Sunday, February 24, 2013

Assessing your team... make your OWN call!

As mentioned in the last post, sometimes when you walk into a new position you get to build your team. But, sometimes you have to work with the team you're given, and you need to assess them and separate the strong from the weak. Your boss and peers will tell you how they see each of your people: who’s strong, who’s weak, etc… Your boss may even tell you that someone probably needs to be let go fairly quickly.

This kind of information is good to get, but once you've heard it, you then have a very important step to take. You have to forget about it. Well, not forever, and certainly not 100%. You will use this information to help you get started in the right direction, but it should never be the sole input towards who might need “to go.”

The primary determination should always come from your own data that you collect over time. And by “over time” I don’t mean a few days. It is important to take your time with any decision that can have a major affect on someone, especially something like this. You may need a couple of months to really see this person in action and experience their ups and downs sufficiently to build up an opinion. Your boss, or others, may wonder, “what the heck is taking you so long?” My response is:
“Hey, if you wanted to get rid of this guy, why didn’t you do it before I got here? Now, I get to look the situation over. You may end up being right, but maybe there’s a way to recover the situation, and that would be a win-win for everyone.”
Once you’ve had sufficient time, if your personal opinion matches what you’ve heard, then you can feel confident moving forward with some sort of performance management action. But what if you don’t see what everyone else has been describing to you? They all might have described Jack as Satan himself – never following through, never being on time, never producing quality work, whatever. But you might see the complete opposite, or at least something much closer to neutral. How do you rectify this?

By earning your pay, that’s how. Start looking into all of the variables. Was something wrong in Jack’s personal life? Maybe there was, sometime ago, and he’s gone back to being an at-least-average employee, but he rubbed a bunch of folks the wrong way back then, and they are having a difficult time forgetting it. Similarly, he could have had one bad work event happen, eons ago, but that impression is living on. Maybe he had a personal problem with his previous boss, and now he’s thrilled that you are there, and is out to show you what he’s capable of.

I’ve actually seen each of these circumstances be true, along with many others. It takes some digging, and you may not be able to ultimately pin the “new Jack” on any single, obvious, factor. Does it really matter? If you’ve got a guy who seems to be a keeper, someone you think will help you achieve your own goals, it’s up to you to stick up for him, and let his detractors know that you don’t agree with them.

The point is, you are the new guy in town, you have to assess your team, and you are the one with the fresh pair of eyes – unaffected by anything that might have occurred in the past. It’s your call. Don’t be afraid to make it.

And here’s another side benefit to handling this kind of situation with a “fresh eyes” attitude, especially if Jack’s problem was something personal with his previous leader. When you have that first, long, sit down with Jack, he's going to assume that everyone has given you the full 4-1-1 on him. He’s going to be expecting that your relationship with him is going to pick right up from where the previous boss left it. You have the opportunity to get this working relationship off on the right foot:
“Jack, in talking with my boss and human resources, I’ve heard that, over the last year or so, you were having a few performance problems. While I don’t want to discount those completely out of hand, I would like you and I to start fresh. Let’s do a quick review of some of the issues I’ve heard about. You can tell me your perspective and we’ll make sure you understand how to improve on those items, if you already haven’t. Then we’ll put them out of our minds and look at the future.”
Jack really isn’t going to see that one coming. With any luck, he’ll see this as an opportunity for that fresh start he was wishing he had, and some of the time, he’s going to take advantage of it. Someone who’s already built up a negative record and is already “out of the race” isn’t going to try very hard to pull out the win. But, given an opening to start over, it may be the opportunity he was hoping for.

Sure, not all the time. Some Jacks might try a bit, then fall right back into their old ways. Or they might not try at all. Those are the ones where you’ll quickly see their performance matching the negative expectations thrown at you by your colleagues. But, on occasion, you will see something positive out of this, both in gaining a performing employee, and in gaining his respect.

Monday, February 18, 2013

Welcome to management! Now go build a team!

Your job, besides making your boss look really, really, really good, is all about how to leverage your own skills across your entire team, ultimately leading to highly productive results. You need them working together nicely, feeling empowered and trusted, being participative and motivated, and basically all rowing happily in the right direction.

Most of the time, upon reaching your management position, you will be picking up an existing team. In that case, you'll have some work to do to determine your team’s strong and weak points, then act appropriately. But, if you are getting the chance to form your team from scratch, you have an excellent opportunity to “stack the deck” and get a huge jump on overall project success.

There are many considerations when putting your team together. Obviously, the biggest factors will revolve around the basic skills and experience you’ll need. There can be a tendency for candidates to get excluded if they lack direct, applicable past experience. But, if you only consider that experience, you’ll be overlooking other key characteristics that could ultimately prove more valuable to you.

I have seen some folks walk into positions in areas that they’ve had no previous experience in, whatsoever. I’ve seen some of these guys working in different industry verticals, doing jobs they’ve never done before, and had no training or education in. And, I’ve seen them be totally successful at it. How?

