The Most Difficult Thing In Management

What is the most difficult thing when you decide to get into management? I was recently having a mentoring conversation with one junior manager and we got talking about some of the pitfalls in management. Ultimately, I was asked, “What is the most difficult thing in management?” This gave me a pause. Where do you start with a question like this? So I decided to analyze it a bit and at the end I will share with you the answer I gave to him.

Completely new career path

One of the biggest challenges when getting into management is the realization that this is simply a different career path. The popular view is that you get promoted to management and that it is sort of a natural evolution of your previous technical job. It is not. When you got to management, you just started a new career from scratch and you need to learn totally new set of skills and even change your mindset. I talked about this topic more in this article.

Leaving your old job behind

Another daunting aspect of moving to management is to learn the skill of letting go of your previous job. Very often new managers tend to keep themselves involved in the old job since it is a familiar ground and they can more easily get a sense of job satisfaction. Management is new, confusing, and it takes time to get your head around it. You do things, but you may not immediately identify results of your work. Being able to leave your old job behind and fully commit to your new career is important for fast and successful transition. There is a huge amount of things to learn and you can’t be distracted by your old job. I talked about this aspect in The Art Of Letting Go.

Changing relationship with the team

If you were promoted to lead your old team chances are that there are relationships you have with your former team mates, there is a certain team dynamics, and obviously all this changes. It would be wrong to deny that things are different now. It is equally wrong to start suddenly acting like a big boss. It is important to find the right balance for a smooth transition so you keep good relationship with the team, while being respected as a good manager and a leader.

People are not boxes

I was recently interviewing a person for HR position and when we talked about the mission of his life and what drives him he started talking about his previous career in logistics. “In logistics you put a bar code on a box and you can be 99.9% sure it reaches the proper destination. With people, you advice them to do something and you can be 99.9% sure they will do something different. That’s what is so exciting about working with people. It is never boring.”

I find this a great summary of another difficult aspect of people management. People are not things. In reality you can’t really manage them. The approaches you used to manage things are no longer working and that may lead to frustration. You need to learn completely different strategies on how to get your job done. This article can give you some ideas where to start.

Continuous education

Your education is never done. Every person is different, every situation is different and that means you need to constantly learn new tricks on how to do your job. What makes it even more complicated is that the world and society evolves and so the expectations of people and management practices. We know more about how our brains work, there is more and more research in the area of psychology, sociology, and human behavior and it is good to keep in touch to expand the toolset available to you as a manager. What you must never allow is to believe you know everything about managing people or to try to use one management approach to any situation regardless whether it fits.

The answer

So what is the most difficult thing in people management? One of the key aspects of being a good people manager is the inherent need to care about people. You are in management because you want to do good, you want to help others, you want to impact their lives in a positive way. Like a doctor, your first priority should be “do no harm”. So unless you are a psychopath, the most difficult thing in management is the fact that you are basically experimenting on people. You might have gone through some theoretical education, but nothing replaces the hands-on experience.

The lessons you are learning, are on backs of people you manage. Unfortunately, the best and most memorable lessons are usually learned when you hurt someone in the process. You know, after the fact, that you should have done something differently, you learn the lesson, but it is often too late to fix the situation for the one individual that was the unwilling participant in your education.

“The most difficult thing in management is the realization that others suffer so you can get better.”

The typical example that illustrates this point is not providing enough feedback to your team members. Only when they don’t perform and are on a verge of getting fired you talk to them about their performance and they are surprised and confused, “but you never said anything, I thought I was doing a great job!” This is the moment, when you know you screwed up and they are paying the price.

Sometimes you can salvage the situation and turn things around, but sometimes the reputation of the individual or the relationships he has with others are so damaged that there is nothing to do but to apologize to the person you hurt with your inaction and start over with someone else and this time learn from the mistakes you made previously.

So what does it mean for you? Being humble and able to acknowledge that this is going on is the first step to make sure you minimize the negative impact your learning has on lives of other people.

 

What do you think? What is the most difficult thing in management? How would you answer this question when you started your management path and how would you answer the question after couple of years or even decades of experience?

Originally posted at LinkedIn.

