Delete email before you send it

One of the big issues in any modern and especially technology company is the unending avalanche of e-mails everyone sends and receives. In itself there is nothing wrong with it, as sending email is easy, cheap and creates a feeling that one shares information. However, what is being often shared is a killer of attention and productivity. Companies tend to use various distribution lists with tens or hundreds of people on them and it is naive to believe that information shared with five hundred people over e-mail will be read, understood and acknowledged by everyone. Very often the information is not even relevant for majority of recipients and then it basically acts as a SPAM (unwanted mail). I know it is nice to “be in the loop” and to know about everything but there is a price to pay.

One of my favorite quotes is a statement by Herbert A. Simon (Nobel Prize for Economics) “What information consumes is rather obvious. It consumes the attention of its recipients. Hence a wealth of information creates a poverty of attention.” Every leader should therefore always balance the amount of information she needs to stay informed while not being overwhelmed by it.

So what are the tips and tricks of e-mail communication?

1. Think before you send e-mail at all

Is e-mail really the best way how to communicate this particular information? Very often it is just fine, but keep in mind that the most natural way how to spread the word is to talk. Wouldn’t it make bigger sense to pick up a phone or go to the colleague in the next cubicle and talk? Especially in cases when you expect discussion or questions, e-mail should be used just as a heads up with clearly stated that you don’t expect response but that you will talk with the person at the nearest occasion.

2. Think twice before you send it to bigger distribution list

Always think before sending emails to bigger distribution lists and if do send it then make it clear whether it is just FYI (for your information) or whether you expect action to be taken. Always assume that big portion of the people on the list may not read the e-mail, may just skim through or may not understand the meaning.

3. If you receive email sent to a distribution list think ten times before you press “reply all”

There are very few occasions that merits hitting “reply all” button. Imagine that you are in a room with three hundred people and the speaker at stage shares some information (sends e-mail) you would then without much thinking stand up and shout some message back. And imagine that every other person in the audience also shouts back. Not a nice picture, so why do it using e-mail? There are very few situations when replying to all is warranted. When working in global organization consider that there are cultures where this behavior is just fine, but there are other ones where this is seen as annoying or impolite.

4. Never ever use BCC

BCC (blind carbon copy) is a tool that should never be used if one wants to promote culture of transparent communication. Why would anyone want to use it? If you send information to more people then put the recipients to “to” or “cc”. That way everyone understands who got the message and who still needs to be informed. Imagine how would use of “bcc” translate to spoken communication. You would go around your team and to some of them whisper the information. No one would be sure what you told and to whom. Does it make sense? Some of the worst examples of “bcc” abuse are putting to “bcc” boss of a person you communicate with. This behavior breaks trust really fast.

“bcc” is a good tool when distributing information to people who shouldn’t know about each other, like external partners or customers. However, there is no place for this tool in intra-company communication. And yes, I understand some of the technical implications, security considerations, anti-SPAM advantages and other stuff described in related RFCs (for those interested check out RFC 2822 and RFC 5322), but at the end this is a blog about leadership and not about technical solutions 🙂

5. Use common sense and treat people with respect

Most people don’t even realize that they would never communicate in person the way they communicate over email. So the simplest thing is to provide feedback or set up couple of informal guidelines “netiquette” of proper behavior on the net. And of course lead by example. If people realize something they do can be annoying to others they will change. Typical example might be the “bcc topic” mentioned above. One of the primary reasons why people use it even in internal communication is to prevent someone to press “reply all” and spam the whole team. By doing this you are essentially compensate your lack of leadership skills by technical solution. Wouldn’t it make bigger sense to sit down and explain to your team that pressing reply all is often disrespectful to all the recipients who get spammed? And yet many prefer to use technology over having a conversation with their team.

6. Don’t be afraid to delete e-mail you just wrote without sending it

And finally, to justify the headline of the article, don’t be afraid to delete e-mail you just wrote rather than sending it. I personally do this several times a week when I realize that the informational value of the email I just wrote is close to zero, is better to communicate in person, or that the audience is not right one for what I want to say. If you tend to provide your thoughts on every single topic and reply to every single email you get, you are simply spamming others with information of no value that no one needs or requests, you appear micromanaging and you just waste time of your team by providing too much value (to borrow this term from Marshall Goldsmith) so change it! Delete email before you send it! Learning this habit will improve your image as a leader in the eyes of others.

