Sunday, December 23, 2012

Tis the season

I know it's disappear-and-hide week, but a few of you might still be out there reading. So, a season-appropriate posting follows.

Yes, tis the season for happiness, merriment, civility, kindness, and family. In that spirit, I'd like to ask two things of you.

1. Civility

Take a look at the map to the right (click on it if you want to zoom). This creation by Mark Newman of the University of Michigan examines last month's presidential election. Instead of showing a simple "red" or "blue" for each county, it mixes colors based on popular vote percentage. It factors in population density as well, so the lighter colors show less votes, and the deeper colors represent more votes. As you can see, "purple" pretty much rules the day, and even the differences between the urban and rural areas are not that spectacular. We may not be quite as divided as some would think.

A local politician used a campaign slogan that was something like, "If we want to change Washington, we have to change the people we send there." Yeah. Okay. Right. It doesn't seem to matter who the heck we send, they all get hyper-partisan and just plain nuts once they arrive. Can't we have a civil discussion? Do we need all the name calling? Don't even the representatives we don't vote for have some redeeming qualities?

So here's what I ask of you. Turn to your significant other, or friend, or someone, and say something nice about a candidate you didn't vote for, or openly hate, or whatever. Don't you agree with at least one of that guy's policies? But it doesn't even have to be a political comment. Don't you think both Obama and Romney are pretty good family men? Just say something nice. If we really want to change Washington, we need to start by injecting civility ourselves, not by sending others to supposedly represent our civility.

2. Family

Although I haven't posted that many management-oriented articles yet, please do not limit yourself to applying these principles only at the workplace. Almost everything I've written about, and most of what I will be posting about in the future, can be easily applied at home as well.

Your family is even more important than your workmates. When they're speaking, let them speak! Wait the "Seven Mississippi" to be sure it's all out there. Do some mind reading to properly interpret what they're saying. And please, don't be doing email or watching TV while you're having discussions! And make yourself as accessible as possible so that they can bring those important items up with you when they're ready, not when you are.

If you've got a couple minutes, go take a look again at the past postings (jeez, there's only like a dozen of them) and read them with a family spin. Nothing's more important in a family than close communications, and hopefully some of these tips will help out there.

Have a great holiday season, and I'll see you back in the new year!

Thursday, December 20, 2012

Big changes coming

Taking a break once again from the managerial process toil...

As was announced today to the various teams I am part of, early next year, I will be departing from Pearson. My emotions are very mixed, as the last four years here have been a fun, exciting challenge. I'm very proud of the products we've produced as a team, and proud to know and work with some of the best people around. I will miss most of them. (jk)

As many folks know, my time with Ithaca Software was just about the best time of my working life -- a great group of crazy-smart people, a cool product, and a chance to conquer the world. With the new year, I will be going back into startupville. I will be President and co-founder of a team that will be focused on transferring many new and upcoming technologies to the practical commercial market. Some of what we do will be work-for-hire software, but much of it will not be. I can't really go into details or I'd have to kill you. We will be here in the Phoenix area.

The first few folks are on board already, and just as with Ithaca Software, they are all some of the most wicked-smart people I have ever encountered. This is going to be a wild ride. After meeting the entire team, my wife's comment was, "You guys are either going to save the world, or go down in a massive ball of flames." I agree, we're all-in, and there won't be a middle-ground. I look forward to the challenge!

Oh, and yes, the bloggings will continue until morale improves...

Monday, December 17, 2012

Reading minds for fun and profit!

Let's hit on one more specific type of conversation that comes up with our folks. Let's call him...

The Nibbler

Your employee starts asking questions that seem to be of a very generic nature. “How long does it take for someone to get promoted to a senior level?” “What are the company’s policies regarding merit increases or bonuses?” “How are reserved parking spaces assigned?” As the Encyclopedia Manageria that you are, you may be tempted to respond with a recitation of company policy. “Look what I know!”

Inasmuch as you might think you’ve successfully administered the treatment, you may have completely misdiagnosed the disease. Sure, sometimes these questions really can be taken at face value. But frequently the questioner is really “nibbling” around the edges of the issue. He may phrase the question as a generic query, but he’s actually asking something very specific about his own situation.

