Saturday, March 27, 2010

First Time - Part 20: Set the Example

This is part 20 of in a series of short essays on fundamentals of leadership. While it is drafted for those who have just moved into their first leadership position, I hope there is a little something in here for the most practiced of leaders, a 'getting back to basics' that everyone needs every now and then.

Leading means setting a good example and you need to do it all day, every day. You need to set the example in big things and small things. You will find, however, that setting the example in the mundane, the routine, is nearly as important as the example you set in times of crisis – and often more difficult to manage, because that day-to-day example is going to set the tone of your entire organization.

There are some obvious examples (though even these are often ignored by people who claim to be leaders): praise in public, censure in private; always remain calm; thank those who work for you (and do the real work); etc. You can probably add three or four off the top of your head.

But there are some other 'simple' maxims that you as a leader need to remember.

Set the example in routine things. This can have a hundred shades of meaning, but for starters, consider this: work smart, not hard. If you are coming into work at 6 AM and leaving at 8 PM every day, and you are always exhausted, what 'signal' does that send to your people? Certainly, there are times when that can't be helped; everyone will know that. But, if you make it a habit of simply being in your office, when you clearly have other places to be, you also send a message that you really don't trust the folks under you to do their jobs when you aren't there.

We all have bad days. But you can't bring your bad days to work. No matter how you feel about what is going on, you need to be positive. Your attitude will be absorbed and replicated by everyone around you: if you are positive, no matter the situation, your people will be as well. If you are negative, they will be negative. This doesn't mean you need to be a grinning, hail fellow well met irrespective of the situation. But a 'we can overcome, despite any situation' very often becomes true simply because of the attitude of the leader. What is certain is that if you convey the perception that things are 'bad,' they will be.

Part and parcel with that positive attitude is conveying that you enjoy your job, that you enjoy working with your people, that you like the organization, the company. Again, the flip side is that you send the signal that you aren't having fun, that you 'don't enjoy it here.' Well, if you don't, why would anyone else? And if they don't enjoy it, not only will they not work hard and not try hard, they will leave when they get an opportunity. Conversely, people who enjoy their work, their team-mates, their environment are more likely to try hard to make certain it thrives. Your job is to engender that feeling. And it is often as simple as making it clear that you enjoy going to work on Monday morning, that you really want to meet with your people, that you enjoy talking to them and helping them succeed.

Be careful managing your time. Letting yourself be buried in paperwork or e-mails will not only send a poor signal to your people, it also leaves your trapped inside your office. So, eliminate the paperwork that isn't essential (and remember to push back with your boss if you think you can reduce paperwork flowing up); delegate paperwork that can be more easily completed by someone else; and manage your e-mail. Make sure that someone else also sees your business e-mails (and get your personal e-mails dumped into a personal folder). If not, then you will become both a bottleneck – all e-mails from above must pass through you, and if there is a task from the boss and you aren't at your desk it will be stopped until you get back to your desk – which can turn a routine task into a crisis. There are many "leaders" who place great stock in being 'on distro' from senior leadership and closely guard their e-mail prerogatives; this is a good thing if they want to be chained to their desk AND the e-mails being passed around contain information and comments that they shouldn't. So, tell your peers to clean up the e-mails, take out derogatory comments, and put others on distro for your e-mails.

Get out of the office. And make sure others see you doing it. If you work out, make sure you go during lunch. Encourage others. Go for a run (or walk if you don't run). Working out, keeping in shape isn't just beneficial for your body, it can help you clear your head, let you focus on something else so that you don't fixate on one problem. Things invariably looks different after some time out of the office. One thing is certain, telling everyone that they are encouraged to work out and that it is part of the corporate culture of fitness, then sitting behind your desk 12 hours per day and sending out tasks with answers due at 1 PM (making it impossible to leave the office for lunch or a run, etc.) sends a clear signal that the 'culture of fitness' is a line but isn't really meant to be believed.

You are probably a Type A, that is why you find yourself in a leadership position.  If you aren't a Type A, all the pressure in the corporate environment will push you in that direction. There is nothing necessarily wrong with having a Type A personality, but you mustn't overdo it. More importantly, you want to make sure that you send the signal to your people to work smart, not hard. Send this signal early, and when you need your people to work smart AND hard they will.

