How To Manage Your Manager

Most of us are reporting to someone. We have a boss. It might be the first line manager, director, vice president, CEO, or a board of directors. One could even say that the customer is our ultimate boss but I won’t go that far in this article. Let’s stay with the person above you in the organizational structure of a company.

The common logic is that the manager manages the team. The less common view, but as much important, is that the employee also needs to manage his or her manager. Why? We are not slaves. We are all human beings with the same basic rights. Only we ourselves are responsible for taking care of our needs. The manager may have a positional power over us but that doesn’t mean we just follow orders. In this article, I will describe what you can do to manager your manager, why it is important, and how it can help both of you to be successful.

Managing up versus sucking up

Managing up has a certain negative connotation. Often confused with sucking up to your boss. However, these two terms couldn’t be more different. Sucking up really means that you are the “yes man”. You are doing everything in your power to please the boss, to appear in the best light, and earn some plus points. Your hope is that by being favorite “pet” you will gain some privileges not available to others who don’t suck up. This means that you don’t shy away from throwing others under the buss if it helps to improve your own image.

This is obviously unhealthy behavior. It may work in short term to advance your career but it will definitely destroy your reputation, kill your long-term prospects, make the team dysfunctional and ultimately make you entirely dependent on the good graces of your boss instead of on your own skills and effort.

In contrast, managing up is an ability to talk to your boss as an equal. He or she is your partner in getting the work done and in fulfilling company’s mission. Managing up is about setting boundaries and rules on how you and your manager work together. It is about agreement how you stay in dialog, how you set priorities, how you keep each other informed and how you hold each other accountable. It is about understanding the needs of the other person and helping them to achieve their goals.

Setting boundaries

The first thing to do is to sit with your new manager and talk about how you will work together. You want to understand how your boss works, what are his general expectations in terms of updates, reports, escalations. You should clarify the level of details he wants to be involved in. You should talk about whether he wants to be informed when you need to talk to his management or to other departments. You should agree on “no surprises” rule. Nothing is more embarrassing for your boss when he is being confronted by his manager with something you have done and he has no clue. You can read more on this topic in No Surprises In Management Please.

You should also talk about how you work and whether it is compatible with your manager’s expectations. Especially in today’s hectic environment, you should clarify what level of availability and responsiveness is expected.

The boundaries conversation also needs to tackle the topic of feedback. How you give each other feedback? Being it work related or developmental. This may be tough to do on the very first meeting but it is important to indicate that you appreciate any feedback your manager is willing to give you and that you are also available to provide feedback when asked.

Setting communication rules

Agreeing on how your manager expects to communicate with you is probably the most important conversation to have. Each of us is used to different communication channels, may have different way how we receive and process information, and may be used to different way of communication from previous job or even from other colleagues.

It is important to agree with your manager on what communication channel is preferred for what information. For example, you may agree that normal updates are best over emails to read at his or her own leisure, but any escalations or concerns should be communicated face to face or over the phone. This agreement is extremely important when you have a remote boss, and hyper important when he or she sits in a different time zone. You can read more on the topic in So You’ve Got A Remote Boss. Tricky.

You can be very flexible and adjust to the needs of your boss with one big exception. Never agree to not communicate! You need to build a solid relationship and that will not happen when you or your boss are avoiding interactions. If your manager says that there is no reason to talk regularly, insist on it anyway. You can appeal to his ego by asking for help, acknowledging you can learn from him, or just state plainly that it would help you grow and you feel a regular contact will help build good relationship between two of you. If you talk with your boss only when there are problems your relationship will have a significantly negative undertone. You need to take 100% responsibility for making the relationship work.

I personally have a tendency to over-communicate with my managers so the conversation I would have with any new boss is along the lines, “I’m used to copying my boss on all emails that may be eventually brought to your attention. I don’t necessarily expect you to read them, but I want to make sure you have them available if your manager or someone from other departments asks. If I need your help I will specifically indicate that in the subject of the email. Does this work for you?”

As you see I’m not asking “How do you want me to communicate?” since it would put me in a passive role of the one who needs to adjust. By proactively describing how the communication could look like you ensure your voice is heard and needs fulfilled. The boss can always say “no”. In my case, sometimes the answer was, “works for me.” Sometimes the answer was, “no need, just include me when you need help.” Regardless of the answer, it helped manage the expectations.

Setting goals, priorities and check-points

This is not article about goals and priorities setting so I’m listing it here just for completeness. Having clearly set goals, understood priorities, and agreed upon check-points is critical for healthy, surprise free, working relationship. You may check some of my thoughts on the topic in The Puzzle Of Performance Goals and How To Make SMART Goals Smarter.

Asking for help

One of the key things your boss can do for you is to remove obstacles. In fact, you will read this in almost every book about leadership that leaders are here to show vision and then get out of the way. The only time when they should step in is to remove roadblocks so you can achieve the agreed goals.

