Even High Performers Stumble

This post comes from a conversation I had with a reader regarding mistakes being made by good performers.  While there were jokes about some silly screw-ups, the valuable part of the discussion came in our responses to them.  People will make poor decisions and as managers, it is our job to respond in a way that corrects the behavior but also reinforces that the sky isn’t falling.  I’m not talking about transgressions that are so severe that they require HR but rather those that should serve as learning experiences.  As leaders we should focus more on the learning than the mistake – to often we vilify and then the opportunity for growth is mostly lost.

Anger or frustration are among the natural reactions when a normally high performer slips up.  We are most surprised when our expectations are not met.  And none of us likes the kind of surprise where you’re woken up at 3am because someone shot themselves in the proverbial foot.  For a below average or average performer, a high profile mistake can be anticipated – people make mistakes and sh*t happens.  While the same applies to high performers (they will make mistakes and sh*t happens), as leaders, we tend to turn a blind eye to this possibility.  It is natural to expect high performers to do well in everything – but that’s far from reasonable.  We must expect even our best team members to make mistakes once in a while.  The fact that we are likely to have given these folks the high visibility projects will amplify the mistake but shouldn’t make our response more harsh.  I support the notion that we should, in fact, do the opposite – our response should be softened.

The idea of softening response for high performers comes from an observation I have made – high performers are normally very hard on themselves.  No one can consistently derive their motivation from external sources.  The drive of a high performer comes from themselves and when s/he makes mistakes, they are normally internalized.  Any external source of criticism (say, from a manager) is simply piling on at that point.  When someone understands the mistake, that’s enough.  All the yelling in the world won’t make the mistake go away.  I also don’t like to dwell on issues over time.  “Water under the bridge” is a popular phrase for this.  I simply let it go unless it comes back again – consider the issue closed until a subsequent act opens it again.  So if I’m not overly critical and I don’t bring up the issue to reinforce the message, am I simply a softy and coddle my high performers?  Far from it.

Throughout my tenure in management, I have had high expectations for my team and no one feels that more than my outstanding performers.  I expect more and reward for it.  When mistakes are made, I choose to enforce the fact that it is over and done and nothing can change it.  I don’t add weight to what I believe high performers are already carrying.  Demonstrate to me that you comprehend the mistake and will learn from it and I’m done.  Deny or make excuses and we’ll have an issue but that normally doesn’t occur.  I find that focusing on what can be learned rather than the mistake itself is the important piece.  You can’t go back in time and undo a screw up, only respond to it.

One example, from rather early in my career, occurred with a production financial system.  There was a patch or some other system update underway and somehow rm / happened.  Operating system, gone.  The person at the keyboard was immediately dejected and pissed.  My first response was wtf but I kept this to myself.  My first words were simply, “OK, get your head in the game, I need you.”  My reasoning at the time was simple.  There was a lot of work to be done and I couldn’t do it without that person.  Communication up and out had to occur while the technical work of restoring from tape (remember DLTIIIs?) went on.  I needed focus and I needed the great performance I expected.  Don’t get me wrong, I felt like Bruce Willis in Pulp Fiction about his watch: “Bedside table, on the kangaroo!”  The key was acknowledging that and moving on mentally.  Getting from anger to fix-it mode as quickly as possible was key.  Granted this is only one type of mistake – one quickly diagnosed with an obvious remediation plan – but I believe the approach is a good one regardless of the situation.  Every second spent on anger is one that is taken from responding to the situation.

Dealing With the Stress

The seminal event of the year for my team is approaching and with it, the stress level of most is on the rise.  EMCWorld is a big deal for vLab.  It is our most public event and is, to steal from economic / political dialogue, too big to fail.  Every year we add capacity, functionality, and content specific for the show in support of EMC’s business.  The show basically consumes the first half of the year and places the proverbial “eye of Sauron” directly on vLab.  With all of this attention and publicity comes a lot of stress.  It has, at times, boiled over but for the most part the team does a good job holding it together and to date, each show has been considered a large success.  I want to use this post to comment on how managers can manage not only their own stress but also that of their teams.  Both are critical pieces and merit discussion.

There is a ton of information out there on stress management – a quick google will get you there.  Here are some of the general results:


They all mention a variety of things: eat well, get sleep, learn relaxation techniques, learn your triggers.  All of this will make you more healthy and make things, in general, more enjoyable.  Work is listed as an obvious source of stress and is a trigger for many people.  As leaders, stress at work has an impact not only for ourselves and our own well-being but also on our teams.  Managing stress becomes a benefit for ourselves and for the quality of our leadership.

