Tag Archives: manager

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.”

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.”

Decisions at Every Level of Work

“You said that if the manager is held accountable for the output of the team, the manager might take better care in selection?” I asked.

Pablo nodded. “It does no good to bring someone on board without the capability for the work, only to later blame that person for underperformance.”

“If that is the case,” I picked up the unspoken question, “then why do managers struggle finding the right fit for the role.”

“They struggle,” Pablo replied, “because they rarely sit down and figure out the work. Most managers see work as a series of task assignments. Do this, do that. No more. Following the task assignment, the manager often asks, ‘So, do you know what to do?'”

“And?”

“You see, it slips by so easily. That question barely begs understanding. The question from the manager should more properly be, ‘In completing this task assignment, what decisions will you have to make? What problems will you have to solve?’ Most managers miss that completely.”

“But, if the team member knows what to do, what decisions are left?”

“See, even you, my most aware friend, have overlooked discretion built into the work. There is always appropriate decision making at every level of work. Take a fork lift driver, and a pallet to be moved from point A to point B,” Pablo laid out.

“I got it.”

“Do you?” Pablo pushed back. “What decisions are to be made by the forklift driver?”

“It’s obvious,” I said. “Am I moving the right pallet to where it needs to be placed?”

“You’re right, that is the obvious question,” Pablo started. “And, let’s look at some other questions, any one of which could create failure.

  • How heavy is the pallet?
  • Is the pallet properly balanced?
  • Is my forklift rated to handle the weight of the load?
  • Will the size of the pallet, plus a safety buffer, clear the designated pathway to location B?
  • Are there unanticipated obstacles that might temporarily be blocking the pathway?
  • Are there any over height restrictions to the movement?
  • Will this move require flag walkers during movement?
  • Is the forklift in operating order?
  • Are all safety signals, warning lights and sounds operating?
  • Am I wearing appropriate PPE during the move?
  • Is the designated point B a permanent location within a specified perimeter? Or a temporary staging area that must be flagged for safety?”

“Okay, okay,” I laughed. “I get it.”

“Most managers rarely sit down and figure it out,” Pablo was adamant. “What’s the work? What decisions have to be made? What problems have to be solved?”

Changing Behavior

“The manager may be accountable for output, but, what if the behavior of the team member is not productive and needs to be changed?” I asked.

“It often happens,” Pablo replied. “The path is not to change the behavior of the team member, but to build the system that creates the behavior necessary for productivity.”

“So, you are implying that you can change a person’s behavior?”

“Absolutely, change the context, change the system and behavior follows.”

“If we subscribe to this thinking, what should we expect?” I wanted to know.

“This understanding breathes life into the organization. Managers are now expected to anticipate, have alternate plans, in short, be prepared to respond to variable conditions. This, instead of watching over shoulders, micro-managing and blaming the team.”

Context of Uncertainty

“Holding the manager accountable for output still seems odd,” I said. “There are still things that can go wrong, out of the hands of the manager.”

“Yes, that would seem odd, but we have to think about context,” Pablo replied. “The context of the technician is quite short, measured in days and weeks. The context of the first line manager extends beyond and requires attention to those things uncertain, those things that can be anticipated, not in days or weeks, but weeks and months.”

“The outlook at a different level of work?” I prompted.

“Looking forward, there is always uncertainty and ambiguity. The uncertainty six months from now is within the context of the first line manager or supervisor. Their role requires they look ahead, plan for contingencies, because the future is ALWAYS unpredictable. It is the role of the first line manager to plan for backups, bench-strength in the team, tools that break, materials that arrive off schedule or out of spec. The first line manager must build in buffers to respond to variability in circumstances, because circumstances are always variable. In short, it is not within the authority of the manager to reprimand the team for a shortfall in production, but to create the circumstances in the system to respond to conditions to prevent the shortfall.

“It is precisely those conditions outside the direct control of the manager,” Pablo continued, “that the manager has to plan for in the face of an uncertain future. That’s their role. That is why the manager must be held to account for the output of the team.”

It’s Not a Breakdown in Communication

“You are dipping your toes in this subject area called trust,” I nodded. “If the manager is to trust the team member, it starts with selection. I get that. But, how does accountability, laid at the feet of the manager, engender a sense of trust?”