This means that you need to have a clear understanding with your boss about what level of issues he or she can help you with. It can be a very general statement along the lines of “when you run into something you can’t figure out let me know and I will help you.” It can be also something much more specific, “once you are ready to present the proposal to the CEO let me know so we review it together and then I can help you by pushing it from my side.”

The key is to have a clearly stated agreement with your manager that it is fine to ask for help and it won’t be held against you.

Offering help

To paraphrase JFK “don’t ask what your manager can do for you, ask what you can do for him”. Why? Good relationships are all about trust. How do you build trust? There are couple of ways to do it, but the basic one is to make sure that the other person sees that you have his wellbeing on top of your mind. If you accomplish that, chances are he will reciprocate.

When your boss sees that you are willing to help him solve his problems it dramatically increases the trust he has in you. He will trust your skills, your loyalty, and ultimately will find you indispensable. The common sense says that when you are indispensable you are in much better negotiation position to get what you need. When you can easily show the value you provide, it has a direct impact on your ability to get the next interesting project, the next promotion, the raise, or the freedom to work the way you want.

You don’t need to do much. Just asking whether there is anything you can help with, will do the trick. Even better approach may be to get clues from what was discussed or what you already know your manager is working on and ask if you can help with that specific problem. In long-term, the best approach is to ask about his or her priorities. Every now and then, I would ask my boss about what his top priorities for the next couple of months are and then see if I can bring some value and solve his problems for him, or at least contribute to the solution.

The beautiful side effect of this practice is that you are getting opportunities to do parts of your manager’s job and that allows you to learn new skills and expand your job. In simple terms, it allows you grow. You don’t need to wait on anyone to give you these opportunities. It is you, who is enabling this growth for yourself!

The next time you have a conversation with your manager don’t talk only about your needs and what you need from him. Before you end the conversation just ask a simple question “is there anything I can help you with?”

 

How important do you believe is managing your manager? How do you manage your manager? What tools are you giving your team so they can manage you?

Originally posted at LinkedIn.

100 Days In New Management Role

You just joined a new company in a senior management capacity. What to do? You want to make a mark. You want to show who is the boss. You want to show the team you are the right choice. You want to be seen as a decisive and fair leader. You want to show that you are bringing value. You want to justify to the other managers at the company that you being hired rather than them being promoted was the right thing. And you want to show to your boss that he made the right call hiring you.

So how do you do all of that? Have a plan! As the 6P rule goes (Perfect Prior Preparation Prevents Poor Performance), do your homework and have a clear plan on what you want to achieve over the first hundred days. Share this plan with your new boss and even with the team and follow through.

Day 0 (Before you even start)

The higher the position the more preparation is needed since you are expected to hit the ground running. You don’t want to show up on the first day and have no clue what the company culture looks like, what the major challenges are, what the expectations from you are, what the industry looks like, who the customers and main competitors are, and what questions you should ask. You don’t want to be seen as ignorant the very first day on the job. First impressions die hard. You don’t need to know every single detail, it would be too difficult for an outsider to discover anyway, but you need to understand the major themes. Before you even start you should:

  • Meet with your future boss to understand your mission, why you are being brought on board
  • You need to research the competitive landscape and understand the business at the level any outsider can
  • You need to know how the company is doing, what its mission is what it claims to stand for (you will have opportunity to verify these when you start)
  • If possible you should also ask around and research what the customers and former employees say about the company
  • And you need to prepare a couple of ready to deliver speeches about who you are, why you are here, what you believe in, and why people should listen to you since you need to be setting some expectations from day one

Day 1 – 40 (Listen & Understand)

The very first day is the day when your listening journey starts. The first weeks on the job needs to be for you to understand the company and the people you will work with. You already have some understanding from your previous research but now you can dig into details. So what are the key things to do in the first forty days?

  • Meet with your management team and every single team member (if the team is small enough) or at least with key employees (if you are heading a large organization), listen and understand various aspects of the company, its mission, culture, values, and who is on board
  • Meet with representatives from other departments to understand what their roles are, how your team fits the picture, and to start building relationships
  • Meet with key partners, vendors, 3rd parties and understand the relationships
  • Spend time with a person who formerly held the job, or someone who is at similar level in the company to understand the history and expected future
  • Clearly define the role with your boss and understand what are the boundaries and communication channels between various groups
  • Sit with your boss and agree on performance goals for the first year (or whatever timeframe makes sense for the company’s business model)
  • Build relationships with all key stakeholders (employees, management, partners, customers)
  • Identify strengths and weaknesses of the organization that will help you formulate your next actions

Day 41 – 100 (Strategize & Set expectations)

You have a long list of meetings behind you. You have heard the points of view of all the key stakeholders. You have an understanding of how the company operates, what are the core values, and hopefully, have a good grasp on how things are being done. Now is the time to set up a plan:

