The Culture I’m Looking For

As I continue my job search, I’ve realized that a culture fit is the most important thing for me.  I have seen bad cultures, cultures that have soured over time, and best of all, great cultures.  I have a good idea of what I want, and what I want to avoid.  I’m very open with potential employers when I speak with them.  I have two basic requirements: a culture fit and a smart team doing interesting work.  I’d like to use this post to dive into the first.  Culture can mean many things and is one of the more subjective aspects of a company.  This list are the traits of what I consider an awesome culture.

Transparency

A good culture is transparent from top to bottom.  Decision makers should expect to explain why a decision was made.  Dictating direction without context should be avoided.  People shouldn’t be intentionally excluded from conversations and instead should be intentionally included.  Don’t fear disagreement.  This approach creates engaged employees who buy in, even if they don’t necessarily agree in the conclusion.  Keeping the process above board and out in the open is critical.

Trust

Team members must trust each other.  This trust manifests itself in a number of ways.  One way I always look for is how team members comment on their peers’ work.  Does the recipient respond angrily or dismiss the critique?  Is the critic genuinely looking to improve the solution or is he undermining the author?  Trust is required in both directions – the critic needs to trust the author will listen and the author needs to trust the critic’s intent.    

Growth

There must be opportunity within the team.  Emphasis should be placed on both technical and soft skill growth.  Leadership opportunities should be provided as often as possible.  A manager’s focus should be making her team successful.  Success should be measured not only in project deliverables but also in employee growth.  Teams that focus only on business outcomes will falter and lose people.  Individuals need to see growth and opportunity to stick around.

Collaboration

The team needs to work well together.  A collection of individuals working in silos never results in a high performing team.  Similarly, teams working in silos never result in a high performing organization.  We’ve all seen examples of fiefdoms in our professional lives; people who wrap their arms around “their stuff” and guard the walls.  That never makes for a healthy team.  Instead teams should work openly with adjacent orgs.  Trust that the best solutions will result from including others.

Accountability

Team members should expect to be held accountable.  Being held accountable doesn’t mean being flogged for failures.  It means that people take responsibility and learn from their mistakes.  It also means that leaders learn from missteps, better understanding how to position the team for success.  The team tries to do better the next time, constantly evolving and improving.  In the extreme, low performers are managed out and are not allowed to hold the team back.

These are the traits I’m looking for in a company culture.  These are also the qualities I try to instill in the teams I manage.  I believe they are critical regardless of the work we’re doing.  These are attributes of highly successful teams but aren’t easy to foster.  As a leader you must demonstrate them consistently and make sure your team is overtly aware.  If you are trusting someone, tell them.  If you have expectations, tell them.  If you’ve failed, tell them.

So how do I figure out company culture in an interview?

It is very hard to assess these qualities during the interview process.  These are some of the questions I use to suss it out:

What is the culture of the team?

Go after it directly.  If the interviewer stumbles or can’t describe it, red flag.

Is there someone who has left recently because they weren’t a culture fit?

Pay attention to why the person wasn’t a fit.  Is the interviewer factual or subjective in responding?  A response without emotional judgement is a good sign.

How does the team make decisions?

1:1 with an individual contributor?  Peer discussions?  This one speaks to collaboration.

Can you tell me about someone who has advanced her career here or elsewhere as a result of coaching?

Speaks to growth.  A good manager will be happy for someone who grows, even if it means it is somewhere else.  Sometimes there simply isn’t internal opportunity (for a management role as an example).


Do you have other cultural traits you look for?  Let me know in the comments!

Thanks
Chris

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.

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

Balancing Work and Home

This may seem like an odd topic for a leadership blog but I think encouraging work / life balance is an important (and very difficult) thing to do within technology teams.  High performing teams are typically made up of individuals who enjoy what they’re doing for work.  It would be odd to see a team that functioned well if some or all hated their jobs.  For people that enjoy their jobs, the lines between work time and leisure time can become blurred.  As technology is so rapidly changing, technologists may use their free time researching to stay current or working in their home lab.  It is difficult as a leader to, on the one hand, drive the team to meet deadlines while on the other, tell people it’s time for a break.  While certain past experiences (read, burn out) have forced me pay mind to this balance in my own life, I have found it difficult to force those on my teams to do the same.  I suppose vacations cannot be dictated but I believe there are other ways to push people away from work, if only for a short time.  As leaders, this skill is essential to protect the team against overwork, low morale, or even, in the extreme, outright mutiny (that never ends well for the captain).

