Does Your Work Have Meaning?

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

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

Have a mission statement

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

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

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

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

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

Have a story to tell

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

Originally published at LinkedIn.

Want To Grow? Get A Mentor!

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

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

Goals of mentoring

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

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

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

Requirements for both roles

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

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

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

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

Advantages for mentor, mentee, and organization

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

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

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

How to set up a mentoring relationship

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

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

Rules to follow

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

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

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

 

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

Originally posted at LinkedIn.

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

A Foolproof Way To Stop Growing

Have you ever looked back at your life accomplishments? Did you find periods of quick progress and then periods of stagnation? Chances are you did. We all have our ups and downs, we have times when things seem to be working great for us and times when we just cannot get a break. Funnily, it is the times when we struggle that gives us the push necessary for the periods of growth.

I recently read a short book Living with a Seal: 31 Days Training with the Toughest Man on the Planet by Jesse Itzler. It is a funny diary detailing Jesse’s 31 days getting a physical training with a SEAL soldier. If you are bored on a long flights this is a book to read and think about. It sends the same message our CEO likes to say “Dare to be uncomfortable.”

If you want to grow and lead, dare to be uncomfortable

To grow you need to be able to embrace discomfort. As I wrote in 6 Fears Of Leadership, do you remember when did you learn to ride a bike or a car? Do you remember the first time you tried any new activity? It felt awkward, you was unsure on what you are doing, nervous, uncomfortable. But the results were worth the discomfort. You learned a new skill and grew! And now for some advice on how to get uncomfortable:

  • Start before you think you are ready – when you keep waiting for “being ready” chances are it will take ages and you will either never be ready or will just start too late
  • Share your thoughts on a topic even when you don’t feel like the biggest expert – it will force you to step out of your comfort zone and take a stand
  • Learn to give feedback and own it – giving honest feedback is very often rather uncomfortable thing to do unless you realize that you are doing the other person a service. Your ego or needs should play no role in it. That is the reason why I’m not a big fan of anonymous feedback. If I’m asked to provide feedback in 360s or similar surveys I always give my best to be as honest as possible and I sign it so the recipient can put it into context and come for clarifications. I’m ready to stand by my words.
  • Normalize the discomfort – be very upfront about it with your team. When you want to create open, feedback based culture you need to empathize with everyone and acknowledge that at times things will be uncomfortable and that it is by design so the whole team can grow. These little pieces of discomfort will in long-term benefit everyone and will stop being awkward in time.
  • Keep looking out for discomfort and step in – one of the main purposes of a leader is to seek discomfort in others and help them through it. It doesn’t mean taking all the uncomfortable tasks on your shoulders but it means being there to help so the level of discomfort in others is not paralyzing but is bearable enough so they can cope with it and grow from the experience.
  • Leadership is about going fast – fast enough to be slightly uncomfortable. If you are comfortable, you know you are not going fast enough and you are missing on growth opportunity.
  • Understand why you are doing it – you probably don’t want to be uncomfortable all the time in all aspects of your life so be strategic about it. Understand what skill you are trying to grow and focus on it while having other areas with enough comfort so you can recharge.
  • Celebrate small wins – it may be very difficult to keep going when doing something uncomfortable so aside of having a reason you should also learn to keep a positive mindset and celebrate small wins.

I like the quote by Mark Zuckerberg, “The biggest risk is not taking any risk. In a world that’s changing really quickly, the only strategy that is guaranteed to fail is not taking any risks.”

How do I know whether I’m in my comfort zone?

That is always a tricky question but you can start by asking some of these questions to find out whether you truly dare to be uncomfortable or whether you are set in your comfort zone unwilling to step out:

  • Do I rely on what I have always done or do I try new approaches to old problems?
  • Do I raise my hand and volunteer for new challenges or do I just react on those pushed on me?
  • Do I care about my pride and ego enough to worry about being ridiculed for doing some unexpected?
  • Do I wait for others to speak up to formulate and express my thoughts or am I the one who always expresses his opinion even if not popular one?
  • Do I ask for what I want or just sit back and wait for others to figure it out and give it to me?

