Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Managers: Time to Talk Turkey

As we go into the holiday season, consider talking turkey with your employees.

If you're a typical manager I'm guessing you don't do this too much. Other stuff gets in the way. You have your agenda and work schedule and meetings. Your employees seem reasonably happy and productive. You probably assume things are fine.

And maybe they are. But extrapolating from recent studies about employee engagement, they probably aren't. Very likely, there's an undercurrent of resentment from employees who feel undervalued, primarily by you.

No, I'm not psychic. But I do know people and organizations. When managers assign work without talking to people first - or fail to publicly recognize work - or talk more than they listen - people feel unappreciated.

And most managers do exactly that. So, I'm guessing you do that, too.

Don't get me wrong: you do a lot of things right. You're a nice person. You share information. You try to look out for your team and share the workload fairly.

But at some point, if it's all about the work and never about the person, people start feeling resentful.

So let me tell you about the best manager I ever had, who ended up leaving corporate life to have a third child and start her own business.

Some of you may know who I'm talking about...

First of all, she made time to sit down with everyone on her team and discuss their interests and career goals. This conversation included honest brainstorming about how she could - and couldn't - help them.

It's important to note here that this wasn't a one-time conversation. Circumstances change. People change. She didn't assume she knew everything about a person's aspirations from talking to them once. Helping people clarify and realize their goals is an iterative process.

You're busy, I get that, but this is your most important job as a manager. If your other work is more important or interesting you should be an individual contributor.

After the initial conversation it was less straightforward, which is probably why most managers never get around to it or only do it once. Obviously you can't hand your employees everything they want on a golden platter just because they want it. They get that, too.

What you can do is assign work to them that starts them in the right direction. You can mentor and sponsor them. You can bring their achievements in those areas that bring them closer to their goals to the attention of upper management.

She did all this and one other thing that really made her stand out in my memory: When she assigned work she positioned it in terms of MY goals.

She was amazing at this. She could send me to make copies and make it sound like I was really moving up in the world.

She didn't give me what I wanted all the time. In fact, looking back I think she gave me the work she would have given me anyway but she framed the request in the context of my own goals.

I don't know you or your situation. You may be a fantastic manager with an egaged team. I hope so.

But even if that's true, making time to talk to people about them and framing work requests in terms of their goals can't hurt.

Someone might even blog about you some day. In a good way.

Happy Thanksgiving!

Monday, November 22, 2010

Hard to Imagine Talent

My youngest daughter had her fifth birthday a couple of weeks ago. We celebrated at the local pony club, where she and several friends from Kindergarten rode miniature ponies around in a circle for about an hour, followed by pizza and cake.

A former equestrian myself, I was proud to note my older daughter’s straight back and general competence on a horse. Later that night I remarked to my husband that we should enroll her in a riding class.

His response: ‘No way. What a completely useless skill!’

I bristled a bit at this. I rode horses competitively for seven years growing up, two of them on the school rodeo team, and while I don’t exactly use those skills today they are part of who I am.

‘Oh, yeah?’ I retorted. ‘If I’d married a Texan rancher instead of you I bet he wouldn’t say that to me!’

My husband stared at me blankly. ‘What are you talking about?’

‘You know I used to ride on a rodeo team in school,’ I responded icily.

I knew he knew because he’d laughed heartily at my tales of lining up to tie the understandably depressed school goat. I can still hear its plaintive ‘baaaaah’ each time it got flipped to the ground.

‘Oh, right.’ He still looked confused.

I sighed. This is the man who didn’t realize I could swim until we’d been married for about six years because he thinks an icy cold lake is perfect for a ‘refreshing dip.’

‘Rodeo’s no cake walk, you know,’ I said sternly. ‘You have to keep your seat, pay attention to your posture, keep your ride in check, and often as not you have to rope a running cow or something from the back of a galloping horse. It’s a real skill.’

He stared at me thoughtfully, presumably trying to picture the woman he married on the back of a racing horse whirling a lasso in the air and yelling, ‘Haaaaw!’

He seemed to be looking for the right words. Finally he settled on, ‘I find that hard to imagine.’

By now you're probably wondering what my point is, beyond letting the world know I know more about cows and horses than one might assume meeting me for the first time.

