7 minute read

Leadership that doesn't garden...should

Note: I started drafting this article on May 30th at 9:04am after A) thinking for weeks about how startups could benefit from consolidating executive travel plans and many years of observation, and B) well before visible announcements of any kind.

Personal Context

I am a gardener, not a career executive. I know what it takes to be a great people manager at certain levels and respect when that’s done well but it’s not my passion to date. I facilitate learners, fostering experimentation at work and at home. The legos I grew up on are quicker to prototype with than biological systems; similarly, backyard gardening is faster than horticulture on which to experiment. Since I don’t have a sprawling estate (re: “…my second home is in Montana…”) and never would anyway, I buy some containers for a roof deck and sow seeds.

In short: if you don’t have a path to develop a storied career in executive leadership, don’t wait for something magic to happen…make your own and drive outcomes.

What is a Chief Garden Officer (CGO)?

A CGO is like a groundskeeper for your organization and constituents. They continuously observe what is happening, both inside from top to bottom in the org and outside in the field with consumers, the market, and other business-related ecosystems.

You might think that this definition is duplicative of the CEO or the CTO, but that’s not the case here. Named Chief [Fill in the Blank] Officers have very mutually exclusive scopes from each other and are, good or bad, people managers at the end of the day. They are accountable but rarely responsible for delivering key outcomes and instead spend a lot of time delegating, directing, and distributing others.

Exec-level stuff is important work to do well in order to survive, but alone is insufficient to thrive. Like anything, it can be a grind, even if over-compensated comared to others. They also tend to work a lot with investors, shareholders, other executives, and basically shake hands and kiss other peoples’…babies…hopefully not the reverse.

Surely, This Is Not a New Idea

Of course it’s not a new idea…neither is new stuff like the AI craze. Case-in-point: “Field CTO”. A Field CTO is someone who is technical about their consumer’s domain enough to speak to it with limited error, unlike many career CEOs. In essence, a Field CTO’s job is to ‘walk the grounds’ and drive adjustments as needed to optimize the macro-ecological people system to thrive.

Would the organizational grounds be clean and thriving work without someone(s) doing this? Maybe, but not likely. Should multiple Chief [Fill in the Blank] Officers grounds-keep as part of their scoped internal responsibility domains? Sure, though this is often duplicated effort, travel, expense, time-cost, and synthesis varies across different execs. There needs to be a better way, a more clued in mindset which positively compounds value in the soil. Organizations are organisms, macro and micro, which is why I am over-rotating the gardening analogy here.

Field example: I once knew a CEO (acting CISO) once who was constantly observing by talking to consumers and keeping eyes on the market for opportunities and risks. She would also adjust accordingly and hold both herself and others accountable for their successes and failures. Executives that are not held accountable are ultimately toxic like anaerobic bacteria in your soil. Overall, her organization has far fewer public security incidents (https://www.honeycomb.io/blog/incident-response-at-honeycomb) than others because the culture there inherently encourages fast, informed, and traceable decision-making. It would be one of the few environments where I wouldn’t mind an executive dropping F-bombs regularly because it comes from a real, not malevolent or demeaning, place.

A Field CTO should be professional, qualified, motivated, observant, kind (not always polite), accountable, and self-aware. In short, they should be fit to serve others. However, what does it mean for a CTO to have “Field…” prefacing the title? There could be multiple inferrences based on your perspective, but none of them are fantastic.

In one reality, it might mean not having a “Field…” prefix on Every Other Title, such as “Field CEO”. Following this line of reasoning infers that your CEO, CISO, CIO, COO, CFO, acrostically ambiguous CPO (Product) and CPO (People) don’t do this as part of their function too, and are perpetually out of touch with the reality of their customer base and market. Managing others is an important part of senior leadership, no doubt; however, being only internally focused often leads to cultural anaerobia.

In another reality, it might mean that leadership is swamped and over-subscribed to, such that a fresh infusion of more mature executive function is not only desired but desperately needed. This is analogically equivalent to [only occasional] tillage of soil so long as it is paired with infusion of organic matter(s) for critical reasons. Humic acid and compost alone does not make for great soil. Time and observation are required for both soil and organizational amendments to produce positive outcomes. None of them are immediate without consequences either.

