Wednesday, March 31, 2021

Feedback: "You're too ____"

Actions to take: Ensure that all the feedback you give is about behaviors not about traits. Avoid descriptive language that has any subjectivity to it. Comment on factual, observable behaviors that the employee engages in. 

How many of you have received feedback from your boss that started with the phrase, "You're too ___" (and bosses, be honest, how many of you have given feedback that started that way)? How did that conversation go? You were probably mature enough to avoid disagreeing about it too much. But I bet you were worked up after you left the boss's office. I bet you were arguing with them in your head for days. 

"You're too ___" is not an effective way to help someone improve, for one simple reason. You are commenting on who they are rather than what they are doing. We all know most natural response to "You're too ___." "No I'm not!" The employee cannot help but get defensive. It is human nature. 

These conversations are a lot of wasted effort. I don't care if your employee really is too whatever they are. It's not about who is right and who is wrong. It's about saving yourself the hassle of having a conversation about right and wrong. 

Instead, only give feedback about observable behaviors, things that you can factually describe to the employee. Examples:

  • Bad: You frequently get angry with customers, which makes them uncomfortable with you.
  • Good: When you raise your voice and talk over the customers, the conversations go poorly. What can you do differently? 
  • Bad: You're always late.
  • Good: When you show up late, it causes some issues. Can you make the effort to get in on time?
  • Bad: Your lack of organization makes you miss deadlines.
  • Good: When you miss deadlines, it pushes others' work back and causes delays. Do you want to work together on strategies to avoid it? 
As long as you are commenting on an employee's behavior, it becomes possible to give feedback on virtually anything. Give feedback on 1) anything that you would like the employee to keep doing or 2) anything you would like to see them do differently. With the casual, low-stakes feedback formula that this blog advocates, it really is that broad.

Average bosses see problem behavior over and over before they give feedback. When they do, they have the pattern stuck in their head. The feedback becomes about the employee instead of about the behavior. Better bosses give feedback when things are still small. They know to keep opinions about the person out of it and just focus on the behaviors they are engaging in. 

Monday, March 29, 2021

Good Communication is Like Exercise

Actions to take: Develop a plan and routine for frequent communication. Just like exercise, you can't rely on yourself to do it "when things come up." You have to be intentional. This blog's advice for accomplishing that routine largely centers around weekly one-on-ones with every direct report.

More than anything else in this blog, people resist the idea of doing one-on-ones every week. That is the sticking point for so many people. Smart people. People I respect a great deal.  

I had a tough time understanding why I couldn't convince them. They would agree on practically every other piece of advice I gave, but they would hold out on the frequency issue. "There just isn't enough to talk about." "Monthly one-on-ones are more than enough." "I touch base with my people all the time already." 

After having this debate for the dozenth time, I landed on an analogy that captures the value of doing one-on-ones every week. As a bonus for me, it explained why people who haven't experienced it don't get it. 

Communication is like jogging for your health. 

It builds on itself. The more you do it, the more effective it is. One session informs the next, and one session pushes you to do more with the next. You have to be intentional about it, with a plan and a structure to your workout. You can't just say "I'll jog whenever the opportunity come up." Anyone who has struggled even a little with maintaining an active lifestyle knows that slippery slope. Instead, you schedule it. You stick to that schedule because you know, once you give yourself a pass once or twice, you're on the downward spiral. You can't say, "I'll jog for 2 minutes here, 2 minutes there, and it'll add up." It doesn't.

Most importantly, like jogging, you will not appreciate the value if you get in a good, long session only once a month. You'll say, "That felt like a good workout, but I don't really see the point. I'm exhausted after it, it never gets easier, and I'm not getting any healthier. Why would I ever consider doing it more frequently!" Jogging and one-on-one meetings are the same. Unless you've had weekly meetings with a manager who is really putting in the effort, or you have been that manager yourself, you will never fully appreciate how much value they bring to the work environment. 

Try weekly one-on-ones for two months using the guidance from this blog. Eight sessions with each of your employees before you pass judgment on the idea. If you are not convinced after 8 sessions, by all means, stop jogging.

