All posts by Laurie Ford

Even if We Aren’t “Managers”, Most of Us Need to Manage THIS

Chuck, a maintenance guy, did some work for us the other day and we got talking about how he scheduled his job appointments. Since he was both friendly and skilled at his work, he had a few spare minutes to let me know the secrets of managing a contractor’s calendar. “It’s all about how I keep my job plans in existence,” he said. “Not just the jobs, but also the supplies I need for each one, and checking that my equipment is ready and working. I look at my schedule every evening so I know what to pack up for the next day.”

This reminded me of a question Jeffrey (my professor-emeritus-husband) gives to his MBA students:  “When you are asked to do something – or tell someone you will do something – how do you record it so you don’t forget it?”  We don’t always think of these things as “making promises”, but that’s what they are – and we need to keep track of them somewhere.

Chuck and I talked about keeping promises, agreements, and plans “in existence“, and came up with a list of ways to do it.  I added a few other thoughts from those MBA students too – here is the result:

  1. Write your promise on your schedule. This is really obvious, and probably the best thing to do, but many people don’t use their schedule as a living document in that way. If you promise to research a product, or write up a survey analysis for a colleague, where do you put that task on your calendar? Just writing it into a blank space on Tuesday afternoon and hoping it works out is not always reliable.
  2. Schedule a time to schedule your promises. Another way to use your calendar to increase your reliability is by scheduling a regular time – every day or every few days – to look at your “To-Be-Scheduled” items (see items #3, #4, and #5, listed below this one). Say, at 4:15 every afternoon, you have on your calendar that you’ll check all your (#3) temporary holding places, (#4) delegations, and (#5) the back seat. That’s when you collect all your promises into one place, then put the time(s) you’re going to do the work of fulfilling them on your calendar.
  3. Put your promise in a temporary holding place. Putting an agreement to do something into a queue for later scheduling can prevent us from feeling guilty about postponing the scheduling task. Sometimes that works well, sometimes not. In order of decreasing reliability:
    1. A To-Do List. This is a useful catch-all, sometimes called a “Do-Due List” to remind us to include a due-date on every action item. NOTE: It says, “A To-Do List”, not multiple ones – using multiples decreases reliability.
    2. Pieces of paper. A favorite is writing something on a Post-It note (I love those things!) and sticking it to your computer, file cabinet, refrigerator, or bathroom mirror. But other candidates include writing on the backs of envelopes or on napkins, and one person even mentioned a “rolodex” (does Staples still sell those things?).
    3. Emails or voicemails to yourself. Your email in-box or phone can serve as a holding bin, a form of reminder for things to do. (Recommended: keep an eye on how many are in there!)
    4. A display on the wall. Bulletin boards can be a great way to keep things visible. They can also get messy.
    5. File folders, physical or electronic. Your office filing system or computer can also provide a holding bin for things to do. (I suspect that’s what’s really inside most computers!)
    6. Stacks of stuff, set out where you can see them. Piles of project resources on your bookshelf. Magazines and articles on a side table. Folders of things-to-do propped up against a lamp. These can get Ugh-Ugly and contribute to a sense of overwhelm.
    7. A collection of two or more of the above. If you have multiple Do-Lists; Post-Its on your desk, phone, and computer; more than 25 emails in your in-box; a bulletin board with layers of notes, cards, and papers… well, you get the idea. The problem: You’re not always going to deliver on the most important ones, and you might not even know which ones are the most important.
  4. Delegate your promise. This can be risky, as different people have different habits for reliable completion. But there are several ways to delegate your promises. In decreasing reliability:
    1. Assign a secretary or staff assistant to perform the tasks(s) and/or bring the item to a meeting for discussion and resolution.
    2. Send a memo, email, or leave a voicemail telling someone what action or result you want from them.
    3. Tell someone to remind you about doing that thing, or calling that person.
  5. Throw it in the back seat. This is how to put a “promise” – or something that you and somebody else agreed would be a good idea – into a quiet resting place if you know you’re not likely to get to it in this lifetime:
    1. Put it into a file folder or a notebook, which you then put back in the file cabinet or on a shelf.
    2. Trust that you’ll bump into that person in the hall or at a meeting, and will take a more structured action at that time.
    3. Trust it to memory.

Of course, if you don’t rely on a calendar to help you schedule your days, weeks, and months as a way to help yourself reliably fulfill your promises, then none of this is useful (in which case, I offer my apologies for the time it took you to read the above).

But if you’re interested in a reputation as someone who can be counted on, maybe this gives you some ideas to update your “existence system”. I hereby promise to keep my Do-Due List up to date with a thorough weekly review plus a rendezvous with my calendar.

