This phrase shows you’re a disengaged manager

It’s another busy week for you and your team, and you are feeling very productive while working through your action list. You write a concise email to a few team members with the intent of delegating work for the coming week, and cheerily close with this line:

Let me know how I can help.

— what you said to your team

Those six words have just sent a powerful, yet subtle message to your team:

I want to maintain the appearance of supporting you, but I’m not actually engaged in your success.

— how your team perceives you

Genuine support arises from setting clear direction, being accessible to engage, and providing effective coaching. “Let me know how I can help” creates a veil of accessibility, while placing the burden entirely on the team to understand the direction and seek out the manager’s support. The irony of the disengaged manager is that the team members who could benefit most from support — those with the greatest need for direction and coaching — have the largest barrier to receiving support.

After clearly establishing the mission and purpose for the team (“the why”), setting clear direction means that you’ve defined both what to do and how to do it. To use a trivial example: when my family works together to prepare dinner, the why is an expression of our values (satisfy our nutritional needs, self-sufficiency, appreciation of diverse cuisines, etc.). The what is a set of tasks and recipes that comprise the meal, and the how is a standard of quality and steps to follow so that no one gets hurt and the meal is tasty.

In a work environment, the manager needs to discern whether the team member needs help with what to do or how to do it (or both). Asking questions (“Tell me how…”) and reviewing draft work product (“Show me what…”) are effective techniques to assess any gaps. The manager should be doing much more listening than talking in this interaction. The table below suggests some practical steps for the manager depending on each team member’s situation.

It’s not your team members’ responsibility to let you know how you can help them. As an engaged manager, genuine support arises from:

  • Setting clear direction by expressing the mission and purpose of the team’s work in clear and compelling terms (“the why”)
  • Being accessible to engage by scheduling regular 1:1 checkpoints and leaving blocks in your schedule when your team can find you for informal, ad hoc collaboration
  • Providing effective coaching by assessing whether each team member understands what to do and how to do it, and then following through with the right type of support for the scenario

How does this approach fit with your team culture? What’s stopping you as a manager from engaging more with your team? What’s an even better way to provide genuine support? Leave a comment below…

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Delegate everything

All of the time management books, blogs, lectures, and videos you’ve already seen boil down to two concepts:

  1. Prioritization: Is the right work getting the right amount of resource overall?
  2. Delegation: Is the active work being done with the right leverage in the organization?

Since “the right work” is always a mix of urgent, strategic, cash-generating, compliance-driven, and internally-focused tasks, the list can seem nearly endless. For that reason it can be more useful to flip the question: rather than asking “what work should be done today?” instead think about prioritization as deciding what work should not be done by anyone in the organization.

By extending the same logic to a manager’s own work list, think about delegation as deciding what work should not be done by the most senior person on the team.

Recently I’ve attempted to take this principle to the extreme by challenging myself to delegate everything. Does this mean that each day I do…nothing? Of course not (although I still aspire to). It does mean that for each new task that passes the prioritization filter above, I ask the following questions:

  • Who on my team has already demonstrated the capability to complete this work successfully?
  • Who on my team could take this work as a development opportunity?

Then I will spend a few minutes with these folks and review the “what by when” to ensure that the deliverable, the ready date, the standard of quality, and the approach are clear.

Now in many cases the team member(s) are not yet ready to take on the new work, either because the capability gap is a bit too large, or other work must get done within the available time. Whenever possible, it’s best for the team member to attempt the work even if the manager completes it, both for the experience and to capture some specific feedback that supports his or her professional development.

Regardless of whether the team member completes the delegate-able work, both the manager and the team member benefit:

  • More frequent calibration on the team members’ capabilities and gaps to the next level
  • More frequent and more specific feedback
  • More visibility into the “day in the life” of the manager, which helps to increase transparency about the present (“what does she do all day?”) and the future (“do I really want that job one day?”)
  • More effort applied at the highest point of leverage in the organization – meaning that work is done by the most junior person who can complete it successfully. This creates capacity for both senior and junior resources to tackle more challenging work

Delegation is difficult because when done properly, there is a genuine risk of failure for both parties. By attempting to delegate everything, you are flipping the question from “what can I delegate?” to “what can’t I delegate, and why?”

For more information on delegation, time management, and organizational design, try these books by Eliot Jaques, Andy Grove, and Peter Drucker.