7 Ways To Deal With Abusive Boss

Over the last couple of weeks, I talked about How To Manage Your Manager, Why Good Employees Become Bad Managers, and What Excuses Turn Us Into Jerks. What remains, is to talk about what you can do when your manager really is an abusive jerk and difficult to work for. As with anything in management, there are no easy answers but let me outline couple of options and what their pros and cons are. It is up to you to figure out what fits your specific circumstances, and what the best course of action is.

1.  Suck it up – doing nothing is the easiest thing you can do. However, you need to be aware that it won’t change anything and you will continue to feel unnecessary stressed, have a low job satisfaction, experience depressions, and at the end will feel miserable about your life. The psychology behind this is that you will continue to feel like a victim of your bad boss. Chances are that in time, it will show up on your performance that will degrade and ultimately you may end up being the one who gets fired. I guess, not the best strategy.

2.  Fight back – this tactics really depends on your personality and whether you can pull it off. For those who are generally outspoken and don’t avoid conflicts this may do a lot of good to their stress levels. Just yell back at the boss, when he is yelling at you. Ok, maybe don’t yell, but definitely speak up and stay your ground. Give him taste of his own medicine and you will feel good. The positive side is that you won’t feel like a victim. You will feel like equal partner in the argument. The negative side is, that with some exceptions, this is not a strategy that will lead to career success and can make situation even worse and ultimately get you fired.

The fact that you may get admiration of your co-workers who won’t speak up may help you feeling good about yourself but may not save your job. In my time in corporate environment I’ve seen couple of instances where this worked and when the boss realized he has over-reached and started to treat the employee who stood up to him as equal. Sounds good, but probability of this happening is not that great.

3.  Passive-aggressive play – it is a particularly nasty way to fight back. You do it by ignoring your boss, talking behind his back, badmouthing, not giving your full efforts to the job, or even sabotaging his efforts. Curiously enough, according to a study carried out by Bennett Tepper, a professor of management and human resources at The Ohio State University’s Fisher College of Business, it seems that being passive aggressive with your bad boss will work just fine for you personally. It will remove the stress and you will feel like you are doing something about the situation.

However, it will have a negative impact on effectiveness of the team and ultimately it will wear you down. In other words, you may survive, you may feel well, and even enjoy what you do, but there will be lots of collateral damage. The toxic environment this will create may lead to other people losing respect for you, for the boss, and for the organization. They will either perform on lower levels or leave altogether.

4.  Accept – this option is very similar to the first one with one significant change. You can’t change your boss and how he acts but you can change the way you react and feel about it. It is very difficult thing to do, especially if you are already feeling as a victim and have been it that position for a very long time. However, if you have generally positive view of life you can accept the boss for who he is, limit your interactions, and look at it as an opportunity to learn.

What will you learn? For starters, how to deal with difficult people, how to keep cool under pressure, or how to remove your emotions from conversations. You may even start coaching and mentoring other people on the team and essentially become the team leader instead of the boss. If you love your job and the team, and the only thing you hate is the boss, this may be pretty viable strategy. Remember, bosses come and go. It would be shame to ruin your life only because a jerk boss who may leave in couple of months anyway.

5.  Speak up – having a face to face conversation as two adults is the right thing to do in most cultures. You need to realize that you won’t be able to change who the boss is, but it can be a good idea to let him know what impact his actions have on you and the team. Don’t attack his character (or lack of thereof) but rather describe impact of his actions.

I would suggest that this is the best first step you should take. Unless the boss is total psychopath, he will listen and may even hear it for the first time in his life. As long as you keep your emotions in check, focus on hard facts and not feelings, don’t attack him, don’t threaten in any way, and you may get good result. There is a chance that you will be able to build a good professional relationship with your boss. You may still not like him, but you will feel good about yourself for pulling it off, you will be more confident in future interactions, you can even get more respect from the rest of the team. And if it doesn’t work you can always take the second step on this particular journey and escalate.

