Sunday, November 16, 2014

On being an open book...

It was just a week ago that I began my work at Brivo here in the Washington, DC area. The opening caught my eye because I had actually bought one of the Brivo products last year to act as a card access system at the Mindnest office. It actually operated through the cloud, rather than having some ridiculous local programming interface. When doing that research, the Brivo product kept coming out on top of any comparisons and ended up being a pretty easy decision for me.

Yes, we're in the process of relocating eastward, something that's been a mixture of sadness for reduced family and friend contact, but excitement for the prospects of the future. Although the company has existed for about 15 years, it has the look and feel of a 1-2 year old startup right out of the bay area. That is not common. The people are smart, excited, and ready to blaze new trails, and I'm happy to be there with them.

When putting out my book, I never really considered that anyone would bother reading it. I know a few have, and I hope they're getting something out of it. But, what I hadn't thought of was what affect the book might have on the next job I would take... I was literally an "open book." All my thoughts on management were right out there for anyone to read... even prospective employers and teammates.

During various interviews (at Brivo and some other spots), some folks acknowledged that they had perused the book and had some questions and comments on it. My new boss basically said, "I saw the book, read the blog, and I know exactly who you are." I guess that's a good thing. :)  I suppose the only downside is that I've already published many of the crazy and funny "stories from the past" I would have to relate over lunches and such. Well, hopefully nobody will read them.

Sunday, October 19, 2014

A simple tribute to my dad

My father, Bob Wagner, passed away about a week ago. He had been in good health until that point, and was an integral part of my life. We constantly hung out together whether to grab a meal, work on computer stuff, fix things around the house, or take a trip together.

In my formative years, my dad gave me the inspiration to be a real scientist or engineer. He was a top engineer at Motorola until his retirement. In my early high school days, he smuggled home a computer terminal that I used to hack into Motorola's computers and teach myself programming. Such was my introduction to what would become my chosen profession... although I try to keep the hacking to a minimum.

Even more importantly was one interchange my dad and I had underneath my 1968 Ford Torino, working on the water pump. I never brought it up, and he would never have remembered it if I did. I explained something about what I was working on, but I wasn't entirely clear and descriptive enough. He said, and I'm paraphrasing, "If you want to be an engineer, make sure you say things clearly, and describe technical situations in ways that make it easy for others to understand." Yeah, not a huge deal on the surface, but it stuck with me. I still think of that every time I start to describe an object, a problem, a situation, or a procedure.

He was a great guy, devoted to my mother and family for over 60 years. We had a celebration of his life yesterday, attended by many family members and friends. You can try to describe someone in the conventional way -- great dad, great husband, good neighbor, hard worker, close friend. Or, you can simply look at the people that surround that person, and get a really accurate idea of who he was, what he stood for, what he enjoyed doing, and what his life represented.

Looking around yesterday at all the fantastic people that came to celebrate him, it was all clear to me.

Friday, September 26, 2014

The dreaded all-department meeting

Take a look at almost any company-wide survey asking for general employee feedback on what’s working well and what’s not. Almost invariably, the one item that will top the “not so good” list is “communication.” Regardless of how good the communications are, they’re still not good enough. Although I must admit to having seen, once, a comment like, “There are too many communications!” workers tend to feel left out of the loop quite easily.

Your job is to fill the vacuum that forms usually in about a 2-4 week timeframe. Even if you
thoroughly communicated everything that was going on a couple weeks ago, by the time a few weeks have gone by, your folks are starting to feel like they are out of touch. Fretting doesn’t help. It’s just a fact. So resign yourself to doing whatever is necessary to make them feel like they’re always in the loop. Better yet, why consider it some sort of detrimental situation? This is actually a great opportunity for you to do much more than speak -- you can also get everybody rowing the boat in unison. Generally, a message must be communicated 2-3 times before everybody will really hear it, and 5-10 times before they’ll start believing it. So, by taking advantage of these pre-scheduled opportunities, your bigger messages will be believed that much sooner.

At the very least, get everyone who reports to you (directly or indirectly) into a departmental briefing every month. If you do them frequently, concentrate on important items, keep up the pace, and layer in a little humor, you should be able to take no more than 30-60 minutes and provide enough information to loop everyone back in. It’s good to switch up the presenters as well -- don’t try to do the whole thing yourself. Not only does this offer the gathering a more dynamic feel, but it also gives others an opportunity to address the team, and even show off something interesting that they’ve been working on.

I’ve seen some managers that have used frequent departmental meetings quite well, only to abandon them when projects were getting down into their final stages and time was getting precious. Let me state that this is exactly the reverse of what should happen. When the pressure and stress levels get high, it is more important that the briefings continue. In fact, in those instances it is preferable to shorten the gaps and have the meetings more frequently. You have to keep everyone informed and motivated, and if things are happening fast, then more things are changing, and all the more reason to fill everyone in. There will always be a few of the, “I just can’t afford the 30 minutes out of my day to listen to this stuff” folks, but in the end, everyone gains from the experience.

