Archive for the ‘Communication’ Category

Managing Managers: Avoid Becoming a Victim of Upward Delegation

A common work-happiness killer that lurks amongst senior managers is “I work very hard to meet targets, my juniors do not.  I do their work. I end up spending long hours, I am frustrated.”

This problem is everywhere.  The specific solutions would depend on the exact nature of the industry, organisation, culture, and project situation.  There are, however, some common traps that managers of managers should be aware of and avoid.

Before we proceed, I must reiterate the idea that a good manager must be a good person at heart.  You must have genuine concern for your juniors and their well-being.  Nothing makes me happier than to see juniors blossom under my watch.  I am sure that is the case for you too.  But don’t be naïve.

Trap 1:  Junior says “I don’t have the resources”

In many cases this may be a true assessment of the situation.  In other cases your junior may mean different things:

  1. I want more people under me: I like more people under my control
  2. I don’t want to have to request others to help me.  It’s too much for my ego.
  3. I haven’t assessed the project well.

How to respond: Ask for a detailed assessment of the need, with data.  Question whether your report has looked at available resources within the organisation which, while not directly being under his control, can be borrowed for the job.

When he says “I don’t know how this will work” you can respond with something nice that implies “It’s your job to make it work. Are you up to it?”

If you are pretty sure that he does not need more resources, you could use a more direct approach that wastes less of your time. You can say something to the effect of “I don’t agree with you.  Put your head to it and go solve things.”

If this is his way of breaking bad news about a project, it would be best to tell him what you think of the project status.  “I think you have taken this project into a crisis.  I want you to pull up your socks and sort things out.  I am not sure putting more resources will help.  Figure out all different ways of getting it back on track.”  Put it across nicely.

Trap 2:  “How should I do this?”

Don’t jump to answer this question.

Your mind is telling you “I must help my juniors.  I have to be there for them.”

But beware of providing solutions when you think he is capable of finding his own.  It could lead to a decrease of ownership on his part.  It could set you up for a “You told me to do it this way.”

You can be smart and clarify that you have some ideas but ultimately it is up to him to make it work.

Trap 3: “X is not cooperating”

In many organisations, heads of departments have to make things work across department and team boundaries and they spend a lot of time doing so.

This need not be the case.  Actually, the line managers should be doing it.

You can tell your report to go and build relationships and get things done even when resources are not in his direct control.  “Beg if necessary.  You are a manager.”

Trap 4: “I have done my part”

This is another common retort that you hear often.  Your junior can conveniently redefine his role as “doing some activities”.  In fact, he needs to define it as “doing what is needed” to get results.

Make him responsible for the outcomes.  So what, if everything isn’t in his control?

Trap 5: “We have a crisis”

Actually he means,  YOU have a crisis!  Some people create crises, when none exists, to display their troubleshooting abilities and therefore their worth.

Others create the impression of a crisis to keep you anxious.  That keeps you at bay.  At the end of the day, you should be happy that the project has finished.  Never mind that it was somehow finished.

Yet others find it convenient to escalate when things go out of hand.  Straight into the lap of a willing boss!

Tell yourself, “Relax.  Don’t give in to anxiety.  Let me take a hard look and see what has happened.”  This allows you to make a less emotional and more realistic assessment of the situation.  Get involved only if you need to.

See if you can explore other options like getting another manager to help.  By the way, proud managers usually hate it when other managers are asked to help, as they see this as a reduction of their power and esteem.

Trap 6: “I just want to keep you posted”

Some managers will cc everything to their bosses.  The idea is, when things go bad, he can say “But I kept you informed.”  You could thwart such tactics with a polite “I am happy that you keep me posted.  I would prefer a regular project summary that really shows the current status, rather than a cc of every decision you make.  You own the project and all the decisions there.  Don’t expect me to be on the watch for your errors.”

Trap 7:  Junior barges in for a big decision when you are busy or vulnerable

Clever juniors will carefully pick a time to talk with you and get your go-ahead on big decisions.  Either when you are very busy or most vulnerable, such as, just before the monthly review!

If you can help it, ask him to come later.  If he has finessed you, tell him directly “Don’t ever do this to me again.”

I had a junior who was adept at this.  He forced me to adapt and survive!

Building a Culture of Ownership

Last year I witnessed a leadership development program for top managers at a well known textile brand.  At the end of the program they were all chanting “If it’s to be, it’s up to me.” That line bears repeating.

Encourage your juniors to take charge of outcomes.  Praise them openly for taking charge and delivering.  Don’t rush to pin blame when they fail, as long as they were really earnest in their effort.

Make them understand that they will not have perfect conditions, far from it. They will have to seek help from others not under them.  They will have to take risks.  They will have to suffer from conditions that are outside of their control. That is the nature of things in business.

Your own beliefs about being a “good manager” may come in the way.  Tell yourself “This is the only way my juniors will grow.  I owe it to them.”

Teach Strategic Thinking

Teach your reports to think strategically; to think of the big picture.  This topic deserves a separate post. So I won’t write much here.

The Shadow Side

This post is not meant to be a lesson in “non-stick” management.  Take this in the right spirit.  It’s not meant to be a Dilbertian view of management.  Indeed, you cannot promote an ownership culture without leading from the front.   I only urge you to be watchful for upward delegation.  And keep your wits about you.


Effective Delegation and Task Tracking – Starting with a To-Do List

“Effective delegation and task tracking” is an essential skill to ensure Happiness At Work

In addition to client projects, most of the strategic initiatives are also really projects and need to be managed as such. