Management May Not Be Sexy – But It Really Is Necessary

I went to a conference last weekend and a man asked me what my current #1 project is about. I told I am working on defining what it means to “manage” something and how to do it. I said a little bit more, but then I noticed he was falling asleep. No kidding – he was falling asleep!

OK management isn’t a sexy topic that gets people on the edge of their chairs. But still, it’s everywhere, and when it isn’t done effectively there is a price to pay – sometimes a steep one.

Leadership – now that’s the hot topic in the past several years. Everybody wants to be a leader, and nobody wants to be a manager. I know this only from a sample of MBA students who were asked to choose one of those options. They voted 100% in favor of leadership over management.

Leadership is sexier, because leaders create desirable futures that are attractive and engaging. People are attracted to the positive vision and want to follow the leader toward that future. Who wouldn’t want to be at the head of that parade?

But good management is what gets things done. No vision, however desirable, is realized without management practices like planning, tracking, and reporting. Good management is more than simply being “in charge” of a group of people. It is all about productive communication – like discussing these things:

  • Specifying goals and objectives to create a good road-map to the desired future;
  • Building the calendar for accomplishment, with milestones and celebrations built in as appropriate;
  • Defining the necessary specific results to be produced along the way, complete with tracking systems and due dates;
  • Identifying other key players who will be vital to success; and
  • Agreeing on a meeting schedule and an agenda that will keep things moving forward on schedule, such as (1) refresh the goal commitment; (2) create productive relationships with others who will help produce the intended results; (3) compare the schedule of planned results to the reality of results delivered; and (4) collaborate to resolve problems and barriers along the way.

Management is communication, with an intention to make something happen that wasn’t going to happen by itself. I have heard that there are some people who are not interested in making things happen, so I know they wouldn’t be interested in management. But I never thought a conversation about management would make someone want to take a nap! I think the next time someone asks me what I’m working on, I will tell them that I am the new Director of Communications for the Trump White House. That should keep them awake.

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?

That Difficult Client Talk – Part III.  Too Many Goals?

Dear Reggie,

The “discussions” are working. Your people said that you are listening to them in a new way, and that should raise their performance. That was your original goal, wasn’t it?

So here’s the next place to put your attention: your Step 3. I am hearing some confusion among your staff people – it’s different depending on their roles and responsibilities, but I’m drawing a general idea of their concerns. They like the idea of having their assignments paired with clear goals, but I think there may now be now too many goals. My biggest clue was when one of them said, in a joking voice, “Which goal? Pick a goal – we have dozens.”

So now it’s time to take a bigger picture of your whole department, a context for all those goals. Here are two ways I have tried for going about that, and perhaps they could merit another discussion or two with your people:

  • MVP – Mission, Vision, Purpose. Mission is about what your department delivers or provides to others: think missile or, more kindly, missive – what you send out into the world beyond your department borders. Vision is about seeing ahead and having a stated future for your department to move toward. Purpose is about your intention, as in “What’s the point?” Your department has a purpose for existing, an intention to fulfill. There is no magic in these 3 terms, other than their power to get people thinking about what each of their goals contributes to the department’s MVP. If you can draft a statement of the MVP that you and your staff agree is “right on” or even “pretty good”, it can begin give everyone a lift and a sense of operating with more cohesion.
  • GPS – Goals, Performance measures, Schedules. Goals can then be connected to your MVP: each goal should contribute to the big picture. Performance measures can be created for the big-picture MVP as well as for the goals – and the goals can be restated or combined in ways that add up to something worth pursuing. Schedules too can be associated with goals and aligned with the MVP to support departmental and staff planning, changes, and assignments.

The idea here is to integrate the various types of work people are doing under their own individual or team “umbrellas” of Goals, Performance measures, and Schedules – and then to have those GPS-umbrellas connect upward to the Mission-Vision-Purpose for the department as a whole.

