Category Archives: Timespan

Toward a More Accurate Prescription

“To determine the cause of the problem,” I continued, “you have to look at more than symptoms. Look at any medical doctor. Before they can prescribe a remedy, they are trained to look at very specific things. I assume you have a physician?” I asked.

Sarah laughed, “Of course.”

“When you go to see the doctor, after the pleasantries, what does the doctor ask about?”

“That’s easy,” Sarah said. “She asks me where it hurts?”

“Not only where does it hurt, but is the pain specific or general? Is it an ache, or a sharp stick? Does it happen all the time or only occasionally? If only occasionally, what happened right before you noticed the pain?”

“Yes,” Sarah nodded.

“These are symptoms, the kind of things your team members complain about,” I said, “but they are only symptoms. But while the doctor is asking you about your symptoms, what else is she doing?”

“That’s funny,” Sarah replied. “While she is asking me questions, she is listening with her stethoscope, tapping my knees with a little rubber hammer.”

“So, not only is she listening for symptoms, she is also looking for signs. Symptoms, the things you (your team members) complain about may mislead. The doctor must also look for signs, evidence of something amiss. That is the point of diagnostic tests, blood work, x-rays.”

“That’s it?” Sarah asked.

“Nope. With the symptoms and signs, the doctor must now rely on a theory that ties them together. When you described the feedback you got from your team, that there was a communication problem, that was only a symptom. In addition to the symptom, we also have to look for signs, like a reduction in productivity or confusion in delivering our services. And, with those two together, we now must rely on a theory that ties them together to arrive at the proper diagnosis.

“Your communication seminar was based on a breakdown in communication. Your outcome from the communication seminar was neutral at best. More likely, the problem occurred from an absence in defining the accountability and the authority in the working relationship. Accountability and authority is a completely different organizational theory than a communication theory. Only when we apply the right framework, can we make a more accurate diagnosis and prescription.”

Looming Uncertainty

“While timespan helps us understand the capability required for the role,” Pablo explained, “it also applies to the CEO.”

“I’m listening,” I replied.

“The cause of many organizational issues start with the CEO. Sometimes, in the pursuit of growth, the organization outgrows the timespan capability of the founder. It’s not just headcount or revenue growth, the company could step afoul of a regulatory issue, or an unexpected quality problem.”

I nodded, “I have seen that.”

“When the organization outpaces the capability of the CEO,” Pablo continued, “often he or she will clamp down, contract the size of the business. While this may relieve the CEO, provide the appearance of being in control, it can also create issues for those people around the CEO. Some may possess capability in the same band as the CEO and see their own initiatives constricted. This constriction will painfully trickle its way down the organization. In the CEOs effort to bring the company within the illusion of control, budgets may become unnecessarily limited, capital expenses may be delayed, key hires postponed. All of this is caused by the looming uncertainty, with which the CEO can no longer cope. An organization can grow no larger than the comfort level of the CEO.”

The Girth of the Organization

“Why do most startups fail?” I asked.

“The standard answer is that they are undercapitalized,” Pablo replied. “But, I believe that is only a symptom of a larger problem.”

“The larger problem?” I pressed.

“Most startups begin with an idea, that the founder believes may have viability as an enterprise. It is this beginning of an idea, only vaguely formulated, where the trouble begins,” Pablo replied. “You have to start with the founder and the development of the business model, and ask how big?

“How big?” I asked, in a wandering sort of way.

“Think of big in terms of timespan. If the founder only thinks about the first handful of customers and the fulfillment of the first handful of orders, that is as far as the business will go (grow). More mature organizations answer longer timespan questions related to the mission and vision of the organization. The most often missed characteristic in both of those documents is the concept of by when?

“By when?”

“For the founder, meaning initial stakeholders, entrepreneur, investor, private equity, board of directors, the initial question to task the CEO is what is the timespan of the mission? Timespan will determine the girth of the organization going forward.

“And, this is where the standard reason of undercapitalized emerges. Most startups don’t have the resources to deploy more than the first handful of customers and orders, so that is where the thinking stops.

“Those organizations that more clearly determine their mission, the timespan of the 3-4 critical goals will have greater clarity on what kind of organization must be built. And, the biggest accountability for the CEO is to build that organization.”

The Mentoring Conversation

“So, what does the mentoring session sound like?” Brendon wanted to know. “If it is different from the direct manager coaching session, what does the manager-once-removed talk about with the team member?”

“First, this is NOT a coaching session, so the mentoring session does not happen as often, perhaps once every three months,” I replied. “This is a longer timespan discussion, so more reflective than action oriented. They talk about the role, the role’s contribution to company, where that fits. They talk about the decisions the team member makes, the problems the team member solves and their capacity to do so. The purpose of this conversation is to create a clearer picture of the team member’s current contribution and their potential contribution. When the team member has a clearer picture of their potential contribution, their current contribution improves.

