What You Want & By When: Managers, Leaders, and Schedules

One manager in a recent MBA class was provoked by a discussion about the importance of using schedules, and offered her opinion on the difference between leaders and managers. “I want to be a leader,” she said, “not a manager. What does scheduling have to do with leadership?”

Good question, actually. We were talking about a powerful way of getting things accomplished: making agreements. For the uninitiated, an effective agreement goes like this:

  • Request: Will you send me the Customer Survey Report by noon tomorrow so I have time to prepare for the Board meeting? (note the specific “what I want”, “by when”, and “why it matters to me”)
  • Response options:
    • Yes, I will do that. (acceptance creates an agreement)
    • No, I can’t, but I can have Karen do it first thing in the morning. (a counter-offer can create an agreement if it’s accepted by the one making the request, who, in this case, must now rely on Karen)
    • No, I can’t because the report hasn’t been finalized by IT yet. Sorry. (the decline bars an agreement on this request)

Our MBA-Manager did not want to be bothered with such mundane things as using a schedule, creating deadlines, or holding others to account for keeping their word. Perhaps she feels that leaders are too lofty for such things.

That is why my LinkedIn page has the header “Leaders Speak the Future. Managers Make it Happen.” The ability to ask “By When?”, however, and to follow up with someone who agrees to perform a task by a specific “When”, is not limited to managers only. But it does have more to do with a commitment to accomplishment than it does with being a Hero.

When we practice saying By When we’ll have something done, and asking others By When they will have something done, we develop a muscle that is particularly useful for producing results of any kind. Without that, you’ll have a conversation like the one I had with Stuart a while back:

  • Me: I’m giving a talk and hosting 3 panels at a conference the last week in May. If you have any research findings I could use to prepare for that, I would appreciate it.
  • Stuart: I haven’t gotten out my latest series of fact sheets yet, but feel free to bug me if you haven’t seen anything.
  • Me: OK, consider yourself bugged. I’d like an update by Friday May 8th at the latest.
  • Stuart: If you are relying on my memory, you are likely to be disappointed. So if you don’t hear from me, you may want to email me.

Seriously? They guy uses his memory instead of a calendar? And it becomes my job to “bug him”? Well, not much of a manager, but not exactly a leader either. Would you follow him up a mountain trail at dusk? No, me either.

I’m going to practice using By When even more often in 2017. It keeps me on track for what I’m committed to and what I’m interested in developing, plus it chases away some foolishness with people who aren’t serious about integrity or accomplishment. Say it with me: By When?

Micromanagement: Story #1

A friend of mine is an accountant for a yoga-fitness studio, and last week he told me his studio owner is a “micro-manager”. I asked him what he meant – here’s what he said:

“Patty is our studio owner who sometimes drops in on a yoga class, and if she thinks a student is doing a pose incorrectly, she will interrupt the class and show people how to do it “the right way”. As you can imagine, this is pretty upsetting to the teachers, and, frankly, I don’t think the people who are paying for the class like it much either.”

Yep, that sounds like micromanaging to me. Some people want to control everything – making sure things are done their way is more important  than whether they embarrass an employee or disrupt their work. Do it my way!

My friend tried telling Patty it wasn’t a good practice to step in that way, but she remained firm saying, “If the teacher made the corrections, I wouldn’t have to do it”. One instructor suggested to Patty that she was welcome to “assist” in leading the class, which would let class members know there would be two instructors and her corrections wouldn’t be seen as an interruption. But Patty wasn’t open to that idea either.

One instructor, Marla, finally solved the problem by having a Performance Conversation. “It took courage,” Marla told me, “but I had to do it”. Here’s what she said to the owner:

“It’s time that you and I clarify our agreement regarding my teaching yoga classes for you. You said you wanted our customers to be happy with the classes and continue to sign up for follow-up courses and special events. So I have been accountable for that, working to tailor my class to fit their needs and interests. I am tracking how it’s going: they keep coming here month after month, and my classes are growing because they sometimes bring their friends or work colleagues. If you want to come to any class I teach, please show me the respect that the students give, and let me work with each person as I see fit, without interruption. If you want to change the conditions of my employment, and have be me accountable for whether each person does the yoga poses the way you want them done, please let me know that and I will see whether I can make those adjustments in my teaching.”