I believe that technology fields off two unique challenges to the balance between work and home.  The first I’ve already alluded to – it changes so rapidly.  It is necessary to learn outside of normal working hours (as companies usually don’t allow enough time for training) because an outdated technologist is not going to be successful.  Those of us in technology also like to learn and understand the bleeding edge because it is new and exciting.  So while others may surf the latest entertainment blogs or sports sites, we figure out how to write that piece of code or find out if the bug we’ve run into is fixed in the next beta release.  I’m not saying this is true for everyone of us but I believe that, for technologists, a lot of our down time is closer to work than other fields.  This presents challenges for balancing work and home as the line between the two becomes foggy.

The other unique hurdle for technologists (at least those in any sort of operations role) is the idea of being on-call.  While most occupations have set hours with some expected overflow, I have slept next to my phone ever since I joined this profession.  It can ring at any time and it is expected that I answer it.  I’m not putting technology jobs above others, just saying that “carrying the pager” makes technologists different.  We are certainly well compensated as a result but this does however force the lines of work and home to become more vague.  Unless I’m on vacation, I don’t shut my phone off or leave it at home.  Maybe that’s just me and others are better but it makes me anxious to be without that little communication device.  And when I carry the phone, I tend to check and respond to email and thus my workday extends.  The benefits my company gets for shelling out for the device and monthly plan are enormous.

So with these things in mind, how do leaders prevent their team members from tipping the balance in their lives too far toward their job?  This is a huge issue in the US (where success is judged primarily by economic status) and is something I face on a daily basis.  There are a couple of methods I use – one direct and one more indirect – to combat this.

I’ll start with the more indirect of the two.  This idea is around managing expectations and while that may seem a little odd to connect to work / life balance, I promise I’ll get there.  I have a simple rule that I employ with my teams: make commitments and hit them.  If you are unable to meet the expectation on delivery, let me know as soon as possible.  This does a couple things for me.  It makes planning simpler as I generally know when to expect deliverables and if they slip, I know as soon as possible.  As a manager, it is important to deal with misses in a rational way.  Delays will happen, that is a fact.  When they do, reacting with anger or insane disappointment is out of line.  If you do, your team won’t trust you and will let you know of delays only as a last resort.  That only gives you less time to re-plan, reset expectations, and adds tension – not a positive outcome.  Your team must trust in your response and know that you are on their side.  It also helps to guide your team on setting expectations.  If you are forgiving without being a doormat, people will add less padding to their work estimates, ending up with more accuracy.  Reiterating the importance of making and meeting commitments along the way serves to solidify this.  All of this serves to make work more predictable and reduces the chaos of the multiple workstreams / projects / skunk works efforts that are common in a technical environment.  This helps work / life balance tremendously as it fundamentally changes the way the team works.  Rather than jumping from rushed deadline to rushed deadline, the team can plan and when a day to catch your breath is necessary, you can take it rather than having it domino a ton of efforts out of control.  The work itself “slows” and the team knows that their leader has their back and understands that sh*t happens.

The other part of this indirect method is to hone your skill at managing up.  Just as your team will set expectations with you, you must set expectations above.  As you develop trust with your team and get better and better work estimates and flow, your ability to be predictable to upper management will improve.  Ideally, this predictability brings trust and with it, some calm.  Unfortunately, that may not always be the case and many of us have dealt with management that never seems satisfied or appreciative.  In these cases, it is important to remember that, as leaders, we must act as buffers to our teams.  Be honest with them as to the pressure you’re facing and never toss them under the bus to your management.  It is our job as leaders to own that responsibility and manage expectations.  Doing so is critical for both the sanity of the team and your own well being.

