Dell (well Silverlake) Buys EMC

For the second time in my career, the company I work for is in the process of being acquired.  It’s never a good feeling to wake up and see the news that you have to go figure out a new PowerPoint template or get new business cards (or worse, maybe not).  It brings a ton of uncertainty, questions, fear, panic, angst, and anything else that comes with your professional life being a little less certain than it was the day before.  Once the initial shock passes we have a choice on how we want to move forward.  We can work through the uncertainty, striving for answers.  We can live with the uncertainty and focus on the work.  And finally, we can settle on doom and gloom and be depressed.  Assuming that wallowing in self pity isn’t a long term strategy, we’ll put the doom and gloom option to the side and consider the other two.

The first company I worked for that was acquired was Genzyme Corporation.  It was, at the time of acquisition, something like the 5th largest biopharmaceutical company in the world.  At that time, it was believed that Sanofi Aventis was buying Genzyme’s R&D pipeline.  It was a way of cementing their future as their profitable drugs faced generic competition.  More information / commentary on the acquisition can be found in this article.  When the acquisition was announced, Genzyme was already in the midst of trying to save money / cut operating expense.  Within IT, where I resided, outsourcing was being considered.  Outsourcing is never an easy conversation because it affects people’s lives in a very direct way.  Being acquired on top of that only added to my discomfort because my own employment future was seemingly vague.  My approach at the time, for better or for worse, was to advocate strongly for my team.  I strongly criticized the outsourcing effort because I didn’t believe the financial picture being pitched.  This led to a lot of sleepless nights and frustration.  I was trying to control a situation that I could not control.  This lack of control over my team’s future and my own affected my quite deeply and eventually led to my departure for EMC.

Upon reflection, I have realized that while my angst over outsourcing was a concern, my own future also weighed heavily on me.  My future with Sanofi was likely secure.  I was a well performing employee and I likely could have found a good home within such a large company.  From an objective perspective, I should have felt confident.  Instead, what I attempted to do was to formulate a clear picture of the future.  This was an impossible task because no one knew what the combined companies would look like.  Striving for answers wasn’t the right place to put my energy and only led to frustration.  Sure, a certain amount of inquiry is fine, but as answers can’t truly be known, there’s a certain amount of insanity to it.

Fast forward a few years and Dell has just come to terms to acquire EMC.  Everyone is curious as to what will happen but no one can know for certain.  I’ve spent a fair amount of time wandering around the web, reading commentary, discovering what a tracking stock is, watching interviews, and absorbing information as best as I can.  I’ve read what competitors have said (IBM, HP, and PureStorage) and, predictably, they are opportunistic.  I don’t think I know much more about the acquisition after all that than I did when it was first announced.  For myself, I believe the best approach is to focus on the job at hand.  That may seem naive or overly simplistic or like sticking my head in the sand but it resonates for me.  To strive for answers that I won’t be able to find will only end in frustration.  And, to be clear, no one knows yet what the combined company will look like.  The answer to that question is a ways off from being written.  There’s a certain amount of relief in relinquishing any attempt to control a situation one cannot hope to command.  The alternative did not work for me in my last go around so I’m going to try a different tact this time.

Many folks might find this to be naive and given the uptick in recruiting calls, the outside world seems to be betting on EMC employees fleeing the company.  I’m sure many will and it is a sensible course of action – solidify your future rather than waiting for the EMC/Dell deal to work itself out.  For me, however, as unknown as things may seem, there is a plan.  For a dozen banks / investors to make billions of dollars worth of a bet, there has to be a lot of analysis done on the success of the combined entity.  People don’t invest that amount thinking they’ll lose money.  Combine that with a confidence in my own skills / marketability, I’m going to wait and see where the chips fall.  Change usually provides opportunity for those that embrace it.

One man’s opinion for sure, ymmv.