The studio owner was stunned, and slowly turned and left the room. She came back 15 minutes later and said, “Marla, I do appreciate that you took your agreement to serve our customers so seriously, and I’m sorry that my interactions with your yoga students seemed disrespectful to you. I will not do that from now on.”

Not every Performance Conversation produces the result we want. This teacher felt she was putting her job on the line without any assurance she would win. Her micro-manager boss appears to have learned something. If so, hats off to them both!

 

Where Accountability Comes From – How to Support People in Honoring Their Word

Many people are disappointed to discover that not everyone actually does what they promise. Several students recently argued for the “personality theory” of accountability, saying that some people are just accountable by nature, and others are not.

If you want people around you to be more accountable around you, how do you make that happen? Let’s assume that the other person clearly understands what is expected from them – they know what the task is and what the result should look like. If that’s true, then all it takes is some productive communication.

First conversation: Your request, their assignment. “Dave, will you have the monthly Team Report ready before our Friday morning meeting with the VPs?”

  • If the answer is yes, you have created an agreement for something – a product, service, or communication – to be done or delivered, by a specific time and for a specific purpose.
  • If the answer is no, you have a debrief conversation: “What is in the way for you to get that done?” This is where you listen, perhaps come up with a Plan B, and maybe getting some help for Dave or assigning it to someone else.
  • If the answer is a counter-offer, like they can’t get it done before the Friday meeting, you either accept the new timeline or you go to a Plan B, maybe changing the agenda for the meeting.

Second conversation: Confirm the agreement. This is important, but doesn’t have to be strict or formal. All you want is to make sure they know that you are counting on them to honor their word. “Great, Dave. So you’ll get what you need from Shirley and have that on my desk no later than 8:15 Friday morning?” (This is where Dave at least needs to nod his head.)

Third conversation: Complete the agreement, whatever happens.

  • If Dave delivered, a thank-you and a little appreciation is in order. “Good for you, Dave. I was able to get the VPs updated at the Friday meeting because you delivered the Team Report. Thanks for that.”
  • If Dave didn’t deliver, you need to set up the full Closure Conversation. “Uh oh, Dave. I was caught short in the meeting without the report you said you would give me. We need to talk. In a nutshell, we need to look at what happened and how to make sure that never happens again. Are you available to talk now, or should I come back later today?”

Accountability is about keeping track of what you promise others and what they promise you. But that’s only the first half of it. You also have to follow up after the success or failure of delivery on every promise.

One manager, an MBA student, said, “I shouldn’t have to do that follow-up stuff. They should keep their word.” The professor, an older man and a close friend of mine (J) said, “Yes, and I should have more hair. As a manager, you can drop the word “should” from your vocabulary. It won’t help you.”

If you want more accountability, there are 3 conversations to have. It doesn’t take too long for people to get the idea that making an agreement with you is something that deserves their full attention. And that is a good thing.

A Recipe for Little Changes – Organizational and Personal

Talking to two very different people this past few weeks, I was surprised to see how much their conversations had in common. The first was Elayne, a manager in a manufacturing facility, who dreaded making a change in her HR department.

“I don’t know how to update our employee timesheet system,” she said. “I mean, I know I can just substitute the old email templates for the new online reporting system. But how do you deal with the resistance ? Some people just won’t do it, and I’ll have to chase them down and have one-on-one begging sessions with them.”

The other was Darren, a father of four. “I wish I could improve weekends around our house,” he said. “The kids are doing a million different activities, and my wife and I spend time chauffeuring them around. Personal time to go to the gym is out of the question.”