Wednesday, March 24, 2021

One-on-Ones: Why Weekly

 Actions to take: Schedule one-on-ones with your employees weekly.

To be a truly effective boss, the most important thing you can do is build a trusting relationship with each employee. By far the easiest way to do that is through routine one-on-one meetings. recommends that those meetings are scheduled, 30 minutes, weekly, and rarely missed, with the first half of the meeting spent on whatever they want to discuss and the second half for whatever you want to discuss.

When I say, "the things you do as part of your job," what tasks come to mind? Take 30 seconds and make a quick list. Now review the list you made. Unless you have a project-based job that moves in cycles, I'll bet everything on that list is something you do every week. 

The things we do every week are the things consider "part of my job." Anything done less frequently is not in our routine. We mentally categorize it somewhere else. It's an occasional duty, and we approach it one of two ways. Either the task is a special project that we spend time perfecting, or it is an annoying distraction from our "real" work. 

For one-on-ones to be effective, they have to be part of the real work. The premise of one-on-ones as described in this blog is that they foster a relationship where both manager and employee feel comfortable talking with each other about anything relevant to the job. You will never get to that place if your employees (or you) think of these meetings as either more important or less important than their usual tasks. The meeting has to be one of those tasks.

We must do everything in our power to make one-on-ones feel normal, to feel like just part of the routine. This is the major reason why we schedule them every week. By scheduling them weekly, they become "part of the job." Anything less frequent, and you have very little chance of getting past the awkwardness that makes the meeting feel like a special event. 

What makes the weekly frequency so special? There isn't any magic to it. It just happens to be the case that people build their lives around the week. The week starts and ends with a weekend. It is easy to answer the question "What have you got planned this week?" off the top of our heads. We have to consult a calendar to answer "What is on your to-do list in two weeks?"

Everything we've said here about the employee is also true for the boss. If you set up one-on-ones less frequently than weekly, you will consider them a special project or an annoying burden, you will have trouble getting past the awkwardness, you will never feel quite like they are part of the routine. 

Average bosses decide one-on-one frequency based on how much "stuff" there is to discuss. The meetings inevitably get less and less frequent because neither boss nor employee manages to integrate them into the routine. Better bosses understand that, by scheduling them weekly, the routine makes them valuable. The topics will build naturally from one week to the next. Both employee and boss will fall into a rhythm that encourages project discussion, feedback and advice, exploring questions, and generally checking in with each other.

Monday, March 22, 2021

Feedback: "Keep it up/Can you work on it?"

Actions to take: Do not omit the final step of the feedback formula. advocates for casual, frequent performance feedback using the following formula: 1) ask if you can provide feedback; 2) provide feedback using the format "when you do X, it has Y impact"; 3) finish with a question asking them to change or an affirmation that they should keep it up. Feedback is short, simple, and can be about any work behavior. All posts about feedback assume this formula and strategy.

If you have read all of the feedback posts prior to this one, you know that we have covered nearly all of the basics. We will have many more posts about other details of feedback in the future. However, you will have enough information about giving frequent, effective feedback to roll it out with your team after finishing this post. 

The final broad topic we need to cover is the 3rd step in the formula, making an affirming statement for positive feedback or asking for change with corrective feedback. I like, "Keep it up" and "Can you work on that," but any similar statements will do.

This step is what makes your statement feedback, technically speaking. Without the last step, we are not explicitly guiding future behavior. We are just commenting on their work. That's not bad. It is far better what most employees get from their managers. However, the adage, "leave nothing unstated" is more true in management than most professions, and it is more true regarding feedback than most other parts of management. Be explicit by communicating what you want to see, and you are more likely to get it out of your employees. 

This step has also the major benefit of increasing accountability. When you say "hey, can you work on that?" and your employee replies, "sure," that's not just a ritual. They are not just empty words. You're both genuinely communicating something, and people like to follow through on what they say. The same is true of "Keep it up" or "I'd love to see more of that" or whatever affirming phrases you use for positive feedback. People are more likely to make a note of a behavior when they hear you say that you want them to continue doing it.

