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The Future of Work – It’s Not All Bad News

I love seeing ideas about how to make the workplace a better place to spend our 40 hours a week. Lately, there has been much hand-wringing about how automation is taking away jobs and creating a two-sided workforce: one side a technology-skilled elite and the other a bunch of low-skill unsecure jobs. So I was happy to see a recent article titled “Free the Workers” – good title, good idea – in the Oct 10th 2020 edition of The Economist.

The article summarized the premise of a new book, “Humanocracy”, by Gary Hamel (a favorite author of mine) and Michele Zanini. They are both management consultants, which means that they test their ideas before they offer them to the public.

Best idea? “All employees should be encouraged to think like businesspeople, be organized into small teams with their own profit-and-loss accounts (and appropriate incentives) and be allowed to experiment.” That’s a good blend of “team focus” and “autonomy” that’s worth implementing, if only to see how it works and what needs to be tweaked for better results.

It is part of a wave of new thinking about work, but two companies – Toyota and Netflix – are already using those ideas in different ways. As a result, their managers have shifted from the usual corporate structure of “layers and centralization” to a model more like a network of teams and business units. Gotta love the network model!

These smaller groups have been given more power to organize their work and make changes in the way they operate, which will improve what are usually seen as low-level jobs. People in those jobs will be able to get out of the rut of routine and use their own initiative for taking on new tasks and problems. That, in turn will allow them to expand their capabilities and develop themselves both personally and professionally, plus being more satisfied and energized in their jobs. So maybe the world of work is not doomed after all.

These ideas also relate to an earlier perspective on improving the workplace: a 2017 article in the Harvard Business Review on the role of trust in organizations. That research showed giving people more power over the ways they do their work, and allowing them to choose the projects they work on, fostered trust and learning for everyone.

The two strongest trust-builders were “recognizing excellence”, i.e., letting people know when they were doing a good job, and keeping workers informed on the company’s goals, strategies and tactics. These practices promoted worker “engagement”, which they defined as “having a strong connection with one’s work and colleagues, feeling like a real contributor and enjoying ample chances to learn.”

Both articles point to the benefits of paying attention to all levels of workers by giving them more opportunities to use their judgment. And both approaches increase the motivation and satisfaction of workers – as well as productivity, quality products and profitability. Finally, both articles agree that having people be accountable – without micromanagement – is important.

The HBR article spoke for both, concluding with the statement that we can: “treat people like responsible adults”. What a radical thought! Automation may create a technological elite but treating people like responsible adults will develop workers in new directions and new ideas.

The Economist article ended with the good news of my week: “The future of work needn’t be gloomy after all. Let’s give it a try, shall we? Trust all levels of workers, let them organize their work and use their own judgment more often. Maybe in a very few years we could celebrate the end of micromanagement?

Management for Accomplishment, 1-2-3: Here is Step Two

Two weeks ago (https://usingthefourconversations.com/blog, Sept. 15, 2020) I mentioned three examples of projects I consulted on where managers wanted to implement a change in their organization. For the most part, they did not know how to set the project up in a way that everybody could win and accomplish the goal. One of those projects will serve as an example for Step Two in Managing for Accomplishment.

A city government’s Department of Electricity had five Units related to their project: Electricity Distribution, the Meter Shop, Engineering, Customer Service, and Purchasing & Stores. These groups worked well together – except for the Engineering and the Distribution Units, who rarely interacted except to argue about equipment and supply requirements.

The diagram below has 6 circles, representing the 5 Units in the project + the electricity Customer. It also has 11 arrows, representing the primary “communication relationship” between the groups, i.e., the most important products, services and/or communications that moved between each pair of circles and what they talked about most.

Notice in the diagram that installation equipment and supplies were determined by the relationship between the Engineering Unit and Purchasing & Stores. The Distribution Unit, which was made up of teams that handled construction, installation and repairs of electrical wires and stations, were the primary users of that equipment, yet were left out of the decisions on what equipment was outdated or needed to be changed for new kinds of projects.

One member of the Distribution team told me, “We aren’t able to satisfy our Department’s mission to ‘provide energy, street lighting and related services reliably with competitive pricing’. We can’t always pay for the city’s need for streetlights.” He was discouraged that they had no voice in improving construction and installation for electricity distribution.

