Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Managing Up: Start with Your Boss

We all have bosses. Ok, there's some teeny percentage of you who are your own boss, and this does not apply to you unless you have some multiple personality thing you need to work on. That said, almost every one has a boss, and every one should realize that they have the ability to manage their boss the in the same way they have methods to manage other things in their lives.

You manage a bank account. If you're reading this, you manage people or you are a project manager and still, well, manage people (but without all the fun authority). You may be a person who wants to manage projects or people. You probably all have bosses.

In order to get to be a good manager in the workplace, you need to manage people above you, starting with your boss.

I have a an entry on Assumptions. A common assumption is about the nature of the manager/employee relationship. Unless this assumption is re-examined regularly and the type of relationship you both want is enforced, the manager/employee relationship doesn't get managed by YOU. It gets managed by Fate. Your boss might put the effort/energy into it to manage it (and good bosses, do), but you can't assume they will and you can't assume that if they do they have your best interests (career goals, needs, values) at heart if they do.

The basic assumption of the employee/manager relationship is that the manager will indicate work for the employee and the employee will do that work. Last week's post--about the four boxes--can kind of make you start to think about how this concept of communicating work and work being done could get complicated; not only does the maturity level of the employee factor in, but also the complexity of the work, the experience of the manager and the employee, and a ton of other variables that are independent in any situation.

If you've had your boss for ages and think you know how it works, or if you've just got this new boss, take some time and go over these expectations.

Easy to say, right? How do you ask what your boss expects of you when you worry that if you do that, he/she will think you ought to just know and get (at the very least) annoyed with you?

Well, that is pretty much lesson one in managing up: start with your boss.

0. Have an establishing meeting with your boss. Tell him/her that you are confirming your priorities and their expectations. Then go over what you're working on and what they expect from those deliverables; ie: what does a demo mean to them, so you aren't just relying on what a demo means to you.

1. If you don't have a regular weekly meeting (or every two week meeting) with your boss, ask for one, just to "check in." Most bosses will establish a weekly 1:1 exactly for this purpose, but some bosses don't. Do item 0 each time you meet.

2. Come to the meeting prepared. A lot of folks just show up to meet with their boss and sit their and let their boss direct the conversation. This is not a good idea. If your boss really only sees you once a week (other than in passing) and the only time he/she sees you he/she is directing the entire show...well, it looks like you're not as effective an employee. So come with questions you have saved up, a list of todo items in the order you think they ought to be prioritized, and a list of what you've done since the last time you two met.

3. If the boss has an agenda for the meeting, stick with it, but be sure to be prepared for the items on the agenda. My boss at my consulting firm likes to talk about my direct reports, any blocking issues, and the general work situation. So that's what I prep for.

4. If the boss doesn't have an agenda for the meeting, set one yourself, informally. When you come in, tell your boss you want to cover a, b and c, and then anything your boss wants to cover. This works especially well if you're worried your boss is annoyed with you/upset about a performance issue, as you get an opportunity to show how good you've been at a, b and c before they get a chance to talk to you about "that thing." Typically, it doesn't blunt the entire force of a previous screw up, but it certainly makes the whole thing a lot less awkward. Unless, of course, the boss REALLY wants to discuss that first; in which case talking from notes about a, b and c shows contrition and professionalism already starting to happen after your talk. I have also found that many of my bosses think of things as the meeting goes on, and they can make their own list to discuss after I'm done with my items.

5. Keep your performance review/bonuses/promotions/etc in mind. Lots of places have set goals on which you have to deliver in order to get a good performance review or a raise, or a bonus, or whatever. Often people go over these twice a year: when they're first established and when you're going over them for the performance review/bonus/etc. This is not terribly helpful if you want to do WELL on those goals. Talk to your boss about concrete tasks to complete to meet those goals, and then measure your performance against those tasks about once a month in a meeting with your boss--verify you are where you think you are on those goals. Next, after that meeting WRITE UP what you both just discussed and send it to your boss to verify/confirm and correct. Keep a copy of these write ups and any replies from your boss in a file and bring them out at performance/bonus/etc. time.

6. Get to know your boss. Yeah, you have 1:1's, but chit chat. Pay attention when he/she is making decisions in meetings. Try to learn the way your boss thinks so that, if you are the only one in a room able to represent him/her and your team, you can speak up for him/her (as appropriate).

