Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Problems with Power

I love irony. It makes you stop in your tracks, if only for a brief moment. It makes you think, “That’s funny.”

I recently did some consulting work for a global energy and utility company. I was working with the IT group on a training needs assessment for a new software system they were implementing. The nature of the work I did is immaterial here except to say, it was interesting work and the people were smart, able and motivated to make sure their people were ready to use the new system.

OK. OK. I am getting to the irony.

On the second day, I wandered around the office to orient myself to the surrounding and find out where people sat, where the restrooms rooms were, and the location of the break room.

In the break room was a table with two microwaves and a small toaster-oven. There was a sign on the wall above the two microwave ovens. The sign read:

“Due to power problems, please only use one microwave oven at a time. Thank
you.”

I stopped in my tracks. “Wait a minute.” I thought. “This is a power company that supplies energy to millions of households in the U.S. and Europe, and they have power problems that will affect the use of a microwave oven?

“That’s funny.”

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Do You Have a Monkey on Your Back?

Sometimes as managers, we get weighed down with monkeys placed on our backs by our team. I have tried to fight this problem with varying levels of success throughout my career, and got better and better as I went along. It can happen in a flash, and managers should be aware of the dangers involved of letting this happen.

It happens to new managers often. It happens to micro-managers….well, nothing “happens” to micro-managers because that would mean sheer terror for a micro-manager. Let me re-phrase…micro-managers do it. Experienced, effective managers let this happen when they get complacent.

Here is the story.

A manager is sitting in his office one morning. He came in early to plan his day. As his team arrives to work it begins to happen…slowly at first. But by the end of it, it appears to have happened in the blink of an eye.

John comes in with a copy of a report and asks the manager to review it before he turns it over to marketing and wants to know what his next assignment is. This is a 20-page report and should be turned into marketing by tomorrow afternoon.

Lisa pops in to the manager’s office, chats a little about American Idol and then asks, “Could you help me with Peter from Customer Service? I am having trouble getting his help and I cannot finish my assignment until I get those customer retention numbers.”

Steve arrives and asks the manager to please schedule a meeting with the operations managers. Oh, and also invite Connie. Connie should really be there for this meeting.

Dooh! The manager dropped his guard for 20 minutes, and eight of his people, by 9:00am, have come into his office asking for help in some form or another. Now, the manager has eight people sitting at their desks doing nothing all day, waiting for a response from him, while the manager has to stay late to do the work of eight people.

This is not managing. This is doing other people’s work. And doing it ineffectively. The manager now has no time to spend planning, setting the team’s direction, meeting with other managers to discuss the progress of other company projects. There is no time now to have performance review meetings or to give any informal feedback to his people. He certainly does not have time to develop stretch assignments to give his people opportunities to grow.

This happens, to some degree, to all managers. It happens quickly and must be avoided. In each case, there is a way to turn it around back on his people to handle.

To John, the manager could ask if the report is in final draft stage, if John checked the figures with operations or obtained those cost figures from finance.

To Lisa, the manager could say, “Why don’t you call Peter and tell him what you are working on and why it is important. Tell him, I would really appreciate his help on this.”

The manager could ask Steve to set up the meeting…even create the agenda and lead the meeting. “Steve, you know this project better than anyone, why don’t you schedule the meeting, set up the agenda, and if you like, we can review your agenda together if you have any questions about how to proceed.”

WOW! Steve is feeling pretty good about being told he knows the project better than any. He feels important that he can invite all these executives to the meeting and lead that meeting.

Steve is excited and happy. The manager is free to set up and assign a new project to someone on his team. And, no monkeys!

How many monkeys do you have on your back today? Get rid of them.

Sunday, January 25, 2009

Are You Becoming Obsolete?

I mean it. Are you? Think about it. In today’s information economy, most of us are knowledge workers, who use our brains as our means of producing goods and services. It is through the knowledge we have acquired and its application that we can be paid for what we do. Whether it is writing articles for a magazine, setting up a computer network or helping someone invest their money, it is our minds through which we create value.

Do you think a computer programmer who knew BASIC in 1986 would have a valuable skill in 1998? Unless this person learned HTML or Java or Perl, they would be out of business.

Sony owned the portable music market for years. They practically invented it. If you are younger than 30, you probably have no idea what a Sony Walkman is. People of my generation used to carry around their Walkmans every where. Like you do with your iPod. I know. Hard to imagine anything came before the iPod, but like the Walkman, people can become just as obsolete.

Here are four ways you can avoid becoming obsolete.