The more direct method of dealing with work / life balance concerns being in good communication with your team.  It is important to know how the individuals on your team are doing, both within and outside of the workplace.  You don’t need to be friends with everyone (that’s a personal decision and a different post) but as leaders, it is important to know the pressures facing your team, no matter the source.  The ability to sense work overload or other sources of stress is a critical leadership skill.  In a perfect world work would be stress free and while it can be managed, work is never free of stress.  There are times when as leaders, we must react and do so in support of our team, potentially at a cost to a project.  In the long run, the team will appreciate it and the business will benefit through increased morale and work output.

A couple of examples to illustrate the point… you might have an employee who suddenly changes his or her performance.  Normally she is great and enthusiastic but lately has been quiet and might have missed some commitments.  Don’t delay addressing this as it may compound with time.  Faced with an under-performing employee, some managers will make the conversation simply about that and simply send the “pick it up” message.  That isn’t my approach.  If you have someone that is traditionally a good performer, the benefit of the doubt should be given 100% of the time.  I start these types of conversations with, “Are you OK?”  I mention that I’ve seen a change and want to know how she’s doing.  I do this because I truly care and also because I want to know what I can do to help.  Employees will share to varying degrees based on their personality and level of comfort with you.  Regardless of the degree of disclosure, it is important that your team knows that you care.  Just asking and sensing tone or if in person, body language, can give you insight.  Once you have it, it is important to act.  If you sense someone is over-stressed, pick a day, call her up and tell her to take the afternoon off.  If pressed, it is a reward for a job well done.  These small acts may have more of a positive effect then you know and only come at the cost of a few hours.

Another situation you might run into is an employee who comes to you with a personal concern.  It might be that a parent is ill or they have an auto repair that they need to get done but haven’t been able to find the time.  Given this type of situation, I immediately offer time away from work.  Family has been and always will be more important than the job and as a leader, it is important that you reinforce this to your team.  The belief that one might be viewed as under-performing if we need to ask for time only serves to compound personal stressers and can dissuade us from requesting it.  As a leader, offer it.  It takes a lot of pressure off folks if they know you’re supportive and won’t respond with, “That’s nice, now back to work.”  These situations won’t always be as obvious as I’ve presented here so it is important to build your skill in reading your team.  It takes time but putting the balance of work and home front of mind for yourself and your team will go a very long way.  It is critical to our development as leaders.

-Chris

The Importance of Listening to Your Team

When folks read the title of my blog, I’m guessing the first thought that comes to mind is management.  A manager leads the team and the team members follow.  While that is certainly my current role, being a manager doesn’t qualify you as a leader, nor does it fully define what it means to lead.  Leadership can happen at all levels of an organization and in all functions.  This is especially true in technology where most teams are not staffed to their full compliment and individuals are often expected to operate with a fair degree of independence.  Leadership opportunities arise within projects, through subject matter expertise, and even through attitude and mindset.  Simple acts can make you a leader and it is in these moments that I see leadership.

I’d like to define leadership by describing some qualities that make a good leader.  These can be applied no matter your position, you just need to find the right opportunities.  I’ll also get into some examples of poor leadership techniques that we all can fall into.  Understanding and correcting improper tendencies as as important if not more so than demonstrating good qualities.  I’m going to describe what I feel makes a good leader in many different posts because I believe that each quality is nuanced enough to warrant a lengthy discussion.  I don’t think there’s any Top 10 list that applies universally so I’ll tackle them over time.

One quality that I feel is critical is the ability of a leader to listen to his or her team.  Leaders like to talk.  Generally speaking, those that gravitate to leadership roles are expressive and willing to share their thoughts and opinions with others.  While this is certainly a positive trait, good leaders also know when to keep silent.  The ability to listen and respond thoughtfully to your team is critical.  People want to be heard and respected.  If you are constantly talking through, over, or around people, you’re not leading, you’re babbling.  Opening your ears comes in handy in many situations.  Listening to a peer vent, discussing career aspirations with a report, or understanding the amount of risk in a project timeline as a team member are all examples.  Too much can be missed when your mouth is moving.

I struggled with this early in my career and still do today to a certain extent.  Too often I wanted to make sure that I was heard and didn’t take the time to truly hear others.  I had many a manager, project manager, or peer pull me aside and tell me that I was too brash or came on too strong.  Normally they respected my opinion but didn’t appreciate how I had conveyed it.  It took quite some time for the advice to sink in (and I’m no master of it now) but I’d like to think I have grown a little from that young man right out of college who knew everything about everything.

