How to Build a Team, Where to Start?

“So, Roger. I am not going to give you all ten projects,” I repeated. “Not yet. Before I do that, we have some growing to do. You handled three projects superbly, the fourth you began to be late and by the fifth project, things really began to slip. But, you have potential. Ten simultaneous projects will require a different approach from you.”

“You said I would have to build a team,” Roger replied.

“Yes, and building a team is more complex than building a checklist.”

“I think I can step back from all my projects and see the things about those projects that are identical, the things that are similar and the things that are different. That’s why my checklists are helpful. But building a team, I am not sure where to start,” Roger admitted.

“At the beginning, of course,” I smiled. “Let’s start with something you know how to do. You are good at making a list. I want you to make a list of everyone on your current team.”

“I can do that,” Roger agreed. “Any particular order?”

“Yes, you know that some of your team members are more capable than others. You know that, because you have worked with them, watched them make decisions and solve problems. I want you to put your team members in order, with the most capable at the top and the least capable at the bottom. When you have finished that list, let’s get together and you can tell me about each one.”

The Shift in Becoming a Manager

“What would you have to do differently to accomplish ten projects in the same time that you now run five projects? No overtime,” I challenged.

“One thing is for sure, I can’t keep it all in my head,” Roger mused. “You know, some projects, you can manage with sticky notes. When you gave me my third and fourth project, I had to start making lists. When you gave me my fifth project, I realized my lists had similarities and I created a template with all the possible elements. Given another project, I can start with my template rather than creating a list from scratch.”

“But if I give you ten simultaneous projects, what would you have to do differently?” I repeated.

Roger shook his head. “I can’t manage ten projects at the same time, even with my templates,” he concluded. “Something would always be falling through the cracks. I would need some help.”

I nodded in agreement. “Roger, we didn’t start working with you because you could manage a project, or two projects. To manage ten projects, you will need some help, you will need a team. The reason we want to assign you ten simultaneous projects is not so you can build a better template (though that is helpful), but so that you will build a team. This is a dramatic shift from being a supervisor, to becoming a manager. It’s a higher level of work.”

Running One Project Different from Ten Projects

“So, Roger. I want you to think about something. You did well on the first project we gave you. So we gave you another project. That means two projects,” I explained. “You were doing so well, we gave you a third project and a fourth project. With a fifth project, you are beginning to struggle. You short cut the planning, your schedules are breaking down and things are being forgotten.”

“I guess I didn’t realize,” Roger started. “You see, I have been keeping all that stuff in my head. I am pretty smart, have a good short term memory, so keeping track of the details for one or two projects is pretty easy. The more you gave me to do, the more I had to start writing things down. It’s a different way of keeping track of things for me. I used to just remember.”

“Roger, I want you to think about this. I am not going assign you more projects right now, but if I did, if I assigned you five more projects on top of the five projects you already have, what would you have to do differently to manage all of that detail?”

“I would probably have to put in some overtime,” Roger replied.

“No overtime. What would you have to do differently to accomplish ten projects in the same time that you now run five projects?”

Controlling the Work

“So, your team isn’t here this morning because you worked them until midnight last night. You burned all the profit in the project on overtime and expedited shipping,” I recapped.

“Yes, I think it is important to control burnout,” Roger replied. “When my team works on projects like that, I can tell they begin to grumble.”

“Why did it take such an extraordinary effort to work through that project?” I wanted to know.

“Oh, I could tell it was a tough project right from the start. The client didn’t really know what they wanted, so we had a lot of starts and stops, re-work and changes. I didn’t realize how many resources we were using until I looked at the budget.”

“You looked at the budget?” I sounded surprised.

“Well, yeah, when the project was about 90 percent complete, I wanted to see where we stood. It wasn’t pretty,” Roger explained. “The client was kind of designing the project as it went along. Unfortunately, we were on a flat fee for the contract.”

“What did you learn?” I asked.

“That it’s a lot more efficient to design things on paper, make changes on paper, re-design things on paper than it is to do it for real. I guess the project would have turned out better if there had been more planning.”
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Burnout

“I am really proud of my team. We worked overtime to get that project finished. Whatever it takes. That’s my motto,” Roger said.

“Was the customer happy?” I asked.

“You bet. They were jumping for joy. They didn’t think we could pull it off,” he replied.

“I am glad the customer was happy. You also know you blew the budget on this project. I know the customer is happy, because we paid for their project to be completed. And we burned out the team in the process.”

“Yes,” Roger protested, “but we got it done. I am really proud of the team and how hard they worked.”

“And the next project on the schedule starts today. This is one with a good margin in it, but I don’t see your team working on it,” I observed.

“Well, no. They were here until midnight last night, so I told them we could start late today.”
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The Realization of a Manager

“But, what if one of my team members doesn’t show up?” Sheri defended. “How can I be held accountable for that?”

