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Teaching Students and Managing Subordinates August 29, 2014

Posted by Tim Rodgers in Management & leadership.
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Last week I finished teaching a class in project management at a local university. I’ve always planned to spend my time teaching as an adjunct professor after “retirement,” and this extended period of involuntary unemployment has given me the chance to pursue that plan a little earlier. It was a small class, only ten students. I enjoyed it thoroughly, and I think I did a pretty good job passing on some knowledge and maybe inspiring some of the students. I’m looking forward to teaching this class again sometime soon.

While reviewing the homework assignments and papers to prepare the final grades I’ve been thinking about the different kinds of students in the class and how they remind me of some of the different employees I used to manage.

1. The “literalists” are the students who really internalize the grading rubric and do exactly what was assigned, no more and no less. For example, this is a class that requires participation in on-line discussion threads between the classroom sessions, and the students are graded according to how often they post, including posting early in the week (instead of posting several times in one day). This is to encourage actual discussion among the students. The literalists do the minimum required number of posts, but miss the point about engaging with other students. They’re like the employees who want to know how their job performance will be measured, including what it looks like when they “exceed expectations,” but fail to understand how their performance fits into the larger picture. They don’t have the inner drive to learn more or contribute more, and they’re unlikely to exercise leadership, unless it’s something they’re going to be “graded on.” In class, they’ll get a good grade, but I wonder how valuable they’re going to be to their future employer.

2. On the other hand, the “generalists” seem to have a deeper understanding of the material, ask questions in class, and engage in the discussions, but don’t always turn in the homework, or turn it in late. They’re not going to get the best grade if I follow the strict guidelines of the grading rubric. They remind me of the rare employees who aren’t thinking only about how they’re going to do on their next performance review. Maybe they don’t care about external rewards like salary increases. They may be motivated by a desire to learn and grow and master new skills. These are the folks I used to really enjoy working with because they tended to take a longer view that was less self-centered. They could be inspired to take on more challenging assignments, including leadership positions.

3. The “strugglers” are the students who are really trying, but just can’t seem to get it. They turn in the work, participate in the classroom, make mistakes, sometimes get frustrated, and appreciate any help they can get. I like them because they try, and I look for ways to give them extra points for the effort. They’re not going to become project managers. This isn’t the right class for them, but they’re going to get through it, and I hope they find a different class or focus area that will be a better use of their talents and skills. I’ve managed people like that who are in the wrong job. Sometimes the organization can accommodate a change in responsibilities that will help these people shine, and if they can they’ll get a lot more out of these folks.

4. Finally, there are the “slackers” who don’t always show up for class, don’t always turn in the homework, don’t participate in class discussions, and generally aren’t engaged at all. They may or may not be aware of the fact that they’re not going to pass the class, and they may or may not care. When they get negative feedback and written warnings that they’re headed for a failing grade, there’s no response. I can’t “fire” these students, and there’s a limit to how much effort I’m willing to put into improving their performance. It doesn’t work if I care more about how a student is doing than they do. As with the strugglers, they will eventually move on to other things, but will they find something that inspires them? Do they have skills and inner drive, and what will it take to draw them out?

Anyway, as I said, these are some of my observations and comparisons. The classroom is a different environment than the workplace, and it’s unlikely that I’ll see any of these students again. The grade they get from this class or any other is not necessarily a reflection of how well they’ll do after they graduate or otherwise leave the university.


What Will You Do With the Time You Save? May 7, 2014

Posted by Tim Rodgers in Management & leadership, Process engineering, strategy.
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When laptops and cell phones and remote access first emerged as an option for office workers a lot of folks tried to justify the incremental expense by arguing that they would be so much more productive as a mobile worker, no longer tied to a specific cubicle. Some even tried to calculate an ROI based on quantitative estimates of labor cost savings or higher efficiency. The arguments all seemed to be based on the idea that we would be able to get so much more done by feeing ourselves from the constraints of a physical office. I suppose we really are getting more done. Mobile technology has become the standard for the majority of knowledge workers and we don’t think twice about the cost of the hardware or worry much about the security of remote access.

