That Feeling of Engagement

Talking last week with a friend who manages a team of software developers, and she was marveling at their level of productivity. To her it felt like 10x the throughput of a team she’d been a part of at a previous company, plus they were all having more fun.

Reminded me of a seminar where we identified the conditions that create a space for people to invest themselves and be deeply committed. It’s not just about clear vision and compelling mission (though those are important too). Engagement is highest when we feel we are highly valued; when we feel we’re part of a winning team; when our work is meaningful; and when there is an environment of trust.

So I asked my friend what is she doing to stimulate these factors? She herself wasn’t fully aware, but as we talked it became clear it could only be happening through the multitude of daily small conversations she has with her team and with each individual in the team. Sharing a sense of appreciation in each email or slack message. Holding her people accountable not through constant badgering but by being in the heat of battle with them. Being willing to climb into the foxhole and work side by side on the real problems. Yes, providing clear direction of where they were going and milestones to mark the way; yes, giving constant encouragement, having course-correcting chats when needed, and celebrating progress; and yet also taking time and care to listen to the people in her team, to hear their fears and support them when they feel frustrated.

Doesn’t matter at what level we are leading: Executives, directors, project managers, sports coaches, clergy, administrators, team captains, dorm leaders, teachers, parents, big brothers and sisters: anyone in positions of authority can influence how engaged we feel.

I am so impressed with my friend’s success, and I strive to emulate her. Leadership is a difficult and noble undertaking.

Quick Decisions

Ninety-five percent of business decisions can be undone, and a full reversal is almost never necessary. Usually, our informed intuition is directionally correct, and as we learn we can course-correct along the way.

This is a well known tenet in leadership literature yet it is powerful for leaders to digest and practice, especially if the team is driving toward big goals. The bigger, hairier, more audacious the goal, the more important it becomes to make decisions quickly.

An example: Early in my career, I used to wait until I was 80-90% sure of my decision before putting the team into motion. I was trained as an engineer and I craved the assurance of knowing I was making the right decision based on sufficient data. But the team needed sponsorship far before I could get that level of confidence. Left to their own, they made individual choices that caused confusion, created conflict, and resulted in slower performance. This actually became more of a headache to manage than if I’d made a 50% confident decision in the first place, then adjusted as we went.

Certainly, some decisions cannot be easily reversed. Selecting the right ERP system requires much more input and research than deciding how and when to introduce a process change, even a major one.

But most decisions can be tweaked and course-corrected if they are moving in the general right direction. Don’t fall into the trap of trying to quell your fears, cover your @$$, or flailing due to ambiguity, because you’re probably hurting the team more than you realize.

Are We Accomplishing Anything?

People aren’t happy because they have stuff. They feel happy because they’ve accomplished things.

How do they know they are accomplishing things? How do they know they are accomplishing the *right* things?

It comes down to what we are measuring, and what we’re talking about every day, every week. Are we focused on the stuff that needs to get done, or are we talking about what we did last weekend? (No problem chatting about our personal lives, but that’s 1% of the conversation, not 5% or 50%)

Where is our scoreboard, and how often are we checking in on it? Are we celebrating each little victory that moves us closer to our goals?

If we don’t know how to measure what’s going on, then we don’t really understand the process of what’s happening.

Meaningful 1-1’s

I’ve seen loads of great ideas for managing effective 1-1’s with direct reports. Here’s one that I used many years ago, then drifted away from, and recently reinstated with excellent reviews from my staff.

It’s a 25-minute check-in with a “5×5” approach. It’s predicated on a quarterly establishing of goals for each team member. The format feels similar to that of a daily scrum.

5-10 min: What are 1-2 accomplishments since our last meeting that moved you toward your goals.

5-10 min: What 1-2 accomplishments are you aiming for before our next meeting.

5 min: Is there anything you need from me to get this done?

Twice a quarter (every 4-6 weeks) is a good cadence to ask, “What else is going on with you, where you do feel stagnant, in what areas would you like to keep growing, and what do you need from me to do so?”

I find that sticking to a playbook for 1-1 meetings accomplishes three things:

  • Maintain focus on quarterly goals;
  • Setting an expectation with reports about the purpose of this meeting;
  • Creating space for ongoing professional development conversations.

