The Best Lessons I Learned from John deVadoss


John deVadoss

“A leader is best When people barely know he exists Of a good leader, who talks little, When his work is done, his aim fulfilled, They will say, ‘We did this ourselves.’”? Lao Tzu, Tao Te Ching

I like to learn from everyone around me.

One of my most influential mentors has been my previous manager, John deVadoss.

John has an amazing way of simplifying complex ideas into memorable gems of insight.

He leads in a way that’s people before business, and business before technology.

John also sees ahead.  And he has a profound gift for putting the puzzle of the future together that requires depth and breadth, that is nothing short of phenomenal.

25 Best Lessons from John deVadoss

Here are some highlights of my lessons learned from John.


To keep the lessons simple and easy to share, I’ve structured them as a set of 25 lessons.

Each lessons is a bit of insight or a way of thinking that you can apply at a micro or macro context.

Here are my 25 lessons from John:

1. Above the line or below the line.

Distinguish between what’s “above the line” and what’s “below the line.”

Below the line is just doing what’s expected.

If you get it right, nobody cares.  If you get it wrong, or miss the boat, everybody gets upset.

Above the line is where people look for real value.  When you’re doing your job, some things are just expected.

You need to ask, what’s above the line that really counts?

2. Demand side vs. supply side.

When it comes to delivering value, there’s a supply side and a demand side.

On the supply side, it’s what you’re “pushing” out the door.

On the demand side, it’s what people are “pulling” for.

To be relevant, know the demand side.  If you can tap into demand, you can streamline your supply to be relevant and valuable in the eye of the beholder.

To know the demand side requires customer empathy.  It also means knowing where the growth is.

3. Change the business or run the business.

Some people are change agents at heart.  They have an eye to the future and they like to change and evolve the business.

Others are more focused on running the business.  This means they focus on improving the systems and processes to improve execution and results around the current business.

They are complimentary.

One isn’t better than the other, but sometimes the business needs more influence from one than the other.

Another way of viewing this is a metaphor: CEO (Chief Executive Officer) vs. COO (Chief Operating Officer.)

4. Surprise and pop.

The key to an evocative or sticky idea is to have an element of surprise and “pop” right from the start.

If you just have an intellectually sound idea, it might be missing the emotional element that can take it to the next level.

Surprise and pop are a way to give an idea legs right from the start.

5. Everybody has flaws.

There are no great people.  There are people that do great things.  Heroes fall.  It’s the “feet of clay” scenario.

People aren’t heroes, they do heroic things.

The point is, don’t miss the good because of the bad, and don’t get caught up in putting people on pedestals.

6. The customer, the problem, the competition, and success.

This is a line of questioning for evaluating a project proposal or when figuring out business strategy or what to do.

To get clarity and focus, you can ask the questions, “what is the customer problem they are trying to solve?” … “who is the competition?” … “what is success?”

They are questions that cut right to the chase.

7. If you’re explaining, you’re losing.

If you have to explain it, you’re losing.  Idea or arguments should resonate.  They should make sense to the audience, simply, without the need for exhaustive elaboration.

If you find yourself explaining, you’re probably losing, and it’s worth either changing your position, or finding a simpler way to make your point.

8. Slippery Slope.

This is a metaphor where a small first step can lead to a chain of events that amplify a negative impact.

For example, if you fall over the edge of a slope, you can slide all the way to the bottom, gaining momentum and force along the way.

You basically slide out of control.  The idea here is to watch out for ideas or solutions or decisions that might seem like little impact up front, but that can lead to a downward spiral out of control.

9. The “How” Trap.

Don’t get stuck in the “How” trap, arguing over how something should get done.  Get the “what” right, first.

Stay focused on the goals, and stay flexible in your approach.

Give smart people the room to creatively solve challenges, rather than dictate their approach.  Agree to the goals and get out of the way.

10. Periodically surprise people.

To avoid being taken for granted, periodically surprise people.

11. Simple is always better.

The simplest explanation is the best.  When you have an option between simple and complex, always go for the simpler one.

It’s the one that will succeed in the long run.

12. 3 year Bets / Business Strategy / Roadmap.

When thinking about the business, make a map.  Use a time frame of 3 years to paint a future.  Where do you want to be?  What will the customer look like?  What will demand be?  What will the competition be doing?  How will you scale the business?