Is Management a Soft Skill?

Beth, the head of Human Resources in a law firm, was talking with me about the problem of management in an organization full of lawyers. She rolled her eyes, not wanting to criticize her attorney co-workers.

“They know the law”, Beth said, “but do they know how to be a manager?”

Good question. This is where the conversation could shift to comparing hard and soft skills. Hard skills are the job-specific skills. If you are an attorney – or a financial analyst, IT specialist, physician or astronaut, you have “hard skills” in your field of expertise.

Soft skills are the people-relationship skills. This is where the social-psychology perspective comes in. “Emotional intelligence” is a favorite description, but “soft skills” usually includes communication skills, leadership skills, and teamwork skills.

So, what happens when an attorney is named the head of a department? Or when a financial analyst or nuclear physicist is promoted to a management position? Is managing a hard skill or a soft skill? Will sending an attorney to a 2-day program on emotional intelligence make her a better manager?

Let’s say that management, as a job function overseeing a team or group, involves three basic activities:

  1. Establishing clear goals and objectives, including specific measurable results and timelines;
  2. Establishing clear agreements to identify Who will produce and/or deliver What, and by When; and
  3. Holding regular team meetings to review the status of all goal-relevant agreements, and to update the objectives and agreements as needed to improve goal performance (also known as “course-correction”).

Sounds simple, right? Goals + agreements for actions and results + status review-and-update meetings. The only catch is that the manager has to keep track of that information, and many managers aren’t very good at that. Furthermore, they may think they shouldn’t have to do it: after all, people are self-generating, aren’t they? No, they aren’t. So, what’s required of a manager is:

  • The ability to have conversations that produce understandable goals and objectives, measures, and schedules;
  • The ability to support people in making requests and promises that establish agreements for productive goal-relevant relationships, both with team members and with others; and
  • The ability to facilitate a team or group discussion about which agreements are either complete or on schedule, and which ones are in trouble – and then to identify ways to close any gaps between planned and actual goal performance.

If we could give Beth’s attorneys an injection of “emotional intelligence” (motivation, empathy, social skills, etc.), would they know how to keep track of people’s agreements to produce on-time results, for different – and sometimes multiple – objectives? Would they know how to clarify the status at every team meeting, and how to engage people in developing course-correction solutions?

Soft skills are important, but management takes more than “people skills”. It’s about the nuts and bolts of steering a group of people – who are doing different kinds of work and communicating with other people inside and outside of the team – toward accomplishing specific objectives. Management might be a “hard” skill set of its own, that includes some valuable soft skills too.

Perhaps, if we recognized this, we would have more managers who are effective as well as emotionally intelligent.

The Problem with People

You know those name-badges people wear at conferences? I’m thinking people should wear them to state clearly what they are – and are not –committed to in life. It would save so much wasted time and confusion.

  • Did you ever have a conversation with someone who said they wanted your help , only to discover that all they really wanted was someone to agree with what a jerk their mother-in-law (or that guy down the hall) really is? Badge: “JUST NOD YOUR HEAD AND LISTEN”.
  • Or how about being in a conversation to solve a problem, where you keep sharing your good ideas and the other person keeps saying “Mmm hmmm”, or “Maybe…” – and then later you realize they collected all your ideas and used them later, as if they’d thought of all those things themselves? Badge: “DEVOTED TO LOOKING GOOD”.
  • And have you ever worked hard to fix something or make it work better to help somebody out, and they didn’t even seem to care what you did? Badge: “YOU’RE HERE TO SERVE ME”.

Seriously, I got a call from a business manager – let’s call her Lindsey – who told me about how she worked to pull together information from 6 sales training programs that had been used in the past 4 years, and turned it all into one new training program, updated it with all the organization’s current information and ideas. It took several days to do the job, which meant she worked into the evenings to finish her regular work. But she was sure it would be appreciated, because her boss needed the program materials. He was expected to train the new sales team in the coming week, and he would not have known how to assemble something that good from the company’s program materials.

So he was delighted, right? Nope. “How do you know this is what I would want to use?” he asked Lindsey. “I was thinking we don’t need this kind of standard training thing, and I was just going to have a round-table discussion.” He did the round-table, and never said another word about it. Lindsey, of course, had to field all the complaints from sales team members: “We didn’t get trained in the methods we’re supposed to use for renewals of old systems or for selling the supplies for our new systems either,” they griped. “We got to talk about how we feel about sales.” Boss’ badge: “SELF-IMPORTANT ASS”.