I told them the “recipe” I had developed for making a change, whether personal or organizational:

  1. Get clear on what the change is, i.e., what needs to stop happening and what needs to start happening. Be sure to include timing, such as “a by-when date” or a recurring day like Saturdays.
  2. Schedule a time to meet with the key players – people who will be affected by the change – such as the different groups of employees, or the wife and kids.
  3. Have one or more discussions to clarify the change, and make a list (maybe on a flip chart?) of all the negatives – problems and challenges, sometimes called “resistance” – and all the positives: solutions, opportunities, and benefits. Allow “counteroffers” and “bargaining” on some points.
  4. Revise the definition of the change, including the timeline for implementing it, in a way that recognizes the input received from all those key players.
  5. Review the newly updated plan with the key players and establish agreement about what will be implemented, and how, when, and by whom each element will be done.

Elayne held four meetings – one with all the plant managers and supervisors, and three others with groups of employees who had been there more than 5 years. “It was actually kind of fun, with the guys teasing each other about revealing their overtime statistics. And we didn’t need second meetings: I just took the results of all the meetings and summarized them, then emailed everyone the link for our new timesheet and the date to start using it. We got 89% on-time submissions the first time around -amazing!”

Darren told me, “Our first meeting was noisy, but I wrote down the 4 problems and the 2 “good ideas” they offered. The second meeting was a week later, after they had time to think about it and talk it over with each other and with friends. We created a workable solution that included a car-pool arrangement with some of their friends’ parents and a change to my daughter’s dance-class schedule. I’m starting my new Saturday gym program a week from tomorrow. And my wife will be joining a Sunday afternoon book club. Peace reigns.”

Simple? Yes. Easy? Not necessarily. It takes willingness to practice The Four Conversations in the sequence above: (1) Initiative – have it well formulated before delivering it; (2) Request + Promise = Agreement on when to meet and discuss the proposed change. (3) Understanding – a dialogue to identify problems and benefits, along with what will be done and by whom; (4) Update the change statement using the language and ideas obtained from key players; and (5) Meet again to create an agreement for implementation that includes Who does What by When.

It may not be easy, but it can be done.

Email Template from a Friend

I was talking with a former client the other day about her recipe for getting what she wants from co-workers. It’s pretty smart!

Jadie was making requests, and she was tracking the responses the way Jeffrey taught her in his MBA class. Her success rate (the % of her requests for which she received actionable responses with only 1 email) had moved from 31% to 84% – not bad for someone who was not at the top of her corporation’s food chain. But she wanted to go all the way, so she made up a Request Template to use in her emails when she wanted something from someone. Here it is:

From: Jadie R.

To: X

Subject: Request for __________

What I’m asking for: __________

When I’d like to have it happen: __________

Why it matters to me: __________

Who else is involved: __________

It would be great if you’d let me know by the end of the day today whether or not you accept this request so I know if I can count on this happening at the time specified. As always, if making this agreement doesn’t work for you at this time, please let me know that too, or send me a counter-offer for what will work better for you. Thanks so much!

Best regards, Jadie

Jadie told me she always sent these out early in the workday so people had time to read it and check their schedules to see if they could do the task she was asking for. She said she added something about “Who else is involved” if that would be helpful for people to see a bigger context for her request. Sometimes she also added a line for Where or How if it seemed appropriate. And notice that she identified What she was requesting up in the Subject line.

It worked. She is up over 97% success on her requests now. But that’s not the best part, Jadie said. “The miracle is that my co-workers are starting to use the template too, making their own modifications. It looks I’m training people – even the higher-ups – to communicate better.”

Not Everybody’s Interested

I used to think everyone wanted to know more about “productive communication”. People are only interested in productive communication in the areas of life where they have some commitment.

That seems obvious now, but I didn’t always know how to find out about people’s commitments. Here’s my latest method: look at how long it takes them to respond to an email communication or a phone message. Try sending an email or leaving a phone message inviting someone to join you at an event, go out for dinner, or get back to you with a date and time they can meet with you. Be sure to include something about the purpose of the occasion, and make it friendly-sounding. Then start counting.