Routines are good, but…

As I wrote in Tough Choice: The Art Of Decision Making I’m a big believer in setting up routines to limit the distractions and limiting decision making fatigue. So how does it works with the need to get out of your comfort zone and do something new? Very nicely in fact. I’m advocating routine in the mundane daily tasks where you don’t really need or want to grow. This gives you the energy and mental power to dare to be more uncomfortable in the areas of your life where you want to make a meaningful change and grow. Keep in mind that this may not be necessarily only in your professional career. You may want to get out of your comfort zone when learning new sport, getting a date, raising a family or just becoming a better person by caring about others.

So what is the message you should take away from this article? It is quite simple: “The foolproof way to stop growing is to get comfortable.”

And if you want couple more statements to get you thinking here are my top 10 (some of them adapted from the work of Jesse Itzler) that you should embrace when you are, or want to be, in a leadership position. Most of it of course applies to pretty much any aspect of your life and to any profession:

  1. Make it a point to do your job every day a bit better than you did yesterday
  2. Every day do something that takes you out from your comfort zone
  3. Know what is important to you and focus on it
  4. If you can’t do the basics, you can’t do anything
  5. The tougher the condition the bigger the opportunity to grow
  6. Train and prepare for the unexpected to remove being paralyzed by unknown
  7. Never get too comfortable since you may like it
  8. If you don’t challenge yourself you don’t know what you are capable of
  9. Don’t stop when you are tired, but stop when you are done
  10. Celebrate victories but learn from failures

 

What do you do to ensure continuous growth? What is your recipe for future success? How often do you feel you operate outside of your comfort zone?

Originally posted at LinkedIn.

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

How Do You Know If You Are Mediocre?

I’ve spent years in environment where we put a big emphasis to hire only the best of the best. Where the goal was to have a team of overachievers. Mottos like “no one was hired to be mediocre” where often quoted. But how do you actually know if someone, or in fact, if you are mediocre? How do you know you are not the over-achiever you believe you are?

Let’s face it. All of us believe that we are better than others. At least in some ways. “I’m definitely better driver than most of the others. I’m much better manager. I’m really good parent. I’m a great listener and always annoyed when I need to constantly talk so others see it.”

Merriam-Webber describes mediocre as “of moderate or low quality, value, ability, or performance: ordinary, so-so”. This is of course relative to the task you are doing. You can be a great driver and a mediocre cook. Whether you are mediocre at something is a result of your priorities, skills, attitude and effort you put into a given activity.

So how do you recognize that you are mediocre?

Considering how quickly the world around us changes the best way to see whether you are mediocre or not is to look at how you respond to the changes. Do you embrace change and constantly learn to keep up with the world? Or do you just sit back and wait what will happen to you? If the later applies, you are most likely mediocre. You are the one who is left behind by the forward moving world around you.

You don’t give your best

Mediocre people sort of give up on improving and even on giving their best. They just plow through the day doing what needs to be done but without much interest and with no intention of going above and beyond. So if you find yourself doing just what is necessary and not more than you are most likely a mediocre employee.

You don’t mind that you are not giving your best

Doing just the bare minimum and not giving your best is a strong indicator, but what really seals the deal of your mediocrity is when you don’t give your best and you don’t mind. It just doesn’t bother you. For any achiever or over-achiever doing work that is not particularly good really worries him or her.

Over-achievers are different

Any over-achiever strives to be better and better. You don’t necessarily need to be the best at any given task but you always try to do the best you can. What more, you always strive to learn and to improve. You want to do your best job today, but you want to do even a bit better job tomorrow. That is what drives achievers. And that is what turns them into over-achievers.

We are going through phases

Even the over-achievers have their down times. Not everything always goes right and not every day is your best. It is that internal voice that tells you that you didn’t do a good job and makes you dissatisfied, that voice is also telling you that you are over-achiever who had a bad day.

So the million dollar question is: “Is it OK to be mediocre?” And the answer really depends on your worldview, internal drives and what makes you happy. For someone to be mediocre is totally fine and they should never feel bad about it (in fact, by definition, they don’t) or try to change it, because being over-achiever very often also mean setting high bars and constantly chasing being better and better. And that doesn’t necessarily mean a happier life.

