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I recently relocated to San Francisco for a 6 month sabbatical and it has been a very interesting, even enlightening, experience.  The cliché’s about San Francisco aside (the spectacular food, the great parks, the fog rolling in, the cold summers, the hills….all absolutely true), a move is quite interesting in that it makes you relearn things that you could previously do without thinking.  When you move from a small place like Durham to a big place like San Francisco this is doubly true.  And during this relearning process I have been reminded of how problematic indecision can be.  Let me explain.

When you move to a new city and you need to do simple things like get to the grocery store, find a gym, get your dry cleaning done, etc. it is very easy to let the unknown dictate your actions.  That is, you keep waiting for a “just right” circumstance to emerge rather than simply trying something.  I have seen this dozens of time in research labs that I have managed and in all types of new project teams too.  There are other ways to think about this; the most common being that it is a “too much thinking and not enough doing” mentality.  You are frozen in time because there is no clear path and this ambiguity causes you to have a delayed action.  When you finally start just trying things, you find it is not nearly as difficult as you expected but you spent so much time worrying about it that you are behind anyway.  Also, there is a “time value of time” that makes this much worse than the direct or immediate impact (i.e., a waste of time is like a snowball and builds on itself because you become behind in all of the things that were dependent on the first decision; the one that you did not make in a timely manner!).

So as Nike coined, “just do it”!  In fact, Nike coined this catchy manifestation but the concept has been around for longer than any of us – experiment, experiment, experiment.  Learning by doing.  Perhaps we could say “just try it”.  In the area of innovation, 3M was a pioneer in the concept of just trying it, without expecting perfection (and remember, perfection is the enemy of completion).  You expect to stumble when you are always moving forward.  If you are not stumbling a bit, then you must not be moving enough!

So how does this relate to your career?   Too often I have seen employees in new projects or new jobs take the safe “sit at my desk and wait for directives” approach and then when a directive comes, there approach is “think about the directive until I have what appears to be the perfect solution.”  Unfortunately, your colleague is out trying three different solutions while you are thinking about one and they are learning three times as much as you are during this same period.  And they have chosen the solutions with intelligent, educated guesses (even though they did not have all theinformation that wanted) so they make more progress at the same time!

Of course there is judgment and balance in this as well as a heavy dose of corporate culture.  The cliché “You don’t have time to do it right but you always have time to do it over” is the opposite extreme of acting without enough thinking.  You need to be self-aware to know if you are an over-doer or an over-thinker but in my experience, most of us lean too much towards the overthinking, indecisive side of things; especially early in our career and in a new job.  There is a generic curve I like to think of that can be called the Quality of the Solution vs. Time to Obtain the Solution and it is not even close to linear! (Quality of Solution vs Time to Solution Graph) It starts with a steep linear sloop but then tapers off quickly and then slowly approaches perfection but never gets there. You want to work in the knee of this curve and recognize when indecision or a desire for perfection is taking you into the long plateau.

So in summary, keep a close eye on yourself and your new employees to ensure that indecision, a lack of a clear path forward, a discomfort of the unknown, a fear of failure, etc. is not creating an unnecessary delay in action. Just try something!  If you don’t, the decision to be indecisive can cause a tremendous inefficiency and will likely cause you to miss some opportunities for you and your organization.

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We generally talk about micromanagement as a bad thing but I want to challenge that premise. I think great managers need to be great micromanagers too. There are simply too many situations where micromanagement is the best approach and if you are inept at it, you damage your credibility and achievements as a manager. The critical issue is “when” to micromanage. A great manager needs to manage each situation and each person differently to bring the best out of their people. There is no “one size fits all” in management. Unfortunately, if you are micromanaging a part of your team, then you are spending time away from other productive activities and thus you are not optimizing your own efficiency. As always, management involves balancing competing effects and trade-offs. The trade-offs related to micromanagement include:

i) getting the job done quickly if you micromanage vs. providing your people with the opportunities to learn and develop new skills

ii) short term benefit if you micromanage vs. long term value if you develop your people

iii) minimizing risk if you micromanage vs. letting your people learn from some mistakes

I have heard managers say; I like managing as long as my direct reports are self-motivated and have good judgment. No kidding! That is clearly the fun time to manage – maybe you would just call it coaching then because the employees are actually managing themselves, as you would hope. This happens in the best teams too and is one reason why self-directed teams are so valuable and why the number of middle management layers have been decreased in recent years. But as a manager, you need to hold your people accountable and manage people out of the organization who can not or will not perform the jobs needed. Micromanagement is generally part of that process. So when is micromanagement a reasonable, even the best, approach to managing:

•  The early stage employee: If someone is new to your team and you need to train them in various issues, both content and process related, the chances are that you need to spend more hands on time with them. You probably need to “look over their shoulder” to insure their tasks are getting done effectively and on time. In most organizations, we no longer have the luxury of letting someone flounder as they learn the ropes. Rather we need them to hit the ground running as quickly as possible and that means a bit of micromanagement.