In the above examples, the employee might really be asking, “When do you think I will be eligible for a promotion?” or “Will I be getting a raise or bonus this year?” or “Why don’t I have a reserved parking spot?” He could be asking based on how someone else was treated, trying to deduce if similar treatment would be coming his own way. In the case of an explicit “How do project bonuses work?” question, the implicit query might really be, “Why did Jack get a project bonus and I didn’t?”

We have already discussed the importance of ensuring the employee has communicated everything he has to say. In “nibbling” situations, you must realize that the question the employee has asked might not really be what’s on his mind at all! To decipher what he’s really concerned with, try to relate the explicit question to current circumstances and recent events. Take into account your previous experiences and interactions with this particular person, and then begin the discussion. Your employee will be amazed that you were able to get to the real source of his concern, and he’ll be pleased to get his real questions answered. Plus, he’ll come away from the discussion seeing that you really care about him personally.

Thursday, December 13, 2012

Turning unhappiness into a positive event

Let's take a look at another special type of conversation that will come up...

The Venter

Okay, someone needs to vent. Whether it’s important or trivial, it’s guaranteed that your employees will get upset from time to time. Someone shows up at your door, you see him walking in the halls with that look on his face, or another team member alerts you that he seems to be distressed about something. Eventually, that someone will arrive in your office for a chat. The next few minutes will determine whether he gets past the problem and back to work, or if he stews on it—maybe even gets others incited and diverted from their own work.

Sometimes, the item of displeasure is something you can fully control, and sometimes it isn’t. Even if you don’t have the power to actually handle the issue, the way in which you handle the conversation can go a long way towards returning the employee to a more positive state of mind. It is crucial to allow him to vent without interruption. (Wow, somehow the "Shutting Up" thing keeps coming back around.) Follow the Seven Mississippi rule—you might stretch it to 10 or 12 to ensure that he’s gotten everything possible off his chest. Remember that he might only be scratching the surface with the first salvo. Wait for it. It will come. If you try to calm someone down before he’s adequately vented all his frustrations, he won’t hear you. And he won’t be ready to proceed with a productive discussion.

Remember: if you solve something that wasn’t the real problem to begin with, you’ve wasted everyone’s time.

Many times, merely the act of venting will be very cleansing, and your disgruntled employee will feel re-gruntled again. Back to work. But sometimes he’ll require a response from you. Once you are confident that all the issues have been presented, you can begin having a productive discussion about the situation. Because you allowed the employee to speak freely and fully, chances are he’ll be willing to hear what you have to say now. Still, stay alert to the possibility that there is still more information buried deeper, and your guy might not have gotten it all out in the first couple of shots. File that knowledge away in your own memory, and use it to adapt your style in future interactions with this person.

Finally, if some sort of legitimate problem emerges, and there’s an actionable item for you to take on: by all means, do it! Seize the opportunity to turn a venting session into a positive outcome. Something will improve in the workplace, and your employee will be pleased with you. He’ll also be likely to pass his observations on to his fellow workers, further gaining you trust and respect.

Monday, December 10, 2012

Did I do something wrong???

When you have chats with your folks, some will be pretty easy and straightforward. But there are a few special circumstances that come up, and it's important to know how to recognize and handle them appropriately. Let's start with one I call...

The Nervous Wreck

Most of your team will become accustomed to meeting with you in your office or in some other one-on-one situation. Your boss, your peers, and your direct reports will expect to meet with you privately as a matter of course. However, if you have managers reporting to you, you will most likely have occasions where you’d like to speak privately with one of their reports.

For some of these folks, going to your office for a meeting—or knowing that they’ll be meeting privately with you, at your request—can be an unnerving experience. Yes, they’ll get mostly used to you eventually, but the first few times you schedule a private talk with them they’re going to be really worried about what they did wrong.

