Living Off the Crumbs

“Yes, we have a couple of competitors, big competitors, but they pretty much leave us alone. We’re much too small in the market to be more than a thorn in their side,” Gene explained.

“So, as the overall market contracts and the Top Competitors‘ revenues get pinched, where do you think they will go, to hold on to market share,” I asked.

“Well, we always hope they will fight with each other,” Gene continued.

“Why would the Top Competitor in the market fight with Number Two when they can just come in and take out Number Four or Number Five?”

Gene sat up in his chair, suddenly uncomfortable. “Well, Number Four would be us. And they have always left us alone. After all, we just pick up the crumbs that fall off of their cake. Why would the Top Dog want to come after us?”

“Why would the Top Competitor want to spend a lot of money, energy and resources fighting with Number Two, when they can take your customers without a whimper?” I asked again.

I could see Gene’s eyes tracing this chess game in his mind. “Look, Gene,” I continued. “In any market, when times are good, it’s easy to be Number Four, living off the crumbs. But, when the market gets tight, the only place to be is Number One or Number Two. Number Three and Number Four will have their heads handed to them.”

Undergrowth

“It’s strange,” Byron said. “A couple of years ago, we were on top of the world. We were the industry leader, now, with COVID and supply chain issues, things are tightening. You just never know.”

“So, this was not predictable?” I asked.

“No, our growth curves just showed, no turning back. I mean, it wasn’t hockey stick growth, but continued growth just the same. We just didn’t think we would ever have to pull in our horns.”

“So, Byron, what’s the purpose for a forest fire?”

“What do you mean? How can a forest fire have a purpose?”

“From an ecological sense?”

Byron thought for a minute. “I have heard that when a forest becomes choked with undergrowth, a fire can clear it out. Though it appears devastating, that’s what brings on new growth.”

“What could that tell us about business cycles?” I probed.
“Sometimes the market gets overgrown and has to be cleared out?” Byron tested.

“Yes, in fact, if you look at macro economic climates, you will see very distinct cycles. Occasionally, there has to be a clearing of the undergrowth. So, what if you looked at your own internal business cycles, within your own company. What do you now see?”

Byron pondered. “I see that, as we grew, some of the things we created weren’t good for the long term health of the company. They seemed like a good idea at the time, but, perhaps, we were just creating undergrowth.”

Spares?

“Looking at the future,” Glen contended, “we are desperately looking for that new something that is going to help replace some our declining lines of business. We find something, we gear up for it, commit some people to the project, but so far, all of those projects have failed. We end up pulling the plug.”

“Who have you committed to these new projects?” I asked.

“Well, they are new projects, so we generally take those people that we can spare from our core project lines.”

“Are these your best and brightest people?”

“Well, no. Our best people are still running our core projects. But we can usually spare a couple of people from one of their teams.”

“So, you are trying to cobble together a launch team, in an untried project area, where unforeseen problems have to be detected and corrected, and you are doing this with spares?”

Like Herding Cats

“So, how long could they keep that up?” I repeated. “As long as nothing changed, how long could your team simply repeat what they did the day before?”

“Well, forever,” Nathan exclaimed. “But things do change.”

“Bingo!” I said. “Things do change and that is what management is all about. Customers change, technology changes, raw materials change, processes change, even our people change. Management is all about change. Change is your guarantee of a never-ending employment opportunity as a manager.”

I smiled, but Nathan didn’t appreciate my jovial attitude.

“I think I am tuned in with that. So, why am I having so much trouble with my team. They don’t listen to anything I have to say.” Nathan’s head swirled as if his thoughts were making him dizzy and he was trying to stabilize.

“Here is the problem,” I replied, waiting until Nathan’s eyes were settled. “Everyone talks about managing change, as if it is the prime directive. We manage this and we manage that. Here is the clue. People don’t want to be managed. People want to be led. Oh, there is still plenty to manage, processes, systems and technology. But try to manage people and it will be a bit like herding cats.”