My point is that people have histories, skills and experience beyond what you hired them to do. Many of these skills may be completely useless but others could be exactly what you need for a particular project or job.

For example, if you're looking for a project manager you might try asking if anyone on your team knows how to herd cows. Trust me, it's a transferrable skill.

One of the best ways to motivate people is to look beyond the tasks they perform for you today and consider how they can develop and integrate other skills going forward. Everybody wins.

All you need is a way for people to track their skills, experience and interests and the ability to search against this information when trying to fill a new job or staff a project.

It's just basic talent profiling.

Are you mining the ‘hard to imagine’ talent in your organization?

Saturday, November 20, 2010

Project Social: Seeing Green

Although briefly distracted by the news that Google employees will be getting a 10% increase and servants to run errands and assemble their IKEA furniture for them – have you ever tried to assemble IKEA furniture?? - I've managed to shrug it off and focus on what really matters:


I was recently asked to write a Corporate Sustainability Report (CSR) for my company, so I've been busy researching Global Reporting Initiative (GRI) standards and existing sustainability reports.

Just to be clear, I will not be getting any servants for doing this but my passion for corporate sustainability is reward enough. I'm proud to work for a company that takes this topic seriously.

I beleive sustainable business practices are key to long-term economic viability and human well-being. Growing up in Los Angeles you learn to turn off lights (black outs) and not waste water (droughts) but my big picture view didn’t come until my first child was born.

Suddenly, guardian of this precious and trusting new life, I started noticing waste everywhere:
  • products designed to break or go out of style in a few years or even months;
  • cars that offer about the same mileage they had back in the 50s;
  • plastic bags, utensils, bottles, packaging and where it all goes.

I could see how wasteful production processes create economic activity but no real value or quality. And I started wondering how much longer 9 billion people can peacefully share a limited earth with such wasteful habits.

Of course, as a working mom I’m a big fan of comfort and convenience. I try to do my part with good habits and informed purchasing but we won’t save the world by turning off lights, boycotting bottled water and buying cloth shopping bags.

We should still do these things but it's not enough.

What needs to change is how companies design, manufacture and package their products and services. This includes everything from how energy is produced to the recycling and re-use of components to create new products.

My Project Social partner Dave Ryan feels the same way (he'll be posting on a similar topic over at HR Official - his post here) and we want to do our part to encourage the growing movement toward corporate social responsibility.

That’s why we decided to put a stake in the ground around green HR and sustainable business practices and start gathering case studies, metrics and other sources of good information to share with you.

Here are a few resources to get the ball rolling…

Companies That Walk the Walk:

Other Resources:

Whether you are a parent, a professional or a citizen of the world, we invite you to weigh in on this topic, share information and toot your own company’s horn if applicable. Let's get those success stories out there!

Or think about how we can create more...

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Project Social - The Role of HR During Good and Bad Times

My Project Social partner Dave Ryan and I were talking about what topic we wanted to tackle next and decided on the role of HR during good and bad times - Dave's post can be found here over at HR Official.

An old friend of mine came over for coffee on Sunday. She currently works as a recruiter but worked for years in HR at both big and small companies.

She talked about an unpleasant experience she had working as the sole HR person for a consulting start up. At first everything was great: the two founders (a couple of techies-turned-consultant-entrepreneur) loved her ideas about talent management and encouraged her to introduce best practices. People were to be recognized as the drivers of value, treated with respect, supported in their personal career goals, etc.

My friend recruited and on-boarded a qualified group of technical consultants and there was a real family feeling for the first several years. Then a series of poor business decisions – such as not hiring a qualified sales person as the business expanded - led to a cash crunch. Suddenly the tone changed. Salaries were reduced, although not at the C-level. Several projects were severely undermanned but hiring was frozen. Paychecks were late, causing extreme hardship for several employees.

Finally, employees were let go without any notice or severance – it was my friend’s bitter task to communicate this to people she had hired and worked beside for several years without inconvenient legal problems. Not surprisingly best people - the ones most critical to current projects - began jumping ship as well as the company began its final collapse.

And the co-CEOs? Apparently they sat in their office playing World of Warcraft while all this was going on.