A hypothetical example: as a project manager you may get invited to a lot of tech support meetings related to one of your projects; tech support may own the software, but your group uses it, too. Tech support proposes a change to the way the software works; you're in the meeting and your boss is not. What do you do? You speak up for your boss and your team according to what you think your boss would like. The only way to do that is invest in finding out what your boss likes.

In the same hypothetical example, after the meeting, rush to your boss or write him/her an email of what happened. If you're REALLY not sure how your boss will react, delay the decision or let them know that they will need to run it past your boss. If they opt not to do so, you can include that in your email to your boss and you've done your duty for your team.

This item, 6, is also about knowing how your boss will react if you end up reacting for your boss. I, for example, am a control freak; if someone acts the way I'd want to act, I'm happy, but if they don't, my control freakiness comes down like a dark cloud and rains all over everything. You don't want a dark cloud raining on you from your boss. So talk to your boss: let them know under what circumstances you might need to think about what they think about and react accordingly, and their preferred method of your handling things; if they want you to wait and check every decision by them, do it. If they want you to handle it, do it. But make sure your boss is on board and that, whenever it happens, you immediately inform them.

7) Admit when you screw up, then don't screw up like that again. Your boss needs to trust you and depend on you, so when you make recommendations to him or her, you will be listened to as the expert you are. You will make mistakes. Don't hide them. They never stay hidden, and if they come to your boss from anyone other than you, they sound SO MUCH WORSE than if you told your boss yourself. Then do your damndest to not make that same mistake twice. You need to show you are a learning human being and you can be trusted, and you know, you're boss will trust you.

Once you've started these steps, and know what the boss expects of you (both when he/she is around and not), your boss will also know that you know; which means it easier to take your advice. It's easier to understand your point of view. It's easier to break the isolation of the "do it because you're the employee" and make it more "let me know what you think because you're the one who does the work." Feel free to offer suggestions--not all the time, not annoyingly, and not about things you aren't 80% or more sure on.

Controlling communication with your boss, what to expect in the relationship and having a free hand to offer suggestions and advice is the groundwork for managing your boss. You get the other benefits of this process of a) knowing what is expected of you and b) enjoying your time (or at least not dreading it) with your boss.

Once you've got a handle on managing your boss, managing peers and further up the food chain goes a lot easier. But that's a topic for another day.

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Four Boxes

My recent post, The Value of Letting People Do What They're Good At, touches on the concept that you might not always have exactly the people you want at exactly the time that you want them, but that there are almost always things that people are good at that can make them valuable to the team.

I talked heavily about skills--or lack of them--in that post. This post is about the maturity level of a worker, and where you'd like that maturity level to be for your team and for that person's advancement.

To explain what the heck I mean, I'll be calling back to an old manager of my own, Adam. Adam drew four boxes on a white board for me and labeled them. What you see below is my own awesome high tech reproduction of his line drawings (phear my l33t paintshop skillz):

In my boss's MBA class, they had done this same diagram and labeled the boxes as different responsibility/maturity levels of a worker. Note, he didn't have labels other than A-D, I'm sort of putting my own in to make this a little easier to understand without standing in front of a guy who does a good bit of communication with his hands:

A = The Boot Camp Soldier. This is the type of employee that needs constant supervision and direction. Like a Boot Camp Soldier, they are told when to get up, when to eat, when to brush their teeth, how to brush their teeth, etc.

B = The Task Completer. This is the type of employee that doesn't need the level of supervision of level A; they are told the task to be done, rough requirements for its completion, and are checked in on periodically. Otherwise, they are left to their own devices to complete the task, and typically they do on time and as expected. These tasks can last a few days up to a week.

C = The Project Completer. This is the type of employee that doesn't need the level of supervision of level B; they are given a project, requirements for the specific project, and a deadline. They are expected to ask you if they need additional items. A project can last several weeks. They check in with you, occasionally. Then they deliver the project on time.

D = Another you. This is the type of employee that doesn't really need supervision. You give them an idea, who to talk to for requirements, and leave them alone for a month or two. They check in with you regularly, give status reports, and come in on budget and on time.

The sweet spot for most teams is if all the employees are in boxed B and C. Employees too much in box A are a natural drain on your resources--you're having to tell them how and when to do everything, or someone else on the team has to do so.

