This Middle Manager is Between a Rock and a Hard Place

A manager, Claire, told me that being a “middle manager” was the hardest job she has ever had. She explained it this way: “I’m supposed to balance the interests of the employees who report to me with the interests of my Big Cheese Boss. Which, in my case, means I am between a bunch of people who have job descriptions, projects, and responsibilities… and a woman who is focused on moving up the ladder to the C-Suite. She wants to celebrate the pinnacle of her career before she turns 50.”

Claire has weekly meetings with her staff to review the status of her department’s current and upcoming projects. “That part goes well,” she says. “But when we discuss where things stand, we like to make a list of people’s ideas for ways to improve their work and their results. The problem is they almost always ask for something that I cannot seem to pry out of my Boss: clear goals and success measures.”

She told me she knows using goals and measures would help her “group” become more like a “team”. Some other Middle Managers in her organization created scoreboards for their people to review and update every week. Claire envied them. “I don’t know why their Big Bosses helped them create clear goals and measures and mine won’t,” she said. “I wish my Boss would say what she wants from us, so I could make a scoreboard too. But she meets with me for 15 minutes every other week, and doesn’t want to work on anything with me. She says I need to decide for myself how to manage my people.”

Finally, Claire made up her mind to handle it herself. “I took two of those other Middle Managers out to lunch,” she said. “We talked about the work my department does, and what each of them wanted from us and from our projects. I took notes – right on the paper tablecloth cover – and then I spent the weekend reviewing all 6 of our current initiatives in light of that conversation. I came up with 2 goals and 4 measures of success.”

Still, Claire’s Big Boss didn’t want to review them with her, or even give her a nod of approval. Claire went ahead and presented them to her team anyway. She told the staff about talking with the other managers, then her group discussed the goals she had created for the department.

“They revised them a little,” she said, “and turned one sort of bulky goal into two separate goal statements. But they really liked the measures. My idea was that we could measure these 3 things”:

  1. Dollars saved;
  2. Other department personnel participating in our projects; and
  3. Survey results from external users on their level of satisfaction.

“They dove right in,” she said. “They all started playing with the measures and came up with this variation:

  1. Year-end savings;
  2. External participants in our projects; and
  3. Satisfaction of our users.

“It was funny. They wanted the first letters of the 3 goals to spell something, so now they had Y-E-S. Two people volunteered to make up the scoreboard for tracking the external participants and user satisfaction measures. I guess they really were hungry to see a way to track our accomplishments and get some bragging rights.”

Work without a scoreboard is just that – work. If we want accomplishment, we need to create a game. Good work, Claire. Hats off to the staff for playing full out. And thanks much to Landmark Worldwide for teaching me the difference between just doing things vs. creating an accomplishment.

No Closure, No Accomplishment

A normally upbeat and productive guy was suddenly downcast and discouraged yesterday morning. I went in to see Chuck and talk about progress on his most important project – implementing an employee development program – and he wasn’t even interested anymore. Wow.

“This project doesn’t matter,” he said. “I thought it would make a huge difference in the whole department, and get people working together in a new way, being more productive and satisfied. Nope. Nobody cares.”

That led us into talking about who he thinks should care about this, and how he knows they don’t. That’s when I found out about the department meeting two days ago. On Monday, two bosses in the organization – both VPs – had attended the department meeting in Chuck’s area. When Chuck presented an update on his Team Building project – progress, participation, and on-time project performance – all the statistics were looking good.

“But the Veeps didn’t ask anything about it, and didn’t even seem like they thought it was a good idea,” Chuck said. “My boss didn’t speak up for it either. I’m tired of busting my butt on things that don’t make any difference.”

I’ve been a management consultant my whole career. That means as soon as I’m done talking with Chuck, I can zip over to those two VPs and have a chat about this project and the importance of speaking up for it. So I did that. I saw Chuck later that afternoon, and he’d regained some energy.

“I got a call from one of those Veeps,” he told me. “She asked how long my project had been going on, and seemed surprised it was such a new idea and was already showing good results. Then she asked me to come and talk with her team at their next meeting, because they might want to do something like that in their division.”

His energy was coming back. All it took was for him to have a sense of the value of this thing, and when nobody bothered to have even a quick Debrief-and-Thanks conversation, the air went out of his enthusiasm. Closure conversations are the most necessary conversations in any relationship – at work or at home. Acknowledge the facts – that’s the debrief part. Appreciate the people – that’s the thanks part. And it can be useful to dust out any crumbs of discontent too, by adding the other 2 pieces: apologize for anything that’s been left swept under a rug, and update any old expectations from the past so they fit well with today’s reality.

Closure conversations can restore a sense of accomplishment and resuscitate a neglected project. Sometimes a little Thank You, laced with some appreciation of the facts in the matter, makes a big difference.

A Tip for Smarter Staff Meetings

 

A manager I know came up with the best idea I ever saw for having her staff meetings be short and smart. Her name is Sharon, and she has a staff of 14 direct reports. I borrowed her idea myself when I managed a conference, and I have recommended it to every manager I ever worked with. She had some rules, of course.

