Tuesday, April 26, 2011

The Stress Factor

The Peter Principle says that "in a hierarchy every employee tends to rise to his level of incompetence." This concept fascinates me. I don't want to be that person; I don't want to get promoted into a position that I cannot do. At the same time I wonder, will I know when I've reached that point?

In terms of leaders, many people know a manager/director/VP/etc. who is not capable of doing their job effectively. Perhaps they were promoted because they were good at Power Point, or Excel, or Visio. Maybe their manager doesn't see their incompetence. Even the most beautiful creature on earth is not so attractive when viewed from the ass end. The person riding the horse doesn't know where the crap falls; all she knows is that the horse is beautiful. But I think the main failing of newly minted managers is stress. It's not easy to be a manager. If you've been promoted from within the ranks, you know everybody's faults and it's hard to not act on those; perhaps you've got a secret grudge or personal dislike that's been festering over many years of cohabitation in the cubicle farm. If you're promoted form outside the team, then people will wonder if you know what they're doing, and will question your ability to manage them if you don't. These factors cause stress, and stress is the undoing of most of us, at one time or another.

How should a leader approach this? There are many books on how to handle stress, and the strategies are numerous. My personal belief is that the best way to avoid stress ruining your management career (at least when viewed from behind) is to not forget your place. You're not a demigod. You have power, yes, and control, but you're just as capable of fault as the people you manage. And that's the key: people will make mistakes. The second thing to do is to relax; leaders must have the long view. Life isn't lived in a short-term time frame. That perspective helps me to manage my stress. So I get blessed out. So I make a mistake. I pick myself up, dust myself off, and try to remember that I've got many years on this earth yet to live. One day/week/month of difficulty will not ruin me.

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Measured by Mistakes

Life is too often measured not by the good we do, but by the good we don't do. Our mistakes define us. Consider a baseball player who does everything right, but makes ESPN because of a mistake. The reason is that doing things right is the expectation. That's the minimum. But is it right?

A good leader should weigh mistakes carefully. It's important to understand what led to the mistake. Not the short-term stuff. That's usually easy. Maybe a worker forgot to copy a person on an email, and that led to a firestorm that could have been prevented had that person been on the email. That's a little mistake, but it is also one that is much too common. Leaders need to understand what's behind the mistake; maybe it's not the employee's mistake at all, but came about because of the customer didn't clearly communicate who needed to be on the email.

But here's the thing. If a leader is looking at the positives, then that simple mistake is no big deal. If the focus is on the things people do wrong, then that's all that will be seen. It isn't easy. Since the expectation is to do things right, mistakes are usually glaring. They're obvious. It's hard for a leader to not see the mistakes. Usually, though, errors are only obvious because they're supported by a firm foundation of success.

We all want recognition for doing things right. It doesn't have to be anything big. Maybe it's doughnuts, or taking the team to lunch, or just going to lunch together, even if everyone pays their own way. A good leader finds more ways to help and thank their people than they do ways to punish them. A good leader defends and deflects.

Friday, April 15, 2011

The Salary-to-happiness ratio

Every so often, Yahoo! posts stories about the salaries of various professions. The general trend seems to be to show jobs that pay high wages. Here's an example of one such article:

http://education.yahoo.net/articles/surprising_careers_that_pay.htm?kid=1G1VO

I have a couple of problems with these articles. First, we focus very strongly on salary. While I believe the expression "money can't buy happiness" is, in a general sense, not true, most people will never earn a salary that can, in fact, buy happiness. There have been many studies on the happiness of being wealthy. But while I would love to break the $50K, I don't know why; I'm pretty sure it wouldn't make me any more satisfied. I would have a little more after paying my bills, and that money would go into savings that I will probably use. But I am good with my money; we spend fairly sensibly, not too frugal, not too wasteful. We have ample savings. Not a lot, and I'll never get to retire at the rate I'm on, but I'd have to make considerably more than $50K a year to change that.

