Monday, January 28, 2013

Focusing the meeting

Let’s focus now on some techniques that you can use during a meeting to keep it on track, and to allow you to actually participate (rather than being an overpaid facilitator) but not suppress contributions from everyone else.

First, stay alert for indications that the meeting is starting to divert off a productive course. Use your initial invitation agenda as a guide. If you were only planning on rank ordering everyone’s suggestions, and people have started discussing how to implement those solutions, it’s time to cut that off. Do so gently (at least the first time):
“Hey guys, sounds like you have some pretty good ideas how we would proceed forward with all this, but let’s finish getting all the ideas out first, okay?”
Another tip off that things might be starting to stray is when multiple simultaneous communications begin. It’s not always an indicator, but chances are that at least one of those side chats will be off the primary path. You want to limit multiple simultaneous discussions anyway, but you especially want to discontinue the ones detracting from the overall goal.

Also watch for the inevitable appearance of the phone or prolonged attention to the tablet or laptop. In all likelihood, the checking of email has begun. That’s another great sign that folks are losing interest – quite possibly because things are wandering off track.

Getting your ideas in, too

It can be a fine balancing act to lead a meeting and get your own points considered without shutting down a lot of the members’ own ideas. However, ultimately, whether you are running the meeting is irrelevant. Even if it’s someone else’s get together, you are the boss. Just as in any other situation, if you don’t handle yourself well, you will somehow find that your ideas are always deemed “the best.” Even though that might not be proven out over time.

To counteract this, let’s return to some of the communication points we’ve already discussed. As with one-on-one dialogues, you must enter the meeting without a prejudice towards any one particular solution – especially if it’s originally yours. You can’t let people think that they’re going to be part of a dialogue that’s really a monologue. Be prepared to do tons more listening than speaking, help summarize points as they’re made, and actively acknowledge great ideas as they’re mentioned. If you ask questions, be sure to phrase them in an “open” way that doesn’t give away your own personal bias. “Should we do plan A or plan B?” will create a much more open atmosphere for discussion than “Don’t you think we should do plan A?” or “Is anyone stupid enough to think that plan B is better?”

Not that there’s never a right time for a “closed” phrased question. Here’s a fun party trick that you should pull out of your bag at least once in interactions with your team. When you feel that the group is getting close to choosing a course of action, or if you really need to get everyone moving in the same direction, and you also happen to agree with the logic behind the approaching course, try asking a “closed” phrased question that goes in the opposite direction -- reverse psychology if you will. If most of the team is homing in on plan A, and it seems like a correct course to you, try something like, “I’m really thinking that Plan B looks good, though.”

A couple of things could happen here. Hopefully, everyone will clamor to jump on you with their own explanation of why your thoughts about plan B are wrong. You have to be willing to look a tiny bit ignorant here, but you can eventually agree with their counter-arguments and move the decision along. Eventually, many of your folks will recognize this tactic, but it will continue to work anyway, and they will realize that you’re not really that stupid. On the other hand, if you have any “yes men” in the group, you will see them start to do 180s to support your position, even though you know that your position isn’t really supported by the facts.

It’s always good to know who those folks are because you’re not necessarily going to be able to trust them to represent factual positions as much as they’ll be trying make you feel good about yourself. You have an opportunity, over time, to build up trust with these individuals and let them see that disagreeing with you isn’t (as one of my recent leaders called it) a résumé-generating event. But it only comes as they see you actively support respectful disagreement, and modulate your own positions based on well-formed arguments.

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

KISS -- Keep It Short Stupid

So you've set the meeting up for success by giving proper notice of the subject, gotten only the appropriate people involved, and warned them all to be there on time. So, just how much time should you waste in this meeting?

I hate meetings in general, and I firmly believe that most stuff we formalize in them can be handled as quick hallway discussions. Removing chairs from the conference room is one trick used to train folks to get to the meat of the matter. If you don’t want to go that far, seriously consider that, except for the largest of issues, one hour should be plenty to achieve your meeting goals. If not, then consider splitting the overall meeting up into a few 1-hour mini-meetings. Folks have an impossible time concentrating on a single issue for more than an hour anyway. The ever-present tug of “all that other stuff I gotta do” will make it impossible to maintain focus after that. Be honest, what's your first thought when someone schedules an all-freaking-day meeting for you? Yeah, exactly.

But, you should have every expectation that a well-focused meeting should command each person’s full attention for up to about an hour. That means no email and no potty breaks. Also, even if you think you can get it all done in about 30 minutes, schedule the full hour. If you have underestimated the task at hand, you’ll still stand a good chance at getting things wrapped up without having to reschedule. If you finish early, everyone will love having that time back in their day, and it will be their time because your meeting previously blocked it out. You will be a fan favorite.

Also, when I say “schedule the meeting for an hour,” what I really mean is “schedule the meeting for 55 minutes.” Getting everyone to their next meeting on time is respectful and a good step to helping that next meeting achieve its goals. Help them out.  BONUS HINT! If you use GoogleApps for calendaring, look in the settings, in the "default meeting length" area, you'll see the option to set "Speedy meetings" and cut the meetings off a little early. Use it! And finish when you're supposed to finish.

Also, if folks come walking into your meeting a few minutes late because the previous meeting just ended, get the word out to other folks you work with that they should be cutting things off earlier.

And try to convince everyone to set their calendar alerts to FIVE minutes before a meeting begins. Most of the email programs default to 15. When that alert goes off, you’re still in the middle of the meeting, and everyone just ignores it. Or you might be at your desk, in which case you’re really going to ignore it. But, if you have it set for five minutes, there’s no doubt about it – it’s time to go.

Is A Recurrent Meeting Needed?

Also, take a look at any meetings that you have at regularly scheduled intervals. Whatever they might be, I have found that many meetings that are regularly scheduled – shouldn’t be. Oftentimes folks show up for these only to find out that there is a minimal or nonexistent agenda. Or, folks stop showing up at all. Or, whoever arranged the meeting simply keeps cancelling it. In any case, see if maybe a longer interval between meetings is appropriate, or whether calling it “on demand” might be a more valuable use of everyone’s time.

PS: I couldn't believe that Iron Chef Bobby Flay was cooking steaks on TV and never called one of them a "Bobby Filet". Is it me?

Thursday, January 17, 2013

John Cleese was bloody right!

Many years ago, Monty Python's John Cleese produced a great video called "Meetings, Bloody Meetings" on the sorry way most office meetings are conducted. Some of the clips are up on YouTube, and the videos are still for sale. During my years, I put together my own little list, so let's have at it.

Rule #1: When you have called a meeting, do not go in with the attitude that you are going to lead it, dominate it, and ultimately deliver it to some predetermined goal or solution. Folks will know that about you, and, if they bother to show up at all, they will have gone out of their way to not prepare anything of value for it. Why bother?

What is needed is a good facilitator. Some companies hire or appoint dedicated facilitators. To me, that is a sign of broken internal leadership. A balanced, participative, inclusive, leader should be able to act in this function. You can help in getting the meeting off on the right foot. You can help steer it gently back on track when it strays. You can make sure everyone’s input is being sought. And you can ensure that all participants are willing to support the outcome. And doing all that does not exclude the possibility of you adding ideas to the meeting.

Meeting Setup

Set the meeting up for success. That begins when you send the invitation. Try this: be sure to use a cryptic title, provide no agenda or goals, schedule the meeting to span about 6 hours, and invite 10 different folks who have a mild or negligible need to attend, while omitting a couple of key folks. That oughta do it. Seriously, you don’t need to go overboard with the invite title. “Product planning” or “Problem discussion” doesn’t do quite the same trick as “Discuss reducing travel costs.” Just that alone will get folks thinking more about the meeting before they get there. As for the agenda, something as simple as this will help significantly:
“Please come prepared with your best 3 ideas for reducing our travel costs (no matter how outlandish). We will combine our ideas, brainstorm, and rank order to arrive at the best possibilities. Arrive on time.”
Folks will arrive prepared and ready to go, and they will understand how far you expect the meeting to go. You’re not looking just to expose possibilities, and you’re not looking to fully implement solutions. You want to combine ideas into the best choices going forward.