Lately I’ve been reminded of those claims of the higher productivity of mobile workers because of the current interest in lean production and business process improvement. One of the reasons that some people cite for resistance to these kinds of changes is the fear that it will lead to layoffs because fewer people will be needed to manage the new processes. We hate being overworked, but apparently some believe that it comes with job security.

First of all, there’s no job security at a company that’s rife with waste and inefficiency. Unless you’re a legal monopoly, competitors will figure out how to operate more efficiently and eventually your higher expenses will make you un-competitive and unprofitable.

Second, why does it have to be a choice between inefficiency and layoffs? Why would anyone assume that higher productivity automatically guarantees workforce reductions?

I’m not naive, I know this does happen. If you have five buyers in your purchasing department and you figure out how to get the same work done with four people, then you have one more person than you need. But, that’s a narrow way of looking at the issue. You have one more person than you need for that job, but you also have one more person that can be assigned to a different job. In many cases there’s some other part of the organization that’s starved for resources (assuming the skills are transferable), or a project or strategic initiative that hasn’t been able to get off the ground (including further process improvements).

If you save money as a result of process improvement, you can choose to put that money in your pocket, or you can invest it elsewhere. Yes, you can reduce expenses by cutting headcount, but did you consider using those resources to help increase revenue, or accelerate time-to-market, or improve quality?

Certainly you shouldn’t expect much support for changes that lead to higher productivity if it’s understood that there will be layoffs as a result. I don’t remember big layoffs when we implemented mobile technology. We found more work to do.


What Makes a Good Operations Manager? April 30, 2014

Posted by Tim Rodgers in Management & leadership.
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The other day someone posed an interesting question on a LinkedIn group discussion: What are the three most-important characteristics of a good operations manager? A lot of the discussions I’ve been following lately seem to be preoccupied with issues like this. What makes a good manager? What is the difference between management and leadership? I hate my manager, should I leave this company? How can we get rid of all the managers so we can get some real work done?

This particular question caught my attention because of the focus on “operations management,” which is a topic that doesn’t seem to get much notice. We tend to talk about management in general terms, without regard to the specific functional area. This suggests that whatever makes a person successful as a manager in one function will transfer and guarantee success elsewhere, whether in operations, engineering, finance, marketing, or project management.

I agree with that to some extent. I believe there are some universal core values and best practices that apply to anyone in a management role. We also expect managers to have some measure of domain expertise in their specific function that enables them to assess the performance of their subordinates, develop tactics, and occasionally contribute as a member of the team. In the specific case of an operations manager, this domain expertise would probably include things like supply chain management and lean manufacturing.

I think there’s more to it. The functions are fundamentally different, and successful management requires more than experience in that function. Here’s the answer that I gave, the three most-important characteristics of an effective operations manager:

(1) End-to-end understanding of the value delivery system for the business, specifically where value is added. The operations team is responsible for the delivering the product (or service) according to specifications, schedule, quality, and other customer requirements. Operations managers should have a clear understanding of what customers value, how the value delivery system meets those needs, and the critical elements that need to be actively managed.

(2) Alignment with the strategic/competitive positioning for the business, i.e., are we competing on cost, time-to-market, technology, or something else? Customers have their needs, and meeting those needs is obviously important, but the business has chosen to compete on some basis. Operations managers must make sure their systems and processes support the business’s ability to effectively compete.

(3) A commitment to measurable performance and continuous improvement. Just making sure that shipments are on-schedule is not enough. Operations managers should be actively looking for opportunities to improve, whether in cost, quality, or throughput.


