Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Let's play the blame game!!!

Ever notice how folks choose between WE and THEY when referring to their favorite sports team based on their performance? Usually, what you'll hear is "We won!" and "They lost." Folks just have a natural tendency to want to associate with a winner and run far away from a loser. This is also covered by the old saying that "Success has a thousand fathers, but failure is an orphan."

As interesting and unimportant as this is when talking about sports teams, the whole concept needs to be considered differently when thinking about how we come across in our business or family environments. Careful choosing of ME, YOU, and WE can go a long way to letting folks know what kind of person you are, how they are viewed in your eyes, what kind of responsibility you take, and generally what kind of leader you are.

Let's start with something "good" to talk about... like a successful decision (in hindsight). You're talking with the group about that past decision. Maybe it was clearly made by the team as a whole, and saying something like, "That was a great decision we made" flows naturally. But what if it was really YOU that made it, and everyone knows it? Now is the perfect time for, "WE really made the right decision back then."

Look, you know you made it, they know you made it. But what's important... taking the credit or making the team feel successful? Isn't it also possible that SOMETHING from part of the team helped you make that call? If so, they were involved anyway. The point is, you live and die by your team, and sharing the credit for anything with them makes them feel good, increases morale, and will generate more successes in the future. ESPECIALLY if you're in some kind of situation where the big boss is around too, using the WE word is going to go a LONG LONG way. Again, ultimately, the big boss knows who was leading things and you'll get your just reward (at some companies).

So, if WE is good, why wouldn't YOU be even better? I mean like saying, "That was a great decision YOU [ALL] made." Well, you need to see if that's appropriate. If the team clearly went in a different direction from what you had originally wanted, maybe it is. But even so, you probably let them have their way, and you get some of the credit for recognizing that maybe you don't know everything in the world ALL the freaking time. In general, WE will work for most instances.

And, as you might expect, when things go "bad", shifting in the other direction is the mark of a good leader. "I really blew that one guys," or "That one's on me." Yeah, maybe the whole team can share the blame, but take blow. As bad as it is not to include the team on the good stuff, pointing the finger towards one or more of them for the bad stuff totally sucks.

By the way, these rules don't apply to only the times when you're with your team. If you're in a management meeting, use HE, WE, and THEY in recognizing successes of your team, and use I, MY, and ME when talking about the bad stuff. Again, folks kinda know who was responsible for what anyway... or your boss will certainly find out. But acting this way in a meeting shows the other managers that your team is more important to you than you are. Set a good example and maybe other folks will follow and improve morale on a wider basis.

When your team knows you're trying to include them in the successes and not blame them for the failures, they'll appreciate it and be much more likely to go to the mat for you next time.

Thursday, December 5, 2013

The other side of evil

So we were discussing needing to dismiss someone for poor performance, and using the "will he be surprised?" question as your threshold of whether you were being "evil" or not. You have a responsibility to your company, but you also have a moral responsibility to not unnecessarily mess with someone's life.

But that covers folks on the way out. What about on the way in? In my mind, you have an even greater responsibility to avoid being evil when making the hire. Let's examine...

You're recruiting. You're interviewing. You're giving all the candidates the hard sell about how great your company is, and why it's the only place they should even consider working. Whether it's about the type of work, potential workmates, salary, benefits, chance for advancement and growth, or anything else, this is the place to be! Of course I'm assuming that you've told the honest truth during your sales pitch. If not, give yourself a slap in the face and change your evil ways.

So, you've found the person you think is the best for the job. What does "best" mean anyway? Is he really really suited for it? Is his chance of success 90% or greater? If so, wonderful... make the close! But if the "best" you can find will only have a mediocre chance of succeeding with you, don't do it. "Well, I can get him to come here, and even though he only has a medium chance of success, if it doesn't work out, we'll just let him go." In the words of Dr. Evil... "Riiiiggghhhtttt...." Maybe he doesn't have a job now (or just is very unhappy where he currently is) so this isn't totally criminal. But if he's happily employed, you're messing with his life. You're being evil. At the very least you'd better tell him that you might be willing to try him out, but that his chances of success are iffy. See what he has to say about that. Push back a bit.

What if you do have more info on the candidate? It doesn't happen often, but sometimes, as a hiring manager, you get insight into other opportunities that the guy has available to him. He might just outright tell you, but usually it will be because you have a history with the guy. The history is invaluable on its own, and it can give you a solid foundation for knowing who might be your best targets.

But, especially in these cases (or if the candidate is just currently employed somewhere else), you must consider what's best for the guy even over your own personal needs. Help him walk through his options. Put your company in its proper place in the choices he can exercise. If you really come out on top, great for everybody. If not, and he still wants to come work with you, realize that the "tug" of other great opportunities will always be there nagging at him. Push back on him and get him to justify his position. What's exciting him so much for your opportunity as opposed to staying where he is or going somewhere else?

You can see that, in most hiring situations, the "talk him out of it" test is another good tool for assessing someone's state of mind. Don't go crazy, but just gently point out any legitimate points that might make some other decision better for him. If he shows so much excitement and interest that he can overcome your push-backs, you can feel pretty good moving forward.

Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Playing with lives... don't be evil

This last summer, I blogged here about dealing with staffing issues. Part of the discussion was about dealing with your lower players, putting them on performance improvement plans, and trying to bring them back from the termination precipice.

Obviously, making the decision to terminate someone is a big decision for you. You have time and money invested in this guy, and replacing him is very time consuming and expensive in itself. And there's no guarantee that his replacement (once he's hired, comes on board, gets trained, and gets up to speed) will outperform him anyway. So you're going to do your very best to turn this guy around and save the aggravation. Make things easier and cheaper on yourself. It's in your best interest. You. Yes, you.

Oh wait, there's another human being involved here. Really, where? Uh, the guy you're about to terminate. Maybe we should consider something about him in the equation? You're messing with this guy's life, after all.