The administrator of the Electricity Department wanted the Engineering and Distribution Units to find a way that they could both have a say in the selection and purchase of electricity installation equipment and supplies, to ensure that Distribution teams would have the equipment they needed to solve the engineering and maintenance problems in the field. He told them to work together and come up with a solution, but the Engineers had little respect for the Installers – and vice versa – so they made no progress.

This administrator did not know that “management for accomplishment” begins with creating a “team”, i.e., getting people aligned on the basics of working well together. Management for Alignment is Step One, and once Team members are clear on the intention of the project, have identified a responsibility structure for the Team, and agree to recognize the relevant rules and regulations for working together, they are ready for Step Two: “Management for Production”.

Getting people ready lay the foundation for productivity requires Team collaboration to define three Step Two elements: (a) the metrics of success; (b) the Team’s performance network of agreements for goal-relevant communications etc. (that’s where their diagram came into existence, even though this version does not spell out all the deliverables); and (c) the production and delivery systems, and standards and practices, to coordinate work and agreements within the Team and with others, including for processes, quality, schedules and costs.

The idea of a “performance network” of deliverables and receivables is sometimes hard to grasp for people who haven’t thought of projects in terms of “deliverables”. We tend to think of “doing” a project and we look forward to when it’s “done”. But we don’t often think of what needs to be “delivered” between Team members and others in order to get the project completed successfully. There’s a big difference in what happens when you focus your attention on Doing vs. Done vs. Delivered.  Tip: Go with “delivered” – get the results (products, services and/or communications) produced into the hands of the people who will put them to work. And get the resources you need delivered to you.

Ultimately, this city Electricity project involved discussions with Purchasing & Stores and the Meter Shop, which produced changes in the way installation equipment and supplies were ordered. Meter equipment was then ordered using the same computer system that Distribution and Engineering would use, which included updated reporting formats that would go to Customer Service from all of the groups.

Production is not a matter of “doing”, nor of getting something “done”. Production requires looking at what needs to be produced and by whom, and to whom it is delivered. All 11 arrows in this performance network diagram were altered – with many added specifics and new agreements – as the Engineering and Distribution Units invented out a way to make more effective purchasing decisions. Note: The Engineering Unit also collaborated with the IT Unit for this project.

As with Step One, the elements of Step Two require the ability to ask 6 questions and to work together to develop the answers. And again, none of these elements involve managing the people (we manage agreements here).

Step Two: Management for Production

WHAT-WHEN-WHY – Spell out the metrics for each key goal: What are the success metrics for budget and cost goals; What are the key performance indicators for production processes, product quality, and service quality. When are the key due dates and milestones. Why these metrics and timelines are important for fulfilling the overall purpose of the work.

WHO-WHERE – Identify the project’s performance network and establish agreements for sending and receiving goal-relevant products, services and communications: Who & Where are the non-Team players who are important for the Team to send and receive goal-relevant products, services and communications (e.g., funding, HR, maintenance, operations, product and service delivery, legal obligations, etc.). Assign responsibilities to the Team members to “own” one or more of these relationships and establish and honor agreements with external non-Team players for goal-relevant delivery content, quality, timing and costs between the Team and external players.

HOW – Spell out production and delivery systems, standards and practices for the project: How all aspects of the work and its deliverable products, services and communications will be produced, coordinated and delivered among Team members, and with players in the performance network, to satisfy goal-relevant requirements, e.g., content quality, schedules and costs, for key functions including: Budget, Operations, Product and Service quality and delivery, IT, Marketing, and Public communication.

Sounds like a lot, doesn’t it? But managing for production requires structures to accommodate the velocity of production and the partnerships in the Team’s external environment. Especially: (a) The metrics that will let everyone see progress and success (or failure) in meeting targets; (b) The relationships with other individuals and groups outside the Team who have resources and ideas that can support success and integrate the project’s results into the larger work environment; and (c) The Team’s organization and coordination of its work and its products, services and communications within its performance network and with other key functions.

A team of people aligned on working productively with goal-relevant partners, using its own custom-designed goal-relevant structures of (a) success metrics, (b) a functional performance network and (c) agreements for coordination and communication, will be ready to manage itself – for accomplishment. I’ll tell you that story in 2 weeks!

A Close-Up Look at Micro-Management

When I was a management consultant, clients sometimes complained about “micro-management” in their organizations. I had to look it up, because I thought it just meant someone was paying too much attention to details. I learned that it’s much worse than that, but now I have been educated in real life, because I have now been micro-managed.

