Tuesday, June 26, 2007

Growing Leaders

When I first became a manager, I was fortunate. I worked for someone who cared more that I became an effective leader than just about anything else. I guess he figured (and rightly so, I've come to believe) that if all his managers were effective leaders, then just about anything else that needed to happen in the department would indeed come about: through us and the people we led together. Here's what I've come to learn since that time - hardly anyone has that level of support transitioning into any level of leadership it's too bad because it's both wanted and needed.

That is a sad and somewhat discouraging fact highlighted in a new survey just published by Development Dimensions International, Inc called Leaders in Transition: Stepping Up, Not Off. My own observation is that corporate work is simply moving too fast and too much else is demanded of leaders already in their own roles to provide the level of mentoring for the next generation leaders that I received. The results of this survey confirms this:

Very few leaders feel that organizations are doing the right things prepare their future leaders.
Fortunately, these leaders in transition don't have to be left high and dry even if sometimes they are left largely to their own devices. If you're not getting support through your organization, look for it elsewhere.

For some, reading may be good enough. I myself cultivate a variety of resources that help feed me new ideas on a regular basis. I've come to appreciate a local coach and columnist, Maureen Moriarty, though amazingly enough, our paths have not yet crossed. I'm thinking I'll have to do something about that.

I also cannot say enough good things about Bob Lewis, and I highly recommend you get yourself subscribed to his e-Zine, even if you're not an IT manager as quite regularly his essays deal with everyday questions of leadership. I've been reading his stuff for years and believe I am a better leader for having done so.

And when you want more personalized support, if your organization isn't providing it directly, maybe it's worth considering looking for that support outside of the organization. Peer learning groups such those offered by Woods Creek or supportive organizations such as ATW for women are illustrative of some of the options available.

If you hold the conversations in the right ways, your company might even pay for part or all of the expenses in participating in a group like these, since it's in their best interests for you to have access to the mentoring you need to grow as a leader. And there are always coaches out there too, many of them good and at least one of us is probably a good match for your needs.

However you get the support and whoever pays for it, I do encourage you not try to do it all by yourself. There's no great honor in going it alone if you can become more effective in less time and with less stress by getting some help along the way. After all, it's not like there's a lot of time these days to hang around and wait for the magic wand to wave and suddenly remake you into the world's most effective leader.

And if you need more convincing than your own experience, I encourage you to read the details on the DDI findings. It's powerful stuff.

What have been your experiences in growing as a leader? Send a message to me at techsurvivor@soaringmountain.com and share your best resources - I'm always curious about what works best for people in this arena.

Where can I best get the support that I need to grow professionally in the direction I want?

Kimm Viebrock is an ICF-credentialed Associate Certified Coach who helps technology professionals and service-oriented technology groups develop and use their skills more effectively and increase their value within the larger organization, allowing them to do more, do it better and have more fun doing it. Kimm is devoted to finding the connectedness in life.

Sunday, June 24, 2007

Interpreting Shadows

On rainy weekends like this one, we sometimes watch movies. Small person has rediscovered Monty Python and the Holy Grail (Yes! I must be doing something right!) and has even worked out the "llama theme" from the final opening credits on the electronic keyboard - or I guess it's actually the music from the brief intermission near the end, now that I think about it... his playing is plenty good, it's just my memory that's faulty. All scariness aside that my son might (for the moment anyway) actually know this film better than I do, I wonder if getting him piano lessons will help nurture that talent or stifle it?

Anyway, except for a new-found enjoyment of one of my favorite movies, his most recent favorite has been Flushed Away. Every time I see the sewer-bound rodents draw conclusions about what life is like "up top" based solely on cast-off artifacts, I can't help but think of how much it reminds me of Plato and his Allegory of the Cave. In Plato's cave, there are individuals who see shadows and believe they are looking at the sum total of their world. They are aware of information about their surroundings that is accurate as far as it goes, but without the knowledge that the data is incomplete. And so, without that realization, the unenlightened draw conclusions that seem consistent with the available information and yet those conclusions are still wrong because they do not take into account other unseen details.