  • Review the current performance plans and formulate strategy going forward
  • Identify the biggest opportunities both in the market as well as for internal improvement
  • Develop a SWOT analysis (or whatever framework you decide to use to clearly state your views of the company or department) and compare with current thinking of the management team
  • Decide what are we going to bet on and what are we going to cut (this is always the most difficult decision since most likely you wouldn’t be able to do everything and you need to keep yourself and the team focused on what matters the most)
  • Agree on values and culture we are trying to create and point out what values you believe the company lives based on the interviews you had with the employees (more on this in You Can’t Lead Without Values And Principles)
  • Start working on plugging holes in the team (if any) to support the strategy
  • Set the tone (leadership style) and clearly articulate the expectations you have from the team
  • Establish credibility and acceptance by the organization by leading by example and generally behaving in a trustworthy manner (more on this in Trust And Credibility Beats Vision And Strategy)

Day 100+ (Execute)

Your hundred days passed. Now you should be in full execution mode. But before you get to the day to day nitty gritty work you probably want to close the onboarding loop with couple more action items:

  • Review the 100 days with your boss
  • Review organizational structure, make changes as needed and put together developmental plans for the team aligned with strategy
  • Create sense of urgency (I know it is not a popular term, so call it whatever you wish but just make sure that everyone in the organization is focused on helping the company achieve its goals) and execute on the strategy agreed

I know that the list is hardly comprehensive and is prone to change due to specific circumstances related to the role in question and the company. I have originally put the list together when asked how the first hundred days as a CEO should look like. When I look at it now, I feel it is relevant enough for most of the management roles. What will differ is the depth and details into which you will want to dive. The key takeaway is that “listen and understand” is more important than “having a quick impact” unless you are being brought in for a turnaround situation.

 

What is your approach to getting oriented in a new role? What are the priorities for the first 100 days and how does it differ with seniority? Do you believe it is more important to “have a quick impact” or to “listen and understand”?

Originally posted at LinkedIn.

Don’t Panic Rule Of Leadership

“In many of the more relaxed civilizations on the Outer Eastern Rim of the Galaxy, the Hitchhiker’s Guide has already supplanted the great Encyclopaedia Galactica as the standard repository of all knowledge and wisdom, for though it has many omissions and contains much that is apocryphal, or at least wildly inaccurate, it scores over the older, more pedestrian work in two important respects. First, it is slightly cheaper; and secondly it has the words DON’T PANIC inscribed in large friendly letters on its cover.”

You may have recognized the quote from Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy written by Douglas Adams. I love the book and the words “Don’t panic” somehow stuck with me. It may come from comedy science fiction genre but it has so much meaning in everyday life of a leader.

Society that enjoys panicking

Human beings just love panicking. It has been encoded in our brains for eons. If something surprising, unexpected, or unknown comes, the first reaction is to fight or flee. It is a matter of survival. Unfortunately, we carry this reaction with us also to workplace. Someone gives you a harsh feedback, sends you an agitated email, or mentions an unpleasant rumor and your first reaction is to over-react. Fight or flee. You immediately believe the worst possible outcome. You immediately see the others around you in the worst possible way. In your mind, they have the worst possible intentions. They have no skills, no honor, they are here to take advantage of you, and they care only about themselves. You are the hero that has to “do something” immediately or the world will end.

Don’t react, but respond

Luckily, the nature has expanded the brain over the years and aside of the limbic system responsible for your survival instincts it provides you also with a neocortex that allows you to dissociate yourself from the situation, step on a higher ground and think before you act. You don’t need to react in a given situation automatically under the influence of environment. You can chose to respond on your own terms.

There are couple of components you need to understand before you decide to respond. These components will inform you and let you make the right decision with clear mind and without emotional attachment. You should ask yourself:

  1. Do I understand the whole picture? – This is an obvious question. Let me illustrate on a simple example. You just got an email where the sender trashes work of bunch of other people on the team. It essentially states that the whole project the team works on doesn’t make sense, is done badly, the participants are incompetent, and at the end questions why we would spend so much money on it. What triggered that email? It was a simple request for final review of a document the team worked on. The document itself is quite fine. There are few sentences to change, but ultimately it shows a solid work of the team. So why such a violent reaction? If you would react just on what the email says you would delete the document, start from scratch, or even look for a new team. Obviously, you don’t have the whole picture. The reaction is not about the document. It is about something else. Before you chose to respond, you need to understand what you are responding to.
  2. Do I understand the emotions involved? – It is not only about facts. It would be great if the business was just about facts, but it is not. Businesses are run by people and people have emotions. People have needs, and cares, and dreams, and worries. You need to understand those before you respond. Who are the people involved in the particular incident and what are their motivations, and what emotions are involved? Maybe the person is not after your job but is worried about his own. Maybe the person yelling at you is not angry with you but was just yelled at by angry customer, feels deeply frustrated and you are just an innocent bystander who takes the heat. I strongly believe that people in their heart want to do the best job possible. They care not only about themselves but also about the others. We all want to be loved, respected, being taken seriously. When we act with hostility, it usually means we feel that either we, our reputation, believes, or values are being threatened.
  3. Do I understand my own emotions? – Now comes the most important question. If you react under the influence of fight or flee instinct you don’t understand why. You just act. You may act in a way that you will regret later since it may not solve the problem but may add up to it. If you chose to respond it means you also reflected on your own emotions. You understand not just the facts, but you also realized the emotions involved and what triggered your own reaction. You may feel angry with the person, not with the situation. You may believe that the person is attacking you and you are defensive, even though it may not be about you. To understand your own internal reaction and being able to step back and clear your own emotions before responding is the critical part of not panicking rule.

