Thursday, June 25, 2009

Social networking or stand up?

In the early days I assumed that social applications like Facebook and Twitter were all about networking because, well, that's what everyone said. But then I got confused because there didn't seem to be all that much networking going on.

For example, after first reconnecting with school friends and catching up for all of five minutes, most of my Facebook relationships involved my 'friends' letting me know what movie or flower they are at all hours of the day and night. Not that this is completely uninteresting but it feels less relationship forming than an actual conversation or shared experience.

Mind you, it's not all one-sided. If I so choose I can also publish which Spice Girl I most resemble or announce to my network that I am watching 'Pimp My Ride.' It's also a good way to stay informed of the latest Youtubes or breaking news. And Facebook makes it easy to contact someone with a quick question or update, or write on someone's wall to express sorrow that their dog died (which is way more convenient than writing a card or calling), as well as stay in touch with people I don't see very often, all of which qualifies as networking.

But primarily people seem to use Facebook to create a virtual persona that is just a little cooler, wittier, happier and more glamorous than the real person. It's not about interaction, it's about advertisement. It's less about connecting and more about being connected.

Basically, it's not about us, it's about me. That's right, me, Captain Nine Tails, superhero, at your service. No time for a real conversation but I'll occassionally poke or 'like' one of your comments to show I haven't forgotten how close we are.

And the sarcastic shall inherit the Internet.

There are no interruptions in this virtual space, no need to listen politely to what someone else is saying while secretly thinking about your next comment, just the blessed quiet of the Internet that lets you to hide behind your gorgeous profile picture in tatty old pajamas and take as much time as you need to come up with a witty or jealousy invoking status.

Of course, with companies increasingly jumping onto the social networking bandwagon, the trick is to come up with comments that will make your friends laugh without alienating the colleagues and business associates that are also connected to you.

It's a fine line.

It's the best of both worlds. We never have to be alone again but we also don't have to deal with actual people.

So, it's clear why Facebook holds a certain appeal.

Twitter allows us to take our self-absorption a step further with real time updates of every thought that enters our heads, every cool thing we read and every fro yo stand we visit. Of course, we don't call it self-absorbtion, we call it 'personal branding.'

We count our followers the way 2nd graders count their Valentine's Day Cards.

Admit it.

It's brilliant really, scratching an itch most of us didn't even know we had. I mean, who could have guessed that each of us a deep, irresitable need to tell people that a carrot in our garden looks just like Einstein?

Well, OK, if you put it that way it's obvious.

Gone are the days when you would think of a great one-liner in the shower and not have anyone to say it to. . . (I see a huge market for shower Twitter, by the way, waterproof units installed right into the tile in case you have a thought worth sharing while shaving your legs, so you can 'shweep' to your 'tweeps'.)

Back then you'd have to remember your dazzling comment for days, maybe weeks, until you could finally contrive a situation to use it and try to make it sound spontaneous. And sometimes you forgot it altogether and the world lost a brilliant commentary gem.

It was like living in the dark ages.

But that's only half the story, and not the most interesting half. Twitter is also emerging as an informational platform for a worldwide collective intelligence, where the latest trends and ideas can be posted to a group of interested parties. It is a viable platform for applying political and social pressure. Opinions are shared and formed. Tipping points are reached. Communication is exponentially faster and necessarily more shallow.

The collective plugs in, absorbs data and subtly changes its nature.

I sometimes wonder where this sound byte-oriented, realtime communication will take us as a society. I wonder if when my children grow up they will be capable of having a face-to-face conversation with actual eye contact or if that will already be an outmoded concept. Perhaps it will cease to matter who people are as long as they have a cool avatar. Maybe over time people will cease to live in the real world altogether, preferring a cerebral existence that makes no ethical demands.

Then again, it could also be that the vast growing social network will become an important tool of human evolution, making us wiser, more tolerant, more informed, more connected to one another.

What do you think?

Monday, June 22, 2009

A Few Good Managers

A friend of mine who is looking for a new manager at her company recently asked me for advice on finding a good one. Although the importance of good management is a recurring theme on this blog, it's not an easy question to answer.

First of all, what is a good manager? It's fairly subjective but I think most of us can agree that we'd rather work for someone who is honest, competent and mentoring than someone who is a self-serving suck up who spends all their time angling for the next promotion.

