That Difficult Client Talk – Part II. What does “Discussion” Mean?

Dear Reggie,

First the good news, this time. Two of your staff members reported to me that they are excited about having clearer agreements for their work. I have reason to believe there are other people noticing a difference in the way you are giving assignments now. That’s great!

Now, for Step 2 on your path to being a better manager: After your staff meeting this morning, several people stayed behind to give me a suggestion. They want you and me to “have more discussion about having discussions”. I suspect there are things they want to say to you that they don’t know how to say, or perhaps they don’t know whether you will want to hear.

Discussion – dialogue – is at the heart of what we call an “understanding conversation”. That doesn’t mean you will have them understand something. It also means they will want to have you understand a few things too. So, a few more points:

  • Your staff members – technicians, programmers, and customer service people – often have a closer and more direct knowledge of what is happening in the details of their daily work than you do. When you tell them you want them to change the way they are doing a particular task, like the way they test a new system on a customer’s site, they expect to have a voice. They want to tell you about the situation they face with that customer when they are on their site. And they deserve to have you include their perspective in any new task definition.
  • Have a discussion about How & Why: How can we do this – and why does it matter? How will the changes affect our current tasks and responsibilities? How can we anticipate any new demands on our resources and skill sets?
  • Then have a discussion about Who & What: Who else is likely to be involved in reaching our objective – and what do they want? Who will talk with them about this – and what will they say? (Note: you may have to assist your people by making introductions to some higher-ups they need to contact).
  • Have a discussion about Where & When: Where will the resources come from – and when do we need them? Where will the benefits show up – and when will we see them? Where and when should we try this first, in order to develop our skills with the least risk?

The idea is that both sides have something to say. But even more important, both sides also have to listen, and to update their thinking and speaking as needed. That way, everyone’s opinion is respected for the knowledge, experience, and commitment they bring to the table; and everyone gets a good “understanding” of what is involved in accomplishing the objective.

Bottom line: it means you would be willing to learn something every time you meet with them – even when you’d really rather just tell them what to do.

That Difficult Client Talk – Part I

Dear Reggie,

First, the bad news. You’ve been blaming your staff and technical teams for not doing their jobs well, but you have not considered that you might be the problem. So I’m here to tell you that you are breaking almost every rule of good management. I’m telling you because you said to me, “I want my workplace to work. Help me fix it.” So I am pointing to the heart of the problem: You.

Second, the good news. There’s a path to being a better manager. In your case, the path has three steps, but I’m only going to deal with the #1 item right now. Here it is:

Stop Managing People! They don’t like it, and it doesn’t work anyway. So there. A few important points:

  • Get permission before you coach somebody. You assume that your people want your coaching. That’s a bad assumption – you need to check with them before you coach them. Tell them what kind of coaching you think they need, then ask if they want you to give them some guidance. If they aren’t enthusiastic about it, then let it go. Or find out what kind of support they would prefer.
  • Don’t play psychologist. Dealing with people’s personal feelings, experiences, and conflicts is not your specialty. And it’s not what management is about. You are a technical guy, running a technical department. Human relations are not your strong suit. Get a person from HR to help you sort that stuff out, and work with them to learn from them.
  • Take responsibility for establishing clear assignments. The assignments you give people are vague and incomplete. Every assignment needs to be associated with a clearly stated goal, and maybe even some sort of measure for success. Every assignment needs enough discussion to have confidence that the other person – let’s call him/her Robin – understands exactly what you want, need, and expect. And, finally, every assignment needs a deadline.

Start managing agreements. An agreement begins with you making a request for a product, service, or result. Then, at some point, Robin makes a promise to produce or deliver what you’re asking, though perhaps with some modifications (due to that discussion you had with him/her).  Request + Promise = Agreement.

Then, Reggie, you follow through. Stick with managing the agreement, not Robin. Check in at pre-arranged times and places – by email, at the weekly meeting, etc. – to ask for a status update, as in “Is everything on track with Project X for the September 17 deadline?”

Unless you’re at the water cooler or the coffee machine, you don’t ask, “How’s life?” or “Did you have a good weekend?” or “Why the long face?”. Wading into the personal is fine for personal time, but keep your eye on the agreement in a more formal way when you’re on the work clock.

Thanks for listening, Reggie. You wanted my coaching, so there is Part I. Give it some practice for the coming week, and I’ll check back with a few of your team members next Thursday to ask them how you’re doing.

