Tuesday, March 26, 2013

My favorite F-word

So many different discussions can occur around ways to actually optimize your personal success, or more importantly, the results from your team. I'll cover a wide variety of these in future writings, but I want to start from the top. If there’s one general concept that you should always remember, it’s “Focus.”
Okay, well I guess "Shutting Up" should be the one concept, but if there's a second one, it should be "Focus." The ability to hone in on what’s really important while ignoring the static is a key component to success. When folks attempt to defocus you from what’s really important, you must push back as much as required.

If there’s a big and important product that you work on that’s responsible for all the profit the company ever sees, beware of letting yourself be distracted by some work on a nearly insignificant product. I’ve seen examples of managers loaning folks over to some small and unimportant project, simply because someone asked, and they wanted to “play nice.” In the process, they were risking aspects of a big product delivery that was critical to the company. Remember this: if your project ultimately fails, nobody will remember (or care) that it was because you were a good corporate citizen and loaned key resources over to something that didn’t matter much. All they will remember is that you screwed up the important task.

I know it seems like a pretty hardball thing to be saying, but you have to focus yourself, and you have to be able to bring focus to whatever aspects of the company demand it, in order to ensure overall company success. If your boss is asking you to divert resources, or somehow otherwise defocus, you owe it to him, your team, and the company to absolutely ensure that he understands how that will affect your project. Does he really want to risk it? Explain it to him in any terms necessary. Help keep him and the company focused.

And don’t let someone artificially boost the perceived value of something in an effort to divert focus. Television news stations are famous for trying to enhance the attraction of news stories by throwing more cameras, on-scene reporters, and helicopters at them. Doing so does not change the inherent nature of the story, it just blows it up out of its deserved proportion. The same is true for office distractions – just because someone thinks some task deserves its own helicopter does not necessarily make it so. Lay the situation out and make clear what's being risked. Help to keep the focus.

Bottom line -- you're always going to have numerous tasks and projects competing for your time. Just like the old "80/20" rule, only a couple of them are going to account for the biggest chunk of your success or failure. Keep your attention on those items, and consider the rest to be "bonus" items... do them (or do them well) if you have the time. But don't take your eye off the couple of big ones.

Sunday, March 17, 2013

The Big Bang Theory Sucks

“The only constant is change.” Somewhat trite, but definitely true. If you are a member of an organization that hasn’t undergone some kind of reorganization in the last couple of years, consider yourself lucky. Well, actually, maybe not. With business conditions constantly changing, fluctuations in the economy, variations in consumer desire, and a thousand other factors all in flux, most businesses need to morph themselves (at least to some degree) at least every couple of years just to keep their edge. At a more micro level, even if nothing is happening on high to directly affect your charter, various conditions will be causing you to alter things much more frequently.

In addition to getting a new structure right, it is vital that you ease the affected population through the process. I have known managers (and I will admit to working this way early in my career) who were fond of the “big bang” approach. They absolutely loved rolling out the big new group structure to everyone at once, while having given nobody any kind of advanced warning. That left behind a wide wake of shaken, dissatisfied, and demotivated folks. Not to mention the fact that, many times, after their big H-bomb, someone would offer post-mortem suggestions that might have actually improved the situation overall. Yeah, he might go add that change afterwards, but the thought of looking dumb over missing something so obviously important is a great demotivator not to.

Don't be that guy. Instead, concentrate on getting it right from the beginning. And that means getting all affected parties’ thoughts on the modifications. Each person may have something to offer, or he might not, but each will feel bought into the change and highly appreciative that you thought to let him in on it a priori.

What if someone does have a modification to suggest, but you’ve already progressed a good way through the whole deal? It’s your call at that point, but if the value of the suggestion would outweigh the bit of adjusting you would need to do and the additional communications you’d need to have with those you had already talked with, then you can decide to actually improve upon the whole situation. In doing so, you won’t have to “embarrass yourself” in front of the entire team. Instead, you’ll be doing exactly what you always do – getting maximal input on all major decisions.

When running the idea by folks, it is not necessary to tell each affected person the entire plan. You can restrict each person’s knowledge to facets that are appropriate. And, it’s important to stress the confidentiality of your discussion.
“Please do not discuss any aspects of this with anyone else. Many affected people have not yet been informed, and they need to have the discussion with me first. I am deadly serious. Do you understand?”
Sometimes those last couple of sentences are needed to really bring the point home. If someone decides not to heed your warning, and he somehow manages to avoid involuntary termination, you’d probably never trust him again to keep a secret, and do not bring him in on reorganization discussions in the future.

So who should you talk with? You should bring into the “in crowd” at least:
  • Anyone who will have a new boss
  • Folks that will have their assignments modified to any reasonable degree
  • People that have their work environment or location modified
  • Managers or other team leaders that will have new subordinates
  • Anyone on your team who has shown, from past experience, any untoward sensitivity regarding similar changes. (Some folks don’t like change at all… you don’t have to tell these people much – make them feel comfortable that something’s going to be happening.)
  • Your own boss (he will almost always have suggestions, comments, or outright demands)
  • Anyone else on the entire company’s management team that you would trust to give you solid feedback (especially someone in Human Resources if there might be anything controversial)
  • Your significant other (a neutral third party can be another great crosscheck)
By the time you are actually up in front of the team to announce your changes, a good percentage of the folks in the room will already know how it affects them, and they won’t have reason to worry. Nobody should ever see a reorganization and ask themselves, “I wonder what this means to me?” They should know that answer beforehand. The only ones surprised in any way should be folks who aren’t going to be substantially affected.