Interestingly enough, I see this phenomonon play out in corporate work as well as in life and animated movies. How often do we misinterpret what we see and hear because there are additional details about which we have no knowledge or hint? Rumors typically contain at least a grain of truth - but which grain holds the truth? It's so tough to know until after we get the full complement of information. Every time we attempt to read and understand management behavior and motivations, we run into this issue of misinterpreting shadows as real and complete information; and managers themselves quite regularly face this same challenge when understanding their employees or their extra-departmental counterparts.

Waiting for all of the information isn't always practical, so fortunately, it's often enough just to know that you probably haven't got it all. The simple fact of knowing that you're looking at shadows instead of the real thing makes all of the difference in how you do your interpreting and is bound to improve the accuracy of your conclusions. I don't know about you but personally, I strive for a keener sense of logic than that displayed by Python's Sir Bedevere, so I'm after all the improvement I can get.

After all, when moving lights and shadows stop masquerading as the entirety of reality, they make pretty decent entertainment, especially on rainy days.

If you have advice for how best to discern what's real and true, send me your thoughts at techsurvivor@soaringmountain.com - or just send me recommendations for best family-oriented rainy day movies; I'm sure I'll appreciate both.

How do I sometimes misinterpret signals?

Kimm Viebrock is an ICF-credentialed Associate Certified Coach who helps technology professionals and service-oriented technology groups develop and use their skills more effectively and increase their value within the larger organization, allowing them to do more, do it better and have more fun doing it. Kimm is devoted to finding the connectedness in life.

Wednesday, June 20, 2007

You Sneeze, You Lose

Twenty some-odd years ago, I can remember clearly being way too sick to work. Unfortunately, I was waiting tables at the time, so not going to work meant not getting paid and I definitely did want to get paid. Worse, if I really was so sick that it was worth being even more broke than I was, it was up to me to find someone to cover my shift. My feeling at the time was that if I was well enough to be dialing for coverage, I was well enough to get my behind into work, sniffly nose and all.

This is not to say I was heedless of public health. Back when "cover your cough" still meant nothing more than using one's bare hands, I raced to the back sidestation every time I felt a cough or a sneeze coming on and aimed under my arm for the garbage can, dishes held high - especially if they were full of food I was on my way to deliver to patrons. In fact, it was more because of how pressured I felt to wantonly endanger the health of others that I felt so much anger toward a system that did them and me such disservice. It would have been nice to not worry about the money so much too.

You'd think that in the corporate world where we have paid sick leave available to us that the situation would be better, but it's not. Within weeks of starting a new job as a senior manager, I can remember coming down with a nasty respiratory flu. In a world where my boss was sending out messages at 2am, I wanted to prove I was serious about my work and so I showed up even though resting horizontally sounded much more appealing. The truth is, that even when they tell you to stay home, the realistic workplace expectations of today are that you'll be there anyway.

During one meeting, I started feeling worse and worse and without realizing it, began to slump down in my chair just so I could rest my head on the back. I was completely mortified when my boss noticed and told me I should go home - whether he meant it this way or not, my sense was that I had been caught slacking.

This isn't just me with a higher-than-normal sense of responsibility either. Another more recent flu that knocked me flat on my butt and kept me on the couch for nearly a week this spring, hit the spousal unit a few weeks later. He wasn't so inclined to rest up and get well though - he had a major project happening at work with a deadline that was out of his control and no one there to pick up the slack. So he dragged his sorry butt to work day in, day out for the entire week he was sick. I hope he remembered to sneeze into his armpit or the trashcan.

Variations on this theme are endless. More companies than I can count send out notices in advance of bad weather reminding employees of their inclement weather policy - often stating that all employees are "essential" and so while they won't go so far as to tell you what you should do if getting to work is truly dangerous, they do expect everyone to be there, (quite literally at times) come hell or high water. If you simply can't make it to work, they'll be happy to dock you a vacation day.

In all of these situations - because we want to get paid, our employers consider our presence to be vital (and they're tired of dealing with people who are slackers, wimps or simply have poor judgment), our sense of duty and responsibility in showing up and contributing our share is strong - especially when there are deadlines looming - all of this is understandable and even laudable much of the time. However, usually when we do this, we're also missing critical information that shows this can be truly stupid thinking and really, it has got to stop. Really... before it gets people killed.