Enjoy being in charge, you will find it can be the most rewarding experience of your life. And you will find that you can enjoy the ride even more if you set the example and let others enjoy their jobs – their ride – as well.

Monday, March 22, 2010

First Time - Part 19: Delegating

This is part 19 of in a series of short essays on fundamentals of leadership. While it is drafted for those who have just moved into their first leadership position, I hope there is a little something in here for the most practiced of leaders, a ‘getting back to basics’ that everyone needs every now and then.

One of the interesting apparent contradictions in leadership is that effective leaders are those who learn how to delegate. It is fair to say that only those who are very good at delegating have any chance of becoming highly effective leaders.

Which leads to two simple questions: how do you learn to delegate? And what things should you never delegate?

Delegating, like most of leadership, is art-form, that is, you have to practice it ‘in the field.’ This is particularly true of delegating. You will only become good at delegating by doing it a great deal.

But, there are two fears associated with delegation: the first is simply that you are going to give the task to ‘Joe’ and he’s not going to do it right and you will be blamed. The second and more insidious is the opposite, that you will give the task to Joe and he will perform it so well that your boss will think he no longer needs you.

As for the first, the truth is you have to delegate. If you have five people who work for you, and they each are putting in just 30 real hours of work per week, that amounts to 150 hours of real work: you can’t do that yourself. You must delegate some work. Can you perform certain high priority tasks yourself instead of delegating? Certainly. But your job is to lead and manage, to provide oversight. If you have even a marginally competent boss, every time you keep a task for yourself will raise a question as to whether you really are ready to lead.

As for the second fear, that the boss will believe you are no longer needed because ‘Joe’ did such a great job, such a boss is not even marginally competent. You are in a lousy position and it has nothing to do with delegating or not delegating. So you should focus on becoming a better leader (maybe your boss’s boss will notice (the subject of a later discussion)) and on taking care of your people.

How and what do you delegate? A simple solution is to try to delegate everything. Is there someone who works for you who is qualified to address each task and is that task fairly within their job description? If so, delegate all those tasks. You will perform the role of ensuring that standards are met. And recognizing who actually performed the work.

This will not come easily in most cases. (There are some exceptions to this: a production line with clearly assigned jobs and standard tasks can be nearly self-tending. However, as soon as non-standard tasks are assigned, you will find yourself with the same problem of delegating tasks.) So, a simple way to mark how much to delegate is this: delegate until you get an uneasy feeling in your stomach, then delegate a bit more.

This will be a moving mark, and you will learn to delegate more as your experience grows. You will also be ‘bitten on the backside’ more then once, as you delegate some task to someone and then they fail to perform to the necessary standards and you miss a deadline. The lesson learned is not: blame ‘Joe.’ The lesson learned is that you either delegated to the wrong guy, or you didn’t provide the right guidance, training and oversight. You may not have delegated the necessary authority so that ‘Joe’ could actually carry out the assigned task. Those are all your shortcomings. Learn from the event and move on.

Delegating authority is a difficult thing to do; no one feels comfortable doing it at first. After all, you are letting someone speak for you. You are letting go of the thing – authority - that was just handed to you. But it is the only way to get things done. But you can’t delegate a task without delegating the authority to execute the task. Swallow hard, then delegate.

That being said, there is a limit to delegation. Beyond the obvious case where your boss pulls you aside and says ‘I need you personally to do this for me,’ the limit to delegation is simply put: ‘delegate tasks, delegate authority to carry out the tasks, but never delegate responsibility.’ When something goes wrong, when the job isn’t completed on time, when it’s not done properly, you shoulder the blame. You are still responsible for oversight.

The old saw that the leader takes blame but never credit is as true today as when it was first offered. So, delegate tasks and authorities, provide oversight and guidance, accept the blame for any shortcoming, and when there is success – and there will be – remember to praise those who really did the work. The rest will take care of itself – and your boss will notice and take care of you.

Friday, March 19, 2010

First Time - Part 18: Span of Control

This is part 18 of in a series of short essays on fundamentals of leadership. While it is drafted for those who have just moved into their first leadership position, I hope there is a little something in here for the most practiced of leaders, a ‘getting back to basics’ that everyone needs every now and then.