•  The problem employee: Even if you start out with a hands-off approach, holding employees accountable but letting them choose how to do their jobs, there will be some who cannot meet your expectations. Rather than just continuing to tell them WHAT to do and the goals they need to reach, you may need to roll up your sleeves and actually help them with HOW to reach these goals. That is, tell them more specifically the actions they need to take; i.e., micromanage them. And if they continue to miss the targets, the level of detail you provide is likely to increase to the point where you are micromanaging them until they either get it or get out.

• During a crisis: If you are in a leadership position, the chances are you got there because of a skill set that involves judgment and decision making in addition to some content area. If there is a crisis, you do not want any delay between you and the actions that need to be taken or decisions that need to be made. Your style probably needs to be more directive and you tend to micromanage to achieve the best result.

• The high risk endeavor: Even if you are not in a crisis, some activities are simply so sensitive and can lead to such a loss if done incorrectly that you need to insert yourself into the situation more than you or your employees would ideally like. An activity or decision where the stakes are high naturally lead to more involvement of higher levels of the organization. Sometimes that involvement may need to be micromanagement when the potential loss is high and you, as the manager, have expertise or experience that can provide value to the activity.

In summary, as an effective manager, you need to change your style depending on the situation. Be thoughtful as you go into every situation and as you manage each person on your team. Think about how much time you need to spend with them and how much guidance you need to provide. Some employees you may just check in with once a month and see if they need anything. Others you may need to meet with several times a week and provide detailed guidance to them. The chances are you can significantly improve overall performance of your organization if you do this and sprinkle in a bit of micromanagement at appropriate times and in the right situations.

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“Education is not a specific body of knowledge but rather it is a taste for knowledge, a capacity to explore, question and perceive,” adapted from A. Whitney Griswold.

This post is based on my comments at our 2011 Master of Engineering Management (MEM) Graduation Hooding ceremony. It is always great fun to see our students so excited to receive their degrees and to be able to meet the many family members who have been so supportive of the students. The theme for my 2011 Graduation Speech was:

Take risks, find your passion

Of course this is one of those things that is a lot easier said than done! But my main reason to focus on it is very practical. Over the years we’ve observed there is a direct link between your enthusiasm for your job and your performance. So this is not a theoretical or nice-to-have aspect of your job, it is imperative. If you are not enthusiastic about getting up every day and going to your job, your performance will suffer.

And the reason I say take risks is that it is necessary to find your passion. I do not mean taking risks in the traditional sense; i.e., high risk-high payoff, which is fine but not the point. Rather, the point is if you find yourself in a position that is not exciting for you then you should take some calculated risk and make a change. Of course, the management bell curve applies here as usual https://jtglass.wordpress.com/2010/06/15/the-management-bell-curve/ – for some fraction of you being passionate about your job regardless of the situation will be easy. For others, you might think you will never find your passion. But for the vast majority of us, it will take effort, it will take time, it will take planning, it will take commitment, but we will find our passion and we will generally do that by taking some calculated risks.

I am rather risk averse; thus, being a tenured faculty is quite an appropriate position for me (tenure generally means that your job is extremely secure). Yet I made a decision at one point in my career to give up a tenured position and go into industry, presumably much less stable – my colleagues though I was crazy. But I was just taking a calculated risk to ensure I maintained the greatest enthusiasm possible for my work. I bring this up to illustrate that calculated risk can be taken even by those who are risk averse.

Risk means going after the new job or new responsibilities to ignite your passion even when you are comfortable where you are. Be careful not to misinterpret my meaning here. There will certainly be periods of time you are not passionate about your work and there will certainly be aspects of any job that you do not like. But sustained or pervasive lack of passion for your work needs to be rectified. And if at all possible, it needs to be rectified without burning a bridge AND while continuing to add value to your organization. Also remember, passion is not just about what you are doing.  It involves the people you working with, the mission of your organization, the culture of your organization and anything else that is an important part of your DNA.