Action over Discussion

One of the complaints that I hear over and over again from my team is that they spend far to much time in meetings.  They spend too much time talking about work so they have little time to actually do it.  It is usually coupled with the gripe that the meetings themselves don’t accomplish what they’re supposed to or don’t have a stated goal to begin with.  While I don’t always buy the venting as complete fact, I know that there is a lot of room for improvement in the meetings that I myself run.  But this post won’t be about how to run a meeting… there’s plenty of info on that topic here, here, and here.

As a leader, it is important that when a decision needs to be made, you make it.  Waffling, entering into analysis paralysis, or simply delaying because you’re unsure can quickly lead a team into the ground.  Timelines become extended, people have more idle cycles, and tend to lose focus.  Setting direction is a responsibility we all have as leaders.  Take the right inputs, analyze them, and decide as quickly as possible.  The cost of not acting in a timely fashion generally outweighs the greater degree of quality gained by further deliberation.  This is certainly an art more than a science but in general action should be favored over debate.  See this post on decision making in teams for some more info on the topic and how it applies in the technology space.

There is a fine line between acting too quickly and taking too long to act.  It is a skill that we must develop as leaders because straying too far to one side is detrimental to our teams.  Acting to quickly leads to a higher percentage of incorrect actions and more time spent cleaning up the mess you’ve created.  On the other hand, not acting quickly enough has opportunity cost and generally ends up accomplishing less in the long run, even if you’re correct more often.  But I guess it’s fairly obvious that one extreme or the other isn’t the way to run things.  Somewhere in the middle is likely the best course.  My belief is that on the continuum from brash action on the left to over-extended deliberation on the right, a little left of center is where I’d be.  Consider all the facts you can with a bias toward action.

I favor action over discussion in most cases because you can adjust course later on but you can’t go back in time to make a decision earlier.  No matter how much discussion / thought occurs, mistakes will be made.  If perfection could be obtained with enough thought, I might deliberate a lot more before acting.  Perfection won’t happen and I don’t believe a few percentage points of accuracy is worth tacking on extra time to every decision.  Making an incorrect choice can be corrected and being wrong isn’t something to fear.  Besides, I’ve learned a lot more from my mistakes than my successes.

Managing a Remote Team

In today’s larger organizations, it is commonplace to have teams spread out across the globe.  This is challenging for many reasons, not the least of which is developing the relationships that make you an effective manager and that allow the team to operate at their fullest potential.  Managing folks from far away is difficult and a skill that must be developed.  Remote employees often feel disconnected from the team and require more/different communication than the people on your team that you see every day in the office.

Communication is the most essential skill for managing a distributed team.  The spontaneous conversations that occur in a centrally located team simply do not happen when coworkers are spread around the state/country/globe.  These conversations need to be replaced by intentionally targeted time set aside for the purpose.  In my opinion, a manager should have 1:1s with every employee in her organization at least once per week.  This may get untenable once the group reaches a certain size but I believe it is critical for remote employees.  Even if it is just 30 minutes, it is essential for keeping in touch with the concerns of those you don’t see every day.  It is their time on your schedule to raise issues, talk about the local (home) office they’re in, or just have the casual conversations that build a relationship.  These conversations build some semblance of connection that would otherwise be impossible.

In addition to frequency of communication, the type of communication is also important.  There are a million blogs / articles / studies that talk about non-verbal communication and its importance in conveying meaning.  Certainly all layered meaning is lost over email.  Written (be it email, Twitter, or whatever) is the default communication method for many in technology but, much of the time, it is simply not sufficient.  When you cannot speak face-to-face (many companies limit the ability to travel), using the phone or preferably video conferencing are much more effective than email.  While this is not always possible, I find that having a five minute conversation over the phone is far more beneficial than trading a couple emails.  Take the time to pick up the phone.  For directs that sit outside your office, it would be odd to send an email for something quick when you could simply ask them in person.  Similarly for remote employees, make the call.

