Art of Managing—Sometimes You Have to Slow Down to Go Faster

Graphic with the words of Art of Managing and other management termsThe Art of Managing series is dedicated to exploring the critical issues we face in guiding our firms and teams to success in today’s volatile world.

Today’s management literature is filled with references to speed. If we’re following the trends, we’re all growing more “agile” and likely “lean” in the process. We’re working in “sprints” and “bursts,” and of course, we’re “teaming” whenever possible.

Other firms are “reacting aggressively” to competitor moves and one CEO I was talking with described a “blitzkrieg move” (lightning warfare) into a new market segment. Another top executive emphasized wanted his team to be more nimble in response to competitor issues.

All of this motion may be helping our waistlines, dancing moves and cardio health, but I’m not convinced that speed is always the right answer.

Sometimes you just have to slow down to go faster.

4 Key Situations Where Pausing Before Acting Makes Good Business Sense

1. Hiring Key Talent. While you might be critically short of talent in certain areas of your business, this is one area where haste will indeed make waste that you can ill afford to create. Hire slow. Get to know your candidate over time and in multiple settings. Work hard to assess mutual culture fit and involve the candidate with his/her potential team members. The opportunity cost of a poor key hire is too big to let the need for speed govern your actions.

2. Learning to Better Understand Your Customers/Prospects. Surveys, focus groups and executive customer visits are no substitute for taking the time and doing your best imitation of an anthropologist, observing customers or prospects in their natural settings. Watching individuals interact with your offerings or, better yet, trailing them for a period and cultivating a deep understanding of “a day in their life,” is a slower moving, deliberate process that has the potential to gain more insights and ah ha moments than a lifetime of online surveys.

3. Responding to Competitor Moves. While this might seem like the perfect situation to employ instantaneous response, there are many situations where a pause to better understand the move and cultivate a thoughtful, complete response may be in order. If your competitor is playing checkers, you might want to redefine the game as chess. The danger on one hand is being lulled into an unwinnable and ongoing set of tit for tat moves that destroy value for both firms. Also, a good competitor will throw strength against your weakness and if your response is from that perspective, you end up chasing your tail for a long time. Consider a broader response. Use your superior understanding of your customers to redefine your package of offerings. Kick back with something you do very well that is meaningful to your clients and let your competitor chase you. In most cases, simply matching a response is a fool’s game.

4. Restructuring the Team/Organization. This is one that some firms engage in like clockwork, and while organizational design is indeed a competitive tool, it is one to use sparingly and only based on a crystal clear strategy. Too many firms restructure first and then look for the strategy, when the right approach is to do just the opposite. Beware the temptation to simply move boxes on charts and think you are solving something. Most often, you’re not.

The Bottom-Line for Now:

I prefer adjusting my team’s cadence to the demands of a situation over an ungoverned pursuit of speed. And yes, sometimes the cadence is fast…quick cycles, sense and respond, but in the circumstances above and many others, good managers see the risks in speed and the gains from slowing to consider the next actions. This coping with speed places huge pressure on top management to clarify strategies and goals and for all members of a firm to strive to connect their work and their pace to the bigger picture. While speed is inherent in our world, sometimes it truly pays great dividends to slow down and assess the situation.

Don’t miss the next Leadership Caffeine-Newsletter! Register herebook cover: shows title Leadership Caffeine-Ideas to Energize Your Professional Development by Art Petty. Includes image of a coffee cup.

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An ideal book for anyone starting out in leadership: Practical Lessons in Leadership by Art Petty and Rich Petro.

Just One Thing—Cultivate Your Project Leadership Skills

Just One ThingThe “Just One Thing” Series at Management Excellence is intended to provoke ideas and actions around individually important topics. Use them in good health and great performance!

Increasingly, the work of organizations is completed in the form of projects. Strategy is executed in projects. Innovation efforts take on the form of projects. Quality improvement efforts start-out as projects. Even planning the company holiday party qualifies as a project, albeit, a particularly stressful one.

Understanding the discipline and tools of project management is now de rigueur for professionals with any intention of growing in their careers. Whether you are an individual contributor, a functional manager or an executive, it’s great to understand the issues, challenges and practices of delivering projects.

However, when I take a close look at project teams that struggle (and too many do), it’s generally not the misapplication of project management tools or practices that are at the source of the problems. Most often, it’s the absence any visible form of project leadership.

Consider: project teams are generally temporary groupings of individuals with different skill-sets but a shared interest in creating something unique. Often, these individuals have little experience in working with each other, and while they might share an interest in the outcome, it’s dangerous to assume that this group will magically or easily coalesce into a functioning unit capable of navigating all of the issues that arise on teams and with projects.

