Category Archives: Management

People – the cost of treating them as costs

20130129-154842.jpg A headline in the business section of a national newspaper recently caught my attention. It read: “Company reports rise in profits despite employee numbers increasing”. The inference seemed to be that the company employees had no role to play in the company’s success; in fact it appeared to suggest that company profits might have been even higher were it not for the increase in the number of employees. While one might be tempted to blame sloppy editing I think there is a lot to be considered in the thinking behind this type of narrative. Is the underlying motto “Maximise profits and minimise employees”? Think about this before answering. Some commentators might like to soften the language by replacing “minimise” with “optimise” but the tenet is basically the same.

I detect a worrying shift in business language since the onset of the recession. There has been a tendency to revert to a Command and Control view of management where employees are expected to be motivated by the fact that “at least they have a job”. This is hardly sustainable in the long run. Of course, companies need clear direction and tighter cost control in these circumstances but does this mean that employees should now be seen purely as costs? Does it have to be like this is a recession? I would argue that of course it doesn’t. In fact, during a recession, you need employees to be even more empowered, more committed and more engaged. In addition, you won’t want to lose them when things start to pick up and you really need them to grow the business. Your competitors, who will also be growing, will very happily take these experienced employees away from you (probably without even offering extra money, just a better place to work).

I believe that managers may be tempted to avoid the people management aspects of their jobs in favour of task management. In other words, a return to the comfort zone. But, here’s the point, it’s during the tough times that the real leaders emerge; leaders who can deliver the bad news but still bring their staff with them, provide clear vision and actually increase loyalty. Unfortunately we may have to wait for the recession to be over before we will be able to see the fruits of their labours.

In a nutshell, you should grasp the opportunity to be the leader that your employees deserve. They will stand by you in the good times if you stand by them in the bad times. Tough decisions have to be made but that doesn’t mean you have to be tough on people. Treat them as assets, not costs.


Meetings – A Sanity Check

ImageOk, it’s important that I begin by saying that I believe meetings (in general) to be important in business. And, just to be clear, I’m not looking at the usual one to one meetings here; I’m dealing with the larger (team) meetings that are now part of everyday organizational life – usually punctuated by Powerpoint presentations and minute-taking. Meetings are there to provide an opportunity for teams to share knowledge, to strengthen interdependencies and, overall, to have better informed decision-making. In practice however, many meetings are unproductive, seen as time-wasters and generate more conflict than synergies. I’m not going to look at how to make meetings more effective – there is sufficient, although generally ignored, advice on this topic. What I really wanted to look at briefly is the decision-making process we use when deciding to have a meeting and press the “Invite” button.

It’s important to have the right meetings, with the right people, dealing with the right issues. Otherwise you might be responsible for wasting a lot of valuable resources in the form of people’s time. Even those regular meetings that are are in your calendar, the monthly/weekly/daily(!) update meetings should be sanity checked at regular intervals to ensure that they are still fulfilling a need. Regular scheduled meetings can often remain long after their “best before” date. They can remain in place when all of the original meeting members have been replaced over time, the original focus is lost and the meeting seems to be there for reasons that no-one can really articulate (Skinner might well give a wry smile). Meetings with titles such as “Strategic Review” can become entirely operational with the agenda being no more than an aspirational list of to-do items.

It’s important therefore to take a long hard look at the meetings you arrange and confirm that they are not just there by force of habit or a remnant of how some previous management team ran the business.

The next time you are about to set up a meeting,  stop first and ask yourself a few questions.

  1. Do you need a meeting to achieve your aims? Ask yourself this question twice!
  2. Are you clear on the purpose of the meeting? What are the desired outcomes? Use the following as a check by completing the phrase  – “If the meeting is successful then……..”
  3. Are the agenda items aligned with the purpose of the meeting? What is superfluous? What is missing?
  4. Are you clear about what your role will be at the meeting?
  5. Are you clear about who needs to attend? Treat each invite as a valuable resource that you are taking away from other value-adding activities.
  6. Are you clear about what each invitee will bring to the meeting and/or take away from the meeting?
  7. Have you allocated the right amount of time for the meeting? (Or have you just clicked “one hour” because its the default?)