In between your formal departmental meetings, use email for what it’s best at… general announcements. Give folks a periodic update on cool happenings in your department and from activities around the company. Sometimes, you will be lucky enough to have a boss who does this broadly enough to include all your own employees. That kind of communication can partially offset the need for you to send your emails, and the skip-level information will be appreciated by your team.

Thursday, August 14, 2014

Indoctrinating new managers

An old friend called me a couple of days ago to help him out with a problem he was having with a new manager under him. The new manager, let's call him "John" for the sake of this discussion, was making some bad calls on how to handle some situations that had cropped up, and he was wondering how to best bring John under control.

This is a key part of any new manager's training... teaching them how NOT to become a Dingus (as I call it in the book). When moved into their first management post, most people don't have enough experience to properly deal with the myriad of situations that will arise. If they are left totally on their own, they will make mistakes. They need to be gently weaned into the management role.

My suggestion to my friend was to instruct John to come to him each and every time he encountered a situation that was new to him. Not just in situations where we wasn't sure of an appropriate approach, but in EVERY new situation. Then, have John relate the situation, then ask John how he would handle it. If correct, then all future situations of that type are "cleared" for him, and he doesn't need to repeat the process. If not correct, he and John can thoroughly walk through the situation, discuss other alternatives, and eventually show John the right way to handle it. This will include expanding John's knowledge of people issues, HR issues, legal issues, etc... And, again, John is then "cleared" for future occurrences.

Please note that it is critical to provide positive feedback and praise to John in every situation. If he initially figures out how to handle the situation, that's pretty easy. If he hasn't come to the correct initial solution, praise him for small things as you walk through the discussion. John has to go away from the conversation feeling pumped up and energized... not distraught that he didn't already know what to do.

Over time, John will encounter new situations less and less. By the time 2 months have passed, he'll probably have seen enough to be highly independent, and by 6 months, he'll have seen just about everything.

Although we've been discussing weaning new managers, the same holds true for new non-manager employees that report to you. Use the "what would you do if I wasn't here" approach to grow them and be more independent.

Thursday, August 7, 2014

On the Radio (on the internet anyway)

If you have the better part of an hour to kill, feel free to listen to today's interview on VoiceAmerica. Very nice interviewer, and we got into some pretty good subjects from the book.

Thursday, May 15, 2014

Avoiding the Firing Squad

Everyone has heard about “not shooting the messenger,” but when the rubber hits the road, few tend to actually remember it. When someone comes to you to discuss a problem—whether he is alerting you to a situation, confessing to a mistake, or simply in all-out venting mode—never make him feel personally responsible for the mess.

This can be harder when you’re alerted to a problem that’s developed due to a decision that you’ve made. It’s easy to unload on the messenger in self-defense. Instead, take a breath and savor the fact that someone actually trusts and respects you enough to come talk to you about it. Remember that we as managers are not always right! Having folks out there acting as real-time barometers is a good thing. And the minute you jump down someone’s throat about a problem that isn’t his personal doing, you can be sure he won’t be coming back to you with similar alerts in the future.

In fact, you need to go out of your way to praise him for his act:
“Hey, thanks for coming to me with this. I know it wasn’t something you did. In fact, we both know that if anyone’s at fault for this, it’s me. I don’t know if it was hard for you to come point this out to me, but I appreciate it. If we’re going to succeed, we have to quickly adjust anything that’s not working, even if that thing was created by me. Then we all look better in the end.”
Now, that guy won’t hesitate to come to you again when he needs to.

Finally, when you announce a change you’re making as the result of this kind or information, say something like, “Jeff pointed out that my decision to such-and-such wasn’t working so well. So now we’re going to…” Acknowledging the “messenger” instead of shooting him will help get the word around that you appreciate that kind of feedback.

Wednesday, April 30, 2014

As seen on TV!

Yes, the PR folks at iUniverse are doing their thing, and last Friday I appeared on The Dee Armstrong Show, a local talk show on the NBC channel in the Columbus, Georgia region. It was a lot of fun, moreso than I thought it would be.

Because it was quickly scheduled, rather than have time reserved in the regular local TV studio, they asked that we do the interview live over Skype. My wife and I had to create a makeshift studio in our home -- incredibly challenging as we are about done moving out of it. Although in the way everywhere, the boxes made for nice tables. We cobbled together some lamps and tried to get a halfway decent lighting look. I put on a nice shirt over my moving-trashy-cutoff-shorts, and we stacked a few books and plants behind me to make it look "officey."

During the commercial break right before going on, Dee and I chatted for a couple minutes, though not about any questions she was going to ask -- she wanted to keep it real and spontaneous for the actual show. The actual format was much more of a discussion than a pure "Q&A" session.

It didn't come out too bad, other than I had no live view of my own camera, causing me to wave my hand around a little too much. I also had no live view from the other end, so I was just talking into the little green light at the top of my mac. I have to figure out why my monitor view disappeared so I can keep tabs on my own hand waving.

Here's a tiny version of the segment, though I recommend you go HERE (starts at about 31:35) and watch it there.