I am working, post-retirement, as a volunteer in a small organization. I support three Committees, each of which has a Chairman, so I take my job to be assisting those Chairmen in setting and attaining goals as well as supporting the Committee members in working as a team and being productive and effective. All was going smoothly until one Chairman resigned and was replaced by Captain Micro.

The Captain watched every action I took, heard every idea I offered and saw every communication I delivered to Members. He then criticized each of those things, saying this email to members was “too complicated”, and that idea was “inappropriate”. His instructions to me were specific but piecemeal, and I wasn’t always able to assemble them into a meaningful whole. I confess to having lost my sense of humor at one point, telling him that his latest instruction was “another piece of our communication problem”, which was the first time I had let him know how I saw the situation.

Another annoyance was that he wanted me to check with him about every little thing before I took any action, as if I couldn’t see for myself what would work. He gave me miniature assignments – send out this email to the members, forward him a copy of Aaron’s article from last week, etc. And he often messed up my schedule by giving me several different due-dates and times for each request. Multiple emails and phone calls showered down in the first week of working with him, which became annoying. I suspect he could hear the impatience in my voice by that Friday afternoon.

Week Two didn’t gain any momentum. Fewer calls and emails, but he was still stalling on taking any substantive action for the Committee and was not allowing me to make any decisions (or he corrected the ones I had already made). What had been an unfolding project for the Committee was now a mute folder lying on my desk waiting for attention, and I couldn’t get him to move ahead. He didn’t seem to know or care what I had done for the prior Chairman nor to have any sense of urgency about moving the members’ teamwork forward to meet the goal everyone had aligned on before his arrival.

It’s over now. Captain Micro won’t work with me – he’s going to do it all himself. Perhaps I’m too headstrong, pushing to finish the Committee’s current project so we could move on to future aspirations. It appears he has decided to take over the facilitation tasks I had been doing – sending out what he chooses to the members, and perhaps also taking notes on their monthly calls and creating an agenda for the next call (though he may not think such tasks are necessary).

Now I’m supporting only two Committees. I initially feared that Captain Micro’s lack of support would undermine the group’s sense of purpose and cohesion, but several members have now been in touch with me, looking for more productive pathways to get what they wanted to accomplish. Captain Micro will go his own way with his new Committee – and I wish them all the best. I’ll continue my accountability for supporting the two remaining Committees as best I can, and be grateful for the trust and respect of their leaders.

 

Manager Tip: Clarify What You Really Want in Every Work Request

One job of a manager is to ask, invite, or demand that other people “do their work”. But people understand the word “work” in three different ways. You may be asking that I “do” something, like you want me to put the appropriate data into a spreadsheet for analysis. That’s not the same as getting something “done”, which is when you tell me to get that spreadsheet finished. And it also doesn’t mean “delivered”, which would be you asking me to send the finished product over to you by close of business today.

When you want something from me, it is important to clarify: Do you want me to work on something? Or produce something? Or bring it to you or someone else? Do – Done – Delivered: do you want to keep me busy, or finish something, or turn my final result over to somebody? Or maybe all three?

Good work typically generates a specific product, service, or communication that calls for all three: to be produced, completed, and delivered to someone who will use it and/or value it. The best way to produce results – to perform well – is to focus on those “deliverables”.

A focus on deliverables, sometimes called “Do-Dues”, requires giving attention to the desired outcome(s) – the products, services, and communications to be provided to another individual or group. Deliverable results always have:

  1. Specific characteristics such as production processes, amounts, formats, and other attributes or qualities,
  2. A producer/sender and a user/receiver,
  3. A due date and time it will be sent or received, and
  4. Some value or benefit that will serve others.

Both the work-requester and the Doer-Deliverer should clarify – and agree on – these four aspects of what a “good result” will look like.

If you want to improve someone’s “performance”, don’t focus on what they should do. Start by being clear on the specifications, requirements, and conditions for what will be sent and received, to and from others. This seemingly small shift in attention – from what people are doing to the outcome of what they do – is actually very useful. If you add the information of who will receive it and why it matters to them, you have added value to people’s “doing-work” and to the result it produces. Magically, their “work performance” will improve too.