But wait again, this is a business! Don't you the manager need to do whatever is best for the business in every case? If he's not carrying his weight, doesn't he have to be let go? Yes, absolutely. Ultimately, you need to do what's best for the business. Of course, as stated, turning someone around can be what is best for the business, but failing that, well, poof.

But have you taken all the right steps leading up to the poofing? I'm not talking about what will cover your butt legally. Have you truly been giving this guy the right mentoring, correction, punishment, notice, help, whatever you want to call it?

Ask yourself this... is his being terminated going to surprise him? If the answer is "yes", you've done something wrong. By the time someone needs to be poofed, they need to see it coming. He's had plenty of talks, "needs improvement" reviews, scoldings, whatever. He knows he's underperforming, he knows he's been given direction to improve, and he knows that he hasn't done so. Having the final talk with you and HR is not really unexpected.

Even for folks you have been frustratingly unable to turn around, you owe it to them to be able to answer the "will he be surprised?" questions with a "no" before proceeding. And even if the termination is the result of a singular, massive screw-up, would the oncoming termination be surprising? Use the answer to this question as your threshold.

So, that covers folks on the way out. What about on the way in? In my mind, you have an even greater responsibility prior to hiring someone. More on that next time...

Thursday, November 14, 2013

But that guy knows EVERYTHING... we can't fire him!

When in management, you'll find a fairly constant flow of team members requiring performance management. Hopefully not a big flow -- maybe more like a trickle if you’re lucky. Once in a while, the targeted employee will be someone with what someone considers to be, “one of the greatest minds on this planet,” or, “the only guy we have who knows how the whole system works.” Just because someone has a high I.Q., has been with the company since the dawn of time, or is seen as the only irreplaceable part of the whole, that is no reason to excuse them from performance correction when needed.

People like this who also possess the right attitude will take your mentoring and correction efforts to heart, and you will measurably increase their overall affect on the company. But, once in a while, Bob will feel a little bit above the rest of the crowd, and maybe a tad above your attempts to help him see that there are some ways for him to improve himself. If Bob’s problems are fairly minor, your need to succeed is somewhat diminished as Bob is probably still contributing at a much higher level than most others.

But, if Bob’s problems are major, if he’s subverting processes, if he’s interfering with other people’s work, if he’s being downright disruptive and counterproductive, then you really have no choice but to help him improve. Ultimately, if you are less than successful, you are going to need to make an incredibly tough decision. Do you let Bob go and say goodbye to maybe the only guy you have who knows how all the system pieces fit together? Or do you hang onto him and deal with all of his detractions and distractions? Surely you can eventually fix him, right?

In coming across this situation a few times in my own experiences, I must admit to taking the latter course most of the time. I will also confess that this has always been a mistake. In those instances where I wasn’t able to obtain improvement fairly quickly, I have never been successful in getting it farther down the line either. Eventually, I was forced to make the tough call that I should have made earlier.

And here was the interesting thing that happened when I finally did pull the proverbial trigger. Folks were coming out of the woodwork to thank me. Usually, the depth of Bob’s actual disruptiveness was not fully apparent to me. Once he was actually off the team, that’s when the full picture started to emerge. Story after story about how he slowed things down, was disruptive, or generally undermined team productivity. Wow. In addition, no matter how much you think Bob is the only one who is familiar with the whole system, in reality, this is completely bogus. Each time a Bob has departed, many others have stepped forward who clearly had at least a reasonable ability to fill in for his skills. And these folks were thrilled to have the opportunity to step up and show what they could do.

Ultimately, I was always proven wrong to have waited so long to make the tough decision on Bob. The benefits of eliminating all the Bob-oriented trouble, combined with the ability of others to eagerly fill the gaps, all added up to far more than any possible downside from losing Bob. And, another side benefit to this is showing everyone that you are not afraid to make the difficult decision. You’re also saying that nobody on the team is exempt from following appropriate processes and behaviors, simply because he happens to have been around a while, or merely because he’s chosen to keep some information very close to his own chest.

By the way, why not rectify that "tribal knowledge" problem before it actually becomes an issue? Work with your team to identify the potential trouble spots and start cross training as much as practical.

Saturday, November 2, 2013

Solar... how did we do?

Some of you will recall that we switched onto a new SOLAR program provided by our electric company. If you don't remember it, you can read the posting here.

Jumping into the new program was a birthday present for my wife and, as we just celebrated another birthday for her, reminded me that we had now been on the solar program for a year. How did we do? Did the advertised stats live up to reality?

Before I jump to the comparison, I'll also throw in that we did get to have a tour of the facility a couple of months ago. Very impressive. It sits on a 144 acres and generates 20 MEGAwatts of power from 66,000 panels. The panels are on motors that keep them pointed directly towards the sun throughout the day.


So, what were the results? We were told that over the course of one year, about 25% of our total energy usage would come from the solar system, and that the annual cost for electricity would go up about $75.

In reality, amazingly, the 25% figure was EXACTLY correct. Okay, well it was 25.16%, but who's counting? Some months were down below 20%. But a couple (April and May) were very close to 50%. That's half of everything in our house (including 2 A/C units) effectively being powered by the sun!

And the cost... well, we were massively lied to. Our bills over the last year ended up being $85.69 bigger than if we had gone on the program. I'm suing for the extra $10.69.

What about the benefits to the environment? Well, frankly, I don't really know. I don't think anyone can. It's nice to think about not having burned extra fossil fuel or been a factor in creating more nuclear fuel rod waste to be stored deep under Las Vegas. But then again, how much energy was used or environmental impact came from creating the panels, shipping them from Europe or Asia or wherever they were made, clearing the land for them, installing them, maintaining them, etc...? And what are the environmental effects when they need to be disposed of in a decade or two? At least solar panels don't kill birds like windmills do.