Employees too much in box D are going to get a little chafed and frustrated because the team already has a leader in place. Even if they like you, have gained that level of maturity working for you, and are the best right hand you've ever had, they will eventually get frustrated at not leading their own team. When someone is in box D, you keep them there for a while to make sure they know the ropes of running their own team, and then, like someone you love, you let them go; if it all works out, you've created a strong ally at your level or just below it. If you keep them and use them because they're good, and don't look to their career and happiness, you may create your own destruction as they wonder if the only way they can excel is if you are gone.

Employees straight out of other career paths or straight from school are frequently in the "A" block. While they learn the ropes, Boot Camp behavior is probably not a bad plan; however, as they understand them, give them more to think about and make decisions upon. If they hesitate, be supportive. If they continue hesitate, you might not want to keep them. A should naturally lead to B with your support and help in trusting their instincts, rewarding their successes and forgiving their mistakes. Teach them to mitigate the damage they cause, to admit when they are wrong and take credit when they do right, and they will move to B rapidly.

Most employees are typically at the state of "B." Either they've never been asked to do more, never understood that more was an available option, or they've become set in their ways, most employees can do a given task or set of tasks that they were hired for without tons of supervision. You did hire them for that specific talent.

Despite the complacency that "B" can provide--its warm and comfortable and familiar--you do want to encourage employees into C. You aren't always going to be there to help them with critical decisions, and you don't want to make yourself a choke point. People in the "B" box have some critical thinking skills, and its up to you to develop and encourage them. They will make decisions you wouldn't make. But pick what you care about; its often more important they feel empowered to make a decision and the project moves forward than it is that they make exactly the decision you would make. They should understand how to mitigate mistakes made by themselves at this point, but you want to help them understand how to think like a team, so they can mitigate mistakes made by any team member, or throw in and help any team member not make a mistake. Moving people from the B to the C box is a matter of moving from individual contributor thinking to team thinking; C is the first step of leadership, and while they may not want to become leaders (some people don't), they need to know what's involved so they can know a good leader from a bad one and plan accordingly.

C is probably the best box for your team members to be in; you want them always growing and always learning. You don't want your well oiled machine to break off and fly to higher heights (which either sounds like my metaphor exploded or got mixed, but go with me here), but it won't remain a well oiled if there isn't the promise of growing and getting better. Growing in maturity as an employee at this point can and will lead to higher salaries and more responsibilities and basically getting to do the stuff those employees find more fun. Employees in the C box are those that are highly sought after; people who think of the team as a whole and work for the benefit of all are very hard to find.

For the C box there are two potential options. Option 1: Stay in the C box. If you talk to them and find out that leadership is not the path they choose, you need to keep them learning and growing, keep giving them opportunities to informally lead, and basically, let them enjoy the fact that they are self directing and getting stuff done. You'll enjoy it, too, and they won't get bored.

Option 2: start working with the folks in the C box to get them into the D box. This may mean if you are a manager that they become a lead (sort of a sub-manager position) for your team, and take on whole projects that take months and lots of cross-team work to complete. Make these projects learning experiences so they can work better in your realm; take their counsel under advisement (even if you don't always follow it). When they're ready and you can do it, help them find their own team, their own project, their own way. You can still help them--a mentor is often a mentor far longer than two people work together--but they can pursue management and leadership. Some people see this as "training the competition," but I see it as training people to do things the way you like them done; makes it easier to get what you want in a meeting of the minds of your peers or the folks just below you. And heck, if someone competes and wins; someone who trusts you and values your judgment is now in a position of importance above you. It's basically a win-win.

So there you have it. Assess the maturity level of your employees, and then, while doing all your other amazing tasks, help them grow to the level where they will be successful and happy. Your team will benefit from it--so you will immediately benefit from it--and they will, too, by bringing benefits far into the future.

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Monkeys, cute girls tossing basketballs, and the workplace

Well, I think they're cute. Your mileage may vary.

The theory behind The Monkey Business Illusion is that concentration on a specific set of tasks can often make us blind to tasks right in front of us.

This video explains this extremely well with the example they provide.

Now I'll give you a real world, business example from my own checkered past.

I was working for a game company in Washington state. We were making a forum/collaboration/blogging site for them. We had our eye on the prize: a demo for upper level executives by a specific date with specific features. That was basically the girls in white passing the ball to and from each other, despite the distraction of the girls in black doing the same, if you're comparing us to the video.