 

The Management vs. Leadership Debate

I’m sorry to weigh in on this, but I can’t ignore it any longer due to a current writing assignment on management. I worked with executives and managers for my whole career of 35+ years and came to have very high regard for them, thinking of them all as “managers”. I never thought of that as a derogatory term in any way.

But apparently Abraham Zaleznik (in the Harvard Business Review of May-June 1977) asked the question, “Managers and Leaders: Are They Different?”  That launched a 40-year discussion of putting down management as simplistic and dealing only with the routine, while elevating leadership as… drumroll, please… visionary and inspiring.

Unfortunately, that premise was reinforced by otherwise brilliant John Kotter, in his “What do Leaders Really Do?” article in HBR, December 2001. As a result, the people who enjoy an opportunity to take sides between “bad vs. good”, “dullards vs. geniuses”, or any other “better-worse” kind of argument, have an excuse to keep up that artificial and divisive comparison.

I have tried to ignore this, going so far as to tune out the vote of MBA students in Jeffrey’s classroom a few years ago, when they were asked, “Would you rather be a manager or a leader?” The entire class raised their hands for being a leader. Managers, I’m sad to say, have a bad reputation created by “leadership experts”.

But now I must face the flurry, which is, I hope, winding down these days. Here’s a quick summary of the argument:

WHAT MANAGERS DO WHAT LEADERS DO
Planning and budgeting Creating vision and strategy
Focus on routine operational results such as producing products and services Focus on strategic direction and producing useful change
Organizing and staffing to build capacity Aligning people with the vision or strategy
Specialize in structural matters Specialize in communication issues
Control Inspire and motivate
Solve problems Prepare organizations for change
Managers are task-oriented Leaders are people-oriented

Mitch McCrimmon (https://www.lead2xl.com/john-kotter-on-leadership) said, “This was a disaster for our thinking about management from which we have yet to recover.” I agree. The fact is that managers do all those things at different times for different reasons. Humans do not fall into such neatly arranged categories.

Watching managers and leaders in action for over 3 decades, the primary factor in the differences between people in positions of authority is their location in the hierarchy. Those at the very top of an organization – the “C-Suite” and Board members – are called upon to communicate more frequently with “outsiders” who are in civic, community and corporate power positions, rather than focusing first on internal activities and connecting with fewer “outsiders”. Every organization has a level in the hierarchy where communications seldom reach up or down (I’ve seen them, remember?), and both sides of that authority dividing-line don’t know much about the other one.

That gives the top layers of an organization a closer view of the worlds outside the organization, hence a larger context to work with. Unfortunately, it also gives them a smaller view of those toward the middle and bottom of their own organization. The number of CEO’s and Executive Directors who know almost nothing about what their people toward the bottom of the organization are dealing with daily would horrify you. That is also the reason organization change is so problematic, often failing to meet planned deadlines and budgets. The “leaders” simply do not see the realities and challenges that are the facts of work life for those in the bottom rungs.

OK, that’s all I need to say for now. I will get back to my writing assignment, which is on the subject of “management”, i.e., the machinery that operates organizations and a layer of smart people that is a lot more strategic, people-oriented and effective at communication than they are given credit for.

Happy New Year!

High Praise from the United Kingdom

It’s always nice to hear that someone has said something nice about you, but this one made me laugh. Not that it wasn’t high praise – it definitely was. It’s just that I was reading The Economist this morning, which is published in London, and they said some things about “managers” that sounded absurd to this American.

Apparently, managers are not the same thing on the other side of the Atlantic that they are here. Just two phrases, taken from the “Bartleby” column about management, should make you wonder what kind of people they are talking about:

  • “Managers are incentivized with share options”, and
  • “That encourages them to pay spare cash to investors in the form of dividends and buy-backs”

I’ve worked with many managers over my 40-year career as a management consultant and I daresay not more than 1% of them has ever been “incentivized with share options”.  I’m pretty sure that none of them ever paid “spare cash to investors” in any form, either.  I bet 50% of managers in the US do not even know who their organization’s investors are, much less crossing their palms with silver. Reading an article in The Economist (full disclosure: I read it cover-to-cover every single week) is fine until I trip over something like “managers are incentivized with share options”. I’ll have to tell that one to the Water Maintenance Manager at the Department of Public Utilities.