6.  Escalate – there are very few organizations that embrace abusive behavior. Chances are that the boss is abusive because he can. Simply, no one in power slapped his hand yet. Chances also are, that no one in power knows what’s going on or takes it seriously until it gets escalated. Too often organizations learn about bad apples on their management teams only when multiple people leave the company. Being able to escalate abusive behavior to your HR department in a professional manner is a sign of mature adult who cares about the success of the organization.

You shouldn’t worry about being marked as the troublemaker. We are all adult human beings and deserve to be treated with respect. It is important to realize that the moment you set in this direction it will make you an enemy of your boss. Any jerk would immediately take this personally and would fight back by trying to smear your reputation. At the end only one of you keeps standing. If the HR team, or the organization does nothing, or even worse, if they punish you for bringing this up, then you better get out since they don’t deserve you.

7.  Get out – realizing that life is too short to work for a jerk boss can be a very liberating experience. Yes, you may need to find another job, but it may be the best thing for your mental health and for getting more balanced, happy life. If you work for a boss who is a jerk, you need to see that you are getting something in return. It might be a great career opportunity, a huge paycheck you won’t get elsewhere (assuming money is more important than peace of mind to you), or just the fact that you learn how to deal with difficult people.

If there is nothing you are gaining, then you shouldn’t willingly submit yourself to that sort of treatment and just be elsewhere. But the same as before, even in this case, be professional. Be open with the organization on why you are leaving, keep emotions out of it, and don’t burn bridges. Sooner or later the bad boss gets fired or leaves on his own and you may be asked if you want to come back under better conditions.

So what is the magical formula to deal with a bad boss? There isn’t one. So much depends on particular personalities of you, the boss, the company culture, and your unique circumstances that no one can really tell you what to do. Only you can decide what you want to do, how you want to feel about it, and take the necessary steps. Remember, you are an adult human being, and you do have options!

 

What are your tips on how to deal with a jerk? Do you prefer a direct approach, Machiavellian machinations, or a retreat?

Originally posted on LinkedIn.

Why Good Employees Become Bad Managers

In most of the employee engagement surveys you read that one of the top reasons why people leave their companies is their manager. It is not about money, it is not about work, it is not about team, it is about the boss.

Every now and then you run into someone on the management team or in leadership position that leaves you wondering how that person could get there. These individuals are often smart, they appear to be confident, and play nice with their managers. The real issue shows up when you see how they communicate with people who they deem unworthy, people with lower status, their teams, or people who may threaten their position. I’m talking about jerks in management.

Since this can be a rather broad term let’s go to Merriam-Webster dictionary that defines jerk as “an unlikable person; especially one who is cruel, rude, or small-minded – a selfish jerk”. This is the type of boss I’m talking about.

So how do such people get into management? The question you have to ask, is about causality. Do people become jerks after being promoted? Or do they get promoted because they are jerks? Some research indicates that self-centered, narcissistic and confrontational personalities have bigger chance to become managers. Not necessarily good managers, but because of their ability to present themselves well they tend to be seen as confident and persuasive. If the company doesn’t screen carefully their management candidates it easily happens that these people get into management roles ahead of those who have more suitable qualities and actually lead people and are helpful.

The problem with a jerk is that he doesn’t know he is a jerk. These characters truly believe they are great because their egocentrism prevents self-reflection. It is only the surrounding people, the culture, the company who suffer. The only decent remedy is to limit the scope of interaction of these brilliant jerks or to remove them from the team altogether.

Aside of the ones who got to management because of their jerkiness you have a second type of management tyrants. Those who became one over time. They were completely fine individual contributors who got increasingly antisocial once they got to a management positions. The great thing is that these people are not inherently damaged. They are not jerks, they just act that way. For these people it is usually something that can be changed with feedback, training, and help from outside.

So what are the reason why good people turn bad when getting to management? And what can you do to prevent it?