 

What is your take on mediocre employees? Are you fine having such people on your team or do you believe there is something wrong with them? And how do you see yourself?

Originally posted at LinkedIn.

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

Micro-monitoring As A Leadership Style

There are many ways how to classify leadership styles. In Situational Leadership I talked about classification done by Paul Hersey and Ken Blanchard. They introduced four styles: telling, selling, participating, delegating and I would add empowering as fifth. The most often used classification is that of Daniel Goleman that deals with six emotional leadership styles. It builds and expands on the work of Kurt Lewin who identified three basic types of a leader (authoritarian, democratic and laissez-faire).

Goleman’s six emotional leadership styles are:

Autocratic or authoritarian leaders provide clear expectations and guidance on what needs to be done, when, and how it should be done. This is very command and control type of leadership. In a modern workplace there are very few situations when this style really works and even then it is for a brief periods of time. Since it focuses on efficiency you would use this in emergency situations when things need to happen fast, there has to be no ambiguity of what needs to be done and you are the most knowledgeable person. Used long-term it creates a rather dysfunctional teams.

Paternalistic leaders are essentially father figures. They focus almost exclusively on building the relationships. They deeply care about individual team members, treat them almost like a family. The environment created under this leadership style is a great place to work. Often the team members become friends who spend time together even outside of work. This style works fine when things go well, the company is growing, and there is no pressure on delivery or cost savings. The moment environment puts the team and the leader under pressure this style often breaks since tough decisions needs to be done and expectations reset. There is also a high potential for the best people leaving the team if they see the leader treating everyone equally while not demanding equal performance.

Democratic or participative leadership is under most situations the most effective. Democratic leaders are truly part of the team. They listen to others, allow the group to participate in the decision making even though the leader still retains the final say. Since the team is involved in decision making process there is higher commitment to the common goals of the group. This leadership style is the most appropriate for most situations in a modern organization. It assumes a mature leader who is confident in his abilities, and team that is competent in what they do.

Laissez-faire or delegating leadership is almost no leadership at all. Leaders using this approach provide no guidance and leave decisions on the team. This leadership style may work for a specific situations, for example when you have a group of experts to agree on a solution to a problem that is well defined, or when the team is heavily invested in or passionate about the project. It also assumes very mature team members, experts in their fields, but at the same time willing to ask for help or direction when needed. If these basics are not met this leadership style results in a confused and directionless group where people blame each other for mistakes and where there is no accountability and personal responsibility.

Transactional leadership style can be seen as a two way agreement between the leader and the follower. This is the typical example of boss versus employee. “You do this task, and I will pay you salary for it.” This is also one of the reasons so many organizations are not able to reach their potential as they rely on managers who use this leadership style and believe that is all what is needed to get things done. This would be your prototypical carrot and stick approach to leadership.

Transformational leadership style is centered on the idea of inspiring and motivating others to direct positive change. Leaders using this style are passionate about what they do, emotionally intelligent so they can influence others and are committed to both the organization and the individual members to achieve their potential. The ultimate goal is not just to get things done but to transform the views and the needs of the team around. This is the leadership style you need to employ when you have a lots of negativity and non-performance in a team that consists of great individuals. Your role is to redirect their attention and thinking to positive outcomes and save them from self-destruction.

I’m a big believer in adjusting your leadership style to the environment, situation at hand, maturity of the team, and company culture. This if obviously rather difficult to achieve as it requires you to regularly step out of your comfort zone and act in a way that may not be the real you. At the same time I believe that as long as your core values are not attacked you can do this very well and you can be pretty authentic with any of these leadership styles.

And this brings me to micro-monitoring. At the outside it may look like a rather controversial approach to leadership but please bear with me while I explain what it all means. My goal is to show you in the next couple of paragraphs how this leadership style (possibly a combination of several of the styles mentioned above) can help you in certain situations achieve great results.