Span of Control

There has been a great deal of talk over the past 15 to 20 years about flattened organizations and how modern systems and the internet let senior management make direct contact with the workforce, or with sales or whatever is applicable in your organization.

Let me be the first to say that I fully support any elimination of unnecessary middle management and stultifying bureaucracy. Of course, the operative word is ‘unnecessary.’ But the fact is that some middle management is necessary. And the reason for this is simple: human beings are incapable of controlling more than 6 or 8 people at a time.

The common wisdom is that the flatter an organization, the faster it can respond to changing conditions and changing customer preferences. Why this is so is fairly simple: the number of steps between the work-force and the decision-maker has been reduced. Information flows ‘up’ more quickly; the decision-maker is in closer contact with the ‘shop floor,’ hence has a better ‘feel’ for the situation; more rapid and accurate decisions are made; and the decisions are communicated more quickly to the ‘shop floor.’ There are fewer de facto powerless middle managers who can only slow down information and inhibit decision-making, thereby allowing more rapid response.

All of that is true. But it doesn’t change the fact that if a leader is directly managing more than a certain number of people he will be swamped with information flow – of all types – and be incapable of properly executing his functions.

Why this is so is fairly simple: we are a gregarious bunch but none of us mixes perfectly. If you have one person who works for you, the only relationship you have is the one between you and that person. If you have two people who work for you, you have four relationships to manage: the relationship between you and each separately, the relationship between the two of them, and their combined relationship with you. If you have three people working for you, that number jumps to 13. True, some of the relationships will, in fact be of no consequence. But, as a rule of thumb, you can assume that the minimum of meaningful relationships that you will manage is equal to your number of subordinates – squared. So, three people: nine important relationships; 4 = 16, 5 = 25. By the time you get to 10 you have 100 different relationships you need to manage. And while each will take a few minutes a week, some may well consume hours at a time.

Is it possible to have a host of people who are all remote from each other, none of them dealing with any of the others, allowing you to deal with each ‘one-on-one?’ Certainly. And in the rare cases where that exists I suppose one individual might be able to handle a whole host of people. But such circumstances are very rare.

And so, despite the fact that most leaders thoroughly enjoy mixing with ‘the troops,’ the fact is that no leader can actually manage more then a handful. History bears this out, not only in the major political and military leaders of the past, but also in virtually every leader of today. The average manager or leader today often has fooled himself into believing that he can manage 15 or more people reporting directly to him. But close observation reveals, in virtually every case, that what happens is something like this:

Of the 15 people who report to him, he routinely ignores the bulk of them. In fact, he is so oversaturated with input that he will focus on two or three subordinates who are involved in the work that he himself is particularly interested in. If he used to be with sales, he will focus on sales, if he was an engineer, he will focus on the engineers and system development; in the military the commander will spend all his time with his operations officer and one or two subordinate units, and never talk to the G1, G2, G4, G5, G6 or any of his other staff codes (and usually several subordinate units will also be ignored.) This will persist for some time and then, as if descending from the heavens the boss appears in this office or that office, appears to show great (often too great) interest for a certain period of time, provides guidance – often conflicting, then disappears, not to reappear again for who knows how long.

If this sounds like your boss, it is because his span of control is too great. Hopefully, it doesn’t sound like you.

As a leader you are responsible not simply for managing the ‘output,’ whatever it might be; you are responsible for your people. And that means you must know them, and understand them, and understand the issues and pressures they are facing. That includes all the various relationships that develop in any workforce. And that takes time. You must become involved if you want them to be the best they can be. And yet there is an obvious limit to how much time you can spend managing all these relationships.

So, how many people should work for you? The answer is not an easy one. It depends on the complexity of the tasks at hand and the degree to which the subordinates operate independently. A chief of surgery at a hospital may have a dozen surgeons ‘working’ for him, but in a very real sense, they don’t work for him, and his degree of control and oversight is less then it might at first appear. On a production line a foreman may have 10 or 12 people working for him and as long as the skill level is not too high, and he has the time to come to know everyone, this may be manageable. As the complexity increases, or as the turnover rate increases, it will become increasingly difficult to manage 12 people.