You need to go out of your way to get them comfortable. First, when you send the meeting invitation, be clear about the purpose. Never schedule a “You and Me” talk with no agenda information! Better yet, before you send the invitation, stop by the guy’s cube and talk for a minute, then let him know that you'll be setting up a time to continue the discussion.

It’s possible that, despite your best efforts, you won’t be able to convince the guy of the innocent nature of your impending meeting. Even if you’re clear about the topic, he might still believe that you're diverting attention from the real reason you want to talk to him—maybe to reprimand him, or even fire him! As soon as he walks through your door, if you believe that he still has some major concern, start off with, “Thanks for coming. This XYZ project really needs our attention.”

Use the same technique anytime you have to call someone in for a discussion without having a chance to set him up for it. When he shows up after your phone request to “come to my office right away,” he’ll be plenty sweaty. Set him at ease as quickly as you can. Use something like, “Hey! Come on in. Nothing bad goin' on here. We just need to talk about the XYZ project.” You will notice an immediate change in demeanor.

Thursday, December 6, 2012

Location, Location, Location

Okay, you've arranged your office properly to foster communication. But, is your office accessible to your folks in the first place?

Consider the actual physical placement of your office or cube. Sometimes, upper management likes to have all the managers clustered tightly together—maybe close to the big boss. This "management castle" makes it easy for him to find you when a choking is necessary. But are the majority of your daily communications with your boss and peers? I would take a hard look at myself if I spent more time each day with my boss and fellow managers than I did working with my team members.

Even if, for whatever reason, you did have to spend most of your time talking with your boss and peers, wouldn't you rather be sitting in an area closer to your own team? Being close to the team sends a message about your priorities, and it makes it much easier for your folks to quickly stop by when they need to. Having to walk over to “management row” for a conversation can be a daunting task for an employee, and moving yourself out of convenient reach can give someone another good excuse not to bother trying to communicate with you.

However, even if you have to be a little farther away than you’d like, never reside on a different floor (or different building) than your team. Requiring someone to walk a bit is one thing, but making them use the stairs and elevators is just plain ridiculous. If you're getting to be that far away, or if you manage a remote team, consider using some sort of real-time tool to permit constant communication. Check out something like Sococo. Very cool stuff.

If your boss is in charge of the office arrangements, ask him to consider some of these points to further team communication and effectiveness.

Monday, December 3, 2012

Lessons from Captain Furillo

In a previous post, we were discussing keeping your office door open whenever possible. But it's also important to consider the office arrangement as well.

Way back in the 1980’s, I took a tip from Daniel J. Travanti’s character on the television show Hill Street Blues. Captain Francis Furillo made it a habit to never have his desk between himself and his visitors. He would stand up and walk around his desk to have the impending discussion face to face. I loved that approach and took serious note of it.

With today’s prefabricated office furniture and its required layouts, sometimes you won’t be able to position things exactly to your liking. But if you have some flexibility there, try to set things up so your desk isn’t positioned as a barrier to your folks. If you can have a separate table and chairs, you’re good to go. If you have no other seating available, and you can’t avoid the desk-in-the-middle setup, do your best to remove its barrier potential.

When you have visitors, slide your chair over to the end of the desk, so you’re talking more around the desk than over it. Folks who visit with you will feel an increased connection with you. There’s a side benefit to repositioning yourself this way: you probably won’t end up anywhere near your computer. Nothing quite says, “Everything else I’ve got to do is more important than anything you’ve got to tell me” than continuing to work and check your email (or play with your cell phone!) while pretending to entertain your visitor.

Even glancing over to the screen is enough to send a clear message — you’d rather watch those stock quotes streaming by than focus on your conversation. Reduce the temptation further and hit the screen lock or screensaver key when you’re about to start. When you scoot yourself away from the computer screen, you’re telling your guest that you’re really working with him right now.

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Solar -- kinda

Jumping away from management topics for a moment...

My long-time friend, Scott Sheppard, was blogging (view it here) about why he didn't choose to buy an electric car. Economics basically. I added to that by saying it creates a huge environmentally toxic mess of batteries. They cause excessive pollution when they're created AND when they're disposed.