After that, I’ll stop by your office and we’ll both take a look at how well you are doing your job.

Three “Brexit” Lessons for Getting YOUR Goal

Did you notice that the “Remain” leaders in the United Kingdom – the ones who wanted to stay with the European Union – made some costly mistakes? It seems they had some lazy assumptions, and failed to deliver the well-designed conversations that could have painted a different picture for UK voters.

Mistake #1: Too few dialogues to create new understandings. It is foolish to think that people already understand the facts of a choice. A good leader will sustain dialogues to clarify the facts of the matter – so people can see them, ask questions, and create a positive relationship to what’s actually true.

UK voters did not know much about their country’s EU membership. Regular understanding conversations – those dialogues on Who does What, Where, and How – could have spelled out the roles and responsibilities of all EU members and clarified the facts in the arguments, from both sides, about what EU membership really entails – and what it doesn’t.

Alas, voters were energized by dramatic talk of “regaining sovereignty” and “immigrants stealing jobs”. They didn’t know that the UK’s sovereignty was not in question, and the UK was responsible for its own immigration policy.

Mistake #2. Too few communications on the value of what we have. A leader also cannot assume that voters will grasp the true costs and benefits of making a decision to stop doing something. They are so accustomed to the benefits of “the way things are” that they don’t see those things at risk. Spelling out the value of any particular decision is necessary – and must be done many times in many ways.

The “Remain” leaders forgot to remind people of the benefits of EU membership. Frequent “closure conversations” about what EU membership provides to the UK were missing: What good things did UK membership in the EU do for us this week? How did we profit from it this month? What have we gained from it this past year?

If the “Remain” leaders had done that, perhaps thousands of people wouldn’t have been Googling “What is the EU?” on the day after the vote.

Mistake #3: Giving away the initiative. Initiative conversations launch an idea by proposing something of value for the future: What do we want? When do we want it? Why does it matter? But those conversations can’t be a one-time thing. Leaders need to keep the mission, vision, and purpose (MVP) present every day. Find a way to talk about it, and make good slogans and visual reminders. Make it easy for people to understand what you want them to do that will create value for themselves.

The “Remain” leaders surrendered the game with their initiative. They failed to object to the referendum being called the “Brexit” (short for Britain exits the EU). If they had insisted on using the term “Bremain” in all media interactions, it would have given people a shorthand way to think of the value proposition for remaining in the EU. Instead, “Brexit” carried the day.

Note that what ultimately made the difference was leaders speaking, media talking, and people having conversations. Both sides communicating in many ways, all the time. One side won, and now almost nobody is happy about the uncertainty and costs of the whole mess.

Productive conversations matter, so let’s practice getting better at using them, shall we?

Why We Don’t Put Deadlines into Our Requests  

I remember talking with a nutritionist many years ago, and she was advising me on how to place an order in a restaurant to get the meal I wanted. “You have to ask,” she insisted. “Ask them to put the dressing on the side so they don’t drown your salad. Ask them for fresh vegetables instead of their special potato-cheese-bacon side dish.”

“That would make me a picky eater,” I explained to her, actually feeling the embarrassment of a childhood moment when I was told that was a really bad thing to be. Now I’m an older lady, and quite able to fend for myself in a restaurant. There’s nothing wrong with asking, especially now that everybody does it: gluten free, sugar-free, fat-free.

I talked with some people yesterday in a really cool company near us. One person said she didn’t want to be so specific in requests – being very clear about what she wanted, or adding deadlines – because she didn’t want to be “pushy”. We can assume that she doesn’t always get what she wants, or get it on time.

I’m hoping she’ll start to practice making good requests. That self-consciousness about what “they” will think of us if we tell them exactly What we want, When we want it, and Why it matters to us – is understandable. But it’s also useful to see it from another perspective: when we give people clear direction, they have a chance to “win” with us. Plus, we might also be developing them to communicate more clearly with other people in their lives. You do know that people learn from you, right?

I remember the first time I asked for “dressing on the side” (in a restaurant that reliably drenched their salads). The waitress said, “Oh, thanks for reminding me. This is my third day here, and I keep forgetting to ask people about that. Also, do you want some bread? Some people do and some don’t.”