Micro-monitoring as a way of keeping focus

Tommy Weir in his book Leadership Dubai Style: The habits to achieve remarkable success talks about micro-monitoring as one of the components of a leadership style used to build the success of today’s Dubai. When you are micromanaging you essentially tell people how to get things done. We all agree that this is not particularly healthy management style in pretty much any settings (though exceptions exist). With micro-monitoring you don’t tell “how”, you tell “what” and you follow up often to provide near real-time feedback and create a sense of importance and urgency of the project and growth opportunities for the team. For this leadership style it is critical to provide a vision and clear goals of what needs to be accomplished, why, and to what date.

When trying to use this leadership style it is important to explain to your team what your behavior will be and why you will pay increased attention to results and will ask lots of questions. In fact, the really critical in this leadership style to be successful not just with delivering the project, but also in creating a healthy working atmosphere, is the mindset. You need to have the understanding internally and with the team that you are micro-monitoring not to make sure things are done your way (once again, that is micromanagement), or that you don’t trust the team. You are micro-monitoring to help the team succeed. This is a style of work that allows you to proactively and informally ensure your team stays focused on what is important so at the end they reap the benefits.

If you live in software development world and are familiar with terms like agile methodologies or SCRUM you may even argue that micro-monitoring is built into these processes. How would you call a sprint demo where you regularly show what was accomplished and allow your customer and other stakeholders to provide feedback and course correct? Even the daily stand up meetings are a way for the team to micro-monitor themselves.

What does micro-monitoring bring?

  • It creates a sense of urgency and focus – if the team understands what you are trying to accomplish and why, that will help them to focus on the right thing. This applies especially in environments with many competing priorities, where things change often, and where keeping the true north is difficult.
  • It creates opportunities for near real-time feedback – nothing beats in-time feedback. If you want your team to grow you need to provide them feedback and help them to act on it. How do you provide day-to-day feedback when you have no clue what’s going on? You need to get really hands-on, micro-monitor and then you can help others to grow significantly faster.
  • It creates opportunities to shape behavior – I know that many textbooks frown on “monitoring” and would tell you that you as a leader should set vision, clear goals, provide tools and then let the team get things done. But realistically, how often this really works? As a leader it is your responsibility to not only get things done but to build organization and help the team to be successful. Once again, the most effective way to do this is by having enough insights to know where to focus so you can provide coaching and mentoring as needed.
  • It creates opportunities for celebrating small wins – it feels good to celebrate release of a new product after years of work. It feels even better to celebrate small wins along the way. Did the team just accomplished a minor milestone, build a small features, or got a kudos from customers? Time to celebrate, time to appreciate the work done so far and build excitement for the next steps. Regular praise is a powerful way to keep the team focused and motivated.
  • It creates opportunities for course corrections – if you monitor what is being done it allows you to react in timely manner and ask for course corrections. There is nothing worse than coming to the end of the project only to discover you built the wrong thing.

What does micro-monitoring take away?

  • It could take away accountability and sense of ownership – you need to be crystal clear with the team that even though you are asking questions and want to know what’s going on it is still them who are accountable for success of the project. You are here as a resource who provides feedback, help removing obstacles and help to keep focus on the right stuff. It is the team’s responsibility to deliver.
  • It could turn into micromanagement – this really depends on your maturity as a leader. Once you know about the details it is very tempting to start meddling into “how” are things done and you end up micromanaging. You don’t want to go there if you have a strong and competent team. It would quickly lead to demotivated bunch of people who would do only what you tell them to do, while looking for another job. The best way to tackle this is to have agreement with the team at the beginning of the project, explaining them what you are doing, and giving them the power to stop you if you cross the line.

So what does it all mean for you?

The key takeaway for you is to understand that there is not a single perfect leadership style. You may believe that democratic style is the one to go with, and very often you would be right. But there are many situations when employing a different style will bring bigger benefits to you, the team, and the project. I would argue that when it comes to high-stake situations where you need the project delivered on time, where there is lots of ambiguity and competing priorities, and where the team is competent in their respective fields, using the micro-monitoring approach can provide the necessary focus and sense of urgency while having a healthy working environment. And to quote Stephen R. Covey “The main thing is to keep the main thing the main thing.”