In addition to communication, there are other ramifications of having a distributed team.  When do you have a team meeting?  Do you have multiples to cover different geographies?  How do you form project team so that regions don’t become segregated?  If necessary (think operational support), how do you make sure skill sets are properly distributed?  All of these issues emerge when you start to spread the members of the team apart.  I don’t believe there are answers that apply in all or even most cases.  To a certain extent, the proper course is unique to the individual team.  I would say, though, that as managers of distributed teams, we must be sensitive to these complexities and develop skills / techniques to deal with them.  Some techniques I’ve implemented include rotating meeting times so that, in the event of non overlapping timezones, you rotate the pain of a non business hours meeting.  Similarly with project teams, mix them as best you can and rotate the leadership opportunities so that one region is not always in charge.  The solutions will be what the team needs – the important thing is to consider them carefully and be sensitive to the locations of your team members.

For those with teams dispersed over long distances, as opposed to a few local offices, culture is also a complicating factor.  People from different places operate in different ways.  Similarly to learning to interact with different personalities, managers should be sensitive to cultural differences.  In my experience, the manner in which folks in Asia work is far different from those in Eastern Europe.  Western Europe is different from those and the US is another case entirely.  Understanding and managing differently based on the cultural norms of the remote employee is another way in which we can bridge the divide of distributed teams.  Some people are used to working for an American company (in my case) and are thus used to a US style of management.  That can make things easier but does not remove responsibility from the manager to lean into those differences.

The final point I would make about remote management is that it pays to build a relationship with a manager local to your remote staff.  Assuming they come into a local office (rather than working from home), there will be a management presence of some sort.  It is important to have someone in that office you can rely on for local HR information, facilities, benefits, or any of the other items that may vary based on location.  It is also useful to have someone to use as a sounding board to better understand a particular employee or situation.  S/he will know the culture and the person better and can be incredibly helpful in navigating difficult situations.

Having a remote team is a level of complexity higher than one that is centrally located and these types of teams cannot be managed in the same manner.  Simply realizing that and paying attention to the differences on a daily basis will go a long way toward making you successful.

This Has to Stop.

I read a short post from a fellow blogger this morning.  It was at the same time upsetting and eye opening.  You can read the original post here: https://blog.jessfraz.com/post/this-industry-is-fucked/  I include it below as well.  Thank you to @frazelledazzell for posting.  The challenges facing women in the tech industry are many, and I knew that harassment was one of them.  I was blind to the fact that the harassment went as far as Jesse Frazelle describes.  

Here is her post in its entirety:

I will admit that this shocked me.  What she describes is appalling and sadly, I’m sure, not an isolated case.  I was ignorant to the fact that this occurred, that people would be so utterly awful.  I guess it should not have surprised me and that is the problem.  Upon reflection, I tend to ignore this side of our industry.  If I don’t think about it, perhaps it will go away – almost willful ignorance.  That is not the right attitude.  As leaders and as members of a wider community, we must actively root out and remove this behavior.  Evidence of this problem is all around us.  From “booth babes” at conferences (which have, thankfully, come under some criticism) to lewd remarks about women in the office, the signs are there.  The question I must ask myself is, “What will I do about it?”  The beginning of an answer, I believe, is two fold.  
We must challenge this behavior whenever we see it.  Silence is acceptance so don’t be silent.  The frat boy mentality that pervades a percentage of this industry cannot continue.  If you find yourself joining in inappropriate conversation about a coworker, stop.  If you overhear remarks by co-workers, don’t let them stand.  This is a cultural issue and small acts of defiance will begin to change things.
Second, show support for the women in this field.  I will admit that I don’t know what this looks like.  I don’t exactly know how to help, at least in an active sense.  Shedding light on the issue is one way but that feels too passive to me.
I don’t want this post to come off as preachy – I’m not on a soapbox.  I want it to raise awareness and challenge all of us to be better.
Thank you to Jesse Frazelle for not being silent.  Go read her blog https://blog.jessfraz.com/.  She has awesome posts on Docker among other things.

When People Leave

People can leave your teams for a variety of reasons.  It almost always has something to do with the manager – don’t take it personally.  People can leave voluntarily or involuntarily.  For the latter, as a manager you may or may not have a say in it.  I’ve experienced people leaving for all sorts of reasons: better pastures, performance issues, lay offs, and code of conduct violations.  None of them are easy and all take a toll on both the team and yourself personally.  I’d like to explore managing through these experiences.