The point is that we must be careful pursuing only money. That leads to an empty life. The irony is that most people think having more money will lead to a full life. Quite the contrary. Families were just as happy - if not happier - decades ago when rooms were small and everyone shared a bathroom. Most homes didn't have master baths. They might have had a bathroom off the main bedroom, but it was no better than the other toilets. Families were forced into common areas. They had to interact. People learned what other people were like, even if the sample population didn't extend beyond their own families. Things were bought with cash. If you had debt it was a mark of shame. You paid off your loans as soon as you could. The pursuit of money is as old as the world; for most of that time it was an unreachable goal. We should strive to return to those days, and work to be happy and satisfied rather than rich.

Thursday, April 14, 2011

The art of being led

I have a fascination with leadership. But the problem is, most leadership courses, books, seminars, etc. look at the topic from the POV of the leader. That's good, except for two things.

First, if a leader - or someone who studies, lectures, writes, etc. on leadership - does not understand the people they lead, then they will ultimately fail. This is particularly true of middle- and lower-level leaders. Typically they've reached that role because they were good at their job; who better to lead than someone who was in the job? But this is a fallacy. For one thing, if they were poorly led to begin with, then they will not be a good leader of their former peers. For another, even if they are replacing a good leader in a strong organization, just because you are good at putting one widget to another widget doesn't mean you are going to be good at teaching others to do that. But this exposes the big lie - the major flaw - of promotion: too often a person isn't put in a leadership position in order to be a role model for their team, but to do spreadsheets, power points, etc. that makes the upper management types look and feel better. That's not leadership. That's just work.

The second problem is that while a lot of people in leadership positions understand what they're supposed to say and do, they don't know why. This goes hand-in-hand with someone being promoted beyond their competency (the Peter Principle). They might have been really good at their job because they were very focused and detail oriented; they probably never thought about the bigger picture. If a person doesn't know the reason for an action, then they will face problems. I'll give you an example from the little league team I coach. A player stretched out a single into a double; it was a great run following a great hit. Knowing that he needs to lead off - because that's what we coached - he stood up and took his lead. The problem was that the short stop still had the ball in his glove. That's a coaching failure, of course; we immediately implemented measures to correct that problem. But it's also an issue of the player not knowing why he was leading off. That, too, is partially the issue of the coaches; but it's also the player's responsibility to think through why an action is being taken. Now - this is little league; it's not a big deal in the grand scheme of things. But it illustrates the point. It also leads me to the next point.

The third problem is that leaders look at the trees rather than the forest. You must understand each thing in relation to every other thing. Let's say a problem comes up because an employee missed a critical step on a project. Further, the project was small and brought the company no income; and the employee had frequently told management that he was overworked, stressed, and afraid of making mistakes. Management ignored those clear warning signs. When the mistake happened, they yelled at the employee. Is it worth it? Management says "every customer is important" because that's what we know we're supposed to say. But is that really true? I hate to say it, but the reality is that if every customer is equal, we wouldn't measure the amount of money they bring to a company. We wouldn't care how long it takes to implement a product but how satisfied the customer is with the result. So, with the understanding that some customers are not as valuable - and, thus, not as important - as others, is it worth driving an employee to the edge when that employee has, otherwise, been exceptional?

These are things leaders must consider. It's not just power point presentations or spreadsheets. Management means to be in control of people's lives. And each action must be weighed against the bigger picture. We must assume the positive rather than the negative. I could argue that's what a Christian manager should do, and that's true; but it's also what every manager should do.

Thursday, April 7, 2011

A story from the trenches

In a certain company there is a lady who has been with the business for many years. She has a reputation as a hard worker. When a manager came on she showed him many of the things he needed to do his job. While she doesn't have a college degree, she's plenty capable of doing the work, and she does it well.

The other day she was given her performance review (in April??). An upper manager with no direct connection to her gave her the news: she got a 5out of 10. That's not bad; but it's not excellent, either, and she felt she deserved a higher rating; others in he company agree with that assessment. In fact, others that have done less got higher ratings. She got a salary increase that comes out to about $1k a year.