 

What is your thought on the micro-monitoring concept? Does it fit your leadership style? When would you use it or do you believe that as a concept it is utterly flawed?

Originally posted on LinkedIn.

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

How To Influence Others To Act

What defines a leader? You have as many definitions as there are people. I would argue that one of the best ways to define a leader is “someone who can influence others to unite for a common goal and get it done”. To be able to influence others you don’t need to be formally in charge. In fact, leaders often emerge through the ranks of employees naturally and are getting more their power formalized only after they showed their leadership abilities.

Some time ago I wrote a set of articles about influence: The Art Of Influencing Others – Lesson 1, Lesson 2, and Lesson 3. I talked about how you can exert influence with people around you and how you can push change that is needed to move your team in a direction that the business requires by working directly with them, through other people and by shaping the physical environment. Today I would like to introduce couple of principles outlined by Chip and Dan Heath in Made to Stick: Why some ideas take hold and others come unstuck. They present a framework, a set of principles, that when used can greatly enhance your message and help you influence others and change the environment around you. These principles deal only with the message in forms of stories you tell to influence others and extend what I wrote in Lesson 1. The six principles are:

  1. Simplicity
  2. Unexpectedness
  3. Concreteness
  4. Credibility
  5. Emotions
  6. Stories

1. Simplicity

You might have heard about the KISS principle (Keep It Simple, Stupid). Originally used in the US Navy the principle states that most systems work best when we keep them as simple as possible (less things to break and easier to fix), so the goal of any design should be removing unnecessary complexity and keeping things as simple as possible.

The same applies to communication. If you want your message to be understood and remembered (leaving impact) you need to work on making it as simple as possible. When you communicate an idea focus on few critical aspects and leave out all the other points that are not critical to your message.

Let’s say you want to explain a difference between a whale and a cat. They are both animals, mammals, one is bigger than the other, one has fur the other doesn’t, one eats mostly plankton, the other eats bunch of stuff including meat, one is being kept as a pet, the other roams free, and so on. But how would you design a message that would be easy to remember? What about, a whale weights 150 tons and lives in the ocean while a five kilograms cat lives in your bedroom.

It is about finding the “core” message and making it really “compact”. Proverbs work like that. You get a key wisdom compressed into a short soundbite that is easy to remember. Just look at these examples:

  • “The pen is mightier than the sword.” (Trying to convince people with words and ideas is often more effective than forcing them to do what you want.)
  • “When in Rome, do as the Romans.” (Very useful advice when you travel or even join a new company with different culture. Observe and learn from others around you to adapt and fit in.)
  • “Easy come, easy go.” (Usually related to money. When you get something without expending much effort you don’t value it and you often lose it quickly.)

The core message, in the army called the Commander’s intent summarizes the goal you are trying to achieve. “Commander’s intent (CSI) plays a central role in military decision making and planning. CSI acts as a basis for staffs and subordinates to develop their own plans and orders to transform thought into action, while maintaining the overall intention of their commander. The commander’s intent links the mission and concept of operations. It describes the end state and key tasks that, along with the mission, are the basis for subordinates’ initiative.”

“We will take the enemy’s position 182 by noon tomorrow”. It is clear and concise enough that it cannot be miscommunicated or misunderstood and can provide enough guidance even for units (teams) that become suddenly cut from their chain of command (management).

2. Unexpectedness

It is not just simplicity that will help you to get the message across to your audience and influence the right outcome. Before you can even attempt this you need to get attention of the people you want to influence. How do you do it? By violating people’s expectations. By doing or saying something unexpected or even counterintuitive. Humans are curious by nature so making people curious about where you are heading with your message is a powerful tool. Just think about why so many people love detective stories and will stick with the book or movie to the very end to learn who’s done it.

Within the professional circles a great way to pick up an interest and make people curious is to highlight the knowledge gap. Start with something that people have general understanding of and interest in and make it clear that they don’t know the whole story and there is some interesting fact coming up. “You all know that we had a good year but you would be surprised on how much we actually grew. Before I get to the numbers let me remind you some of the key successes that got us here.” Now, if you are at least little big curious human being you will listen with interest and to wait till the end to learn the actual numbers.