The real problem is that we think everybody operates pretty much the way we do. If you’re a problem-solver, you think other people are too, and are sure they’ll be interested in that. If you’re focused on advancing your career, and one of those problem-solver people starts yammering about an idea they have to make something work better, you’ll try to be polite but wish they would pay more attention to office politics or following instructions.

The problem with people is they don’t wear their “agenda” on their lapel. So we have to figure it out ourselves, and sometimes we make mistakes that are costly. What to do? Listen carefully to learn what people care about, worry about, and what matters to them in their lives and their work. First, of course, you have set your own agenda aside – you know you have one, don’t you? – and listen well to what other people are really about. That way you’ll know how to best invest your time whenever you talk with them.

 

Productive Meetings Don’t Just Happen

The meeting didn’t go well. In fact, one executive walked out before it was formally ended. Several people were annoyed or impatient while others, looking bored, simply didn’t participate. It was ultimately a waste of people’s time and energy, and left a few bad feelings to be cleaned up later.

What was the purpose of this meeting? That was the problem. The people who called the meeting expected everyone on the “committee” to bring their “homework” – ideas for who should be invited to the event they were planning plus some ideas for which tasks they would do to make the event special. But the people who attended the meeting had not done their homework, did not offer to take responsibility for any tasks, and perhaps did not even understand that they were on a “committee” to produce an event.

Martin, one of the people there, said, “I expected another brainstorming session of ideas. But they wanted commitments on what I would do for this reunion event next Spring. I wasn’t ready to add anything more to my schedule.”

Time wasted in meetings is bad enough, but when people get irritated and angry we have to admit this is a meeting gone wrong. What could have helped? A few tips from managers I’ve known:

  1. At the end of a meeting, make any assignments clear to all. The best way is to write them on the board or the computer screen where all attendees can see them. Then ask for comments and make revisions if needed. Then ask for commitment: “OK, does everybody agree to do this?”
  2. Before the next meeting, send an email with a copy of the assignments to everybody in the group. Subject line: “Reminder of Meeting Assignments”.
  3. At the start of the next meeting, ask for a show of hands: How many of you did the assignments for this meeting? If it’s less than 60%, don’t go forward with the meeting until you’ve all had a conversation about the purpose and the value of these meetings and doing the assignments. Are we serious about this? If so, what can we do to increase participation, engagement, and responsibility for results?

Those 3 things have helped several managers be more personally effective at work. One said, “I streamlined our meetings and now they are quicker, more businesslike. Things are getting done on time.” Another told me, “Two people dropped out of the group after a couple of meetings like this and I’m glad they’re gone. If they aren’t in the game, they’re wasting my time and theirs.”  Another reported, “I’ve taken one of my meeting-groups off my calendar. Just cancelled the whole thing. They weren’t committed to it, and I’m not going to try and pull them up the hill.” He seemed pretty happy about that.

When You REALLY Know it’s Time to Leave Your Job

There was an article on the internet a while back about how to know when it is time to leave your job. I talked with a young professional recently who told me her friend, Shane, was thinking about quitting. Shane’s problems included:

  1. Two bosses who aren’t as smart or experienced as Shane is;
  2. A boss who could – but doesn’t – do something about the way other groups operate inefficiently and cause delays, extra work, and inefficiencies for Shane;
  3. Bosses in the company who assign work to Shane without being specific about exactly what they want, and without mentioning the other people who have related assignments; and
  4. Bosses who evaluate Shane on work and timelines he cannot control, meaning that Shane’s accomplishments go unrecognized and unappreciated.

Many people would accept those excuses as valid, but an employee who is a chronic complainer about his bosses, and who blames other groups for their “unproductive” ways of operating, could be overlooking one big opportunity. Shane could take responsibility for altering the situation.

I know it might sound unsympathetic, but it really deserves a little investigation to find out what’s going on with those 4 complaints:

  1. Does Shane have a habit of being judgmental and critical of others?
  2. Does he usually expect higher-ups to smooth out his relationship with other groups instead of doing it himself?
  3. Would it help if he asked for more specifics when he is given an assignment, and if he asked to know who else was assigned related tasks?
  4. Maybe if Shane documented his tasks-and-times he would be able to make a case for his accomplishments and also make the inefficiencies created by other groups more visible to the boss. But without being able to show specific facts, he just sounds like a whiner.

Bottom line: You know you really need to find a new job when you have genuinely practiced having more effective conversations – and when you’re sure that nothing more will make the situation any better. Learning to make good requests (performance conversations) and give good feedback to others about your work realities (closure conversations) will do more to improve the quality of your work life than blaming or complaining. Don’t give up until you’re sure you’ve done your best to communicate effectively.