A word of caution. I fully understand that you might not find what you perceive to be the perfect job when you first graduate. That is to be expected! In fact, you probably are not sure what the perfect job is.  Rather, I am recommending a process of constantly moving towards that ideal job, the one that excites you. And this is actually a moving target; it can change as your experiences change and you go through different periods of your life. Thus, you should not think of this as a short term decision or a specific point in time. It is a methodical, thoughtful, continuous process – it can take years to find your passion! But don’t give up! It will be worth it in the long run.

In summary, don’t be afraid to take calculated risks to insure you find something you are passionate about. It might not happen right away but it will happen.

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Is there a difference – heck yea! There is a difference in both how you communicate to others (i.e., how you tell your employees they are responsible for a problem that has occurred or for a future issue) and in how you think about them for yourself. So what is the difference between blame and responsibility?

•  responsibility is empowering, blame is discouraging
•  responsibility looks forward, blame looks backward, and most importantly,
•  responsibility acknowledges that external factors may mean success is simply not possible whereas blame implies that if you had done something differently, it would have succeeded.

To expand a bit on this last point, I cannot stress enough how managing an organization or a group within an organization is too complex to assume that good people are always successful. Even if you assign responsibility for a failed result, it is different than assigning blame. The external environment changes too quickly and in too many ways for anyone to always be assured of success. Ask the best managers you know about the failures they have been involved in – it is highly unlikely they will be able to say “I have not had any”. Good people, doing the right things, the right way can still end up with a failed result. Again, the environment changes too quickly and in too many unforeseen ways to ensure success all the time. This why I like the business phrase:

“Never confuse process with outcome”

Reward good process, even if it leads to a failure or your people will never take risks, including calculated risks with great potential. Likewise, a good outcome can come more from luck than good process so beware of getting too excited about a lucky win.

Even world class leaders of businesses have failures. Most of these folks have been spectacular throughout their careers to get to the pinnacle of these companies (Fortune 500 CEO’s have essentially competed with thousands of people during their career to get to their positions!). Examples of brilliant managers who have “failed” include: Bob Nardelli from Home Depot, Hank McKinnell from Pfizer, Carly Fiorina from Hewlett-Packard and Richard Grasso from the New York Stock Exchange. All of these managers were extolled for their accomplishments before their very visible and public failures. And what about those we still think of us as extremely successful. Steve Jobs dropped out of college, was fired from the company he started and went through a significant period of failed strategies at NExT before it found a profitable niche.
My wife tells me this distinction between blame and responsibility is particularly important for women leaders. Women tend to take the blame for things more readily than men. I have heard this from coaches who have led both male and female sports teams too. When something goes wrong, men tend to point to their team mates as the problem whereas women tend to apologize for their own actions. Of course, it is not possible to characterize gender differences except in a very general “on average” way but this still may be of some use as a manager.
The bottom line: As a manager and leader, readily take and assign responsibility, not blame.

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There was a very interesting article in HBR (Jan-Feb 2011 issue) titled “The End of the Middle Manager” by Lynda Gratton.   It notes that traditional middle manager roles are being automated such that technology is “replacing” the middle manager.  Roles and skills based exclusively on monitoring, providing feedback, and generally keeping things running smoothly are increasingly being taken over by technology coupled with self-managed teams.  So what’s a middle manager to do?  Develop what the author calls “signature” competencies that are rare and valuable.  In addition, develop new areas of proficiency or adjacencies throughout your career.  Right on!

This is consistent with Engineering Management education for engineers and with the advising we have provided to numerous students in our program.  One of the concepts we are constantly pushing with MEM students is that you are engineers expanding your education into engineering management.  So take advantage of the engineering skills you worked so hard to build.  Combine your engineering background with the newly acquired business, management and leadership training to become an expert in a unique combination of skills that can not be duplicated without your unique background.  This requires embracing your engineering training while understanding how a particular organization will value that background without pigeon-holing you into a technical niche that you are not passionate about.  This may take some time.  For example, I often hear students say “I do not want to be a programmer” and thus they avoid any company that hires into a programming role, even if the company is a great organization to work for and has all the right opportunities, products and processes of interest to them.  Bad move!  Getting into an organization that has this kind of potential and developing an expertise or signature competency while you rely on your core engineering skills is exactly the opportunity you should be looking for.  So starting as a programmer with the company while proving yourself and finding the right areas of focus for your expanded “engineering plus business” expertise is a good approach.  Microsoft is an example of this but I have heard the same story from alumni in many companies:  “I started out as a hands on engineer [a.k.a.: programmer, lab assistant, quality control technician, etc.] but within a year, my team leader was asked to move to a new area and the company asked me to coordinate the project because of the broader skills I had developed with the help of my engineering management education.”