I’d like to start with the deep impact and employee’s exodus can have on your team.  Rest assured, there will be an impact felt for quite some time.  I’ll approach situations by the questions I’ve gotten from the folks that remain.  Absorbing the work of a former colleague is daunting for a team and the, “How will we get this done?” questions will come up.  The simple fact is that all your work is still there but fewer people left to accomplish it.  As with any workload issue, I think the best approach here is prioritization.  Get all the work out on the table and put it in order of business importance.  Confirm with those above you that the stuff on the bottom of the list may lag.  Then report back to you team any agreement / leeway you were able to negotiate.  It is a sign to them that you will advocate on their behalf – and will normally be appreciated.  Back fill head count may or may not be an option and even if that does come, it takes time and prioritization of current work will need to occur.

The second question I always get is, “Why did so and so leave?” or in the case of lay offs, “Why was so and so chosen?”  In 100% of cases, I find it best to simply not comment.  No good can come of going into details.  It simply churns the rumor mill (which is likely already in full swing).  I usually respond with, “I’m not going to talk about that, I hope you understand.”  Most employees wont ask the question in the first place but some inevitably will.  Respect for the privacy of the individual that left is the best policy here.  In some cases, particularly with a poor performing employee, folks will know why someone left and may thank you for it.  A silver lining here is that remaining team members will see that you’re willing to take action.

The last question I normally get, in the case of lay offs is, “Are there more coming?”  This is the most difficult for me because as someone who manages mostly individual contributors, I don’t know.  Unless the company has publicly announced that there will be, you don’t know.  In the case where you do know through some other means, you’re likely not at liberty to say.  It is best to reassure your team and get the work done.  It is truly one of the hardest things to manage through.  While I know it is part of the job description for management in a large corporation, it is very difficult.

This leads me to the final topic I want to cover in this post – how this affects you as a manager.  For me, this depends on the reason for the employee departure.  If it was a good employee and voluntary, it is natural to ask, “What could I have done differently?”  Self reflection is good to a point but don’t harp on it.  Figure out if there was a situation you can learn from but move on.  You cant control the thoughts of another person, a huge offer they were given, or a family situation that forced a job change.  Try not to dwell on it.

In the case of managing someone out for performance or code of conduct issues, the aftermath cuts both ways.  Someone that consumed an inordinate amount of management time is now out of the team.  But at the same time, someone no longer has employment and their life has been impacted.  That can hit you emotionally, acknowledge that but, assuming you did your best to coach up and retain that person, rest easy.  They weren’t a fit for the role and in the long term, it will be better for both of you.

Layoffs are the final and most difficult case.  Many times, the person(s) leaving are good employees who are being let go for skill set or financial reasons.  Corporations are businesses and have to be run as such.  Let me say this – the situation is worst on the affected employee.  The affect on the manager are secondary in magnitude to this.  By focusing on the latter, I’m not diminishing the former.  For any manager with a soul, terminating someone is difficult.  It is especially difficult during layoffs because it isn’t an isolated occurrence.  The mood of everyone is generally down and managers are asked to fire people and then do their best to raise the morale of the remaining team.  In these situations I try to be transparent about how I’m feeling.  If asked, “How are you doing?” I usually respond, “Pretty crappy.”  Because I am.  It isn’t easy to go through.  In my opinion, putting on a happy face is disingenuous and folks will see right through it.  You’ll lose a degree of trust the team has in you.  Be honest and work through the emotion together with your team.  I think this is the best way to bring the team through.

Career Planning – Own It! (part deux)

I planned to take a break from this blog but it turned out to be far longer than I expected.  I didn’t stray for any particular reason except the business that life in general throws at us.  In any event, I am back and will strive to post on a more regular basis!

This entry is the follow up to this post that I wrote back in March about career planning.  That post was on career planning from the individual contributor’s perspective and went into detail around approaching your manager, what to plan, etc.  Take a look for more info!  This post will approach the same conversation from the opposite side of the table.  From the manager’s perspective, what can we do to enable our employees to succeed in their career?