I know this is a controversial topic as many of us couldn’t live without email (including me) so FLAME ON!

Management by walking around reinvented

If you are a leader in bigger organization you face a very challenging task. How do you ensure that you are seen as a leader not only by direct subordinates but by the whole team? Daily visibility is the answer. People will not follow you if they don’t see you, if they don’t understand your values, your expectations, if they don’t see the results of your efforts and if they don’t see the goals towards you are marching.

You need to figure out a way how to ensure that you are giving people the attention they need and you need to be visible doing so. A lot was written about management by walking around (MBWA) but let me give you my take on it anyway. The original term supposedly comes from Hewlett-Packard and can be traced to the 1970s. It is essentially a very hands-on and informal style of management that marries nicely with coaching approach to leading people. This approach allows the leader to be approachable, collect suggestions, understand what is going on and keep his finger on atmosphere in the teams and pulse of the organization in general.

Walk

The first thing you need to change is not being locked in the office. You must be on the floor with your team every single day. Go for a walk amongst your teams and go slow. You don’t want to rush through the office like a tornado or a person on a mission who cannot be bothered even to say hello. You need to appear as someone who is approachable and ready to talk. People need to get accustomed of you being there, they need to realize that you are genuinely interested in their work, in them and that you don’t come only when you need something. You don’t have to talk to every single person every day, which would be challenging in large organization, but at the same time you shouldn’t always talk to the same person as it could be seen as favoritism or worse, it would set the routine that you didn’t come to talk to the team but only to that particular individual.

Talk

What to talk about? The good start can be “Hello, how are you doing?” Obviously you don’t want to ask the same question all the people and not every day. And here comes another aspect that will help you to become a leader who has a genuine interest in people. We are all individuals, remember that. If you talk to me and I mention that I’m not doing that well because my dog is sick, you may want to come back in a day or two and instead of asking how I’m doing you may want to ask “How is your dog?” This immediately gets the discussion to the next level as the person will realize that you remember what you talked about last time, and that you show genuine interest in the person and his problems. And then you want to ask about business related things, like what is the person working on, what issues or obstacles he has, gather feedback, reinforce the goals and acknowledge the job well done.

Remember

The empathy, body language and tone of voice are important and they need to be aligned with the words. What if you are really interested but the team is just too big or you don’t have a good memory? You may want to use some tools to help you with this task. You are not only a leader of your team, you are their steward. You may see your team as your customers who are buying leadership and support from you. So why not use the same approach and tools you would use with your external customers? Your sales department may be using some CRM (customer relationship management) software and you can do something similar to make sure you remember where you left off last time and can project the air of genuine interest. Also by writing the thought/topic down will actually help you to remember it as you will employ other parts of the brain and will use not just auditory but also visual and kinesthetic channels.

Follow up

Quite often it happens that you are being asked for something or you will compile a list of action items for yourself after your wandering around the office. It is vitally important that you follow up on any questions or tasks. When you go around the next time you bring your answers or update on some of the tasks you implemented based on the suggestions or requests from your team.

Make a habit of it

Do it and do it often. There is nothing more important than leading your team so there is no excuse why you shouldn’t do it at least once every single day. If you start saying things like “I have too many meetings today”, “Nothing is happening so why visit the team”, “I have to deal with my emails first”, then you are focusing on the wrong things and you don’t lead. Do you truly believe that your email inbox is more important than your team? Do you truly believe that by being closed whole day on meetings enables you to lead your organization? I didn’t think so. When making a habit of it and doing it consistently people will get used to you being around. They will get more comfortable talking to you, will bring more things to your attention and you will have bigger impact on your organization.

Do you practice management by walking around? What are the tips and tricks you use to make it as productive and useful as possible?

Coaching tools: Life balance wheel

Life balance wheelWhen having a new client for your coaching sessions you are often presented with a challenge to figure out where to start. Sometimes the client comes and has a very clear idea on what he wants to work on, but sometimes the problem is defined more general. “I just want to feel happy,” or “Something is missing from my life and I’m not really sure what.” When this happens you can use this handy tool called “Life balance wheel” to help you decode the priorities and find out where to start with the coaching sessions.