I like the reminder about arriving on time. Although folks will tend to get accustomed to that and read over it, what they won’t ignore is your locking the conference room door 3 minutes after the meeting’s start time. You might sacrifice a little productivity by excluding someone the first time you do it, but it won’t happen much after that. In fact, in the invite, you might as well put, “Arrive on time. Door will be locked 3 minutes in.” And, if possible, avoid being late to your own meetings. Duh.

Who to invite? I love the old analogy with “chickens” and “pigs.” When considering the animals involved in serving you up a tasty bacon and eggs breakfast, the chicken is only involved or interested, but the pig is fully committed. Look at each invitee and determine if he is a chicken or a pig. Most of your pigs should be there, but sometimes one pig is fully capable of representing others. If you know that to truly be the case, keep the attendance down. For each chicken, your default treatment should be exclusion from the meeting, unless you feel that he might really have something positive to add, despite his interested status.

My experience is that you can easily identify the chickens in the room by looking to see who is checking their email on their iPad. Your chickens can always get a postmortem debrief or read the minutes. By the way, don’t forget to consider your own chicken or pig status. If you are a chicken, maybe someone else should be in there!

Next up... meeting duration, need for recurrence, and how to keep it focused.

Monday, January 14, 2013

Stop the email madness, please!

Here is a simple fact: email sucks. Rule: you have to go out of your way to minimize the use of email -- both personally and within your teams.

Email should only be used for items of a simple, factual nature, and straightforward announcements. Email should always be a method of last resort, unless you are merely trying to convey a basic fact, like “The meeting will be at 2pm,” or a simple request, like “Can you send me a copy of the TPS report?”

As soon as you try to use email for stuff like “How come you did this?” or “Should we kill the XYZ project?” you are asking for trouble. Anything that can be considered controversial in any way should not be relegated to an emotionless, expressionless email. No, adding smiley faces doesn’t matter. Think of it this way -- the very fact that you have to put a smiley face in (to clarify your emotions) is proof that email is a lousy way of communicating!

You have no excuse to not have these types of conversations live. If you can’t physically walk over and talk with your employee, pick up the freaking phone. Skype. Facetime. Whatever. Just don’t start typing. You need to relish every opportunity to work face to face with each of your folks. That kind of contact is what prevents miscommunications, allows you to tailor your talking points dynamically, insert emotion as needed, and adjust the whole experience to how the employee is reacting.

What if one of your employees (or anyone for that matter), emails something inappropriate to you? By that, I mean something that you know doesn’t fit itself well to an email discussion. You have the chance to improve the situation immediately by not responding to the email. Again, pick up your feet or pick up the phone if you must, but do not click the “reply” button.

Furthermore, if you make sure that all of your employees follow these rules as well, you will promote much more productive general team dynamics. Every once in a while, someone sends the dreaded flame mail, or someone starts a very controversial discussion with an email “To:” list about 20 names long. Does he really think that is the most efficient way to discuss and settle something that contentious? That guy ends up in my office for a brain cleansing. Tell your folks in advance not to act this way.

As always, you can be your own best example. Resolve right now to use email only as a last resort. Remember, email sucks -- learn it, know it, live it.

Friday, January 11, 2013


Okay, so one of your best folks is considering taking another offer somewhere – possibly with a competitor.  He hasn't accepted yet. He might be feeling a little anxious, but he trusts you enough that he's actually come to you with his conundrum. Or, maybe he's inclined to leave, but he's seeing if there's a counteroffer in his future. So, how do you handle this gracefully? How do you really help the employee do what’s in his best interest, and not necessarily in your own?

First, use your practiced listening techniques to find out why your employee is attracted to the other company. Is he leaving for a different type of work environment? Different types of projects? Is it really compensation? The ability to work alongside past friends? Closer to home?

Now, consider how you can actively handle some of these points and develop a win/win solution for you both. If the issue is compensation, and he is truly deserving, making a comp adjustment can quickly bring the situation to a close. However, keep this in mind: if your guy has gone as far as actively seeking a new position, any attempts you make to keep him may turn out to be only temporary solutions. If you offer more compensation, will that really solve all the issues at hand? Even if his compensation is the only complaint, how long will it be before he returns with the same issue? If the guy is worth his salt, someone out there will always pay more than you do. Ask yourself whether your employee is seeing the other good things that your company has to offer. Decisions like that need to be made on much more than comp alone. That’s why I usually discount someone indicating that comp is his primary issue.