Sanity checking your meeting should be an ongoing activity. The hidden cost of meetings can be enormous if they are unproductive so, before you even start, make sure you know what you’re meeting will deliver.

As for the efficient running of meetings – that’s another day’s work!

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Goal “Not everything that can be counted counts, and not everything that counts can be counted.” – Albert Einstein

I like the quote attributed to Einstein as it highlights for me one of the two difficulties with “Goals” that I have seen clients fall foul of. The other difficulty is that of action planning. But first, a few comments on goal-setting.

In the traditional world of Performance Management, many managers focus on SMART goals when they are looking at the year ahead. While there are undeniable benefits in having goals that are specific, measurable, achievable, realistic and time bound, there is also an overarching constraint imposed if the goals are rigidly tied to this formula. In particular the short-term focus on goals that have only a twelve-month horizon. Where is the long term vision? What desired long-term change is being overlooked? Maybe it’s time to include some goals that are “non- smart”.

Non-smart goals
Task-oriented goals are the easiest ones to fit into the SMART goal framework. Now, if you happen to be in a business where many managers are naturally task-focused there is a very comfortable fit between the manager’s style and task-oriented goals. But there is an unfortunate casualty, people. People goals are rarely so task-focused. The upshot of this is an environment where little attention is paid to important people factors like motivation and engagement. These people factors have real bottom-line impact but are often overlooked in goal setting because they don’t fit as easily within the SMART goal framework.
For that reason I propose that managers should have, in addition to the task-based goals, a “Non-smart” goal that is people focused. I suggest the following criteria for this goal.

  • It should have a People focus
  • Rather than be Specific, the goal should be based on continuous improvement.
  • Instead of being Measurable, the manager should be able, at year end, to provide evidence of what they have achieved
  • The goal should still be achievable and realistic
  • Rather than being time-bound in the traditional sense that the goal is achieved and is “completed”, the goal should be a stage upon which further stages can be build upon in subsequent years. The goal continues.

Action plans – the missing link
Translating goals into results can be a challenge. For some managers, goal-setting is an exercise that is rooted in the performance management process. Goals are set at the beginning of the year, reviewed mid-year and given a final review at year-end. The periods between reviews can be taken up by the busy day-to-day activities, leaving the reviews as mere reminders of what has been forgotten in the urgency. This happens when there is no link between the annual goals and the weekly activities.

Working with a coach, or peer, as part of goal-setting is a very practical way of improving goal achievement and performance. The first question that a coach might ask a manager about a goal is “why is this important”? This usually results in the manager internalising the goal or, in some cases, deciding that there are other more important goals to be achieved. The main thing for the manager is to really take ownership of their goals before moving onto action planning. If the manager doesn’t own the goal then there is little chance of her achieving it.

Goals are only achieved though actions. Time has to be set aside each week to review the week that has passed and to identify important actions for the week ahead. The actions may be small but, cumulatively, chart out steady progress. The question the manager must ask herself is “what single action can I take this week that would have the greatest impact on achieving this goal”. This reflection can bring focus and intent to the pursuit of any goal.

The three step process below is simple if followed.

  1. Review Goals weekly and focus on their importance
  2. Identify key actions for the week ahead
  3. Schedule these actions in the diary

Again, working with a coach or peer can help a manager with action planning and review.

Remember, the longest journey begins with a single step.

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Wired versus Disconnected

“Today, for the first time in history, many peoples daily default is to be wired into at least one personalised form of media…… If we are to get the most out of both the world around us and each other, we need to recognise that we have two fundamentally different ways of being. Our wired and disconnected states each represent a different set of possibilities for thought and action”.

– Tom Chatfield “How to thrive in a Digital Age”

If you think about the above quote from Tom Chatfield, then you realise that we all need to consider our Wired and Disconnected states. By default we are wired into email, phone, blackberry, iPhone etc. Nowadays we must consciously decide and take action to be “off line” rather than decide to go “on line”. This is a relatively new phenomenon and is fundamentally different to how we operated in the past.

