who aspires to lead, @edmondlau and @jyhsu are THE gurus, run don't walk to sign up for this workshop.”
— JOCELYN GOLDFEIN, General Partner at Zetta Venture Partners, Former Director of Engineering at Facebook

We call our testimonials page our wall of love, and we're excited to add to it every time.

Our Vision

Last June, Jean and I were hiking together to do some visioning for the future of Co Leadership. Our vision is to help people break down the things that hold them back — whether it's stories they make up, limiting beliefs, prejudice, teammates, bad culture — to connect them with the lives and careers they dream of.

This year, we'll be increasing our presence — writing more consistently, growing our distribution, and more boldly talking about our work. We'll be co-creating brand new experiences and products around leadership that we're eager to share with you. And we'll be investing in our new book, which we see as a way of scaling our impact in the world.

It's only been a little over a year since we started working on Co Leadership full time, and we're excited for all there is to come.

Start having the impact and influence you dream of

Join 12,000+ other leaders in tech. Start leading from where you are with our free 7-day Leadership Mindsets email course.

Reflecting on Our First Year of Co Leadership
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