I guess this is a good lesson for would-be talent managers: With the best talent management practices in the world you still have to run your business intelligently.

‘I wanted to make a difference,’ my friend remarked sadly. ‘I thought I could effect change from below but you can’t without support from above.’

‘That sucks!’ I commiserated. ‘So that’s why you quit and now you do recruiting. Uh... how do you like it?’

She shrugged indifferently. ‘It’s OK.’

‘But you can really make a difference as a recruiter!’ I protested. ‘You can help good people find new jobs after their lame CEOs destroy their company.’

She laughed but shook her head and explained, ‘I have limited influenced over who gets hired. In my experience it’s rarely the most qualified person and usually the person the hiring manager ‘clicks’ with.’

Just to be devil’s advocate I asked, ‘But isn’t it more important to hire someone who gets along with the team and can also do the job than someone with the top qualifications?’

She allowed that it is but added that too much value is placed on impressions rather than substance, which impacts overall performance.

‘Maybe you can help the best candidates by coaching them on what the hiring manager’s looking for,’ I suggested.

‘The only thing we're measured on is time to fill,’ she informed me. ‘I’m not paid to find the best candidate or help people - I’m paid to fill positions as quickly as they open. And they’ll replace me in a heartbeat if I perform slower than my colleagues.’

‘Oh,’ I said. What could I say?

What would you say?

Friday, November 5, 2010

More On Leadership and Stinky Fish

A great post over at Fistful of Talent about the overconfidence of new managers lured me in by mentioning stinky fish in the title. I mean, who doesn't enjoy stinky fish analogies about leadership?

The author Suzanne Rumsey briefly describes her own first management experience and admits she wasn't 'all that.' Which made me think of my own first management experience...

Overconfidence? Guilty as charged. I jumped at an early chance to manage a global team. I had a graduate degree in international business. I had almost a year and a half of professional experience. I had worked abroad. I was totally ready to lead.

Looking back I don't think I was such a terrible first time manager. It wasn't an easy gig: I had to produce a Japanese HR product with no knowledge of Japanese HR practices. There was no team so I had to build one, which at the time meant training non-technical people who had the functional skills I needed to develop software. Japanese employees also respond to a different leadership style than American employees, which I had to adapt to. I did my best, I cared about my team and we got the job done.

But my leadership style was pretty rough, especially vis-a-vis other more senior team leads who created work for my team. In other words, I managed down OK, I managed up sort of OK, but my lateral management left much to be desired.

Fast forward a few years to my first global project management job as an implementation consultant. I'd cut my teeth at a big German transportation company and was stepping up to a functional lead role for a huge global implementation at a high end global car manufacturer. Again, I was a bit junior for the role but completely confident in my ability to get the job done... if everyone would just do as I said.

(Does anyone else hear laughing?)

I soon discovered that project management is much harder than management. When you manage people, if you have half a brain, a dollop of self-awareness and decent people skills you can get people pointed in more or less the right direction. They report to you, after all, so you have a whole bag of tricks to incent them.

Whereas project management is like herding cats. No one reports to you so technically, no one has to do what you say. Your influence is indirect, i.e., you might be asked to provide input on someone's annual review or you can recommend that a problem consultant be removed from the project. But that's about it.

So all of a sudden you're in the realm of persuassion and consensus building rather than coersion. You have to figure out what people want and help them get it so they'll do what you want. More importantly, you have to keep the trade off of favors balanced with the end goal in mind so that the project keeps moving forward.

And if you're paying attention, here's what you learn: Direct managers must also lead with persuassion and consensus building rather than coersion, at least if they want to be effective.

Unfortunately, not all managers learn this lesson. How can they, with so many props at their disposal? To a large extent, managers control upward communication, work assignment, compensation and perqs. Who needs leadership skills?

The 'smart' ones focus on building relationships to their own colleagues and management team, too often at the expense of the people reporting to them. We can't even blame them for this because in most companies managers are by and large dependent on the good will of other managers rather than their own teams.

But I don't want to get all systemic here. My point is simply that putting a manger in a project manager position forces them to learn some new skills that will stand them in good stead as a manager.

So here's an idea: Before you give someone more power than they are ready to wield, why not give them a chance to show what they can do without it?

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