I strongly believe that a manager’s primary purpose should be to develop your people to their fullest potential.  Engaging with employees in career planning is a critical piece of that development.  This planning cannot simply be an annual review.  “What do you want to do over the next year?” is simply not sufficient.  It is important that this be an ongoing conversation because people change, new interests arise, and people can become bored at any point in time.  Staying engaged in a dialogue will help you, as a manager, stay better in tune with your team and show them you are committed to their success.

The first step in participating in employee career planning is creating a safe space for the discussion.  The daily tasks and deadlines we all face often get in the way of planning conversations.  1:1s are consumed by project updates or other tactical topics and rarely focus on the bigger picture.  It is important to convey to the employee that the time to talk about their career is whenever they are comfortable.  Take a couple minutes to talk about his or her goals – open ended questions are fine because the real aim is not the specific answer but to get both of your minds thinking on the topic.  What does the person like or dislike about their current role?  What would he like to do more?  What would she like to jettison?  All of these give you as the manager an idea of what keeps this person coming in every day.  Understanding that is the first step in career planning.

It is important during these conversations to set expectations.  Career planning is something that takes time and requires involvement from both the manager and the employee.  It does not progress overnight and will not move forward in a vacuum.  Organizations have certain goals and if you’d like to be an interior designer, a tech company isn’t the best place to achieve that.  That is an extreme example but if you wanted to sharpen you Linux skills in a Windows driven environment, there’s not much a manager can do – very little to justify training dollars or time for such activity.  That doesn’t mean those ideas should be dismissed.  They should be remembered because there may come a time when a project comes around that does require Linux and now you have a ready and eager participant already lined up.  Setting these expectations is important.  You must be honest with the employee around potential opportunities for growth.  If for example, someone wanted to go into project management but you know he has a tough time managing his own schedule, you might suggest working through personal organization as a first step.  That sort of feedback, while potentially taken negatively is important.  You want your employees to be successful and putting someone in a situation where they are likely to fail isn’t aligned with that goal.

Another important step in the process is to document the discussion and turn the notes into a plan for reference at subsequent conversations.  This is not a rigid timeline but rather a living document that will evolve over time.  It serves as a record for both of you so that opportunities do not slide by without consideration.  If someone shows interest in a certain technology or needs to develop a certain soft skill for advancement, the plan could be referenced explicitly citing a current project as a means for doing that.  It raises the awareness of the employee that her manager sees the effort as a growth opportunity and also shows that the leader is providing the opportunity promised.  The worst thing a manager can do in this space is putting up X as a roadblock to success and then not giving the employee a chance to work on X.  That is disingenuous.  At the same time, if opportunity is given but not taken, the employee must realize that the burden of success lies on them.  The plan serves as an objective reference point.

The key to successful career planning is to have both the employee and manager engaged in the discussion.  When a common understanding of goals and the path forward is reached, the only thing left to do is execute.  As leaders, we should coach along the way but it is the employee who is ultimately responsible for his or her own success.

Career Planning – Own It!

This is the first in a two part post on career planning. I want to explore this topic first from the perspective of owning your own career and then, as a manager, supporting the career planning of others. Career planning is not something that happens to you. It is something that you need to work at. You can’t sit idle and wait for opportunities to come to you. Your manager and others that can influence may notice your hard work and dedication but unless you tell them what you want to be doing and where you want to go, they will praise that success and assume you are content in your role. Promotions don’t come from tenure or because someone else took another role (at least not in a good organization), they come because a good performer asked, “What’s next?”   Interacting with your manager and expressing your goals is the single most important thing you can do with your career.

A disclaimer here for those of you that may be railing against the last sentence: I’ve worked exclusively in larger corporations and that is the perspective I write from.  I understand that in a smaller business or as a consultant, other things may trump. In larger business, maneuvering your way to the next level or onto a desirable project requires working within the management structure.