“If the manager understands their accountability for output of the team member, blame goes away,” Pablo replied. “We often think blame is a personality disorder, or a breakdown in communication. Blame gets resolved, not through a communication seminar, but by defining, understanding the working relationship between the manager and the team member. When the manager understands, assumes accountability for output, there is no one to blame. The manager has to look inward, to determine what change the manager can make to impact the output.

“You see,” Pablo continued. “Let’s say we get a shipment of defective parts on an assembly line, a little plastic burr that has to be ground off before it can be assembled, and the grinding takes an extra 30 seconds. If our production output was intended to be 100 units per hour, but those 100 units now cause 50 minutes an hour of deburring, we can get behind quickly. And, that’s no matter how hard the team member works, it still takes 30 seconds extra per unit.”

“What does this have to do with trust and mistrust?” I wanted to know.

Pablo obliged. “If the team member is held to account for the output, they have nothing to say except to point out the deburring work. The team member cannot authorize someone from another team to come to help, or to pull two other deburring grinders from another work cell. They have no context for the output of the other work cells. And, if they are already doing their best, they can work no harder, they can work no faster, the deburring still takes an extra 30 seconds. If they are berated by their manager for the shortfall in output, there begins a mistrust of their manager. The team has little control over the conditions of their raw materials, it is only their manager that can accommodate the anomaly in production. This small bit of mistrust can begin to grow and ultimately erode the relationship. And, it is not personalities or miscommunication that is causing the mistrust, it is the definition of the working relationship between the manager and the team member AND where we place accountability for output.”

A Well Argued Decision

“Let’s take meetings,” Pablo suggested. “Lots of managers AND their teams work hard to gain concensus, avoid conflict, at times even attempt to make decisions democratically.”

“I have seen that,” I said.

“And that manager of the team, also has a manager, let’s call that role, the manager-once-removed, the manager’s manager,” Pablo described the setup. “If the team and their manager engage in democratic decision making and make a bone-headed decision, who does the manager-once-removed hold accountable?”

Manager-Once-Removed (MOR)
————————-
Manager
————————-
Team

“Well, I assume it would be the whole team, manager included,” I observed.

“Who is the manager-once-removed going to call into the office to discuss this bone-headed decision, the whole team? If we are going to call in the whole team, what do we need the manager for?”

“I’m listening,” I said.

“And, what of the dynamics in the decision meeting? If the decision is to be democratic, then team members will lobby their own agendas, sometimes hidden politics emerge to gain support from other members, perhaps a little arm-twisting. The manager almost becomes a bystander. And, yet, at the end of the day, it is the manager called to account for the bone-headed decision.”

“And?” I asked.

“It is only when the manager becomes accountable for the decision, that we can make headway,” Pablo described. “Team members now show up to provide feedback and support to the manager, who will make and be accountable for the decision. The team will play devil’s advocate, argue this position or that position, in short, create conflict. The point of the meeting is not to manage conflict, but create it, for the benefit of the decision. Don’t manage conflict, manage agreement.”

“And, the benefit?”

“A well argued decision,” Pablo said. “This only happens when we understand the working relationship between the team and the manager, with the manager accountable for the output of the team.”

Fix Accountability

“All well and good,” I said. “If we want to build managerial systems based on something other than greed, status and power, where do we start?”

“All at once, and all over,” Pablo chuckled. “Look, the first place we start is by clearly defining the working relationships people have with each other. There are two types, vertical managerial relationships and horizontal cross-functional relationships. When we look at those two types of working relationships, we most often fail to define the accurate placement of accountability and exact scope of authority.”

“Accountability?” I prompted.

“All too often, we fix accountability one level of work too low in the organization, and it plays into the blame game,” Pablo explained. “Between the team member and the manager, it is the manager accountable for the output of the team member.”

“How so?”

“Simple,” Pablo said. “The manager selected the team member, trained the team member, provided the tools for the team member, selected the project for the team member, created the working environment for the team member. The manager controls all the variables around the team member, it is the manager accountable for the output of the team member.”

“But if the team member underperforms, doesn’t that point the finger at the team member?” I countered.

“See, you fell right into the blame game,” Pablo smiled. “The team member does have an accountability, and that is to show up to work each and every day, to bring their full potential, to exercise their best judgement, in short, to do their best. It is the manager accountable for the team member’s output. The first place to start is to fix clear accountability.”