Everything I Know About Team Dynamics, I Learned From Cooking with My Wife

While this post’s title is patently false, curiously any sample of historical evidence from my life would backtest very well. I’m fortunate that my wife and I share that sliver of a Venn diagram representing couples who enjoy cooking together (if you believe me) and who cook delicious meals together (if you believe our guests).

per-capita-consumption-of-mozzarella-cheese-us_lawyers-in-hawaii
Well, we do serve cheese often, but… [credit: tylervigen.com]
This is not a cooking blog, so let’s focus on the principles that make us an effective team:

Be Accountable for Outcomes, Not Tasks

It’s possible to assemble perfectly prepared ingredients into a terrible meal. Rather than assigning responsibility for strictly defined steps in a process, delegate outcomes and give flexibility in the steps to achieve them. In our kitchen, this means we each take ownership of a course in the meal or a finished product on the plate, instead of the specific steps across the meal (chop, saute, sauce, etc.). In the office, the same approach ensures focus on the deliverables with space for innovation and learning in the method.

Separate Where You Work, and How You Work Matters Less

In our kitchen, one of us leaves a trail of dirty dishes, a cluttered and dirty counter, and a splattered stove top behind us, and the other keeps it relatively clean. When we are working in our own corners of the kitchen (or in the first kitchen we shared, our own ends of the tiny counter), there’s no problem. At the office, some people like to sit, others stand or walk; some spread papers over every inch of desk and leave ink on every inch of whiteboard, others…don’t. People have similar diversity in approaching a project: some prefer an intricate Gantt chart, others work best under the pressure of a looming deadline. It’s more likely that colleagues will have a differing style than identical ones, so find space in the office to prevent friction among team members.

Escalate Early, Prioritize Often

Surprises are inevitable in our kitchen; that’s part of the fun. What helps us navigate these surprises as a cooking team is keeping each other informed as the facts change, and based on the implications, constantly evaluating the plan. Half of the peaches in the farmer’s market bag are rotten? If we don’t get more fruit, we won’t have a dessert. Ok, add cherries and change it from a torte to a cobbler. In the office, many people fear that sharing “bad news” means admitting weakness or incompetence. They worry this will distract or irritate the boss. Instead, treat unexpected events as an opportunity to practice risk assessment and prioritization skills. Even if the new information doesn’t change the plan immediately, the entire team knows the current situation, which could change the outcome of the next decision.

Never Let a Customer Be The First To Test Your Final Product

I give extra respect to pastry chefs because they have to get the dish right the first time. Once the cake comes out of the oven, there’s no going back to tweak the batter. Whenever possible, our dishes come out best when we are constantly tasting each other’s food and adjusting flavors. In the office, test your ideas with colleagues, especially those with a different point of view. Let them help you find bias in your perspectives, or weak links in your reasoning. Leave an idea on your whiteboard and practice your elevator pitch with people who stop by. Find areas of concern or resistance to change in the organization in a non-threatening way. Not only will your work product improve, but when it comes to that “big kickoff meeting,” many people in the room will be familiar with the ideas and share a sense of ownership–because they helped develop the concepts along the way.

In the end, there is only one chef

Amidst the emphasis on collaboration, let’s not underestimate the need for leadership on a team. Especially in stressful or unfamiliar situations, teams perform better under decisive leadership. So don’t forget why you get paid the medium-sized bucks, and step up to lead when required. My wife knows how to do this in our kitchen, much to the benefit of our dinner guests.

Two ways to build trust in a new manager relationship

Like many things in life, these options could be summarized as: the easy way, or the hard way. And I am not going to post the link to the Boondocks clip. You’ll have to find it yourself.

There's the easy way, and ...
There’s the easy way, and …

Manager relationships are…relationships. Establishing trust is essential for both parties to feel valued, engaged, and satisfied. Getting to that point in a short period of time, without triggering tears or rage, is essential for the long-term health of any relationship. And it doesn’t happen by accident. This post focuses on the employee-manager relationship; feel free to abstract these concepts to other relationships at your own risk.

Building trust requires establishing a mutually agreed level of autonomy for the employee under the guidance of the manager in two key dimensions:

  • time span of discretion: what is the longest duration task for which the employee can take complete accountability? Viewed another way, how long is the manager willing to wait for a status update?
  • delegated decision authority: which decisions can the employee make without consulting and or informing the manager?