In Defense of Managers April 3, 2014

Posted by Tim Rodgers in Management & leadership, Organizational dynamics.
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I may be imagining this, but it seems like managers are coming in for a lot of criticism these days. Last month I spotted this article on LinkedIn: http://www.linkedin.com/today/post/article/20130529150715-5799319-the-difference-between-managers-and-leaders?goback=%2Egmr_37987

At first this looked like another “the difference between managers and leaders” discussion that surfaces fairly regularly. Just to re-cap: you don’t have to be a manager to be a leader; managers have a natural opportunity to be leaders because of their position, regardless of whether they’re actually good at it or not; and while it’s great when managers are also leaders, leadership should be encouraged at all levels of the organization.

I understand that the authors are taking an extreme position to make a point about bad managers (“Managers give answers … criticize mistakes … forget to praise … focus on the bad … want credit.”), in contrast to good leaders, or good managers, who are more valuable to their organization because they do the opposite (“Leaders ask questions … call attention to mistakes indirectly … reward even the smallest improvement … emphasize the good … credit their teams.”).

I’m sure this wasn’t meant to be a criticism of all managers, but I’m going to stand up for managers and management anyway. Managers play an important role in the organization and deserve some respect and support. Leadership is absolutely necessary, but a lot of leaders recoil at the thought of becoming a manager. “I can’t deal with all that bureaucracy, all those meetings, all the politics.” Every organization needs people to obtain and allocate resources, assign tasks and objectives, set performance measures and conduct reviews, administer salary, identify training and development opportunities, and generally convert high-level business objectives to team objectives.

In most organizations those responsibilities are given to managers with formal titles, but there’s no reason why individual contributors can’t perform some of those roles. Regardless of whether you call those people managers, management is an equally important function. It isn’t for everyone, and there are a lot of bad managers out there, but let’s honor and respect the folks who are willing to take on those necessary tasks, and help them become even more valuable to their teams and their organization.

Should I Delegate This? March 17, 2014

Posted by Tim Rodgers in Management & leadership, Organizational dynamics.
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The other day I joined a discussion on LinkedIn that got me thinking about when it might be appropriate to exert positional authority without trying to get buy-in: “Just do it my way and don’t ask questions.” Certainly there are critical situations where a rapid response is required, and there just isn’t time to brainstorm, solicit alternatives. and reach a consensus. However, I believe these situations are rare, and there’s always time to at least explain the logic behind the decision and listen to concerns. People may disagree, but their active support is more likely if they aren’t treated like children.

That got me thinking about delegation, which often follows a similar model. When we delegate a task we’re taking a calculated risk. We could do it ourselves, but we either don’t have time, or (in more enlightened organizations) we want to provide a learning opportunity for the other person. We may decide not to delegate if the successful completion of the task is particularly important to the business. That’s because there’s a chance that the other person will “fail,” perhaps by delivering less than what was required or missing the due date. We’d feel better about delegating if we had some confidence that the other person is going to do it exactly the way we would do it.

And that’s the problem: they’re probably aren’t going to do it exactly the way you would do it. If they’ve never done it before, they’ll stumble around a bit, and make mistakes, and maybe even “fail.” You may find yourself spending even more time monitoring and coaching and fixing their mistakes than you would have spent if you had just done it yourself.

Being a manager means not just taking responsibility for the performance of the team, but also optimizing and improving their performance. Delegating is part of the job description. There are definitely things you can do to improve the likelihood of success, including clarifying the objectives and constraints, and the delegated task should be a reasonable fit for the person’s skills and experience. If it’s really that important, maybe you should do it yourself, or insist that it be done in a specific way, but even then it’s still a learning opportunity for the team. If you’re always doing it yourself, or if everyone does it your way, you’re depriving the organization of the diversity of talent and ideas in your team.

Managing a New Team, Replacing a Manager March 10, 2014

Posted by Tim Rodgers in Communication, Management & leadership, Organizational dynamics.
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I’ve gone through several job transitions where I was the new manager, replacing another manager and assuming responsibility for an established team. Obviously this can be a very stressful time. The previous manager may have been involuntarily removed from their position, and may even still be working at the company. The specific reasons for their departure may be kept a secret in order to protect the company from liability, in which case the recent history is known to everyone but you. During the interviews and transitional period it’s likely that someone else, often the hiring manager, has been managing this team in addition to their other responsibilities, so the team may have been operating with limited supervision.