Go ahead, ask people for what you want. Not just the people who work for you, but everybody. Even people in other departments, or higher up in the hierarchy than you are. Ask! Use the 3 W’s: What, When, Why. Most people really do like you, and they want you to be pleased with them too.

The Hard Work of Making Good Requests: Part II 

This is a tale of “hard thinking”. I had a professor in graduate school who sorted his work into two categories. First there was the kind that was interesting and easy, the kind that would “flow” and keep you engaged in doing it. Then there was the kind that took “hard thinking”.

I’ve been faced with some of the hard-thinking sort of work lately. Jeffrey is working on a paper on leadership (can you see my eyes rolling?) and I’m the “second author”, which means that I have to be sure the article makes sense – and maybe even yanks the halo off the leadershi# nonsense that constitutes much of the literature today.

A former client explained to me why making a good request also requires hard thinking. She works in a government department for social services.  “I wanted my team to produce a report”, she explained, “on the pro’s and con’s of investing our time and money to design a system for our Department to communicate with other health and human service agencies and non-government groups in the city.”

The team met her deadline, but the report was useless, she told me. Instead of summarizing the pro’s and con’s on whether to create a better integrated communication network, the team wrote up their assessments of how poorly each agency and group in the city communicated. “Agency X never contacts us when they get a family case involving health issues”, one comment said. The report totally missed the intention of assessing the costs and benefits of better inter-agency communication.

We talked it over until I was able to understand exactly what she wanted – and it took some hard thinking for us both. She realized that her request for the kind of report she wanted was not well understood by the team. The solution? Make a better request. She took my notes with her back to the team, and they are working on clarifying what needs to be in that new report.

Requests can take more time and attention than we think they should – mostly because we don’t want to do the hard work of getting really clear about what we want. She trusted her team’s talent and experience, but without spelling out a clear idea of what is to be produced, talent doesn’t help. I see now why so many managers (and parents?) don’t take the time and trouble to think through what they really want from their employees (and family members): it requires Paying Attention.

We’re so accustomed to doing three things at once that focusing on just one thing seems like an unreasonable demand. But without making good requests, we get whatever the people around us decide to deliver. I’m working on Paying Attention.

The Hard Work of Making Good Requests: Part I

This is a tale of two mottoes. The motto I used when I worked as a management consultant was “Make it easy for people to do the right thing.” I still remember the day I invented it, after a meeting with a manager who was’t getting what he wanted from his people.

“They don’t know who they need to talk to, either in this department or in other departments,” he complained. “And they turn things in late – sometimes very late.”

I met with three of his Supervisors later that day and asked them about their jobs. I didn’t tell them their boss was dissatisfied with them, just that I wanted to know more about their responsibilities. There was a whiteboard in the room, so I drew a line down the center of it, and labeled one side “What Works” and the other one “What Doesn’t Work” about our jobs.

After they were assured that I wasn’t going to “rat them out”, as one of them said, we filled up those boards pretty quickly. I also got some solution ideas from them about what it would take to solve those “What Doesn’t Work” items.

Sure enough, the two complaints from the boss were part of the supervisors’ problems too. On the list of what didn’t work was (1) We don’t always know who to talk to about our assignments, and (2) There are no clear deadlines for most stuff. They knew the boss was unhappy about them, but didn’t know how to get the information to solve the problem.

OK, boss, tell me why you don’t include the “who to talk to” and the “due dates” in your instructions to Supervisors?

“Because they should know their jobs,” he said. “They’ve been around long enough, and should know who to talk to. And when I assign something, they should turn it around right away.” I heard his motto: “They should know what to do.” It didn’t get him what he wanted, but he seemed stuck with it.

I made up a template for job assignments – a simple form titled “Assignments” – with spaces to write What result was wanted, When it was due, Why it mattered, Who else should be consulted or included in some way, Where those people and other resources were located, and, an extra space in case there were any special instructions on How it should be done. Nothing complicated – ½ page, mostly blank.

I didn’t give it to the boss, I gave it to the Supervisors. Now, every time they get an assignment, they take the template out and ask the boss questions to fill in the blanks. The boss rolls his eyes, but at least now he’s getting what he wants. Plus, the Supervisors are actually learning who to talk to about different projects. And one of the Supervisors got a promotion to management about 5 months later. He said it was because he was good at getting things done.

Is Anyone Studying How to Listen?