The last reason to say, "Keep it up/Can you work on it" is a small one, but it is not to be neglected. The interaction feels weirdly unfinished without it. Try feedback out loud for yourself using the format "When you do X, it has Y impact." Can you feel how the interaction would just hang there? That's because you have not passed the conversational turn back to the other person. Questions and instructions clearly put the conversational ball in the other person's court in a way that declarative statements do not.

It isn't a crisis if you leave this step off. Tell someone that it causes problems when they show up late, and they'll probably get the message. Tell someone that there are benefits when they show up early every day, and they'll understand that it would be good to keep doing it. But there are no downsides and multiple upsides to including it. 

When an action is all positives and no negatives, better bosses add it to their repertoire without a second thought. Always finish your feedback with an affirmation that they should continue doing the behavior or a request that they change.

Wednesday, March 17, 2021

You Get to Pick What Trouble You are In

Actions to take: Recognize that every decision is a trade-off, even those that you "have to" do. Don't always side with the higher-ups. Don't always side with your team. Use your judgement, and do what you believe will be most effective in the long run.

Every decision you make as a manger has trade-offs. Allow multiple people to take vacation before a holiday: you'll make them happy, but you'll put extra stress on the ones who are left behind. Implement a new service model: you'll be doing what the company expects, but your team is going to grumble about all the new work they have to do. Strictly enforce the dress code: you'll ensure that your team has a sharp appearance, but you may gain a reputation for being a stick in the mud. 

Often, the trade-off boils down to a choice between doing what your company has instructed and doing what will make your team happy. Recognize the fact that, either way, you are getting in some kind of trouble. Accept that fact, and you will free yourself from the feeling that you are "supposed to" be one kind of boss or the other. 

Don't always side with the higher-ups. As a manager, a big part of your job is to interpret communication from above and implement changes effectively for your team. "Interpret" does not mean "parrot back what I was told." If it were as simple as just saying to your team exactly what was said to you, there would be no need for your job. "Interpret and implement effectively" means figuring out how to achieve the outcome the higher-ups want you to achieve. Sometimes that means you need to encourage your boss to change some part of the plan. Sometimes it means fighting for a few weeks' extra time to implement effectively. And yes, occasionally it means doing things a little differently from what your boss told you because you know the rest will go 100% smoother that way. 

By the same token, don't fight with higher ups about every little inconvenience for your team, and never simply ignore instructions from above. As a manager, you speak for the company. You represent the company to your employees, literally and legally. That is your job. When you defy company orders or deride the decision-making abilities of the people above you, you are failing to do part of your job. There are probably very good reasons why the company made these decisions, even for the ones you don't like. "It will make things worse for my team" is not a get-out-of-jail-free card. Your boss may be perfectly aware of that. They may have factored that into the decision and determined that it is worth the benefit that is being achieved somewhere else. As mentioned above, your job is to implement changes effectively, not to be judge and jury on what works and what doesn't. 

In both cases, you need to recognize that you are putting yourself on the line. The former is scarier--getting in trouble with your boss has immediate job security implications. The latter path isn't a walk in the park either. If you always do exactly as you're told, your team will see you as a stooge. You'll lose credibility and effectiveness, which can lead to long-term job security implications. There is no safe path as a manager.

So how often do you do one, and how often do you do the other? The best strategy is to sidestep this thinking altogether. Do not be "the boss who always backs their team" or "the boss who always follows company directives." Do not try to game out how you want to be perceived at all. Instead, assess every situation independently and use your judgement. Your reputation will naturally become "the boss who thoughtfully reacts to each issue." 

Monday, March 15, 2021

Alternatives to One-on-Ones (and Their Shortcomings)

Actions to Take: Make one-on-one meetings your primary method of connecting with your staff. Interact with your staff in other ways as well. Do not trick yourself into believing that these other ways can replace one-on-ones. 

To be a truly effective boss, the most important thing you can do is build a trusting relationship with each employee. By far the easiest way to do that is through routine one-on-one meetings. recommends that those meetings are scheduled, 30 minutes, weekly, and rarely missed, with the first half of the meeting spent on whatever they want to discuss and the second half for whatever you want to discuss.

