Monday, May 24, 2010

Are you a good boss?

Across every organization, in every industry, in every country the questions of what makes a good manager will be a hot button issue. Books on management and leadership are produced almost daily not to mention that annually academia produces volumes on the theory of leadership and management. I even threw my hat in the ring with a Master's Thesis titled "A Study of the Context in Strategic Leadership" however what set my thesis apart and sets my views on management apart from others is I don't believe that there is one "perfect" way to manage or lead people. In recent posts where I attempt to interpret Sun Tzu's five failings of a general and in my posts on why we as managers are bad at making decisions Part 1 and Part 2, I argue that we are all victims of our own limited cognitive capacities as human beings.

While I don't believe that one type of management is better, I do believe that there are good manager and bad managers, and as my thesis would argue it is all based on the context of the context... (If anyone wants a copy of this I can e-mail a bulky PDF upon request). So what do I mean when I say it is all based on context, well consider asking yourself, Which manager in the past did I enjoy working for the most? Why? What was happening in my personal life? What was happening at the organization? What level of work was I at? If you answer those questions honestly you can begin to see maybe it wasn't so much that they were good managers, but that the context in which they managed was positive. You can also replicate the questions in the negative sense, as in why did I hate my old boss?

However while I don't think one style or type is better, I do believe that there are some definite things every good manager should understand... in context of course.

1) Understanding that customer service flows through the organization, not just out of it. As Vineet Nayar puts it into action at HCL, employee's first, customers second. If a manager can understand where in process the work being done by his or her employee's comes from and flows to next, they will be better at addressing the professional needs of their employees.

2) Understanding that while it may rain down from above, a good manager is both an umbrella and a cumulonimbus cloud. A good boss should protect their employees from unnecessary rain and take the brunt of any STORMS that may be headed their way. How many of us can say we didn't like a boss because anytime he or she got into trouble he passed the blame down onto us? At the same time we all love a boss that "goes to bat for us". That said even if the boss goes to bat for you, they should be prepared to rain down thunder and lightning on under-performing employees. A better way to describe it would be that a good boss doesn't let anyone else punish their employees, but is always prepared to punish them if they are at fault.

3) Understanding that being predictable isn't always a bad thing. As any Psychologist can tell you, people are confused by people who have unpredictable reactions. And as any management text can tell you, if your employees are confused you are not doing so well as a manager. The implication for business is to simply try and have a consistent reaction, or at the very least a predictable reaction. If you lash out because a report is filed incorrectly on Monday, and then play it off as no big deal on Tuesday, then no one can tell if it is a big deal or not a big deal because you created ambiguity. For example at an early point in my life as a manager two of my employees didn't appreciate each others personalities. In fact both contacted me minutes apart and said I need to do something. I told them both the same thing, "This is a personal matter, it is not a business matter therefore as your manager I will listen to both your personal complaints, but only rule that you both are liable for not doing your work today. I will only get involved in matters of business, and the interest of business will decide all matters." By doing this I let them both know what they could expect an honest open door as a manager but I removed all ambiguity from the way I would deal with personal and professional matters.

4) Understanding that it isn't personal, it's only business. Just like in the Godfather, you can never react to employee issues personally. If you do, you are done. In the example above, I could have easily told one of my employees who was truly just stirring up trouble, that she was wrong, and she was the root of all the problems in the department. I wouldn't have been lying either. However if I had done that I wouldn't have been able to increase their individual work load with out being rebuffed, nor would I have been able to lighten another person's workload in the department without being accused of playing favorites. However by sticking to business, I maintained my ability as a manager to manage as I saw fit.

5) Understanding that just because you are the boss, you didn't instantly become a genius. This is probably one of the hardest concepts for managers to understand. For example as a result of the above mentioned personality conflict, I brought to my staff the idea of buddy lunches. In theory it sounded perfectly reasonable, one day a week you rotated and had to eat lunch one on one with another person from the department. It seemed like a good idea especially as I tried to break down the "cliques" and personality conflicts in the department. However when presented with the idea my employees kind of chuckled at my idea and told me in unison that this wasn't primary school and they didn't need a required lunch buddy program. Now to be sure I had already spent a lot of time on developing the rotating schedule and fitting it into their work schedules. I was also more than a bit embarrassed to be told that this wasn't "primary school," but instead of ramming my idea down their throats because I could. I simply said fair enough, but we have got to come up with a better way to break up the "cliques" and all work together. They came up with their own solution amongst themselves and it seemed to work.