Within 24 hours? They have a commitment to something in your invitation. Two days? They were out of town, busy hosting their in-laws, or lost their smartphone. More than two days? They’re trying to think up a way to get your emails out of their inbox without telling too big a lie. Or they don’t have high-tech things like phone answering machines or email capability. In either case, quit inviting them to do things.

I speak from experience here – I’ve been on both ends of this situation. I am working to make my communications clearer now:

  1. Add a note about when I’d like to hear back if they do have an interest in my request or offer;
  2. Add a note about how it’s OK not to respond if they’re not interested in pursuing this now; and
  3. Make sure I let them know what I’m planning to do in either case, and that I value our relationship no matter what they choose to do now.

It’s simple etiquette, and it’s already saving time – I’m not waiting for people anymore. Plus I’m learning more about the gap between what people say they are committed to and what they will actually take action on. Useful information in updating my contact records.

My Sloppy Request was Not Very Productive

Here’s a failure in what I thought was a productive conversation. I’m thinking I’ll have to train everyone I interact with about the Four Conversations. Starting with myself.

I told a person from the (radioactive) Waste Management Symposia – an annual conference where I participate and speak – that I was going to Saskatchewan to talk about radioactive waste disposal. This guy, Jason, has been in my rad-waste sessions on productive communication, so I thought we were at least sort of on the same wave-length. He emailed me back.

Jason: “Here are some fact sheets for the public on radiation cleanup issues. I’m going to update them soon”. He included them in an attachment.

Me: “Thanks very much, Jason!  I will be going to Saskatchewan the last week in May, so if you have new info I’ll keep an eye open for it.”

Jason: “Feel free to bug me if you haven’t seen anything before you go.”

Me: “OK, consider yourself bugged. I’d like an update by Friday May 8th at the latest. You know I’m the queen of productive conversation (ref. “The Four Conversations”), right? Thanks for your support on this.”

Jason: “If you’re relying on my memory, you are likely to be disappointed. So if you don’t hear from me, you may want to email me.”

Actually, I was relying on his ability to schedule a commitment, not on his memory. I had a little shot of indignation – do people not have a calendar and a pencil handy? – but then I realized we were playing tag, as in “Tag, You’re It”. Neither of us wanted to take responsibility for the follow-through.

I let it drop, as I didn’t really need an update and had plenty of other resources. He must have kept that commitment somewhere in his calendar or in-box though, because he just sent the updated fact sheets yesterday.

The conversation probably should get no more than a “C+” for productivity, because those last 3 emails weren’t necessary. I could have stopped after “Thanks very much, Jason!” and would have gotten the same result. Lesson learned.

Make Counteroffers When Necessary

When given a deadline you know you really cannot meet, propose an alternative you can meet – that’s called making a counteroffer.

If you don’t counteroffer when you know something cannot be done, you’re setting up yourself and others for failure.

What do you do when someone asks you to do something you know you can’t get done? Do you say “Yes” and hope things will work out somehow?  Or say “Yes” knowing you’ll deal with the consequences later?  Or say “Yes” and break other promises for on-time performance?

A better way to deal with the situation is to make a counteroffer.  Counteroffers are one way to respond to the requests that make up Performance Conversations.  A counteroffer is where you say, “I can’t do A, but I can do B”. For example, say, “I can’t get it for you by 5:00 PM today, but I can get it for you by 3:00 PM tomorrow.” Another type of counteroffer is, “I can’t do A unless B happens”.  For example, say, “I won’t be able to do that today unless we can extend the due date on Project B by at least a day.”

Counteroffers communicate two important things. First, that you are not currently in a position to accept their request. And second, that you are willing to work something out.  It says that you will be responsible for what you promise, and it prevents the need for excuses later on.

To be effective, counteroffers must be made with integrity.  You can’t just say, “I’m too busy,” or, “I don’t have time.” A counteroffer is an alternative promise that includes a request. You are offering to do something, and you are re-negotiating the due dates of one or more other projects.

Counteroffers can be very effective.  You don’t always get all the leeway you ask for, but that should remind you to ask for as much as you think you need. It’s worth giving them a try, even if you think the people around you are pretty inflexible. You just might be surprised.