Bosses who do not do routine one-on-ones with their staff claim that they are achieving the same benefit through other means. It is possible to develop rich, meaningful relationships with employees without the use of one-on-ones, but I am skeptical that most bosses are managing it as well as they think they are. Let's explore two other methods for managing your people.

A popular method is known as Management By Wandering Around (MBWA). MBWA sounds good: you meet employees where they are, maybe chip in on the work, and keep the conversation casual. If it is your primary method of interacting with your staff, however, it just doesn't work out. You occasionally need to talk about something specific with your employees. Given that, MBWA is only dressed up as a casual drop-in. You and your employee both know that you're just paying lip service to the idea of chatting before you get around to talking about that thing you need to address. 

Imagine your boss unexpectedly swinging by for a chat. How does that strike you? For many employees, this would be nerve-wracking. For almost all of us, it would be distracting at least. You are deeply involved in some task. Suddenly, your boss pops in, and you have to shift gears. Ironically, the harder you were working, the more off-kilter you will be. Or maybe you are in the middle of a task that can’t be stopped. Maybe you work at a customer service desk. Now you have to divide your attention between your boss and your work, doing both poorly. On top of that, you are getting more and more tense, waiting for the boss to finally come around to the topic they really came by to talk about. MBWA sounds good in theory. It is great to do when you genuinely can keep it casual, when you genuinely don't have that thing you need to address. As the primary tool for having discussions and building relationships with your employees, it falls woefully short. 

The other main argument against one-on-ones comes from the manager who works alongside their employees. They get plenty of quality time shoulder-to-shoulder. A regular meeting would be formal and stuffy. Again, this seems compelling. In practice, this method is deeply flawed. The manager thinks they are getting the benefits of a strong relationship when they are not. Imagine going on a first date. You decide to do something deeply involved: the two of you work for a few hours volunteering at a homeless shelter. Your second date, you plant vegetables at a community garden. You keep doing dates like this. The work is engaging, so you really only chat about the task in front of you. 

Even after 5, 10, 15 of these dates, would you say that you have a strong relationship with this person? Would say that you have a clear understanding of their likes, dislikes, plans for the future, and so on? For managers who work next to their employees, the one-on-one is the dinner date. It is the time to focus on the person, not on the task. It is the time when you get to talk about what is actually important to each of you, not just what is in front of you at the moment. 

A major problem with both of these approaches is that you occasionally need to have private conversations with your staff. If your primary method of interaction is one of the above, then you are telegraphing the message, “Better get nervous!” every time you ask someone to your office. Not a great way to start any complex or difficult conversation. 

As a manager, you need to do both of these things. You need to get out of your office from time to time. Shoot the breeze and just see how things are going. It will keep you from seeming like an ivory-tower boss who expects employees always to come to them. You need to work shoulder-to-shoulder with your employees. You need to show that you're willing to get your hands dirty with the hard work and be part of the team. 

Both of these activities are vital to your success. However, better bosses know that they are no replacement for routine one-on-ones. 

Wednesday, March 10, 2021

Feedback: "When you do X, It Has Y Impact"

Actions to take: Use the format "when you do X, it has Y impact" for virtually all feedback. Take care not to use past-tense language. Make the effort to come up with meaningful impacts that directly apply to your employees' behaviors. advocates for casual, frequent performance feedback using the following formula: 1) ask if you can provide feedback; 2) provide feedback using the format "when you do X, it has Y impact"; 3) finish with a question asking them to change or an affirmation that they should keep it up. Feedback is short, simple, and can be about any work behavior. All posts about feedback assume this formula and strategy.

When we discussed feedback in my personnel management course this semester, I asked the class what things they would not give feedback about, what things are too banal or run-of-the-mill to be worth feedback. There was widespread agreement that coming in on time doesn't need feedback. It is a simple expectation of the job. Giving feedback on it would be meaningless at best and, at worst, would come off as patronizing. 

We discovered pretty quickly that the class was picturing praise, not feedback, when they came to this conclusion. I agreed that saying something like "Hey Ben, nice job for coming in on time" is worse than useless. Then I phrased it using the formula described in this blog "Hey Ben, when you come in on time so consistently, I know I can rely on you to be there when I need you. It's one less thing I have to worry about, and I appreciate it." The change in opinion from the class was immediate. Everyone agreed that that was worth saying and that they would want to hear something like that from their boss.