Raw, freaking intelligence, that’s how. I mean, what do we really learn in school anyway? We learn how to learn. Incredibly smart people know how to assimilate needed information, apply basic processes that exist in every job there is, work as part of a team, and produce results. Especially in the case of hiring someone to do management work, it’s much more important for a manager to be able to lead his folks than it is for him to be able to sit down and actually do his peoples’ work on any given day. He’ll learn enough, over time, to have discussions at an appropriate level of detail such that he’ll be able to help the team be its most productive. Give me a smart, natural leader anytime.

For whatever you need in a team, find the smartest people you can, with experience as reasonably close to what you need them to do as possible, and surround yourself with them until you’re drowning in them (or you run out of budget). They will shock you with their ability to pick up the tasks at hand and generate great results for you.

Aaron Sorkin, writer/creator of The West Wing, Studio 60, A Few Good Men, and numerous other successful movies and shows, had a great line from a management character in one of his earliest shows, SportsNight
“If you’re dumb, surround yourself with smart people. If you’re smart, surround yourself with smart people who disagree with you.”
That line resonated with me as I’ve always appreciated my team members being willing to have a different opinion than my own. Whether your team members act as simple “yes men” or simply echo back what they think you want to hear will depend on how you train them. As discussed earlier, look for every opportunity to suck someone’s brain dry before you let him know what your own opinion might be. And be sure to positively reinforce efforts by your staff to give you options and play “devil’s advocate” for you from time to time. One of my favorite recent bosses was fond of saying, “If you always agree with me, what do I need you for?” Fortunately, he didn’t say that to me… too much…

Keep in mind that folks who will disagree with you will usually tend to be on the boisterous side. That should come through in interviews. Or, if this is an internal candidate, others might tell you that he’s, “a troublemaker”, “heavily opinionated”, or “never wants to go along.” Please contemplate the possibility that those comments could be considered as good things! Once you hear about some specific examples, you might be willing to kill to get this guy. And he will probably find himself in a refreshing and complementary environment that he hasn’t experienced prior.

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Hope (no) & Change (yes)

Okay, so we want to be as honest as possible in delivering our information. But sometimes we just don't have all the facts. That doesn't mean we get to avoid the conversation -- we just need to make reasonable guesses. You should expose the various thought processes that are being used and talk about the various possible outcomes. Here’s an example from the real world:
“Folks, this is Captain Joe up in the cockpit. We can’t push back yet because something’s wrong with one of the engines, and we’re bringing the mechanics out to take a look at it. Hopefully, they’ll figure it out quickly and we hope this won’t take more than a few minutes.”
Come on, man! Joe has no freakin' idea how long it will take them and is just making stuff up.
Patient: Will you be able to cure my wife?
Doctor: We sure hope so.
Duh! What the heck else would you be hoping for?

These people are communicating useless information. What's the key give away? Hope. If you catch yourself about to use the word "hope", change it. Of course you are hoping, but what do you really know that is factual?

If you’re going to convey iffy information, change to words like “possibly,” “probably,” “unlikely,” or “almost certainly.” These are good for transmitting a true thought process on your part and will give everyone a reasonable expectation of what’s to come.

Also, when you’re not sure how something is going to go, it's not a good idea to slant your thoughts  to give folks the impression that the best possible outcomes will occur. Sometimes it feels easier to not “stir the fire” or keep people somewhat nervous regarding what might transpire. Wrong.

I’m not saying that you need to always represent the worst possible outcome, but you need to be realistic. Something less than the best outcome might happen, and if you have led folks to believe that the best outcome was very likely, they’re going to be less pleased than if you had given them that expectation in advance. If you’ve prepped folks for a relatively bad outcome, and something better happens, they’ll be pleasantly surprised. I know that might be like putting whipped cream on a scoop of mud (or something), but it can have a positive effect.

Case in point: if Captain Joe feels that the delay will be in the 30-60 minute range, telling you that it’s just going to be a few minutes might not bother you now, but will eventually lead to your spewing obscenities. On the other hand, if he comes out and says that the delay could be as much as an hour or two, and it turns out to only be 45 minutes, you’re going to be thrilled.

Taking the easy way out early will be more harmful than being realistic.

Wednesday, February 6, 2013

Presentations that MATTER!

Many books delve deeply into public speaking. For sure, this is an art that is improved and perfected only with great practice. The basic concepts of, say, getting over your nervousness by visualizing the audience in only their underwear, can be gleaned from other sources at your leisure.

What we want to discuss here is not so much about presenting to an auditorium full of folks, but more about speaking in front of your team. There are many methods for delivering messages, but by choosing to do so as you stand in front of your employees, you have the opportunity to also develop a rapport with them as they see you in action. If done properly, many of the team members will come away actually feeling like you connected with them, personally, almost as if you had just finished a one-on-one sit down with them. But by doing it in a group mode, you’ve accomplished this over dozens or even hundreds of folks, all at once. There’s a great return on investment!

