Monday, March 8, 2010

Building a better boss

There are lots of things I do very badly and a few things I do pretty well. One of the things I do pretty well is managing people.

The comments from a post over at Revanche's blog made me start pondering this topic over the past few days. As I've mentioned before, I've been managing people in a corporate environment for about thirteen or fourteen years. I started with summer interns (always a little unpredictable) and gradually took on permanent employees of different grades, and today my team of direct reports consists of mid-level managers and subject matter experts.

Over time, I've developed a philosophy of people management. Some of it comes from books I've read or training courses I've taken over the years, but most of it is the result of processing my own experiences, good and bad, as an employee. Here are a few characteristics and behaviors that I think are integral to becoming a good people manager:

Lead by example
Model the behavior that you expect to see. If you expect work completed by a certain date, don't let your own deadlines slip. If you expect people to demonstrate good analytical work, do good analytical work yourself. If you expect them to treat people with respect, then let them see that you always treat people with respect. Perhaps most importantly, if you want your people to be energetic and enthusiastic about their work, you've got to be their biggest cheerleader.

Get to know your people as people
Show an interest in their families, their hobbies, and how they spend time outside of work. It'll help you help them achieve and maintain balance in their lives, and that makes the whole process of allocating work and managing expectations about when it'll be done all the more effective. It'll also make you more approachable to your team members because they'll feel warmth from you as a person. Moreover, I've always found that having insight into my team's lives outside of work is both personally rewarding and really helpful when it comes to gauging how they will respond to difficult situations.

Build a culture of trust and respect
Employees deserve honest feedback, delivered respectfully, on both their strengths and growth areas. This is feedback that needs to be delivered continuously: It's not fair to either withhold well-deserved praise or blindside someone by bringing up constructive criticism for the very first time on a formal performance review. It's also important not to shoot the messenger when something doesn't go as expected. My experience is that people who trust their managers not to fly off the handle at bad news feel safe to alert them about mistakes up front instead of sweeping errors under the rug. This matters because early warning is key when it comes to effective damage control.

In addition, make sure your actions match your words. Don't ask your team to move heaven and earth to get something done and then let it sit for two weeks before you review it. Don't promise to do something and then not do it. Many managers blow their credibility (and the trust and respect that go with it) by falling short on the follow-through.

Look out for your people's interests
I mean this in two ways, engaging your team members' attention, and giving them opportunities. Just about every job carries a certain amount of drudgery to it, but matching work to people's interests will go a long way towards generating momentum. Not everyone likes to be taken out of their comfort zone, but encouraging your people to push the boundaries of their current knowledge and develop new skills will generally serve them well in the long run, as long as they get the support they need to to be successful. In addition, broadcasting their successes, providing the resources they need to help strengthen their growth areas, and standing up for them when they're taking flak over something that didn't go so well are all critical parts of developing their careers.

Listen more than you talk
I usually aim for a ratio of 30% talking to 70% listening. When someone is talking, his or her receptors for non-verbal cues are not working at full capacity, and that can mean missing something important. In addition, employees who don't feel heard because their manager never shuts up don't feel valued or respected, and feeling marginalized at work affects everything from motivation to follow-through.

Listen with your full attention
Body language matters. When meeting with team members, especially one on one, it's really important to reinforce the message that they are valued by showing that you're giving them 100% of your attention. Non-verbal cues that indicate attentiveness include forwarding the phone to voice mail, setting cellphones out of sightline, turning away from the computer screen to avoid distractions from incoming mail or instant messages, and sitting in a neutral body position (directly facing the person, leaning slightly forward to show interest when they're talking, arms and legs not crossed, hands relaxed, and sustained eye contact without initiating a staredown). These body language techniques don't come naturally to everyone and they are certainly not natural to me, but they can absolutely be learned.

Have difficult conversations
It's not easy to tell someone that he or she isn't measuring up, but it's so important. In most cases, I think the assessment that someone is simply a bad employee is something of a cop-out. Sometimes employees honestly don't know why they're struggling. In those cases, how will they figure it out if the person who is responsible for managing their performance doesn't speak up about how their actions are perceived? If you've built a culture of trust and respect and really plan how you deliver the message (role-playing is very helpful here), my experience has been that team members will respond well because they believe you're looking out for their best interests and trust you to tell the truth.

In other circumstances, there might be something in the employee's personal life that has affected his or her performance. This is where having a culture of trust and respect and knowing your people as people are invaluable. Alternatively (and this is something I've certainly seen happen as the result of internal reorganizations), the employee might not be in the right job. I find these latter situations the most difficult situations to solve, and sometimes they just aren't solvable. That doesn't mean it's okay not to try, though.

