By Scott Berkun, June 1, 2006
In part one, I covered getting started, why managers are different and other essentials. Here in part 2 we get into tactics you need for the first few weeks.
Survival training of any kind teaches you one thing: before you act, know where you are. Say, for example, I dumped you, blindfolded and dehydrated, in the Swiss Alps. Your first move wouldn’t be to run around, tripping over stones, yelling orders at sheep. Instead you’d be best be served by figuring out how to remove that blindfold and get your bearings. Only then could you possibly find the direction most likely to provide you with shelter and drinking water (or at least some Swiss chocolate. Yum).
When you become a manager, even in an organization you’ve worked in for years, the landscape changes because of your new managerial status. Before you throw orders around and correct the mistakes of managers past, stop, look and listen. Observe what is happening today, right now. Talk to the people you’re working with and ask them what they see happening that you should be working on in your first weeks, especially the most experienced and respected people on your team. See what concerns or ideas they have that perhaps went unheard before. If nothing else, start building relationships from day one with those that work with and for you. Watch the clock in these meetings: make sure you spend more time listening to them than talking. If they ramble, ask them for recommendations. If they have nothing to say, invite them to follow up if they wish, but move on: there’s a lot to do.
During week one, the best thing for everyone is to be predictable and straightforward, especially if the group has seen rough times before you were hired. Being an honest, reasonable, and reliable manager for a few weeks will do more, 90% of the time, than any kind of imagined management heroics could. Even if there are serious problems, wait. Like the blindfolded man in the Alps, just because you’re in trouble doesn’t mean making big moves will save you: running straight ahead might just send you off a cliff (To the amusement of the sheep). Trying to be a hero, especially when you don’t have a clue, is about you and your ego, not the needs of the team. So unless there’s a fatal issue (company going bankrupt, missing a ship date tomorrow, website is crashing) don’t assume things have to change right away. Hold on until you understand what’s going on, why, and what assets you have to do anything about it. Focus on getting your bearings so that when you do take action within the next few weeks, you’ll be making decisions with confidence.
Setting the pace, tone and routine
In competitive rowing, the dude in front with the megaphone is called a coxswain. Besides having the strangest, most easily ridiculed name in the wide world of sports, his primary responsibility is keeping everyone in harmony. The reason for the coxswain’s dedicated role, a function so important that he does no other task such as, say, rowing, is pure physics. When everyone rows in synchronicity their effect is amplified: the same effort results in more power if it’s well managed. The value of this harmony is greater than the value of another rower: an excellent metaphor for management.
The hard part is that there’s more to setting the pace than owning a megaphone. Pace is rhythm, something in short supply among the business crowd, and the first step to getting rhythm is realizing how off rhythm you are. Any new music student learns about metronomes, devices that keep perfect rhythm, and uses them to keep time. Playing with a metronome makes the gaps in rhythm obvious and helps correct it. As a manager, the first move is to get a sense for the rhythm of the team. It won’t be a metronome, but it will be a reference point.
Work: How often do tasks take? Do people work in terms of days, hours, weeks? What are the size of most assignments? Do they actually get done? How is work tracked? How is work chosen? A wiki? A whiteboard? Looking at the website/build? How does this compare to other teams you’ve worked on or managed? Other teams in the organization?
Goals: Do people know what to do? Why they’re doing it? How it fits what others are doing? Do the goals match the business? Are the written well enough so people can both understand and apply them to daily work?
Change: What is the rate of new decisions and adjustments? Hourly? Daily? How easily/fast do people take in and use new information? Is change managed in hallways? E-mail? Wikis? The minds of a select few? Not managed at all? Have people given up making plans at all because of the tornado of chaos that circles the team?
Meetings: Do people meet informally (hallways, coffeerooms, offices) or formally (is it hard to find free meeting rooms)? How long do most meetings take? What is the pace of communication? Do meetings ever end early? Run long? What is the ratio of meetings to decisions? How many people are in most meetings? 5, 10, 15, 30? Is the exchange of ideas at a high level?
Tone: Do people smile? Is their enough trust for intense debate with people crying? Do people joke with each other? Are things loose and easy (MASH, the TV show) or uptight and rigid (Marines)? Do people comfortably depend on each other? Or is there just pretense?
People & Morale: What motivates these people? Money? Perks? Interesting work? Creativity? Control? Helping people? Comradery? Who likes who? Who hates who? Who is having sex, wants to have sex, or had sex with who? (You think I’m kidding, don’t you)
Performance: Is the quality of work high? Who is doing the best work relative to the goals? The worst? Do people have a sense for what they do well and do poorly? Are they motivated to do better work? Rewarded for it?
Once you have an assessment, make a rough list of the strengths and weaknesses. Put them in order of importance: now you know what you want to work to protect and work to change as a manager, when the opportunities arise. Don’t show this list to others, but expect to talk about your top 3 observations to others so you can compare notes, improve your understanding and improve your sense of what the tone and rhythm need to be.
Learning your team
Managers are only as good as their ability to put people in situations that take advantage of their strengths and grow their weaknesses. If you can’t do that, you could have the most talented, high potential team in the world and quickly run them into the ground. Great managers by definition get the most out of the people who work for them. They manage with respect for the limitations of the people they have, but with insight into the potential they haven’t realized. If you have a team of horses, let them run. If you have a team of wolves, let them hunt. If you’re not sure what you have, see what happens when they run, hunt, shop, design, debate, negotiate, party, etc. You’ll always find you have a mixture of talents and attitudes that don’t perfectly fit the jobs that need to be done: but that’s why you have a salary. It’s your job to bring the team together, finding the best matches of people and jobs that need to be done.
Review, one person at a time, if the people on your team are in the right roles for the project, and the right roles for them. The mismatches are often the best places to focus on.
There are two things you don’t want when it comes to decision making: to be a wimp or a tyrant. If when you propose changes you cave in at the most reasonable questions, you’re digging a hole for your management career: it will be harder to roll out your next decision. At the same time a tyrant, even a smart tyrant, fails for lack of collaboration. No one likes being told what to do, even if there are good reasons. A tyrant eventually misses something, and their obsessive self-reliance turns small oversights into big problems.
The middle ground, a good place in this case, is to build your way to taking action, especially ones involving personnel (changing roles, jobs, assignments). The rough guide to action has 3 steps:
- Clarify the problem you are trying to solve (e.g. “We need to respond faster to customer feedback”). Talk to the people involved about the problem and discuss with them, evolving the problem, and possible solutions, as you go. It’s a red flag if you can’t convince smart people it’s an important problem.
- Create a rough plan. (“Someone, possibly Sally, needs to drive customer feedback”). Discuss your options with your reports that are affected. Based on #1 you should know where they’ll be sensitive and either modify the proposal or have a plan for convincing them in your back pocket.
- Take action. (“Sally is now responsible for feedback.”)
As people build trust in you, the need for consensus and hand holding decreases. However, in actions that impact people’s careers, you always want to err on the side of involving them early and often. Strive to involve people in matters that define their fate. If you’re a middle manager or an executive you can’t do this for everyone, but by doing it for your directs, you’ll send waves of involvement through the organization. This kind of trust is rare and powerful: the points you score with your team pays off threefold down the line when you need to ask them to do something they don’t want to do.