Category Archives: Leadership

Slowly, Then All of a Sudden

If I did not allow you, as the manager, to come to work tomorrow, what tasks would your team find to work on? I get a variety of responses, but they all come down to this – Tomorrow, they would work pretty much on the same things they worked on today.

And if I held you back another day, what tasks would your team find to work on, and what methods would they use? The responses continue to be – They would work pretty much on the same things as today, using the same methods as today.

Good. Now, how long could your team continue to do that without you? Be honest.

The team could continue to work on the same tasks using the same methods for a long time.

How long? Exactly up to the very moment when…

Exactly up to the very moment when something changed. In that instant, you, as a manager, suddenly had a job. Management is about helping your team adapt to change. In fact, if nothing in your market, in your industry, in your state, in your town, with technology ever changed, then your company would not need you.

The more change you see in your market, in your industry, with technology, the more management you need.

Meaning of Life

“I know I need some help,” Ellen explained. “I am in a new role, I have to step up my game. I know you and I know that many people trust you to help them. I need you to teach me, so that I can become a better manager.”

“I am flattered,” I replied, “but I must tell you a story.”

There was a young woman searching for the meaning of life. She had heard of a wise man who lived at the top of a mountain, who, by all reports, could help in her quest. So she made preparations for the journey.

It was a long journey, traveling by foot. Many overnights before she arrived at the mountain. The mountain was not particularly dangerous to climb, but the path was another two days journey into a higher elevation.

Finally, she arrived, and sat with the wise man she had heard so much about. After explaining the reason for her travel, she asked the question. “Sir, what is the meaning of life?”

To which, the wise man quickly responded, “My child, Life is a River.”

The young woman was clearly taken aback. “I heard you were a wise man, so I traveled many days to arrive at your mountain, then traveled two more days into the clouds to speak with you about the meaning of life, and all you have to say is that Life is a River?”

The wise man looked directly at her, “You mean, it’s not a river?”

Working Together

From the Ask Tom mailbag:

Question:
You have talked about managers and systems. And you’ve described the most important system for a manager as the People System. What’s inside that system?

Response:
There are three primary accountabilities for any Manager.

  • First, is that the Manager is responsible for the output of the team. I don’t listen to excuses that some team member failed to perform, or some other team member fell short. I hold the Manager accountable for the output of the team.
  • The element that supports that output is the ability of the Manager to assemble the team together. This has a great deal to do with identifying and selecting talent.
  • Once assembled, the Manager must lead the team to work together, competently and with commitment in pursuit of the goal.

Failure in any part of this system falls to the Manager.

Good? Leadership

From the Ask Tom mailbag-

Continued from yesterday –
Question:
I recently had a conversation with a leadership guru that stated that you don’t need formal structure in a small business, if you have good leadership. He indicated that you don’t need documentation, role descriptions, or even much for KPIs.

Response:
The problem with “good leadership” is that it becomes person dependent. We are juggling three balls in the air.

  • Leadership
  • Small Business
  • Good Leadership

Leadership
Leadership vested in a single individual, is person dependent. It may work in a small business because there aren’t that many people. A handful of people can follow a single individual, because if there is any doubt as to who has the authority to make a decision, the team can just ask the leader. That also means the leader must be available (proximity). But, if all decision making must go through the leader, as the company grows larger, what happens to the speed of decision making. Slows down, or stops.

Small Business
All decisions going through the leader is a hallmark of a small business and assures that the business will remain small. If all problems have to be solved by the leader, as the company grows larger, what happens to the speed of problem solving? Slows down, or stops.

Good Leadership
Good leadership requires competent management skills. Good management requires competent leadership skills. You can’t have one without the other (please, no discussion about leader vs. manager). Effective leadership, among other things requires clarity. Poor leaders will be uncertain in their decisions and communicate ambiguity to the team. Good leadership requires clarity. So, if your leadership guru says all you need is good leadership, I might agree, but only if that definition requires the formalization of things like role descriptions, documentation and KPIs. That’s what good leadership is, it’s clear.

No Formal Structure Required?

From the Ask Tom mailbag –

Question:
I recently had a conversation with a leadership guru that stated that you don’t need formal structure in a small business, if you have good leadership. He indicated that you don’t need documentation, role descriptions, or even much for KPIs.

Response:
If life were only that simple. Let’s break this down over the next couple of days.

You don’t need a formal structure.

