Tag Archives: work

What Tone Do You Set?

What is more contagious than a positive attitude? A negative attitude, of course!

I always ask, “Think of one positive thing that has happened to you this past week.” Often, I receive blank stares, quizzical looks, some hard thinking going on there. Given another thirty seconds, most can finally come up with something. What makes this exercise so difficult?

A much easier question would have been, “What is the worst thing that happened to you this past week?” People never have trouble coming up with that one. They are happy to tell you about things not working out in their lives. Interesting that makes them so happy.

Thinking negative thoughts is largely an unconscious activity. People express negative thoughts without thinking. Idle gossip is rarely intentional, it just happens and those who get sucked into it are not even aware they are traveling in that direction.

As a manager, if you want to set a positive tone, you will have to challenge your team to think about positive things. The expression of positive thoughts is a conscious activity. It requires active thinking. It is work to think that way. Positive thoughts and positive expression only occur intentionally. As a manager, it is your responsibility to challenge your team to think this way.

Think of the tone it sets for the rest of the meeting/day/week?

Setting Context

“One of my main responsibilities, as a manager, is to set the context for my team? What do you mean?” Paula asked. “I assume this is more than introducing each other.”

“It’s all about the work,” I replied. “Context starts with a clear understanding of the task at hand. What is the quantity, quality standard, necessary resources and the time frame. QQT/R.

“Next, is how that assigned task fits with the larger picture, that you, as a manager are accountable for. This provides the team with an understanding of just how big their role is, in the larger picture.

“Context also includes the work their teammates are doing, work that intersects with their work, work output they may be waiting for, work output they produce that someone else may be waiting for.

“Context answers the questions – How do I fit in? What is the importance of the work I am doing? What do others depend on me for? One of the primary accountabilities for every manager is to set context for the team.”

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.”

All About the Work

“Brent, let me get this straight. You said that your salespeople may not be doing their best because they may not be interested in the work? Do your salespeople understand the work?”

“You’re right! Sometimes, it’s like they are brain dead. They are just mechanistic, going through the motions,” Brent described.

“So, they understand the prescribed duties, show up, make a presentation, ask for the order. But let me confirm, they may not understand the problems that must be solved or the decisions that must be made to create a successful sale?”

“Exactly, I mean we train them and train them again on the presentation, until they have it memorized, down cold, but you are right, that does not make a successful sale. The success of the sale depends much more on the questions they ask and the data they collect about the customer’s problem.”

“So, as the Sales Manager, do you sit with your team and talk about the problems that must be solved and the decisions that must be made during the sales call? That’s where the work is. That’s where the excitement is. That’s where the challenge is. If you are looking for interest from the salesperson, the connection is in the work, not the prescribed duties.”

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.”

What’s the Work?

“We have an opening on the team,” Marlena announced.

“And, you would like my help?” I asked.

“Yes, what kind of person should we hire?” she wanted to know.

“What’s the work?” I asked.

“It’s a project manager role, coordinating and organizing all the elements of projects we have in-house,” Marlena replied. “I am thinking we should hire someone who is analytical, good attention to detail, works well under pressure. Oh, and they have to work well with people, because there are people involved in all our projects. I think it is a very specific personality profile.”

I chuckled. “So, this person would only be able to work in the project manager role you have in mind?”

“Not necessarily, there may be other things they could do, but you have to be a special sort of person to be a project manager. There’s a lot of multi-tasking, to make sure none of the balls get dropped.”

“Marlena, the things you describe are character traits for most all jobs. Most every role requires someone who is reasonably analytical, reasonably organized, has reasonable attention to detail and can reasonably pace a project so that it meets internal deadlines. You seem to be focused on things you might describe as character traits. I want you to shift your focus to behaviors. Behaviors is how work gets done. My first question to you was – What’s the work? We often get carried away trying to climb inside the personality heads of candidates without a clear understanding of What’s the work?

Assumptions About Work

“I would assume most companies have real problems to solve, so what do you mean, if you want your team to feel high levels of job satisfaction, you give them a real problem?” I asked.

Pablo thought for a moment. “Sometimes, companies engage in contrived exercises. To build a team, they take a group to a local ropes course, or a game of tug-of-war over a mud pit. Those exercises provide only temporary relief, short-lived when the team returns to work. The work itself has to be satisfying.”

“What leads a company astray?” I wanted to know.

“Oh, that’s not so hard to understand,” Pablo replied. “First, I think we have misconceptions about why people work. And, then we base our managerial systems on those misconceptions. It’s a flywheel that eats itself.”

“Misconceptions?”

“Some companies think people work only because they have to, only in exchange for meager compensation to put food on their table. Or, more substantial compensation so they can buy a boat. They believe employees are simply self-centered and have no inherent need to work. That our labor system exists only as a commodity. It’s a scarcity mentality.”

“As opposed to?” I said.

“People have an inherent need to work. People have an inherent need to contribute, to their own self-independence, and also to the positive social systems in which we live. Look at the number of hours in a work week. It has been coming down over time, but in the US is currently settled at around 40 hours. People need a substantial, material amount of sustained work, where they can contribute their full capability to solving problems and making decisions. Managerial systems based on this understanding are much different than those based on greed.”

State of Mind of the Group

“It’s the difference between work and non-work,” I said. “Both work and non-work are states of mind. Non-work is an unconscious state of mind. Work is a conscious state of mind. Non-work just happens on its own with no particular direction. Work only happens when there is a purpose.”

Nathan and I had been discussing a simple start to a meeting where he asked each team member to contribute a piece of good news to start the meeting.

“So, I am connecting this exercise at the beginning of the meeting with a state of mind?” Nathan asked.

“Absolutely,” I responded. “Thoughts drive behavior. And if your thoughts connect to a purpose, then you are more likely to engage in work. If your thoughts are not connected to a purpose, then your behavior is likely to be unconscious and non-productive. How you think is everything.”

The First Sea Change

The first sea change for every organization is the way we organize work. The startup asks this question of every new team member. “What do you do well, where can you help us?”

“I can do this and I can do that.”

“Great, because we have some of this and some of that for you to do.”

We always start off organizing the work around the people. People with special talents get special work, others not so much.

Is there work left over? There is always work left over. It doesn’t take long for the founder to understand we can no longer organize the work around the people. We have to organize the people around the work. And, that is the first sea change for every organization, the emergence of roles.

Humpty Dumpty Sat on a Wall

All the king’s horses and all the king’s men couldn’t put Humpty together again.

Yesterday, someone asked me, as we move from shelter-in-place to a re-open of the economy, what should a CEO think about? Of course, there is work to be done, and we will bring people back to do that work, but what should the CEO think about?

  • What does my market environment look like in three months time, one year’s time, two years time? This includes market demand, regulations, capital requirements, availability of labor and technology.
  • What should my company look like in three months time, one year’s time, two years time?
  • What are the internal functions necessary to support my product or service in that market demand?
  • Inside each function, what is the level of decision making and problem solving?
  • What roles do I need to make those decisions and solve those problems?
  • Do I have people on my team who can effectively play those roles?

There are two concepts embedded in these questions.
Necessity
Levels of work (levels of decision making, levels of problem solving)

Necessity
If your company considered the purchase of a $100,000 machine, and it was NOT necessary, would you buy it? That same decision has to be made about the roles inside the company. Now, is an opportunity to examine your organizational design and ask, is this necessary?

Levels of Work
Most CEOs do not think about the work necessary to make the product or provide the service. Understanding the level of decision making and the level of problem solving are specific clues to the talent you need. Now, is an opportunity to examine the levels of work and ask, do I have the people on my team who can effectively make those decisions and solve those problems.