Read. It is not much more simply than that. Set a goal to read at least a book a month. Notice I said, “at least.” By reading books, you can learn anything. How to use Microsoft Excel. How to be a better manager. How to analyze financial statements. How to writing winning sales copy. Anything. And if you use a local library, you can do it for free.

Go Back to School. Peter Drucker recommended that knowledge workers go back to school every 3-4 years. Imagine that. Every 3-4 years. Sounds impractical. Well, you don’t have to enroll in a full graduate degree program every 3-4 years. There are plenty of self-study programs or continuing education programs that are much shorter in length. Often times, you can get your company to pay for it. If you can show it will make you a more valuable employee and a more loyal one, most company will pay.

Volunteer for additional assignments at work. If you take a little extra time at work, you can volunteer to help out on a project outside of your area of expertise. Not too many teams will turn down extra help. Call up the manager of a company project that

Volunteer at a local charity or club in your town. You’d be surprised how much you can learn about leadership or sales or teambuilding, if you are on a committee to raise money for a charity function. Plus, you will meet new people, expand your horizons and help those less fortunate. Win-Win.

My point is this…keep renewing, rebuilding and reinventing yourself, if you want to survive and thrive in your career. You other choice is to continue to refine your knowledge of the BASIC computer language and hope someone will want that skill tomorrow.

Will Rogers once said, “Even if you are on the right track, if you are standing still, you are going to get run over.” Nicely put, Roy.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Gain Commitment and Loyalty During a Recession

Most experts would agree that the best way to behave with your people during a recession (or otherwise uncertain times) is to communicate as often and candidly as possible. This shows respect, and people respond well to being treated this way….even under circumstances in which they could be laid off.

And one type of conversation you can have with your people is about helping them think through and identify new skills they can develop, so they can come out of this recession more valuable. Whether your people (or you, for that matter) are laid off, having this discussion is a way to strengthen a relationship and earn commitment and loyalty.

There are many ways we can develop new skills and there are plenty of colleges and universities that offer degrees and certification programs that are easy to attend and relevant to these changing times. Take a look at a stock chart of the Apollo Group (the parent company of the University of Phoenix). The stock price has almost doubled since April 2008, as enrollment numbers rise. People are updating their skills and increasing their education to become more valuable coming out of this recession.

It is not always necessary to obtain a full bachelor or master’s degree, which can take 1-3 years. In shorter periods of time, one can obtain certifications in project management, human resources, all manner of IT skills (and many others) at scores of local universities that offer continuing education programs.

Talk to your people about programs like these and encourage them to explore this option. Check to see if the company tuition reimbursement program would cover some or all of these expenses. That could be a nice kicker for your people.

Friday, January 16, 2009

Do Different Leaders in Different Functions have Different Skills?

In my last post, I posed the question whether a leader needs technical expertise in the area they lead. If the answer is yes, it implies that different leaders have different problems to solve. IT leaders have IT problems. Customer Service leaders have customer problems. And so on.

However, Peter Drucker makes a point that all managers have the same problems:

"…management everywhere faces the same problems. Is has to organize work for
productivity; it has to lead the worker towards productivity and
achievement.

- Peter Drucker in Management: Tasks, Responsibilities, Practices"

So you have to ask yourself; re managers on your organization leading people towards productivity and achievement? And does it matter whether they are finance managers or operations managers?

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Does a Leader Need Technical Expertise in the Area He/She Leads?

Yesterday, Yahoo! hired Carol Bartz to be its CEO. Bartz was the CEO of Autodesk, which is a software company that develops computer-aided design 3D software. Some analysts criticized the move citing Batrz’s lack of experience in the consumer internet media business. Never mind her experience running a 7,300-employee, $4+ billion market cap publicly-traded software company in the Silicon Valley area. Never mind her experience managing C-Level officers, and her Ph.D. She lacks experience in the consumer internet media business.

The question is begged…does a leader need specific technical skills (in the case of Bartz, does she need specific consumer internet media expertise) in the area they manage? Does a supervisor of a networking team need to know how to set up computer networks? How about a senior manager of that same group? What about the Vice President of IT? What about the CIO?

Answers to these questions are debatable for some, but one thing is clear: the higher you rise in an organization the less important are your technical skills, and the more important are your leadership skills. In fact, one of the biggest reasons that new managers struggle is when they fail to stop doing the technical work are start managing the technical work of others. Need proof? Read Linda Hill’s book, Becoming a Manager. She talks about that very struggle...the transition from a person being an individual contributor to a manager. A good read and a subject for another day.

