Lead People, Manage Expectations

Lead people, Manage expectations

So, we’re going to go on a quick departure from the Book Report post I had put up a few weeks ago in favor of something a little more personal (we’ll include a few obligatory tie-ins, natch).

So, right around the time I had published the last post I was prepping a presentation for a client with two other developers. We had received a fairly open request to help get them up to speed on what basically amounted to “give us the lay of the land regarding web development”. The business relationship manager that initially connected us (the team) with this particular request also hadn’t really provided us with much direction other than “Just answer the questions they put fowrard”.

It was your textbook definition of “consulting” – Little to no direction, big expectations, short timelines. Nothing the group of us couldn’t handle, of course, but as the date drew a bit nearer, people were on edge, content wasn’t ready, and the pressure of the rest of our responsibilities started to creep in.

The evening before we were due to present I was chatting with the guys in the slack channel (if you don’t know what that is … you probably need to – more on that in another post) we created to manage the effort and make sure we were all aligned in terms of what needed doing (with no useless meetings cause #thatshowweroll). Bouncing some ideas back and forth resulted in frustrations getting voiced regarding the aforementioned lack of direction. Blowing off steam is something that we all do from time to time, and one of the guys was exercising his right to do so.

A few messages later and a couple of direct shots directed at me and I realized the conversation wasn’t going to be productive… time to switch mediums. We moved the discussion to an Appear.In chat room and started to hash it out. We took the opportunity to refocus, zoom in on the things that mattered, and put together a plan that allowed everyone to finish up in time keeping the amount of extra curricular effort down to a minimum.

There was a visceral difference in the way he was sitting, holding his posture, and discussing the solution we came up with by the end of the conversation compared to the beginning. We were past it. Moving the convo back to the slack channel we wrapped up the night’s discussion with the following two emotes:

[11:55pm] Team-Guy: is feeling less stressed

[11:55pm] Me: is happy. 

It got me thinking.

It actually pulled me back to the book that was sitting beside me on my computer desk (a.k.a. Teams are Worth It). That discussion, that’s what teamwork is all about. That’s what leadership is all about, really. My job wasn’t to write or deliver the content, it was to make sure everything the team needed was in place so they could do their job effectively. It’s so much like the the six messages Barbara suggested you should communicate to your team on a dialy basis. It also reminded me of an email I had written to my management team over a year ago discussing what real leadership looks like and the 10 items I felt were most important.

It’s basically the guiding set of principles I keep with me and remind myself of as often as I can when running any kind of team or group effort. It was my Leadership Mantra and I figured now was as good a time as any to share it with you all.

My Leadership Mantra (a.k.a. my Leadership Top 10 – but TopX lists are played out)

Leadership Mantra

  1. If you’re not five minutes early, you’re late.
  2. If you need or want something to happen, own that responsibility and make it happen.
  3. Never put yourself in a position to have to take something away from your team. Never ask for something from your team you aren’t prepared to give / do yourself.
  4. Do not be self-deprecating to ease tension. We are here to raise each other up, not pull each other down.
  5. Act in the interest of and with the intent of protecting the team. Remove roadblocks and sources of friction. Advocate for your team.
  6. Really listen. Don’t just wait for your turn to start talking. More often than not there is value in hearing perspectives other than your own.
  7. Be open to new ideas / different opinions. Everyone should have  an opportunity to provide value in their role. Our different experiences all bring different benefits to the team. (i.e. Don’t place too much value in titles and org chart positions)
  8. Empower each team member to be as autonomous as the project / project schedule can allow. Strive to understand individuals’ perspective or motivations will go a long way towards getting buy-in from your team.
  9. Always be looking for growth opportunities for your team members. People should leave better and stronger than when they joined.
  10. Lead People, Manage Expectations

Shout out to all the leaders who have contributed towards my growth and helped me create this list (Major Winters, Brian McKay, Craig Plysiuk, Ria Neuendorff, and my wife Jessica)

Possibly the best leadership book I’ve ever read (Part 1)

After I got into the writing of this post I realized that the whole thing was too long for 1 entry. As a result I’ve broken up the initial piece into multiples which I’ll be posting weekly until the series is done.

It’s funny, over the past year or so the OBS book club has been focusing almost exclusively on books focused on leadership and self-improvement (no, not “self-improvement”) and it has provided us with some pretty profound insights into what makes good and bad leaders as well as good and bad organizations. Thinking back to some of the books we ready like “Start with Why” or “Strategy and the Fat Smoker” and though the tone in each book is different many of the underlying messages are actually the same when it comes to what makes great organizations great. Sharing a workplace with like-minded people who have business goals that are aligned with your own should result in some measure of success. Granted, Sinek would chalk this alignment between employees and leadership up to trusting each other while Maister would say:

If an organization’s leaders want their people to believe that a new strategy is being followed, they must establish credibility by proving that they are prepared to change themselves: how they act, measure, and reward.