You have a structure. Every company has a structure. Structure, or organizational structure, is simply the way we define working relationships between people. Org structure is a mental configuration, usually starting with the mind of the founder (or current CEO). But, everyone else in the organization also has a mental configuration of those working relationships as well.

We translate that mental configuration to a piece of paper, with boxes, circle and arrows and call it an organizational chart. It’s a two dimensional representation of that picture we have in our heads. Important in that org chart is the way we define two things –

  • Accountability
  • Authority

In the working relationship between two roles in the organization, what is the accountability and what is the authority (to make decisions or solve problems the way we would have them solved)?

So, on the face of the statement made by your leadership guru, I would disagree. It is important to define the working relationships and to put them on a piece of paper so we can discuss them. The purpose for the discussion is to ensure that what the founder, or CEO, thinks is pretty close to what everyone else thinks. Without that agreement, friction occurs in the form of personality conflicts or communication breakdowns.

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.”

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.

Traits of a Leader?

“You look like you have a question,” I said.

“I have been studying leadership, but it is a bit confusing,” Maria replied. “So, many books, so many perspectives. You would think if I read all the books, I would know what traits I should possess to be an effective leader?”

I nodded. “So, it would seem. Any study of leadership rarely considers the context of leadership, so the discussion appears jumbled and confused. Leadership never stands alone, it is always in a context.”

“Okay?”

“Was Churchill considered a great leader?” I asked.

“Yes, for those of us who have seen the movie,” Maria chuckled.

“Yes, in wartime, but not so much in peacetime. To truly understand leadership, first you have to understand the context. Connect the context and things make more sense. Most often, I speak about managerial leadership. But, there are other contexts, parental leadership, political leadership, military leadership, spiritual leadership, academic leadership. The context will demand the qualities necessary for effective leadership in that circumstance, and eschew those characteristics that detract.”

Maria nodded, so I continued. “Before we look at the person (qualities and traits), first we have to look at the context. The biggest mistake most companies make in hiring is to look at the candidate without understanding the work in the role. It’s all about the work.”

Best Position for Mentoring

“I am still having difficulty with this,” Brendon pushed back. “It’s all up-front, the manager knows the MOR is having career-ladder discussions with individual team members, but why is the manager-once-removed (MOR) the best person to have these discussions?”

“I know you still think the manager, being closest to the team member, would be the most likely person to have these discussions,” I replied, “but the manager is largely focused on productivity, workplace safety and output. It is the manager-once-removed who has accountability for creating and maintaining an effective talent pool.

“It is the manager-once-removed whose scope covers more than the immediate team, who sees opportunity in other areas of the organization. Simultaneously, the MOR has an accurate judgement from the immediate manager on each team member’s current capability and potential capability gleaned from 1-1 meetings with the team’s immediate manager.

“It is the MOR who is the perfect position to conduct these mentoring conversations.”

Who Has the Larger Picture?

“I think we may have a problem with James,” Brendon started. “Turnover in his department.”

“And?” I asked.

“And, he says team members are quitting the company because of pay. We’ve had a competitive pay program that has worked for several years, with reasonable increases, but some of the numbers James is claiming don’t seem reasonable for the people he is losing.”

“So, you think the problem is with James?”

“It’s his department,” Brendon shrugged.

“Does James have the authority to offer pay increases beyond the thresholds in your comp program?”

“Well, no. But, whenever I hear it’s about the money, money is only part of it. I think it’s that some of our project managers just don’t see the longer term picture here that they are promised somewhere else. Pay may be part of it, but it’s their longer term career path.”

“And, you think James should be talking to his team about their longer term career path?” I prodded.

“Look, I know James has a lot on his plate. He’s in charge of all of our projects, they’re complicated with lots of moving parts, but he also has to pay attention to his team,” Brendon shook his head.

“So, James is in charge of complicated projects, coaching his team for faster throughput, maintaining quality standards, AND you want him to be a mentor?” I smiled. “What if you went to James’ team members, occasionally, and you talked to them about their career, challenge in the work, and what their professional life might look like in the future? With James’ full knowledge about that conversation?”

“Isn’t that James’ job?” Brendon questioned.

“Sounds like James has plenty on his plate dealing with what’s going on today, this week and this month. Besides you have a better perspective on the larger picture of the company, the larger picture of role opportunities, where lateral moves make sense, where promotion makes sense. On these longer timespan issues, I think you are in a better position to have that discussion. In a very real sense, as James’ manager, for James’ team, you are the manager-once-removed.”