3. Concreteness

Abstract ideas are really difficult to get across and to be remembered. If you want your message to stick you need to make it as concrete as possible. Let’s look again at proverbs. Just compare these two statements both describing the same concept. First being very literary but too abstract “People from different cultures, different educational background, different positions and wealth may have different priorities and ideas about what is valuable and what not.” The other being a proverb making the abstract idea very tangible and concrete “One man’s trash is another man’s treasure.” Which one will you remember?

Curiously enough talking about numbers may not make the message concrete enough but, in fact, the opposite. “We have spent one thousand dollars on snacks for the office this year.” What does it tell you? Yes, you know it was thousand dollars but what exactly does it mean? Compare it to “The team consumed a thousand chocolate bars this year. That is a hundred for each of you.” In this case the dollar value even though correct and precise is less tangible than the actual number of chocolate bars in your hand.

4. Credibility

People won’t believe a message unless they feel it comes from a credible source and sounds sort of credible. Let’s say that two people come to you and make this announcement “orange juice is really bad to your health”. One would be a medical doctor in white while the other is an accountant from your company. Who would you believe more readily? You would of course make bunch of assumptions about the guy in white. He is a doctor, studied for it, practices the craft, follows the latest research, and knows what he is talking about. You would follow his advice rather than the pale guy from finance department. You would again make an assumption. What does an accountant know about health and oranges?

There is the same danger as in previous principle. Most of us see hard numbers as a proof that you know what you are talking about, that you did your research and have your facts straight. However, there is still the danger of losing the message in numbers that are too abstract for others to follow or remember.

5. Emotions

You might think that emotions have no place in business but you couldn’t be more wrong when it comes to leadership. You just need to use emotions strategically. How do you ensure others care about you and your idea? Well, caring means feeling something. Why do you think so many politicians start hugging children before an election day? They are trying to show that they care. But how do you show that you care about a nation? That is a too abstract concept, rather you hug a single child which will symbolize that you care about everyone. For people it is easier to feel something when it gets very specific, a single cute child, rather than a nation.

This tactics works very well in many charitable endeavors. Hearing about thousands dead in some conflict or natural disaster is too difficult to grasp and it doesn’t have the same emotional impact (it is just a statistics) as a picture of a single child crying over his dead mother. This will immediately trigger emotions since you can picture yourself in the same position and it will immediately move you into an action. Something must be done!

There are also many other ways how to involve emotions in pushing your message. In the professional world there are couple of tactics that often work. You can appeal to self-interest of your audience or even better to their identity. Let’s say you talk with your management team and you need to eliminate a habit of people changing their minds all the time that is spreading through the company and makes it an environment full of uncertainty. The message you may want to go with would be along the lines “great managers stand by their decisions”. The emotion you would play at is the fact that all your managers believe that they are great managers and would feel offended that someone would think otherwise. Because of that emotion they would start paying more attention to this behavior and get better at it.

6. Stories

The best way to get people not only hear the message but to act on it is a combination of invoking emotion while telling a compelling story. Hearing a story helps people visualize the action and the ultimate outcome. This then leads to reducing worry that they don’t know what to do or that things may not go as planned. This type of story will help people to understand how to act. Imagine you are in a technical support department. Every customer who call will have a slightly different problem, will explain it in a different way, will have a different environment or the way to use your product. But the underlying technology is the same and these problems often have lots in common. By regularly talking with your fellow support engineers and exchanging stories about what problem customers had and how you solved it will help the whole group to learn from each other in a way that is very natural. You can influence the quality of work your colleagues and you provide just by telling stories.

The other type of story you may employ is a story to energize the team, to explain why to act. For a story to be truly inspiring it should be somehow relevant and relatable to the audience. This is often used in mentoring discussions when more experienced mentor tells a story about how he dealt with a difficult situation and succeeded to inspire his mentee to get the courage and deal with the problem at hand. Real leaders would also use the inspiring stories to rally the forces to march towards the same vision. They will create in your head a picture of the outcome that makes you excited to follow them.

So how does it all come together?