Why to use it

This tool can be used for various purposes, but the basic one is to identify areas of client’s life where he feels low satisfaction. By using this tool you are trying to establish a balance in client’s life. Of course, the tool itself will not solve all the problems, but it can provide the initial insight into what needs to be done and when used regularly it can measure progress.

Steps to follow

  • Draw a wheel – most often is used a simple pie chart with eight pieces, but you and your client can be more creative and add more sectors as needed.
  • Identify significant areas of client’s life – the most common are:
    • Work – anything related to your work, career, colleagues, boss
    • Development – professional and personal growth
    • Money – your income, but also your expenditures
    • Home – your family, parents, kids, your free time, hobbies
    • Health – your physical and mental condition
    • Friends – your friends, past and present, social life
    • Romance – your love, spouse, matters of heart
    • Life Purpose – your mission in this life
  • Go through individual areas and ask:
    • How satisfied are you with this part of your life?
  • Evaluate individual areas on a scale from 1 to 10 where 1 means “Unsatisfied” and 10 means “Completely satisfied”. Keep in mind we don’t talk about how much of that particular activity is in your client’s life, but how satisfied he is with it. So for example, he may have really low income but his satisfaction in “Money” will be high simply because what he is getting is fine for his needs.
  • Connect the dots in the pie chart to show more visually the areas of high and low satisfaction
  • Let client reflect on the picture and ask:
    • What does this mean for you?
  • Pick up an area to focus on by asking:
    • Where do you want to start?
    • What is the most important for you?

It is important to realize and mention to the client that this is a complex system. Change in one area will most likely affect the other areas too. For example, if the client says he has low satisfaction at “Money” so he is going to fully focus on it and will do whatever it takes to get more of them, it may easily happen that the next time you meet he pushes his “Money” satisfaction higher, but his satisfaction with “Work and Home” will go down. So always consider all the aspects and better work on things that have synergetic effect on the others. Ideally, find something that when increased will also increase satisfaction in several other areas.

Where to use it

I described the most common use of the life balance wheel but there are others and it is just on your creativity to decide when it can help. Let me just provide some inspiration:

  • When defining new contract with a client (based on results you decide on priorities)
  • When trying to measure a progress (try to use it the same way as in the initial session every fifth or sixth session to measure how is the satisfaction increasing, it will help to further accelerate the progress)
  • When collecting thoughts about a topic and deciding which one to work on (you may need to ask not about satisfaction but about importance)
  • When deciding between 2 options (drawing a wheel for each option and imagining what the results would be when the option was implemented and then measure satisfaction for each final state)
  • To answer the question: I generally don’t feel happy but I don’t know where to start
  • To identify key aspects of a project and what to focus on (you won’t ask about satisfaction but about complexity or priorities for customers)
  • To facilitate feedback (you may put in different aspects of leadership and ask the team to evaluate each of these aspects; or you can use it to measure alignment of the team by putting in values and asking each team member to rank priorities, then overlay all the feedback and discuss with the team what does it mean for them)

Questions to ask

It is never easy to find the right words so let me give you some thoughts on what questions to ask to make the client think:

  • How satisfied are you with this part of your life?
  • Are the activities you do in this area fulfilling?
  • Think about this part of your life, how much energy are you prepared to put in? (1-10)
  • What could you do to have more satisfaction and fulfillment in this area?
  • What could stop you to make it work? How would you recognize/mitigate that?
  • Who could help you to make it work?
  • Who could remind you, help to keep you on track?

Have you ever used life balance wheel? For what purpose and how did it work? Do you have a tool that can provide similar results?

The ultimate question of life, the universe and everything

Why are you here? What is your purpose in this life? Have you ever asked this question? No? Maybe you should. How do you expect to be happy and live a rich life if you don’t know what do you want, why do you want it, and how do you get it? This is the ultimate question of life, the universe and everything. And no, the answer is not “42”. To get the real answer try to examine two things governing your life behind the scenes: your values and your passions.

