Getting Stuff Done: The Right Priorities

There are many things that constantly fight for your attention. In the corporate world you have to juggle changing priorities to get the right things done. But how do you know you are working on the right stuff? How do you know that you are doing the right thing? And what is the right thing anyway? If you are in any management position it is always a fight between what is the best for the company, for the team and for you personally. In ideal world all these things align nicely, but reality is usually different.

The company comes first

Let us assume that you are in relatively well functioning company. It may not be perfect, no one and nothing is, but there are decent people working there and the environment is not toxic more than necessary. Why this assumption? The guidelines I will outline below are based on this assumption as they essentially put the company first and individuals last. If the environment is toxic and free for all than the philosophy breaks down and won’t work if only one individual tries to follow it. At the same time it may be used as great guidelines for a turnaround and solid basis for a great company culture.

There is a reason for the company to exist. And sadly enough, it is not to employ people. Usually the reasons are bigger than that, starting with making profit, creating something new and cool, helping others or making a World a better place. From this perspective company needs its employees to reach the set goals.

Not all is lost for you. For the company to function effectively and reach its goals it needs to have the right employees and they have to be motivated and aligned with the company mission. What does this all mean for you as a leader? You need to understand what the company’s mission is, where it is heading and this needs to drive your decisions. Whatever you do it needs to support the overall goal. If it doesn’t than it is a distraction, a side step, a waste of time and other resources.

Further, you need to ask what is the opportunity cost working on a particular task. If you decide to work on a particular task or make a particular decision that is in line with company mission and execution strategy you may still question whether it is the fastest or the most effective way to get there. If your goal is to make money and the project has ten cents of return on any dollar invested it sounds like the right call. Until you consider that there is another project in works that will have fifty cents return and will fight for the same resources.

The team is next

Then comes the team. Unless you are a company of one you have a team of people. Like in every collective sport the most successful teams beat the others by good team work, enthusiasm and alignment with one common strategy and vision. This also means that you need to ensure the team feels like one. You shouldn’t single out individuals to take the blame or to get accolades. If the project slips then it is a problem of the whole team and not the one poor guy who made a mistake. Only by nurturing the team mindset you ensure that people will go out of their way to help each other, to ensure there are overlaps in abilities to get things done, there are no single point of failures and everyone has ownership of whatever you are building.

The individuals follow

The individuals on the team of course matter. They matter a lot. Each and every person on your team deserves to be treated like a human being with dignity, respect and consideration. When you move pieces in your spreadsheet during resource planning make sure you understand that. These are not numbers you are playing with but lives of other people. Each of them is special, needs special treatment and has different strengths. Make sure you understand every single person on your team and help them to integrate well with the rest.

What happens when a single team member doesn’t fit in? What if he or she doesn’t perform? What if he or she demands a special treatment? For example your company values open and honest communication and respectful treatment of others and this individual tends to yell at others and badmouth everyone behind their backs? Well, you made a mistake when hiring this person. Keeping in mind the company goal and values (open and respectful communication) and the good of the team (we stand together in good and bad times) this person is simply not aligned and regardless how good technically he might be there is no place for him on your team.

You are the last one

You come last. You as a leader have your success and failures pretty much defined by the success and failures of your company and your teams. There is very little point of climbing the corporate ladder trying to look like a superhero in front of your superiors and leave the team behind. It is a strategy that may work for some time but sooner or later the truth will catch up. Sooner or later someone comes and discovers you have a defunct team that is on the verge or leaving, and your projects are always late and you will run out of people to blame.

The right strategy is to focus on doing your job, on leading your team, on making sure you serve your company’s and your team’s needs, not the other way around. The reward may not come as fast as it could when you served your own agenda first but when it comes it will be a rock solid, based on a strong foundation and difficult to topple. And more than that, you will work for a successful company in a great working environment and have a team of people who would follow you to hell and back.

So to sum it up you should always judge your decisions by these criteria:

  • Is it aligned with your company mission?
  • What is the opportunity cost? Is it the best use of the resources?
  • Does it help and support your team and is it aligned with team goals?
  • Does it help and support this individual?
  • Is it aligned with your values and believes?

 

How do you decide what needs to be done and what course of action to take? Do you prioritize short-term personal gains over long-term collective good? Or the other way around? Or is this view completely nonsensical and you have other way how to make decisions?

Originally posted at LinkedIn.