If a goal doesn’t fit, or is stretching the bounds of your mission or vision, perhaps it’s time to revise it. Conversely, if the MVP needs a little clarification or expansion, talk with people about that too. Your staff wants their work to make sense, maybe even see that it contributes to something greater than the tasks they do. Everyone’s work can be about more than just “getting things done”.

That said, your work on upgrading your management practices is making a difference, Reggie. It is visible in the participation of your staff, and it is audible in the conversations they are having with each other these days. I’m betting performance is improving here.

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?

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?

Want Something in 2016? Get Specific.

I remember many years ago telling my boss that I was frustrated with my work, and that what I really wanted to do with my life was to travel and to write. He had the perfect response.

“You already do that,” he said. “You commute almost 20 miles each way to work every day, and you write up analyses and reports on client problems and solutions. Congratulations! You have reached your goal!”

That’s the first time I realized that I would need to be more specific about what I wanted. General categories like “travel”, or clichés like “be successful” simply do not create a path to a desirable future – and they can be fulfilled by commuting to a job or getting a pat on the back.

I thought of that again a little while ago, when I remembered saying that I was going to create a “Writing Life”. I was frustrated with the stack of “distractions” on my desktop and in my email in-box: PowerPoints to be written up for a presentation I’m giving; a promotion to write up for one of our online products; a request to write a reference letter for a friend; notes to friends who sent me holiday cards; revising a section of my husband’s academic paper on leadership – etc. etc. etc.

It’s all writing, right? Is this what the Writing Life looks like? It isn’t what I had hoped.

We think it’s easy to make promises to do or deliver something, or to make requests for resources or support. But when we are not specific about exactly what we want, when we want it, and why it matters, we can’t have a Performance Conversation. When we are not specific about who to communicate with, where we are going, or how we want to get there, we can’t have an Understanding Conversation.  What we have is a wish.

I was not creating a clear destination, nor committing to a path and process for the Writing Life. I was wishing.

So now I’m going to spend some time getting clearer about what I mean by a “Writing Life”. Socrates said, “The unexamined life is not worth living”. I would add that the unintentional life isn’t worth much either. Serendipity is fine, but it’s not a substitute for aiming, steering, or directing – those things require specifics.

I would rather “lead” my life than to drift with the current, so it’s time to get specific about the future I intend to create. Many thanks to that boss for his wise words that have lasted so many years!

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.

Big Change, Part III: Em-Powerment

Matthew, the CEO of the company that is closing a regional office and laying off 11 staff members, talked with the HR manager. Her name was Emmeline, and everyone called her Em. She is tall, smart, and lovely, and she knows her business.

When I told her I wished she had been at the first Executive Team meeting, she rolled her eyes. “I know,” Em said. “They don’t think about HR until it’s sometimes too late. I’m glad Matt came right back here and brought me into the picture.”

She looked accustomed to being left out of the Big Cheese discussions, but didn’t appear unsettled about it. She showed me her list of tasks and timelines: Contact the attorney; Plan the agenda for the regional office announcements; Review the employment longevity for each person who would be laid off; etc. She knew what to do.

I saw Em in her first meeting with the Executive Team. She mostly stayed quiet, occasionally reminding someone of a legal requirement or a way to support people in transitioning from one situation to another. Afterward, we talked about her one new role: educating the other executives. She could not assume they would know – or remember – what to do in a transition like this. She would strengthen her productive communication as a way to be heard above the stress of the situation over the next few months:

  • Initiative conversations: Remind people that one key purpose is to support the whole workforce of people who are in a difficult situation, including considering security, privacy, and respect. And mention this at every Executive Team meeting – even Big Cheeses can lose sight of the big picture.
  • Understanding conversations: For every problem that Em will observe, anywhere in the workforce, she will either solve it on the spot, get help from her partners on the Executive Team, or bring it to the weekly meeting and ask for ideas. She’s not going to be the Lone Ranger here – everybody needs to contribute their best.
  • Performance conversations: Em will make requests for assistance, and will press for agreements from her Executive peers, and from workforce supervisors and staff, for what they will do and by when it will be done. She’s going for impeccability on agreements throughout the transition.
  • Closure conversations: She will have lots of these, including: (1) Bring a report to every weekly meeting, updating the facts of what’s happening in the workplace regarding the transition; (2) Say “thank you” easily and often, to everyone, and be appreciative of every conversation and contribution of support. (3) Take responsibility wherever possible, never blaming “other people” for their decisions or actions. (4) Update agreements as needed with other executives, and with workforce personnel as appropriate in every conversation.