I strongly recommend that you find the engineering and business areas you are passionate about and put them together.  Become an expert in something that the organization values.  Of course, you will still work your way up in the management hierarchy but you will do this with the added benefit, security, clout, etc. of also having an expertise.  For example, assume you are a biomedical engineer and have an interest in medical devices.  Perhaps you should become an expert in the medical device development process, including FDA approvals.  This requires a heck of a lot more than just engineering skills and is very transportable to different companies.  Or perhaps you have studied wireless communications as your technical area.  Learn the adjacency related to the licensing of wireless bandwidth, maybe focusing on developing countries.  This probably requires understanding some policy, some law and, of course, some technology.  You have just increased everything from your job security to your salary potential.

The HBR article goes on to mention that the areas which will be highly prized in the decade ahead include: the life and health sciences, energy conservation, advocacy, social and micro entrepreneurship, creativity and innovation, and coaching.  These resonate with me too but there are also hundreds, even thousands, of other areas in which companies will need expertise.  The key is to pick something you love and something you are good at; then work like heck to become an expert.  Add your management and leadership skills on top of this expertise and you can’t lose.

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Every now and then we have the opportunity to observe an exceptional demonstration of leadership.  Yesterday that opportunity came in the form of an email that Bob Muglia, Executive Officer at Microsoft and President of Microsoft’s Servers and Tools Business, sent to his staff about his decision to leave Microsoft after 23 years.  Yes, I said 23 years.  To put that in perspective, Bob is about my age so he would have been under 30 when he joined the company.  And in 1987 Microsoft had approximately $345.9 million in revenue and 1,816 employees.  In 2010 Microsoft had approximately $18.8 BILLION in revenue and 89,000 employees.  Whatever your opinion of Microsoft, they changed the way we live and Bob was an integral part of that.

But what is my reason for going on about this.  Read Bob’s email to his employees below and you will see.  This is one of the best summaries of leadership I have read (Full Disclosure: Bob and I are related in a roundabout way: step-brother-in-laws or something like that!).  It is a classy, articulate, thoughtful way to announce a departure – exactly what you would expect from Bob if you had followed his career.  Some of the things I like about this note include; i) he reinforces the values and culture that he believes in and that made his groups achieve incredible success, ii) he humbly describes how much he has learned from others – colleagues,  customers and industry partners, iii) he accepts full responsibility for the transition, agreeing to stay on until new leadership is in place, and iv) there is not a sour grape in the note, just appreciation for the great opportunities that Microsoft provided.  In addition, look at the leadership ideas he describes: integrity, principles, listening, being honest (even when it hurts), taking responsibility for incorrect decisions, providing clarity of roles and responsibilities for the people you lead, creating an environment of teamwork (one that is a “joy” to be a part of), and finally, delivering results.  I really like this list.  Those of you in Duke’s MEMP will see these same concepts in your core management course.

Moving on from any position can be difficult.  You have forged relationships, developed a level of comfort and even have a raison d’être in your organization.  I am sure some MEMP students will go on to greatness and will then need to transition out of a high level position.  I hope you use this as a template for how to move on when it is time.  (You can see Steve Ballmer’s announcement of this transition and the note below on ZDNet.com)

From: Bob Muglia
Sent: Monday, January 10, 2011 9:34 AM
To: STB FTE Worldwide; Executive Staff
Subject: Thoughts from Bobmu

Last week I celebrated 23 years working for Microsoft.   During that time Microsoft has grown from a brilliant, yet awkward and aggressive adolescent riding a rocket ship into a mature industry leader.  I’ve learned an amazing amount from the people with whom I’ve worked, from the customers I’ve served, and from the many partners who share this industry.  I feel blessed to have had the privilege of working with so many great people.  Later this year, I’m moving on to new opportunities outside of Microsoft, so I wanted to take a few minutes to share with you what’s important to me in life and leadership.   

The foundation of who I am is based on living with integrity.  Integrity requires principles, and my primary principle is to focus on doing the right thing, as best I can.  The best thing, to the best of my ability, for our customers, our products, our shareholders, and of course, our people. 

Other principles, or guideposts by which I live, are learning from and listening to others to make the best decision possible; not being afraid to admit a mistake and change a decision when it is wrong; being consistently honest, even when it hurts; treating our customers, partners, and people with the respect they deserve, with the expectation that each of my actions forms the basis of a lifetime relationship; and finally, being willing to admit and apologize when I have not lived up to these principles.  

