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…

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!

Get your Talent Engine Revving: the Four Stages

Most leaders would agree that having the right talent on their teams is essential for success, and recently Build Network has confirmed this hunch in a leadership survey. The goal of this post is to provide some structure to the talent cycle and help leaders get the most from their talent by segmenting the tenure of any employee into four phases: Intake, Development, Delivery, and Transition. While similar to the four stroke engine cycle, we’ll try to limit the amount of compression and ignition we put our employees through.


Except for the stereotypical Japanese salarymen, very few employers expect to need more than one hand to count the average tenure of staff. And while the US Department of Labor’s 2012 data showed average tenure across all industries has increased to 4.6 years from 4.4 in 2010, data compiled earlier in 2013 by Payscale showed employers in retail and IT companies should expect closer to 2, as reported by Business Insider. And based on the bankrupt and bailed out companies at the other end of the Payscale list, and the bankrupt and bailed out countries in the OECD data set from 2011, seeing tenure rise above 10 years should be a warning sign (especially when long tenure comes along with unsustainable pension obligations).

So let’s make the math easy and propose you’ll get 2 years of contribution, on average, from your employees. I’m defining the Intake phase as the period from the first touch during recruiting through the first 90 days of employment. Take off the last month before exit for Transition, and we are left with 20 months. So if the goal is to maximize the contribution to the business from each employee, it’s important to “compress” the Development period, which I’m defining as the length of time required for an employee to become fully competent in role.

  1. Intake: starts with first contact with a prospect during recruiting, ends at day 90 of employment. Recruiting, onboarding, and orientation are key processes. Coordination between HR, Facilities, IT, Finance, and hiring managers is essential to establish new employees with high engagement and reduce early exits.
  2. Development: from day 91 through the point at which an employee is fully competent in role. Coaching, training, and peer support will help ensure employees can contribute high quality work, independently, as quickly as possible.
  3. Delivery: could be as short as a few months for organizations with low overall tenure and long intake and development periods.
  4. Transition: allowing for knowledge transfer from an outgoing staffer to the incoming hire. Internal promotions will allow for longer transition periods, but most US employment agreements expect only 2 weeks notice.

An upcoming series of posts (linked in the list above) will look at the key metrics to track in each of these phases of the talent cycle, along with the most important processes to streamline in your organization to ensure your team is happy, developing, and delivering at each phase of the cycle.

9 Critical Questions to Clarify Strategy: from Start-Up to Maturity

Whether your business is just an idea to talk about with friends or a mature, publicly traded icon of industry, having a clear strategy is essential to survive in a competitive market. To adapt one of my favorite quotes from Ping Fu, it is more important to be clear than to be right.

Collis & Rukstad's Strategic Sweet Spot
Collis & Rukstad’s Strategic Sweet Spot

I’ve compiled the core ideas from my favorite HBR articles on strategy, listed at the bottom of this post (plus an idea that I think is from Jack Welch but I can’t attribute) into the 9 critical questions:

  1. WHY does the business make money? i.e., what gap in the market does it fill?
  2. HOW does the business make money? i.e., what are the transactions that generate cash flow and margin for the business?
  3. What is our specific objective?
  4. What is our scope?
  5. What is our competitive advantage? i.e., how are we better, cheaper, or different than the alternatives?
  6. What is our strategic sweet spot? (see diagram)
  7. What are the relevant products in the market and their geographic coverage?
  8. Who are the buyers, suppliers, competitors, substitutes, and potential entrants?
  9. What forces control profitability? (see diagram)

    Michael Porter's Five Forces
    Michael Porter’s Five Forces

If the answers to these questions aren’t clear for your current business–no matter how big or small–think about it and spark some conversation. The answers will help you focus and might surprise you.

If you have questions, feedback, or know where #1 & #2 come from, leave a comment!

References

Collis, D. and Rukstad, M. “Can you say what your strategy is?” Harvard Business Review, April 2008, Reprint R0804E.

 

Kaplan, R. and Norton, D. “Having trouble with your strategy? Then map it.” Harvard Business Review, September 2000, Reprint 000509.

Porter, M. “The Five Competitive Forces that Shape Strategy.” Harvard Business Review, January 2008, Reprint 0801E.