Overwhelmed Behaviors

From the Ask Tom mailbag:

Question:

What happens when you realize you were given a promotion and not able to live up to the capabilities? Do you admit it to your superiors? Do you keep it to yourself and risk failure?

Response:

There are many ways to survive in a position that’s over your head, but in the end, it’s only survival. Not a way to live.

I often ask managers, “How do you know, what behavior do you observe when a person is in over their head? Where the Time Span for the position is longer than the Time Span of the person?”

The descriptions come back.

  • They feel overwhelmed.
  • They cover things up.
  • They cut off communication.
  • Their projects are always late.
  • I can’t ever find them.
  • They always blame someone else.
  • They have all the excuses.
  • They never accept responsibility.

So, the short answer is yes. When you realize you are in over your head, go back to your boss. Explain the difficulties you are having. Ask for help. If it is a matter of capability (Time Span), no amount of training, no amount of hand holding will help. It is possible that you may grow into the position, but it’s more likely a matter of years, not weeks that allows for the required maturity (increase in Time Span).

This doesn’t make you a bad person, it just means you were placed in a position where you cannot be effective. Yet!

Planning, Goals and Objectives

From the Ask Tom mailbag –

Question:
My role has expanded recently and as a manager, I am expected to participate in our annual goal setting exercise, including setting expectations for my team. How would you suggest I approach this task? I recognize that communicating context is critical.

Response:
Congratulations. Welcome to your new role. Goal setting is actually the second step, not the first in your organizations annual planning exercise. Before you can set goals for yourself and expectations for your team, you have to understand where the organization is going. That always starts at the top of the organization, and, it appears you are now part of that circle.

  • S-V – Business Unit President, goals and objectives, 5-10 years, mission, vision.
  • S-IV – Executive Managers, goals and objectives, 2-5 years, multi-system integration.
  • S-III – Manager, goals and objectives, 1-2 years, single system, single critical path.
  • S-II – Supervisor, goals and objectives, 3-12 months, implementation, execution.
  • S-I – Production, goals and objectives, 1 day-3 months, production.
  • Each layer in the organization should be thinking about, and asking questions related to context at the next level up. It all starts at the top with Mission, Vision. I hold the Business Unit President accountable for leading that discussion, arriving at and defining some conclusions. Then, toward that Mission, Vision, each layer begins to grapple with defining the tasks and activities (the work) including stated targets for each objective.

    The approach, for you, will be to get your arms around the way your company expresses itself in these cascading sets of goals and objectives. Some companies are very formal, some informal, some are loose. Speak directly with your immediate manager.

    • How did the process go last year?
    • How were the results of last year’s process stated, or published?
    • Can you get a copy of last year’s planning output?
    • Is there a schedule for this year’s planning?
    • What preparation do most managers complete prior to the planning process?
    • What data needs to be gathered?
    • Specifically, what formal documentation do you need to produce, as a new manager in your company?
    • Does your planning need to coordinate with anyone else’s plan?
    • Does your plan need to include budget and costs?
    • What has changed during the past 12 months? In your market? In your company? In your department? With your team?
    • What changes in the future do you need to be aware of that might impact your plan?
    • How will the elements of your plan need to be broken down and communicated to your team?
    • When will your plan need to be communicated to your team?
    • What feedback from your team will you need to collect in the preparation of your plan?
    • What milestones will you track (key performance indicators) to make sure your plan stays on track?
    • How often will you review those milestones with your manager?

    That’s probably enough for now.

Meeting Satisfaction

“As a participant in any meeting, Sheila, have you ever walked out at the end saying, Darn, I wish we had done this at the meeting.”

“Well, yeah. Almost every meeting I go to, is like that. Sometimes, it wouldn’t take much to make a meeting more meaningful,” she replied. “Almost every time, it misses the mark.”

“So, you think a meeting would have been better if it had just included some unspoken element?” I asked.

“Yes.”

“Then, up front at the beginning of the meeting, does it make sense to get those unspoken elements out on the table?”