It is worth noting that the size of an infantry squad – around the world – is between 7 and 11 people, and has been for more than 2000 years. This has nothing to do with tradition and everything to effective leadership. That you can then move up through most armies in the world and find most commands trying to keep the number of subordinates reporting to any commander in the range of 5 people is a testimony to the lessons of effective leadership (it often is more than 5, but most people do try to keep that number in sight.) Simply put, the leadership becomes less effective as that number increases.

You will need to find your own way, and on your first job you will certainly simply be told what the answer is. But, be honest with yourself and recognize how hard it is to do your job and manage everyone and all the human relationships that are around you. Delegate when you can, take notes, and when you have the opportunity, don’t over extend yourself.

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

First Time - Part 17: Diversity

This is part 17 of in a series of short essays on fundamentals of leadership. While it is drafted for those who have just moved into their first leadership position, I hope there is a little something in here for the most practiced of leaders, a ‘getting back to basics’ that everyone needs every now and then.

You’ve been told to put together a team of folks to do something, and you want to pick a good team. So let me say a few words about diversity. The truth is that the word is used a great deal but often with inconclusive or irrelevant results.

A number of years ago I found myself on a planning team for a major military operation. The general in charge of the planning team made a point of telling everyone that he wanted a diverse team, for all the politically correct reasons. He then assembled a group of perhaps a dozen officers: there were Army, Air Force, Navy and Marines; there were seven men and five women; there were several pilots; several infantry officers, a submariner, a logistician, etc.; there were several African-Americans, an Hispanic-American, two Asian-Americans. We were, from his perspective as diverse as he could get.

What I saw was 12 officers all with 13 to 18 years in the military, all graduates of one of the War Colleges (if memory serves, 8 were graduates of the Army War College, two were graduates of the Air Force War College, and two were graduates of the Naval War College); each had at least one year of duty on this staff. In short, stripping away the labels, we were all pretty much the same. And the planning proved it: we produced a bread and butter plan; it suited its purpose and was more than adequate. But it was hardly original. In short, there was no significant diversity among the team members, at least not diversity that mattered.

What had happened was the general who selected us had used superficial characteristics as marks of diversity.

After that, whenever I had a chance to weigh in on selection of teams where there was any desire for creativity or a new perspective, I offered this option: bring in two additional people: at least one ‘new guy,’ someone who has been in the organization for less than a year (in the military it can be very helpful to bring in an Ensign or 2nd Lieutenant and have him sit and listen and take notes). If the planning isn’t making sense to the ‘New Guy,’ and you can’t explain it to him, you have a problem. This is not to say that you should ‘dumb down’ plans so they are understandable to someone just off the street. On the contrary, no plan should ever be simply ‘dumbed down.’

If, on the other hand, if you can take a complex issue and a complex solution and develop an execution plan that can be explained so that a neophyte can clearly understand it, you probably have a plan that can be successfully executed.

The second person to bring is someone with a completely different background. Again, by way of example, I was involved with several teams that were designing satellites. One team was made up exclusively of engineers; one had a student of the arts on it. The team of engineers worked faster – they all thought alike. But the team with a couple of non-engineers was able to address issues from unusual perspectives. Innovation came from the ‘chemistry’ between engineers who ‘already knew the answers’ and liberal arts majors who kept asking: “why can’t we do XXX?” Because the engineers had to explain “why” so many times, we started to see instances where we had accepted certain positions as immutable truths when, in fact, they were nothing more than engineering conveniences. We would never have arrived at the conclusions we did if it had not been for the prodding and questioning from the non-engineers.

The point is this: there is some diversity that is relevant to the task at hand, and there is some that really isn’t. We should all be color-blind. It shouldn’t matter a tinker’s damn whether the parents of the guy sitting next to you are from China, India, Ireland, or Indiana. But, which team is likely to make a better city planning team, all other things being equal: a half dozen lawyers, or a carpenter, a lawyer, an architect, a chemist, a teacher and an electrical engineer?

In putting together any team, focus on the important characteristics, particularly the intellect and experience base and character of the possible candidates and leave the superficial to the politicians.