The difference on this side of the Atlantic is that we have so many names for the different kinds of people who are in positions of organizational authority, such as Executives, C-Suite (CEO, COO, CFO, CIO, etc.), Department managers, Team managers, Directors, Supervisors – I could go on. A “manager” doesn’t necessarily mean a person is even in the top 1/3 of the organizational ladder – it means that s/he oversees a group of people who are responsible for a certain section of the organization.

And yet, Boove, a UK bookseller, read our book – The Four Conversations – and rated it #17 for “books-on-being-a-good-manager”. They said the book “breaks down the task of management (they used that word!) into the four kinds of conversations needed to move any project from initiation to completion.”  That’s a good way to say what it does – I never quite thought of it as breaking down the task of management.

Boove also posted a link to Amazon, for people to buy the book, and it also included a little summary of the book: “Most conversations to get things done at work are of one of four types – initiative conversations, conversations for understanding, performance conversations, or conversations for closure – but they are often done poorly or misused. This book shows managers and employees how to use the right conversation at the right time, plan and start each conversation well, and finish each conversation effectively.”  I couldn’t have said it better myself!

Here’s Boove listing for the book:

#17 The Four Conversations by Jeffrey D Ford

Awarded Best Management Book by 800 CEO-READ and Rated the #5 Best Business Book by The Globe and Mail (Canada) breaks down the task of management into the four kinds of conversations needed to move any project from initiation to completion. Armed with a solid body of research plus their own first-hand observations, Jeffrey Ford, Emeritus Professor of management with the Max M. Fisher College of Business at The Ohio State University in Columbus, Ohio and his management consultant wife, Laurie Ford, provide a clear outline for management success whether in the corporate world or at home. Easy to read and immediately applicable, this book is the best guide to good management available.

I loved that last line, “Easy to read and immediately applicable, this book is the best guide to good management available.”  THANKS MATES!

How Important is Appreciation as a Part of Employee Feedback?

One client, Amos, managed a group of 14 people who took the Group Workplace Assessment – with a surprising set of results. Amos had convinced me that he had “great relationships” with his staff, but those results said otherwise. Among the “Top Ten” issues identified by his staff were these 3 responses:

  1. There isn’t any follow-through on people who don’t keep their agreements or do complete work.
  2. People are seldom recognized or thanked for what they do, even when they go the extra mile to accomplish something.
  3. Some people expect someone else to motivate them or tell them what to do, which slows things down and makes it harder to get work done.

What did those responses have in common? They all point to a lack of useful feedback – specifically, to appreciating their work.

For #1, when people don’t get feedback on their work – whether to approve their results or point out a problem – they may lose confidence and start second-guessing themselves. This can begin a process of erosion in work timeliness, accuracy, or creativity. Or all three.

In #2, an expression of appreciation for the work they do is missing, meaning people are likely to lose energy and a sense of providing value to others, or to the organization. Work becomes ho-hum, and if my work doesn’t matter, it loses its purpose.

And #3 underscores the cost of too little attention and appreciation: work slows down, staff loses interest in doing a good job, and others around them will soon be infected by this “sleeping sickness”. Keeping workers energized and alert is a function of attention and appreciation.

Amos was so proud of his staff that he did not see a need to provide positive feedback. “They just keep the pace around here”, he bragged. “They don’t need to be micro-managed.” He was mad at himself for not seeing his lack of attention.

A CEO who writes 9,200 employee birthday cards a year shows, in this article, that he knows the power of positive feedback – a thank-you and special recognition from a boss will make a big difference in people’s relationship to their work. His people know they matter, and that they are making a difference on the job.

This is the power of what we call “Closure Conversations”. These conversations have 4 ingredients – the Four A’s – though not all are necessary to use in every Closure Conversation.

  • The first is Acknowledgment, stating what has happened. “Your work results are good, and you missed one thing over here. But you got the other six done completely.”
  • The second is Appreciation. “Thanks for doing it this way, because it makes our next Board meeting easier for the members and will help them to finish their year-end report.”
  • The third is Apology. “I see that I didn’t make clear the way to structure this middle section. I had expected to see it summarized as a list, not as paragraphs, so I hope you don’t mind doing a bit of cleanup. I think it will be clearer to see the big picture if you do it that way. Sorry for my lack of clarity.”
  • The fourth is to Amend the understanding of the job, which updates the work agreement as needed. “I know it will take extra time to reformat this, so let’s extend the deadline to Tuesday before our team meeting. That will leave enough time for us all, in case team members need to edit anything further before Friday.”