If the real issue is about types of projects that he’s involved in, that may be within your scope of control as well. Or if he’s looking for a more flexible work environment, can you offer the option to telecommute a couple days a week?

Failing an easy fix, if he’s gone this far, what to do? My approach here is, very gently, to let him know that you understand that there are other options available to him – the best people will always have other options. Help him walk through whether this particular one is the right one for him. What is the company’s history? Are the products likely to be relevant for some time to come? Would he actually be working on the best products? What are the chances that the company might have to downsize? Does he know anything about the people he'll be working with (or for)?

Keep in mind that you should ask these questions in the same way as his most trusted friend would. You want to be curious, not vicious. It’s OK for you to expose the truths, especially if he hasn’t thought about them himself: there can real danger involved in a move away from his existing position. With you, he’s a top guy on the totem poll, respected, well known, and sought out for all the really big problems. As the new guy, still unproven, he’ll be the most vulnerable in times of hardship. But do not let him feel that you are trying to skew the facts to your advantage. As long as you approach this factually and sensitively, he should appreciate your thoughts.

What if your employee is looking at another position within your own company? Don't talk him out of it. Encourage him to look into it carefully, and welcome him to return for another discussion about what he finds. Always be supportive when an employee wishes to explore additional options, especially if it will keep the talent in the company family.

In any of these situations, remember that psychology can work against you. The harder you push your employee to be happy and stay, without providing anything to back it up, the more he will feel the need to depart. And if he does finally decide to leave: remember to leave the door open! A snarky “You’re making a huge mistake, don’t call me when you figure that out” will only validate his decision to go.

Monday, January 7, 2013

Greener pastures

With my own job change (as of today actually), I'm reminded of another form of personal communication that comes up.

Occasionally, one of our people comes to us with some chilling news: he is considering another position. If the new position is with a different company, in all likelihood he has already made the decision and accepted the offer. In this case, the situation really boils down to simply negotiating a friendly exit. But if your employee hasn’t accepted a new job yet, it is probably because he really wants your advice – it is uncommon, but it does happen. Let's cover the "more harmless" ones first.

Before you panic, or come to any conclusions, use the techniques we’ve already discussed to figure out why the employee is considering a change. It may not be related to anything negative in his current job. Maybe he wants to join a hot startup, or maybe he’s thinking about changing careers entirely. The potential change may not really be about his job at all! Perhaps he needs time or flexibility to deal with a family issue, or maybe circumstances are pushing him to relocate to a different state.

If he’s looking to relocate, and you really like this guy’s work, you could become the coolest boss in the world: consider letting this guy relocate but continue to work for you, in either his current position or in something similar that’s tailored to his new situation. If he needs to relocate for some sort of family reason, he might not have found a new job yet. Your offer could be a real lifesaver! As long as he’s able to be fairly self-sufficient, he has proven himself as a productive worker, and the team can operate effectively with a remote member, then everyone wins.

I have successfully used this technique many times to retain excellent talent. Most of the time, things work out well. It is important, however, to monitor the situation closely. Occasionally, the employee’s remote location can lead to problems, such as reduced individual productivity or a degradation of the team’s overall effectiveness. If that happens, you’ll have to pull the plug and ask the employee to return or resign. At least you gave it a shot.

It’s pretty hard to argue with someone who tells you he is heading off to medical or law school. Be supportive and work on a nice friendly exit. You could have a new doctor or lawyer in your future. Or he could decide that the career change wasn’t for him after all and ask for his old job back.

The same is true if one of your guys is thinking of running off to join (or form) a hot startup. Many folks will get this bug at some point. Chances are, he’s looking at a completely different risk/reward equation than you’re able to offer: if he isn’t afraid to work 60 or 80-hour weeks, the possible rewards of doing so might far outweigh anything he now enjoys. Be supportive. Feel excited for this guy, wish him well, and offer to provide advice or feedback if he ever needs it. Most importantly, let him know that you’d welcome him back warmly should things go awry. He will very much appreciate the backstop, and he will respect you in a whole new way.