Rule #1. Always have the meeting in a room with a whiteboard or a flip chart.

Rule #2. Write the group goal at the top of the whiteboard or flip chart.

Rule #3. Track the assignments for each staff person – everything they are responsible for, including projects, tasks, communications, etc. – as well as when they are due. Add any clarifying notes as needed.

Here’s what Sharon’s meeting room whiteboard looked like (shortened for sanity’s sake):

Our Goal

Customers Pleased, Employees Valued, and Bottom-line Business Growth for the Future

Staff Names

Assignment(s) – Project, Task, etc. Due Date

Notes

Aaron 1. Newsletter out
2. Staff review of customer survey report
1st week/mo.
July 8
Work with Karen
Joan 1. Billing program updates
2. Software training manuals ready
July 9
July 10
IT group
Zack 1. Budget review and approval
2. New carpet in front entry
July 10
July 3
Contractors

Sharon used this display as her meeting agenda. At the start of each meeting, the group went through the list and reviewed each person’s assignments and what they had to say about how things are going – problems, breakthroughs, calls for help. Sharon always asked them to say what’s next, or she would let them know what she saw was needed by the next meeting. Then the board would be updated for next week’s meeting.

There was one last rule that Sharon kept as a way for people to be related in a way that she called “our non-agenda life”:

Rule #4. Use either the first or the last 10-15 minutes for an update on “Human Being News”. This was the part of the meeting where a few people would speak up about something that was either good, bad, or exciting in their personal or home life. It didn’t take long, and it added a dose of humanity to the business of producing results.

Sharon’s meetings worked – everyone knew what everyone else was working on and stayed on track with the work to be done. The meetings had a good energy and value for each participant, and her department was one of the most pleasant and productive workplaces I’ve ever seen.

The Myth of Silos, Fences, and Boundaries

A great teacher once asked me to take 15 minutes and make a list of all the things I am ignoring in my life. I did it: the list included a basket of mending, a rude neighbor, and the funny noise my car made when I went over 50 mph. Then I read the list to him and he asked, “How can you say you are ignoring those things if you are able to write them on a list and tell me about them?”

Point taken: there is no such thing as “ignoring” anything because ignoring is an active task that must be maintained over time. We cannot simply use our willpower to put something out of mind.

A former client contacted me recently to say that a whole division in her company was being moved to another location. “The problem of communicating across silos,” she said, “is going to get even worse.”

I had lunch recently with someone – a smart and fast-thinking guy who does excellent work – who explained the problems he has with certain incompetent people at work. “They don’t understand management or technology,” he said, “and they slow things down. Now I just I fence them off.”

A project manager told me at a meeting he believed setting boundaries on what a project should and should not include was his most important job. “Otherwise,” he insisted, “we can’t plan for the project schedule and budget.”

My question: Why do we talk about silos, fences, and boundaries? What we are really talking about is creating effective ways to relate to others in different circumstances, isn’t it?

  • Silos are gaps we may need to bridge with agreements for how, when, and why to communicate. Even if people move to another location, we can still communicate across distances these days, right? It just takes some care and attention to design the necessary communications. That was always true, but we sometimes forget to honor our responsibility for productive communication when we get to see people at the coffee machine every day.
  • Fences are artificial constructs – there is no fence around that incompetent manager. But isn’t our “bypass” actually an agreement that we’re not going to follow protocols? The manager knows how and when to expect to hear from you, so you actually have an agreement, not a fence.
  • Boundaries also emphasize the separation rather than the connection between groups. Project scope is always defined in terms of which relationships are needed to bring in a successful end result. We know we need to build bridges of communications and agreements with some people or groups in order to reach a goal. But identifying a “boundary” around those people focuses attention on what will not get done rather than what we do intend to produce.

The stories we tell ourselves about how we are connected or disconnected to others are interesting, but not always very useful. What’s useful is to notice which connections we need, and to upgrade them for the objectives at hand. It’s also useful to notice what connections we are “stuck with”, and find a workable agreement for what, when, and why to communicate. If you feel better calling some of those agreements a silo, fence, or boundary, that’s fine.

But remember, that’s just you pretending to ignore an existing connection. Just because you’re not working to fix that funny noise in your car does not mean it isn’t there.

The Teamwork Thing

The biggest problem I’ve seen with teamwork in my years of consulting is that two conversations are missing. First, the team might have been launched with a good statement of “What we’re here for + When we want to see results + Why these results matter to us and to others”. But usually that’s said only once or twice. After that, it’s assumed people will remember, or just know the team’s purpose, goals, and objectives as well as they know their own name.

Alas, people do not remember. They just keep plugging along day-to-day, and the first – or twenty-first – big challenge, disappointment, or interruption that happens in their life suddenly collapses everything. They wake up one morning wondering, “Is there a good reason I should keep juggling all these things? Can I find a clear direction here somewhere?”

Just because those What-When-Why statements are called an “Initiative Conversation” doesn’t mean you say it only once at the beginning and then fuggedaboutit. No, ideally you’d print it on a banner and hang it on the wall where you have your weekly team meetings. Or something like that, just to keep it in front of people.