Using the phrase "when you do X, it has Y impact" changes how your words are perceived. I have had several staff members tell me they would rather not get positive feedback, almost offended at the idea, as if I thought they need to be coddled. Without exception, these employees responded with smiles, enthusiasm, and thanks any time I gave feedback in that format. Again, they had been picturing empty praise, not meaningful feedback.

Your words will be perceived differently because you are genuinely saying something different. Your words are not just praise. They add context to your employee's actions. They show the employee that you understand the value of their work--you are describing that value in the second half. They show that you are really paying attention to the outcomes your employees are achieving. And, above all, they communicate real information about what you want the employee to do more of in the future (or less, in the case of negative feedback). 

It takes some time to retrain your brain to think in this format.

"When you do X" is straightforward, though there are a few pitfalls. First, you've got to make sure your employee knows what behavior you are referring to. If has been long enough, you may need to give a few sentence of context to remind the employee of the situation. In general, don't try to give feedback on something that happened more than a week ago. Second, it is best to say "when you do X," not "when you did X." This is a small but important difference. We want to describe a category of behaviors that the employee engages in, not some single thing the employee did one time. "When you come in on time," "When you take notes during meetings," "When you keep your cool with angry customers." These are all things the employee does and will continue to do in the future. "When you came in late" already happened and there is no changing it. 

The second half of the phrase, "it has Y impact" is the heart of feedback. It is what the employee is missing. People know what they did, obviously. What they don’t know is how others interpret those actions. When you include an impact, you are giving them a “why," why they should keep doing what they are doing or why they should change. Given that feedback is advice, not instruction, it is respectful to explain yourself. When you just tell somebody to do or not to do something, you are using your power as their manager, being a little dictatorial. That's okay in a lot of cases. Giving people instructions is part of the job. But it is respectful to avoid leaning on that power when you can. When you add an impact, you're using a rationale to ask them to change (or keep it up) instead of leaning on "I'm the boss" to make them change (or keep it up).

I challenge you to come up with meaningful impacts for your employees' actions. Work to accurately describe the value they are adding with their positive actions and describe the issues they are creating with the actions they should change. To help you get started, here are a list of impacts that tend to apply to a broad range of staff behaviors. When you do X...

  • shows that you take your work seriously.
  • makes things easier for me.
  • makes things easier for the team.
  • ...I can tell that your coworkers appreciate it.
  • really adds to the customer's experience.
  • shows that you are following through on the plans we made.

Average bosses know they are supposed to give feedback. They throw a "good job" in wherever they can, thinking that's all there is to it. Better bosses understand that feedback is distinct from praise, and that the formula "when you do X, it has Y impact" is an extremely effective way to communicate meaningful feedback. 

Note: if you like this blog, please share it with peers and anyone else who may benefit from it.

Monday, March 8, 2021

New Manager First Day

 Actions to take: Avoid computer time on your first day. Spend the whole day getting to know your team instead. Take a few notes here and there to remind yourself of what you learned.

My first major managerial position was head of a branch library for a multibranch system. I had held a sort of shift supervisor position before that, but this was the first time I was clearly "part of management." On my first day, my supervisor spent three hours in my office with me explaining various systems and software, checking things off the list that HR had provided her. Then she left. I distinctly remember the feeling of near-paralysis that came next. What now? Eventually, I had to go out and speak with my new employees because my computer had locked itself and no one had told me the phone number for IT. My state of mind during my first interactions with my new team was embarrassment at not knowing what to do and fear of looking like a fool. 

That pain and awkwardness could have been avoided with just a few minutes of coaching. It is no challenge to impress everyone on your first day as a new manager once you know what to do. Follow these three simple pieces of advice: 1) stay off of your computer, 2) talk to your staff, 3) take breaks to take notes.