The Project Manger/Leader is responsible for guiding this team from selection and assembly through the murky woods of learning to act, decide, learn, argue, resolve, create and execute together. And for an encore, they have to coordinate the phases of the project, the use of the tools and the communication and coordination and general herding of cats necessary to move the team forward and keep the stakeholders appropriately informed.

The most successful project leaders I’ve encountered are lifetime students of human nature, relentlessly focused on engaging the hearts and minds of their team members and forming a team environment where the landmines surrounding human interaction can be safely navigated.

These individuals take the time to cultivate their leadership and coaching skills. They develop confidence in delivering tough feedback and they work hard to create visibility for and support the development of their high performing team members.

And along the way, they create remarkable value for their firms, rescuing troubled projects and safely guiding even the most challenging of these activities to success.

The Bottom-Line for Now:

Remember to put the “Leadership” into your firm’s project work. If you’re a project management professional, invest in your leadership skills development and put the tools to work to strengthen your performance and your team’s performance. If the project culture in your firm is more informal, remember to bring the leadership focus when it’s your turn to plan the holiday party or plan that new market launch.

Don’t miss the next Leadership Caffeine-Newsletter! Register herebook cover: shows title Leadership Caffeine-Ideas to Energize Your Professional Development by Art Petty. Includes image of a coffee cup.

For more ideas on professional development-one sound bite at a time, check out: Leadership Caffeine-Ideas to Energize Your Professional Development

New to leading or responsible for first time leaders on your team? Subscribe to Art’s New Leader’s e-News.

An ideal book for anyone starting out in leadership: Practical Lessons in Leadership by Art Petty and Rich Petro.

5 Radical and Irreverent Ideas to Help You Find Focus at Work

Image of a magnifying glass hovering over the word FocusA typical day in most workplaces is one unending series of large and small distractions that combine to keep most of us from making much forward progress on our one or two real priorities that matter. I can’t count how many times I’ve heard people mutter around 5:15 p.m. that they are finally getting to the task they had started the day intending to complete.

Sadly, the workplace environment may be the single biggest inhibitor of effective workplace productivity.

5 Radical Ideas to Help You Find More Focus:

Health warning. Applying these ideas without a bit of common-sense and discretion may be harmful to your boss’s view of you. On the other hand, you might just make enough progress on your priorities to earn the boss’s undying gratitude.

1. Ignore Your Outlook Calendar. Yeah, I know…you would rather not wear underwear to work than go an hour without your precious calendar. This marvel of software engineering may be the greatest tool on the planet for organizing and systematizing distractions in the form of useless updates, never-ending status check-ins and meetings with no particular purpose that anyone can discern. Unless it involves a boss, the boss’s boss or a real boss in the form of a customer, try ignoring the rest of the filler in your schedule and use the time wisely on something that matters.

2. Say “No” to People Who Just Want to Talk. These human time-sinks (the analog equivalent of heat sinks in electronics that suck the heat out of the environment) amble into your assigned work space, plop their rear-ends down and regale you with tales of irrelevant crap. Before you know it, you’ve been lulled into a catatonic trance by the drone of their voice and you only snap out of it when mercifully, your Outlook meeting alarm goes off, offering you an excuse to trade this waste of time for another. Learn to politely shut these people down in the interest of getting your work done. Do this consistently and you’ll train them to stay away. Steel yourself for the sad puppy dog looks you get when you politely nudge them the hell out of your office.

3. Quit Deleting Things from Your E-Mail In-Box. Much like my Outlook comment above, I feel a ripple in the force for this one. Efficiency experts everywhere, you have permission to be outraged by this idea! In reality, there’s not a damned thing you’ll do better if your e-mail in-box is pristine. It might satisfy some goofy psychological need, but here’s a dirty little secret for most of us: the search function makes your in-box the greatest digital filing cabinet you’ll ever not own. The 1.2 million e-mails in my g-mail in-box (OK, it’s only 67,000 and I have to pay google $5 a year for storage space) are happily searchable at light speed and I know where everything is. And face it. At the end of your life, if you could have back the hours you invested over a career in cleaning up your in-box, I bet you would like that time back.

4. “Just Say No” to Powerpoint.  Seriously…one more flipping trip through a death-march of serial boredom perpetrated on me by individuals who missed the memo on bullets, font-size and pixels on screen, and I might lose it. What started out as a cool way to share ideas has turned into the single biggest inhibitor of effective dialog ever invented. Turn off the projector and the computer, stare at your colleagues and start talking. If you need a picture, go to a white-board. You’ll be amazed at the quality of the conversations when people are freed from the tyranny at staring at a screen until they start drooling.