Use the 3 year time box to help shape the strategy and to paint a roadmap.

Keep in mind, it’s a straw man that you can evolve, but it helps build a shared picture.

13. You put yourself in your own box.

It’s easy to box ourselves in, either by our thinking or our actions.  Own the box you put yourself in.

Don’t limit yourself.

Don’t let others box you in.  Expand the box.

14. Fundamentally flawed.

Some ideas never make sense right from the start.  They’re based on an idea or concept that just won’t hold up.

Find the fundamental flaws so you don’t waste time going down a path that will never work.

Don’t fool yourself or ignore the fundamental flaws.  Find them fast, acknowledge them, and move on.

15. The space between the products.

This is often a sweet spot when it comes to adding value for customers.

If you think in terms of a Venn diagram, you can imagine the map of customer demand and you can imagine the map of product or service supply.

The intersection is what’s addressed.

All the open gap where customer demand is unfulfilled becomes opportunity.  You can then evaluate the value of the opportunity.  The space between the products is the domain of opportunity.

16. Watch out for science projects.

When a project is purely academic and has no business case, you can think of it as a science project.

While science projects have value, in the context of business, you need to know the value – both to the business and for the customers.

It’s tough to justify science projects in the context of a business.

17. Metrics, people, and process.

A simple frame for thinking about the business is metrics, people, and process.  Take care of the people so you can run the business.

Set the metrics so people buy in and achieve business results.

Improve the processes to support the people and achieve the right results, based on the metrics.

18. Bridging process and people.

Processes should support people, not the other way around.  Bridge the gap between people and process so that people don’t have to work around processes to get things done.

Get rid of processes that don’t work or get in the way.  Provide enough process to go from chaotic results to more predictable impact.

19. It’s leadership failure.

When things fail at a grand scale, it’s leadership failure.  To make progress as a person or a company, stand for something.  Lead the change you want to see.

20. It’s about the people.

The heart of the business is the people.  Focus on the people.  If you take care of the people, they can take care of the business.

Don’t let a focus on the business, turn a blind eye to the people that make it happen.

21. Get clarity on the impact you want to make.

When you’re thinking through your career aspirations, get clarity on what you want to accomplish.

Is it level versus title versus responsibility versus actual customer/business impact versus perceived impact?  … What is the end goal?

Is it the level or the title or the responsibility?  Is it the actual customer/business impact or perceived impact?

22. Live your values.

Life’s short.  Live your values.  Live your values at work.

If the values don’t mesh, it’s not the right place for you.

23. People-centric vs. System-centric.

When you drive a team or organization, you can be people-centric or system-centric.

A people-centric leader focuses on the people and makes the most of the people at hand.

A system-centric leader drives through policy, processes, and procedures, focused more on the system, than the people at hand.

The ideal is a hybrid, blending the best of people-centric and system-centric to enable and support the people for the best impact, in a sustainable way (supported by enough process.)

24. It’s about business strategy.

Technology has to support the business and it can’t be for technology’s sake.

Whether it’s Enterprise Architecture or product XYZ, it’s about the business strategy.

The business is the heart and soul that exists in the long run, and technology is an enabler, not the end, and not the dominant, driving force.

25. Connection and conviction.

This is a helpful model to think about balancing connection with people, with a conviction to business results or some idea.

The sweet spot is in the middle where you stay connected with people, while having conviction and courage to bring an idea or change to fruition.

Have you surprised anyone lately?

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  1. Interesting lessons. Sounds to me like John is one of the few people that manage to mix an orientation towards results with one towards people. I think this is a very powerful combination.


  2. Hi! What a neat list to read, and cool guy to work for, from the sounds of it.
    These two things stuck out for me, and reminded me of what I used to say in my corporate marketing job to my bosses and peers:
    1. “If you’re explaining, you’re losing.” I used to tell people that if it required a lot of explanation, it wasn’t a good idea. Things should be intuitive in the hearts and minds of customers. We once received a competitors letter when they changed their logo. The letter explained not only that they’d changed their logo (which was evident upon opening said letter and seeing the new design), but what the logo meant. I smiled at my boss and said, “It took them five paragraphs to tell us what their new logo means. That’s not a very good logo.”