Unfortunately, it's difficult to tell in an interview whether someone is in it strictly for themselves or also has some genuine interest in the individuals they are to manage. But difficult or not, it's pretty important because you're hiring this person to lead a team of people who do paid work for your company and you'll get a better pay-to-work ratio from satisfied, well-managed employees than bitter, frustrated employees who sneak off to Starbucks to complain about their manager.

Here are several questions that can help identify whether candidates have their heart in the right place when it comes to managing people:

1. What do you think the primary job of a manger is? This question will help you get a sense for what the candiate is all about. Of course, no one will be totally honest and respond with, 'I think a manager's primary job is to pontificate at meetings, overengineer simple processes and pretend they understand what their team is working on so they can take credit for it,' but it's a start.

2. Describe projects you have worked on as a team lead and how you supported your team. This question helps uncover specific examples of how the candidate worked with people in a team lead capacity. Does the candidate focus primarily on how masterfully he presented to the project sponsors on a daily basis? Or is anything forthcoming about how she helped people meet their deadlines and/or personal objectives? This is where you may get a more honest answer to question #1 through specific examples and can start to form a picture of this person in action.

3. How do you think your colleagues and direct reports would describe you? This question forces the candidate to see him- or herself through other people's eyes. A more commonly asked question is, 'Describe your weaknesses,' which everyone is prepared for with some answer like, 'I'm just too dedicated and hard-working [heavy sigh].' I used this one myself with great success before it got published in the Dummies Guide to Job Interviews and everyone started using it. The point here is that because the stock answer won't work for this question you may be rewarded with a candid answer.

One other question worth asking if the candidate comes from a company that just went out of business. (Side note: It always amazes me how eager companies are to snap up the management teams of failed companies. I mean, think about it.)

4. Why do you think your former company was not successful? This question also forces the candidate to be introspective and again, surprise may elicit an honest response. There are limits to how much candor you can expect, of course, but this question will give you some insight into the candidate's problem analysis skills.

Important note: The interview is just one tool for vetting candidates, and not necessarily the best one since even serial killers have been known to make a great first impression. Be sure to ask the candidate to include at least one direct report on the list of references and also use your own social network. Ask colleagues if they have any contacts that have worked with the candidate. At one company I worked with we asked employees to check their LinkedIn connections on a candidate with a glowing CV and the prompt, consistent feedback was, 'Bit of a waffler, really.' We passed.

And finally, let the team members with a stake in the decision interview the candidate and have a say in the hiring decision. It's only fair, not to mention respectful.

Having said all this, the bottom line is that if you care about good management, hiring a good manager is only the opening move and won't get you very far unless you have a corporate culture that is conducive to good management. In other words, you also have to make sure you're getting good management from your managers after they are hired. This means defining what good management means to your company, monitoring that it is occuring and rewarding it where you find it.

This could be a topic for my next post so stay tuned. . .

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

The best review I ever had

I've written several posts about how a good manager puts the 'manage' into performance management. I think we can all agree that the manager plays an important role but what does that actually mean when push comes to shove?

If there were a cut and dried formula for good management someone would bottle and sell it. There isn't. While there are definitely some wise guiding princples, different styles and techniques work best for different people.

Here are two examples of management techniques that worked well for me.

Technique 1: Constructive Feedback

When I first entered the workforce I was a process consultant with the company formerly known as Andersen Consulting (Accenture). Andersen did a lot of things right on the Human Capital Management front, from recruiting people who would be successful at Andersen to mentoring and training these people to letting them go graciously when the time came.

Because most of the work at a large consulting firm is project based, staff Androids like me would switch managers with each project. One of my first project managers was Joan and she gave me the best employee review I've ever had. This doesn't mean I got a stellar rating and huge raise, alas, it means her input was so constructive and honest that I keep it mind to this day.

I don't remember the specifics of the review. I received an adequate rating accompanied by some positive feedback about my hard work, discipline and quality output, yada, yada, yada. Then came the useful part that stuck with me.

'I've gotten some feedback about you that concerns me a little,' she said, after all the nice bits. She was quick to reassure me that it was nothing serious or career damaging, just something I might want to keep an eye on.

