Tuesday, May 25, 2004

When Problems Raise Their Ugly Heads

The trouble is, sooner or later, there's always trouble of one kind or another. What I will suggest as a hypothesis is that it's how we deal with trouble that defines who we are as individuals and as teams.

Say you're the cause of the issue. Stop causing trouble. 'Nuff said for now, 'kay? Just like I don't care for whiners, I'm not overly thrilled with people who cause trouble for the sake of trouble. If you're doing it for other reasons, we'll try to get back to you another time.

Say you're just an "innocent bystander" - Did you speak up? If no, then maybe you should have. If yes, did you speak up soon enough? Did you make yourself willing and open to helping find a solution that worked well for as many people as possible or were you whining? If people are ignoring your good insights, maybe they don't deserve you. That's less likely to be the real issue, though, isn't it?

If you're the leader, what's your excuse? If your answer is you didn't know about it, then I might have to come kick some butt. It all comes down to what I think is the real reason why several of the candidates on The Apprentice didn't get the job. Trump never really addressed this one on air (maybe they figured they'd have to bleep out too much foul language) but he should have. I'll save you the trouble of asking him what he thought about it and share with you my own thoughts on the subject.

The first is to ask a favor first... please help me understand why you didn't know. Can you do it and still prove yourself a good leader. Quite frankly, I'm not sure it can be done unless you also harbor a willingness to work on it.

In the case of the wanna-be leader of the guys (it turns out he wasn't - he just was the one who acted like he was the whole time; for the real leader who didn't act much like it, well, that's a different issue) when they lost the contest to the women at Planet Hollywood, he didn't know what was going on out front because he was stuck in the back. If there was ever a good reason for managers not to get stuck doing, that's it. You build good credibility by being able to do and you should always be willing to step in and help out with whatever you're expecting your staff to do... but don't forget - your first responsibility to the success of the team is to lead. The moment you get stuck, heads-down, on doing the work to the point where you can't pop up from time to time to get a good read on matters, you're no longer effective as a leader because how can you know what's going on out front if you're in the back the whole time?

Of course, the same is true if you're stuck in your office the whole time. Or in meetings, or on Capitol Hill. Get out, walk around, see what's happening. Talk with people; more importantly, let them talk with you. If you really listen, they'll let you know what's up.

That leads me to the second most common excuse I hear - "No one ever told me." Excuse me, did I hear that right? I have more questions for you on that one. Did you ask? Was it in a way that led people to believe you really wanted the truth? Do you make it safe for them to give you real information? Most importantly, would your staff answer it the same way? If not, then go back in read the posts about the environment.

It's one thing to see these kinds of mistakes happening on The Apprentice. Sure, these are folks who were supposed to be a cut above the rest but basically they're still kids in a lot of ways. And besides, you know at least part of the reason they were picked was because it makes for entertaining television. I can live with that, even if I don't personally find it all that entertaining.

When I see this stuff move from the entertainment hour on TV to the news hour, it's a little more disturbing. Face it, I really wasn't a manager all that long. And there were plenty of things I did or didn't do that I'm sure people disagreed with. This one feels so very basic, though, that I feel pretty passionate that anyone spending any time at all in a leadership role should have this one down cold. That includes anyone who acts in any kind of capacity as an "unofficial leader" or is hoping to move into management or any other role involving some kind of leadership. If I can convince even one or two people that it's a worthwhile competency to develop, I'll feel like I've accomplished an important task.

I hope you'll send an email to me at techsurvivor@soaringmountain.com and share with me your examples, horror stories, or disagreements. As always, I'm interested in your point of view.

Do you know enough - how could you know more?

Monday, May 24, 2004

What a Great Idea!

I've always been interested in innovation.

As a Tech Support Rep, I looked for ways I could do a better job and even kept an eye out for ways we could improve our business. Looking back on that time now, I realize I did some key things that made this successful for me. They seemed so natural to me at the time that I never thought much about it until I started running into people with different experiences.

Some folks complain that they can't get anyone in management to listen to their ideas. Others find they keep getting pulled off the interesting work they're doing to do stuff they find much less compelling. Both are sure that managers have it out for them and in some cases they're right. What's a guy to do? How about a pity parade for starters because quite frankly, the only times I've ever "had it in for anyone" as a manager has been when the person just wasn't doing their job. Typically, such folks seem to think that their job is something else altogether, no matter what I ever tried to say to disavow them of such notions.