I think I'll just stick with the simplistic view that it's probably a better thing to take advantage of the 12 TRILLION watt-hours that the sun drops on every square mile of the earth every year. And as more folks like us are willing to invest a few bucks, the technology will continue to improve until maybe the cost/benefit equations swing in favor of renewables. Here's to hoping!

Saturday, October 19, 2013

Estimating in 3 easy steps!

A conversation at lunch recently revolved around the best way to estimate the length of a task. Lots of folks have developed intricate formulas for this process, but I've found a particular technique to work more often than not.

We're not talking about estimating some humongous project here. That requires, obviously, much more effort. But if you are looking to come up with a "best guess" for some chunk of work you're about to embark on, try this. By the way, this technique works best if you have at least a minimal amount of experience doing tasks of a similar nature.

First, knowing what you know, if absolutely everything went perfectly, how long would it take? No roadblocks, no speed bumps, no waiting on other people, no unusual delays, etc... Take this guess and call it "B" (best case).

Next, if virtually everything that could go wrong did indeed go wrong, what would your estimate be? I'm not talking about a nearby nuclear explosion melting down your city, but if all the REGULAR types of things went wrong, what's your guess? Call that "W" (worst case).

Now, given any previous experience, and your gut feel for what might really go wrong, how long do you HONESTLY think this will take? This would probably be the one guess you'd give your boss if he asked you for an estimate. Call that "L" (likely case).

Now, do this formula to arrive at "E", which is your REAL estimate:

E = (B + 3W + 2L) / 6

In other words, we are weighting your "best case" estimate very lightly, your "worst case" estimate very heavily, and your "gut feel" somewhere in between. Here's an example:

B = everything goes perfectly = 1 month
W = everything goes wrong = 4 months
L = best gut feel = 2 months
E = (1 + 3x4 + 2x2) / 6 = 17/6 = 2.83 months

Face it, things go wrong more than they tend to go right. You might as well build that in when you give your estimates. Better to overestimate a little and be sure to come in on time.

But whenever you actually finish the task, go back and look at your estimates for B, W, and L, and see if you have learned anything new. Did you hit some problem you hadn't ever thought of? Have you simply gotten better at doing these kinds of things? Etc...

Adjust your future estimates accordingly. If you find that your gut estimate (L) tends to be more accurate than the computed value (E), feel free to even change the relative weightings to give it more power. But in many cases, you'll find this to work pretty well.

Monday, October 7, 2013

Change my password?!?! Again?!?!

The following message is directed towards I.T. directors everywhere, and is brought to you by all of the people that you "serve"...


First, big-company I.T. groups brought you the "minimum password requirements". This little gem was designed to provide a reasonable helping of security so that folks wouldn't just use their first names as passwords. Next, they implemented a dictionary check to make sure that you weren't using a common word. OK. Then they said you also have to use at least 8 or 10 characters in your password. OK. Then they said you have to add a number to it. Then you had to have a CAPITAL letter, too. Oh yes, and now you have to have a special character (like %, $, or #) to further throw off the password moochers. So now, your password is something that not only can't be easily guessed, but something that's hard for you to remember, too.

No? You've found a way around this??? Cool! What did you do?  Did you capitalize the first letter and add the number "1" to the end? And maybe finish it with a "!"? Guess what? So did everyone else!  So now, the world is full of passwords with leading capital letters and trailing 1's, meaning that the difficulty in stealing them is greatly reduced anyway. Nevertheless, it's still probably pretty hard to compromise.

So, given that, why in the heck do folks need to change them every month or two? Especially with all the complexity of updating not only our laptops, but also changing our phones and tablets, you can lose a couple of hours just messing with your password every month. And then you have to come up with yet another password to remember. What? You found an easy way to deal with this, too???  Did you change that trailing "1" to a "2"? Guess what? So did everyone else! Are you THAT shocked? So if someone just happened to know that your password was Aardvark1, and now it's been changed, do you think they'll just try Aardvark2? I sure would. So a heckuvalotta good that monthly change is doing anyway.

Yet, HERE was the greatest travesty I ever saw. At a recent company, our I.T. group required that our smartphone 4-digit pins be changed every month. Right! Those 4 digits you use to unlock the phone every time you use it. To protect your corporate email, this was enforced by the phone so you had no choice. Also, the time that it took for the phone to lock was only 5 minutes, so almost every time you picked it up, you had to put your pin in, and remember which pin you were currently using.

Think about the insanity here. If some stranger somehow saw you type in your pin, they still didn't have your freaking phone to use it. But just to be sure, it wouldn't matter because you'd be changing that pin anyway in a couple weeks. Going overboard a bit?

Anyway, here's my parting gift to you. If you have an I.T. department that enforces crazy password rules, give yourself a secret thrill every time you login. Change your corporate password to something like "OurITd3ptSux!" or "Ih8ourEffingITgroup!" That'll show 'em!

Oh, and if you are IN the I.T. group, why don't you reconsider some of your nutsy rules?

Friday, September 27, 2013

First things first!

A very recent situation with one of our customers reminded me of a situation that bears discussion. Some say that "customers are always right." We know that that's not really the case. But whether they're right or wrong, we want them to walk away from a problem feeling satisfied. Whether by providing clarifying information and allowing them to understand something better, or by truly fixing a problem, the outcome must be positive.

The particular situation that happened recently was a customer reporting a problem to us, but not doing it with a new customer support ticketing system we had just setup for their use. Literally the first thing that popped into my mind was, "Dang it! Why didn't they use the new system?" The second thing that popped into my mind was, "Dingus! Read the freaking problem and worry about the process later!"