Expressing your goals to you manager is never an easy thing.  I believe it is best to be direct – even if this is not your normal communication style.  Being subtle about it won’t clearly convey what you desire and leaves room for misinterpretation.  And if there’s one thing you want to be clear about, it’s your career.  The first step is to understand what you want to be doing.  Is it the next level in your current role, a new project, a new team, or something else?  Having a good grasp on what you want is key to telling your manager about it.  Knowing where you want to be can quickly be followed by, “How do I get there?”  Mapping out your career with your manager is essentially those two questions – what? and how?  There may not always be the perfect opportunity so you need to be willing to take one step sideways in order to move forward later.  A new project might be possible if a promotion is not.

It is critical that, once you begin the conversation, it continues on a regular basis.  This doesn’t mean that every 1:1 needs to focus on it.  But it should be a topic of conversation at least once a month or so.  A good manager should give you feedback fairly often and a good contributor will ask for it.  Open ended questions (How am I doing?) are good but, the more specific, the better.  Talk to your boss after important meetings that both of you attend and ask how it went, what could have been better.  Learning what you do well is useful but learning from mistakes is better.  Correcting them is great and you should always mention a change in approach that yields a positive outcome.  It shows your manager that you recognize issues and are working to address them.

You have to be an active participant in your own career planning.  Sitting back and waiting for an annual review or other conversation doesn’t put you in control.  You have to take the reigns.  Good managers will guide you through, highlight their thoughts on your strengths and weaknesses, but you have to act.  As the title of the post says, “Own it!”

Presenting at Varrow Madness – What’s vLab?

This past week, I presented for the first time in a public forum.  It was a technical conference run by a large partner of EMC’s, Varrow.  Varrow is regional and based in the Carolinas and has a ton of talent and visibility within the industry.  I was honored to be asked but more than a little nervous.  For many of my peers, speaking to the general public is a well practiced and seasoned art.  For me, however, this was a first.  I spent a long time on the presentation and got help from a large number of folks (thank you all!)  I was confident in the material but was still nervous going into it.  There is something about speaking to total strangers that intimidates me.  I have spoken to all levels of internal audiences in large corporations – from executives on down.  But there is something “safe” about that.  You know your audience is pulling in the same direction, you’re employed by the same company.  External audiences are different.  There is an element of the unknown that is tough for me.  You don’t know what types of questions you’ll get or the level of detail that will be needed.  There’s no hint as to who will be attending or how engaged they’ll be.  All you know is that they picked your session to come to based on a 50 word abstract and now you can hopefully make it worth their while.

My presentation answered the question I get from acquaintances / family / friends – “What do you do at work?”  It aimed to cover not only what but more importantly “why” and “how”.  It is a topic I live every day and am excited about.  The deck was well received by the conference hosts and some folks internal to EMC who were familiar with vLab but not in our direct organization.  Bottom line – I should have been less nervous than I was.  I got into the room and it was blazing hot – so much so that we had to keep the doors open.  After that my USB slide advancer wouldn’t work well and kept disconnected.  When I was finally ready to go, I was off balance to say the least.  But then a funny thing happened.  The passion for what I do and preparation with the material took over.  It was odd and almost immediately I found myself mentally facepalming for worrying about it.  I cruised through the presentation and while the audience wasn’t overly engaged, I considered it a success.  I was between them and happy hour and the heat was really unbearable – I’m sure it wasn’t the material! 🙂  Long story short – this was good for me to do and stretched my comfort zone a bit.  I hope to do more of it.
vLab is a fantastic story to tell.  We have grown tremendously all while using modern and eloquent solutions to deliver business value.  It is something I get quite excited about because we are a functioning private cloud use case.  It is a great dialogue for EMC to have with customers but it is also personally fulfilling.  I have a great deal of pride in my team and the work they have done to help bring vLab to life.  I’ve included the slides I used below – if you have questions, please hit me up on twitter or in the comments below.  Happy to discuss!

Chris

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:

http://www.helpguide.org/mental/stress_management_relief_coping.htm
http://www.webmd.com/balance/stress-management/stress-management-topic-overview
http://www.mayoclinic.org/healthy-living/stress-management/basics/stress-basics/hlv-20049495

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