Why managers become jerks:

  1. They follow a leader who is a jerk – this is leading by example at its worst. Because they work or worked for a jerk they emulate behavior that made their boss successful.
  2. They feel insecure – often because they feel they don’t have the skills to do the job. They are new to management but they want to appear strong and so they overdo it.
  3. They are part of a toxic company culture – if the company culture permits this behavior and even rewards it then very few people will have the strength to fight it. They will make decisions that goes even against their core values even without realizing it. They often end up with low ethical standards and can justify their jerkiness in the name of bigger good.
  4. They reached their state of incompetence – sometimes called as a Peter Principle as coined by Laurence J. Peter. The theory is that you are being awarded by promotions for a good work in your current role until you reach your level of incompetence and that is where you spend the rest of your life being miserable because you are way over your head and can’t succeed.
  5. They have low emotional intelligence – they never felt the need to exercise the emotional intelligence muscle. Often you see this with highly technical people who are experts in their fields and can win any dispute just by using technical knowledge itself. When they get to management they don’t understand how to communicate with others by any other means.
  6. They are managers for the status or money – they got to management for the wrong reasons. Not because they want to lead and help others. They reached the status they wanted and now will do whatever it takes to hold to it. They stopped caring about doing a good job or about other people and want to bask in the glory of being a boss.
  7. They sit on too many chairs – this is true especially for people who get promoted and still keep doing their individual contributor job. They have competing priorities, focusing on their old job, which they are good at, instead of trying to learn to be a good manager. They are bottleneck for their teams, have no time to grow and develop themselves as well as the people they are responsible for.
  8. They had no training – and thus don’t really know what to do. This is especially important in small companies and start-ups where new managers or founders have no one good to learn from. Because of that they often resort to a brute force since it seems like the easiest way to get things done if you don’t have any other tools in your management toolbox.

What can you do to change that? As you can see most of the items listed above are based on external circumstances that can be changed. You can mitigate most of them by following couple of basic rules:

  1. Understand well people’s motivation for wanting to get to management and when the reasons are not right, don’t let them. Even if it means they may leave the company.
  2. Promote people to management because they are ready, not because they are great at doing their current job.
  3. Don’t allow jerks to keep their jobs and deal with them quickly and decisively, otherwise you are implying that this sort of behavior is fine and others will imitate it.
  4. Provide enough training in how to communicate, manage, and lead before you ask people to do so.
  5. Make a clear cut between the former and new job. Don’t let them sit on too many chairs and make it easy for them to let go of the past responsibilities.

These are the very basic things that you can do to help others, especially new managers, to avoid the trap of turning from great employees to lousy bosses. But what if you are the one who just got promoted? What if you don’t want to rely on others to help you but want to make sure you don’t become a jerk? Let’s talk about this next week.

 

Do you think you can recognize when you are acting as a jerk? What are the signs in others that tell you they are being inconsiderate?

Originally posted at LinkedIn.

The One Excuse Killing Your Career

“It’s not my job,” is the single most irritating, and career-limiting answer you can give to a request. You might be right, it may not be your job, but that doesn’t mean that you can’t do it.

Let us consider a rather trivial example. You have a meeting with ten people. After the meeting everyone leaves and there is an empty cup on the table (someone just forgot it there). Now, what happens?

You have a person who sees the cup and decides to ignore it. It is not his job so why should he take it to the kitchen? And then look at second person, who sees the cup and without a word grabs it to put it to a dishwasher. It is like a reflex for this person and she is not even thinking about who should do that. Who would you rather have on your team?

Even in a small thing like this the second person shows a great sense of ownership, a desire to keep things neat, a way of thinking that will most likely show also in other aspects of her life and work. The way she works with customers, with the team, how is she approaching her job. She simply sees that something needs to be done so goes and does it without a word or thought whether she is the one who should do it.

“It’s not my job,” is a common excuse that hides all sorts of fears. So what are you really saying when using this excuse? What are the things you say to yourself that hold you back?