So, there are enormous advantages to having instant access to information and to have high speed communication at our fingertips twenty-four hours a day. However, there is still a need for uninterrupted “disconnected” time in order to plan, prepare, strategise, review, consider and think. Thinking is rarely mentioned in management literature and yet the quality of one’s thinking has an enormous impact on one’s performance as a manager and the decisions one makes.

The question is – what is the quality of your thinking if you are never disconnected?

How can you actively manage your Wired and Disconnected states? Here are a few suggestions.

• As a starting point, schedule some Disconnected time in your weekly calendar. Block out some diary slots when you can switch off your computer, phone, blackberry etc. Choose a location that is away from distraction. Don’t try to do this at your normal desk location. Moving to another location or office will help you to switch out of Wired mode. It also removes the ever tempting presence of your computer screen. Use this time wisely: plan to work on items that have a medium to long term focus.

• When working at your desk, Reduce the amount of Interruptions from email. In your email settings, switch off the “email alert” so the email “envelope” does not pop up when an email arrives. Ensure that your email notification alert sound is also switched off. Even this simple change will improve your attention and focus.

• Schedule email time morning and afternoon. Deal with email in dedicated time slots. This might be an hour in the morning and one in the afternoon. This is something that you will need to communicate to your team so that they don’t expect instantaneous responses. You should agree with them that if they need to send you an email that requires urgent attention, then they should let you know that by calling you. Email should not be used for short urgent queries that could be answered on the phone.

• When you open your Inbox, Categorise your emails. Look at each one and decide how to deal with it in one of the following four ways:

  1. Deal with it now if it can be responded to immediately and if it is appropriate to do so.
  2. Delegate it to someone else if it is not yours to resolve.
  3. Delete it if it is irrelevant or if it needs no further action once you’ve read it. Obviously, for some emails you might want to file them for reference.
  4. Diary it if it requires action. Move it to a task and assign a date that you plan to deal with it. This shouldn’t be a “bucket” or wish list. Use your own criteria regarding how you plan to execute these tasks (e.g. You might decide to group together on a particular day a number of emails that require review and response). Don’t Mark it Unread and return to it later.

You cannot create Time, but by adopting some of these suggestions you will help avoid losing time through inefficiency and will improve the quality of your thinking and the focus on longer term goals.


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The Value of Rehearsal

“The harder I practice the luckier I get” – Gary Player

The quote above was Gary Player’s response to an onlooker who dismissed Player’s ability as luck; Player was hitting shots out of a bunker next to the practice green and had just holed three bunker shots in a row. For Player, it wasn’t about luck. The champion golfer understood the importance of practice. The odds were shortened by the amount of the practice he put into difficult shots.

The very best sports people, actors and musicians practice or rehearse. They work on areas that need improvement and keep tuning those elements of their sport or art that they do well. They also visualise what they are trying to achieve. The reason? Because it works! So if this is so obvious, why do managers and leaders, by and large, spend little or no time in rehearsal. If there are aspects of their job that they need to work on, then why do they “wing it” and avoid putting in some practice. Just being a manager day in day out is not practice. It certainly will develop certain skill areas but what about the weak spots? Top Golfers spend a lot of time practicing. But they don’t practice by just playing more rounds of golf. They break the game into components and practice these separately. Take for example bunker shots; a nightmare for the amateur “Sunday golfer”. Professionals practice their bunker shots, their ability to float the ball out of a bed of sand and onto the green.

Why is practice so important? Well, for golfers, if they are playing well, they won’t end up in the bunker very often so they won’t get a lot of opportunity to play these shots during a competition. Also, if they have this as a weakness in their game then they will have this negative image of landing in a bunker whenever one is in sight. The mind can be very effective in translating “avoid the bunker” into “go for the bunker”. Likewise, musicians spend hours practicing the very basics of their musicianship, the scales and arpeggios that lay the foundation for all music. So it pays to practice and rehearse. One might argue that there is an important aspect of developing “muscle memory” in practice but there is more to it than that. There is a deep psychological benefit in being highly competent in a skill area. It allows one to move beyond sheer competence and into higher levels of accomplishment. A world class musician is not just someone who gets all the notes correct! There is more to being a top actor than remembering all the lines.