Never put the customer's problem at a lower priority than having him comply with some process your company has designed...
Rep <answering support phone call>: Super support line, can I help you?
You: Yes, I wanted to report a critical problem with your product.
Rep: Thanks for calling, but did you know that you can report that problem online at our website?
You: Uh, yeah, ok. But I wasn't near my computer and thought I'd just call it in to you for quick handling.
Rep: Thank you, but it's better if you report it through the website in the future.
You: So you don't have the ability to log critical problems?
Rep: Yes, I can, but we like it better when they come in that way.
You: So why do you still have the support phone line?
Rep: For folks who don't have access to our website.
You: So can I just tell it to you now?
Rep: Yes, please go ahead, but try to use the website next time if you can.
You: Uh, I forgot what the problem was...
Okay, you may think this is an exaggeration, but I've had this happen to me before. Is it useful information that I can report problems online? Sure. Is that fact more important than actually getting a critical problem logged in and fixed? Not likely. Yet, here you are, being berated for not following their procedure. Your actual problem has become secondary. That is bad.

Instead, how about this:
You: Yes, I wanted to report a critical problem with your product.
Rep: Please go ahead, sir.
Rep: Thank you very much, and we'll get that reported immediately. Also, in case you don't know, if it's ever more convenient for you, we offer the ability to log problems in at our website. It makes things a little easier for us to track that way, and you can follow the status of your requests.
You: Sure, thanks!
Always handle the customer's situation first. If you have any information for them about a different way to handle things, or any suggestions for next time, then go ahead and have that discussion. Having had his problem handled, now he'll be in the mood to listen to some other process points.

Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Thanks to Scott Sheppard

First, I'd like to take the opportunity to thank Scott Sheppard for his crazily in-depth review of my new book. As always, Scott went way beyond expectations and actually wrote a review that was fun to read. He also had a couple good points for me that I'll be trying to implement. If you haven't seen it, please take a look here. And be sure to read his blog... always some good entertainment.

It was actually a comment that Scott made to one of my blog postings a few weeks ago (check it out here) that reminded me of another similar trick when meeting people.

Many times, you'll be in a non-work setting with a large number of coworkers... think something like a company picnic or party. You may have just a few people that you work with, or you might have hundreds. Especially if a significant number of them report to you, they will think that you know all their names. Even if most of them don't report to you, they'll still expect that you'll be able to pin a name on them.

Unfortunately, as sad as it is, this is not always true. Especially in the larger companies I've been a part of, it can be very difficult to remember every name. Certainly, there are many you interact with frequently, and those folks aren't a problem. But there will be a few that just won't be waiting for you on the tip of your tongue. Not only can this be embarrassing, but it can leave the coworker feeling like they just don't matter to you. This is bad.

If you're at this event solo, this may not be a problem. You can just use general greetings and completely bypass the name fiasco. The "Nice to see ya!" trick works well. But, what if you have your significant other along with you? You're the one who's going to be expected to do the introductions, and that's going to leave you hanging out to dry.

My wife and I adopted a process for this long ago. When the third party approaches, if I don't immediately make use of the other person's name or do an introduction, she steps forward and introduces herself, as if I had forgotten to do so.
3rd party: Hi Eric! How are you?
Me: Hi Joe! Doing great thanks. By the way, this is my wife.....
3rd party: Hi Eric! How are you?
Me: Hey! Great! How are you doing?
3rd party: Good thanks. I was just....
Wife <At first chance>: Hi I'm.... by the way.
3rd party: And I'm Joe.
Me: Oh sorry about that.
I know some of you have probably thought of this trick already, and I realize I'm giving away some secrets to those of you who I still might need to use this on. But that's just part of the sacrifices I'm willing to make on your behalf.

And once again, many thanks for the great book review to my buddy, um, uh.....
Wife <now at first chance>: Hi I'm..... by the way.
3rd party: And I'm Scott.
Me: Oh sorry about that.

Thursday, September 5, 2013

Get the Book!

My sincere thanks to all of you who have been [pretending] to read this blog. Hopefully, you're learning a trick or two along the way.

For those of you who wish to take bigger bites, my long-in-production book has finally hit the presses! You can read all about some of the blog topics as well as literally ZILLIONS (literally!) of others, all from the comfort of your Kindle. Or iPad, or Nook, or whatever.

Or even feel free to get a hard-cover or paperback edition and show it off with pride to all your friends! If you'd like, I'd be happy to autograph it and thereby immediately reduce its value! It's your call!

It's available at Amazon, most other online bookstores (shortly), and should even be orderable from those physical places that we used to actually walk into to see what books were around... I forget what they were called...

Make it easy on yourself and just click HERE and I'll send you to the Amazon page. Anyway, in whatever form you allow me entertain you, enjoy! And thank you for your support!

Tuesday, August 27, 2013

Make a good first impression BEFORE the first impression

When you meet new people, many factors will affect the impression they form of you. How you handle yourself during the negotiations or discussions, your overall appearance, and whether you really did use your hands to eat that spaghetti at lunch. All of these things will contribute to the lasting impression you make. But, before things even get started, you can give a first first impression with the manner in which you introduce yourself.

Most folks want to know that the person they’re about to work with is friendly, open, and a general team player. They want to see that, although you take your work seriously, you don’t mind taking yourself a little more lightly when needed. You can get this across in the few moments before the meeting even begins.

For example, what’s the very first thing you say as you shake hands? One of the folks you meet is going to say, “Hi, I’m John Doe,” and you’ll reply with, “And I’m Sam Smith.” And then you say, “Nice to meet you.” Which is great – except for that you don’t remember that you actually met John Doe once, at some other meeting or conference a year or two back. John recalls your meeting clearly, but to you he just wasn’t that memorable. Whoops.

Many years ago, I noticed that David Letterman always greeted his talk show guests with a friendly, “Nice to see ya.” I realized that he had devised a foolproof way to say “hi” without any implication of whether or not he had met that guest before. I adopted the trick immediately.

Secondly, don’t rush to jam your business card into the other folks’ hands. Watch for clues from the other guys on when/if cards are going to be exchanged and follow their lead. If you’re about to sit down with some folks from the far east, there will probably be a very formal exchange ceremony you’ll follow. But if it’s a few “kids” in jeans from Silicon Valley, maybe not so much. Thrusting the card into their hands would only be a sign of formality they wouldn’t need to experience.