Living in Arizona, I've been intrigued by the concept of solar energy for the house. A long time ago, I had a solar hot water heater that was fantastic. Pretty cheap to put in, and generated oodles of 160F water almost year-round. At my previous home, I had a solar heater for the main pool. It was easily able to add a couple of months to the swim season by sucking water from the pool, sending it to the roof, and then spitting it back where it came from at near-scalding temperatures.

But, photovoltaics are another story. One of my good work buddies installed a big array a couple years ago and kinda regretted it. Not as much payback as he thought. So, I was intrigued when my local power company, Salt River Project (SRP), announced they were creating a community solar farm out in the desert. There's a fixed capacity -- only enough for about 3,000 customers to participate. They lease out the capacity until it's all spoken for, then they're done (and hopefully build another one). No, they don't run special dedicated wires from the farm to my house... the watts get dumped into the main grid like any other generator would. But, SRP has to build less fossil plants as they can get more of the solar ones online.

Cost? I pay a fixed price each month for whatever the farm can generate for me. Across the year, somewhere between 20-35% of my home energy will be pre-paid in that way, averaging out to somewhere in the 25% area. My annual electric bill is about $75 higher, or $6/month. Tis the price of making a statement, and was a worthy birthday present for my wife. :)

Actually, the cost of the solar is FIXED. So, when SRP just announced a 5+% rate hike, that only affects the non-solar watts I use. Eventually, I could actually save money with the farm. Check it out at SRP.

Monday, November 26, 2012

"Open door" policy

Whether you’re in a real, private office or some sort of cube or other open-office structure, you can set things up to encourage folks to communicate with you on a frequent basis. Or you can send a clear signal that you’d really rather not be bothered.

If you have a true office, look at your office door. Is its normal position open or closed? When you enter your office, do you automatically close the door behind you? You fail! Your office door is an outright signal to your troops. It doesn’t matter if you put a sign on it that says, “I’m always available! Enter!” Communication is going to be greatly diminished by that door.

Leave that door open virtually all the time. Yes: even when you’re working on a task that requires concentration, and you’d rather not be disturbed. It is more valuable to be disturbed by someone who has decided he wants to communicate with you. If you need privacy and concentration to get that big thingy done, come in early, stay late, or lock yourself in your study at home. The work office is a place for interaction with others, not privacy.

Of course, I’m not saying the door can never be closed. If you are holding a meeting and need the privacy, or if the meeting is making too much noise, then by all means close it up. In general, however, remember that your closed door is a barrier to success. Keep that barrier removed whenever possible.

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Is your email more important than your people?

Do you check email during meetings with your folks? There’s a one-word rule for this: Don’t. You can’t give  an hour of your attention to something that’s pretty important to (at least) the rest of them? If that’s a habit of yours then stop it, right now. I’m not saying you need to turn off or confiscate everyone’s phones at the start of the meeting. Emergencies do happen. But it should be a rarity that they come popping out of their holsters. And what about laptops (or tablets)? Do you bring yours to the meetings? If you’re presenting, or legitimately using it to take minutes (with something like Evernote or NoteSpark), that’s fine. Otherwise, there’s no reason to bring it along. And the same goes for everyone else in the meeting. Make the rule and follow it yourself.

While I’m ranting, let me do another one in a very Jerry Seinfeld-esc manner. “What’s the deal with email notifications on your phone?” Given that most people get a few emails every hour of the workday, what’s the point in turning on a vibrating (or heaven help you, an audible) notification that an email has just arrived? I’ve asked groups of people before, “If you checked your phone for email 15 minutes ago, and didn’t have notifications on, what are the odds that a new email would be there waiting for you right now?” Inevitably, the answer is something like 80-99% likely. So why do you need the alert? Yeah, there’s an email waiting for you… all the freaking time. Surprise.

Maybe you’ve tweaked your alert settings so that you get some sort of distinctive notice that it’s an email, and not something like a text message or phone call. In that case, you can be a good guy and ignore it, even though the constant brain diversion will deduct somewhat from your participation with the group. But, especially if you can’t tell the difference between an email and anything else, your pulling your phone out every few minutes will send a wonderful message to the team that whatever else is going on is far more important than anything they’re working on. Make it easy… turn email notifications off. If it’s that important, they will call you.