Build a sense of ownership and responsibility
I don't like it when people dump problems in my lap. A tool I've found effective in counteracting this is to push people to take ownership by analyzing the problem and proposing solutions themselves. Questions I like to ask include:

-- How do you think we should solve this situation?
-- What do you think you could have done differently to produce a positive result?
-- So and so sounds very [add negative emotion of the day here]. Why do you think s/he reacted that way?

There's a time when issues escalate to the point of needing air cover, and it's important for managers to be able to recognize that and act accordingly. For most problems most of the time, though, refusing to take on the role of Mr. or Ms Fix-It empowers (or possibly forces) team members to really become invested in and responsible for the quality of their work. It also helps them build their own soft skills, problem-solving skills, and leadership skills.

Don't believe your own press
It's important for a manager to have confidence in his or her abilities, but the minute a manager tells someone to model themselves on the manager, that manager has lost it. We all have room for improvement, and team members can provide really valuable insight into how their managers can improve. To me, this is part of the continual feedback cycle I mentioned above. One of my favorite expressions is Challenge me if you think I'm wrong. My team does, and we all produce better results for it.

I want to stress that I'm very far from perfect, but that's what I believe in and do my best to live by consistently as far as people management goes. Do you think it makes sense? What other qualities or techniques help a person become a good people manager?

Check back here in a couple of days for a little background on some of the things that went into the development of my management philosophy. In the meantime, for a really outstanding book on managing and motivating people, I'd recommend It's Your Ship by Captain Jack Abrashoff. It's engaging, funny, honest, and in my experience, very, very accurate.

Please cast your vote for Frugal Zeitgeist in the Best Kept Secret category of the Plutus Awards!

9 retorts:

goldsmith,  March 9, 2010 at 4:32 AM  

In a strange way, my career has largely worked out in a way that I didn't have much staff responsibility - perhaps two years in total, out of some 26 in the workforce. I still blush when I think of all the mistakes I made during that time. For that reason, I really try to be forgiving with my own managers.

However, No. 1 - Lead by Example - I cannot cheer loudly enough. In my organisation, there is a top management team of five, the Director and four senior managers - Team A (four reports), Team B (four reports), Corporate Services and Team C (four reports), Legal and Registry (one report).

The laziness of four out of the five is nothing short of astonishing. The Director, who will be retiring soon, arrives at 10am and leaves between 4pm and 5pm most days. Occasionally, she takes a "long lunch" and will arrive back during late afternoon with alcohol on her breath. The Director earns the equivalent of over 200k USD per year. In ten years on the job, the Director has worked on exactly six cases.

Ms Corporate Services is mostly busy with supervising the build of her house in the country. She is a fully trained lawyer, but refuses to do any case work on the notion that it will not do anything for her personal development. Thousands of Euro were spent to train her up as a Mediator with the idea that she joins our ADR team, but she refused to take mediation cases and let her certification slip. She earns more than 120k USD.

Ms Legal fobs off all the management of registry to her one report, and a considerable deal of her legal work do unpaid legal interns. She is facilitated with doing an additional Masters in Law one day a week on work time, for full pay. She has a very irregular attendance pattern, but according to her PA and Legal Interns, hardly works the 34h 45mins per week she is contracted to do. She earns around 130k USD.

Ms Team A (my boss), has a "work arrangement", whereby she works in the office in the morning, and "from home" in the afternoon. She attends from 9:30 to 1pm, and then logs on for a token hour from 4-5. She also earns app 135k USD for what is supposed to be a full-time role. She used to do casework, but has been able to wriggle out of it for several years now.

That leaves Ms Team B, who is the only member of senior management who actually does case work, and who actually works while present in the office (she recently had a baby and is still using some parental leave). She and I will be training as mediators shortly. Ms Team B also earns around 120k USD.

The backdrop to all of this is that these women came up with an idea to triple the caseload of their reports, that is, me and my colleagues, to get rid of our ever lengthening backlogs. We rose up as a group and made it clear that unless we saw the Director, Ms Team A and Ms Corporate Services take on casework, they could forget about any additional output from us. In the ten years the organisation existed, we have improved our outputs every single year, but at some point you reach your limits. As a colleague quipped: "If they want another 10% improvement, they need to do it themselves."

These ideas have now been shelved until the new Director arrives in May. We are desperately hoping he or she will get this lazy crowd to work!

amr,  March 9, 2010 at 6:59 AM  

Been AWOL on a project for a while, but here is my take on things FZ.

More time can be spent on people management than any other day to day item if not controlled, in my limited experience.

Someone close to me had a business with a staff of around 30 people for nearly 20 years. People management was the biggest consumer of time.

I worked in a small office for a while before heading out on my own, the director was a collaborator in words and an autocrat in actions. The only reason I eventually left.
So many talented staff left even during my short stay. As a 'mature age' employee I never held back in my thoughts, neither did he.
The only upside was none of it was ever personal.
We could argue over something one minute, the next be sharing a bottle of red engaged in discourse.