…but the idea is the same.

Both books are referencing the idea that you need to practice what you preach and stand by your word to earn credibility with the people that work both with, and for you. Another way to think about this is that both books are really speaking to a leader’s conviction to

Do the right thing…

Even when its hard or not immediately obvious…

Which results in eventual trust

It feels automatic that we’d agree with such an obvious statement, doesn’t it? Isn’t that EXACTLY what we want not only our leaders, but the people they mentor to be able to demonstrate? You can’t teach strength of character, but through modelling and strong leadership, the hope is that at least a few good habits get picked up by the next generation, or in this case, the next generation of leaders. The ideas around how we can lead such that we maximize the opportunity for our teams to grow is the subject of the book in question and hence why I’m writing to you all right now. Which (finally) brings me to the point of this post.

So what’s the big deal? Well I found it interesting to discover that this book (which I’ve gone through multiple times) was written over 20 years ago, it has no references to business / markets / strategies / corporations / etc. and is, in fact, about parenting. Think about it, what is parenting but the most important leadership job you could ever apply for. Counterintuitive to nearly everything we try and apply process against, this most important role comes with no on-boarding manual, no interview process, and no prerequisites with regards to qualifications or experience.

Alive 9 months ago? Check! … Aaaand you’re in!

Enter: Kids Are Worth It.

In my opinion this has the potential to be a huge addition your leadership toolkit (provided you’ll allow me to make a few small substitutions – more on that later)

Barbara Coloroso released the first edition of “Kids Are Worth It” back in 1994. Consider that for a second. 1994? That was before the internet. Before the dot-com bust. Before everyone and their dog had the ability to share their ideas immediately and be exposed (subjected?) to the scrutiny of the world wide web. It’s almost crazy to consider that so much of this book is still applicable in the workplace of today.
So what about this book really grabbed my attention? I enjoyed it’s simplicity, its directness, and quite frankly its lack of long drawn out references to research conducted so long ago that there is no way it could be considered even remotely relevant. How many times have you read a book (let’s say this year – for argument’s sake) and the author is quoting research performed 6 / 7 years ago? How often, then, do you also take a second to think:

Do I even believe that? Is this even still a thing?

Barbara doesn’t go into any of that. She provides anecdotes which quickly get to the point and immediately follows it up with resolutions and strategies to correct or support different behaviors. Now granted, many of the examples are related specifically to families and, not surprising, children, but for the purposes of this post lets do a quick swap of:

Parents <—-> Leaders

Children <—-> Team

Now before anyone throws their hands up and gets all enraged about comparing your team to children (despite how appropriate it may be), go back up and re-read what I’m actually saying here:

We’re not drawing a comparison, we’re swapping these labels to demonstrate how the concepts in this book translate from a family to your workplace (arguably a different kind of family).

The core concept of this book relies around three kinds of leaders (NB: we said we were substituting – stay with me):

  1. Jellyfish – No firm parts at all and reacts to every eddy and current that comes along. Structure is almost nonexistent; the need for it may not even be acknowledged or understood.
  2. Backbone – A living supple spine that gives form and movement to the whole body. Structure is present and firm and flexible and functional
  3. Brick wall – A nonliving thing designed to restrict to keep in, and to keep out. The structure is rigid and used for control and power both of which are in the hands of the leader

Coloroso immediately points out that the underlying difference between these leaders is:

… the kind of structure that holds them together. This structure affects all the relationships of the teamteam member to leader, leader to team member, leader to leader, and team member to team member …

We’ve probably all had an opportunity to work with one or more of these kinds of leaders or been part of teams matching one or more of these descriptions in the past. I found it fascinating how immediately transferable the concepts felt in terms of the teams I’ve seen operate at many different companies in many different industries. In addition to these team or leadership descriptions, the basic characteristics of each team type were provided along with a particularly interesting set of messages the Backbone leader specifically should be providing to their team on a daily basis (adjusted slightly for context):

I believe in you

I trust you

You can handle situations that arise

You are listened to

You are cared for

You are important

I feel that the best leaders with which I’ve had the opportunity to work have actually done a good job of communicating most, if not all, of these messages as frequently as possible. Actually, I feel like the best leaders do a good job of communicating these messages without the use of words. The 1000:1 ratio with words is well known, but best felt when you’re given a task slightly outside your comfort zone, put in a position to succeed and are provided with the tools and support you need without anyone expressly saying “I know you can do this, I believe in you” (though I still buy into that as well).

six leadership messages

It comes back to doing the things which may initially be challenging and potentially counter-intuitive in a “business environment” but result in increased cohesion among the team and ultimately increased trust… #simonsinekherewegoagain

… and really, isn’t that what we want to develop in all of the teams we have the opportunity to be a member of?