A friend sent me an article (Challenger Story) about a failed communication had a dire outcome. She knew I had worked with NASA’s Space Station team, but probably not that I was working with the Goddard Space Flight Center in 1986 when the Challenger space shuttle exploded. I remember that day.

The article was about the contractor’s team of engineers and scientists responsible for space shuttle motors, and the teleconference they held with NASA the evening before the Challenger launch. They told NASA managers that the temperature the next day would be too cold to ensure that a key part would function properly, and recommended delaying the launch until the weather warmed up. NASA did not accept the recommendation, saying they would “pass this on in an advisory capacity”, went ahead with the launch, and the shuttle exploded just over 1 minute later.

“It was an amazingly complex decision,” the article reports, which led to the documents describing that decision being donated to Chapman University by the engineer – Allan McDonald – who had refused to sign the required “launch recommendation report”. His boss signed it instead, allowing NASA to go ahead with the launch on schedule. Mr. McDonald was demoted.

Those documents are now part of a “leadership studies program” at the university. The chairman of that program says the lessons of the Challenger are clear: individuals must speak the truth, no matter the consequences, and bosses must also encourage employees to do so.

Mr. McDonald was indeed brave to speak the truth despite consequences. The lessons of the Challenger tragedy, however, must go beyond encouraging employees to speak up and bosses to encourage them to do so. Communication has two sides: speaking and listening. Just because the boss says we can speak up does not mean she is actually listening. When the contractor says the O-rings could fail, their team recommends launch delay, and a team member refuses to sign the go-ahead, they are speaking loudly and clearly. But the NASA managers were listening to something else: perhaps the difficulties of altering the launch criteria one day before launch?

Let’s give attention to how we listen, including what we listen to and what we ignore. How can we learn to give quality attention to both the big picture and the vital details, or grasp the sometimes subtle differences between what is necessary, what is desirable, and what is convenient?  The sad day of the Challenger (and the sad months of the BP oil spill and the Flint water supply) deserve a greater legacy than giving Whistle-blowers the right to speak. We need better ways to have them be heard.

Question: Could a “leadership studies program” include an inquiry into the nature of effective listening?

Integrity and Reliability – They’re Related

A local college teacher called last night and asked if I had another recommendation for a technical support person to help with his Public Speaking class, because the first guy I recommended wasn’t working out. Here’s how that dialogue went…

Me: “What happened to Ed? I thought he was your guy for that?”

Teacher: “Ed is great, but he’s not reliable. I have classes starting again this week, and he was supposed to come to campus yesterday morning to help with the computer setups for the classroom. I have 23 students who will be here tomorrow morning, and I spent all day yesterday – and far into the evening too – trying to get everything ready. He bailed out on me – and asked to reschedule – at the last minute. He doesn’t understand my scheduling situation with classes.”

Me: “I don’t get it. You told me Ed was a high-integrity guy. This is news to me.”

Teacher: “He is high-integrity. I would trust him with my bank account, and with almost anything. He’s totally honest, and does good work. But this is the third time he’s pulled the plug less than an hour before he’s scheduled to be here. His “emergencies” always leave me with a problem, because by the time he notifies me, I’ve already made arrangements that box me in to our agreed schedule, then he goes and changes it!”

The two of us solved the problem – we each looked through our contacts and found a backup person who could come on short notice for future “emergency” help to get computers ready for a class demonstration, in case Ed had to cancel again. But it left me thinking about integrity and reliability. Are they really two different things? An “Integrity Seminar” I took suggests they’re not.

Integrity is not only about being an ethical and good person – it’s about my relationship to my word. If I say I’ll make a pizza for you, or that I’ll be at your place by 5:15, then you can count on me to do that. And if, for any reason, I’m not going to keep one of those “promises”, you can count on me to let you know in advance, and/or to clean up any problems it creates for you when I break my word. It sounds like Ed didn’t realize he was causing the teacher a problem.

I’m sorry that Ed wasn’t reliable enough to gain my teacher friend’s confidence, but at least he called his client to reschedule. I suspect that my friend was partly reacting to how upset his wife was when he didn’t come home for dinner because he was setting up for his class. Still, reliability matters for Ed’s reputation, and he could possibly lose a client. Fortunately, the students didn’t notice any problem: their computers were good to go for the class this morning.