We also knew there was going to be a gorilla in the mix (as opposed to in the mist, which I could not pass up, I'm sorry). We had to have a demo of the software to the tech support department before the executives. We knew the gorilla was going to be there, and we figured we could manage it by using similar procedures to managing our current "white team ball in motion" strategy, and just, you know, keeping an eye out for the gorilla.

Which is probably why we missed an important piece of the puzzle: the effect the gorilla would have on our game in progress. In the video, which I've watched three times now, I never see the black player leave the game. Even though I know the curtain changes color, I still have trouble telling when it does (and after a few days I'd forgotten entirely and was wowed all over again). This is because I was watching the team in white pass the ball and the only thing I was looking for unusual was a gorilla.

In my real life business example, however, a player fell out of play (so to speak) and that changed the curtain colors for the executive preview. See, tech support doesn't look at a demo the way that executives do. They're pokey--for values of poking at things, rather than being slow. Tech support people are never slow. They should pokey--any poking they miss they'll have to deal with in terms of placating angry customers on the phone.

The gorilla came in and we saw it and we were happy; they saw the demo and played with it and only had one complaint...the ability to use improper words on the site had not yet been implemented. They learned this from entering every swear word they could think of into the demo space. You know, the demo space the executives used that afternoon. Notice the change of the curtain color? I didn't.

Our rep with the company we were working for was caught having to explain why "Mother F****ing Mother F**er" and other more elaborate and unpleasant posts were all over the demo site. I can only imagine him tap dancing there in front of them, explaining the filter would be done soon so this would never happen again. What I do know I saw was the thin smile on his somewhat red face when we talked about it; fortunately, he has an AWESOME sense of humor (and I'm not just saying that because he could be reading this) and we eventually burst into giggles. He had saved the day with the executive demo--we counted the correct number of passes, to extend the Monkey Business metaphor, but wow did we miss a few other things.

The moral of story is that there are always more parts in motion than you realize. Sometimes people outside of the equation will affect it, and sometimes you'll miss the monkey all on your own--after all, half the people who watch the video above for the first time miss the gorilla entirely.

This is why as a manager, good planning, good habits, and good people can help prevent you dropping the ball (or being mauled by a gorilla, or, you know, fired by executives offended by swear words).

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Applying For Jobs, Part 2 in a Multiple Part Series I appear to have gotten around to: Effective Networking

Most major job sites say that you must network to get a good job, and then offer to do the networking for you. They're right in that networking is one of the best ways to get a job that fits you well and meets your needs, but they're wrong in saying that technology is the way you have to do it.

It's a mix, really. The days of shaking someone's hand in a bank, getting a card, and starting work on Monday are long over. But in the course of your life there are people whose hands you shake regularly, or you hug, or you smile when you meet, or you wouldn't mind having coffee with. Most likely you keep track of these people in some electronic way--email, Facebook, LinkedIn, or some other site for managing people.

Now, a brief aside: Facebook and LinkedIn are (at the time of this writing)very different social networks. One is generally considered for more social networking and the other is one of many job sites that help you keep track of people with whom you've worked (or those close family members who desperately are trying to add lots of connections to impress some employers who check connections on the job sites).

However: my point is that there is not often a clear line in the sand between a business acquaintance, a regular acquaintance, and a friend. There are people I work with right now that I'd go right on hanging out with if they or I got a new job tomorrow. They're fun and they're smart and I have a good time with them. Do I consider them work colleagues and put them in the work networking category, or do I consider them friends and put them in the more social networking category?

The answer is, you can put them in both. There's no guilt, here, that you'll doing that person a disservice. Psychologically, we typically like to keep "home" and "work" life separate because its easier to let go of the stresses of either if you're operating in the other. We do, however, spend a lot of our lives living in the in between, and, oddly, this can really help on a job search.

Now, before you make a post on a social networking site along the lines of "Anybody heard of any jobs?" you do have a better way of going about this. I always recommend creating a spreadsheet, preferably a digital one.

Then, go through your list of all friends and acquaintances and weed out the folks who would be annoyed by you asking them for help related to work, and those folks who really cannot help you with work you want. For example, your second grade best friend may be interested in the fact that you're status has changed to "in a relationship" but they don't remember you well enough to give you a good job reference ("He didn't eat as much paste as the other kids..."). Also, if you don't want to relocate, asking your friend in another country for help is likely to be counterproductive (although, upon occasion, people can surprise you).