After you have successfully answered the questions above you can finally respond. But do you need to? Is your response actually needed? Very often, we feel the need to respond even when no response is sought or expected. We just want to be heard and forget to ask ourselves whether we have something useful to say. Sometimes no response or just a quiet acknowledgement is all what is needed.

When you finally decide to respond keep in mind this one basic question that allow you to defuse potentially disastrous situations where emotions run high: What do I want the outcome to be for me, for the other people involved, for the common goal, and for our mutual relationships?

Leaders don’t panic

Being a leader doesn’t necessarily mean you have to contribute to every single conversation or that you have to solve every single problem. It means that you are the calm harbor in the midst of storms. You are here to lead by example, to set the tone that things are under control and they are not that bad, as they seem to be. You are here to keep focus of the team on the end goal and not get distracted along the way by relatively unimportant issues. And if you want to know more about keeping cool under stressful conditions you may want to read Leadership In The Age Of Duck.

So next time you are confronted with new unpleasant situation, or feel like you are getting angry, just stop. Step back, think about the facts, try to understand the whole picture, don’t make assumptions, and don’t try to mind read others. Rather think about your own motivation, your own emotions, your own reactions, and above all DON’T PANIC.

 

What is your first rule of leadership? How important “staying calm” is for a leader

Originally posted at LinkedIn.

Open Door Policy Just Doesn’t Work

As more and more companies move to modern methods of management and words like empowerment, coaching, and meaning float around there is also a popular concept of “open door policy”. Many managers and HR departments would subscribe and even advertise the notion that the company is trying to create an open and transparent environment and everyone should always feel free to raise their voice and point out issues. But does it actually work? And what steps you as a leader need to take to make sure your team really comes to you with concerns and ideas?

Open door policy

In its essence, open door policy is a way of communication in which a manager leaves his virtual “office door” open to employees. The idea is to encourage informal, open, and transparent communication between the company and the employees. Anyone can at any point approach the manager and suggest improvement, come up with concern or provide feedback. It sounds great and something one should strive for but it has its downsides. How many of your employees actually do come to you on their own? Chances are that not too many. Why? There are numerous reasons. It can be that they don’t really trust you and are afraid to provide feedback. Doing it anonymously would be preferable. Or they feel that if you want to know something you will ask. Or they believe you probably thought of the idea yourself so why to bring it up. Or they are introverted. Or they simply don’t know how to breach the subject.

There are also other aspects of the open door policy that can create a rather messy working environment. If people cannot talk to their boss, he is not around or doesn’t care they may talk to others. That is what open door policy encourages. Go and talk to HR, or do a skip level meeting with your bosses boss, and since that person does not have enough context it is a great opportunity to play some politics.

In short, open door policy does not work unless the manager puts enough effort into making it work.

Management by walking around

It is your role and responsibility to reach out and build relationships. Some time ago, I wrote an article Management By Walking And Sitting Around where I talked about the importance of being “with the team”. It is a great way to start building relationships with your employees and to remove some of the worries they may have with approaching you. So let me sum up the basics as described in the article above:

  • Walk – be on the floor with your team every single day to create opportunities for people to talk to you and for them to know you are there for them.
  • Talk – talk about them, life, hobbies, family, business, what they work on, what issues they have, reinforce the goals and acknowledge the job well done.
  • Remember – get to know your team, remember the things important to them, or even the small things you can follow up on later on to show you care.
  • Follow up – if you promised to do something during your walk then make sure you follow up, do the action items and get back to the person with results.
  • Make a habit of it – do it and do it often since there is nothing more important than leading your team.
  • Sit – sit with the team to understand their daily problems and struggles. It is a great to understand how the work is being done and what you can do to help.
  • Show – when you sit with your team, you should be at your best behavior. This is a unique opportunity to show how you expect the team to work without even talking about it.

Open floor policy

Open floor policy goes a step beyond the management by walking around. It is not only about you being visible and having good relationship with your employees. It is about regularly seeking feedback and closing loops on any open issues.