The power of denial

So, why is it that managers feel that they can do the equivalent of playing no golf for six months and then expect to get around eighteen holes of a course in level par? Based on my experience in leadership development, the following are typical reasons that managers put forward as reasons for not practicing or rehearsing.

  • “I’m too busy”
  • “I learn from experience, picking it up as I go”
  • “I hate role play”
  • “I already get too much practice every day”
  • “I’m uncomfortable with this”

Don’t get me wrong, managers aren’t lazy. I’ve spent the most of my career in management roles and know the commitment that managers bring to their work. They have a lot of competing pressures; setting aside time to practice a skill seems like a luxury. But surely it’s important enough to make it a priority.

It reminds me of the Stephen Covey story of a man who was walking through a forest when he came across a frustrated lumberjack. The lumberjack was trying to cut down a tree with and was swearing and cursing as he laboured in vain.

“What’s the problem?” The man asked.

“My saw’s blunt and won’t cut the tree properly.” The lumberjack responded.

“Why don’t you just sharpen it?”

“Because then I would have to stop sawing.” said the lumberjack.

“But if you sharpened your saw, you could cut more efficiently and effectively than before.”

“But I don’t have time to stop!” The lumberjack retorted.

Rehearsal is a great example of “Sharpening the Saw”. In the short term it is an investment of time but it pays long term dividends in terms of effectiveness. Let’s take it as a given that most of us aren’t “born leaders”, even if we leave aside the debate that such mythical creatures exist. We have to work at being leaders or managers. If we identify areas for development then the next step is to have an active rehearsal plan. Common areas of development that seem to feature regularly are influencing, giving feedback, active listening and motivating others. All of these can be broken down into smaller components, rehearsed and then improved.

The basic elements of rehearsal

In order to be effective, the following basic elements should be part of your rehearsal:

A low risk environment (the practice ground). In other words, don’t try something new during a presentation to the chief executive. You might pull it off but more than likely you’ll crash and burn. Try it out in a situation where there is less pressure. Repetition (a bucket of golfballs). To really ingrain a new skill you need to practice it regularly. This won’t happen unless you set yourself reminders to do it. Acknowledge it as important and then it will get into your diary. The very fact of even thinking about it regularly will help you to improve.

Feedback (a target to measure against). You don’t see golfers just hitting balls aimlessly if they are trying to practice. They have a target to aim at so they can see their progress. You may be able to get feedback from others such as a coach or colleague and this is probably the best type of feedback, someone who observes what you are doing and is skilled and trusted enough to give you constructive feedback. You can also assess yourself if you define a clear objective up front. For example, if you are working on your listening and influencing skills you can keep track of how many open questions you ask, adding a point for each open question and deducting a point for each closed question. Set yourself a target number of points for a specific interaction and see how you do.

Adjustment (trying different things to find what works best). If something isn’t working then you have to find out what needs to be changed. So, how can find this out? Well, look for someone who you know has a highly developed ability in the particular area. Observe them. Try to identify what makes them so capable. Talk to them. Ask them to mentor you. The main thing is to come up with ideas that you can help you improve. Always have a notebook handy or, if you prefer, keep notes on your phone. Watch for tips and learning. You’ll be surprised with how much you see once you are tuned in to observing with purpose.

Practical Tips

Here are a few practical tips to finish.

