Strategy | Business

Jeff Yabuki wants to know … and so do I.


Hello Friends!

I’m excited to share a crucial leadership lesson I’ve learned this year from watching former Fiserv CEO Jeff Yabuki work: the difference between micromanagement and understanding the details.

But first, here’s what we’re reading, watching, following and listening to:

Micromanagement vs. Understanding the Details

Coming into this year, I vowed to put more energy and time into evaluating and making the bigger decisions at SRH—especially working “on the business” (positioning, sales, operations, people) versus “in the business” (billable hours/client work).

“I really trust my team and our partners, so I’m not going to micromanage any projects. I’m going to stay out of the details.”

I thought questioning the details was a form of micromanagement. I was totally wrong.

Over the past five months, thanks to our partnership with Children’s Wisconsin, I’ve had a front row seat to the unveiling of former Fiserv CEO Jeff Yabuki’s transformational gift of $20M. Jeff’s gift will help transform the way Children’s approaches the current mental and behavioral health crisis by placing a therapist in every Children’s pediatrician’s office. This way, when kids reveal signs of mental health issues during their regular physical checkups, their pediatrician can bring in a therapist on the spot to kickstart diagnosis and treatment.

Jeff was motivated to action by his younger brother Craig’s lifelong battle with depression and then death by suicide in 2017. In the wake of this tragedy, Jeff and his wife Gail sought a means to transform their grief into hope for others. When they learned of Children’s ambitious plans to “change the checkup” and redefine health as both mental and physical for every kid in Wisconsin, they knew they’d found their cause.

But they didn’t just write a check and wish Children’s “good luck” as many philanthropists do. Jeff approached the partnership like a business investment and sought to understand every detail of Children’s plan, model and rollout. I was in three half-day planning sessions including many of Children’s top experts during which Jeff asked questions about everything from overall success metrics to the border color of the video player on the program’s website. I was personally grilled about SRH’s messaging, design and video edit choices.

At first, I thought it was excessive—that Jeff was micromanaging. And then Jeff said a line that will always stick with me: “I don’t have the right to have an opinion on this matter.”

That’s when it dawned on me: he’s not asking questions so he can make the decisions; he’s asking questions so he understands the decisions.

I recently discovered a rare interview that Jeff did as he was winding down his hall of fame tenure at Fiserv, a 15-year run during which the company’s market cap increased ninefold. This interview further unlocked Jeff’s method for me…

See All Angles Like The Fiserv CEO

Yabuki is widely known for examining a problem from all vantage points before making a decision. This can test the patience of some associates — or make them more accountable. “The number one thing I’m known for is asking the next three questions,” he said. “Part of my routine is I ask questions in order to understand how people think. That way, I can find the intersection between the information given to me and their internal biases.”

He’s a stickler for details. He labors over his emails and writes 95% of his own internal and external communications. “So the organization sees consistency in my voice,” he explained.

SRH has had a banner year in 2021 and I’m proud of my leadership. However, I can think of at least three projects that would’ve gone smoother for everyone had I taken the time to “ask the next three questions” like Jeff does. I didn’t because I thought it was micromanaging to question the details. Thanks to watching Jeff in action, I now understand there’s a crucial difference between understanding all the details and making all the decisions.

It’s impossible to evaluate the soundness of a plan without understanding the details because the details reveal how the planner approached the problem… and what opportunities they likely missed because of their biases. If I want to be a great leader, I have to help them recognize those biases and other angles.

So please be patient with me on our next collaboration; I may have lots of questions.