So let us expand our management by walking around by three more steps:

  • Seek – seek feedback on what can be done better by you and by the team. It does not have to be a big conversation about huge issues the company has. If done on daily basis chances are that it will be small things that can be easily adjusted to and the team can quickly see results. If they see you are listening to what they are saying it will encourage them to say more.
  • Find – ask for problems even when no proposed solutions exists. It is a corporate mantra “bring me solutions, not problems” and there are situations where it really should work that way. It always looks better when you come to your boss pointing out a problem and at the same time propose a way to fix it. This is definitely true when the solutions to the problems are within your competence and sphere of influence. However, if you create environment like this then you are also saying “if you don’t have a solution don’t come to me at all”. And that is not particularly healthy situation and can lead to people not raising their concerns. In your walk around the office make sure people understand that they can bring you problems and you will work on solutions together.
  • Close – close loops and ensure that when feedback is provided to you the employees also see what actions were taken base on this feedback. When it comes to feedback the surest way to discourage it is to ignore it. People will tell you once, twice, maybe three times and then they just stop. If they believe you will ignore what they say, then why make the effort and say anything? It is the same as with any surveys. You may fill in the survey and answer bunch of questions but if you do not see any results of this effort. If no one communicates what was done with your feedback, then chances are you will not participate the second time.

When you do these things then you pretty much eliminate any negative aspects of the open door policy and only the good is left. The team simply has enough trust in you that they will come to you with any issues they may have and you have a truly open and transparent environment. And if the team does talk to people several levels above or to HR there are no surprises. You and your team are aligned.

Keep in mind that it will not work from day one. Since it is issue of trust you first need to show to the team that you are trustworthy. You can find some thoughts on this one in You Can’t Lead Without Values And Principles. Over time with some small wins the team will be more and more open, feedback will start flowing, and the truly open and transparent communication kicks in.

 

What are your thoughts on open door policy? Does it work? And what about management by walking around? Do you practice it and what is your experience with it?

Originally posted at LinkedIn.

You Can’t Lead Without Values And Principles

I was recently reviewing some job descriptions for management roles and realized that something is missing. I then went and searched some job advertisements for managerial roles and again one critical aspect was missing. They all talked about the duties, technical aspects of the job, even sprinkled a bit of stuff about communication and collaboration. It was all about what to do. What stroked me was a total absence of how the job should be done. There was nothing about core values the manager should have principles he or she should follow and believe in. When you think about it, these are the basics. How can you expect to fill a role in organization if you don’t understand what core values of that organization are and whether they align with yours? How can you sign up for a job if you don’t understand the basic principles that govern anything that is happening at the company?

Core values

What are core values? You can find numerous definitions but I would subscribe to this one. Core values are a set of the fundamental beliefs of a person or an organization. They define the organization and answer the question “How do we do business here? What is important to us?” They define the person and answer the question “Who am I? What is important to me?”

The core values are North Star that will guide the organization or individual in the times of change. Strategy may change, product portfolio may change, people on the team may change, but the core values are stable. They help to decide what is right and what is wrong, they help to guide day to day decisions, they set basic rules of how we work together and get things done. They also create a great opportunity to distinguish the company from its competitors.

Unfortunately, too many companies use the values only because they were told it is a good idea to have some. They would put together a common set like honesty, openness, teamwork, hard-work and print it on the walls without giving it any meaning and without even trying to live by them. Too bad. When you use the core values right, they can be a powerful force to move your business forward. The more “weird” description of values you come up with, the better as you will remove the stigma of “corporate speak” and they will also force you to work with them regularly to keep explaining what they mean in everyday life of every individual.

When I started at my current company there was one word repeated to me on every single presentation, every single meeting, and every single interaction I would have with senior management. “Daily!” It was never described as a core value but it was very clear that everything what’s going on in the company, every decision, and the way we run business is influenced by this one word. It was the competitive advantage we built into the culture that forced the team to act differently from the “old and tired” competitors with long delivery and sales cycles or slow customer support. It showed me how powerful core values can be when they are truly lived by everyone in the organization.

The same goes to individuals. If you want to lead others, you need to have a set of core values that define your actions and that are understandable to others around you. In ideal situation most of these values should have some counterparts in the company values. At worst, they shouldn’t clash. If they do, you are not in the right job and the right company. To figure out what your personal core values are I would suggest you go through some of the tips I described in The Ultimate Question Of Life, The Universe And Everything.

Aspirational Values

How do you come up with core values for your company? Do you create a survey, ask everyone what they believe the values should be and then ask HR to collect it and print out a nice list? Wrong. The core values need to support the business you are trying to build and run. They very often reflect beliefs of the founders or the relatively small number of executives who understand where the organization needs to get and how to get it there. The role of everyone else is to design systems and processes that would support these values and select people to the organization whose values are aligned with those of the company. That is the only way to get to maximal performance.

But what if one of the values that the executive team comes up with is “transparency” and when you look at the organizational processes you see complete opposite? That is fine! This is what Patrick M. Lencioni would call an aspirational value. It is a value that the organization wants and needs to adopt to be successful in the future. It is important to acknowledge that it is not a core value yet, otherwise it would just reek of hypocrisy. Accepting that we are not “transparent” today, but that is the key competitive advantage of the future and working hard to adjust processes so they support this aspirational value will get us there. It won’t be an easy journey and may even mean changes in the team composition since not everyone’s core values will align with the one we are trying to build into the organization.