Integrity is my cornerstone for leading people.  Leading starts by setting a strategy – not one that I’ve dreamed up myself but something that my team has worked together to create.  The strategy provides the North Star for each person.

The second part of leading people is creating a structure that enables collaboration and provides clarity of roles and responsibilities.  This is more than an organizational structure; it is creating a system so people can work together effectively and productively, in an environment that makes it possible for each person to give their best.

Leading is more than strategy and structure; it’s all about people.  Choosing the right people for each role is critical, but insufficient.  Even more important is empowering every person to be their best, to work with others, to be as creative as possible.  It’s about providing each and every person with encouragement when they’ve done something amazing and constructive feedback when they are off track.

While each individual is important, success requires a team.  The team is more important than the needs or capabilities of any individual.  This is what makes a team much more than the sum of the parts, and a joy to be part of.

That brings me to delivering results.  Results are built when people act with integrity and deliver their best.  Results are all about the positive impact we have on the world – transforming personal lives and revolutionizing ways of doing business. 

As a leader at Microsoft, I have a responsibility for delivering results to our shareholders.  STB has performed well – with revenue growing from $9.7B in 2006 before I took over, to $14.9B reported last July, and operating income climbing from $3B to $5.5B over the same period.   That’s over a 50% increase in revenue with a near doubling in income.  That growth continued during the first quarter of our FY11.  There are few organizations in the industry who have demonstrated the same results. 

I am incredibly excited by the emergence of cloud computing, and the opportunity it represents to shape business and the way people live for years to come.  I have deeply enjoyed my role in positioning Microsoft as a leader and innovator in cloud computing.

The coming months are a time of transition.  During this time, I will be fully engaged in leading STB until new leadership is in place.  After that, I will continue to do everything I can to help Microsoft, STB, and all of you.

I particularly want to recognize the outstanding work done by my current team in the Server and Tools Business over the past four years.  We rapidly built a series of best-of-breed products that changed the way businesses run, while helping our customers and partners be successful.  We’ve led the industry while facing tough competitors, most notably Linux, VMware, and Oracle.  We succeeded by focusing on the simple idea that our customers make smart decisions, so we need to provide the best solution for everything our customers want to do with our products. 

Microsoft is a blessing in my life and a blessing for my family.  I love working with our customers and partners.  Most of all, I treasure the wonderful and bright people with whom I’m privileged to work each day.  I hope that in some way, large or small, I have helped each of you to lead your life with your own deep sense of integrity, that you help to bring out the best in other people, and deliver the results that matter most to you.

My best to you, with thanks,

bob

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I do not recall where I first heard this phrase, perhaps from something written by Jack Welch, but they are words to live by as a manager if you have hiring/firing responsibility. Let’s start with “fire-fast”. This phrase primarily speaks to the fact that most of us have empathy for the people we need to let go, ask to move on, fire, downsize, right size, reengineer or whatever other euphemism that you want to use. We feel their pain and can imagine what it would be like to be unemployed. We worry about their personal situation (they just had a baby, their spouse was just laid off, they moved across the country to take this job, etc.), we worry about their reaction when we tell them, we even worry about what they will think of us. Don’t. That is easy to say and impossible to do but the point really is; worry as much as you need to but don’t let it impact your actions. Generally it does so we fire slowly. We wait to make sure the employee has unreasonably long periods of poor performance or that the financial condition of the organization warrants a lay off to make the firing easier or that we have perfect, as opposed to “good enough,” documentation in place (and we procrastinate on getting the documentation). We also run into a “self-bias” problem – if you hired the person then firing them means you were wrong.

So if you think you are being rash and firing someone too fast, think again. The chances are it is just right if you feel that way and if you do it more slowly it will be bad for you, for the organization and even for the person begin fired. The cliché that “it is generally better even for the person being let go” is actually very true in my experience. Think about it – how could it be good for a person to be in a job where they are not performing well? Of course, it might be easier and more comfortable for them but it cannot be good! They need to be in a position where they are challenged enough to be motivated but not so much that their performance suffers and they let other members of the organization down. Thus, taking care of the problem quickly is best for them. It also decreases the amount of time they are uncertain and under significant stress about the situation. Many employees report a feeling of relief after decisions about termination of employment are made, even when they are let go. They get on with their lives and focus on finding a more appropriate position. Another big concern for most managers about firing someone is the oft heard “but it will hurt morale of the rest of the team”. Granted, mass layoffs are a big problem for morale and that situation is beyond the scope of this post. In contrast, firing someone due to poor performance is actually a morale builder in most cases. Do you think the team members and colleagues of the employee are not aware of the poor performance? In reality, they are probably painfully aware of it (even more so than you are) and although they may like the individual personally, they are probably very supportive of the action and wish you had done it sooner!

