Putting People Into Positive Feedback Loops

Graham Duncan, a co-founder of East Rock Capital and the co-chair of the SOHN Conference Foundation, told Tim Ferriss about the time a key employee looked at him and asked, “what is it exactly that you do?” Duncan thought about it. He considers himself to be a pretty lazy person, so on the surface, it was a fair question. However, that laziness lends itself to what he considers his greatest skill: how to identify the jobs he can’t do, and how to attract and retain the right people to do them.


The person who asked was one of his company’s best sales reps. Duncan reminded him of what job he actually interviewed for. It wasn’t a sales job, but nearly the opposite: a non-client facing analyst position. After passing over his application, Duncan recalled how the then rejected applicant preceded to follow up over, and over and over again for weeks. Being rejection proof isn’t essential for an analyst, but for sales…


Duncan went on to explain that his job is to put people into positive feedback loops. He looks for what a person naturally brings to the table, taking the time to find where they experience the least and most internal resistance. For a self-described lazy guy, he spends an awful lot of time talking with candidates and their references to get this right. Once he feels that he understands what motivates them, he considers where they could provide his organization the most strategic impact, over and over and over again. 


Jobs aren’t just about skills, they’re also about internal drive. Duncan says he doesn’t hire looking at what he can put into people, he hires looking for what he can bring out of them. Just as his laziness is a point of resistance, the effort he’ll apply to avoid work (and afford him his laziness) is a strategic advantage. As he says, “everyone’s genius is right next to their dysfunction.” We just have to look for it.


We’ve all fought upstream trying to complete some task before. To a degree, some of this is inescapable – especially early in our careers. But, as we advance, we’re going to do our best in the right environments. The better we get at finding the right place for ourselves and others, the more value we can create. Duncan may be lazy, but he’s doing it for all of the right reasons.