Regardless of your formal position you can have a huge impact if you learn to communicate the way that will touch both the hearts and minds of those you want to convince. You can use this framework during one on one conversations, in your writing or in big public presentations. The key is to understand who your audience is and to tweak the message accordingly. You also need to realize that it is not just the message but also the messenger who counts. Even the best message delivered by a leader who has no credibility, who regularly misleads his followers, or who is known to say one thing and do the other will not have the desired effect.

 

What are your thoughts on how to influence others? What do you do when asked to present an important proposal to get approval, push through some idea, or when marshalling your team to perform a task they are not too keen on?

Originally posted at LinkedIn.

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

Promoted To Management? Too Bad!

It is something that many of us aspire to get to. Being promoted to management position. In most cultures, with a formal management role comes higher social status, more money, more “formal power” and it increases your self-worth. But as any superhero would tell you “with great power comes great responsibility”. Suddenly, your opportunity to impact lives of others has increased dramatically. Once you get yourself promoted to management you quickly discover (if you are lucky) that it wasn’t a promotion, but in fact, you got a completely new job that requires completely different mindset, skills, attitude, approach to relationships in the workplace and the view of the organization. You have just moved from a valuable individual contributor and expert to junior manager who needs to re-learn everything he knew about workplace and people. So how do you deal with this transition?

Mindset: You need to start caring about business

Changing the way of thinking from “I care mostly about my tasks and the impact decisions have on me personally and my ability to deliver my part,” to “I care about the company business and the impact my decisions have on my team, our ability to achieve the business goals, and the wider company environment” is a major shift. You are not “one of the guys” anymore. You not only represent the team, you also represent the company management towards the team. This is a rather difficult transition to make for most people. In individual contributor role it is too easy to keep complaining about management, other departments, or your co-workers, but this stops the moment you get the management title!

Once you are one of the managers you just can’t do that anymore. You need to build a feeling of one team, one company, one vision and prevent any “us and them” thoughts brewing in the team. You are also charged by the company to make decisions and to keep explaining decisions of higher ups to your team. “Sense making”, the ability to explain decisions done by others to your team so they make sense to them, is an integral part of your job. You should always fight for what you believe needs to happen with your boss, but towards the team you speak the company line. If you are not comfortable doing it, if you don’t buy into a company culture or mission, then you shouldn’t be in the company and definitely not in any management role.

Relationships: You need to focus on people

Until now you probably needed other people a bit to do your job, but starting in management you are totally dependent on other people around you. Communication with others has become a major part of your job. You are here to listen, explain, mentor, coach, provide a vision, set expectations, clarify questions, and to remove obstacles (which usually means talking to other groups not reporting to you). Every single aspect of your job means dealing with people. If that is not something you are enthusiastic about you shouldn’t be in this job. You can still maintain a friendly relationship with your team, in fact that is the best way to have a healthy culture, but you need to ensure that you also keep a healthy distance and be impartial. The worst thing that can happen is that you play favoritism. Even being suspect of preferring one person over others will hurt your credibility.

Attitude: You need to learn to make and own decisions

One of the key competences to learn is to be able and willing to make decisions and then own these decisions in front of the team. When you look around, you will be surprised how many managers are actually not able to make a decision and how even bigger number is not able to stand by a decision (their own or those made by higher up in the organization). This then leads to all sorts of problems within the team starting from complains about “we can’t decide anything” and ending with creating “us and them” culture. Ultimately it hurts everyone. You, for being seen as week, your bosses for being seen as controlling, and the team for feeling powerless. And it all starts with you not being clear and firm with your team. I love the 3F acronym (Fair, Firm, Focused). You need to be fair in your dealings with team members, listen and keep an open mind. You need to be focused and keep the team focused on the right things. And you need to be firm in your messages to the team and in your beliefs.

You also need to accept that you and your team are not the center of the universe and pick the battles you should fight with others. For example, it is understandable you want to grow your team and provide them with fancy training, but if there is another team who will have bigger impact on the good of the business if they get it first you should accept and even advocate that position. This part of the attitude comes from realization that your team are not only people reporting to you but that your first team are people at the same level or higher who work towards the same company goal. You can read more on these ideas in Is Your Team A Living Game Of Thrones?, or pick up one of the books of Patrick M. Lencioni.