But let’s be clear about a couple of things regarding the phrase “fire fast”. It DOES NOT mean inhumanely and it DOES mean making sure you follow all of the steps required by state and federal laws. Your HR group can help you understand these laws (even the start-ups I have worked with have an external HR consultant or organization that can help interpret these laws for you; e.g., Adminstaff – http://www.administaff.com/). This means that you give the employee an opportunity to turn their performance around with direct and clear communication of the problems. You also provide them a reasonable amount of time to find a new position and even tools to help them (such as outplacement firms that are experts in this area – I have used LHH (http://www.lhh.com ) and was impressed with their training and counseling). In today’s environment of high unemployment, this training is more important than ever. If formal training is not viable in your organization due to the costs, then your mentoring and coaching, however informal, should include this topic. Employees are responsible for their own careers and career development; including networking, building their resume, keeping their skills up to date, etc. Make sure this message is getting across so you can manage someone out of your organization efficiently AND humanely when necessary. I would even go as far as saying that the term “firing” is not usually accurate in today’s business environment. We should generally think of these changes as natural problems with “fit” rather than simply poor performance. Since it is said that one quarter of all hires don’t work out the way we expect, it should not be surprising that there can be a bad fit. People put on their best faces when they want to get a job, generally at the expense of assessing the fit for themselves. And deciding a job is not a good fit for yourself takes a lot of self-awareness that many of us do not possess, especially early in our careers.

One special note for start-up companies – the fire-fast is all the more critical and all the more difficult! For the start-up company, every day costs you money that you do not have to waste and money which is critical to utilize elsewhere in order to be successful. Yet, in a start-up, there is a feeling of all being in it together with close friendships and a family atmosphere so it is even harder to fire quickly. Don’t let that stop you. Make it humane but make it fast.
On to the “hire-slow” part of the story. Really nothing should be done slowly in today’s competitive business environment. You should be efficient and cost effective in all your activities. But the point is, don’t skimp on the hiring process because correcting a hiring mistake is tough. You will generally live with your hiring decisions for much longer than you want to, even when you are firing fast. So be sure that hiring is done with a TEAM that looks at your potential new recruits from all angles and with enough time to get to know the person and their fit with your organization. Don’t just “fill a slot” because you need a warm body as soon as possible. It will come back to haunt you. See the candidate over a few different meetings and in different settings (formal interview, informal interview and a social setting at least). You may not be able to get consensus on all hires but you should at least understand the concerns of your team and make an assessment of the risk involved with hiring someone despite the concerns expressed. And manage the expectations of the incoming employee up front if you have concerns about the fit. On occasion the prospective employee will pull themselves out of the running when you express these concerns – it was surely the right decision when that happens.

There is nothing earth shattering or new in what I have written above. For those who have managed effectively and overseen hiring and firing it is probably common sense. But for new managers it is a difficult set of concepts to embrace and may even be counterintuitive. Although the idea that we must have skills in developing our employees career is easy to accept and emphasize, it is equally important to be able to make and implement the tough firing and hiring decisions needed in any organization. If you don’t, the employee who is a bad fit will impact your organization in many negative ways – one bad apple can spoil all those around it – even if being bad is just because the fit was not right.

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After I received my doctorate and began working as a post-doc for a well-known professor in my area of study, he would regularly mention that all the successful people he knew had a sense of urgency about their work.  I had a difficult time understanding this at first.  The research we were doing was long-term and I could not see what drove this sense of urgency.  If you are working on a project which will not reach a commercial product for many years, how do a few hours here and there make a difference?  Fortunately, I was always a rather hyperactive researcher anyway so although I did not understand his philosophy or discussion about urgency, I always enjoyed multitasking and working as quickly as possible so I fit in well with his approach.  I worked hard and, in some cases frantically, because I loved the work and was very passionate about it rather than because it was required by my supervisor’s sense of urgency.