Values

What do you know about yourself? There are some core values that tell you how to act, what is right and wrong, who to be friend with and what priorities to focus on. How do you find your core values? You need to go deep into yourself to find out. The best way would be with a help of a life coach but you can try to use one of these simple approaches to get started.

Find yourself a quiet and relaxing place where you can think. Answer these questions and don’t let the first obvious answer stop you, always dig deeper and try to understand “why”.

  • The Animal Exercise – let us say you could transform to an animal. Which one would it be? Now, close your eyes and imagine that you are the animal. Why? What does it bring to you? How do you feel? Why is it important to you? What environment are you in? What actions do you take? What skills do you use? What values govern your life?
  • The Peak Moments Exercise – Pick couple of moments from your life where you felt great and happy. Get back to the moment and feel it. Why was it so special? Where were you? What did you do? Why did you do it? Who did you were with? Consider all the examples and ask yourself: What were the common values in all these peak moments of your life? Why do you consider them the best?
  • The Remote Island Exercise – Imagine you get marooned on a remote tropical island. What three friends would you take with you? And why these three in particular? What qualities they have? Why are they so special to you? What values should the best friend have? What three things would you take? What three books or movies? And always ask why these books, why these movies. What do they have in common that makes you like them? What values they represent?

Select the exercise that you feel would work for you. Don’t rush it. Try to find the values behind values. Don’t let the first obvious answer stop you. For example, if you say you would take with you to the island a credit card loaded with money and the answer to “why” is “So I can buy stuff.” Don’t stop there. Dig deeper and examine why you want to buy stuff, what does it bring? Maybe you discover that it is not about buying stuff but there is some deeper value that just manifests this way.

Passions

Examine what are the things and activities you are passionate about. Asks yourselves these questions:

  • What are the things that make me happy?
  • What are the things that make me enthusiastic?
  • What are the things that make me act?

And again don’t stay on the surface but get deeper. Let me give you an example of one of my passions. I just love seeing people around me grow and learn new things. When I see that a person on my team accomplished something great that pushed him to the next level of a particular skill it makes me genuinely happy and fills me with energy. When there is a discussion about developing people and growing the team I’m the first one to speak. When there is a need to work on developmental plans or performance improvements I’m the first one to raise my hand and get involved. All this indicates a real passion for working with people, growing and leading teams. When I know this about myself it is easy to get more of it into my life. I can steer my career in the direction that gives me the opportunity to use this passion.

If you focus on both values and the passions you will discover that they are overlapping, they support and enhance each other. In my case the passion for helping people grow would overlap with my value of usefulness (doing something that matters and being useful to others). So think! What are your passions? And when you discover them how can you get more of them into your life? If you are in a job that is not aligned with your passions you should consider how to get at least a small piece of them to your current tasks. Gradually, it will expand. It is a natural progress. Because it is your passion you will be really good at it, others will notice and will give you even more opportunities to utilize it.

What is your answer to the question? Why are you here? How do you know it is the real reason?

By the way, if you didn’t get the joke about “the ultimate question of life, the universe and everything” and the answer “42” I suggest you read a hilarious book Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy written by Douglas Adams or watch the series of the same title produced by BBC.

The broken ladder: more choices in your career than you thought

Fresh out of university, starting my career as a developer in couple of small start-ups and being rather geeky in nature I never really thought too much about “a career”. The one thing I had set was to be a manager by the time I get 40. Don’t ask me why I set this goal or why this particular age, it probably just felt right at the time. The fate wanted otherwise. I ended up very quickly as a team lead in global corporation I started reevaluating what the goal of my professional life really is and putting together a plan of a career as a manager.

The Manager

Typically if you go the management path in a big company you would work your way up on the corporate ladder, becoming a team lead, manager, director, VP, essentially focusing on one particular domain or product line. In my case being a software developer in telecommunication industry I could set my goal to become head of a product line or director of a particular business unit that develops and sells to mobile network operators. However, this just wasn’t particularly appealing to me. It looked nice on the surface but deep down felt pretty boring.

When you have “I want to be a manager” attitude towards your career you are motivated by position within the hierarchy, fancy title or the “feeling of power”. I’m saying “feeling” as being the boss still doesn’t mean that you actually have any power or that you are seen as a leader. For people in this category successful career means reaching a specific title. To be completely clear, there is nothing wrong with that and you will be happy when you achieve that goal. However, for some people there are other things more important to them than a fancy title.