As a leader in any organization, your most important skill is the ability to lead the work of others. If you take the attitude that if you want anything done right, you have to do it yourself, you will fail. It is your job to get others to perform. Mike Leach is the coach of the Texas Tech football team. He never played college football. His team finished 11-2 this season. Does he need the technical expertise of playing college football to succeed? Do you think that when his team struggles, he thinks he should put on a helmet and suit up? The answer is “no” on both counts.

But too many managers think it is their technical expertise that will help them be successful. In other worlds, if John does not finish an assignment correctly, the manager takes over and finishes it themselves. How does this help John be better tomorrow? How does this allow the manager to spend time planning the work effort for the team next quarter? It doesn’t.
Managers need to let go of their technical expertise as a primary skill and develop leadership skills. Leaders make organizations succeed.

Friday, January 9, 2009

What Micro-Managers Do: Anatomy of a Meeting

I used to walk around the office past the glass conference rooms and observe the meetings in progress. At first, I was just walking through the office and casually looked in on who was having meetings...making the occasional gestures of hello to people who were my friends. Over time, I began to notice people’s behaviors in these meetings...some people sat up straight, others slouched in their chairs, some people looked down at the ground, some people always sat next to the manager, others consistently had food and/or drink with them. There were all kinds of interesting little things that I just thought were those interesting little things.

But there was one behavior that I became a little obsessed with. I noticed the same people always had their mouths moving. These were the managers that people called the micro-managers. The more I noticed it, the more obvious it became, of course…the micro-managers were doing all the talking. Maybe this is not a ground-breaking revelation. Maybe.

I am no behavioral psychologist, but I did seem to be observing some consistent behavior. And if you think about it, there may be something there. To test my hypothesis (micro-managers do most of the talking during meetings) answer the following questions for yourself: In your staffing meetings, who is doing all of the talking? Among your peers, who is doing all of the talking? Are you doing all of the talking in your staff meetings?

We have all attended meetings like these. I am sorry to say, I have led meetings like this. (No one is perfect). So I have started to put together a list of things that occur during a meet led by a micro-manager.

The anatomy of a team meeting led by a micro-manager:

  1. Meeting agenda created, sent out and followed by the manager.
  2. Key updates asked for and delivered by the manager. Well, in some instances, the manager will go around the room for updates…by think about it…once the team member finishes their first sentence or two, the manager jumps in, completes the thought, adds a few more and then assigns more thoughts for future tasks.
  3. 80-90% of the talking is done by the manager. It is not difficult to figure out why most team members feel meetings are a waste of time. All they do is sit there and listen to the manager who has all the answers.

Monday, January 5, 2009

Leading in Uncertain Times

I recently read a Harvard Business Review article, "How to Protect Your Job in a Recession" (September 2008).

During tough times, many people get so worried about their job that they loose focus on their work. They update their resume, stop going to office events, stop questioning and challenging work processes out of fear of rocking the boat. They face inward when they should face outward. This is the opportunity for a leader to increase engagement.

When you read this article, you think about the things an individual can do to improve individual value and increase the odds of surviving a downturn, like being optimistic, focusing on customers and volunteering for tasks and projects beyond your job description. But when you put on your leadership hat, you see the advice in a different light, as a list of leadership behaviors. I am reminded of the work of Kouzes and Posner (The Leadership Challenge) in which they declare, “Leaderships is everyone’s business.”

Not all individual contributors realize that they are or can be leaders, so leading in tough times requires us to develop this belief and to help identify opportunities in which people can exhibit leadership, high performance and engagement beyond their job description.

Developing the Belief
There are many ways in which we can develop the belief in people that they are leaders. We can speak candidly with a balance between cold-hard reality and optimistic focus on customers, offering genuine support and belief in their abilities, and recognizing actions taken to face outward and increase the number of hats they wear.

Identify Opportunities
Leaders cannot force a horse to drink, but he/she can lead a horse to water by communicating the importance of being more involved and helping to create and/or identify opportunities for which people can engage. It is a leader’s job to help people realize the myriad opportunities beyond job descriptions in which they can expand horizons, create value and demonstrate leadership.

Individuals are responsible for their own lives and in the end, must believe in themselves and open the door when opportunity knocks, but a leader’s role in tough times is to make additional efforts to help people realize this.

I recommend reading this article and having your people read it too.

I also recommend that you ask everyone who works for you to read the Ken Blanchard book, “Self Leadership and the One Minute Manager." It is a short, easy to read and entertaining way to learn about being a leader. The most powerful part of this book is the section on assumed constraints, which helps people realize most the constraints people perceive as keeping them from leading are assumed and self-imposed. A hard pill to swallow for some.