5. Let the Little Things Age On Your To-Do List. This isn’t a game of volume, it’s a game of quality. If you’re a chronic “To-Do” list maker, make certain to focus on the one (or at most two) major issues on your list. While you might feel like you’re making progress by knocking out a bunch of the little items, it’s a never-ending trap that guarantees you’ll never make it to the big items. Somehow those pesky mosquito-like tasks multiply and just when you swat a bunch out of the way, the new ones return. Let the buzzing continue, because there are dragons that need slaying.

The Bottom-Line for Now:

Time is our most precious asset. It’s irreplaceable, and the top performing professionals I know are remarkable at focusing on what matters and pushing the other items out of sight and out of mind. It’s easy for us to be lulled into the rhythm of the daily workplace and all its inherent distractions. It’s essential for us, for our teams and for our organizations to fight the distractions and find the time to focus on the issues that matter. If you cannot connect an activity to serving a customer, serving an employee or team member or helping the company beat a competitor or achieve key goals, it’s not an activity worth pursuing.

Don’t miss the next Leadership Caffeine-Newsletter! Register herebook cover: shows title Leadership Caffeine-Ideas to Energize Your Professional Development by Art Petty. Includes image of a coffee cup.

For more ideas on professional development-one sound bite at a time, check out Art’s book: Leadership Caffeine-Ideas to Energize Your Professional Development

New to leading or responsible for first time leaders on your team? Subscribe to Art’s New Leader’s e-News.

An ideal book for anyone starting out in leadership: Practical Lessons in Leadership by Art Petty and Rich Petro.

 

Leadership Caffeine—Managing and Developing the Extraordinary

image of a foam coffee cup with brown outer sleeveThe Leadership Caffeine series is over 200 installments strong and is dedicated to every aspiring or experienced leader and manager seeking ideas, insights or just a jolt of energy to keep pushing forward. Thanks for being along for the journey!

Let’s face it, some people are graced with an extra gear that the rest of us don’t have. Whether it’s remarkable creativity or ingenuity, or incredible technical skills, it’s exciting to manage and support extraordinary individuals.

It’s also very challenging.

Good managers and leaders tailor their approach for individuals, however, when presented with someone who is light-years beyond their peers in certain areas, many managers stumble and struggle when it comes to daily management and on-going support and development. Here are some suggestions for strengthening your support of these unique individuals.

4 Suggestions for Managing and Developing the Gifted Individuals on Your Team:

1. Remember, you cannot compromise your standards for accountability and fairness. Standards of accountability and fairness must be universal, however, when it comes to supporting development and leveraging the skills of those uniquely gifted, don’t feel compelled to hold these people back. A superstar needs role players to win a championship. Nonetheless, in the eyes of your extended team, the accountabilities must be equal.

2. Beware Enabling the Brilliant Problem-Employee Syndrome. Closely related to the first point on accountability, I’ve viewed many individuals gifted with technical or creative skills who clearly were deficient in the emotional and social intelligence areas. (No intent to generalize here…just to describe personal examples.)

If you encounter one of these challenging characters, be careful not to rationalize or excuse aberrant behavior with something that sounds like, “That’s just Joe. He’s brilliant, but he struggles to participate in groups without running all over people.” I actually lived this and my own rationalization of the behavior hurt the team and my credibility as a manager.  In the end, it hurt the brilliant individual as well. Take action, provide coaching, training and ample heaping helpings of feedback, and put some teeth into the accountability for acceptable behaviors.

3. Carefully Tailor Professional Development to the Individual. While this is a good management practice for everyone on your team, it’s particularly important to customize the education and developmental opportunities for your gifted team members.

Challenge yourself to identify opportunities for this individual to engage with and learn from the leaders in their field. Encourage them to join and actively participate in relevant industry or professional organizations. And instead of reflexively exposing them to the mostly cookie-cutter training offerings provide via HR, provide something unique. In the past, I’ve sent strategists to Harvard to learn from Clay Christensen, engineers to MIT, marketers to Kellogg and emerging leaders to The Center for Creative Leadership. The results were priceless and the costs trivial compared to the returns these people generated.

4. Ramp up and Amp up the Internal Challenges. I love the idea of applying Ram Charan’s perspective on developing senior leaders: expose them to a series of increasingly ambiguous challenges as part of the learning, developing and testing process.

For those great people I’ve managed who have exhibited that extra skills gear, I’ve learned that it’s easy to bore them into depression with mundane tasks and alternatively, it’s easy to lose them to the pursuit of explaining the unifying theory of everything. Instead of holding back or completely letting go, develop together with the individual a series of deliberate projects that grow increasingly challenging and ambiguous. Provide coaching and feedback and when you encounter performance areas that create problems for the individual, add-in developmental support.