Principles and natural laws

Merriam-Webster defines Principle as:

  • a comprehensive and fundamental law, doctrine, or assumption
  • a rule or code of conduct
  • the laws or facts of nature underlying the working of an artificial device

Why are we talking about this? It is important to realize that whatever core or aspirational values an organization or an individual have they are still governed by natural laws. Basic, underlying principles, that can’t be bent or ignored. For example, you may say that one of the core values of yours is “we invest in our people”. To prove it you give new employees two days to study thousand pages manual and then take an exam. Chances are that some of them will actually succeed. How? They will cheat! The problem is not that they would be in their core dishonest. The problem is that you broke a natural law that says that learning takes time and you have mistaken effectiveness with efficiency. You tried to live by your core value and be efficient at the same time. Unfortunately for you the nature said “no”, and you build a culture where people have to be dishonest from day one to align with your core value.

The modern society with ever increasing speed and need for efficiency is pushing us more and more to ignore the natural laws. That is one of the primary causes that leads to demotivation, frustration, and depression. In our subconscious mind we know that what we are trying to do or being asked to do is not in principle possible. But we still behave as it is not a problem and end up with some sort of acceptable results and depressed minds.

Trust and trustworthiness

And that leads me to the last and arguably most important aspect of successful leadership. It all starts with trust and trustworthiness. I would argue that if you, your boss, or your team are not trusting each other it leads to a rather lousy collaboration and ultimately lower performance than what the potential of the team is. And trust starts with each individual’s trustworthiness. How do you know whether someone or even you are trustworthy in the role you sit? To follow the thoughts of Stephen R. Covey you need to consider person’s character and competence. Character will tell you whether person’s core values are in line with the needs of the job. For example, would you trust a brilliant accountant to keep your books if you knew he regularly embezzles money? No. Competence then informs you whether the person is equipped to do the job from technical side. You probably wouldn’t give an accounting job to the most honest man in the World if you knew he can’t read and write, would you?

Back to basics

To sum all this up. When you are defining a leadership role, or in fact any role, in your organization or figuring out how to manage performance or develop people you need to start with the basics. Make sure you fill your jobs with trustworthy people, who have the character and the competence. Or who at least have the character and can build the competence over time with proper guidance. Then talk about what are the company’s core values and how they align with values of individuals you are considering for the role. While doing this that these core values needs to be aligned for two reasons. First, it is to ensure the total ecology of the environment you are creating and working in where the core values don’t go against each other. Second, you need to understand the natural laws that apply here and that some things simply won’t happen because that is not how mother nature works.

 

Do you think that strong core values are important for a leader? Do you lead by adhering to natural laws or are you trying to impose quick fixes on problems that they simply can’t fix without even realizing it?

Originally posted at LinkedIn.

Does Your Work Have Meaning?

Why do you work? Do you believe that what you do in your professional life has a meaning? What do you tell to your friends that you do? And more importantly what are you telling yourself on daily basis to get out of bed and to the office?

You hear it more and more. To be happy at your work you need a purpose, you need to understand what the meaning of your work is. Daniel H. Pink popularized this concept in his book “Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us”. Motivation in modern economy comes from three sources: Autonomy, Mastery and Purpose. Let’s focus on Purpose. Do you believe that for your life to have a purpose or a meaning you need to do something larger than life? I don’t think so. Whatever your job is, as long as it fulfils a need of “someone” it has a purpose. The real question is: are you able to formulate the meaning in a way that will be motivating for you and that you can be proud of?

Have a mission statement

I used to be a software developer who at some point in my career figured that I like working with people more than with code. I will show you on my example what a professional mission in the life of a manager and a software developer can look like and what type of stories I tell to myself to keep loving what I do. My current professional mission statement reads like this:

“I’m an experienced engineering and operations leader passionate about setting up offices, building teams, growing people and solving difficult business problems.”

In this one sentence I tell you (and myself) how I want to be seen and what I believe the mission of my professional life is. When you ask me what I do, this is the answer you get. It doesn’t talk about specifics, company, role, or job title. These are just monikers people hide behind. If I told you I’m “director of engineering” or “operations manager”, what exactly would you learn about me? And more importantly, how exactly is that supposed to motivate me personally? The mission statement needs to tell you and those around you who you aspire to be, what your core values are, and what value you bring to others.

Let’s say you are a software developer. Could your mission statement read for example like this? “I’m an enthusiastic hacker and geek who enjoys solving hard business and technical problems by producing state of the art software.” Or if you want to be more specific about a particular domain “I’m an experienced software engineer with a knack for building well designed, scalable and easy to use IT management software that gives other IT professionals opportunity to have unparalleled view of their environment and helps them to easily solve complex IT problems.”

If I were a developer and self-talked to myself like this, I would be certainly proud on what I’m doing and saw a real purpose in my professional life. The great thing is that this is completely under your control! No more complains or excuses that “there is no vision”! You don’t rely on your company’s CEO to show you a great vision of the future and on your HR department to paint a company mission on the wall. Regardless of what the company does, or what your role is, you can create a mission statement for yourself that will make you feel valuable.