A manger who understands these 5 things is more than likely going to be labeled a good manager by the majority of their employees. Wouldn't you agree?

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

The trouble with RISK...

Unless you have been under a rock lately you have heard of the two biggest events in American (well technically BP is British) business since the recession began. First, Goldman Sachs and those lads there engage in some legal but unethical practices. Second, BP manages to sink a deep horizon oil rig in the Gulf of Mexico and recreate the Exxon Valdez incident only on a much grander scale (I swear if this accident is the result of a drunken individual all oil companies should require mandatory twice daily breathalyzer tests). However, while there are countless ways that these events are different. There is one major way in which they are similar. They are similar because of the risk.

Now we can all agree that drilling for oil, two miles below the surface of the ocean, or gulf as it is in this case, is decidedly risky. And we should all know by now that investing in anything is also inherently risky. However knowing something is risky and truly understanding the risk that goes along with it are two entirely different things. The difference between knowing and understanding risk should matter to anyone owning, managing, or operating any business. The reason being that assuming you reduced all the risks or assuming that an event won't happen leaves you no room to maneuver if it does.

As an example, I will use the NASA model of successful risk management... there is no absolute, there is only probability and possibility. For example, they launch people into space knowing that 1) They may never make it, 2) They make it but something goes wrong up there, 3) They make it, but then they can't bring them back (see Columbia Tragedy) 4) They make it, they make it back, but something goes wrong down here (see Fantastic Four) or 5)They make it and they make it back safely. Those are all the big picture risks that exist in manned Space exploration which by my simple math equates to a 80% chance of complete failure. Would your company take on any project that had only 20% chance of success? How then does NASA or anyone operate successfully within such a risky environment? I argue that are successful because they understand risk to be inevitable and they have a reaction plan for everything.

Therefore in order to move beyond knowing the risks towards understanding the risks there are three things to do, which apply to EVERY business decision:

1) Create a plan to mitigate the risk of everything imaginable. Really and truly think Independence Day alien invasion, think hurricanes in Iowa, blizzards in Egypt, and meteor impacts. Once you are done, think smaller, think tornadoes, think power outages, think floods like Nashville. Once that is done think even smaller, think CEO heart-attack, think computer viruses, think office fire. And so on and so on until you think you have covered it all. Then once you are done with that reduce the risks from the minutiae up to through alien invasion, the risks associated with a fire, flood, and meteor strike are likely to be similar (building location for example) but not the same so by starting small you should be building a base of mitigation for larger events. The most important thing to remember when doing this is that you will miss something. You might mitigate the risk of an office fire by installing a fire suppression system, but what if the system is down for maintenance. That should help you see the importance of step 2.

2) Create a plan for what happens after the Aliens invade, the fire burns down the building, and your CEO chokes on a peanut M&M. By doing this you allow for the possibility of something you didn't think of from happening and you have a plan of action in response. This is what is known in the biz as a business continuity plan, however that sounds like a one and done sort of thing, which isn't helpful. I like to consider it more like a base set of ideas of what to do should the CEO not die, but merely be incapacitated. Now this is where semantics takes over and a lot of people give up on risk analysis. If the CEO is incapacitated but not dead then we should do this, but if he is this, then we should do this etc. However when aspects of risk begin to delve into semantics, reconsider NASA, there is only life or death that defines success and failure for them, you should have a similar big picture definition of success and failure. This way you won't bog down in the infinite semantics of "what if."

**Update, in items 1 and 2, be sure to factor in the Human elements of risk as it plays on your greatest corporate capital, the employee. As this post points out, how you manage employees in a post calamity environment is extremely important. I mean nothing would be worse than a risk related event coming full circle by losing the employees best equipped with the knowledge and skill to improve upon whatever brought about the risk event in the first place.

3) Review steps 1 and 2 often. As Goldman Sachs found popular opinion changed. As BP found out, the technically impossible happened. If you review steps 1 and 2 at least bi-annually you won't prevent the risk of the epic fail, but you will reduce its probability and its effect.