Friday, March 12, 2010

First time - Part 16: Firing

This is part 16 of in a series of short essays on fundamentals of leadership. While it is drafted for those who have just moved into their first leadership position, I hope there is a little something in here for the most practiced of leaders, a ‘getting back to basics’ that everyone needs every now and then.

Firing someone (we can use nice words here: ‘let go,’ ‘terminate employment,’ ‘grant a leave of absence,’ but it all feels the same to the person being fired, and needs to be as seriously considered by you) is the opposite side of the coin from hiring people. While it is important to hire the right people, it is equally important to identify those who don’t fit in your organization and move them out. Before I go any further, it very important to remember that you are dealing with real human beings; letting someone go – firing – someone is never going to be easy and never will be pleasant. In all your dealing with people you should always be polite, but this is particularly true in the case of firing someone. Before you say or do anything, think about how you would feel if you were on the receiving end.

There are a number of tasks that you must never delegate, and firing someone is one of those tasks. If they work for you, you must tell them. In some cases you may have a superior who wants to shield you from the process and whatever backlash which may accompany the decision. You should politely resist this. As unpleasant as it will be, and it will be unpleasant, it is essential that you understand what is at stake, and the only way to do that is through first hand experience. If your boss wants to be in the room when you tell the person concerned, very well. But you should insist that you inform them.

Firing someone must rest on one of three clearly identified reasons:

1) Serious ethical and legal lapse; this is obvious and needs no further discussion. This is also the only case where you have any real chance of the event being anything other than unpleasant. And even in such cases it will probably still be unpleasant. In this situation it is best to simply state the obvious – the behavior was not and is not acceptable and the individual has been terminated.

2) Performance failure: Poor performance should be documented over time and clearly communicated to the individual involved. We discussed this last week and earlier: you need to both set standards and document with your people how well they are meeting the standards. Only when you have ensured that an individual has the proper training and proper tools to achieve his assigned tasks and, after discussion and counseling, should you consider firing someone for performance failure. It is worth noting that if you have ensured that someone has the aptitude, training and tools/assets to achieve assigned tasks, and he has been counseled – more than once – on failure to perform, firing them should not be a surprise.

In such a case, you should still take the time to explain to them why you are firing them. Include in this explanation any sense you may have of how they might improve in their next job and, in particular, what jobs might be better suited for them.

3) The final reason to fire someone is that they refuse to get ‘on the team.’ This can either be easy or traumatic, but is usually traumatic. Every manager has a worker who grouses continually but performs admirably; such people are rarely a concern and are not the object of this section. Rather, it is the individual who performs well, usually above the average, but not only doesn’t share the organizational goal, but is undermining it by his behavior; this is the individual we are concerned with here. This will require serious counseling and, in some cases, you may be able to ‘turn them around,’ and in today’s litigious climate, you will need to keep extensive documentation. But once you identify this behavior you need to act to end it.

Again, careful documentation and a clear explanation are both necessary and should be provided to the individual being fired.

In some cases you may want a witness, depending on the circumstances and the individual involved. You should at least consider having one and if you have any doubt talk it over with your peers or, if the company has one, the legal counsel.

Remember that no matter what you say, and how you say it, the person being fired will take it very personally. It is best to keep your explanation as narrowly focused as possible. This is not an indictment of the employee as a human being; you are not sitting in judgment of them, only of their specific performance. Even in the event of someone being fired because of an ethics issue, leave any comments between you and your shadow. Even if the situation involves some egregious ethical behavior, no matter how angry you may be, keep your comments brief, civil and to the point.

Finally, to restate the case, think about how you would feel if the tables were turned. In most cases people are let go because they simply don’t fit. When you talk with them, take some time to point out where they might fit. And be polite.

Monday, March 8, 2010

First Time - Part 15: Hiring

This is part 15 of in a series of short essays on fundamentals of leadership. While it is drafted for those who have just moved into their first leadership position, I hope there is a little something in here for the most practiced of leaders, a ‘getting back to basics’ that everyone needs every now and then.

Hiring new people is, simply put, the most important single task facing any organization. It is not only the means by which the organization brings in new people, it can and should be a vital part in the development of junior leaders. The ability to select the right people to work for your organization is a key element of the leadership ‘tool-kit;’ it is not only an important and demanding skill, it is also the hallmark of every good leader. It is also a completely learned skill.