Apparently I had a habit of asking the same question over and over again in different ways until I got the answer I liked. Several people had noticed this and mentioned it to Joan.

'This isn't all bad,' said Joan. 'A good consultant and project manager needs to be tenacious. But you might want to tone it down a little.'

I leapt valiantly to my own defense: I was just seeking clarification. I was just trying to save everyone from making huge costly mistakes. I was just this and I was just that. Plus, whoever said that was clearly biased.

Joan stopped my outburst with an upheld hand and a suspiciously twitching mouth.

'Stop,' she said mildly. 'I know you have your reasons and I'm sure they are good ones. But here's the takeaway, Grasshopper (she didn't really say, 'Grasshopper'): If one person says something about you they may be biased and you may be able to shrug it off. If you get the same feedback from several people, however, take a mental note and watch yourself in action.'

This excellent advice has served me well over the years in team lead, project management and individual contributer roles. I feel fortunate that I ran into Joan and her constructive, personalized feedback early on in my career because subsequent performance reviews tended to be written by me. And I could never have given myself such great feedback.

Technique #2: Trust

It was a big week in the Munich office. Tom, the VP of Application Development was coming to town. There was a line up of people who wanted to meet with him, to apprise him of urgent situations as well as garner support for pet projects. I somehow scored a morning slot, and not right before lunch, either, so I was feeling pretty good.

Tom's claim to fame did not lie in his organizational genius, fiery temper, decisive decision making or skills on the golf course. He didn't even check his email on his Blackberry during our meeting, which was a bit disconcerting at first. He was soft spoken, polite and an excellent listener. He asked intelligent questions about my presentation and listened carefully to the answers.

At the end of our meeting, when a decision had to be made between A and B, he looked at me and said, 'I trust you. You make the call. It's OK if you make the wrong call, just make sure you have a good reason for making it.'

Then he shook my hand and thanked me for my preparation.

Incidentally, I made the right call.

Tom never came back to Munich so that was our first and last meeting. And yet, ten years later he stands out in my mind as one of the best managers I ever had.

Thursday, June 4, 2009

Back to the Basics

I work in Munich. Not surprisingly, my colleagues are German. We're a small group so we often have lunch together in our favorite local restaurant, which happens to be Italian. Every month or so they publish a new menu and we dutifully select one of the specials, eat it, have an espresso, pay and walk back to work.

Today we had an Italian guest, a global IT consultant that came to discuss global payroll strategy. He used to manage IT for the United Nations and has a steady supply of stories and business insights. We took him to our Italian restaurant.

Without glancing at the menu he engaged with the waiter in Italian, asking him what he recommended. After several moments of consultation it was decided that lightly grilled fish with a side order of steamed vegetables would be the best choice.

I've spent time in Italy and know enough to follow Italian recommendations on food so I promptly ordered the same, even though I didn't understand much besides, 'fish.' Wine was also procured.

Naturally, it was delicious. 'Was that even on the menu?' I asked.

He smiled. 'I have no idea.' An expressive shrug to show that it was of no importance.

Waving his fork, he continued. 'It's all about people. You have to engage with people to get the best results. You have to talk to them.'

Yes, I thought. You have to engage with people if you want them to do their best for you. If you give people a form to fill out they will fill out the form, with varying degrees of enthusiasm or boredom. Nine times out of ten they will not bother to do more than fill out the form because that's what you asked them to do. If you want them to do more you have to ask them to do that, too, and pretty soon you have to tell people to dot every i and cross every t.

Sometimes the menu is just in the way.

Recently the
Compensation Cafe blogged about how processes can get in the way of people doing a good job. The actual credit goes to Steve Roesler at his All Things Workplace blog. The main idea is that most people want to do a good job but in too many cases it's the organization and processes that try to force them to work in a particular way that discourage engagement and prevent them from meeting their full potential.

I would say it like this: The best organizations let people play to their strengths.

My lunch companion also shared with me three rules for effective management, none of which had anything to do with organization or process:

'I tell my employees three things.

One: Be curious. If you aren't curious you will never stretch your potential.

Two: Don't be afraid to make mistakes.

Three: Don't work alone. Even if you do your best thinking on your own, come up for air and communicate. Share. Connect.'

Well. That beats filling out forms any day.

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