Once the meeting begins, you have your next chance to make that early first impression. Folks will probably go around the table introducing themselves and their responsibilities. Again, if you’re meeting with high-level government officials or something, you’ll have to serve up a good degree of formality in your spiel. But, in most situations, you’ll be able to dial down on the officialism.

Instead of introducing yourself with, “…and I’m the Senior Executive Manager of the customer services team”, try something lighter like, “… and I lead the customer services team”, or even, “… and I try to keep up with and take the credit for the cool stuff that my customer services team does.” They’ll know what you mean, and in one breath you’ll get across all those points about being friendly, open, a team player, and capable of a little jocularity. They will also see that you consider yourself to be on equal footing with your team members and that you know that your job is to let them achieve their maximum effectiveness.

Tuesday, August 13, 2013

More bossy goodness

Just a few last ideas to lessen the chance that your boss will want to kill you.

Be Positive

It’s so easy to be negative. We all have a tendency to immediately try to find fault with someone’s ideas. When presented with a “Can you do this?” kind of thing, our brains jump into a mode of finding every obstacle that would be in the way and blurting them all out to everyone. Maybe it’s that we don’t like change, maybe we’re covering our butts, who knows. But, the negative tendency is there.

Trust me when I tell you that your boss doesn’t want to hear all the reasons you can’t get something done. He wants to get stuff done. Actually, he wants you to get stuff done. He wants you to find a way.

Responding with, “We could never get that done with all this other stuff going on!” is not the way to go. There’s plenty of opportunity for a dose of reality – later. Start out by being positive. “Yeah! I like that! We can do that!” After all, you can “do” almost anything – assuming you’re given the additional budget, people, time, or whatever’s needed. I mean, you’re not going to be asked to do something without getting the resources to do it (either fresh or transferring in from somewhere else) or without having your priorities rearranged to accommodate it.

You can be positive to start with, then you can turn the conversation, gently, back to how you can. “Okay, let’s examine what it’s gonna take to make this happen.” At this point, just be realistic. “Can we put project X on the back burner to get to this now?” Or maybe, “I think if we shifted a couple of guys over from project X we could handle this.” Whatever it will take. Just start making suggestions to move things forward.

In the end, the “what it’s gonna take” part will amount to exactly the same regardless of whether you start positive or negative. The difference is that, rather than your boss (and everyone else) feeling like you’re coming at the task from a negative point of view, they’ll see that you’re trying to be positive about it and actually get it done. If the “what’s it gonna take” part ends up adding up to too much to make the idea practical, then everyone will see that together and it wasn’t you nixing the idea from the get-go.

In Boss We Trust

Simply stated, you have to always believe that your boss is doing his best to represent you and your needs – even when that might not be apparent. You have to assume that he’s fighting for you and your team, even if he’s not winning some of those battles. He may have been given marching orders to follow, and he's not going to look like a weakling with “Sorry... this wasn’t my decision” kind of statements. But you have to trust that he did his best for you.

At that point, when you haven’t gotten the answer you wanted, the absolute worst thing you can do is to start hammering him over how displeased you are. He knows. And he’s counting on you to not only be a good citizen, but to understand that he did what he could, even though he’s not saying it. Showing that kind of trust and respect will make him fight harder for you in the future.

Lookin’ Good

In general, always consider how anything you do will make your boss look. Whether in a meeting, an email, a presentation, or a hallway conversation, will he be proud of your actions? Are you making him look foolish? Are you crediting him as the source for much of your great outcomes? Remember that even if he wasn’t in agreement with you on whatever path turned out to be successful, he gave you the freedom and the trust to pursue it. That’s worth crediting.

Remember, the better the light you cast on your boss, the better his chances for advancement, and the better the chances of you moving up into his position!

Tuesday, July 30, 2013


Here are a couple more tips to help get on, and stay on, your boss's good side.

Nothing will please your boss more than getting blindsided from his boss or someone from another department. You wouldn’t like it much either. Certainly, as discussed earlier, you can’t expect to be up-to-the-minute current on everything happening in your area, and there’s no reason to feel that you have to keep your boss up to that level either. Doing that is too big a burden on either your own people or on you. You have to carefully pick the items of interest and present them in an appropriate timeframe.

Certainly, anything major, or anything that has direct negative implications on other departments or on customers is a good candidate for a quick update to the boss. You have to ensure that should he get a call from one of his affected peers, or from his own boss, that he’s ready with at least a little bit of information on the subject. It’s okay not to know about absolutely everything that’s going on, but for something major, he will look like a completely out-of-touch moron if his response to a critical call is, “I don’t know what you’re talking about.”

My methodology for these situations is to pop in with words like, “Hey I need to give you a quick heads-up on a situation that’s brewing…” Your boss will be trained to know what this entails and he’ll understand that it’s time for a short burst of real concentration. You’re about to give him information he may actually need to know in the near future. Give him the quick summary of what’s going on, who’s involved, what the “likely” outcomes may be, and the next steps your folks are taking. When he gets the call from whoever, he will appear totally in-touch and on top of things.

By the way, when you do your “pop ins” for these situations or any other, don’t assume that just because his door is open that he’s ready to engage in conversation with you. Some folks might be, and you’ll learn if that’s the case. But, always assume otherwise. My wording is, “Hey, I’ve got a couple important things to go over with you. Let me know as soon as you’ve got a few minutes.” He will appreciate you giving him the flexibility to prioritize you into his other happenings.


Nobody likes a whiner. It’s okay to have problems or complaints, but how many times does it take of one of your guys coming to complain at you before you start hiding under the desk to avoid him? Don’t fill that role for your boss either.