Once you've got your list of folks--from any sites, or email, or whatever--look up where they work. Yes, it's a bit like cyber stalking, but its not actually illegal. Which is good. Look at their workplace, review the career options there, and what that place does for each person. If they work in a career (and have for a while) that does not intersect with your own, you can probably cross them off the list (at least for your first pass). For example, you're a software developer and you're friend is a pediatrician's assistant, chances are likely he can't directly connect you with work (though you keep him on a secondary list so that you can always check in your next pass to see if he/she can review all software developer options that may not be listed on the job website for the pediatrician).

If they work at a place that you think you'd like working at, browse the career options. If there are open job reqs that you can do, make notes about the reqs next to that person's name and reasons you might like to work there/they might like to have you. If there are not, make notes about what makes you interested in working there and why they might like to have you, but note that there aren't any current reqs at this time.

Now, open up your email. Note I haven't said a THING about your resume/CV. I have a whole post on my feelings on the resume here. At this point, you're gently asking questions of your friends and you don't want to pressure them.

Open the email with some basic chatter--how are you, how is X (where X is a dog or a friend or something)--and then cut to the chase "I'm here to pester you about a job as I have been reading about where you work and it seems kinda cool." Or your own words and level of formality, as appropriate to the person you are, in fact, pestering.

Note: the email you are now writing could be forwarded to anyone within the company you have expressed interest in. Anyone. HR. The hiring manager. Some guy who five years from now works at another company and could make a hiring decision about you. Even though this is your friend/acquaintance/etc., be polite, be funny, stick to facts, and treat this like a cover letter, because it could be.

Review your spreadsheet and write a little about why you think you'd like working there and why you think you might be a good fit--no more than four sentences, tops. If this is a place that has open reqs in which you are interested, mention them (and any specific helpful identifying information about them like the url for the req and/or the job ID). Then conclude with a request to your friend to find if they think you might be a good fit, and, if they do, if you can pass your resume to them so it goes on its way to the appropriate person. Finally, end your email with understanding that they're work time is really busy and that you appreciate their time and effort. Then close the email as you would for a friend (the kind you don't swear at or remind of the time you flushed their head down a toilet).

Basically, you want something to look like this:

Hi Person X,

I'm sorry I haven't contacted you in forever, and that the first time I'm doing it is to pester you about where you work. That said, I saw Y Position available on your work site: (spiffy URL) and it looks up my alley.

I looked over your work site, and I see that I have a lot of the same interests as the company, such as 1, 2, and 3. And it looks like they could use someone like me with X years of experience in Q type of work.

So my questions for you (if you have time) are as follows: 1) do you think it might be a good fit for me? 2) should I go ahead and submit through the site or may I pass my resume on to you if you think I might be a good fit?

Thanks for your time. I was just taking a look around at available positions and remembered I enjoyed working with you/hanging out with you/etc., looked up where you were working, and well, this email is the result.



Repeat this for all the folks on your list in the first group (the group most likely to produce a good result for you). If you are connected through a networking site, feel free to send your requests through the site, but be sure to identify yourself in a way that person will know who you are.

Wait a week. For those who did not respond, cross them off your list; you were asking them for a favor, and for whatever reason they did not feel comfortable granting it. They're allowed. For those who did respond, respond to them and keep the discussion open...sometimes they'll want to catch up on friend stuff, sometimes they'll know about a gig at a different company, sometimes they want you to use the normal website mechanism for submitting a resume, and sometimes they'll readily take what you have and hand it to the right people directly. Whatever they offer, whatever they do, thank them and make it worth their while in terms of good conversation, a polite thank you, etc. This is because they did what they could for you this time; even if it doesn't pan out, it means they're more likely to do what they can for you next time, too, and maybe the result will be different.

After you've exhausted folks in fields of actual interest, repeat this with folks in fields not necessarily up your alley, but in terms of "I'm looking for this whale washing job, you know anyone with whales looking for a washer?" It's a lot less likely to directly connect you to a new gig, but it still has a higher chance of you getting a new gig than cold calling or going through classifieds.

On the whole, friends are, well, friends. The same way you want to help them and look out for them is the same way they want to look out for you and help you. Treat them with respect, respect their comfort levels, and generally be your normal kind self (or your abnormal kind self if you're not usually kind) and you get both the gift of their continuing friendship, and occasionally a really good job to boot.