“You are not accountable for the team member not showing up,” I replied. “But you are accountable for the output of the team who is now short one team member. I hold you accountable for having back up, cross trained team members to pick up the slack. I hold you accountable for knowing your team well enough to anticipate who is not going to show up, and having an alternate plan in that event.”

Sheri was quiet. While she was backpedaling, she knew she was still on the hook.

“Being accountable for the output of the team changes everything,” I continued. “Once you realize that accountability, your behavior changes.

  • You have to know your team members
  • You have to provide clear expectations within the team’s capability to deliver
  • You have to prepare your team to handle the inevitable problems that will come up
  • Your team has to practice to become fluent in handling those problems
  • You have to provide context for the work that your team will be a part of
  • You have to inspect the output to make sure it meets quality standards within time limits

This is all about people, this is all about your team. And, as the manager, you are accountable for their output.”
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The Team Will Never Be Much Better Than the Leader

“So, I have the team I deserve,” Sheri nodded.

“Yes,” I agreed. “And understand the team you have, will never be much better than you. If you want the team to get better, who has to get better first?”

Sheri was still nodding in agreement, but while her head was moving, her brain was pushing back. She still wanted to lay the blame on her team. “Okay, the team did not do what they were supposed to do, but you seem to say that it is my fault.”

“Fault, schmaltz,” I chuckled. “I don’t care whose fault it is. But, I do hold you accountable for the output of the team. All crumbs, always, lead to the manager. As the manager, you control all the resources for the team. You control the work instructions, you pick the team, you pick the number of people on the team. You pick the roles for people to play, you design the workflow. I hold the team member accountable for showing up and doing their best, but I hold the manager accountable for the output.”
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Is This the Team You Built? (It is.)

“But, I deserve better,” Sheri protested. “I work so hard, as a manager, I deserve higher performance from my team.”

“You probably do deserve better,” I replied. “Where does that higher performance start? Does it start with you?”

“What do you mean?” Sheri pushed back.

“Your team sounds just like you do. They work so hard, for mediocre results. They deserve better for their efforts.”

Sheri got quiet.

“If I want to know the kind of organization I deserve, I should look at the one I have. Some of this team, I inherited, some of this team I built. But, it’s my team. It’s the team I deserve.”
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Intentions and Behavior

“I don’t understand,” Sheri shook her head. “The team said they were committed to this project. They understood everything I presented at the meeting. They didn’t have any questions. I did not sense any push-back.”

“And what happened?” I asked.

“Nothing. We discussed changes they were going to make in the work process. We talked about organizing things differently. But nothing happened,” she reported.

“So, what did you learn, as a manager of this team?”

Sheri paused for a short time. Processing. “If someone says they want to get better at something, understand that their words are only intentions. Watch how they practice. Listen to the words that people say, but watch what they do. It’s the behavior that makes the difference.”
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Are Budgets Necessary?

From the Ask Tom mailbag -

Question:
We are looking at our planning scenarios for next year, and one question we have is the value of creating a budget. Doesn’t it make more sense just to print comparative reports year over year rather than spend the time to create something new?

Response:
I always go back to purpose. What is the purpose for a budget? What are the questions we ask ourselves as we look forward to next year?

  • What is our market? Size of market? (Facts or assumptions)
  • What macroeconomic factors impact our market?
  • How much of that market can we expect to earn with our product or service?
  • Is our product or service something that can impact the market (materially) different than in the past, with a disruptive technology or delivery method? Or is it a product or service with a maintenance track that will substantially see similar volume to last year?
  • Given our assumptions about our revenue levels, what is the appropriate cost structure to deliver our promises in the marketplace?
  • Does that cost structure deliver the gross and net profit levels, appropriate to the risk, and within the return on (investment, assets) that we believe appropriate?
  • Is there a disruptive (to our market) cost that we are willing to suffer that might dramatically impact our positive ability to sell or take marketshare? Like a warranty program or alternate delivery method, like air freight for a heavy product? I know it might be heavy, but the question of air freight might spark an idea.

I see budgeting as a bit of realism for our strategic decisions. The purpose of budgeting is to help us make those decisions. As a post-mortem, budgeting helps us check our assumptions (were they wrong or confirmed) and how well did we execute on the decisions we made.

When I am working on this process with a company, a quarterly shakedown on the questions (above) help us deal with reality and adjust (our assumptions, our efforts, our cost structure, our decisions). In a stable, incremental business model, year over year may be a satisfactory approach. Where the business model is seeing dramatic disruption, by economics, technology, largess competition, regulation or other factors, a zero-base approach may be appropriate.

Budgets ARE necessary as a measurement to check our assumptions and aspirations in the market.
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