  • If you are working with a coach, then you have a great advantage. You have the benefit of someone who can (a) provide you with a secure and safe practice ground (b) provide you with constructive feedback and (c) help you to make adjustments. It’s no coincidence that coaching is so prevalent in sports and arts.
  • Try the skill in another context. For example, I worked with a manager who found that giving feedback was difficult for them, a task that they dreaded and avoided. However, she also taught music as a hobby and was quite comfortable giving feedback to her students. By examining the feedback technique she used with her music students and practicing it there, she was able to adapt this to her work situation and actually became a manager that others sought out to get feedback.
  • Pair up with a colleague or friend whom you trust. Many development programmes include these types of peer support as a way of embedding the learning. But you don’t need to be on a development programme; you can do this with a colleague.
  • Try putting a reminder on your phone or watch. I worked with a manager who had a challenge with listening; this had a negative impact on his relationships with colleagues who believed him to be arrogant. The solution? He had a daily diary task to give one person ten minutes of undivided attention, without interrupting and only allowing himself to ask open questions or reflect back what he had heard. The result? He very quickly found that his effectiveness as a manager improved. Interpersonal relationships with colleagues and clients were better and even at home he found that he was giving more time listening to what his kids had to tell him.
  • If all else fails, just practice on your own. For example, if you are going to give feedback to someone, go through what you are planning to say. Listen to your own voice. Read from a script at first and then try it out. Do your best to visualise the person in front of you. Don’t role play their reactions, just concentrate on what you are saying.

Remember, practice may not make perfect, but at the very least it will improve your capability as a manager.

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Lessons from Line Management

On being a Line Manager
Lessons from Twenty five years

I was appointed to my first line manager role in 1987. It was an Assistant Supervisor role which I embarked upon with little or no prior line management experience. I stumbled my way through those early days and relied on the guidance, patience and support of those around me. My most valuable lessons about line management were learned here; lessons that became a foundation upon which I could subsequently build.

Since then I’ve held more senior line management positions up to and including senior management level. I’ve also had the benefit of working for, and with, some great line managers from whom I’ve learned an enormous amount. My work in HR has also provided me with the benefit of observing from the outside the impact of line management, both good and bad. So, here are a few of the lessons from those twenty five years.

1. Be generous with your time. Never underestimate how high a value people put on the time you give them. For someone who has a role which is less senior, a more senior manager who takes the time, regularly, to talk to them about what they are doing beats all of the wall plaques about values. This says “you’re not just a number”. Be curious – you will learn a lot about the business by talking to the people who are at the coal face. To make this happen you have to schedule it in your diary – put it in as a ‘meeting’ in Outlook if necessary.

2. Be generous with your praise. Always give credit for work done by your direct reports – mention them in dispatches. If anything, give them a bit more credit and underplay what you yourself may have done. Always give them credit by name. If you can, acknowledge them in the company of others. This will be appreciated for a long time to come.

3. Be generous with your knowledge. Passing on your experience to others will be repaid many times over. Some people believe that knowledge is power and therefore must be held onto and not shared. This is zero-sum game thinking. In fact the opposite is true. It is by sharing knowledge that real power is achieved. Sharing knowledge and experiences will improve delegation, improve the overall level of thinking in the organisation and will encourage openness and co-operation. It will also ensure that others pass on their knowledge to you and so you too will learn.

4. Be generous with your space. Unless it’s a very quick question, never have a long conversation with someone from behind your desk. Come around and sit with the person. Remove the physical barrier and engage with them.

5. Be generous with feedback. It isn’t all about praise. Don’t be afraid to give constructive feedback when it is needed. The most valuable lessons I have learned were those when someone took me to one side, pointed out my shortcomings and then helped me to improve. You do no-one a service by holding back advice and feedback that would help them to grow.

6. Be generous with small stuff. Remember birthdays and mark them (even if you have to rely on your Outlook reminder). Say “Thank you” with a card instead of an email.

7. Be generous with yourself. Regularly take time out to think – that’s what you’re paid for; you’re not paid on the quantity of emails you get through. Get into the “Important but Not Urgent” space. Brainstorm possibilities. Take a long-term view. Have big projects that you believe in.

8. Be generous with your peers. Talk to them outside of the formal interactions. Don’t base your relationships on your attendance at meetings. Call to their offices. Be interested in their view of the business. Act as a sounding board. Make a habit of meeting them for coffee. Find out what it is that energises them.

9. Be generous at home. When you are at home, be at home. If you need to work at home, block out a piece of time and let your family know that you’re at work. Don’t pretend to be at home when you’re really at the office. Children in particular are the greatest detectors of authenticity – they will know instinctively if your mind is elsewhere. You may fool yourself but you’re not fooling them.


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