    2. Supply versus Demand. Now, I might be cutting through the wrong yard here because you work at Microsoft, right?! (Sorry!) But what came to mind immediately was Steve Jobs’ ability to create an entirely new line of products that customers didn’t know they wanted, until they saw what Apple had in mind. Apple did a great job with the iPods and iPhones, establishing new passions and supposed-needs in the minds of customers around the world. Just like Henry Ford with the automobile: if he’d asked customers back then what they wanted before the car was invented, they would have said faster horses. They didn’t know what was possible!

    I really do love this list. I need to go back and read it again!

  3. These are all Wows, of course. Such an uplifting positive post, J.D.!

    Number 20 and 22 speak directly to the core of me — it’s about people and values. And I value some very very fine people in my life such as yourself and a whole host of sweeties in the blogosphere.

  4. Wow, these are some great lessons! Sounds like you’ve been pretty lucky when it comes to working for someone. 🙂 Awesome!

  5. I notice some patterns to these lessons:

    Expectations – Be aware of what is expected from you as well as trying to find those that aren’t expected.

    People – Relationships are a fundamental part of our lives and handling them is a big challenge.

    Strategy – Be careful with planning as while it can be handy to have a map, you never know when it’ll need to be corrected or updated with new information.

    Excellent set of lessons that I’ll probably look at a few times before seeing how I’ve used some of these in my own life whether I saw them this way or not.

  6. This is a WOW list JD and thank you for sharing. I have passed this on to my partner as his firm looks towards their future.

    Thank you John for sharing these ideas for JD to pass on.

    One idea that really truly resonated for me was the Change Artist vs the Managing Artist. I chose a career that is in a field that contains activity/ one must be creative around limited ideas – so is slow to change and then being an Idea Woman and change artist was a terrible combination in this formerly male dominated profession. Then I had to learn to use my emotions, not just control them into silence and as a woman I was expected to do all the maintenance work also….

    If I had been able to figure out how to get a Doctorate and teach at a College or University (I got several test runs at this joy) I think I would have been in my right niche and earned a living.

    Homeschooling my children was very fulfilling for my joy, but not as challenging for the mind and extremely challenging for the pocket book
    Thank you JD…good stuff and well written.

  7. Achieving number 23 is such a touchy balance. The day I see that done with a great amount of effectiveness I will be truely inspired. Regardless, every point is poignant and true. I’m still analyzing how they inter-relate though.

  8. This is fantastic and just the kind of material I’ve been looking for.
    When I was just a little kid growing up in Sharon,Pa, my Mother told me that happiness comes from reaching out to others and learning from them their ways and customs. Excepting new ways of life. Today I have friends from all around the world and I feel like a better person than the one I could have been if not for seeking out knowledge out side of the box.
    I have got to ad this to my website and blog.

  9. JD., I enjoyed this post very much! 😉
    my fav. ones are:
    #7 – be simple, less wordy
    #10 surprise people periodically
    #20 its about the people!if you take care of the people you take care of the business
    #21 get clarity on the impact I want to have

    #7 and #21 — I’m currently working on with my blogs, business plan and I am working on creative ways to implement #10 and #20 lately! 😉

    this was a delightful read!
    warmly appreciated!

  10. Hi JD

    I don’t like giving a comment that lacks in value, but all I can say is that this is really great. I have a lot to think about and digest. I need to go through it and apply it to my work / business.

    Thank you,

  11. I was trying to identify the one that resonates with the most but all of them are completely FRESH. Really really fresh one. It really got me into a-ha state.
    If I’d have to pick one though anyway i think it’d be “If you’re explaining, you’re losing”.
    I think it goes along the lines “If you cannot explain it to six year old you just do not get it yourself” – i think it was Einstein.

    It is good to have a boss that you can learn from 🙂

    Say, are you hiring? – LOL!

  12. @ Eduard

    That’s a good way to put it and, yes, it’s a powerful combination.

    @ Oscar

    Thank you! I’m lucky to have inspiring people to learn from.

    @ Megan

    Beautifully put and great example. I love how the right words can have instant zing or they can miss the boat. Some sound bites instantly resonate and spread like wild fire.

    Demand generation is tough. I think Apple does a good job both at finding latent needs, as well as creating demand through emotional appeal — it just feels good. They also play the envy game.

    @ Jannie

    Thank you — Back at ya!