Monday, March 11, 2013

Coming down hard (properly)

So, someone committed a personal foul against someone else, and you've gone to a nice private place to have a hard talk. He probably knows he did something wrong, but maybe not the extent of it, and maybe not all of the possible repercussions to the future relationship with that customer or coworker.

Keep this in mind -- try your best not to outright tell him what he did wrong. As with other mentoring opportunities, much more will be absorbed if he figures it out on his own. Provide as much leading material as you need to drag him to the right place, but let him discover it. And make sure it all comes out.

The key word here is to be specific. There can be no room for generalities – it will only lead to confusion later. Remember that your level of sincerity is very important to whether the overall message will be received and logged. If you actually thought that his inappropriate comments were somewhat funny, and he knows it, he’s not going to take you as seriously. It may lead him to repeat the behavior to provide you additional entertainment in the future. If you’re trying to tell him that his technical mistake was very serious, and you’re checking your email while you're dialoging with him, the message will be highly diluted.

Sit down face to face. Meet eye to eye. Keep the dialog calm and factual – not emotional. No cussing. When you need to start wrapping things up, summarize clearly, with the minimum words needed to get your points across, and make sure he understands the consequences should it repeat itself:
“Fred, I’m glad you understand that speaking with customers that way is completely out of line and terrible for our business. I know you will control yourself much better in those types of situations from now on. But, so you know, this can’t happen again. That would possibly mean your having to leave here. Okay?”
If he misinterprets that, you’ve done about all you can do. Also, make sure to document it with Human Resources in case he does melt down again.

One more thing on the wrap up. Sometimes, there’s a desire to soften the blow a bit by applying what’s been called the “Oreo Treatment.” First, you tell him something positive, then you give your desired negative message, then you close with another positive. All this accomplishes is further dilution of your intended message. You should be acknowledging those positive points as frequently as possible. But not now!
“Sam, you are an excellent employee, and a great worker. You show up on time, work hard, and are a great example to the others. You shouldn’t access that system off-hours. You have a great future here, and I think you’re going to be a key member of our company for a long time to come. Blah, blah, blah…”
Message lost. If you’ve been giving him sufficient positive feedback at regular intervals, he’ll know all that other stuff. Keep on point.

So, let's summarize:
  • Make correction in private
  • Do it as soon as possible following the event
  • Be very specific about the error and allow the employee to discover it if possible
  • Be completely sincere regarding your feelings on the matter and don’t sugar-coat it

Sunday, March 3, 2013

I'm melting! I'm melting! What a world...

While we're discussing handling performance issues, let's discuss the case where someone has made a really big boo boo. All folks will screw up at some point. Hey, we’re human. But we're not talking here about making an honest technical mistake -- we're talking about having a full-blown meltdown... a "personal foul" as it were. Yelling at a customer, or publicly insulting someone in an email or in a meeting setting is inexcusable.

This is actually a party favor,
available at bestpricetoys.com!
Do not let it slide. It is important to deliver correction to the guilty party. Never assume that the incident was a fluke and won’t repeat itself. If you let it go without getting involved, you are providing excellent positive reinforcement. Not only will it repeat itself, but it will become infectious. You must act to correct, and how you do this will determine its effectiveness, as well as determine whether the employee (and the rest of the team) view you as a moron.

The first, and most important, aspect to remember is to deliver whatever correction is needed only in a private environment. Sure, you could start blurting, but that will only serve to inflame the situation and make a lot of other people uncomfortable. Sadly, we all see instances of poor managers jumping on folks in a public setting. No matter how big the mistake, this should never happen. You must intervene as necessary, and take the employee to your office, another conference room, or anywhere that the two of you can have a completely concealed discussion. If the problem is a relatively minor one, this can probably wait for the conclusion of whatever activity is in progress. But, for major missteps, such as the mistreatment of a customer or fellow employee, it may be appropriate to immediately but gently remove the offender with, “Excuse me, Joe, could I speak with you outside for a moment?”

Either way, do not wait any longer than necessary to pull him aside. Try thrusting your dog’s nose into the carpet where he “messed” two weeks ago, and he’s not going to make quite the connection he would make 5 seconds after that event. The entire event needs to be fully fresh in his mind – and your own. If you wait until tomorrow or next week, the event will start to fade from memory, and there might be room for him to deny that some part of it even happened. Act fast.

Now that you’ve retired to a calm, private setting, you have the option of at least somewhat salvaging an unpleasant moment by growing your team member a bit. Be nice. There’s no need to go nuts. You have to view these as “learnable moments” for your employee. It’s possible that he is unaware he’s acted inappropriately. So I usually start with something like, “So, how do you think that went in there?”

His first response may tell you that he knows exactly what he did, knows why it was inappropriate, and has no intent to ever repeat his action:
“I am so sorry about that comment I made. I knew it the moment I said it. He really pressed my buttons and got me riled up, but I absolutely could have controlled myself better. You have my word that it won’t happen again, and I’m going to go apologize to him as soon as we get out of here.”
Okay, we’re done here. My wish for you is that you always receive these types of replies. But, in most cases, you won’t be quite so fortunate. Now you have some more work to do.

Next up, we'll discuss the key points for how to handle this conversation.