Just as you should encourage your own people to do, when you raise an issue with your boss, try to do so in a constructive manner. Spend some time before the discussion thinking through possible causes and solutions, even if the power to implement the solution is completely outside your scope of control. When you have your discussion, adding your thoughtful analysis of the causes and solutions will change your boss’s entire perception of the meeting from “how can I get out of here” to “there’re some good ideas here.”

Your boss is probably in the better position to actually act on the information you’re discussing. It may require meetings with his boss or peers, but he can probably actually work to fix whatever your original complaint was. When that happens, a lot more people “win” since the problem was probably shared by many. The moron whines and moans. Managers solve problems.

Don't Save The Punch Line

Relating problematic information to your boss in typical story-telling language is not likely to go over well. Even if you can keep the story brief, your boss is going to start getting antsy to know where the story is going.
“First we did this, then we did this. Then this happened, and then there was even more of this. But another guy did this and this, and…”
By this point, your boss is a nervous wreck. He’s not even listening to you much now. He’s just wondering if everything came out okay, or if someone is dead.

Always start out with the punch line.
“I need to let you know we had an accident in the factory, but everybody is fine and there won’t be any negative affects on production. Do you want the details?”
Now he can relax. He’ll let you know just how much extra detail he needs now, and what can wait until later.

A few more bossy tips in the next installment...

Friday, July 19, 2013

Managing your boss

The importance of the relationship you build with your boss cannot be overstated. No one can do more to advance or hinder your career than he can. Regardless of your boss’s management style, good or bad, hands-off approach or micro-manager, you can still learn from him. And learning is always a good thing.

Keep in mind that when I use the word “boss” here, although I am primarily referring to the person
you report directly to, in many ways much of this information will apply to your higher-level superiors as well -- your boss's boss, his boss, etc...

What's the most important thing you can do to please your boss? Well, probably perform really really well, and finish all the tasks assigned to you or your group in record time. But, to get your relationship off on the right foot, from the first time you meet your boss, you need to start...

Learning His Style

Thankfully, most bosses are all about results, and that’s a welcome trait. As the competent manager you are, you should be able to wow him with your ability to get actual work accomplished by your team. But everyone has some degree of sensitivity towards how you handle the relationship from your end. Improperly done, you can set the relationship up for disaster, regardless of how well you actually deliver results. Adjusting to your boss’s operation and interaction requirements is vital to your survival.

In your initial interactions with your boss, begin to take note of what kind of communication styles he enjoys, and what styles seem to turn him off. Some guys are very detail oriented, and they enjoy hearing all those juicy details. Others want the executive summary. Still others don’t want to know anything about a topic unless it requires action on their part. Don’t mistake that attitude for disinterest in your activities. Take it as a sign of trust that you can handle things and that you’ll alert him when his time is really needed.

Whichever category he falls into, it doesn’t make him a “good” or “bad” boss – it indicates his preferred communication style.

How can you tell how much detail your boss needs? Start with the summary, then begin going into more detail. Watch for the eyes glazing over, the attention shift to whatever’s going on outside the window, or the sudden interest in email or cell phone. It doesn’t take long to zero in on his preferred level of detail. Once you think you understand what he needs, in future briefings just go to that level of detail and stop. If he wants more information, he’ll ask. If he does that consistently, you can probably assume that he generally desires a bit more, and you can adjust your style to fit.

When you have communications of a written nature, such as a report, you need to play to multiple levels since it will probably be “read” by a variety of folks. The reason I placed the word “read” in quotes is because many people who will need to read it – won’t. At most, they will skim it. Therefore, it’s important to include an “Executive Summary” section at the top that details the key elements of the report in one paragraph – which some also probably won’t read. Sad, but true.

Next, learn how much independence he wishes for you to have. Again, some guys are going to want to sign off on much more than others will. If you are starting from a position of trust, he may be perfectly happy to let you fly on your own unless you feel you need assistance. It is vital to stay close to whatever level of independence he wishes for you to have and not stray much higher or lower than that point. If you are coming to him for approvals way more than he thinks necessary, he’s going to think you’re overly burdensome and incapable of independent thought. If you seize far more independence than he wishes, he’s going to think you are a loner and maybe a bit out of control. Stick close to the level he wants and you will, over time, earn additional independence.

In the next few issues of this blog, a half-dozen or so additional ways to get on, and stay on, your boss's good side.

Tuesday, July 9, 2013


Let's talk about the process for setting up goals for your team. In this context, a goal is a statement of some work to be performed. Examples of goals might be to change a process, get a project completed according to some basic parameters, or perform a reorganization.

Commitment to those goals is the key factor to success. Sure, you can impose them on your folks if you wish. As Captain Ramius told his staff in The Hunt for Red October, “When he reached the new world, Cortez burned his ships. As a result, his men were well motivated.” Throwing a commitment like that to your team is a guaranteed failure. But probably a better way to handle things is to talk to your staff about the goals.  It is critical that the team determine what they are able to do, and then commit that back to you.

But what should a goal look like? Answer: unless absolutely necessary, write goals around projects, not processes.

In general, goals created for the completion of projects will be the most useful, allowing other changes to happen as needed in support of that objective. For instance, you may write two different goals, one for a project, and one to overhaul some process in some way. However, you might find that the two goals are in conflict with each other. What if the project team determines that the most efficient way of completing the project is to leave that particular process alone or change it some other way than you specified? The overall project is what’s key, so leaving more options to the team for dealing with their own processes and tools is much preferred.

How specific should the goals be? Answer: keep them general!

So, we want to create this year’s goals. We know the big projects we’ll be working on, but we don’t know the exact requirements, much less have any estimates for how long the work will actually take. Doesn’t matter. Especially if you work in an environment where the requirements can continually change during the project execution, you’ll never have them done.

I have seen so many goals written with such specificity that they never get met. Once the project is underway, somebody will change something than diverges from the overly-specific project goal. What do you do now? Rewrite everyone’s goal sheets to match? I’m sure you can imagine the hassle in dealing with that every time a change occurs. You could leave them alone, but now your people are working towards goals that are wrong. Is that better than simply not having goals anyway?