There are many ways to look at this. But since this blog is all about ooking at management from the employee's perspective, we'll take that oute.

I guess the first thing that comes to mind is visibility. A manager must understand what it is an employee provides to the company, both in terms of tangibles and intangibles. It's the intangibles that push you up to
that next level. If an employee does their job at a satisfactory level - that's what we should expect of everyone. But what else do they do? When they go out of their way to improve the company, then they should be rewarded for that effort. Helping your peers with their jobs is part of that. When the employee in this case asked what they needed to do in order to get an excellent, the reply was that they needed to work 60 hours a week. IMHO the manager should be at a minimum reprimanded for making such a statement, and I personally would consider firing them; that's not healthy for the company. It drives away good employees. By "good employee" I mean someone who is good not just at the job they do, but at raising the level of satisfaction of those around them. It is important to have people on your team that make everyone else feel good about showing up for work. It's important to have people of strong moral fiber, folks with a good character. I've seen people get unofficially reprimanded for doing too much outside of work, like coaching or even working during lunch hours to raise money for charity. Those are activities that make a person strong, and having an employee like that makes a company strong.

Friday, April 1, 2011

The Art of the Warrior

One of my favorite books is Musashi by Eiji Yoshikawa. It's not that it's especially well written; it isn't really historically accurate; the content, however - the story's meaning - is something that aligns with my soul. And that's important.

The book is about Miyamoto Musashi. Musashi had a tough life from the beginning. He had no mother, and his father was pretty much a jerk. He had a sister but she was older and lived away from him. In the book, Musashi is referred to as a bully, and it seems he probably was. It didn't help that he was bigger, stronger, faster, and all around physically superior to anyone around him. From age seven he was raised by his uncle, a monk at a temple in the rugged mountains west of Himeji, Japan. At age thirteen he fought his first dual. He won against a much older adversary. At age sixteen he won another prominent dual. Such was the pattern of his life. He fought in the legendary battles for control of Japan between the Toyotomi and Hideyoshi. He then went on to fortune and fame, courted by some of the most powerful men in the country, but he was a dedicated ronin, a masterless samurai, a warrior who sought to master all elements of his craft, an artist of rare ability, an architect - in short, a renaissance man. The only times he worked for a master was when it suited his purpose.

In the Yoshikawa story, Musashi went off to war expecting to become a leader of men. His father was a famous swordsman, so it was natural to think he would get at a minimum sloppy seconds, so to speak. But it didn't happen. Instead, he was made a foot soldier and almost died. For the rest of the book he gets no respect from anyone, despite his uncanny ability. The story provides him with a protagonist with uncommon venom towards him, and despite success after success, he does not "succeed" in the way men of his age aspire.
He says it doesn't bother him. Yet I wonder. Musashi was a competitive man. He was confident in his abilities. He achieved success. But despite that, despite gaining audience with some of the era's most powerful leaders, he still doesn't get to that next level. That would be frustrating to any young man. The book hints at this throughout, and only in the end, when he wins his final dual, do we get even a glimmer of hope that Musashi will find peace.

How many of us worker bees have felt the same way? The scale is different, but we work hard, we slave at our jobs, we exceed expectations, and get kudos from some important people. But it's all for nothing. The bar is continually higher, the standard we must meet always tougher. Will there be peace? Perhaps. One moral of the story is to do what you love. If you are doing a job that you want to do, then you can carry whatever burden is thrust upon your back because you know it'll be worth it.

No doubt many of Musashi's "managers" were very frustrated with him. They saw his potential and wanted to exploit it for their own gains. He would have none of it. That's the true lesson in the story: he had not only a goal but a path to get to that goal. That's the difference between a goal and a dream. A goal is just a dream that we know how to achieve.

So go out and find a goal. Not a dream. Stop trying to make dreams come true. Find a way to make your goals come true.