  1. I don’t care – if you are here just to do as little as possible to earn your paycheck you will never get a chance of career progression and you will most likely be just mediocre performer who will be miserable and eventually leave. You should just get out now for your own good and the good of the team.
  2. I don’t have the authority – there are very few situations where this really matters. This is a valid excuse only when there are legal aspects involved, like you don’t have the authority to sign a contract, but you can still prepare or review it.
  3. I could make mistakes – you probably will, and that is fine. How else do you expect to learn?
  4. It is a huge effort – most things worthwhile doing are difficult. Just split it into smaller manageable pieces and get started.
  5. I got burned in the past – understandable, but that doesn’t mean you should give up. Analyze what exactly caused getting your hand slapped and find out strategies how to mitigate it in the future. Sitting in the corner, doing nothing, is not a good strategy.
  6. I don’t know how to solve the problem – great, so go out and learn. You can say this about anything that you do for the first time so don’t let this fear to hold you back.
  7. I don’t have the skills – how else do you want to grow than by learning new skills? Very often no one really has the right skills, but someone brave takes the job anyway and learns as she goes. This is the person who grows and gets ahead.
  8. I’m not good at this kind of things – is a great example of self-fulfilling prophecy. It is this negative self-defeating conversation in your head that you need to reframe to something more constructive. Try this instead: if I put all my best in the effort, I will succeed.
  9. I’m too important and this job is too menial – is just an arrogant attitude that will shape who you become, what culture you create and ultimately will lead to other people stop respecting you. “There is no job too small for me to do,” is much healthier attitude that will serve you well in life.

If this is happening within your team you need to get back to basics and talk about values of the organization, why they are important and what does it mean to do things the right way. And obviously, you don’t just talk. You lead by example. Even if you are a team lead, manager, director, or vice president you still need to be able to get your hands dirty when you see a job that needs to get done regardless how menial it may seem.

If the problem starts with you remember that you don’t need permission to do excellent job! Whatever your role in the organization, it is an unsaid expectation that you work to the best of your abilities and use your best judgement to make the organization successful.

Let me list couple of strategies used by people who don’t have “It’s not my job,” sentence in their vocabulary. These attitudes lead to the exact opposite. Instead of avoiding tasks outside of your job, you embrace them and expand your skills and sphere of influence:

  1. Constantly seek how to improve things – by finding ways how to make your life, the life of your boss, and others around you easier you not only solve problems but learn about how the organization works
  2. Volunteer to help others – very similar to previous one. By volunteering to help others you learn about their jobs and expand your understanding of the organization and grow your skills
  3. Constantly ask questions – you obviously shouldn’t ask the same question over and over again, but by questioning things that are being taken for granted you not only help yourself to better understanding but you may unearth gems in form of potential improvements. Times are changing and maybe the process that was set up five years ago doesn’t fill the needs of today.
  4. Don’t complain – if you constantly complain not only you will be seen as someone who whines all the time and doesn’t help but you will create this internal self-talk that will make you feel miserable with your own life.
  5. Be prepared – learn to spend the time upfront to ensure you understand the big picture, you know what options you have and have your arguments well backed up with data and solid reasoning
  6. Understand that ideas are not enough – you can have tons of great ideas but no one will ever care about them as much as you do. If you want to see them implemented you need to be the person who has the energy to drive them through.
  7. Don’t shy away from difficult tasks – volunteering for tough assignments is a great way to develop new skills, grow as a person, and even grow your reputation. People will give you all the support if they see that you took on a job that they were scared off.
  8. Don’t overanalyze – paralysis by analysis is often the one thing that prevents getting things done. By overanalyzing problems, waiting to collect all the data, waiting for all the opinions to be heard, we forget that there is a job to be done. Get the basic information, make a decision, and get the job done, even if it means there is some inherent risk in being wrong.
  9. Keep pushing and persist when things get tough – giving up too early will not only make you fail, but will damage also your self-confidence and ability to succeed in the future so be relentless in getting stuff done.
  10. Learn to enjoy even the boring bits – when you find some positive on things that other people hate you can gain a significant influence. Especially, when the things needs to get done for the good of the group and no one is to keen on doing them.

Utilizing this proactive attitude you can expect the ultimate reward. You will strengthen your character, learn new skills, build resilience and positive can-do attitude. It will then reflect positively on your self-image, on how you are seen by others, and on the career opportunities opened to you.

To be completely clear, I’m not advocating that you should say “yes” to every small, unimportant thing someone throws in your direction. It is ok to say “no”, but make sure you are strategic about when you say it and smart about how you say it.

 

What does “It’s not my job,” question mean for you? Do you see similar situations around you? How do you react? And how you do to improve the environment when people just don’t care?

Originally posted at LinkedIn.

 

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.

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.