So what are the options? Well there are different ways how to “have a career”. It is not just about getting to be a Director or VP, you have a broad variety of options and you should search deep in your heart on what is the right professional goal for you, what is the thing that will make you happy. As you go through different phases of your life you may actually even change your career goal couple of times.

The Guru

For many people, especially in the technology it is not about managing people or getting to the position of power, but it is about being the best in the particular technical domain. The satisfaction you derive from the feeling of being the go-to guy who gets consulted on various aspects related to a particular technology is a very powerful motivator and can make you very happy at your job. You know deep inside that you can solve more and more complicated and challenging problems and it feels really good. I still remember the days of me being a software developer. It felt great to write a complex algorithm, to solve a difficult technical problem, to be seen as the expert in my domain. In this type of career you never stop learning and the goal is actually an ever moving target, but that is what makes it fun.

The Experiencer

You might also belong to a group of people who just love experiencing new things, learning new skills, meeting new people without the bound of a particular domain or organization. The goal of your career is not the specific position or being the best at one particular thing. You could say that there is no goal or rather the goal is to gather new experiences along the way. You might be a software developer for couple of years and then realize that you would really love to spend more time with customers who actually use the product so you move to technical support team. You focus on building skills you might have missed so far as a developer.

After some time you build new expertise in dealing with customers, communicating, most likely you learn to be rather patient. You become a really good support representative and you could build your career climbing the ladder of support organization, but rather than that you say to yourself: I’m essentially talking to customers and listening to their complaints when the product is already delivered, wouldn’t it be interesting to get at the beginning of the cycle? And your next career step moves you to product management. Now you talk to the customers about their needs before the single line of code is written and again you build a whole new set of skills starting with market and competition analysis and ending with getting your company to back up your idea and build the product.

The Manager and The Guru are rather natural ways how to look at career and if you ever got a talk with your boss about your career options I’m pretty sure that these two were discussed. The third option is not that obvious, and in fact, many people wouldn’t even consider it a career. You are essentially jumping between different roles. For someone who loves change, The Experiencer is the best option there is. Though keep in mind that there should be some logic behind the individual moves and the roles should be connected and complementary to each other otherwise it will look just too erratic. You are being constantly challenged, frequently experiencing “back to school” feeling, you find yourself frequently outside of your comfort zone, you have to constantly adapt, you get a broad range of skills, experiences, you meet tons of interesting people with varied background, you build strategic relationships, you are very often the person who brings to the organization new points of view and you will always be a bit different. You will stand out in the crowd and be a leader. And at the end of the day, who is better suited to lead an organization than someone who actually experienced working in several different groups or departments and has a decent understanding of how the business works.

What do you see behind the word “career”? How do you feel about your career goals and how do the different options resonate with you? What type of career makes you happy?

What’s your point?

Have it ever happened to you that you wanted to report to your boss a great achievement or wanted to present a great idea on a meeting with five other people and you somehow couldn’t get the point across? And the more you tried the more you got into the details that were hard to follow? You tried even harder and after ten minutes long speech you could see that everyone is either bored or confused and your idea didn’t generate the enthusiastic response you expected?

What went wrong? Most likely you tried too hard. You wanted to present too much too fast and by doing it you overloaded your audience with facts, numbers and details they didn’t care about. You drowned the key points under an ocean of irrelevant information. And by irrelevant I mean irrelevant to that particular audience.

Let me give you an example. You are a project manager running software development project. Every week you meet with all the important stakeholders to give a status report. During the week you found out that the project will need two more weeks to complete and as a mitigation strategy you decided to shorten a testing period by a week. You are on a meeting giving your update and you start describing in detail what went wrong, why the problem occurred and the delay could be two weeks but you decided to cut some work to make it a week, you described all the options and why you picked the one in particular. After talking for fifteen minutes you finish your report and one of the stakeholders asks: “So, what does it all mean for the project?” This renders you speechless. You just explained everything, what can you say more?