Consider a visit to http://usingthefourconversations.com/personal-communication-assessment/) – this personal communication assessment tool lets you see which conversations you’re already good at, and which you could practice improving. It’s quick, and better than another day of unhappiness at work.

Accountability is Not Authority

Most managers have some confusion about “accountability”, but one manager I talked with recently takes the cake. Howard complained about the poor quality of employees, saying that his (mostly young) staff people are “not accountable”.

“They just do the work they think they should do, but they are not accountable for their results,” Howard explained, summarizing our 20-minute conversation about his office problem. Three things are missing from this logic:

  1. Howard seems to think that accountability is an inborn trait that people either have or don’t have. I asked him how he would know if his people were being accountable, he said, “They would report their results to me on a regular basis.”
  2. He didn’t specify exactly which results they should report. If they are doing “the work they think they should do”, then what reporting does Howard expect? A report on the results they think they should be producing?
  3. Howard has exempted himself from any responsibility for establishing accountability as part of his management practices. In fact, I didn’t hear any management practices at all in our conversation about accountability.

Accountability requires clear requests and promises to produce results. And it requires follow-up: Howard will need to identify which results he wants each person to report on, and schedule a time for that to happen. Without a clear management request for specific results, there is no accountability. Without a specific date and time to report on those results, there is no accountability.

“You have to set it up,” I explained, “so you can get the feedback you want about what is actually being produced. Accountability requires being specific about what and when to count, track, and report. It’s your job to create the framework for that to happen.”

“Too much work,” he said. “I shouldn’t have to do that.”

Poor Howard. He prefers to rely on Authority, even though that’s just a hierarchical position with a title of some sort given by his higher-ups. Authority will never help him build accountability in his unit. But he doesn’t think he needs to do that anyway.

Howard insisted, “They should know their jobs”. He refused to clarify expected results, much less set up a weekly report-out meeting. He even rejected the idea of having his employees create and update a team-customized “results scoreboard”.

Then he went back to complaining about “young people today”.

Workplace Communication & Resistance to Change

The program last week was based on the responses of a 50+ person group that took our Workplace Communication Assessment (a freebie on www.usingthefourconversations.com). The #1 issue for managers – and #2 for staff – sounded familiar.  They all agreed on this:

“Changes are implemented without discussing them with the people whose jobs will be affected by the change.”

This complaint is often associated with workforce discouragement, where managers and staff no longer even try to do anything about gaining a say in a change proposal. Then we hear the popular criticism of “Change for the sake of change”, and everyone rolls their eyes when they hear another one coming. What to do?

  1. Initiative conversation. When introducing a change, link it to a mission, goal, or objective. Every change needs a context that is clearly stated and easy to recognize as something important and worthwhile.
  2. Understanding conversations. Schedule one or more dialogue meetings with the people whose work will be affected by the change and the people who will be implementing the change. NOTE: That’s a dialogue, not an announcement or a speech. The people whose work will be affected will tell you why the change will never work. That’s exactly what you want! Here’s how to conduct those dialogues:
    1. Write down each specific reason for “Why It Won’t Work” on a whiteboard or a computer screen that everyone in each dialogue can see.
    2. Keep adding to the list with every dialogue, and letting everyone see the growing list. Encourage them to make revisions, clarify the items, and add to the list.
    3. After everyone has weighed in, send out the finished list and ask people to rank the items from 10 – “The Real Reason It Won’t Work”, down to 1 – “A Possible But Unlikely Reason It Won’t Work”.
    4. Post the new rankings of “Reasons It Will Never Work” in a place where everyone can see it, along with this question: “If we work together to handle each of these items, can we make this change work?”
  3. Performance conversations. Make a request to everyone who participated in the “Why It Won’t Work” dialogues. Ask, “Who is willing to take on some of the tasks of either implementing the change or resolving those barriers on the list?” Make agreements with those who are willing to come on board, and don’t be mad at the others who are holding back for a while longer.
  4. Closure conversations. Start having regular “Change Implementation” meetings to review the necessary tasks, assignments, and agreements with other groups to make the change happen. Check things off task and barrier lists, say Thank You a lot, and keep your list of assignments, deliverables, and agreements up to date. Then go back to Step 1 and re-introduce the change; Step 2 to talk about what needs attention now that things are underway; and Step 3, inviting others to step in to adopting a task or process.

We humans are so funny. We want to keep things the same. And we want to be part of changing things. Resistance is fun – and so is the game of making things work. Help people join the game.