Effort And Attitude Beats Talent And Knowledge

I recently read David and Goliath by Malcolm Gladwell and as always when reading his books it made me think about how the ideas he describes reflect the reality of my own experiences. And as always it is a mixed bag. Nonetheless there is one aspect of the when the underdog wins over a supposedly mightier foe that aligns with what I’ve seen in my professional life of a manager and a leader. The focused effort and can-do attitude of determined underdog beats a raw talent and theoretical knowledge of complacent rival hands down most of the time.

Knowledge

Theoretical knowledge is a good basis but by itself won’t get stuff done. What I have seen over the years is that pure knowledge gives you a good starting point but you cannot just hope that it will get you to the finish. I work in software development industry. Lots of the young people who come to interviews boast an impressive academic record and have good theoretical knowledge of programing languages and have memorized some of the standard design patterns or algorithms. What distinguishes the best from the mere good ones? The effort they put into not just memorizing the knowledge but also the practice of using it in real life scenarios. The best of these developers have practical experience with building software applications and understand what from the theory is important and what is nice to have.

Talent

If you rely just on your talent chances are you won’t get anywhere. Even the most talented person is not able to utilize his talent to the full extend without the right attitude and focus. Over the years I have worked with many talented people who from childhood sailed through their lives with ease because of the in-born talent and IQ. They were smart, they were talented, they were satisfied with what they have and they became lazy. Nothing wrong with that as long as they were happy with themselves but I always found it sad as I saw the raw potential they had if only they (or someone) helped them realized that with a bit of effort and the right attitude they can be so much more.

Effort

Effort put into things is the way how the great distinguish themselves from the mere good ones. Over the years I managed hundreds of people and the one consistent thing I could see was that if someone puts more focused effort into improving himself or building something more often than not the results are way above the initial expectations. It is the internal drive and sometimes even single minded dedication that distinguishes the best from the rest of the team. No distractions, no workarounds, just pure hard work on the right things is what can help even the underdog to win over the more talented but complacent ones. It is that effort that will get your knowledge to the next level and not the other way around.

Attitude

Attitude closely links with effort and only by combining these you can build skill at the master level. Obviously for you to be able to put effort into something you need a rather unique attitude. You need to be able to recognize what to focus on, you need to be able to understand your own limitations and have means to gather feedback on how you are improving and you need to have a so called growth mindset to believe that you can change and you can make a difference.

And don’t blame your parents or genes if you don’t have that attitude. You can learn it if you really want. In my past life I was a software developer. Rather introverted guy who considered interaction with the rest of the world a nuisance. At some point I realized that to survive in tomorrow’s world I need to build a different set of skills and attitudes. Over the period of several years of focused effort and couple of external events I reshaped my skills to focus more on people and communication. I also went through a profound change in my world view and learned to be the ultimate optimist who sees the positive in everything and everyone and who’s curiosity and need to learn something new and change is never satisfied.

 

What does it all mean when building your team? What do you focus on when hiring people to your team? Where do you focus your coaching and mentoring efforts? How do you help people who are complacent to realize their potential? I’m not going to provide answers today (I may in some future post) but these are the questions you should ask yourself and find some answers that work in your individual case.

Originally posted at LinkedIn.

The Power And Danger Of Using Humor When Leading People

Humor is a really powerful tool in a leadership toolbox. It can defuse stressful situations, build rapport and create environment that people love. It is a good servant but it can be a bad master. So what are the things where humor on workplace helps and what are the dangers and how to avoid them?

The power

  1. Building rapport – one of the most powerful tools in building report is a use of light humor. And I don’t mean telling dirty jokes but rather sprinkle the conversation with short humorous anecdotes or phrases. The most common would be using funny anecdotes from your life or short quotes from movies or books that the rest of the team is familiar with and can relate to. A bit of self-deprecation also don’t hurt as it shows you are confident and willing to laugh at yourself.
  2. Creating a positive atmosphere – closely related to the first point. When you are always smiling a bit cheerful the rest of the team will follow in your steps. You can create environment where people like to smile, joke around and feel relaxed while keeping a razor sharp focus on their work.
  3. Building excitement – this one is a bit tricky but you can create a lot of excitement in a task or activity just by turning something that is inherently boring into something we can joke about to push our mind to more positive direction away from the mindlessness of the task. This way people can get over tedious tasks with relative ease and not complain about it much.
  4. Relieving stress – this one is obvious. Humor is a great tool in defusing difficult situations. Typically in the times when things don’t go as planned, you are missing deadlines, project is a mess and you need to mobilize your team humor can help, just make sure everyone still understands the seriousness of situation. You may have a meeting where the difficult situation is being discussed, you can open with some humorous icebreaker but then turn serious and the whole meeting including conclusion and action steps is focused on business. When people leave they need to understand that situation shouldn’t be taken lightly. After the meeting you may go to your team and lighten up the mood with a bit of humor while reminding everyone the urgency.
  5. Having fun – I love what I do because I have a lot of fun doing it. And that means among other things that I need to feel relaxed, I need to work in informal atmosphere where people don’t need to constantly watch what they are saying. Creating place where people not only work but also enjoy it and have some fun is one of the best retention tools you have in your leadership arsenal.