And then another of the participants says: “Due to underestimating a particular feature we have introduced two weeks delay into the project. As mitigation we will be shortening the test period while keeping the quality. We will still have a week delay from the original plan, something our customers are fine with.” In thirty seconds he described something what took you fifteen minutes and the message was understood by everyone around the table. All the other information you provided were simply not relevant to this audience and were causing more harm than good.

So what can you do to break this habit of over-explaining?

  • Be prepared – have your facts together just in case someone asks, but don’t unnecessarily present all the details when no one cares
  • Keep it simple – understand what is the key message you want to give your audience and put it into couple of bullet points, or simple sentences
  • Don’t answer questions before they are asked – don’t try to guess what questions the audience might have and don’t try to answer them all at the beginning. Just wait for people to ask what really interests them.
  • Don’t justify your decision if no one is questioning them – why to spend five minutes talking about why you decided something if the other people in the room really don’t care and are curious just about the results?
  • Get confidence – how? Well, once again, be prepared. Remember the 6P rule: Perfect Prior Preparation Prevents Poor Performance

The best test of how good you are at getting your point across is one of the most unpopular conversations you as a manager can have – letting someone go. Over the years I’ve been managing people I had a number of conversations like this and also saw numerous people giving this unpopular message to underperforming team members. The worst one I saw took about twenty minutes and after the meeting the person being fired asked: “OK, so what can I do to improve?” He simply didn’t understand he was just fired!

And even though this is obviously a very stressful and emotional situation for both parties if you follow the rules, keep the message simple, to the point, no long explanations or justifications of the decision and you tell it with empathy and confidence you get the job done and prevent any misunderstandings.

What is your favorite situation when you got yourself into a bad spot by explaining your point in a roundabout way so no one got the message? How did you salvage it?

Asking the right question, the wrong way and at the wrong time

It happens to everyone from time to time that we ask questions we wish we haven’t or make a statement we later realize wasn’t the smartest thing to say. We regret it and we even go and apologize. We know deep inside that it simply wasn’t the right time or place to ask the question. So why are we doing this? What does it bring? What does it take away? And what can we do about it?

To take a rather simplistic view, the answer can be pretty simple in most of the cases. It is us trying to feel important, trying to contribute without having an actual useful content to convey, us being obsessed with a particular topic, us trying to show off. It is a human nature and in fact, asking questions is a very desirable behavior and as the saying goes there are no stupid questions. However, there is such a thing as asking the right question, but the wrong way and at the wrong time.

Just imagine this situation. You are a new manager on a meeting with your direct superior talking about budget needs for the next year. You don’t really understand how the process works, what is the required input, how the decision will be done. It is a totally appropriate to ask any sorts of questions to understand both the big picture and the details. Your boss is here to provide that level of detail needed for you to do a good job and he is here to explain how things work.

And now imagine asking the same sort of questions in totally different setting. You are on a meeting with several other managers and you are listening to the CEO talking about a strategy for the next five years. The budgeting topic is still on top of your mind and it is really important to you to understand it, so you ask the CEO, “and what about budget for this year?” See the difference? The CEO may answer your question in some general terms without really providing a detail answer as that is not the focus of the meeting. But even if he does, you have shown that you don’t pay attention and you may not even belong to that room. We are talking strategy here and you are asking about some tactical aspect. And if the CEO is not careful enough he may get into the details thus derailing the meeting. That way you got your answer, but you have missed an opportunity to discuss the strategy and see the big picture. And what is worse you robbed others of the opportunity too.

So how do you ensure you are asking the right questions at the right time?

  • Always focus on topic being discussed and don’t try to broaden it too much as it will dilute the original message
  • Always consider whether the question and the answer will bring something to the rest of the audience, if not, take it offline
  • Always consider whether you are asking the right person who is best suited to provide you the answer

And if you are not sure whether it is the right time to ask just say something like “Can we talk offline after the meeting? I have couple more questions about budgeting that may not be relevant to others.” That way you show that you understand the reason for the meeting, you value everyone’s time and you want to understand impact on topics important to you. It may very well happen that several participants will say “Hey, I would be interested in that too.” and it will be added to the meeting as a legitimate topic.

This being said, please, always ask as many questions as possible as that is the best way to learn 🙂