Have a story to tell

But it doesn’t end here. To have a one-line sentence with the mission statement is nice but it is pretty much an advertisement that may not provide enough insights into details of what you do and why you should be proud of it. It is a good reminder for you to know the big picture but having a story or two that document your successes, career high-lights, or things you are particularly proud is important to show who you truly are.

In my case I could for example look at some of the offices and teams I built over the years and summarize it in a short one paragraph story. It should be short for two reasons. First, it will force me to focus on the key aspects of why this particular time of my professional life is note-worthy. Second, it can be a good overview that won’t bore the listener for too long, being it a friend or an interviewer. I believe your story needs to have four parts: what happened, how it happened/what role you played, what were the results, why it was important for you personally and for others.

“[What happened] In 2008 I joined a small US based software development company with the mission to build a strategic R&D center in the Czech Republic. [How it happened] Coming from much bigger corporate environment I had the opportunity to build a new office and engineering teams from scratch. I interfaced with colleagues in the US and Ireland to get support and the company’s know-how. We hired the best software developers and QA engineers we could find and built a motivated high-performing team. I played not just the role of an engineering manager but also an office leader, a part-time HR and recruiter, interacting with recruitment agencies, vendors, universities and government agencies. [Results] Initially the team started small but eventually took on more and more work and responsibilities. Today majority of company’s key and most revenue generating products are built in the Czech Republic by a team of several hundred engineers. [Why it is notable] This project allowed me to build something new. It gave me the opportunity to improve my interviewing and people management skills and it gave me a chance to contribute significantly to the future success of the company creating career opportunities for hundreds of people.”

So what would your story be if you were a developer? I will use one from my previous life when I was still a geeky software developer.

“[What happened] In 2003 I joined a small US-based start-up that was a pioneer in building games for mobile phones. I was the only C/C++ developer with the mission to port some of the existing games to Palm OS and write new ones for an emerging technology – smartphones with Symbian OS. [How it happened] Having no previous experience with embedded systems and mobile devices I had to re-learn several programming languages (Symbian OS run a particularly nasty version of C++), I acted as the designer, architect, developer and tester and even created my own graphics. [Results] I built several games that showcased what can be done with modern technology utilizing smartphones, Bluetooth connections, and wireless data transfer in times when few other people have done so. Ultimately the start-up failed not getting investment it needed to operate. [Why it is notable] During this time I became one of the most experienced software developers building applications on Symbian OS platform. This fact would eventually lead me to become one of the key contributors to Symbian OS communities run by several large mobile phone vendors like Nokia and Siemens allowing me to share my knowledge and help others be successful.”

Words, stories and even short mission statements have a powerful spell. The way we talk to ourselves determines how are brains are being wired. When you come up with a story that focuses on your strengths, using positive language, and sprinkle some successes with a bit of vision of who you want to be chances are that you will eventually get there. As you probably noted from my two stories the mission of my professional life has obviously shifted as I moved from being an engineer to being a manager. Don’t be afraid to be flexible and change your mission as you grow both professionally and as a human being, but be very careful not to mix the mission with a short-term promotion or monetary rewards. Ultimately your mission need to give you the intrinsic motivation that no external stimuli can do.

So what will you tell your friends next time they ask you what you do? And what will you tell yourself tomorrow morning when your sleepy self asks you why you should get out of the bed and to the office? And remember, your work does have a meaning, you just need to take the initiative and put it to words!

 

Do you have a mission of your professional life? What is it? Do you believe that having a meaning at your work is important?

Originally published at LinkedIn.

Want To Grow? Get A Mentor!

Homer, the Ancient Greek legendary author of two epic poems Iliad and Odyssey tells a story of War of Troy. When Odysseus, one of the Greek kings, set sails for Troy he wanted to ensure his young son Telemachus gets a solid education and his palace is in a good hands. He asked a friend, whose name was Mentor, to get his son education necessary for a long successful life. Thus the first mentorship took place. It was based on sympathetic relationship between two people of different levels of experience without any formal relationship or family and organizational structure.

So how do you define mentoring today? What about: a process of informal transmission of knowledge, psychological support and even social capital that enables the recipient to increase his professional success, being it both the work related tasks as well as personal development. The mentor is someone significantly more experienced in the area of interest and should be a level or two above the mentee. The mentee is someone who wants to receive a professional mentoring in the effort to accelerate his or her growth.

