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.

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.

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.