The Bottom-Line for Now:

People are our business as leaders and managers, and they make this work remarkably challenging and incredibly rewarding. Supporting the daily work and on-going development of a gifted professional is in some ways much more difficult than dealing with poor performers. It takes balancing the need for equity across your team with the very real need to feed what is often a tremendous hunger to do more, learn more and experience more. Your challenge is to create the environment and pacing to make this work for all involved.

Don’t miss the next Leadership Caffeine-Newsletter! Register herebook cover: shows title Leadership Caffeine-Ideas to Energize Your Professional Development by Art Petty. Includes image of a coffee cup.

For more ideas on professional development-one sound bite at a time, check out Art’s latest book: Leadership Caffeine-Ideas to Energize Your Professional Development

New to leading or responsible for first time leaders on your team? Subscribe to Art’s New Leader’s e-News.

An ideal book for anyone starting out in leadership: Practical Lessons in Leadership by Art Petty and Rich Petro.

New Leader Tuesday—4 Big Benefits of Coaching Your Teams

Text image with New Leader Tuesday and a variety of management termsThe New Leader Tuesday series is dedicated to helping first-time, early career and even experienced professionals with a “beginner’s mind” progress on their journey towards effective leadership.

“I have no question that when you have a team, the possibility exists that it will generate magic, producing something extraordinary… But don’t count on it.”  -J. Richard Hackman

The operative phrase in the late Dr. Hackman’s quote is, “But don’t count on it.”

Too often and with the best of intentions, we assemble a team of our best and brightest to tackle an important issue and then assuming our job is done and the task is in the hands of these capable people, we step away and wait for the results. And all too often, instead of something magical from our teams, what we get back looks and feels a lot like flailing heading towards failing.

Effective leaders understand the importance of coaching to team success, and they either remain involved in this capacity or, better yet, they ensure that a responsible and objective third party is placed in this role.

At Least 4 Big Benefits of Coaching Your Project and Work Teams:

1. Speed and Focus from the Start. The presence of a coach helps teams accelerate through the forming and storming phases by ensuring clarity of and focus on the purpose of the team. While there’s always some natural and healthy “storming” around the definition of the project and the design of roles and accountabilities, a team coach can help minimize the flailing and ensure prompt and safe passage through the fuzzy front-end of a new initiative. Getting start-up right sets the tone for the much needed collaboration and coordination in subsequent phases.

2. Social Loafing is Stomped Out. Teams are at their best when every member of a group is fully engaged. Sadly, much like the many miserable classroom group projects we experienced in school, there always seems to be one or a few members who are distracted or uninvolved or, afraid to get involved. High performance is only achieved when every team member is actively engaged and participating and a team coach is invaluable to ensuring this takes place.

3. Teaches Teams to Talk. While everyone shows up knowing how to talk, teams need to learn how to communicate. Emotions, opinions, agendas, power and all manner of biases serve to fight against effective communication in groups. Team coaches help parse those out in search of focus on the material issue…mission, scope, facts, framing, decision-making and execution.

4. Helps Navigate Around the Traps. We all know that people working in groups are potentially prone to various traps (e.g. group think, escalation of commitment, Abilene paradox, reliance on the wrong information/data) that threaten to adversely impact decision-making and project outcomes. An effective coach listens and watches for signs of emerging traps and helps teams navigate around them through careful use of questioning and polite but firm challenging of assumptions and issue framing.

The Bottom-Line for Now:

While some initiatives merit bringing in a professional team coach from outside, many project teams will benefit from simply inserting an uninvolved 3rd party who understands that he/she is there to deal with the above topics. Create a brief responsibility description for the team coach…make certain to build in and empower the role in the project charter. Evaluate the coaching component in the post-project debrief and refine the responsibility description to reflect lessons learned.

I’ve worked with organizations where functional managers or executives frequently participated in this activity by reciprocating with each other on different projects. In addition to a positive project outcome, the team members appreciated the help in navigating the sticky issues of group dynamics and performance and the organization took one more step down the road towards high performance.

More Professional Development Reads from Art Petty:book cover: shows title Leadership Caffeine-Ideas to Energize Your Professional Development by Art Petty. Includes image of a coffee cup.

Don’t miss the next Leadership Caffeine-Newsletter! Register here

For more ideas on professional development-one sound bite at a time, check out Art’s latest book: Leadership Caffeine-Ideas to Energize Your Professional Development.

Order one or both books for your team. Contact Art.

New to leading or responsible for first time leaders on your team? Subscribe to Art’s New Leader’s e-News.