Goals of mentoring

The basis of mentoring is the professional, direct and partnership-based relationship between a mentor and a mentee. At high-level the main aim is to promote the professional and personal development of the mentee. The actual goals may cover wider area of topics:

  • Providing advice for further personal development – mentee and mentor meet and reflect together on the mentee‘s experiences. This serves to foster the skills and personality of the mentee on an individual level and enables him to be a better person.
  • Providing advice on professional questions and decisions – depending on mentor’s experience they both engage in an exchange of experiences, and the mentor passes on his own experiences and information in effort to enable the mentee to make better decisions.
  • Discussing difficult management situations – assuming the mentee is being mentored on management and leadership topics the mentor can act as a sounding board and provide points of view based on his or her vast experience with managing people.
  • Help establishing a feedback culture – it is a great way to build a feedback culture through working with emerging leaders and experts.
  • Spreading understanding of company strategy and business – especially when the relationship crosses several management levels it helps to provide insights into company strategy that may be otherwise diluted.
  • Networking within and outside the organization – when the mentorship spreads across different departments or the mentor is even outside the company it grants the mentee access to a professional circles otherwise inaccessible.
  • Increasing self-confidence and professionalism of mentee – as the person works with significantly more senior mentor it gives him or her a new perspective on how to conduct business and by learning new skills will also build a self-confidence.

I listed just some of the most obvious benefits of mentoring. Depending on the needs of the mentee these can be of course expanded.

Requirements for both roles

The mentor is someone who the mentee trusts or can build trust quickly. He doesn’t have any management responsibility for the mentee. It is a purely supporting and advisory role that brings new ideas and perspectives to the relationship. The requirements for this role may vary depending on area of mentoring required, but there are couple of basic ones. The mentor should be:

  • A person at least one hierarchical level above the mentee
  • In possession of both the technical and social skills to play to role
  • With ability to teach and impart knowledge
  • With ability to motivate others
  • With interest in helping others grow
  • With a network of formal and informal contacts within the company
  • And of course trustworthy with high ethical standards

The mentee is on the receiving end of this relationship. He is personally responsible for all his decisions and the mentor is there in advisory capacity only. The requirements of the mentee are not as broad as of the mentor but are equally as important. The mentee must be someone who:

  • Shows initiative to be able to maintain the contact
  • Possesses good social skills to provide mentor with honest feedback
  • Is committed to learning and able to put discussed measures into practice
  • Has ability to handle criticism
  • Has a capacity, both intellectual and emotional to reflect and learn

Advantages for mentor, mentee, and organization

How does the mentor, the mentee, and the organization benefit from the relationship? It always depends on individuals but in broad terms the mentee is getting the most of it. As indicated above the whole point is to enable him or her to perform better today and accelerate growth to the future.

For mentor the benefits can be in a form of enhancing his own skills when explaining topics, sharing knowledge, or providing feedback. He can also get a different perspective on the world from someone who is several levels below them, most likely different age, and even different department, culture or country. It enables mentor to expand his social network within the company, and build a reputation of someone who cares and is willing to help.

And lastly for the company it is all about building a culture of feedback, mutual respect and collaboration. A culture where people are willing to help others and work towards a common goal to enable the future of the company. If done right, the mentoring relationships can help to promote culture of inclusion and diversity.

How to set up a mentoring relationship

How do you find the right mentor and setup the relationship? In any bigger organization you may need help of HR department who should have access to data to help you find the right mentor. If there is no formal process, then just working with your boss or even directly approaching someone senior who you see as a role model in the area you want to improve is definitely an option. In all cases you need to be able to explain what you expect to get from the relationship and also what the mentor can expect in return, as discussed above. When having the right mentor the process is then rather straightforward:

  • Upon meeting for the first time, the mentor and the mentee should discuss expectations of both partners in relation to a mentoring relationship. You may want to talk about some of the rules outlined below to make sure both sides are comfortable with them.
  • They should agree on the frequency of meetings, duration and high-level topics. I would suggest at first to meet on monthly basis and even though most of the conversations can be done over phone or video conferencing I would strongly encourage to meet at least twice a year face to face to build stronger relationship.
  • It is responsibility of the mentee to organize the meetings and bring topics. The mentor can also bring topics that he sees as important for personal development of the mentee but he is not “the owner” of the initiative, even though he is the senior partner in the relationship.

Rules to follow

To have a successful and friction less working relationship both the mentor and the mentee needs to agree on some basic rules they will follow. These rules should cover at least these aspects:

  • Confidentiality – everything that is said between the mentor and the mentee remains confidential and shouldn’t be shared or worse used to gain some advantage over the other person.
  • Consistency – to build a solid relationship it is important to keep a regular contact and ensure continuous free flowing feedback in both directions.
  • Openness – keeping an open mind and understanding the other party’s world view is important to ensure willingness to receive feedback and for growth in general.
  • Honesty – again very important for good quality feedback and the ability to have a difficult conversations that enable both sides to learn.
  • Maturity – both sides needs to be mature enough to provide and accept feedback even when it is critical; they also need to be reliable to follow the agreed rules.

When you put all this together you can see that building a strong mentoring relationship can help you significantly to accelerate your personal growth and meet your career aspirations.

 

What is your experience with mentoring? Do you feel it has place in today’s corporate world and what approach to mentoring would you take?

Originally posted at LinkedIn.

For more read my blog about management, leadership, communication, coaching, software development and career TheGeekyLeader or follow me on Twitter: @GeekyLeader