Sheila tilted her head. “How would you do that?”

“If you are the leader of the meeting, early on, after establishing the purpose for the meeting, simply ask, What is your condition of satisfaction for today’s meeting. What has to happen, by the end of the day, for you to say, this meeting was worthwhile, to say, you are glad you came, you are glad you contributed?

“As the leader of the meeting,” I continued. “You might as well know that up front.”

It’s the Job of a Manager

“What kind of questions?” asked Ted.

“Look, in your position, as Manager, you often don’t have the technical details necessary to make a decision. As a Manager, that’s not your job. Your job is to bring value to the thinking and work of your team.” I waited for Ted to catch up.

“By asking questions?”

“Most Managers think their team will see them weak if they have difficulty making a decision, even if the Manager doesn’t have the technical details. So, sometimes Managers make a decision because they think it’s their job.

“If you have two engineers, each with a different method of solving a problem, you may not know which method is technically the best way.”

“So, how do you make the decision?”

“You don’t bring value by telling them what to do. You bring value by asking questions.

  • What were the top three criteria on which you based your recommendation?
  • What impact will your recommendation have on the time frame of the project?
  • What two things could go wrong with your recommendation?

“Your job, as Manager, is not telling people what to do. Your job is to bring value to their problem solving and decision making.”

It’s Just a Start

From the Ask Tom mailbag:

Question:

I have completed my MBA and I am now working in an office with a limited territory for our company here in India. I want to know what other things I need to do, like a course, to create better prospects for me to become a manager?

Response:

More learning, taking a course is always a plus, but not sufficient.

You need two things. First, you need to speak with your manager and ask for clear feedback on how you can improve in your current position. Whatever you are currently doing, be the best. Your manager is the best coach to give you that feedback.

Second, you need to find a mentor. Your mentor may or may not work inside your company, but should be in a position to speak with you long term about your career. This is usually not your direct manager, but one more level up. Your conversations should not be centered around your day-to-day accountabilities, but on longer one and two year goals.

Be the best where you are today and keep looking forward one to two years in the future. Congratulations on your MBA. You are now at the start of the game, a wonderful game.

Measuring Output or Effectiveness?

From the Ask Tom mailbag-

Question:
You describe an evaluation process called the Personal Effectiveness Appraisal. How is that different from a Performance Review?

Response:
The Performance Review, or Annual Performance Appraisal judges the output of the person in the role related to goals or objectives. How close did the team member’s output come to the target? The problem with the Performance Appraisal, it places accountability in the wrong place.

The goal, or the target published in the Performance Appraisal is generally set by the manager. Team members may agree (enthusiastically or reluctantly), but it is the manager that signs off on the target. That target is the manager’s best judgement of what is reasonable based on the manager’s expectation of circumstances. These goals or targets are typically organized into Key Areas, so the role has an array of indicators (KPIs) on which to examine output. Because this method incorporates a series of comparative numbers, it is thought that this Performance Appraisal is “objective” in that the numbers don’t lie. The problem is, the basis for those numbers is still a manager’s judgement. Further, it is the manager that controls all the variables around those numbers, access to resources, number of people committed to the goal, budget allocated, tools, maintenance schedules, overtime permitted, supply chain interruption. It is the manager Elliott holds accountable for output.

The Personal Effectiveness Appraisal is different. Please understand it is still a manager’s judgement, but now the manager is looking at additional criteria. It is not that we put the manager’s targets aside, but the manager must now consider the team member’s effectiveness in the context of the circumstances during the appraisal period. A salesperson, in a fertile market might achieve the target output numbers by simply taking orders. A Performance Appraisal might judge the output as “exceeded expectations,” while an Effectiveness Appraisal might judge the behavior as mediocre.

A salesperson in a difficult market might fall short of the target in spite of extraordinary skill and effort. The Performance Appraisal might judge the output with a failing grade, while an Effectiveness Appraisal might yield a high five, perhaps a hug (if we are still allowed to hug in the workplace).