In addition to all that, many people have developed expectations for your performance, based on your interview and whatever the hiring manager has told them about you. You will be compared to the previous manager, and you will be expected to be at least as effective while addressing that person’s shortcomings (whatever those may be). There will be some patience during your first few weeks as you learn the new environment, but that may end abruptly before you think it will.

It may seem like a good idea to do spend your time doing some investigative research to learn more about the previous manager’s failings so you can avoid those mistakes, but I don’t recommend it. I think it’s better to be yourself instead of the opposite of someone else. Your way is comfortable to you, and you’ve had some success with it in the past, so stick with it.

Here’s what I recommend instead:

1. Meet the team, spend time with them, assess their skills and how well those skills fit their current job. You may need to re-arrange their responsibilities based on your assessment.

2. Communicate frequently and establish yourself as a manager with a specific style, consistent expectations, integrity and ethics. This team has had some turmoil, and they need some stability so they can focus.

3. Check-in frequently with your manager to make sure you’ve got a good understanding of their expectations, which are surely the most important of all expectations. Find out if there’s an urgent imperative that must be addressed immediately. Do things need to change dramatically and quickly? Your team needs to know that.

There’s a lot to consider in any new position, but if you’re a new manager you must demonstrate your ability to mobilize the team you’ve been assigned, establish credibility, and enable them to achieve higher performance. Getting off to a good start is the key.

A Humble Appeal For Better Staff Meetings March 6, 2014

Posted by Tim Rodgers in Management & leadership, Organizational dynamics.
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See if this sound familiar. Your manager requires the staff to attend a weekly meeting. Every meeting is the same: after a few announcements and “pass-downs” from senior leadership your manager goes around the table for what is essentially a series of 1-on-1 conversations with each member of the staff. Everyone waits their turn, perhaps mildly interested in what’s happening elsewhere in the group, but usually checking their own e-mail and messages and counting the minutes until the ordeal is over.

This may be a great meeting for the manager, but a terrible use of time for everyone else. Staff meetings are no different than any other meeting. There’s an opportunity cost when you drag people away from their desks or workstations and expect them sit still and pay attention. There must be sufficient value in the meeting to make it worth that cost.

To me, the value of any meeting comes from the real-time interactions and collaboration between the participants. Otherwise, just send an e-mail. If there’s a topic that needs to be discussed, but it’s not of general interest, or amenable to collaboration, then everyone else should be excused. A staff meeting agenda should be constructed to maximize the opportunity to engage the brains of everyone present. The person leading the meeting should actively solicit everyone’s ideas. If no one else can reasonably add value to the discussion, then it’s probably not a good topic for a staff meeting.

Meeting participants have a responsibility here, too. “Decisions are made by those who show up,” and that doesn’t mean sitting quietly and depriving the team of your inputs.

We’ve all got work to do. If we’re going to have a meeting, let’s make it worth our time.

Four Reasons for a Performance Review February 27, 2014

Posted by Tim Rodgers in Management & leadership.
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Lately I’ve been involved in some discussions on LinkedIn about performance reviews, what’s wrong with the process, and whether it can be improved. I’ve written about this topic before (see In Defense of the Performance Review), but at the risk of repeating myself, I’m going to briefly re-visit this topic.

I see four important reasons for a business to have some kind of regular process to meet with an employee and discuss their performance:

1. Review the employee’s performance for the previous period. If nothing else, this is just good management practice. It’s an opportunity to directly reinforce what the business values (and wants to see more of) and what the business does not value. If specific tasks or performance targets were previously assigned to the employee, this is a formal discussion of what was accomplished and what was not.

2. Set the terms for the next period’s assignment. Looking ahead, what are the objectives that the employee is expected to achieve? Ideally, this should be expressed in concrete terms with measurable outcomes (the old SMART acronym applies here). Business priorities may change, requiring an update to these objectives, but there should be no confusion about what was expected.