Anyone pushing themselves to get work done because of a deadline has forgotten the dual lessons that a) no one is indispensable and b) a few hours sleep almost always means we'll get more work done at higher quality than we will in the "all-nighter" world of diminishing returns.

Managers who work late at night or work when they are sick are only role modeling poor behavior for the workplace and setting the bar inappropriately high for their employees in the process. We'd all be better off if managers worked harder at having a balanced life themselves and expecting and helping their employees to do the same. If we can get that far, we'll probably at least see a reduction in the number of heart attacks in overstressed workers just living for their jobs.

Don't believe this is a better option than working at all costs? Check out this Cornell study that exposes the previously hidden costs of "presenteeism". I bet most managers and business owners don't take these costs into account when they're writing their absenteeism policies.

We also have to take responsibility for ourselves, no matter what our employers are saying. When we push to get ourselves on the road when we shouldn't be, we're letting outside factors that have little to do with reason cloud our own judgment - the only judgment that really matters when it comes right down to it. I remember making a flight one pre-dawn morning that I should never have made. Although I was fully capable of flying in the clouds that were scattered around that morning, the plane I was flying was not certified for instrument flight rules and it was too dark to see where the clouds were to avoid them.

The trouble was, I was scheduled to take some doctors east of the mountains for the day and while my boss at the time told me to call if I couldn't make the flight, the unspoken understanding was that I was not to call. Just like in many bush flying operations, I'm sure he'd tell you differently, but they have ways of making these things clear while keeping themselves out of trouble.

There were definitely some scary moments for me that morning, trying to figure out where the clouds were and how to keep out of them.

If I'd had an accident or if I'd been found to have busted any regulations, I'd have been the only one blamed. My prediction though is that only when we recognize the culpability of the employers in pressuring employees to do things that they shouldn't be doing, will we begin to see meaningful change in that regard. Workplace policies that make it financially difficult to stay at home, or create other pressure to be at work when there is good reason not to be, effectively force people to act against their own best interests and quite often the best interests of others too.

Alone, these ought to be compelling arguments. Stop for a moment, though, and think about one more element to this issue that is looming on the horizon.

How are our present practices setting ourselves up for failure in the event of some kind of flu pandemic? Whether it's a return of some extra nasty fatal version of the flu or whether bird flu mutates to a form that humans can pass to one another, the possibility is out there. And if that comes to pass, as it's been predicted by health officials, that would not be the best time to expect we'll all be at work even if we're sick.

In fact, now would be a really good time to prepare for a pandemic by practicing getting work done even when some people are unwell and better off at home. After all, if you can't do without a handful of people now, what makes you think you'll be able to do without an officeful when things get really difficult?

And why not practice that when earthquakes and windstorms and blizzards and hurricanes hit too? It's called business continuity and because of all the ways that businesses can be impacted, it makes sense that we should reevaluate our workforce policies and the ways in which we might be able to use newer technologies to our advantage in the face of various situations that could arise.

Perhaps as we think more comprehensively about these issues, we can get to the point where going home sick doesn't have to mean a loss of face or, worse, a loss of a paycheck. Perhaps then we can also enjoy a nice dinner out without having to wonder if the server sneezed on our food.

Send your thoughts about workforce policies to me at techsurvivor@soaringmountain.com and let's explore how changes to those policies might improve the results we see.

What are the possible unintended consequences of today's decisions?

Kimm Viebrock is an ICF-credentialed Associate Certified Coach who helps technology professionals and service-oriented technology groups develop and use their skills more effectively and increase their value within the larger organization, allowing them to do more, do it better and have more fun doing it. Kimm is devoted to finding the connectedness in life.

Tuesday, June 19, 2007

Missed Opportunities

Lately, I've felt a bit like Colbert's "Tip of the Hat, Wag of the Finger" with all the customer service stuff I've been dealing with lately - problem appliances and great comebacks and such. Really though, it just makes a point that there is a lot of customer information available to companies that they simply don't even know how to access, let alone use. I've been very clear on this point for a very long time. Past employees and co-workers know this, even if they haven't always understood it and so maybe it's time I share some of these ideas with a larger audience.