One last way to look at it: further investment warrants someone with lots of experience hearing from and not just speaking at customers and synthesizing intelligence gained from listening into meaningful directional adjustments. This doesn’t take a title prefix…it takes competence.

In short, having or not having “Field…” in front of things isn’t a good or bad thing; the real bad thing is when you don’t have it in your leadership and organizational DNA to observe, collaborate, align, and act accordingly. As my long-lost colleague Sal G once pointed out, “sometimes it’s not about good and bad…it’s about useful and useless”, now more poignant than ever for me as it relates to leadership I chose to adopt.

It Is Time for an Old Idea in a New Context

Myopia and monocultures are endemic to many types of systems, natural and human-imposed. Serial entrepreneurs, career CEOs, management transplants, and otherwise people who say things like “I didn’t need to do this, I could have retired” are doing something critically wrong. By verbalizing overgrown privilege and not cultivating opportunity in others, these people are not balancing personal gains with short or long-term outcomes. The behavior is anaerobic and seeking to dominate. The more people depend on a particular individual, the more the power-wealth consolidates, which benefiting bacterial propagates can wield over others by excluding them from growth. As Sinclair put it: “It is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends on his not understanding it.” - I, Candidate for Governor: And How I got Licked, 1934 (https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/262689.I_Candidate_for_Governor)

This is simply not how things seem to work well in nature; the soil food web doesn’t exist solely to feed a golf course optimized front lawn (monoculture), no matter how many interestingly shaped shrubs and paved paths have been indelibly injected into the common landscape. Fungal dominance is better for trees, but even still, nature balances bacterial and fungal families to promote many other undergrowths. Taxonomic rank is a lesson that should be more often applied to the macro-economic organizations humans improperly foster for each other. “The environment selects…itself”, as my old friend Bill W says, a play on Becking, also in 1934, (https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4898794/). Twisted or simply bent, a purposeful conflation between nature and organizational typology here extends specifically to the role of executive leadership when it is operating from an insular place to internally promote characteristics which encourage more of the same.

These kinds of leaders are often very internally focused, personally so, and thus organizationally as well. Breaking from gold-pressed train tracks, I am looking for opportunities to surround myself with holistic and observant leadership structures.

What’s Really Needed: Intelligence Gardening Culture, Supported by a CGO

To cultivate and precipitate continuous alignment in an organization, at all levels and not just executive or senior management roles, you need a continuous stream of informed ‘field’ intelligence, not simply from yet-another-exec dedicated role for doing all the flying, visiting, listening, summarizing, and advising. Sometimes DNA needs to evolve before it can thrive. What if a consolidated person for this gets sick, needs to leave, or otherwise can’t perform this single-point-of-failure function? So distribute these seeds.

We all can’t (and many don’t want to) be flying around to meet customers, even if they wanted us to do so. The good news is that the thing we really need doesn’t demand high travel costs, mostly smart and distributed time-spend. Intelligence must be accurately summarized, right-timed, right-fit, and asynchronously accessible in order to be effective in global people systems. I learned this by working closely with User Experience (UX) minded folks. Additionally, people need to be competent, driven, aligned, and accountable to use that intelligence appropriately.

As my life partner often suffixes obvious statements comedically with “…you see,” systemic leadership who listen and act accordingly are at the heart of your Chief Garden Officer, you see. It is NOT automatically inferrable in a Title, such as ‘Field CTO’, but possibly be predicated by it. My hope is that those who seek titles prefixed with “Field…” whatever embody the requisite learning, selflessness, and improvement characteristics we so rarely see from career executive leadership. It is deserved by everyone else just trying to do their personal best, survive, and everything in between in the workforce.

I am personally not holding out for these ideals in any formal opportunity, but I am keep my eyes out now for characteristic which support them. Sowing seeds of change is the responsible thing to do with what I have.