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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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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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“The person who graduates today and stops learning tomorrow is uneducated the day after” – Newton D. Baker

This post is based on my comments at our 2010 Master of Engineering Management Graduation Hooding ceremony. It is always great fun to see our students so excited to receive their degrees and to be able to meet many family members who have been so supportive of the students. I do not know who first coined this phrase but I think it holds some valuable lessons for us.

“Life is a marathon, not a sprint”

A marathon is 42 km and the world record is about 2 hours and 4 minutes.
The 100 meter sprint has a world record of under 10 seconds.

If a world class sprinter ran the marathon at a sprinter’s pace for the entire race, they would complete it in about 67 minutes. Obviously this is not possible and there are some lessons there for us. Surprisingly perhaps, the fastest marathon runner would finish the 100 meter sprint in less than 18 seconds!

Life is a marathon, not a sprint

Sacrifices – There are so many meanings to this analogy that life is a marathon (assuming perhaps that you are exhilarated by the challenge and accomplishment of running a marathon). For example, you will need to make sacrifices early on in your career to get the most benefit in the long run. Sacrifices might include the number of hours you work, the type of work you do, the boss you put up with, etc. These activities will strategically position you for the long race that lies ahead. On the other hand, since it is a long race, do not use up all your energy early or will find that you are burned out and adrift after a short period of time. A sprinter will not last beyond the first few hundred yards at full speed.

Of course, there will be times when you need to sprint in your career. I remember pulling all-nighters when I was younger and simply working more hours than was healthy at times. But even when you need to do this, remember that the race keeps going and if you think about a marathon, anything can happen. So this is one of the important points I want to make. You cannot see what is ahead and if you consider your career as a long term endeavor, you will act quite differently than if you think of just the short term; from your networking as being transactions vs. being relationships to build on; from your activities filling a short term need vs. building a platform for future endeavors; from cutting corners for short term gain vs. understanding that the quality of your work will follow you for the long term. (Side bar: I fully believe that “perfection is the enemy of completion” so I am not talking about a perfect job but I am talking about a job well done and understanding what constitutes a high quality job to your stakeholders).

Life is a marathon not a sprint

Future Options – Let’s put all this in finance terms since the MEMP students reading this have all had Professor Skender’s course. Think of your activities not only as investments in your future but also as “real options” on your future. So by completing the activities, practicing continuous learning, following an ethical, high-quality, high-character path, you are acquiring an option for future activities and career paths. Remember that the value of an option is proportional to how long you can exercise that option. If you view your life as a sprint, there is not much value to acquiring an option! But in reality, an activity or experience now might be just the thing you need years from now. It might “keep you in the game” – allow you to follow a path that otherwise would not have been open to you.

Life is a marathon, not a sprint

Networking – One of the most important areas that I want you to think about the long term is in your business relationships. If you are networking only for short term gain and for the next job, you are missing the point and a real opportunity (an option) to build a mutually beneficial relationship, even just an acquaintance, for the long term.

For example, consider my involvement in the MEMP. Some of you I have heard were under the misguided impression that you wanted me teaching in the core courses of the MEMP rather than in my current Sr. Associate Dean’s role. (Now we have a real expert in that role; Professor Ryan, so that is why I say “misguided”, but let’s put that aside for the moment). For the short term, I can understand the feeling that you would like me to be teaching, but if you think about the marathon of life, you should actually prefer that I am in the Dean’s Office. My influence on the MEMP degree from the Dean’s Office is actually much greater than it would be as an instructor! But it is longer term. It is about creating the environment where the MEMP can thrive in the Engineering School, not about short term operation of the MEMP.

That reminds me of those of you who asked to meet with me this past year to discuss issues with the MEMP. I gently referred you to the people who actually run the program (Dr. Fox and Dr. Murray and their team) because I would simply need to pass on information to them and it would be more efficient to discuss it with them directly. Imagine my apprecitation to those of you who replied to me that this made sense and then you let me know when you met with them. Some of you even shared what they were planning to do with your suggestion. You just took a big step to a long term relationship with me. And those that never even replied to my email. Well, you viewed the exchange as a short term transaction and put up a barrier to communicating in the future.

Life is a marathon not a sprint

So as you head out into the real world, please consider that the activities, the actions, the daily small decisions you make today will lay the foundation for your life. It is an exhilarating, enjoyable, unpredictable journey.  There will be beautiful surprises and difficult challenges.  It’s a marathon, not a sprint.

“I wish you good luck and Godspeed as you embark on this exciting and rewarding journey” – Warren Bennis

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I am reading the book “Outliers” by Malcom Gladwell and would like to comment on one of the concepts in the book that has led me to change some of my opinions about managing and hiring. (Side note: There are a number of interesting concepts in the book and I recommend it. Like most business books, it has a bit too much “fluff” and takes a bit of an extreme view in some areas, but it is a very worthwhile read). Chapter 2 is called “The 10,000 hour rule” which states that it takes about 10,000 hours of practice to become an expert. I won’t go into all the details and caveats but as a general rule, there is a lot of evidence presented in the book, from sports to computer programming, that 10,000 hours is required to really be world class at any activity. Of course, you need some natural ability and training, but even if you have these, you will not reach the top without this practice. An important point is that this is a tremendous amount of time! If you are practicing your chosen area 40 hours a week (hardly realistic since there are many times you will be doing work that is peripheral to the skills you are trying to develop), it will take you 5 years to become an expert. I would contend that less than half of your time will be spent practicing even if you really work at it and, if you do not focus and are spread too thin in your job, less than 25% of your time will be available for this practice. So somewhere between 5 and 20 years of practice will be needed to make you an expert!

So what does this have to do with an engineering management student or an engineering manager? Expectations. Let’s not worry about the specific number of hours or needing to be a world expert. The point is just that it takes significant time to become knowledgeable in an area and truly contribute to your organization. Often I see students who have taken a couple of classes on a topic and feel that a company should view them as experts (or at least very valuable) in the area. This 10,000 hour rule should help you reorient your thinking about this. And it should help you to value the time you are given by an employer to practice your area of interest; whether that is writing software, doing market research, or developing products. (Side note: The book used computer programming by Bill Gates and Bill Joy as examples of the 10,000 hour rule. If these brilliant minds need 10,000 hours, perhaps it is a very conservative estimate for the mere mortals among us! Similarly for some of our greatest sports heroes). So I simply urge you to think about every hour you are able to practice your area of interest as an important opportunity and necessary step toward becoming a valued member of an organization in that area. Contrary to holding you back, it may be allowing you to build up an expertise.

This concept really resonates with my own observations even though I did not realize it before now. In fact, it has caused me to modify a couple of management concepts I have lived by in the past. The first I will call: “Hire the smartest people, they can learn what they need to know on the job.” This is actually still true but it needs to be tempered with the idea that although they can learn what they need, the organization needs to understand how long it will take them to be an expert – someone whose judgment they can truly rely on in the area of expertise. This is one reason start-ups are generally so dogmatic about hiring someone with the right experience. They cannot afford the time for the person to gain the necessary expertise. The second area I will call “The defocus trap”. Getting spread too thin is a problem for many managers. There is too much to do and not enough time to do it. But many times these managers are already experts in their areas (the stem of the “T” in the T-Shaped Individual – https://jtglass.wordpress.com/2009/01/12/t-shaped-individuals/) and they are now managing across a wide variety of areas. But for early career individuals who are contributing in a specific functional area rather than managing across several areas and have not yet proven themselves or developed a true expertise, this spreading too thin or defocusing can be very detrimental as you are trying to prove your value and developing your expertise. Thus, focus becomes important for both the individual and the organization as it tries to develop the depth of expertise that is needed.

In summary, take the opportunity to “practice” for many, many hours as you develop your expertise. Of course, strive for new assignments and new positions but be sure you are working long enough in an area that you have logged in the time to be knowledgeable enough that you can significantly impact your organization.

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Many students of Engineering Management have some degree of interest in entrepreneurship because they are interested in starting their own business someday. In talking with industry representatives, we have found that there is a much broader role for entrepreneurship education within an Engineering Management curriculum. In particular, many companies want their technical/engineering employees to have a strong understanding of the numerous issues related to developing new business and the best way to satisfy this need is to take an entrepreneurship class or two. This is driven by a number of factors;

• The need for technical employees to interact with multiple business functions, thus their understanding of what drives these different functions is very valuable;

• One of the key issues in entrepreneurship is a deep focus on customer needs and understanding the value of a product to a customer need. This translates to any size company and insures that technical employees are not technology-minded but solutions-minded;

• Developing a complete business plan for an entrepreneurial endeavor provides technical/engineering students with an excellent overview of a business, thereby enabling them to more clearly understand decisions made by executives/firms regarding business strategy. This enables technical employees to spend less time complaining about strategic decisions and more time implementing! Without this broad overview of a business, technical employees tend to view every decision from their technology/engineering lens and thus do not understand the logic of such decisions.

• Finally, students who have studied entrepreneurship and worked with a team to write a business plan have shown their ability to: learn new areas quickly and from a business perspective, work with a team in a high pressure situation, conduct an in-depth business analysis on a new technology and present ideas concisely and persuasively.

To be sure, some companies/individuals will look at an entrepreneurship course and think that a student is not appropriate for a larger firm. They will automatically assume that a student will work for a short time and then leave the organization to start their own company, possibly competing with their organization. However, I have found that the numbers of individuals who take this approach are “few and far between”. Much more common are the individuals who are excited about the entrepreneurship studies that students undertake in engineering management and clearly understand the value of their firm in hiring such a student. In fact, they will automatically tend to think that such an employee will be innovative and “intrapreneurial” in their firm, providing a key competitive element to their technical staff. This will depend on the corporate culture and the individual, but more often than not, this is the case.

So as students consider which courses to take and areas to study, I would recommend that they do not rule out entrepreneurship simply because they don’t plan to start their own firm. Consider all of the learning that will accompany an entrepreneurship course or curriculum and make a decision based on such an analysis.

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