The danger

  1. Offending others with a different sense of humor – not everyone will laugh at your jokes and that is just fine. However, you should never get into a situation that someone feels offended. Refrain from making jokes about race, gender, age, religion, or even some personal preferences and lifestyle choices. When you think about it there is not much left. You can venture into some of the risky topics with people you know well but even then you need to be extra careful and outside of earshot of others. And if you do that you can set a dangerous precedent for the person and he or she will believe it is ok to joke about that stuff. So again, think twice whether it is worth the risk.
  2. Offending others from different cultures – we live in connected world and people with different cultural background consider different things funny. Something that you or your culture finds funny and makes no big deal of can be highly offensive in another culture. The best way to cross this gap is to find someone who grew up in the other culture but already spend enough time in your culture so can compare and point out the differences.
  3. Focusing it on a single target over and over – this is one I struggle with from time to time. You have on your team couple of guys with great sense of humor, very close to you, so you know they will not be offended if you make well intentioned fun of them every now and then. That is all nice and good if the person feels the same way. They may even like it at the beginning if they know you don’t mean it and in fact it is a way of showing you care. However, you act from the side of power, so you can never be sure that they don’t take it personally and are just afraid to speak up. Also you may do it way too often so it starts feeling to them (or to the rest of the team) that you are picking on them. When you are trending in that direction you need to stop, apologize and keep an eye on yourself as the well intentioned humorous remarks could easily turn into bullying someone on the team.
  4. Laughing at someone instead of with someone – this is a big no-no. Laughing at others for their perceived incompetence or appearance is a total abuse of humor and should never happen. If you do this even once you will ostracize the person, create a dangerous precedent so the rest of the team will start acting the same way and eventually humiliate the person and push him out of the team. This can create a really toxic environment so you need to make sure that when making jokes about others they are on-board. The safest is to joke about other people’s skills or attitude that are stellar and unquestionable and everyone knows it. The moment you start joking about someone’s weaknesses you are on a slippery slope.
  5. Turning yourself into a clown – I love self-deprecating humor. It is safe, you cannot really offend others since the target of your jokes is yourself. I find it a great way to show others that I don’t mind being the target of well-intentioned jokes and that I’m just a human being open to feedback. However, you as a leader need to make sure you don’t overdo it. The last thing you want is to turn into a clown that no one takes seriously. So even the self-deprecating humor should target your skills and traits that are either your strengths or that simply don’t matter in the given context.

What is your recipe for using humor in workplace? When did it help and when did it turned against you? Is there a situation where you would never try to use a bit of humor?

Originally posted at LinkedIn.

Getting Stuff Done: The Right Attitude

So much advice was given about working smart rather than working hard. It may sometimes create a picture of a vast number of brainless robots working sixty hours a week instead of reading a book to get all the wisdom and somehow create a bigger success by working on the right stuff, the right way in half the time and have twice the success. It sounds great, sadly it very rarely ends up that way.

Working smart helps

I’m not saying one should be a mindless drone and just work hard in hopes of succeeding. You need to ensure you work on the right things and you need to constantly look out for ways how to work smarter and how to be more efficient in the way you get stuff done. You might be hardest working person on Earth but if you don’t focus on the right things you will get nowhere. What are the “right things”? These are tasks that not only get the actual job done but they also have aspect of giving you a chance to improve or learn new skills. In this context even making a presentation about your product for the twentieth time may give you something new if you constantly focus on improving the week points from previous attempt.

Over my career I interviewed hundreds of people for various technical and management positions. Based on what I have seen my conclusion is that “years of practice” just don’t matter at all. I could talk to a software developer with 10 years of experience who turned out to be no better than someone with 1 year of experience. How is that possible? This person was working on one product for last 10 years. He was doing a good job, but there was zero opportunity to learn and grow. So in fact he had 1 year of learning experience and 9 years of limbo. Keep in mind, he could be doing magnificent job, he could be key to the success of his project, he could be working really hard, but it doesn’t change the fact he was working on the wrong stuff.