The practical applications of this trait are numerous but I’d like to focus on a few techniques that I have found effective.  As a manger, I schedule 1:1’s with nearly everyone in my organization that wants one (and even with some that I’m sure don’t).  The frequency isn’t too high but I treat it as the other person’s meeting.  It is his or her time on my calendar and I set that expectation right up front.  If I control the conversation, I believe I’ve failed.  I want to hear how that person is doing, how their work is going, how they’re enjoying it, what they want to be doing more of, what they can’t stand, and most importantly, what I can do to help.  I want to understand “the pulse” so to speak.  I’m very transparent about the process, telling the individual that this is their opportunity to tell me what’s going well and what isn’t.  Not everyone engages and that is fine – the fact that they have the opportunity is the point.  Too often, managers simply dictate because there is too much work and too little time to check in and see how the team is doing.  This can lead to low morale and in the worst case, attrition.  Too often in large corporations (which is the entirety of my professional experience), that fact that we work with human beings is lost amongst the huge machine that surrounds us.  While changing corporate culture is beyond my skills, I try to humanize my small space within it as much as possible.

Another technique I use is a round table at the end of every team meeting that I hold.  I leave time in the agenda for open items that anyone can raise.  It can be a question for someone else on the team, an accolade for a peer, a concern someone has, a question from an earlier portion of the meeting, anything at all really.  It is a time where each team member has the opportunity to take the floor and be heard.  Sometimes it causes the meeting to run over, other times there’s complete silence.  In the latter case, I will sometime ask someone who I know is comfortable with the spotlight if he or she has anything to bring up.  Be careful about who you do this with as folks with more reserved personalities can feel very put off by it.  This can get the discussion rolling but doesn’t always, and that’s OK.  The result doesn’t matter as much as the fact that the chance to speak is there and that I, as the leader, am stepping back and letting other dictate the conversation.

The first two approaches can be applied broadly across industries but the third I’d like to discuss is applicable directly to a technical environment.  As a manger, there is a tendency to move away from the day to day of your organization.  This is especially true the higher that you go in the food chain.  It is a fact of the managerial career path that you lose your technical depth.  It is a decision we all need to make in our careers.  In general, management (if they are focusing on managing) can’t stay up to date with all the newest technology that their team employs.  While this can be disappointing for some, I embrace it and am very transparent with my team that I rely on them for the technical knowledge.  I don’t have the answers and need them to lead me to the best technical decisions.  In this spirit, I periodically take the time to attend deep technical meetings (the ones the team has without stakeholders so they can actually be productive).  I use it as an opportunity to educate myself and to switch roles with my team members.  They become the leaders and I the follower (a certain Star Wars quote comes to mind here).  I ask questions, not to challenge the ideas being presented, but to truly understand the topic being discussed.  I take note of the participation of each team member and may follow up if I sense someone was drowned out by louder voices.  For me, this achieves two things.  I stay in touch with the technology to a depth that is required and I also get to hear the thoughts, ideas, and interactions of members on my team.  Some may argue the point over the technical knowledge required to be a good manager of a technical team (I’ve got a post about that in the hopper so I’m not going to dig into it here) but reading manuals and configuration guides is something I gave up long ago.  For my purposes, gaining technical information is secondary to listening to the team.

While I’ve described these practices in a managerial context, they can be applied generally.  I openly encourage my team members to hold 1:1s with each other, especially if they have frequent interaction.  If both parties go into that meeting wanting to hear the other, great communication and collaboration will happen.  Similarly, PMs, technical leads, or anyone facilitating a discussion can leave room for the table to be heard.  Take the time in the agenda to allow for it – don’t skimp.  And finally, anyone can take the opportunity to expand their knowledge in a new technical arena.  Ask to attend a technical discussion outside of your comfort zone.  Ask questions and learn from your peers.  This may not seem like leadership but letting someone know that you are interested in what he’s doing and want to better understand it is very powerful.  You will earn respect and trust – two things critical to being a good leader.

-Chris