Let me start with the single, most important rule you can follow – be as honest as possible. I know that sounds easy, but it is actually much more difficult than it appears. Whether the issue is something about upcoming raises, the status of an ailing product out in the field, the slow progress of an ongoing development, or the potential for some sort of future major negativity (downsizing, salary reductions, wiped out bonuses, etc…), it becomes quite tempting to hedge the truth on occasion. Sometimes this is, unfortunately, necessary. But it should be contained to only a very small class of topics. I'll cover some of this in future posts.

For most items, your discussion is merely around how some known issue is progressing. If that issue is veering off course, even to the point of embarrassment, maybe it would be okay to skip lightly over some of the negative items and focus on the positive ones? I assure you that this is an awful idea. Your people can smell dishonesty as easily as a dog smells fear. Between them, everyone in the room knows pretty much everything that’s going on anyway, and if you start omitting points to make things seem better than they really are, the team will eventually realize it, and you will have lost credibility.

That doesn’t mean that you need to be nasty and pinpoint blame on deserving individuals. But you can certainly say things like, “We’ve had a few unexpected detours on the XYZ project, and it is now looking to be about 2-3 weeks later than we scheduled.” Some people in your audience know that it’s true, so you might as well discuss it.

Don't miss the key opportunity!

The important point here, and your "opportunity is knocking" chance of the day, is to show that you are a real leader. Balance the negative points with how you intend to get things positive again. Things go wrong – that’s life. But, “We’re putting 2 more people on this,” or “We’re going to remove the extra reporting feature,” will show active leadership that is intended to set the boat on course again. And everyone will feel like an insider into both the problem and the intended solution.

Friday, February 1, 2013

Sucking it up!

At a meeting's end, it is important that all participants go forth and act on the meeting’s solution as if it was their own idea from the beginning. Regardless of how the final decision was arrived at, all members should verbally confirm their intended compliance with the “I will fully support this decision as if it was my own” mantra.

It’s one thing if the group was composed of only frontline workers. But this reaches another level if the ones who have to go support and implement the given solution are themselves managers on your staff. You’re asking them to buy off on it when they don’t, and you’re asking them to go get all of their people in line with it.

And, if it’s you who’s being expected to go support a decision made by your manager, it is critical that you do so, even if you don't like it. The old, "This was their idea... I hate it!" thing just doesn't cut it. In fact, it's the worst thing you can do!

If your team wants to know why some strange solution was arrived at, you have two choices: you can tell them you were forced into the decision and you hate it with every fiber of your being. Or you can explain why it’s really the best outcome and act like the change was actually your choice from the very beginning. Pick one:
“Guys, we’re making a change to our policy of requiring that extra paperwork for service requests. Yeah, this is gonna make it harder for us, and we’ll probably be dealing with support problems for a long time. Just so we’re clear, I didn’t want this, and it’s happening only because the big boss made me do it. I’m sure not gonna go out of my way to give those other teams any great support on that stuff from now on.”
“Guys, we're going to change our policy about the extra paperwork for service requests. I’ve spoken with the other teams, and this will speed them up so they get the big project done on time. It will probably make for some increase in work for us, and I’m sorry about that, but we’ll all be helping the company make more bucks this year, and that will help everyone, including us. Let’s make this work. I’d love to hear your ideas for ways we can do that.”
Yeah, in the first case, your guys might respect the fact that you fought hard, and you might think this will make you look stronger to your team. But ultimately, they will see you as the loser. What else are you not going to be able to push for or defend when the time comes? Maybe something personally important to one of your team members, like his raise or promotion? That kind of respect doesn’t end up helping you much in the long run.

In the second case, though, your team sees you as an initiator, a negotiator, a decision maker, and someone who’s watching out for what’s best for the company overall. No, they might not like that you’re bringing a little more pain on them. But when you’re doing it to further the big picture, you’re helping them avoid the biggest pain of all – being out of work. Sounds like a real leader to me, and sounds like the way to garner true respect from your team.

In fact, there’s a way to handle this even better. Instead of waiting for the bomb to drop, and dealing with it all after the decision is made, try to be more proactive when you first see it coming. As soon as you see the pressure starting to build for you to move in a direction you’re not happy with, get the guys involved right away. In the above quotation, I ended with:
“Let’s make this work. I’d love to hear your ideas for ways we can do that.”
But why wait until the decision is final to drop it on your guys? A few days earlier, you could have said this:
“We’re having discussions about this now. We haven’t decided on a final course of action yet, so I’d love to hear any of your ideas I could throw into the mix. If we do decide to go this other way, I’d really like to get some ideas for how we would be able to adapt and make it work out well.”
When you take this approach, two things might happen. In the best case, your guys might actually give you enough legitimate ammunition supporting your side to enable you to swing things back your way, thereby totally avoiding the problem. Terrific! But even if that’s not the case, it can only help if your guys can help develop processes to make things work out.

Note, however, that nowhere in your speech did you say that you hated one of the choices! If that choice does come to be, it would put you in a bad spot. Make a habit of looking on the bright side, at least in public, and save the venting for elsewhere. This is just part of the manager's job. Even if you can’t fully convince your team to agree with your position, they’ll respect you more for your ability and strength. That’s much better than leaving them with the thought that nobody ever listens to you.