So maybe you just periodically review goals to see if they still reflect reality. How often? Monthly? Weekly? Hourly? What a waste of time! When you write your goals, don’t sweat the small stuff! Cover the basics, and leave the specifics out. Written properly, goals should clarify the intent and major parameters of the project. The unwritten details will be filled in as the project progresses. That doesn’t make them “bad” goals, it makes them “realistic” ones.

Take this example:
“Complete version 3 of the XXXX product, with major business value features included, no later than end of 3rd quarter, requiring no major corrections by the end of the year.”
Yes, that’s written fairly loosely – we don’t know what the “major business value features” are yet. Even if we did, you might change one or more of them before the project is actually completed – maybe adjusting for customer demand, and hopefully an accompanying increase in revenue. We don’t want to impede change simply because the goals were written too strictly. And we don’t want to have to go rewrite them, either.

How hard should the goals be to achieve? Answer: a good chance of success

Nothing will destroy motivation faster than a task that is simply impossible. You have to stay within “reasonable” parameters. Folks need to see the job as having a good chance of success. Sure, you need to press a little on some goals and make a small number of them very challenging. Despite sometimes thinking so, we are not omniscient. Just because we don’t know how to accomplish something, doesn’t mean that nobody knows. Entrepreneurial leaders are the kings of this technique. “I need this completely new product developed in 2 weeks.” You, personally, might not think it’s doable in that timeframe, but maybe you’re wrong. Maybe some creative guy can dream up a totally new way to get across the finish line in world-record time. Maybe, for him, it’s actually old hat, and that 2 weeks is twice as much time as he needs.

Just remember that because you think something is impossible doesn’t necessarily make it so. I’m not advocating impossible goals, but it’s OK to give the team a challenge. They will press back as much as they need to until you can all find a happy medium.

Objective or subjective goals? Answer: Mostly objective

Don’t fall into the trap of creating goals that are only subjectively measured. As much as possible, all milestones need to be absolutely demonstrable. You can either see it, or you can’t. Period. A goal like, “Be 50% complete with development” is a farce. There are so many ways of measuring “completeness,” and so many different opinions, you’ll never get anyone to agree. And that usually means that the goal will be completed “by default,” because you won’t want to spoil someone’s day with a failing grade. Keep it objective so that anyone can make the call. Demonstrable goals and milestones drive real performance and progress.

And don’t give credit for anything less than 100% completion. The goal didn’t say “almost”, it said “done”. As soon as you say “good enough” on 99%, or 95%, soon they’ll be expecting it on 90% or even lower. Stick to the goal.

How do I write all these goals for so many different people? Answer: DON'T!!!

Create YOUR OWN goals first. Do this in consultation with your teams to know what's reasonable. Once you have created your list of major goals for the year, they should be adopted downward throughout your organization. In this way, the goals for each of your own managers and for their people will all directly support your own goals. Each worker who has responsibility for any portion of one of the top goals should have that goal transcribed onto his own goals for the year – verbatim. That means that his goal will be the same as everyone else’s contributing to that project.

He will, of course, have a particular area of expertise. But, if something falls a little outside his direct area, having the more generic goal will entice him to help out. The message you are sending him is that just being successful at his own job isn’t enough. The project must succeed. He needs to do whatever is necessary to make that happen, and everyone wins or loses as a team.

On that note, if you have your own direct management team, you can send an even stronger message to them. They should each have every one of your goals as one of their own, even if their particular team is not involved in one of those goals. This will force them to play together better, help out whenever they can, and generally not play politics with their people or other resources.

Again, they all win or lose together. If you have the ability, you can adjust the relative weights of the goals to compensate for those items they truly have within their scope of control. Just don’t take any of them all the way down to 0%.

Setting goals can be a dumb, useless, exercise in irrelevance, or they can be useful. You pick.

Friday, June 28, 2013

Staffing ups and downs

In the last post, we were discussing bonusing of employees. Keep the use of those limited to your absolutely best people. Let's chat some more about that and some other staffing topics.

Something else I have found to be a valuable “bonus” is sending someone to an industry conference or training event. Note that I used the word “bonus” for this. Think about it: the actual value gleaned from folks attending these kinds of events is usually quite minimal. If it’s current news and practices you want, online feeds and forums are probably much more up to date. If you’re looking for training, there are books and online learning out the wazoo. And all of that can be obtained at minimal cost, or even free, as opposed to the thousands you’ll have to pay for the event and travel.

The real benefit of attending most events is in rubbing elbows with folks from other parts of the industry, making connections, and feeling appreciated that the company felt good enough about you to blow all that cash on your attendance. That kind of treatment should be reserved only for your top players – solely as an additional reward. Other folks who simply need information or training can be handled much more easily and much more cost effectively.

Speaking of top players, always be on the lookout. You may not have any officially sanctioned positions open, or the company might be enduring a long, cold hiring freeze. That’s no excuse. Opportunity is knocking. When a great candidate shows up at your door, you have to find a way to snag him. Chances are that someone else will depart, voluntarily or involuntarily, in the new few months anyway, right? So all you’re doing is pre-filling the hole. And in the process you’ll be upgrading your staff. You’ll probably need to go into battle to thaw the freeze or get a special position opened, but any reasonable leadership should understand the case you make for doing the hire. No sense being penny-wise and pound-foolish.

Also, from time to time, analyze your entire staff and determine where your weak points are.

Next, look at that group and ascertain if they are really that bad or not. Maybe you happen to have hired a totally awesome team where even the worst guy is far above average. That would be major kudos to you. This can especially be true in smaller companies and startups, or in situations where you’ve actually been able to hire the entire group to your own specifications.