But now I understand.  This sense of urgency is not related to the deadlines or the final outcomes.  Rather, it exemplifies the importance, the priority, and even the passion, you have for your work. Even if you are ahead of schedule for all of your activities, this sense of urgency will still be evident if you expect to be very successful in your career.  The important point to note is that a sense of urgency does not just mean that every time you save a few minutes here or there the project moves a few minutes ahead.  On the contrary, a sense of urgency has an exponential effect on any project or activity.  It not only saves the time that would be lost if one were approaching the project casually, but it also multiplies on itself over and over again to move the project along, breaking through barriers and finding solutions to problems which could derail the project entirely.  Thus, any time there is a few minutes to spare or a transition in your day from one activity to another (for example, lunch is coming up or you are about go to a meeting and only have a few minutes, etc.), do you try to squeeze out that last task or do you put your activities on hold and wait until you get back or return to work the next day.  If you tend to do the latter, I recommend that you reevaluate.  Try to instill in yourself the sense of urgency, the passion to complete your tasks, which I see in all of the highly successful people I have worked with. 

There are a couple of caveats to keep in mind when thinking about this sense of urgency.  First, do not confuse a sense of urgency with constant motion.  There are cultures (both corporate and national) which place too much value on activity, regardless of how productive the activity is.  The same advisor I had in my post-doc years had a poster in his office that said “Never confuse motion with action.”  This is wonderful advice – your “actions” should be focused and explicit rather than simply for show.

Another point of caution – quality should not be ignored for the sake of urgency.  On the other hand, many of us, especially in the engineering field, look for perfection rather than “good enough for the customer.”  This is clearly a balance but remember “perfection is the enemy of completion.”  It is better to try many activities quickly and fail at some, than to try one activity after you are sure that it cannot fail.  By the time you have this assurance, the moment will pass – the market window will close, your competitor will have solved the problem, etc.

Another caveat involves all of those intangible but absolutely critical areas which should never be compromised.  Put your urgency in check if you are concerned about safety, ethics, or any very high risk decision.  In these cases, those of us with a built-in sense of urgency need to take a step back and do more thinking than doing.

One last comment – know thyself!  That is, study yourself, compare yourself to other highly successful people, understand your inner clock.  If you don’t have a built-in sense of urgency, develop it.  Ask yourself at each point during the day when you make a decision on what to do next, “how do I maximize my output”.  If you already have this sense of urgency in your DNA, ask yourself if you need to put in check for certain tasks.  Unfortunately, we are not always as self aware as we would like to be but fortunately, there are plenty of people around us who will act as sounding boards, whether we like it or not!  And, of course, we should thank them for it.  Incidentally, don’t feel that you have to outwardly express a sense of urgency to operate with a sense of urgency.  Some of the most laid-back folks I know on the outside are actually churning to get things done on the inside.  Their sense of urgency may not be obvious upon first meeting but you can be sure it will come out the first time you work with them.

Now it’s time for me to get to a bunch of other things I was planning to do today which I’m sure are more urgent than anything I’ve already completed!

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One of the best ways to help your career is to help your boss’s career. Making your boss’s life easier is a goal which will usually be very beneficial for your own career. One of the traits I appreciated most in my employees when I was running a corporate product development lab was the ability to determine and communicate the critical issue on which we should focus at any given point in time. One might also refer to this as being skillful at root cause analysis but I like to say it is just being good at simplifying complex issues and situations. This is quite a deep skill because there are always many, many issues to consider. That is, in any organization there is a lot of “noise” that can hide or obscure the most critical issue that should be addressed to achieve a goal. Thus, an employee that can consider the multitude of issues, keep them in mind, consider their importance, use both analytical and intuitive skills to sort them and then provide a clear, concise opinion of the critical issue that the group should focus on is invaluable. More often than not, I found many employees would get “bogged down” thinking about the large number of issues that needed to be addressed. This can cause resources to be spread too thin, employees to be distracted with non-critical issues and create a climate of generally being overwhelmed. Thus, when you find an employee who can see through the noise and articulate a clear vision of what needs to be addressed, you should nurture and reward them. Of course, as a manager it is also your job to cut through the noise and determine the key issues but many times you will not be close enough to the situation to make an accurate judgment. Thus, you are better off if you can find these exceptional employees and integrate them into the decision-making process.

Side Bar: In order to simplify, you must first understand the issues deeply yourself. That means first studying and analyzing the complexities. This reminds me of a “Pet Peeve” I have (for my other Pet Peeves, see: https://jtglass.wordpress.com/2009/08/10/possible-hot-buttons-for-your-managers-translation-%e2%80%9cmy-pet-peeves%e2%80%9d/). I am always disappointed when I hear complaints from students that they did not “have enough to do” during an internship. If you really do not have enough assigned to you during an internship, you have the perfect opportunity to define the area you study and then practice your analysis and simplification skills. And you get paid for it at the same time! This is an opportunity that will not come along often so if it does, please don’t complain about it, take advantage of it. In fact, one of the best internship projects that I have heard about was one in which the student did exactly this – his boss did not have anything for him to do so he spoke with several other people, decided what problems needed to be solved and then worked on the one he felt he could have the most impact on. He left a new inventory process at the company by the end of the summer internship that simplified the tracking and managing of inventory for the company!