But what if he’s leaving for another local company – maybe a competitor? If he hasn’t completely made up his mind – and assuming that this is an employee you would rather keep – you have the opportunity to help contribute to his decision. But how do you handle it gracefully? How do you really help the employee do what’s in his best interest, and not necessarily in your own?

Stay tuned.

Wednesday, January 2, 2013

Don't delegate! (unless they're ready for it)

Happy new year, and welcome back! I hope you all had a safe and sane holiday season. Now back to our show...

One of my favorite questions to ask when I interview potential managers is this:
“Pretend that you need a certain task done. You have decided to delegate it to one of your workers. You have called me, the lucky one, into your office to hand this task off to me. Tell me what you would say to convey this.”
The typical response goes something like this:
“Eric, I need you to do this thing for me. Let’s have a discussion about it so I can explain it to you, tell you why it’s really important, then I’ll walk you through a good way to attack it. We can meet every day to discuss your progress.”
The manager candidate thinks he has laid out a great plan. He will coach me very carefully. We’ll be a team. He will not let me fail. But, he has jumped to many conclusions. What if I have previous experience doing this task? What if I already know how important it is? Or what if it isn’t really important at all, but it needs to get done anyway? Or might I learn more from this project if I am actually given the opportunity to fail at it on my own?

For example, what if the candidate was the dad, I was the child, and the task that needed to be done was taking out the trash? Would we really need to have a discussion about why it’s important? Would dad need to walk me through the process, given that I’d probably dumped the trash a million times already? Would we really need progress updates? How about a Gantt chart? I only need to know what to do, not how to do it, and I don’t need to be sold on the value of getting the trash out. It has to be done.

Every discussion like this needs to be fine-tuned to the particular assignee. As a manager, before you determine how to launch someone into a task, you must account for past experience, motivations, overall effort size, and many other factors. Doing it the wrong way can lead to outright confusion, failure, demotivation, and resentment.

The first item to ascertain is whether the employee has ever done this type of task before. If you don’t know, ask. If he has, you should go into much less detail on how to handle this particular instance. (How does it make you feel when someone explains how to do something you know darned well?) Instead, give the guy a couple of pointers and general guidelines for how you personally want it handled… if you care.

But if your guy hasn’t had the necessary experience with this task, you need to determine the best way to kick it off. You have to determine each individual’s maturity level for this type of task. The level will vary across different types of tasks, but overall, most people tend to fall more or less into one of three general categories that I call: tell, sell, and solo.

Tell Me

Some folks are perfectly happy to be told exactly what you want and exactly how you want it done. They don’t need detailed explanations of why it’s important, and they don’t function well when the problem is merely delegated to them. This may be due to any number of reasons that doesn't make them bad workers -- it means they respond best to direct instructions. Delegate to them at your own risk. It also means that you should avoid the discussion about how important the task is. Start explaining that, and you will see their eyes glaze over. They are anxious to get started, and now you’re annoying them by keeping them longer. These are the “tell” folks.

Sell Me

These folks can be much like the “tells”, but they have a hard time getting motivated to do the task unless they understand why it is important. You may still need to lay out the method and process for them, but unless you handle the why part too, you can fully expect that the motivation will be missing. Without the sell job, progress will be slow or nil.

Solo Me

The “solo” folks can really be broken down into a couple of subcategories, but basically these are the folks who would much rather devise their own paths to the solution. They may be totally capable of having the entire problem delegated to them, or they might need you to participate with them to some degree. But, for the most part, they are capable of developing an appropriate solution on their own. They require a minimum of progress checking, and they have no desire for you to dictate to them how to do their job. Try it, and you will generate plenty of harsh feelings.

Summing it up

In many cases, you will watch your employees morph over the years as they move from “tell” to “sell” and eventually to some form of “solo”. That is fun. If you can, help them out with something like, "Would you like to take a shot at coming up with the design/process for this on your own?" If they accept, just keep a very close eye on whether that's working or not and step in quickly if needed.

But, even if someone doesn't move along the curve, they're still valuable. As long as you learn each person’s maturity level, you can use it to get him off to the best possible start on each task.

PS: If I hear one more radio/TV commercial talk about a website address and refer to the "/" character as "backslash," I'm just gonna lose it.