I like the term “deliberate practice” coined by a psychologist K. Anders Ericsson. He proposes that the true genius is in working hard on the right stuff. If you want to be a great tennis player, great pianist, great developer or a great manager you won’t get there just by constantly practicing things you already know. You get there by deliberately practicing the things you need to improve. Eventually, you will build a broad portfolio of skills that will help you succeed.

Working hard is a must

No pain, no gain. Working smart is a good start but you cannot take shortcuts. You have to put in the hours of hard work if you want to succeed. I know many really smart people who don’t have particularly big success in life simple because they just rely on their talent too much and got lazy. They have a huge potential if only they would decide to give it a try. At the same time I know many people who by working on the right things and working really hard stepped out of their own shadow and are the top performers in their teams and have a great success in life.

In my former life I had a guy on the team who started as a junior developer with less than impressive educational background. But his relentless focus on learning and improving combined with incredible persistence and willingness to work really hard made him in couple of years a true expert in his field. He would take no shortcuts, which annoyed me when we were under tight deadline. To give you a nice example, most of the modern software development tools provide a means to build the skeleton of the software application for you. They will create all the required files, link all the libraries, create the template for your classes, and do bunch of other “only developers would understand” stuff. This guy would ignore all this and wrote everything from scratch. Instead of having the basis of the application done automatically in 1 minute he would spend a whole day writing it manually. However, at the end of the day he would know exactly why each specific thing was there, what happened if it wasn’t, and how to optimize it. He truly understood.

Doing what you love is the win

The key to success at the end lies with working hard and working smart on the things you love. That is what will make all the effort worthwhile. That is what will make the deliberate practice easier and that is what will help you succeed. I started my career as a developer. I believe I was doing a decent job, I would spend nights and weekends getting better and better at the craft. When being asked to do project management, to lead people and move to the management role I took the opportunity just to test the waters. I wanted to try and see if that is something that would be fulfilling. I didn’t take it for money, I didn’t take it for fancy titles.

To my surprise I found out that being a professional manager is actually even more fulfilling than writing code. Suddenly I found that working with people, helping them to grow and achieve their goals brings me lots of personal satisfaction. I stopped coding over the weekend and I started to read books and articles about managing people and leadership. I would spend time coming up with initiatives to engage my team and test different approaches how to work with people. I would get regular feedback to identify what I need to improve as a leader and then deliberately put myself into a position to practice that skills.

Chicken and egg is the problem

Here is the interesting thing. Even though I claim that you should do what you love and follow your passion, chances are that you first need to get good at something to turn it truly into passion. The better you get at something, the more you enjoy it. The more you enjoy it, the more you are willing to invest into it to get even better. So the true trick is to stick with something that looks like you could love it, focus on deliberate practice, work hard and eventually you will be good at it and you will love it.

I’m not a particularly sporty person but some of my friends are and this is what they said. Let’s say you decide to do something for your health and start jogging, or maybe you decide it would be really cool to run a marathon. The first time you go for a run you are excited about it but you get tired really quickly and come back home destroyed and demotivated as you just realized how bad you really are. If you just keep pushing and run every day after couple of weeks and months you will get into a great shape, you will be able to run faster and longer distances and you will just love it.

What is your philosophy? Do you work hard or do you work smart? Or both? What is your recipe for success?

Originally posted at LinkedIn.

Life Is About Communication And Attitude

When I go back in my mind more than 13 years to my graduation and try to remember what my beliefs were and how they changed over the time I see pretty big gap. I studied technical cybernetics, economics and computer science so I was pretty geeky guy who believed that technology and software are the future and all what one needs.

The life taught me that even though these are some nice things to be around at the end of the day it is all about people and the way you interact with them. It is about the way you influence others and are being influenced. It is about the way you see the world around you and the people living in it. Each and every one of us creates our own version of reality formed by our beliefs and our approach to life. No one can make us sad or happy, it is just the way we decide to feel and react to external stimuli. So what would be the advice I would give to myself and to you?

Where should you go? What should you do?

The key is to find out what your purpose in life is. Why are you here? It may sound a bit too much like a philosophical question but if you find the answer you can direct your efforts in the right direction and do what brings you happiness and joy.