I digress.

In my former life I was responsible for the training and management of 50 volunteers involved in life threatening rescues, (non military) for nearly 20 years.

Three of your characteristics ring true.

Look out for your people's interests. If they are not on the ball remove them from the scene and tell them why, give them space, positive reinforcement and time to recover.
Have difficult conversations. Eye to eye. Tell in clear terms the issues you see but also offer solutions or a future direction. Never leave them out in the cold.
Build a sense of ownership and responsibility. The most important in my view as long as they know that you will back them up and provide support when they come calling.
I could give 'orders' telling who was responsible for each part of the operation, knowing that if any of them had a problem they would put up their hand without fear as not putting up their hand meant letting down the whole team. Or worse.
They always knew they could offer suggestions on every aspect of the operation in the field but it was always my call in the end to run with it or discard it and continue on.

One more that I think is the most important is stay removed from the clique. Not completely, but mostly. I could enjoy a drink at the end of it all. Training or real operation, but yet still managed to stay somewhat of an enigma to all but the most senior. Very important when even all the training is life threatening. No room for error.

PS. I love Dilbert. I read it every day!

Anonymous,  March 9, 2010 at 9:42 PM  


This is a great post! Your management philosophy is impressive along with your discipline in executing it.

I would add that it is important to manage your team so that the workload is distributed equally. It is unfair to take advantage of the high-performing employees because they are more reliable, efficient, and dedicated. They will eventually leave.

I am curious about two things.

First, how are you able to predict employees’ responses to difficult situations based on their lives? I can understand that someone experiencing a personal crisis may react negatively to additional stress. But have you noticed that those with after-work activities such as volunteering and team sports tend to have better perspective?

Second, how do you keep employees motivated in an environment with so many layoffs? It is different when entire divisions are being eliminated versus just low-performing individuals.


Jerry March 11, 2010 at 11:20 AM  

It sounds like you are a pretty darn good manager. I was a manager at an insurance company for a few years and I'm pleased to say that I incorporated many of the things you mentioned. I think if you lead by example it can have the greatest impact. I tried to respect my teams and in turn, I believe they respected me.

frugal zeitgeist March 12, 2010 at 3:23 PM  

Anon the first - If you thought this post was boring, the next one is even worse. Don't say I didn't warn you.

goldsmith - That sounds like an awful situation. I really hope the new director can make a difference, but it sounds like an uphill battle unless s/he comes in empowered to make sweeping changes.

amr - You are very right: People management can be a huge time suck if you let it. It's only part of my job, so I have to keep it constrained to the bandwidth I have for it. This is really tough sometimes.

J - I think I worded that badly. For me, a large part of anticipating how people are going to respond comes from knowing them as people. Without getting too much into detail about what I do, not all of my guys are ready to work directly with clients because I can't trust one or more of them to keep his cool in pressure situations. I can and do provide counseling on techniques, but until I see mastery of similar situations where we all don't have quite as much skin in the game, I can't afford a poor showing in risky ones. Does that make sense? To answer your second question, keeping people motivated after fourteen months of layoffs (we have one next week) is very difficult. I urge them to find the motivation within themselves by focusing on what they derive satisfaction from doing. If nothing else, I know they are glad to have a paycheck in a really horrible economy. They are all trying very hard under difficult circumstances.

Jerry - Thanks! I get good feedback on my style. And yes, the importance of mutual respect is something that really can't be overstated.

goldsmith,  March 12, 2010 at 3:50 PM  

Hi FZ,

thanks for your kind words - when I had summarised the habits of the Senior Management Team, I nearly feared you wouldn't believe me. But they are true.

The advertisement for the new Director appeared online and in the national press today, and stresses strong management and interpersonal skills above all else. So our situation obviously hasn't gone unnoticed in our parent organisation.

Any Director would be very empowered in terms of the legislation that establishes our organisation, but this being the public sector, the question would be: would they want it?

The worst scenario would be another person coming to us on the notion that they are to retire in the job, and to approach our challenges with a "no skin off my nose" attitude.

On the other hand, there are extremely few positions at this level of seniority coming up in the Irish Civil Service right now (there is a general recruitment embargo in place), so the field of contenders is likely to be extremely strong. Let's hope for the best!

Revanche March 16, 2010 at 12:15 AM  

I can't believe I missed this for the past week since I'd been thinking that you're one of the people I'd reach out to for guidance in difficult management situations that I'm sure will arise. [Hope you don't mind!]

I've done ok in the past with a very small team but I've been reading up as much as I can so that I come into this new position as prepared as possible. Funny that you mention the Abrashoff book, I linked to that in one of my guest posts just the other day! I'm going to reread it tonight.

frugal zeitgeist March 16, 2010 at 4:11 PM  

Revanche, feel free to reach out anytime! I'm so happy for you, and I bet you'll do a wonderful job.

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