“In this conversation, the MOR also asks about the aspirations of the team member. Some team members have no idea of their own aspirations, never thought about it. The MOR is looking for intersection between the team member’s aspirations and the company’s aspirations.

“Most of all, this is not a psychotherapy session. The focus is on the work, challenge in the work, learning opportunities, advancement opportunities, to create a vivid picture of where the team member stands and steps forward.

“People feel fulfilled when they can see their future and opportunities to pursue it, and, they feel frustrated when they do not.”

In the Open

“But won’t James feel uncomfortable, maybe distressed if he knows I am talking directly with his team members,” Brendon shifted in his chair.

“You and James are part of a team. As the manager-once-removed to James’ team, you expect James to talk to you about each team member and their career progress. James will notice things about his team that you won’t see. By the same token, James and the team have work to get done, so James, by design will focus on shorter term issues, while you focus on longer term issues. And, just as James is the coach for his team in their current roles, you are James’ coach for his current role. No one is talking behind anybody’s back. It’s all out in the open.”

“Shouldn’t HR do this instead?”

“Some companies think that,” I replied. “The problem is that HR is not in the accountability loop. As James is accountable for the output of his team, you, as James’ manager are accountable for James’ output. This chain of accountability puts you in the best position to have individual mentoring discussions with James’ team, and individual coaching discussions with James.”

Fulfillment or Frustration

“But, if I have discussions about career path with James’ team members, wouldn’t that undercut James’ authority with his team. Won’t it appear that I am going around his back?” Brendon was concerned.

“You might think that,” I replied. “On the other hand, if you set the context properly for the conversation, it is a reasonable explanation, that you are curious, and interested in them, as a person. While there is a well defined working relationship between the team member and James, there is an appropriate conversation, an appropriate relationship between the team member and you, as the manager-once-removed. It is not your purpose to coach them on productivity in their current role, but you want to talk about the future, their aspirations, their interests, their curiosities, their future role in the company. It’s a perfectly legitimate discussion that demonstrates the care of the company in the career paths of their team members. People feel fulfilled when they can see their future and opportunities to pursue it, and, they feel frustrated when they do not.”

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.”

The Decisions of a Salesperson

“You’ve described the work of a salesperson as probing and connecting. Probing for the customer’s pain and connecting it to our product or service?” I asked, not waiting for an answer. “So, a sale that requires more than order taking likely requires a higher level of complexity?”

Marlena nodded. “We used to think we could hire anyone, give them a list of features and benefits to recite to the customer and that would be sufficient.”

“And?” I asked.

“And, sometimes they would get lucky, but our hit ratio was less than stellar,” Marlena explained. “We finally stumbled on a salesperson that was closing ninety percent. Her process was simple. In a screening phone call, she identified the customer’s pain.”

“Let me stop you there,” I interrupted. “At that point, what was the decision?”

Marlena paused. “More than one decision. Was the customer’s pain something we could solve? Was the pain strong enough to prompt the customer to take action? Would the customer see enough value in our solution to pay the price we needed to make it a win-win?”

“So, when I ask you the question, what’s the work of a salesperson, what are the problems to be solved and what are the decisions to be made, you now have a much clearer idea?”

The Work of a Salesperson

Marlena was a bit puzzled. “If most of what a salesperson does, can be better done by someone else, then what do we need salespeople for?”

“There is still one small sliver of specialized work that is best done by a person in a sales role,” I replied. “Prior to the customer signing a contract, what does a salesperson do that marketing does not do?”

“They talk to the customer. I mean, marketing talks to the customer through websites, literature and other marketing messages, but it is generally one-way,” Marlena observed.

“So, it is the two-way talking that the salesperson does,” I picked up. “And what does that two-way talk sound like?”

“The salesperson, our salesperson, asks questions,” she answered.

“Asks questions for the purpose of what?” I prodded.

“To find out where the pain is. Like a needs assessment. Where does it hurt?”

“But, marketing could ask that same question?”

“But, our salesperson takes that data, that pain, and connects it to our product or service. If that connection is meaningful, there is high likelihood of a contract.”

“So, what is the work of a salesperson?” I asked again. “What are the problems to be solved and the decisions to be made?”

“It’s the probing and connecting,” Marlena replied.

“Does it matter if the salesperson is an extrovert or an introvert,” I smiled.

“Well, they have to be able to carry a reasonable conversation, but our customers really don’t want a new friend, they have a problem and they want us to solve it.”

Organizational Harmony

“Organizational harmony starts with getting the right number of managerial layers,” Pablo continued. “Missteps in the number of layers seeds the ground for trouble later.”

“What about the people?” I asked. “When I talk to other CEOs, the biggest source of trouble is with the people.”

“Yes, people populate the layers, but if we do not first understand the layers, the structure we need, the level of work (problem solving and decision making) inside that structure, we will never pursue and hire the right people. The structure you define is the context in which people work. Context determines how people will behave (and perform). If you want to change behavior, don’t try to change the people, change the context, behavior follows. Level of work is context.”