In most cases however, your bottom 10% will probably be below-average performers. You may already have some of them on performance improvement plans. If not, start considering it. Your goal (and the goal that will make HR the happiest) is to improve this person so that he’s no longer part of the lowly bottom 10%. That would be a win-win-win for you all. Your goal is not to terminate him.

Sure, the enactment of a performance improvement plan will inevitably result in a paper trail that will justify that action should it become necessary. But your goal should always be to make this guy better. You have time and money sunk in him. He knows stuff. Think of the inevitable costs if you replace him: a long hiring gap while you convince HR you need to replace him, dealing with recruiting and interviewing, and the eventual ramp-up and training time for the replacement.

It is a much better return on your investment if you can keep the guy you have, with all his knowledge and training. It also makes a great success story. Of course, when it becomes obvious that saving this person is unlikely, don’t hesitate to take the necessary steps.
Stepping back from the day-to-day fracas and analyzing who your poorest performers are is just as important as picking out your top performers. Maybe you do a rank-ordering exercise, or maybe it’s blatantly apparent after you actually ask yourself the question, but figure out who makes up your bottom 10% or so.

Thursday, June 20, 2013

Level the Playing Field... NOT

So, you're in a company where processes around pay (and other money matters) are all tightly controlled. Control is one thing, if it's done for the right reasons. But, as if every worker is capable of the same quantity and quality of work, big HR teams typically generate compensation, merit increase, and bonus systems that provide very little incentive for workers to excel. No, money is not usually the biggest motivator for most folks, but it matters. And, if you’re going to bother with increases or bonuses at all, why not give them appropriately, based on someone’s true contributions.

Nevertheless, it is common to see a merit increase system that awards the average employee with something like a 2% salary increase, while the top guys get 3%! Wow, a whole percent more! At the other end, the lowest guys on your totem pole will probably get only 1%. How sad.

These kind of differentials only encourage everyone to “move to the center” of the performance curve. “It doesn’t matter if I really excel, the 1% extra raise doesn’t add up to anything.” Yes, you have other tools to
use: praise, better assignments, promotions, etc... But if the tool is there, why not use it as intended? And don't pretend that the range of increases is "secret", and that folks won't really know what's going on. They talk. They know.

I actually had one HR leader tell me that the reason they liked to keep things egalitarian was so that some managers wouldn’t use “favoritism” as a mechanism for determining increases. Huh? I absolutely want my favorite guys to get the biggest increases. Of course, I mean “favorite” in the sense of “this guy will almost kill himself to get his work done and always does a fantastic job.” If what the HR leader meant by “favorite” was “the guy I like going to lunch with or my longtime friend,” then there is a completely different problem in need of a solution.

If it is within your control, take the top 10-20% of your folks, and do everything within your power to treat them excessively well. They are your livelihood. If it's not all within your control, at least work with your HR department to sculpt a set of policies that scream, “These people are the keys to our future success. We must make it impossible for them to be unhappy over something as simple as compensation.”

Your own HR team may feel that an extra percent or 2 over what the “average” folks are getting is sufficient to get that message across. It is your job to make them understand how false that really is. If 3% increases are this year’s “norm,” then your topmost guys may deserve 6-10%. If this year’s bonus standards are for most folks to get 10% of their salaries, your best guys should be getting double that, or more.

In fact, why does anyone not in the top 20-40% of all players deserve any bonus? A bonus should be for work performed beyond the call of duty. A bonus should be reserved for the guys who are dragging everyone else in your organization across the finish line. Bonuses should be for the people that everyone else aspires to be, and that everyone else wants to work with on projects. Pool up the bonus money and only award it to the top guys. The others will know how much work those guys did anyway, and they’ll be happy that the top folks are being incented to stay and help them be better at what they themselves do. And maybe it will help incent others to get to that bonus level.

You may find yourself ultimately stifled by policy, but it's your duty to try to enact the change.

Wednesday, June 12, 2013

Human Resources: friends, not foes

If your company is anything larger than tiny, the folks who live in your Human Resources department wield a ton of power. They have the ability to make your life and job much more pleasant, or utterly unbearable. They are folks you need to consciously build a relationship with. I failed to properly understand this early on, and I probably paid the price.

Get to know them as best you can and as early as you can upon arrival. And don’t settle for phone calls either. If they are within walking distance of you, always go and see them face-to-face. Whether they call you or you give them a call, once contact is made, always say, “Hey, I’ll just pop over there and we’ll talk in person.” This is actually a pretty good idea for any team that you need to build rapport with.

Meet often, go out to lunch with them, or do whatever you have to do to have them feel really comfortable with you. Make sure to always alert them at the first signs of anything “HR oriented” going on in your team. Service organizations in general, and HR folks specifically, have plenty of crap to deal with from folks like you. Try to be one of the guys who they actually like working with, rather than the idiot they try to run away from.

Of course, despite building up the best relationship that you can, sometimes the HR team is completely constrained by rules that are handed down from above. Their freedom of action is usually inversely proportional to the size of the company. Small company HR can usually create, bend, and break rules quite frequently, while big corporate HR teams might as well try to strike the letter “Z” from the alphabet.

Regardless of company size, hopefully you will work with HR people who see their job as trying to help you be successful by maximizing the human resources that you have on your team. By “maximizing” I don’t mean giving you more people – I mean making the most of what you have through appropriate hiring, training, compensation, bonusing, and other techniques.

Unfortunately, there are some HR folks who merely see their positions as the policemen for every corporate edict, regardless of whether it helps benefit the company. Good HR folks will work within major corporate rules when they make sense, but will help push for change otherwise. They see their job as helping you succeed, rather than getting their kicks from finding ways to prevent you from getting what you need. I’ve worked with both types, and fortunately, there are far more of the good ones out there. Just watch out for the others.

One of the greatest challenges I’ve always had with HR departments is the tendency of larger companies to “level the playing field” with respect to compensation, increases, and bonuses. We'll dive into that next time.