So... the first order of business is getting your job done. If you want to work on something more exciting, you're not as likely to get the chance to focus on the more interesting work if it comes at the expense of what you're getting paid to do. Start with making your own work easier, get it done more efficiently and create the time to be more creative. Then everyone wins, especially if you come up with ways to be more efficient that others can duplicate.

Some people will find this to be totally "duh!" advice. If so, you're not the ones who need it. Look at the person next to you who thinks that the scutwork is there to be ignored. If you can, see if you can help the person understand that you need walls first and then you can hang curtains on the windows. If you can't, you might consider keeping enough distance that you won't suffer through any kind of guilt by association.

If you're already concentrating well on on the core work and are just trying to get people to pay attention to your latest and greatest improvement, try slowing down a bit. What would be meaningful about your idea to your boss (and his or her boss too, while you're thinking about it) - from their perspective? Take the time to work up an example of what it would look like. Show how it would solve some problem that they care about. Raise the questions they're likely to have before they ask, and show that you've thought about some of the possible answers.

As foreign a thought as it's likely to be, essentially what you're looking to do is to sell your idea. The more you understand about what good selling is (not the slimey kind of selling you're probably accusing your sales and marketing staff of undertaking), the more successful you're likely to be.

If you're still quite allergic to the notion of selling, think of it not as talking a person into buying something they don't need, but instead, as educating him or her about a thing until they reach the point where they realize they really do need it. Seen that way, it's likely to be far easier.

As for this permission thing I keep hearing people talk about - never once have I ever had "permission" to do any of the bigger projects I've undertaken. It seemed like the right thing to do at the time, I thought hard about what it would take to do it the right way and I made sure I stayed on top of the work I was expected to do. With that approach, no one ever questioned how I spent the extra time I carved out, especially when they saw that I was yielding some worthwhile results. Who needs permission under circumstances like that?

I did let my boss know what I was up to so he could report to his boss and his peers what we were up to (yes, "we" - think of it as a group thing, even when you're the only one working on it and you're likely to go farther) or choose to re-direct my energies if that seemed necessary. If I still thought my project had merit, I checked in at some point to find out what it would take for my boss to feel comfortable with having me spend time on it again. And I made sure I listened and met whatever criteria were mentioned prior to re-engaging in the project. The result was that I always got to work on the projects that I wanted to.

So what projects have you been able to talk your boss into supporting or had trouble getting sponsorship for? What have you found works or doesn't work to that end? Hey, I'll even tolerate a bit of whining on this one if it gives us something to look at together... No, wait a minute, I take that back; I'm only interested in hearing that if you're willing to let me offer my opinion on what might have made it better which, by definitions I've suggested previously, makes it no longer whining. Anyway, if you're brave enough to give it a go, send me your thoughts at techsurvivor@soaringmountain.com. Let's see what we come up with...

What great ideas would you like to build some traction for if you thought you could?

Friday, May 21, 2004

Environmental Impact

That environment thing... have you thought about it?

My own experiences in this arena have been quite worthwhile. I learned early on that if I got into the habit of shooting the messenger, there would get to be a point where I would have no more messengers.

Instead, I made a concerted effort to make it safe to come talk to me. I insisted on no whining - be willing to participate in finding and implementing a solution and I'll be satisfied - but whatever the fallout was, it wasn't about hearing bad news because I was more interested in fixing the root problem. Leading is easier when you have information as opposed to no information... even when the news isn't good.

I also learned that little things make a difference, like how I dress (both in general and on particular occasions), how the room is arranged during meetings, and whether I smile when I see people in the halls.

What have you discovered makes a difference in your work environment? Share your ideas by sending them to techsurvivor@soaringmountain.com.

What would your environmental impact report say?

Wednesday, May 19, 2004

It's the Environment

I realized this morning when I got up that the lessons to be learned from current events are so important and relevant in the business world that it's worth the risk of crossing over into political territory to mention it here.

Let me start off first by saying that ever since Nuremberg Trials, "I just did what I was told to do" has not been an acceptable excuse for behavior that can later been judged to be poor. Twelve of the defendants were sentenced to death for their crimes during WWII and seven more were sentenced to prison terms of varying lengths. Each of us must take responsibility for our own actions, or at least not be surprised when others expect us to. It can seem like a good idea at the time or it can feel like it was the only reasonable choice available and even so, our own behavior is still the result of our own choices.