Thursday, November 15, 2012

Q&A requires shutting up too!

I was speaking to a team a couple days ago, and the event reminded me of another great way to use the "Seven Mississippi" thing.

At the end of every presentation, it's time for questions and answers. You won’t get many, but there are always a couple of folks in any group who are willing to take the chance.

In watching others, I am often amazed how little time is left between, “Are there any questions?” and “OK, bye!” The average is about 1-2 seconds. That is far short of the time needed for folks to decide that:
  • They have a question
  • It won’t look like a stupid question
  • It probably wasn’t answered while they were dozing off
  • It won’t get them in trouble by asking it, and
  • It won’t piss off the rest of the team by keeping them there longer
So, after asking for questions, start counting.  More often than not, you will get that good question. And, after answering each one, do the “Seven Mississippi” all over again.

Monday, November 12, 2012

7 Mississippi

In the last post, I was discussing waiting until your discussion partner really finished dumping what he had to say. But how do you know he's really finished? The secret is -- he probably isn't.

Even after he’s gotten through making his points and finally closes his mouth, delay opening your mouth even longer. You may find this hard to believe, but at the point when you think it’s your turn, chances are your guest hasn’t actually said everything he’s got to say. Whether it’s an idea he thinks is a little too far out on the fringe, or a criticism that he thinks you might not want to hear, he hasn’t brought it up yet.

One Mississippi, Two Mississippi, …

This is when I use my rule of “Seven Mississippi.” Just start counting it out in your head. When you allow an awkward silence to fall over the discussion, your guest will start feeling like it’s his obligation to get the dialogue going again. And then he’ll start trying to figure out what in the heck he can say next. Chances are, he will dive down into some of those as-yet-unsaid items he didn’t cover initially. That’s when he’ll get to the sweet chewy center of what he really had to say in the first place.

Friday, November 9, 2012

What's with this Shutting Up thing?

We all know people who are so enamored with the sound of their own voices that it’s impossible to get a word in edgewise. That’s bad enough if you’re trying to have an ordinary conversation, and worse if you’re trying to collaborate with someone. But if you’re trying to be an effective, respected manager, you must realize that what you have to say is much less valuable than anything your subordinates might have to say to you.

People, By Their Nature, Don’t Communicate

Even under the best of circumstances, it can be incredibly difficult to get someone to open up and communicate freely. Many people have a natural distrust of their leadership that can only be overcome with many months, if not years, of positive contact. If your subordinates can see that you listen to them, you take their ideas to heart, you actively work to resolve their complaints, and you never simply outright lie to them, they will slowly come to trust your leadership. But this will never happen if you do not give them the opportunity to open their mouths.

Yet, the instinct to try to speak, to answer the question before it is completely asked – or before the real question has actually been asked at all – is as strong as the gravity emanating from a black hole. And so, when we think we’re being helpful, we’re actually quashing the important part: a useful idea, helpful criticism, or any chance we might have of eventually forming a trusted bond with that team member.

What you really need is the ability to hold your tongue. It is vital to let your employee speak until he has said everything he wants to say. When I’m having discussions like this, I will usually do something to actively remind me to shut up – literally bite my tongue, sit on a hand, or clench my teeth together. I want this guy to open up to me and give me all the ideas, comments, or criticisms that he’s got. And he’ll never do it if I start “fixing” his problem before I know what it really is.

Next time you're in a position like this, try it! 

Monday, November 5, 2012


Yeah, yeah, another blog. Hopefully, this one will add something new to the mix. After 30+ years in the software community, 25+ of them in management, I've built up quite a few tips and tricks that I've used successfully in my own career. I've mentored too many new managers to even count, and I've tried to use my experiences to help improve their leadership skills.

My intent is to share some of them here, and weave them into other general notes and comments about things going on today... whether in software, management, or just life in general.

Will it be useful?  I sure hope so. I sincerely welcome your comments (good or bad). Please join in the conversation!