    The best times in my life are always shared experiences.

  13. @ Positively Present

    I joined Microsoft so I could work with people smarter than me and I could be a small fish in a big pond. My best managers always turn out to be my best mentors.

    I have a really high bar now … I’ve had some of the best managers around.

    @ JB King

    You did a great job distilling the lessons into themes. I especially like how you articulated the strategy pattern.

    @ Patricia

    Thank you.

    You have a ton of insight and experience to share. If you haven’t already, checkout and consider creating some Manifestos to flex your change artistry skills.

    @ Paul

    I agree. I think it comes down to values. It’s putting a value on results, people, growth, and excellence. I think the people focus grows from empathy and compassion. The system side is really about thinking holistically in terms of cycles, ecosystems, timeframes, product-lines, … etc. Luckily, there are some great techniques, models and skills for improving the people side or the system side.

  14. @ Daryl

    Thank you. I agree – happiness is a dish best shared. A model that’s helped me is growing others and making others great lifts me up in the process.

    @ Jenn

    Thank you. If you need help, let me know. As a PM for years, I’ve tuned my skills for vision, business case, impact … etc. It’s night and day from when I first started.

    @ A.V. Thamburaj

    Thank you. I really like that one too because it’s a great way to explain a common pattern.

    @ Juliet

    Thank you. I like the fact the lessons are quick to share, but have a level of depth you can chew on.

    @ Alik

    It really is fresh stuff and I like the ah-ha factor. I like the six year old test because it forces you to boil down to the essence and direct with precision and simplicity.

  15. I’ve been trying to incorporate “simple is better” into my life for some time now, and it’s not easy. I tend to over-think and come up with way too many ideas. I am a firm believer in “less is more” and have been striving toward minimalism, streamlining, and keeping it simple. I still have a lot of work to do, but I’m getting there. Every item on this list is excellent for running a business (or a team). This is a post I could see being developed into a book.

  16. J.D,
    The lessons that you have managed to organize in a “winning package”, although a bit too pragmatic and written in a typical American style, that automatically turns you in a ‘true believer’ can’t be neglected. Their empirical back – up and the cuts you offer are impressive
    and come straight from the heart. Yet, speaking of lessons learned, I can’t help myself not to remember Russ Ackoff, the management thinker in question, who died a few days ago, aged 90. Two key Ackoffian ideas start to emerge in my mind:
    First, do not wait for others in the business to start changing things. Go and do it yourself. But second, and more important: never forget that everyone in the business is interconnected, that they are all operating as part of a system, that tinkering with one part of the company is never really enough, and may even make things worse. You need to see the business as a whole, as a complete system, if you want to make lasting improvements to it.

    He rejected the label ‘guru’. Followers of gurus do not think for themselves

    Ackoff never achieved the widespread fame of Peter Drucker, the 20th century’s most distinguished management writer. It is a little ironic that Ackoff should die just as the November issue of the Harvard Business Review is published marking the centenary of Drucker’s birth, with a photo of the great Austrian on the cover and the question “What would Peter do?” printed next to it.

    Thanks to Vince Barabba, who until 2003 was general manager of corporate strategy at General Motors, ‘we’ know what Peter did do, at least on one occasion: acknowledge his debt to Ackoff. “He really taught me a lot,” Drucker told the GM man, and followed up by writing a letter to Ackoff to express his gratitude.

    I met Ackoff inPhiladelphia long ago, when he gave me a lengthy and enjoyable tutorial. He was softly spoken, but intellectually rigorous. “All of our problems arise out of doing the wrong thing righter,” he told me. “The more efficient you are at doing the wrong thing, the wronger you become. It is much better to do the right thing wronger than the wrong thing righter. If you do the right thing wrong and correct it, you get better.”

    One of his last and certainly most accessible books is, Management f-Laws (co-authored with Herb Addison and Sally Bibb). The book is a collection of 81 subversive epigrams on management, each one followed by an explanatory text.

    There are some terrific zingers in it. “Business schools are high security prisons of the mind,” he wrote. (Although an emeritus professor at the Wharton School in his home town of Philadelphia, he remained ambivalent about educational institutions in general and business schools in particular.)

    “An organization that cannot accommodate nonconformity will not be able to retain creative people,” Ackoff stated.