  1. Stay off your computer: Do not be the boss who shows up on the job, has a conversation with their supervisor, then disappears into their office for the rest of the day after a brief round of introductions. What impression does that make to your new team? At best, no impression at all. More likely, they will conclude that you are just like most other bosses, that you will only interact with them if there is some kind of fire to put out. You will spend 6 to 10 hours on that computer every day for the rest of your time in that position. Take your first day off while you have the chance. This advice stands even if you've got some HR forms or training that you were told to complete.  As a manager, you get to pick what trouble you are in. I'd rather get in trouble for missing some run of the mill safety training than miss out on setting a good impression with my new team. The paperwork will wait.
  2. Talk to your team: Instead of spending time on your computer, spend the whole day getting to know your new employees. Your supervisor or their proxy will probably walk you around for 5 minute introductions. During that time, ask each person if you can come back around later and learn more about them and their jobs. Then, do it. Their first impression will be, "the boss said they were going to do something, then made good on it." Fill your day with it. If you've got 10 employees, plan to spend about 35 minutes; if you've got 20 employees, spend a little less than 20 minutes (roughly 6 hours total in each case). Have a series of questions ready, both basic personal information and questions about their work. Have information about yourself ready. Make it a conversation by encouraging a lot of back-and-forth and asking follow-up questions on their answers. Avoid making it feel like an interrogation. Do everything you can to be casual. Feel free to be totally transparent about what you're doing. You can say, "I know that I'll be stuck in my office most of the time most days. The first day is like a hall pass. I intend to use it to get to know you guys a little bit before the routine sets in." 
  3. Take breaks to take notes: Periodically return to your office to jot down a few notes on each person. Don't worry about getting all the details right now. You can ask again in the future. No one expects you to remember the stuff you've learned. That said, they will be impressed with the details you do remember. Do not do this note-taking in front of everyone while you talk. That would come off as bizarrely formal. Take notes on paper rather than you computer. It will help you avoid the temptation of doing other things that first day. Once you have the computer running, you'll feel compelled to check your email "just in case something important came through." In the last hour of the day, you can go back to your computer and transcribe your notes if you like.

Your employees will be seriously impressed if you do this. Their thoughts about you will filter up to your boss, who will hear that you "seem really engaged" and "are one of the most approachable bosses they've ever had." It speaks volumes about the lack of managerial training in the world that this is all you have to do to stand out. But it's true. Average bosses assume that they need to learn systems and get training knocked out right away, because that's the first thing that comes up in the HR orientation. Better bosses know that they will be set up for success by spending that first day talking to the team.

Wednesday, March 3, 2021

The First One-on-One

Actions to take: In your first one-on-one, be prepared to do most of the talking. Spend most of your time on casual, personal topics rather than work. Ask one or two "softball" work questions to build their confidence in communicating about their work. Wrap the meeting by reinforcing the idea that they should talk about whatever is important to them each week.

To be a truly effective boss, the most important thing you can do is build a trusting relationship with each employee. By far the easiest way to do that is through routine one-on-one meetings. recommends that those meetings are scheduled, 30 minutes, weekly, and rarely missed, with the first half of the meeting spent on whatever they want to discuss and the second half for whatever you want to discuss.

New things are awkward. Do you remember the first time you had to give a speech in front of the class at school? What about the first time you attempted a new sport, like skiing? How about the first time you had to deliver a performance appraisal? 

Your first one-on-ones will be awkward. Your employee may not have very much to say. Despite the fact that you prepped them by announcing in advance, they will not have a very clear idea of how it is supposed to go. For that matter, neither will you if it is your first time doing them. This blog entry will help you get through your first set of one-on-one meetings with the following recommendations:

  • Do most of the work: Be ready to lead the meeting for 25 of the 30 minutes you've scheduled. One or two of your employees might surprise you by being ready to lead their half right off the bat. More will have nothing at all when you ask what they would like to talk about. Be mentally prepared to jump right in and take over the conversation and minimize awkwardness. Do not make apologies for their behavior (e.g. "Don't worry about it this time") or say anything else that implies that they've done something wrong. These meetings, especially the first, are about building a relationship. The last thing you want to do is make you employee feel judged right after they stepped into your office. Instead, just launch into your planned topics when they say they don't have anything. 
  • Make it personal: In the first meeting, keep significant work topics off the list. Spend the bulk of your time sharing about yourself. Even if you have worked together for years, odds are good that your employees don't know much about you, or they have vague notions that they're not certain about. Potential topics: talk about your work history, how you ended up in your position; share about your family; talk about your hobbies; anything that is both casual and important to you. During each topic, open the door to let them share similar information about themselves by asking questions. (Caveat: you may have an employee who loves shop talk and has zero interest in personal matters. Use your judgment to individualize the experience.) 
  • Toss a softball: If you do talk about work, make it a softball question that they will have an easy time answering. Ask about something you already know they have well under control. This will give your employees a chance to successfully communicate about their job. It will show them that one-on-ones are not about playing gotcha. There are no secret traps. It really is just a relaxed 30 minutes to check in on whatever is important that week.
  • Mention future meetings: At the end of the meeting, throw in a little light disclaimer. Say that you'll usually have more work topics to cover, but that chatting about casual things has been fun too. Reinforce the fact that they should bring whatever is important to them to next week's one-on-one. Thank them for their time, and that's a wrap.

It can't be helped that new things are awkward. One-on-ones are no exception. The average boss discards new managerial strategies when they don't see immediate results. Better bosses know that there is a learning curve and will stick it out until they are proficient. 

Monday, March 1, 2021

Management is a New Career

Actions to take: Take your managerial development into your own hands. Your industry likely fails to genuinely acknowledge that a separate set of skills is required for management. Spend time every single week intentionally seeking out and reviewing developmental materials. 

Generally in a career, you build skills from one job to the next. The skills from your previous job provide a foundation to help you succeed as you promote. Using an example from my field, picture the bottom rung of the library profession, the shelver. They learn the rules for organizing books and learn parts of the software for checking in, placing items on reserve, sending books to other locations for pickup. Over time, those processes become like second nature. They promote to desk clerk. Here, they get to see the organization process from the customer perspective a little bit. They add to their understanding of the library system software. The get a more complete understanding of the collections, what gets purchased and what doesn't. Finally, they promote to professional cataloger. The cataloger has to understand the system at a much deeper level than either of the previous positions. But it is easy to see how the previous jobs help prepare the employee for cataloger work. There is a direct line from the shelver’s tasks to the desk clerk’s tasks to the cataloger’s tasks. 

Management is not like that. The work you do as a manager does not really use the skills you learned in previous jobs. People get tricked into thinking it does. You're still talking about the same work, so you can get by for a while. You know the details of the work your employees are doing because you did the work yourself. You probably know their work very well--there is a reason you were promoted to management, after all. 

You can get by on that expertise for a while. People are happy to follow you "because you know best" for a while. But it won't work like that for everything. It won't work at all the moment you transfer locations. Those new employees don't know you. They won't automatically trust that you are an expert worth listening to. 

You need other tools in your toolbox. You need to develop your relationship power toolbox. That is what you did not learn in your previous roles. This idea that management is a totally different career, we don’t really acknowledge that. When I say we, I mean practically all of humanity. Yes, people might pay the idea lip service. They might say stupid platitudes about getting thrown into the deep end. But we don’t do anything structurally about this fact. We promote people to management, watch them splash around and almost drown, and say “that’s just how it works” because we had to do the same thing ourselves. 

That is stupid. It is maddeningly stupid. A big part of my motivation to write this blog comes from my frustration that the world works this way. It’s a painful, cruel process that isn’t even particularly effective.

That isn't how it has to happen. What is the typical scenario when we change careers? Maybe you're a teacher that decides to become an electrical engineer or vice versa. The answer: we train, often for years, before taking on that new role. We learn what skills are necessary for the job. We practice those skills before it matters so that we can do the job adequately when it does.

Management is something else, but your career is not set up to acknowledge that. When you get your first management job, you’ll be thrown into that deep end, and there won't be a lot of people coaching you on how to swim. You need to prepare for it yourself. Set aside time every single week for professional development. Find managerial resources: books, blogs, online courses, seminars, everything. Critically assess the advice you hear. And, most importantly, apply it. If you fail to change anything about your work, then the learning is pointless. 

Your organization is not going to do this for you. Better bosses will do it for themselves. 

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