3. Discuss a development plan for personal growth. There are two ways to look at this. From a “strictly business” standpoint, the employee is an asset that will lose value over time without regular maintenance and improvement. From a more enlightened standpoint, employees perform better when their personal objectives are aligned with the business’s objectives.

4. Finally, link performance to increased compensation or other rewards. There should be some connection between the two. I’m not advocating a strict bell-curve approach to performance ranking and salary administration, but it seems clear that higher performing employees should receive a larger share of the company’s financial gains that they helped to achieve.

The details will vary, but those are the essential elements.

Hiring, Firing and Net Value February 24, 2014

Posted by Tim Rodgers in Management & leadership, Organizational dynamics.
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In one of my recent positions my manager suggested that I “get rid of” an person in my team who wasn’t meeting expectations, at least in the opinion of my manager. I assumed he meant that I should fire them. I didn’t think that was a good idea, for several reasons. I felt that this person was being asked to do something that was a little outside their job description, and something that was also outside their natural comfort zone of skills and talents. Instead of continuing to force a square peg into a round hole, I re-assigned some responsibilities within the team so that this person could focus on what they did best.

Sure, I could have fired this person, but I prefer to look at these situations from a net value perspective. This person was making a positive contribution to the business. If I fired them, that contribution would be lost, at least until I replaced them with a new hire or transfer. Hiring requires recruiting and interviewing candidates, and then the new person typically goes through a learning curve. It could be months before the business realized a net gain to offset the switching costs, and even then the hiring process does not guarantee a better outcome.

The other consideration was how much of my time every day was spent managing this person, or compensating for their sub-standard performance. It’s certainly possible that what looks like a positive contribution to the business by one person is actually a net drain because of their impact on management and others, including the lost opportunity to spend your time in more productive ways.

In this case I was able to find a lower-cost way to increase this person’s long-term net value without incurring the switching costs. I’m not sure my manager agreed with my logic. I understand that sometimes you do have to “get rid of” someone who is under-performing, but that should be a carefully considered decision, not an emotional reaction to a situation that may not really that bad.

I see the same issues on the hiring side. Let’s assume that all job openings were justified to fill an urgent need for the business (although that’s apparently not always true). As long as that position remains unfilled, the business is suffering to some degree, otherwise why would the position be created in the first place? Of course the hiring manager should be trying to find the best person to fill the position, but the time it takes to find and on-board that person has to be balanced against the cost of not having any person in that position. Can the business afford to keep looking for a better candidate?

Of course this isn’t necessary a bad thing. As time goes by without hiring someone, the business will compensate and adjust for the missing resource, and it’s possible that may ultimately be a net gain. Or, not.


The Value of Not Knowing What You’re Doing February 4, 2014

Posted by Tim Rodgers in Communication, Management & leadership, Organizational dynamics.
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Occasionally someone will ask me about managing or working with younger people. I’m not sure if they’re wondering how I will relate to people under a certain age, or if I have some stereotypical bias regarding Gen X, or Millennials, or any other generation. My answer has always been that everyone is different and unique, and I don’t consciously make any assumption based on a person’s generation, gender, race, nationality, or any other “classification.” A fair manager treats everyone differently based on their individual skills, talents, needs, and background.

The one thing I can say with confidence about younger people is that they have less experience, simply owing to the fact that they’ve spent less time on Earth. The common wisdom is that these folks benefit from the guidance of a more-experienced manager or colleague who knows what not to do because it’s been tried before. “Don’t waste your time, that doesn’t work.”

Experience certainly has value, but I’m always energized when I work with people who don’t know that “it doesn’t work,” and aren’t constrained by their experiences. Our assumptions should be challenged periodically, and each situation should be analyzed objectively. I don’t want my experience to prevent me from considering alternatives that might be exactly the right thing under these unique circumstances. I want to be open-minded to inputs from people who’ve never been there before and don’t know what they’re doing.


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