One observation I’ve made over time is that a leader’s personal stress is picked up on by a team.  A group will take on the tone and tenor of a leader and if that leader is noticeably stressed, the team will be as well.  Having a stressed team, while valuable at times (urgency is needed, even if it adds stress) can erode morale over time.  Managing one’s own stress is an obvious technique for helping with this.  If it doesn’t exist, stress won’t be apparent and hence won’t creep into your team.  Given the impossibility of eliminating stress, we are challenged to isolate that stress from our teams.  This can be done in a variety of ways but one of the most important is to watch tone when communicating with your team.  There are subtle ways that stress can creep in – your temper is shorter, your default urgency level rises, and you can become more demanding.  Many of us also tend toward more of a micro-management style as our own personal stress level increases.  None of these help your team – who in the end are the very folks who will deliver for you, reducing the pressures of the job.  It is important to keep that stress isolated from your team – or at least isolate the negative aspects.  This takes a lot of self awareness and practice – it’s not easy.  We must also give ourselves a break and recognize that stress is a natural reaction to tense situations and can’t be eliminated.  When recognized, I have found that taking the proverbial breath and re-engaging can be effective.  It is also worth reaching out to people if they have been directly affected.  Simply apologizing and explaining why something occurred can go a long way.

I chose the word “isolate” in the previous section for a very specific reason.  Isolate does not mean hide. Being transparent with my team about my stress factors is another means to combat them.  I like to let my team know when I’m stressed and more importantly, why I’m stressed.  This is not done with the full weight of the stress but as information.  Explaining why you’re pushing something or why a deliverable is suddenly very important leads to better understanding within your team.  And I’ve found that when people understand why they’re doing something, they tend to produce at a higher rate.  What we’re doing tends to be easier to do if we know why we’re doing it.  It’s the same reason I was always better at doing the dishes than I was at making my bed.  Doing the dishes lets me eat again, making my bed… not so much.  Discussing the stress also helps to lessen it simply by sharing it.  As a leader, it is not necessary to carry all of the weight for a team.  Hand the team a part of the boulder, don’t drop it on their head.

The last point I would like to touch on concerns stress within your team.  Just as there will be stress in your own life, as a leader, we must recognize that there will be stress within our teams.  We must learn to see it in individuals and respond to it effectively.  Ignoring it will only lead to burn out and responding to it incorrectly only exacerbates the issue.  Ongoing touch points and communication is a key factor in reducing stress.  Simply asking someone how they’re doing goes a long way.  Be sincere and listen to the answer.  You might get some praise or a complete vent.  You have to listen and respond – commit to help if asked.  Some people don’t like to share and that is fine as well.  I have a simple rule around this that I have implemented in many of the teams that I have managed.  I tell everyone, top to bottom, “If you need a break, call me, tell me, and take a day, no questions asked.”  There is nothing so important in our jobs that a day’s delay is worth more than the mental health of someone on your team.  If you want people to produce beyond the next task or deliverable, you have to see ahead.  Don’t focus on the fire that needs to be put out today, save the firefighter for the next ten.  It will go a long way and it is simple.  Give those that work for you the break you’d like once in a while.  We all look forward to the weekend for a reason.

– Chris

To be or Not to be, A Manager

There came a time for me, relatively early in my professional life, when I saw saw two distinct paths I could take with my career.  I could continue in the technical track and aspire to a consultant level role, demonstrating mastery in a particular technical arena.  Or I could pursue a role in management, leading teams and organizations and putting them in the best position to be successful.  I chose the latter based on a number of factors not the least of which was that reading manuals and configurations guides isn’t something that grabs me.  I believe that individual contributors that show leadership ability will (or at least should) eventually be faced with this choice.  Neither path is the de facto correct one – it is based on each individual’s situation and aspirations.  I’m going to address some of the forces at work in this decision, using my own situation as an example throughout.

Owning one’s career path is something every should feel empowered (and responsible) to do.  No one will advocate on your behalf if you don’t step up to the plate.  With this in mind, the choice between a technical role and a management role should be carefully considered.  Some will argue that there are positions that split the difference – often these are called “technical manager” or “working manager”.  While I don’t dismiss the idea out of hand, I do question its validity.  In small organizations, I can certainly see it.  Small team, not a ton of funding, small scope – plausible for someone to manage the team as well as participate in the day to day responsibilities of the group.  As you move into larger organizations, however, “working manager” sounds more like “We know we need a manager but we don’t have the headcount so can you do two jobs at once?”  I believe this is an awful place to put someone and while some may see it as a stepping stone, I fear that this type of role splits time such that to succeed in one set of responsibilities, one must give up on the other.  Or simply commit the necessary hours to be successful at both (bye bye work/life balance).  I’ve laid this out as black and white and I know gray exists.  I’m always wary of job descriptions of this kind.