  1. Openness – the key is to be open to new experiences and opportunities. Only because you studied computer science (my case) it doesn’t mean you are meant to be a software developer. I suggest you keep trying new things, new hobbies, you travel and experience life in all its forms and maybe somewhere on the road you find your true purpose and then you can turn it into a profession.
  2. Love – whatever you do make sure you love it. I have never in my life had a job I wouldn’t enjoy. And it wasn’t that I would be too picky, I just always found something on the job that brought me joy and I worked hard to expand that part of the job and to learn how to like even the rest (more boring parts).
  3. Mission – find a mission of your professional life. Eventually, you want to be able to say who you are when you are in the office. If you can do that you will turn your job into a calling and you will love what you do, others will see that you are enthusiastic about it and you will become really successful in your eyes and in the eyes of others.

How should you interact with others?

It is all about people and the way you interact with them. Even for a software developer or other roles that are in its core one-man jobs you need to work with others to achieve greatness.

  1. Communication – don’t underestimate the power of word. Read lots of books, enroll to Toastmasters club, study languages, listen how others are communicating and what impact it has on you and your surroundings. Learn how to communicate your thoughts with impact so others listen to what you want to say and act on it. It is too easy to say “no one listens to what I’m saying” or “people ignore me”. It is in your power to improve your communication in such a way that you cannot be ignored.
  2. Collaboration – don’t do it alone. Always try to find ways how to work with others to achieve results that would be impossible to achieve on your own. Ability to work with others and through others is the key to have a truly memorable impact on the world. In my life I have built several great teams in several countries and the only way I could do it was to surround myself with great people, working together with them, going through all the ups and downs with them and at the end sharing they joy with them.
  3. Curiosity – stay young. And I mean really young. Having the raw curiosity of 5 years old can help you see the world as it is without the blindness that comes with age in the form of bias, prejudice, or just simply from being afraid of unknown and from being afraid of dreaming. I always found that curiosity is the trait that helps me most to listen to others and take interest in their lives, it helps me to experience new things and it helps me to learn and grow.

How should you interact with yourself?

It is all about mindset. Everyone sees the world through his own eyes and his own mind. It happened way too many times in my life that I saw the same action or incident as someone else, we had the same facts, but while I found it funny the other person got angry. It is not the event or the person that makes us feel a certain way. It is our own decision how we want to feel and react to external stimuli.

  1. Authenticity – be yourself. Each of us is unique and we should be grateful for that. There is no point in acting as someone else. People will recognize when you are just trying to be someone you are not and you will lose their respect. When you are changing your persona you are confusing others, they don’t know what to expect from you, how to work with you and so they will start ignoring you or laugh at you. If you stay who you are you can build a unique image that may not be the “prototype” of the ideal man or woman but people will like you for who you are.
  2. Integrity – you need to know who you are and act that way. When you act with integrity and you are honest with yourself and others it makes your life really simple. You don’t need to constantly speculate on what to say to whom, you don’t play any political games, you don’t lie to others, you go to bed every day with a clear mind and you look forward to the next day. The key is to identify a set of key values that are important to you and then live by them every single day.
  3. Positivity – learn to be positive. Every cloud has a silver lining is old but really good saying. That is the way I live my life and it allows me to enjoy every moment of it. I trust others, I see the good in them, I trust myself, I believe that the world is a pretty nice place to live in. The positive attitude gives you a power to always look forward to something, march towards the future instead of running from the past. It gives you a way to enjoy the small daily wins, makes you more resilient and able to deal with whatever life throws at you.

Be uncomfortable

I love the concept of “being uncomfortable”. We live in increasingly competitive world and if you aspire to achieve more than others you need to stretch yourself beyond your comfort levels. If you don’t grow then you are letting the surrounding world outgrow you and one day you can find yourself helplessly watching what’s going on around you without any way to manage your own future. I used to be a quiet geeky developer but when I discovered my calling in helping and leading others I had to constantly stretch myself to learn new skills, communication and behavioral patterns. It was sometimes painful and stressful but it opened a completely new set of experiences and opportunities for me. This learning and discovery of my own limits will never end and I enjoy it immensely. I found comfort in being uncomfortable.

And if all this is not enough you may want to consider googling up words like: hard work, honesty, perseverance, patience, resilience, humor, continuous learning, care, usefulness, help, and empathy.

What are your life lessons you would give your young self? Would you do something differently?

Original article posted at LinkedIn.