In summary, develop your ability to cut through the extraneous issues in your projects (i.e., the noise that surrounds all activities) and focus on the most critical issue that will enable you to achieve the goals for your organization.

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A universal concept in management is the existence of a distribution related to all management decisions and actions. It is also a very difficult concept to master in an organization. I like to call this the “Management Bell Curve.” It simply means that for every managerial action, there is a distribution of reactions (not strictly a bell curve but you get the idea). It speaks to the fuzzy nature of managing complex organizations made up of people. I think the Management Bell Curve is particularly useful to consider when dealing with personnel issues or trying to motivate people. The Bell Curve will be the distribution of reactions to any decision you make that impacts your employees. You will have a certain number of your employees who will like it no matter how silly it may be and you will have certain number of employees who will dislike it no matter how logical and beneficial it might be. Then of course there those in the middle. Many times your goal is to benefit or persuade the most employees with a particular HR decision and thus you are trying to minimize the number of employees in the negative tail of the curve but you need to remember that you will never entirely succeed at that. You may know the saying: “You can please some of the people all of the time or all of the people some of the time but you cannot please all of the people all of the time” (attributed to poet John Lydgate). I think this is true in general but more often in management, you cannot please all of the people any of the time.

One thing that makes managing this bell curve particularly difficult is that your most vocal employees many times are also those that represent a small fraction of employee perspectives. Thus, you are left wondering how you can satisfy the majority or even find out what the majority is thinking. So the difficulty becomes determining how to motivate, lead, and manage the vast majority of employees while typically hearing from a small fraction in the tails of the curve. That small fraction could overly support your decisions (the “yes men”) or could be overly critical (the “naysayers”), but either way, you need to get past that group and on to those who are more representative of the entire body of people you are trying to reach. You need to avoid the outliers in both directions. Accept that there will not be complete agreement with any of your decisions and remember; you are not trying to be liked, rather respected. (Side bar: Of course, there are also those times when you are fairly sure that you know what the majority’s reaction will be (and it’s not good) but you still have to make the decision because it’s the right thing to do for the organization. But that’s a different blog post).

So how does the Management Bell Curve play out in real life? I think there are at least three ways to address the Management Bell Curve. Number 1; Understand your culture and your employees. This probably means plenty of surveys and plenty of MBWA (Management by Walking Around). There are few other great ways to get to know how your employees feel. Number two; Use your intuition. You have to develop your intuition for what your employees will feel about any given action and ensure that you take this into account in your planning. It doesn’t mean you always can do, or want to do, what the employee would like but it certainly means you consider their reactions and try to manage them. Number 3; Communicate, communicate, communicate. The only way to understand and manage the limits of the bell curve in this array of opinions in your organization is to communicate with your employees in all kinds of ways. Most leaders utilize many different types of communication and constantly communicate the same message over and over to ensure that it is absorbed. This will help narrow the Bell curve so there are fewer people in the negative tail and it will make your management job a bit easier. (Side Bar: Zappos has an innovative way of maintaining its culture, minimizing outliers and narrowing the bell curve of responses to its management decisions – it pays new employees $2,000, to quit if they are unhappy with their jobs! http://www.inc.com/magazine/20100601/why-i-sold-zappos.html).

So whenever someone comes to you with an opinion about a decision you have made or an action you have taken, you must ask yourself – Does this person represent a large fraction of our employees or are they an outlier? If it is the latter, the chances are that it is better not to second guess your previous action. Many of us have witnessed the “squeaky wheel that gets the grease,” thereby making all the other “wheels” who were quietly and contentedly going about their job, unhappy. It is worthwhile to look at this from the other side too. That is, when I am concerned about something as an employee in my organization, am I representing a typical view or do I have a perspective outside of the norm. If you ask yourself this instead of making your boss ask it, you will be a more valuable employee.

One word of warning – be careful not to hide behind the Management Bell Curve. That is, just because you feel that the reactions to a decision SHOULD be a certain way and you find some people are reacting differently, don’t automatically assume they are outliers. Investigate, ask trusted colleagues/employees, get down into the trenches and find out the perspective of the majority. You can fool yourself and it will make you feel better at first with no negative short term impact but in the long run, you are eroding trust that takes a long time to build. So don’t assume anything and keep the lines of communication clear and active!

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