Em is taking on deepening her own personal and professional power in this matter. As an HR manager, she is going to be an important engine to have this transition go well. They are lucky to have her.

Do Leaders Focus on Results or People?

A while back (December 2013), the Harvard Business Review had an article on the subject of leaders and results-focus vs. people-focus. The verdict is you need to focus on both results and people. But we knew that, right? The trick is figuring out how to do that.

How you do that is in communications – more specifically, by using productive conversations. But we knew that too, didn’t we?

For a focus on results, build your strengths in using Performance conversations. Practice making effective requests and promises, and then use those to establish good agreements with people for what each of you will do or produce.

For a focus on people, improve your ability to have Understanding conversations. Practice having dialogues where you ask other people for input about a particular task or project, and use the feedback to revise the task or project goals, measures, and responsibilities. Hint: it requires listening and validating their responses by using them.

To strengthen both of these focuses, practice gaining mastery in Closure conversations:

  • Acknowledge the facts of the matter – what were the agreements you both made for results and timelines, and what actually happened?
  • Appreciate the people – what do they bring to the project that you see is particularly valuable?
  • Apologize for mistakes or misunderstandings – take responsibility for things that were left unclear or didn’t work for some reason.
  • Amend broken agreements – clean up the past, including what didn’t work, and make fresh agreements that you have confidence will work now.

The mysteries of leadership and management are not solved by listing the traits and characteristics you need. The solution is in practicing ways of doing the things that have been demonstrated to be effective. Saying “focus on results” or “focus on people” (or both) is not enough. We need to practice the conversations that will produce the focus we need.

To see the HBR article, go to https://hbr.org/2013/12/should-leaders-focus-on-results-or-on-people/

Emotional Intelligence – Nice, But Not a Management Tool

Emotional intelligence measures the ability to recognize, understand, and use emotions – our own and others’ – as a guide to our thinking and behavior in family, social, and work situations. So it’s a good thing to have – it has been shown to correlate with better mental health as well as social influence, popularly called “leadership”.

Emotional intelligence (often called EQ to relate it to IQ) is a personal ability or capacity that can be developed to improve our score and, presumably, our mental health and our ability to influence people. But that’s not much help for management, which is what you need when you want to get timely results from others. Why not? Because leadership is not management. Management depends on the use of specific practices and tools, and not so much on our personal style or psychology, or even our ability to influence others.

In a nutshell, there are 4 distinct practices of management:

  1. Use productive conversations – Initiative, Understanding, Performance, and Closure – to identify, activate, update, and report on the four components of good management: (a) The goal; (b) The type of performance, e.g., efficiency, quantity, quality, effectiveness, etc.; (c) The “performance circle” of senders and receivers with whom the development of agreements for delivery of products, services, and communications will be necessary; and (d) The scoreboard tool to record the measurable status of progress with each of those components;
  2. Identify and activate each of the four components of good managementgoal, performance type(s), performance circle, and scoreboard – on a regular schedule;
  3. Update and report the status of the four components of good managementgoal, performance type(s), performance circle, and scoreboard – on a regular schedule; and
  4. Repeat these 4 management practices until the goal is reached or abandoned.

So, will “emotional intelligence” help with any of this? It likely will make for a more pleasant workplace, so it is a definite plus. But it does not substitute for any of the necessary practices or components of good management. And it isn’t a tool, either.

So go ahead and boost your “EQ” for mental health and influence – it’s good for you and those around you. Just don’t expect it to replace management for getting results to accomplish your goals.