Time Span of Discretion

Credit for this term goes to Eliot Jaques, whose book The Requisite Organization is underrepresented in the modern leader’s library. I will warn you that it is not a casual read; be aware that the large conceptual rewards packed into this book require a large investment of attention. With that disclaimer out of the way, the idea from the book that I’m highlighting here is about what duration task the employee has the trust of the manager to execute independently. Does the manager want to see a daily task list and a midday status update? In this case the time span of discretion is somewhere between 4-10 hours. At the other end of the scale, CEOs often embark on multi-year global transformation programs with the hands-off support of their Boards, often requiring quarterly status reports at a maximum.

Delegated Decision Authority

The best metaphor from this concept that I’ve encountered is the Decision Tree from Susan Scott’s book Fierce Conversations. Just as a tree’s roots, trunk, branches, and leaves have different weighting on the future health of the tree, the levels of decision making have different weighting on the future health of the organization (or the career of the decision maker). I’ve summarized the concept in the table below:

decision tree table

For example, the pair might decide that any decisions around hiring, firing, or promotion are Trunk decisions. Which vendor to choose for the trade show giveaways is a Leaf decision. And so forth.

Now that we’ve defined the two essential components to establishing trust, let’s address the original question of HOW to get there:

  • The Easy Way: proactive, implicit, inductive. Sit down with the other party and discuss, before any specific events occur, what level of decision making authority will be delegated and what is the time bound of discretion. Establish the boundaries of the relationship before they are tested. In another context, how do you learn your way around a new city? Look at a map before you leave the house, ask your neighbors which parts of town to avoid.
  • The Hard Way: reactive, explicit, deductive. Jump into it, wait for things to happen and then talk about whether the events fit within the desired boundaries of the relationship. This approach to learning the new city is to wait for sunset and then wander out the front door with some cash in your front pocket and hope you make it back in one piece.

My intent in writing this piece is to raise your awareness of what will help define trust in your manger relationships and how you are going about establishing it. You can choose to take the hard way without judgement; just be aware of the potential bumps and bruises you might encounter along the way.

Thanks to Dan Schultz for inspiring this post. Questions or feedback? Leave a comment!

What drives your actions: interruptions or initiative?

The more Capitalist Hero biographies we read, the more we start to believe that initiative, drive, spark–whatever you call that motive force inside a leader that turns ideas into reality–is the essential quality that we should bring to work every day. Except, of course, when you shouldn’t.

[Note: I was recently reminded that this knock-knock joke is not quite as funny when “cow” is replaced with “husband.”]

Ironically, the vast majority of leadership roles–across industries, up and down the ranks of various size organizations–require the opposite type of trigger for action. Interrupt-triggered leaders, meaning the ones who are masters of prioritization, delegation, and execution of tasks that originate externally, are far more effective in the situations where you show up to work with a 5 gallon pail only to have 10 gallons of, er, sunshine piled on your desk every day.

I came across the idea for this post buried deep in a refreshing book by Ben Horowitz called The Hard Thing About Hard Things. I believe it was in a chapter about memorable hiring mistakes. In fact, most of the book is about memorable mistakes from his career as a technology entrepreneur, interspersed with hardcore West Coast rap lyrics, which makes for a very refreshing alternative to most Silicon Valley Hero books I’ve encountered.

So with the concept of leadership actions triggered by interrupt vs initiative out in the open, here a couple questions for you to consider as you take the concept with you to work tomorrow:

  • Am I more naturally triggered to act by interrupts (reactive style) or initiative (proactive style)? Here’s a test to help you decide: imagine a meeting gets canceled at the last minute and you find yourself with a free hour. Do you grab that crumpled bar napkin/receipt/sticky note off your desk with the “big idea” you wrote down last week and start working on it, now that you finally have some time? Or, do you wait a couple minutes for some hot new emails to arrive, and if nothing comes, take a lap around the office asking if anyone needs a “roadblock removed?”
  • What style of leader will my team need most in the next 12 months? Remember, there is no judgement between interrupt- vs initiative-triggered leaders. They are just different styles, suited for different situations. I won’t, however, open up the can of worms about whether the interrupt- or initiative-triggered leader is the cause or the effect of the organizational situation. Let’s just acknowledge that when they fit, the right kind of work gets done at the right pace to move the group forward.

Who is the quintessential interrupt-triggered leader in your life? Who is the embodiment of initiative? When do you find that one style is more effective than another? Leave a comment and let the leadertainment community know!