    And: “Organizations fail more often because of what they have not done than because of what they have done.” And: “The less managers expect of their subordinates, the less they get.”

    Ackoff – like Drucker – rejected the label “guru”. Followers of gurus do not think for themselves, Ackoff believed. He preferred to see himself as an educator. Consultants go into businesses and try to impose a solution, he said. Educators train the people responsible for the work to work things out for themselves. I couldn’t help smiling, when I once read a little known little booklet –“Further reflection’s on Mexico”, where as a government consultant,
    upon reflecting on what he was actually doing in Mexico, defined himself as a ‘Great Entertainer’ that was titillating the brains of the Mexican officials supposed to introduce
    some urgent change in their institutions.

    Ackoff’s death, even at the impressive age of 90, has provoked an outpouring of expressions of regret and admiration from former students and colleagues. I suspect that some of them feel his work never quite received the recognition it deserved. He remained a too well-kept secret.

    Listen to that clever and humane voice one more time: “The only problems that have simple solutions are simple problems. The only managers that have simple problems have simple minds. Problems that arise in organizations are almost always the product of interactions of parts, never the action of a single part. Complex problems do not have simple solutions.”

    Concerning lesson number (7) – If you are explaining you’re losing; John Baldoni and Barack Obama seem to be willing to contribute to your further understanding of that particular issue:

    Explanation is a key attribute of leadership communications. Leaders know to inject their communications with verve and enthusiasm as a means of persuasion, but they also need to include an explanation for the excitement. What does it mean and why are we doing it are critical questions that every leader must answer with straightforward explanations. Here are three ways to become an effective explainer.
    Define what it is. The purpose of an explanation is to describe the issue, the initiative, or the problem. For example, if you are pushing for cost reductions, explain why they are necessary and what they will entail. Put the cost reductions into the context of business operations. Be certain to explicate the benefits.
    Define what it isn’t. Here is where the leader moves into the “never assume mode.” Be clear to define the exclusions. For example, returning to our cost reduction issue, if you are asking for reductions in costs, not people, be explicit. Otherwise employees will assume they are being axed. Leave no room for assumptions. This is not simply true for potential layoffs but for any business issue.
    Define what you want people to do. This becomes an opportunity to issue the call for action. Establishing expectations is critical. Cost reductions mean employees will have to do more with less; explain what that will entail in clear and precise terms. Leaders can also use the expectations step as a challenge for people to think and do differently. Your explanation then takes on broader significance.
    Good explainers need to be careful, however, not to overdo the details. In a town hall meeting format, the leader sketches the facts and supports them with data points. Dwelling too long on a single point, or points, risks not simply boring the audience but confusing them. Save detailed explanations, which are necessary, for written documentation or team meetings. The latter presents an opportunity for the next level of leaders to translate the communications into action steps.
    As such, detailed explanations work well in face-to-face situations, or in team meetings. They become opportunities to elaborate on possibilities. More important, they also allow individuals to offer their feedback, something that typically cannot occur in large-scale town hall events. The explanation becomes an invitation for discussion, and skillful leaders use it to communicate not simply facts, but also to engage support for their ideas.

  17. @ Melissa

    To add simplicity into my life, I actually made it an “AND.”

    I like to be exhaustive, complete, and maximize things. I couldn’t simply switch to simple. Instead, I added simple in addition to my complex or complete. It’s been a great way to practice the art of depth and the art of simplicity. The “And” was the key. I used to miss the simple, now I always add it by design.

    @ Dr. Michael

    Very well put. I’m a fan of leading by example or making things happen. Complaining is just too slow and boring for me 🙂

    It sounds like Ackoff was a treasure trove of insight.

    Beautiful point on doing the right things over the wrong things righter.

  18. no.4 Surprise and pop! I love this one and need to brainstorm how I can apply this to my writing.

    no.5 I put my first mentor on a pedastal. He fell off and disappointed me. I never did it again with anyone else. I was in my mid 20’s when it happened…a lesson learned early in life!

    no.10 Who doesn’t like surprises! This is very effective.

    no.20 How true, it’s all about the people.

    n0 22 Always!

    How blessed you are to have a mentor like John. Thanks for sharing his wisdom.

  19. @ Tess

    I’ve been lucky to have a lot of great mentors. I’m hoping I can find ways to share what I learn more broadly.

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