Productive Meetings Don’t Just Happen

The meeting didn’t go well. In fact, one executive walked out before it was formally ended. Several people were annoyed or impatient while others, looking bored, simply didn’t participate. It was ultimately a waste of people’s time and energy, and left a few bad feelings to be cleaned up later.

What was the purpose of this meeting? That was the problem. The people who called the meeting expected everyone on the “committee” to bring their “homework” – ideas for who should be invited to the event they were planning plus some ideas for which tasks they would do to make the event special. But the people who attended the meeting had not done their homework, did not offer to take responsibility for any tasks, and perhaps did not even understand that they were on a “committee” to produce an event.

Martin, one of the people there, said, “I expected another brainstorming session of ideas. But they wanted commitments on what I would do for this reunion event next Spring. I wasn’t ready to add anything more to my schedule.”

Time wasted in meetings is bad enough, but when people get irritated and angry we have to admit this is a meeting gone wrong. What could have helped? A few tips from managers I’ve known:

  1. At the end of a meeting, make any assignments clear to all. The best way is to write them on the board or the computer screen where all attendees can see them. Then ask for comments and make revisions if needed. Then ask for commitment: “OK, does everybody agree to do this?”
  2. Before the next meeting, send an email with a copy of the assignments to everybody in the group. Subject line: “Reminder of Meeting Assignments”.
  3. At the start of the next meeting, ask for a show of hands: How many of you did the assignments for this meeting? If it’s less than 60%, don’t go forward with the meeting until you’ve all had a conversation about the purpose and the value of these meetings and doing the assignments. Are we serious about this? If so, what can we do to increase participation, engagement, and responsibility for results?

Those 3 tips have helped several managers be more personally effective at work. One said, “I streamlined our meetings and now they are quicker, more businesslike. Things are getting done on time.” Another told me, “Two people dropped out of the group after a couple of meetings like this and I’m glad they’re gone. If they aren’t in the game, they’re wasting my time and theirs.” Another reported, “I’ve taken one of my meeting-groups off my calendar. Just cancelled the whole thing. They weren’t committed to it, and I’m not going to try and pull them up the hill.” He seemed pretty happy about that.

Time to Talk? Efficiency vs. Effectiveness

The idea that time is “speeding up” is very popular, says the latest issue of The Economist – and they also say it’s very hard to prove. But the growth in computing power, along with management tools that increase efficiency by reducing delays in processes, have made it seem like time itself really is going faster.

Lonnie is a senior manager with a time complaint. He said, “I had a schedule that was out of control. I’ve asked my assistant for help, but she can’t seem to handle it. So I decided to be more efficient with my time.” Here’s what he had done by the time I met him, 3 months after he started practicing “efficiency”:

  • Tracked where he was spending his time: over 30% of his day was spent on communications by email, phone, and in meetings.
  • Identified the work he felt was really the most important, and that needed more attention: the most neglected high-value job was preparing product & program plans and proposals for his VPs, peers, and staff.
  • Practiced “efficiency” by scheduling his product development planning as the first job of the day, cutting down on his meeting attendance, and leaving the email to be handled after lunch.

This helped him meet some deadlines, especially for the VPs, but, he said, explaining why he needed help, “I still have much email, too many unnecessary appointments and meetings, and I’m interrupted all the time.”  I asked Lonnie about his assistant. Why wasn’t she able to filter the email and appointments and reduce his interruptions? Had he really made a good request?

“I told her I wanted help with my schedule problems,” he said. “But nothing changed.” Uh oh. He “wanted help”? We designed a real request, and he practiced saying it before he delivered it.

“Melissa, I request that tomorrow you start reviewing and screening my emails three times a day, eliminating all meetings on my schedule where I am not absolutely needed to attend, and preventing any phone or drop-by interruptions in my work between 8:00 and 10:15 AM. Is that something you can do?”

Lonnie made the request, and was surprised by Melissa’s response. “She gave me a big smile and told me she was glad to know specifically what would help me get hold of my schedule, and that of course she would start doing those things.”

Two weeks later, Lonnie was out from under the burden of calendar chaos, and had learned the difference between efficiency and effectiveness. Efficiency: improving the process for getting things done; Effectiveness: getting the right jobs done to meet goals. He laughed at himself, saying, “Of course, if I had made an effective request to Melissa in the first place, I could have saved 3 months of being Efficiently Ineffective”.