In a sense, all four of those items are “positive feedback”. Each one tells you that someone is paying attention to your work in a constructive way. And you know what to do with each of those A’s: recognize what others see in your work, enjoy the appreciation, accept the apology graciously, and interact with the coaching given by making amendments.

The 9,200 birthday cards is over-the-top Appreciation, although I’m sure it pays off for that CEO in people’s willingness to invest themselves. But in the case of Amos, he will be learning to use all four of the Closure Conversation elements. He says he wants effective workers on his staff, so it’s time for him to start practicing all “Four A’s”. I suggest starting with Appreciation.

NOTE: If you want to get your group’s feedback on what they see as their “workplace issues”, the Group Assessment survey will add up their responses to 56 questions while maintaining the individual privacy of people’s responses. You’ll see the results and be able to discuss how to implement the recommended communication solutions with your staff.  

The Manager-Staff Gap – And an Idea for Updating the Performance Review

Looking at a file from work with a former client, I found one particularly interesting list of “Top Five” workplace issues for their organization. What made it interesting was that we could see the difference between problems that Managers had, and the problems reported by lower-level Staff members.

The survey was made of 56 Workplace Assessment questions designed to identify their biggest workplace problems; we used the Consultant Subscription to survey different groups at the same time, but instead of defining survey groupings by their department or function, we grouped them by their different levels in the hierarchy. Here’s what we found:

  • The #1 workplace issue for Managers – “Some projects and assignments involve other teams and departments, but it is difficult to get their cooperation and support.”

Okay, that sounds like a reasonable observation, since Managers have to deal with other departments (and their Managers) in a more administrative way than Staff do.  But it was interesting that the Staff did not rank this as being important at all – they simply did not see it as a workplace problem. Perhaps Staff should thank their Managers for protecting them with having to deal with this issue? Another result:

  • The #1 workplace issue for Staff members – “Some people do only the minimum work necessary or don’t do their assigned work, making it hard for others to get their work done.”

This seems reasonable too, since Staff have to deal with finding their way through the jungle of their jobs whenever their workplace contains one or more low-performing Staff members. This Staff issue, however, was ranked very low on the list of problems reported by Managers. Apparently, Managers do not see the performance barriers that Staff are actually dealing with in producing their results.

What did Managers and Staff agree on? Another result:

  • The second-biggest workplace issue for both Managers and Staff – “There are significant differences in the quality of work that people do.”

Interesting to see that both levels notice the “quality difference” of Staff performance, and both find it to be either a problem that uses too much of their time and attention, or a it’s problem they do not know how – or want – to address. What could cause this disparity?  Perhaps it was the 3rd disparity – an issue that Managers ranked as their 3rd-biggest problem, but Staff members didn’t even include in their high-ranking workplace issues list:

  • The Manager issue that was invisible to Staff: “Performance reviews are subjective and not helpful in giving guidance for improvement.”

Wow! Managers and Staff agreed on the variability of work quality, but only Managers saw the problem of subjective performance reviews. Could that be because Staff are resigned to being evaluated in subjective ways on subjective criteria?

The Managers chose to update their performance reviews. They found a person in HR to help them orchestrate several discussions with a group of Managers and Staff supervisors. These were the people directly involved with the way that “performance” actually plays out in the workplace, and they collaborated to specify what they meant by “high-quality work”.  Now this organization focuses on using observable attributes of work performance rather than subjective evaluations based on intuitive criteria.

One Manager’s comment after using their new performance review was, “Now we are evaluating “performance” as an attribute of work and results, rather than evaluating the attributes of individual people. This is a good lesson on how to redefine work quality and performance.”

NOTE: The Consultant Subscription provides the opportunity to use the same Group Assessment survey for different groups at the same time. The choice of how to perform the groupings is up to the Consultant.

Leadership? Or Management? What’s the Difference?

An article in The Economist (March 30th, 2019, p. 67) said, in the opening paragraph, “Everyone can think of inspiring leaders from history, but managers who think they can base their style on Nelson Mandela, or Elizabeth I, are suffering from delusions of grandeur.”