Most medium to large companies have a Human Resources department or a Personnel department (or something similar), a division with the responsibility of hiring and firing personnel, and to some extent managing their careers. In many cases they perform tasks that are required by law. In nearly every case they are a net drag on the organization.

This is not a condemnation of the people who work in ‘HR.’ They are fine people and they are certainly well intentioned. But the simple truth is that the people who are being hired don’t work for them; they work for you (and your peers). The person who is responsible for the selecting a newly hired individual should be the person for whom that new hire will work.

Is this always possible? No. The law often mandates certain behavior by various organizations, and this can make it difficult, and often impractical, for an organization to use this kind of decentralized hiring. And, in some large organizations there are extensive training programs that everyone enters. In such cases selection may be based purely on an entry test (or series of tests). However, if there is an interview process, every leader should make it a point to be placed on the interview panel at regular intervals. This ensures that, as much as possible, the perceptions and perspectives of those who actually execute the organization’s policies and lead its operations are driving the selection of the people entering the organization.

Returning to the subject, the people who actually do the work are the most important part of any organization. Their selection and their career management is the most important single element of organizational success and should be jealously protected by the leadership, by you. Delegating this responsibility to a department that has no direct responsibility for the result of their selections – no matter how well intentioned the HR people may be – is a path to mediocrity at best, and often is a key factor in the failure of an organization.*

Now, in most cases when you arrive at a new position, particularly as a first time manager/leader, you will probably find that you have little to no say in who works for you. That is to be expected, as you will still be under a good deal of scrutiny as your boss tries to get the measure of you. However, you should make a point of insisting that you have some role in the selection process, even if you need to hire or replace someone a soon as you get there. This is necessary both for the organization’s benefit as well as your own: you need to begin to acquire the skill of reading people and fitting them to the task at hand and you should start as soon as possible. If you have never hired anyone this before, seek the advice of your peers and your boss, but make it clear that it is going to be your choice – good or bad. Identify the skills and traits you need in the position and focus on them.

You will now find that you don’t have enough time to ‘do it right’ and interview dozens of people; you will need to make a choice from a relatively small pool because time is short. This puzzle – hiring new folks is the most important thing you do versus you don’t have enough time to interview all the people you would like so you can make the best decision – is one of the facts of leadership. As I will discuss in a future article, one of the other ‘learned’ skills of good leaders is picking good people and getting them to ‘fit’ into the organization. Nevertheless, spend as much time as you can clearly identifying the skills and traits needed for a particular position, and then carve out as much time as possible to review potential candidates.

Begin by reviewing resumes or applications, and ask for inputs from your peers and others you trust. You won’t hire anyone based on a resume, but you might be able to eliminate him from contention. Focus on the hard data for this initial ‘sorting,’ specific skills and experiences. After you have narrowed the field somewhat, rank them and then ask someone else to do the same. If you have differences in how you ranked them, discuss the differences and then reappraise your rankings. Once you are satisfied with your rankings, schedule interviews with the top 5 or 6 – because that is probably all you have time for. Resolve that you are going to pick the best candidate out of this group.

As for the interview, focus on the tasks of your organization and its goals. Explain to the applicants what your organization is trying to do and let them talk about how they see themselves in your organization. Let them do the bulk of the talking. Take notes, and when the interview is finished, spend a few minutes alone writing down your observations.

When all the interviews are completed, you need to review your observations and decide. If one candidate stands out above the others, you are fortunate. But, there is no magic and easy answer at this point. You will probably find that it is a ‘coin toss’ between two candidates, two people who have equal credentials and impressed you in the interview. At this point you simply have to choose one of them. This skill will improve with experience, as you will acquire the ability to see more and more differences between nearly identical candidates, but, even then, this can be a difficult choice. Good Luck!

* It is worth noting that elite organizations have rigorous selection processes that normally involve lengthy “interviews” that last months at a time and give the entire senior leadership the opportunity to evaluate potential members. A look at Special Forces units reveals that they have a demanding screening program followed by lengthy basic courses of instruction and even longer advanced training programs. During these periods each candidate is frequently examined by the leadership and the ones who don’t fit are weeded out. The same process takes place in internships and residency programs in medicine.