Every day, consumers are saying important things about (y)our products and services. Often they are saying it directly to us though it isn't always in the form of a product complaint or request for help. Sometimes it's a side comment made during a complaint or request for help. Unfortunately, we only know how to address the direct problems and sometimes we don't even do that particularly well. The trouble is, we don't know how to hear this secondary information or even the real information behind the complaint or request for help any better than we know how to capture all of the most valuable knowledge and pass any of it on to the right people.

One guy who gets it and even helped me refine some of my thinking on the matter is Bill Price, formerly of Amazon. What he shared with me the day we first met over coffee (okay, mine was hot chocolate) was, "The best service is no service," meaning - it's better the company use all available information to foresee potential issues and address them so that customer never even have to contact the company for help in the first place. Not everyone gets that though, and when they do, they don't always know what to do with it.

I once sat in a room full of service and support managers talking about this very subject, most of them understanding they had vital information to share. "But how do we get the other departments to listen?!" one asked.

The answer seems simple to me. That information is a product. The other departments are your market. As with any bleeding edge product, you must first educate your market that they need what you have. You have to show the value and package it attractively, and when they really 'get it', they'll ask for it, even demand it.

What's so sad about companies not getting this is that while many consumers are out there saying things like, "Don't buy this product," - and many are listening to them - I'm out there saying, "Improve your inner processes to avoid these problems in the first place."

It doesn't have to be difficult, it just takes wanting to get there. For the price of a cup of hot chocolate, I'd gladly discuss some of the more esoteric aspects of customer service for an hour or two. Or, you can just hope customers don't get too mad.

Have you successfully re-architected company culture to be more customer-centric? If so, please share your story with me at techsurvivor@soaringmountain.com - I'm very interested to hear all about it.

What's valuable about what I know and what do I want to do about that?

Kimm Viebrock is an ICF-credentialed Associate Certified Coach who helps technology professionals and service-oriented technology groups develop and use their skills more effectively and increase their value within the larger organization, allowing them to do more, do it better and have more fun doing it. Kimm is devoted to finding the connectedness in life.

Monday, June 11, 2007

The Service Is the Company

Some have wondered what ever happened with my dishwasher. I did seriously consider buying a new one but in the end, it just didn't make sense to me for our situation. So last week I called to have the repair done and of course I wondered how that would all turn out.

In a word, it turned out fine. In the first place, I had a miraculously easy time scheduling the repair. I'd sort of wondered about that both because of the challenges I'd had getting my oven repaired recently (hmm - I hope this isn't a trend!) and because of some of the horror stories I'd run across with another recent dishwasher recall. Easy-squeezy though - I went online near the beginning of the week last week and could have had a repair tech out later that same week if I'd been around.

I scheduled the repair for today instead and I'm running the dishwasher right now, as a matter of fact. Not only has the problem been rectified, it appears I have a new control panel as well and besides that, I spent a brief but enjoyable time this morning with the very pleasant and even humorous young man who came out to make the repair.

Here's a good guess - I'm going to remember the interaction with him far longer than just about anything else having to do with my dishwasher's manufacturer. Luckily for them, it was a good experience. They hired well. Apparently they trained well. And so far anyway, he seems to like his work well enough to find it easy to be pleasant on the job. Although we didn't discuss pay - or really any specifics of his job - I know that if he felt he was being treated unfairly in that department, it could easily show up in how he presents himself, so I'm guessing he feels pretty good about that too.

Here's something else they've done right - apparently they also really get that it's better to design a trustworthy system than it is to rely on the intelligence and awareness of individuals. I say this because, unlike the oven repair, where I ran out to the garage periodically to turn off and on the circuit breaker for the repair technician, this time the service rep walked out to the garage with me, watched me throw the breaker, verified that it was off and then red-tagged it so no one else would show up while he was working on the dishwasher and mistakenly turn it back on again. Apparently that happened to someone once - hopefully only once before they came up with this much safer procedure!

Have you had great customer service experiences? Send them to me at techsurvivor@soaringmountain.com and let's share some of the good stuff too.

What can I do to be pleasant with the people who count on me?

Kimm Viebrock is an ICF-credentialed Associate Certified Coach who helps technology professionals and service-oriented technology groups develop and use their skills more effectively and increase their value within the larger organization, allowing them to do more, do it better and have more fun doing it. Kimm is devoted to finding the connectedness in life.