While personal accountability cannot be ignored, it is important to recognize that the environment in which we make our choices greatly influences the choices that we're likely to make. As leaders, it's imperative we constantly ask ourselves what sort of environment we are creating because the choices our employees make can nearly always be found to have stemmed from that environment.

Basic psychology and sociology courses in the first year or two of college (and even some high schools) nearly always cover the Stanford Prisoner Experiment conducted by Zimbardo in which researchers discovered in the most powerful ways possible that even the most normal normal human beings can resort to some pretty atrocious behavior. What is regrettable about current events is that this basic understanding of human behavior does not seem to have been taken into account in the form of putting sufficient safeguards in place to prevent or discourage inappropriate behavior.

Just because it's business doesn't mean we're completely immune from this phenomenon or the responsibility to do better. Hopefully the stakes are just lower and the ability to foster a more positive environment and choose better behavior (regardless of environmental impacts) is easier as a result.

It's also worth pointing out that each and every one of us is responsible for the environment in which we find ourselves; leaders of an organization aren't the only ones on the hook for ensuring the environment promotes ethical, useful, and productive behaviors.

What are you doing to make your work environment a better place, one where you and your co-workers can feel safe and productive? Any thought or ideas you send to techsurvivor@soaringmountain.com will make a good jumping off point for further conversations on the subject.

How well do your business and personal ethics mesh?

Friday, May 14, 2004

Dealing With Whiners

Think of a complaint you've heard recently... or made. It should be easy to do. The world is full of whiners. Even I give in to whining now and then. Sometimes it just feels better than taking responsibility for myself. Fortunately, I usually snap back to how I really want to be, which is not a whiner.

Anyway, I digress... back to that complaint. I was at a Little League baseball game not too long ago and the complaint I heard there was something about not being able to get shoes tied. "I can't tie my shoes!" came the plaintive cry.

When the complaint originates in the office, it often lacks that particular tone that sets off warning flags for parents but I'm sure you know what it sounds like anyway. There are statements made in exasperated tones - "Andy still hasn't finished that report we asked him for!" And there are questions that are more rhetorical than inquisitive - "Where did all the pens go?!" and then there are the "I can'ts" - "I can't get this $%#@^# application to work right!"

At the root of all of these complaints is some form of a request... "Andy, please send me the report so that I can ask for the budget we need on this project"... "Are there any pens hiding someplace or can you put in an order for me so that I can write out my report?"... and, "It looks like I'm still having trouble with this application; do you know something about this that would help me out?"

Find the request and make it directly, or find the request in someone else's complaint and respond to that, and you'll probably get a lot farther. In any case, at least it won't be whining anymore. In the case of the little leaguer, his mother suggested that perhaps he wanted to rephrase his statement in the form of a question. Maybe that's how Jeopardy got started.

What sorts of requests have you heard disguised as complaints? Send them to me at techsurvivor@soaringmountain.com and let's compare notes.

What would you ask for if you thought you could get it?

Wednesday, May 12, 2004

Pacing Yourself

If life (and yes, work too) is a marathon and not a sprint, you can begin to see that pacing yourself becomes an important concept to grab hold of. That might not be enough though. Consider that even a marathon has an ultimate end goal, after which point we expect to rest, and only after.

So what if it's about finding purpose in all that we do, while we're doing it? How does that impact how you work and how you live? Personally, I find that when I focus on this instead of the deadlines, I find much more to enjoy about my work and my life and it is easier to find some sense of balance. Amazingly enough, the deadlines are easier to reach too. Don't ask me to explain that one; I haven't figured out yet how it works but it does seem to.

This week, the end goal was Lawyerpalooza, which came off very well. It was a pretty late night for a Monday night with plenty to do still on Tuesday. Today, I'm taking it a bit easier and pacing myself in the midst of the other things I still have on my plate to get done. It's interesting that instead of really feeling tired, I feel only a greater appreciation for all the effort that went into pulling off the event because I can feel it in my body, in my bones. While we don't yet know how much money was raised, all the bands made great music and everybody had a terrific time. It felt like we were fully living our purpose.

What about you - have you tried focusing on purpose instead of end goals? What have you noticed? Send your observations to me at techsurvivor@soaringmountain.com as well as any tips or tricks you've learned along the way.

What greater sense of purpose drives you?