How to Tell if You’re an Office Cowboy (and why you don’t want to be one)

A picture of a rugged and angry looking Cowboy

I blame it on movies like Rambo, and Die Hard. Many of us watched these movies, or movies like these, growing up. So it’s no surprise that, as adults, we all want to be cowboys (or cowgirls) too. I’m not saying that we’re all chasing after bad guys, drinking whiskey, and shooting whoever and whatever gets in our way (though I must admit, there are days where alcohol and firearms seem ideal solutions). I’m saying that we all want to be heroes. Many of us, myself included, have a deep-seated desire to be the person that everyone else looks up to. We want to be the person who saves the day, and who does it all by themselves.

When I co-founded Setaris, I was ready and rearing to brand the software industry, and specifically, Setaris, with a hot Josh Fialkoff iron. That, and my history of watching too many episodes of Dukes of Hazard, led me to become the type of leader I like to call the Office Cowboy.

I know, Office Cowboy sounds like an oxymoron. Let me clarify: an Office Cowboy is the person who carries all the cowboy characteristics into the office. This person needs no help from others, and thrives on recognition as an individual rather than as part of a team. An Office Cowboy can be a great asset to your company. If your goal is to build a scalable and sustainable business, however, you might want to mind a some pitfalls of the cowboy mindset.

Creating and implementing a process without first discussing it with the people it affects

It might be true that your position in a company makes you responsible for establishing effective processes within your organization. The fact that you’re responsible, however, does not mean that you’re the only person who can participate in creating and implementing those processes.

A while back, we created an operations committee. Every week, we meet to discuss operational issues at Setaris, and come up with and implement solutions. In these meetings, my voice (though I am a co-founder and COO) has no greater weight than anyone else’s, and my ideas are regularly challenged if not tossed away completely. I admit, I occasionally think to myself in exasperation, ”Hey, aren’t I one of the owners here?!” Personal pride aside, however, we have had better team buy-in (no surprise, the team participated in the creation of the process), less overhead (since all ideas are challenged), and more general solutions (since everyone brings their experiences to the table, we’re forced to think generally rather than design for a specific individual).

Assigning tasks to people (or being the middle man)

Say you had a random group of strangers, and a series of tasks. You have two options: 1) assign the tasks to the people in the group, or 2) give the list to the group and tell them to get it done. We regularly take the first approach in our organizations, but there’s really very little value in it. While we know a bit about what our team members are capable of, you’re not likely to know as much as they know. Your marketing guy might surprise you one day with his WordPress skills if you let him.

At Setaris, we used to have our Concept Architects (a.k.a. Product Managers) discuss a problem with our clients, and construct a solution. They would then tell the rest of the team what to do. I’m somewhat embarrassed to admit that we used to operate in this manner as it implies that our Concept Architects are better equipped for coming up with a solution than the entire team. Not likely! We hire many smart people, and we now get everyone involved in the problem solving process. Again, we have better buy-in, and better solutions since we’re leveraging everyone’s knowledge and experience.

If I were to sum up this article in one phrase, I’d steal a line from the classic business book Good to Great: “Get the right people on the bus, and then help them figure out where to drive it.” I have personally seen and heard described many cases where the first piece of advice (i.e., get the right people on the bus) is heeded, and where the second is ignored. If you have good people, but aren’t putting your trust in them, then you’re just paying for the whole package and letting most of it go to waste. So no matter how much it might hurt, put the cowboy hat away, and start thinking about how you can help your team to work more effectively.

Joshua Fialkoff

Joshua’s tech and management expertise has been honed over time by the vast array of products he has helped architect and create. Since the dot com boom, he has worked as a manager, developer, graphic designer and entrepreneur. Today he shares his experience and knowledge with others in pursuit of great products and successful businesses.

As a proud and ambitious Setaris co-founder, Joshua is constantly on the lookout for ways to improve culture, generate excitement and make Setaris the best technology and marketing firm on the market. Joshua holds a Bachelor's in Electrical Engineering from Cooper Union and a Master's Degree in Electrical Engineering from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute with an emphasis on pattern recognition and signal estimation.

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