Communication Requires Context

We live in a world where we are affected by a social media stream where we are unable to effectively ascertain other people’s tone. This is very dangerous. If I’m walking on the sidewalk and you’re standing on the corner in my way, I can say, “Excuse me, can I get by” and from my tone you know there is no danger here, I’m not fighting with you, I’m not threatening you, and we can interact with each other peaceably. But on social media, where tone is absent, this same message is commonly misinterpreted as a rude shout: “EXCUUUUSE ME!! CAN I GET BY!!” perhaps heard with sarcasm or criticism. The receiver completely misunderstands the sender’s message and a dialogue turns toxic. We do this all the time; we misinterpret each other’s intentions because we don’t know each other.

Communication requires context.

Critical Number

I’ve recently been getting re-energized about The Great Game of Business. It’s the story of a company that turned itself around in the 1980’s by using an approach to management through something called ‘open-book management‘. I won’t describe it all here because there many great articles already doing that.

One important concept to open book management is the Critical Number. The Critical Number is one metric, either operational or financial, that represents a weakness or vulnerability that, if not addressed and corrected, will negatively impact the overall performance and long-term security of the business. The Critical Number can change from year to year, but it usually doesn’t change too quickly.

Usually this is thought about in the context of business, but it can also apply in other contexts. For example, someone who is looking for a new job or career might decide their Critical Number is how many job applications they submit. For someone who wants to be the first seat violinist in the city orchestra, their Critical Number might be how many hours a day they practice. Baseball players are measured on a huge swath of statistics but a Critical Number for winning might be on-base percentage.

What gets measured, gets improved.

Taking Action

I used to think, if I wanted to start something new, that I need a “big idea” to make it worthwhile and increase the chances that it will be successful. Most of us will not conceive a lottery-winning “big idea”. And even if we did, there’s really no increased chance of success just because of that. The idea still needs to be implemented and that could mean talking to people, getting funding, building skills, i.e. doing stuff.

It seems that taking action is the difference, even with small ideas. Everyone can come up with many small ideas. I may not be clear what the total future potential of the idea is, but I can take action on it now, see where it goes, and then evolve. Success is a process.

Will It Matter

Wintery weather this week and I fired up the wood stove in the family room. I remember when that stove first got installed many years ago, I think there was some issue with the product being back-ordered, and then maybe the installation crew wasn’t available or they were missing some parts, then I think there were delays with the inspection. The waiting was so frustrating, and I walked around feeling surly and snappish. Now I can’t even remember what the fuss was about! What a waste of energy that was.

Now when dealing with a frustrating situation I try to recall that perspective: “Will it matter a year from now if this happens today or tomorrow or next week?” If it won’t matter (and most of the time it doesn’t), then relax. Spend that valuable energy on things that matter.

I find the same is true with when dealing with a decisions: “Will this matter a year from now?” If the answer is no (which tends to be most of the time), make the best decision I can and move on. If the answer is yes, then it makes sense to invest more time and resources and then make my best decision.

The 5-Hour Rule

This article, called the 5-Hour Rule, makes a fascinating assertion: that the world is shifting so fast and physical products and services are being demonetized so rapidly that the best investment to make today – in fact the currency of tomorrow – is knowledge. Our ability to learn will be what differentiates the most successful people from the less successful ones. People who identify skills needed for future jobs and quickly learn them are poised to win.
“We need to stop thinking that we only acquire knowledge from 5 to 22 years old, and that then we can get a job and mentally coast through the rest of our lives if we work hard. To survive and thrive in this new era, we must constantly learn.”
This is worth the read.

Don’t Widen Home Plate

Credit this content to Rick Houcek whose free weekly email broadcast has featured this story more than once over the years. It’s worth the read, every time.

In 1996, at a convention of 4,000 baseball coaches in Nashville, a 78-year old keynote speaker stepped to the stage to a standing ovation. Only 5 years had passed since he retired from a storied college coaching career that began in 1948.

Continue reading “Don’t Widen Home Plate”

Learning vs. Development

Here are 3 premises that I believe are true about organizations and their leaders:
1. The organization that the develops the fastest, wins.
2. No one develops faster or further than the leader.
3. People, including leaders, will do anything to avoid significant development.

Learning is easy. Development sucks. Learning changes what I know, but Continue reading “Learning vs. Development”