Skills: You need to get back to school

All the things mentioned until now also mean that you need to work on a new skillset. Chances are that if you don’t give it the same effort to learn and constantly improve as if you were learning new technologies or techniques in your individual contributor role you will sooner or later plateau. You will stagnate in your own growth and what is more important you won’t be able to make your team better either. Unfortunately, the team’s potential is being dictated by its leader. If the leader has a low potential it puts a natural cap on what the team can accomplish. If the leader is constantly growing his abilities that naturally leads to growth in abilities of the team too.

So how do you ensure constant learning and growth?

  • There are tons of management and leadership books, blogs, and articles out there that summarize current research in the field of management and experiences of others who went through what you are going through. But be careful. You can’t believe everything you read and you always need to digest new information with a skeptical mind and critical thinking. What works for one person in a specific situation may not work for you in your workplace, but just by gathering stories from others you expand your library of “what options do I have to deal with the situation at hand”
  • On the job learning is probably the best way to get confident and comfortable in a management role. Relentlessly practicing, not shying away from difficult tasks and situations and constantly gathering feedback is how you really grow. For example, I remember the first time I had to fire someone. I was really nervous and couldn’t sleep the night before, but ultimately I was sort of looking forward to it since I understood that being able to make tough choices and have difficult conversations is part of the job. If I can’t do it, and do it well, I will very quickly reach limits of what opportunities I can get. And what is more if I don’t do it there will be negative impact on performance of my team.
  • Getting a mentor is a must if you want to grow and don’t want to reinvent the wheel. Having someone more experienced to bounce ideas off, to discuss difficult situations you are facing and just get some live wisdom from is an incredible help. It can be your boss, but considering that you probably didn’t pick your boss, chances are he or she may not be the best mentor for you. You should reach out to people across the company or even outside who you see as role models and ask them for help. Before you do that you should identify what skill or behavior you want to work on and pick a mentor who can really bring value in that area. You should also understand that if the mentor decides to spend time with you he or she may also be looking for getting something out of it. It can be something as mundane as being able to practice mentoring, but keep it in mind when talking to those you see as potential mentors.
  • Participating in a formal training is an obvious one. It is a good way how to get started especially at the onset of your career but keep in mind that most of the training courses in the corporate environment are not done in a way that ensures continuous learning. You participate on two or three days long training course and after getting back to the office you forget everything in two weeks. If you want to get formal training pay attention to what skills you will learn and how you will be able to immediately use them in action. If you can’t use them, it is a waste of time. Second thing to keep an eye on is whether there is a regular follow up after the training. This is critical to keep what you learned fresh in your mind and push you to implement it in your everyday life.
  • Building a network of like-minded people from other departments or industries to share stories is a nice way to expand the toolset you have to deal with problems. I know that this can be a tricky proposition especially for introverted leaders but you shouldn’t underestimate its value. When I was working on my MBA one of the biggest values I got from the program was the opportunity to meet senior leaders from industries very different from IT. In many of the discussions we had in the class their view of the problem and solutions they came up with really helped me to expand my own, at that time very narrow, view of the management world.
  • Going above and beyond is important if you want to excel at pretty much anything. Nothing can replace hard work, and effort you spend not just on doing your job but specifically on a very deliberate focus on getting better will definitely pay off.

So what does it all mean for you?

Moving into a management role is a rather dramatic change in your life and if it is not, then you are not doing it right! You should take it very seriously otherwise you will very quickly plateau and will be stuck in a junior management role forever or even worse may get promoted to even higher position by pure luck and then sit in a role that you can’t perform. So the first question you should ask yourself is “Why did I take the management job in the first place and am I willing what it takes to be successful?” If the answer is along the lines “I want to help others grow, I want to drive the business forward, and I’m ready and willing to learn,” you are on the right track and given the right effort you will be fine.

 

What was the most difficult thing you had to adjust to when moved to management role? Do you believe that being smart and hard-working is enough to become a great manager?

Originally posted at LinkedIn.

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