Don’t give them an answer, just tell them what you believe

For the past two weeks I’ve been preparing for a presentation I’ll be delivering to an out-of-province client. Doing so has brought back some old memories from a few years back when I was coaching someone for an interview they were really hoping to nail. I created this post to talk about something that ended up being a really powerful moment in my career and a real eye-opener in terms of taking advantage of certain opportunities to shine. It was the kind of thing you look back on, and only now can you understand the profound effects it’s going to have (or already has had) on your life. Before I start droning on about my delusions of grandeur, I’m probably getting away from myself a little bit here…

I’ll first explain a few things about the organizational structure here at Online. It’s generally flat with only a few managerial and executive positions. A handful of executives, couple of directors, throw in one or two administrative staff and that’s really it, not bad for a company of like 300ish people. The remainder of the positions are filled by the consultants.

In addition to the management roles described previously, we also have a number of senior individuals (from the consulting pool) who have been identified as ‘leaders’ and act as mentors for the less experienced consultants within the organization. The idea is that while we hire all kinds of great people, the people who are more experienced are assigned between one and six group members (mentees) to whom they can provide advice and guidance. The mentees have a clear and direct connection to some of our best people and have a real opportunity to become even greater. YES!

Get it? Good.
Don’t? Well it’s not super important you understand how this all works anyway.

Before anyone reads this and starts thinking:

Hey wait a minute… if you work for a good company you wouldn’t need just ONE person to act as a mentor for the group members … EVERYONE can contributing to everyone else in different ways / areas.”

You’re absolutely right.

At the same time, that’s also exactly how this works; while it’s true that everyone is assigned a mentor, you always have the option of talking to anyone within the org who you believe could provide value – you just get the added benefit of starting with someone dedicated to checking in on your well-being. The idea here is that if we’re falling back to Simon Sinek’s idea of the circle of trust, having someone immediately on day one that you can turn to and start establishing a closer relationship built on trust is just straight-up all upside.

Aaaaaaaaaaaanyway … Long story painful, as it turns out, I’m in one of those mentor roles.

We’re aware that with great power comes great responsibility, and while being a mentor is really worthwhile experience for me, it’s also a lot of work. As a result, there’s still some organizational processes around the selecting who should and shouldn’t be promoted to a mentorship role. It was during a conversation with of the members of my group that I had this really awesome experience. Ironically (like Alanis style, not Merriam Webster style), this discussion was regarding their interest in becoming a career mentor themselves.

The two of us sat down to go through some examples of questions he might be asked during the interview portion of the application (more on the process another time – and my not-so-humble opinion on the usage of interviews ((Me? Not so humble? Naaaaaah))). I posed a few questions to this particular mentee starting with:

“Why do you want to do this job?”

His response? He started telling me about how he likes working with people, his ability to connect and understand others, and his interest in growing the skills of his co-workers.

Well hell, that’s pretty damn good, no?

Sure it is, if you were going for a generic response better geared towards succeeding in interviews held on those little benches in the middle of a shopping mall. We weren’t talking about becoming a store clerk here, we were talking about succeeding to a mentorship role in this great company he works for. His eye contact was only so-so, body language was leaving him bent over in his chair, and generally I just didn’t buy in. So, I leaned forward and asked him to tell me a story about his son.

He started… and the difference in delivery was immediate…
2His eyes brightened, his posture improved, he smiled, it was like I was talking to a completely different person. It was incredible. I sat there smiling, let him finish. and then we broke down the differences between the two responses he gave. We discussed the difference between simply telling me what he thought I wanted to hear (his first answer), and what he truly felt and believed (the second). When he was communicating from somewhere deeper, something that mattered to him, something with which he had a real connection, suddenly there was some real power and conviction in the message he was sending out.

The issue was that at first he was concerned about saying the “right” thing to the “right” person in order for them to believe he was the obvious choice for the role. The key thing to understand is that if you are, in fact, the right person for the role then telling them what you believe will only confirm this to the person on the other side of the table. Conversely just giving the right answer could result in succeeding to a position, landing a contact, etc. that you only thought you wanted but in reality weren’t truly suited for.

It comes down to understanding yourself. Understanding what got you here. Understanding that the person you are is the result of the sum of your experiences (and the experiences of your parents/predecessors/etc.) and that is a valuable thing in and of itself. For those that sometimes struggle with trusting their own instincts, I often suggest turning to a (somewhat) well known piece written by Portia Nelson called Autobiography in Five Short Chapters (if you haven’t read it I literally can’t recommend it enough). It has been an amazing catalyst for change and clarity in a ton of situations that I’ve faced over the years. I think I also like it so much because it really highlights the difference between fault and responsibility so clearly (something else I’ll have to get on my soap box about one day).

3

As I go to back to prepare for this presentation, I have to reflect back on what got me here, why the client had selected our proposal for their short list, and how I’m going to absolutely rock their socks next week.