The other missing conversation is the dialogue with all team members called an “Understanding Conversation”. That’s where you discuss – and update as needed – those Initiative What-When-Why statements. And you also discuss – and update – your shared understandings about, “Who else is involved in this? Where are our resources and our customers and our partners? How should we go about accomplishing our goals?”

Discussions are tricky. You don’t just get to talk, the way you can with an Initiative Conversation. You have to listen too. That means inviting – even encouraging – team members to offer ideas for what they think might improve those founding statements on the team’s purpose and how it operates. And further, it means actually using their ideas to update the founding statements. Which then, of course, will update the way the team operates.

The “team update” Understanding Conversations don’t have to happen every week. But there’s a secret tip for how to know when they are needed. When things slow down, when deadlines are missed, when people – either on the team or outside it – complain about something more than twice… that’s when you need to sit down and review the game plan.

Teamwork doesn’t happen automatically. You have to put a little conversation into it.

New Initiative – Identify my Performance Circle

I led a program recently for project managers and saw their biggest challenge is that most people don’t see the “bigger picture” when they are at work on a project – or any work assignment, for that matter. Most of us tend to focus on what’s in front of us (the desktop, both computer and physical) along with some ideas about the future we expect from our work. But we forget to identify, right up front, all the relationships and agreements with people, groups, and organizations that we will need to achieve our objectives.

So it surprised me to realize I was falling into the same myopia myself: focusing on what I have to DO and not giving much attention to the other players critical for my success.

The project managers in my program all had at least one story about what happened when they failed to check with some of the other people necessary for the success of their project. Sad tales of the consequences of not clarifying exactly what was needed and when – or, as one woman said, “I learned the hard way that I need to establish an agreement about the deliverables that were going to be exchanged”.

Example: One PM, let’s call him Dave, had a large software project that was projected to take 8 months to complete. Dave told me, “I knew what our schedule was, and that we would have to send the whole product to the Test Lab for final system testing. So I called the Lab a month ahead and said, “We will be ready for test in mid-March, so I will send over the system materials to you on March 18th.” I was shocked when the guy laughed at me – he said the Test Center was booked 6 months in advance! I mean, we had talked and everything, but he never mentioned that we would need that much notice.”

Dave’s project missed its deadline and blew its budget projections because he hadn’t talked about the specifics: What he wanted, When he wanted it, and Why it mattered. Those basic elements are necessary for a performance conversation (a conversation that uses requests and promises to develop a performance agreement). But the same elements are also necessary for an “Initiative Conversation”: What am I intending to accomplish? When do I intend to accomplish it? Why is it important? As soon as I can say those 3 things, I will be ready to figure out who I need to talk with, and consider all the other people or groups that will be affected by my planned initiative. Where does their success touch on what I’m proposing to accomplish? Where does my success require their attention?

My initiative: I’ve been looking at creating an e-learning system to engage managers of all kinds in a conversation about where they find that “Management is Missing”, and how they resolved it. I have collected lots of these stories over the years of consulting and leading programs, and I was ready to buckle down and get to work.

Oops! If I fail to take the time to identify my “Performance Circle” – the people and groups who are my resources and my users/customers – then I will be working without a net. And for someone who is all about network management that would be a mistake. So the initiative is: What – an e-learning system for managers to talk about where “Management is Missing” and what to do about it; When – up and running in 2012; Why – to engage managers in creating a conversation for “Management is Simple”. Next task: I’m going to identify all the players necessary for a successful initiative, and start lining them up to have Understanding Conversations with me!

Missing Communication Skills Doom Projects

Why is there such a high failure rate among projects?  One reason is that there is a gap in the soft skills of project managers.  Although project managers are well trained in the technical “hard” skills of risk assessment, project planning, etc., little attention is given to interpersonal or people skills – the so called soft skills.  To correct this shortcoming, members of the Association for Project Management group on LinkedIn have proposed that project managers need strong leadership skills, to train/coach stakeholders on their roles and responsibilities, speak up openly and honestly, be assertive, have greater self-awareness, and so on.

Unfortunately, in none of the recommendations offered for improving “soft skills” is there an explanation of how project managers translate these personal capabilities and understandings into other people taking effective and appropriate action in a timely manner.  Rather, it is assumed that having these capabilities will somehow magically translate into project managers do the right thing, at the right time, in the right way.  Now that’s a big, and erroneous assumption.

Getting other people involved, engaged, and continually contributing requires communication.  But not just any communication.  I recently led a training program to a Master Black Belt group in which we explored why they were having difficulty getting projects accomplished.  Interestingly, none of them ever said anything like “I am having problems because I am ineffective in my communication with other people.”  However, by the end of the class, they began to see that one reason they were having difficulty is because they were either using the wrong type of conversation or the conversations they were using were missing important elements that reduced their effectiveness.

It would be nice if there was a direct link between personal qualities and attributes and effective communication.  However, as such books as Difficult Conversations, Crucial Conversations, and The Four Conversations point out, there is much more to effective communication than simply talking.  Until project managers realize that the results they get are a direct product of the appropriateness and completeness of their communications, communication skills will continue to be missing and projects will continue to fail.