First, did the reference to Mandela and Elizabeth I tip you off that The Economist is a British magazine? More importantly, do the words “leaders” and “managers” suggest that leaders are managers? Or that managers aspire to be leaders?  It got me thinking. Which means it nudged me to take out my Etymological Dictionary on the origins of words.

Leader – One who conducts others on a journey or course of action, keeping watch from above and providing defense, protection and guidance for the action below.

Manager – One who handles, controls, or administers a journey or course of action.  Note: the word “manage” is derived from “manus”, Latin for hand, as in “handling or steering a horse”, i.e., holding the reins.

So a manager is in control and steering the action, while a leader is protecting and defending the actors. Sounds like two different roles to me. Which job would you want?

If you are a manager and want to be a leader, here’s a tip from that article: Being “competent” involves one important skill – the ability to have dialogues, or what we call Understanding Conversations. This kind of leadership “communication competence” has three important ingredients:

  1. The ability to listen and understand, sometimes called empathy.  “Team leadership requires having sufficient empathy to understand the concerns of others.”
  2. Dialogue with people ‘below’.  “Employees are more likely to be engaged with their work if they get frequent feedback from their bosses and if they are involved in setting their own goals.”
  3. The ability to course-correct.  “When things go wrong, as they inevitably will, a good leader also needs the flexibility to adjust their strategy.”  This would be done in dialogues with others, both above and below the leader.

The article made some other good points:

  • On competence and charisma: “The biggest mistake is to equate leadership entirely with charisma,” and, “Competence is more important than charisma.”
  • On competence and confidence: “People tend to assume that confident individuals are competent, when there is no actual relationship between the two qualities.”
  • Most fun quote (read it twice): “Charisma plus egomania minus competence is a dangerous formula.” (This reminded me of someone who is much in the media these days.)

The article also mentioned a book by Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic, which should be a best-seller, based on the title alone: “Why Do So Many Incompetent Men Become Leaders? (and how to fix it)”. That one should be jumping off the shelves!

The New World of Management

I was talking with a professor the other night and she said something I had heard a million times in my (former) career as a management consultant: “I hate managing people”, she said. “They should just do their jobs.”

That might have been a valid position back in the days when Frederick Taylor first invented workplace management. People worked on assembly lines then, putting pieces and parts together to make tools or equipment of some kind. Their “job” consisted of making the same four or five movements in a specified sequence – and that’s what they did all day long.

Today, jobs are more fluid. I had lunch today with Alina, who works in an insurance agency. We were scheduled to get together yesterday, but I got a text that morning asking to reschedule because her boss had a special project for her. Today at lunch she explained her “job” to me.

“No two days are the same,” Alina told me. “I’m often not doing what I was hired to do, and sometimes it’s frustrating. The boss sent me an email the other night, but I didn’t see it until the morning. He told me to “dress down” because I was going to be moving boxes for the construction of our new meeting rooms. It’s like that all the time, where he changes my assignments to new things. Sometimes it’s OK, but I wasn’t happy about doing the physical labor yesterday.”

I hear similar things from many younger people, saying they don’t have a well-defined job definition and need to be ready for, as one friend puts it, “Interruptions, disruptions, and people changing their minds.” A new software program, a change in meeting schedules, a special request from higher-ups: the days when people could plan and do their work seem to have dissolved into thin air.

Bottom line: management today is rarely about training people to do one simple job and then putting up with them until they retire. It’s more about having lots of productive conversations every day.

  • Propose actions to take or results to be produced. (Initiative conversation)
  • Discuss the actions or results so the people – the “performers” – are clear about who does what, how it could or should be done, and where the resources will come from, where the work will be done and where the results will be delivered. (Understanding conversations)
  • Make requests and make promises to establish agreements with all the “performers” regarding what each will do or produce, when it will be done or delivered, and why it is important. (Performance conversations)
  • Follow up to confirm whether the agreements were kept, and, if not, identify what happened and how the failure(s) can be remedied. (Closure conversations)

This is not Fred Taylor’s kind of management. And it’s not about “managing people” anymore. It’s about managing people’s agreements for taking actions and producing results. That means the manager is a communicator – not in order to motivate people, but to get clear on the job for today, or for this afternoon, or for that phone call at 2:15. Being a manager means you work with people to clarify the jobs to be done and get people’s agreement that they will do it. Every day.

If you’re a manager, it’s probably smart to get really good at this, because you’ll be doing it all day long for the rest of your career.