Tuesday, July 25, 2006

Honesty is Respectful

I was impressed today with Johanna Rothman's blog entry With Feedback, It's Kind to be Firm. I've always loved the bad-hygiene discussion problem. I completely agree with Johanna's honest and direct approach.

Let me add that this approach is not only most effective, it is also most respectful. While people don't enjoy getting these difficult messages, they will understand the respect you've shown them by being honest and direct. It is a deposit in what Stephen Covey calls the emotional bank account. This respect comes not from what you say, but from what they know you didn't say. By being direct, there is a natural perception that you are not gossiping about them behind their back. It is one thing to hear that you have bad breath; it is quite another to think people have been giggling about it behind your back.

Monday, July 17, 2006

Trouble with Your Vision

I was talking to a manager today who was having problems developing a clear vision with her group. The best they could see was that there was little demand for the group beyond the next six months. My typical advice for vision forming is:

  1. Learn all you can by talking to various stake-holders
  2. Take your best guess at a workable direction
  3. Test the vision on various stake-holders
  4. Iterate back to the first step

Notice that there is never the step "Form a perfectly completed vision." Group vision should be an ever evolving process.

Anyway, this approach didn't seem adequate to the short-term problem at hand. They were focused on the metaphorical trees. It was time to step back and look at the forest. My recommendation: think bigger. Instead of trying to find a vision that took the group out to the next year, I recommended that she start by asking, "What do you want the group to look like three years from now?"

This long-term question takes the day-to-day concerns out of the problem. It helps the team focus on bigger questions of success and what the team values. Success creating a long-term vision changes the whole tenor of the short-term problem, turning it into an opportunity.

When Tim O'Reilly saw a downturn in the technical writing market, he set his pool of writers to internal projects with a long-term vision of creating books that could see the company (and a sleepy black lab) through the bumps in future markets. Now O'Reilly is a publishing powerhouse. This vision turned the problem of market dips into an opportunity.

My manager friend should be able to create a long-term vision and sell it to the decision making stake-holders. This lets her team treat downturns in short-term needs as an opportunity to advance the longer-term vision. It lets them see the forest and the trees.

Wednesday, July 05, 2006

Are You a Manager or a Leader?

Rear Admiral Grace Hopper made a distinction that I find helpful in teaching leadership:

"You don't manage people, you manage things. You lead people."

Deliverables are things that need to be managed. Risks are things that need to be managed. Schedules are things that need to be managed. Budgets are things that need to be managed. You can't lead a deliverable, a risk, a schedule or a budget. People are distinctly different.

You can't follow a set of defined steps to get people to follow you to the goal. This is one of the reasons that engineers have a hard time making a transition into management roles. They have always been taught that "if step A, then step B, result C will happen." This kind of logic doesn't work with people.

Another Grace Hopper quote helps us understand better:

"Humans are allergic to change."

Leading people is a process of moving them from the familiar and comfortable to the unknown. To successfully lead people, we need to make their desire to change overcome their fear of the unknown.

I'm also fond of the ideas of John Kotter from the Harvard Business School. He says that management is about making complex things more predictable. On the other hand, leadership is about making unpredictable things, such as change, more comfortable.

So, are you a manager or a leader? Do you help your people overcome their allergy to change? Do you help your people feel comfortable with the unpredictable? Or, do you treat them as things, and expect them to behave according to an "if A and B" formula? Be a leader.