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…

What’s the difference between an intern and an apprentice?

All careers start on a steep learning curve: doing new work in unfamiliar surroundings, often with entirely different vocabulary and social norms than we’ve experienced before. “Fake it ’til you make it” is a common survival mode for new hires — and for many professionals, this persists for years as impostor syndrome. Ideally, learning and challenges remain as positive aspects throughout our careers, while confidence and competence replace the new hire’s feelings of doubt and confusion.

“Actually, it IS rocket science…” — NASA/JPL intern

Many professionals start gaining experience as either an intern or an apprentice. What is the difference between an internship and an apprenticeship? Both are temporary positions or limited duration contracts. Both are entry-level roles with no prior experience required, beyond education in a relevant subject.

The key differences between interns and apprentices are the levels of support and expectations applied by the employer’s organization.

Interns and apprentices: different expectations of ability, different levels of support.

As the two-by-two matrix above illustrates, apprentices have both high expectations and high support. Apprenticeship is typically the first phase in on-the-job development of a skilled trade; popularized by the German manufacturing industry and often debated about its adaptation to the US labor market. The apprentice model, however, has expanded beyond skilled trades to tech job categories like software development. Regardless of the industry, employers invest in apprentices because the apprentices represent a valuable future labor pool. Competing firms are willing to invest in apprentices’ development to strengthen the industry without the fear of poaching: employers expect that individual workers are just as likely to join a company from its competitors as to leave. In a 2016 US Department of Commerce study, individual employers reported attrition rates in the single digits, while a broader study by NCEV in Australia showed contract completion rates in the 45%-55% range (slightly higher for non-trades). Performance expectations for apprentices are similarly high, including competency checks, either formal or informal, for apprentices to demonstrate the new skills they develop as they acquire increased responsibility and tackle assignments of greater complexity.

The typical corporate intern sits in the opposite quadrant: low expectations for performance with low levels of support. Employers generally give summer interns low volumes of low-risk, low-priority work, capping off the internship with predictably low-quality presentations. Individual companies, especially those who take pride in seeing their names at the top of ranking tables, might disagree with my categorization. A notable exception is Year Up: despite the title “intern,” the program follows a model much closer to apprenticeship. As a manager, I make the personal investment to coach and mentor interns that I host, and surely other individual managers are willing to do the same. Broadly, however, corporate internships are seen both by employers and interns as networking opportunities, resume padding, and the chance to earn some summer money (and generally to spend it just as quickly while drinking with other interns). 

Two other alternative scenarios complete the matrix. The low-expectations, high-support quadrant is “nepotism:” imagine the young, barely competent relative of an executive or high-ranking bureaucrat coddled and gently steered away from career ending blunders by infinitely patient staff. The high-expectations and low-support quadrant I’m calling “rookie draft pick:” imagine the high-pressure, fend-for-yourself environment described in countless athlete memoirs. Financial services interns might argue this quadrant characterizes their world more accurately.

So whether you are a young professional seeking career-developing experience, or a leader seeking to create a pipeline of high-quality talent, understand what levels of support and expectations are in place. The balance between these two factors will determine the outcomes for your interns, apprentices, princelings, or rookie draft picks.

Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Alexis Drake

What’s the difference: training, coaching, teaching, mentoring?

Four Scenarios, Four Styles

If your development style resembles Gordon Ramsay’s, read this post and then get professional help

Subtle differences between the interactions of training, coaching, teaching, and mentoring can produce drastically different outcomes. Just as it is important to have a variety of leadership styles available to help you lead effectively in different situations, you must also be comfortable switching between development styles as appropriate. For additional reading on these topics, check out this list.

Training – to help a person master a specific skill in a direct (or “hands on”) interaction, use Training. To use a situation outside of work as an analogy, let’s imagine you want to help your daughter (or son, spouse, or roommate, depending on your situation) learn to make her own breakfast. The Training style involves getting the ingredients and recipe out, and working next to her at the stove to make an omelette together. After a few attempts, she will do more and more of the task herself until she is independently proficient.

Coaching – for a specific skill, but now in an indirect (or “hands off”) interaction, use Coaching. For the omelette example, this means talking to your daughter before (and/or after) breakfast for a conversation. Ask questions to reinforce knowledge and help her anticipate setbacks before they occur. Give tips and tricks that have helped you succeed at the same task. Great coaches also help to boost confidence and reduce anxiety to improve performance.

Teaching – increase capability in a general suite of skills through direct interactions with Teaching. You can help your daughter master a number of breakfast recipes from crepes to congee, over a series of lessons in the kitchen. A wise teacher in this case will also include effective dish washing in the curriculum! Teachers help build skills in a number of tasks, plus help to generalize the approach they teach to enable success in related (but not identical) situations.

Mentoring – the most abstract development method, mentoring builds capability in general skills through indirect interactions. Mentoring your daughter in this analogy would include conversations to explore why independence and proficiency in meal preparation is important, what she enjoys most and least about what she’s learning, etc. Great mentors fill in blind spots, clarify motivations, and remove mental obstacles to success over longer-term interactions.

Because it is hard for a consultant to explain anything without a 2 x 2 matrix, I have included the table below for reference.

How do these definitions match your experiences? Thanks for your comments!

image: http://scienceblogs.com/aardvarchaeology/