Assuming you’re faced with a choice between a technical role or a managerial role, what factors should you consider in deciding which road to take?  The primary question here is always a simple one in my mind – “What do you enjoy doing?”  At it’s core, this should really be the driver for your career.  There are other factors that certainly come into play but if you’re not happy doing what you spend 40, 60, 80 hours a week doing, it weighs on you.  While this is certainly a subjective factor, I believe it should come first in the conversation and not lower down the list.  The decision between a technical role or managerial role becomes clarified when viewed in this light.  You’re in a technical field because you like technology – that is a given.  Do you like working directly on technology, developing solutions or do you prefer leadership and growing people?  Do you prefer working in Visio or working in PowerPoint?  These roles have fundamentally different sets of responsibilities which translates to a different “day in the life” and a good indication of which will make you more satisfied at work.  I don’t want to oversimplify this decision as it a difficult one but first and foremost ask yourself, “What is going to make me happy?”

In an ideal world, personal happiness would be the only driver and we wouldn’t have to consider anything else.  But this is reality and of course, there are other pressures.  The first factor that comes to many people’s mind is salary.  Generally speaking, the ceiling for a management track is higher in terms of salary but for lower level management, the scale is usually tipped toward the technologist side.  This changes as one rises up the management career path but generally, you don’t become a Director overnight.  In my own personal experience, becoming a manger didn’t accelerate my salary as quickly as I thought it would.  Of course I was completely ignorant of the facts at the time!  I was lucky in that I also knew what would satisfy me professionally so my personal happiness and financial goals aligned.  If financial pressure outweighs personal happiness and you are leaning toward pursuing the higher ceiling rather than your own fulfillment, I’d caution against chasing the paycheck.  In the end, I don’t think it outweighs going to work with a smile on your face coming home the same way.

Opportunity will also often play into this decision.  If you have been career planning with your manager and have indicated a desire to consider a management role, know that they do not come along often in organizations.  If an opportunity does arise, you need to make the decision one way or the other and know that you are probably making it for at least the medium term.  There is opportunity cost of another type as well.  I’ve often heard sentiment that, “They only knock on the door once, you’d better answer.”  That is unfortunately, for many environments, accurate.  If you are offered a role and turn it down, it likely won’t come around again for a while.  That said, if you have a good relationship with you boss, this isn’t insurmountable.  If a management role is what you want, but you have concerns with the role being offered or your preparedness, be open with you boss.  Look to understand the support you can expect.  Transparency is key in this discussion.  Don’t be overconfident only to flame out.  If you’re worried about losing you technical edge, discuss that too and ways in which you can maintain it.  Management roles provide a constantly changing set of issues and puzzles, akin to the changing technology landscape that technical individual contributors have to deal with.  The skill sets required to tackle each are certainly different but both are challenging.  If you decide to go after a management role, keep the dialogue open with your boss constantly.  That way, when an opportunity arises, you be able to assess it accurately and discuss your concerns openly.

The final factor in this decision doesn’t apply universally but I believe occurs frequently enough to discuss.  Many times, if an organization is inclined to promote from within, you may find yourself in the position of managing people who were once your peers.  While this can be a tough situation, I would not let it dissuade you from taking a role.  If people have issue with reporting to you because you once shared a metaphorical cube, that is their issue and not something your are responsible for.  Open communication is key but do not feel bad if someone doesn’t adjust well.

If your decision is still muddy, there are certainly roles that strike a balance between technology and management.  These roles have titles like technical program manager or team lead or technical lead.  They certainly vary by organization but in general these are roles with some good technical depth but that also layer in the leadership that many find appealing about management (and without the paperwork!)  These jobs are never all technical or all management so if you are unsure about where you career should take you, these are options to help you test the leadership waters without diving in.  They will all help to develop skills necessary in management without committing you to a pure management role.

I have great respect for both career paths I’ve discussed here and while my decision was fairly simple, I know that many struggle with it.  The pressures of personal happiness, finances, opportunity all play into this choice.  Nothing is wrong with either option – you have to pick the one that is right for you.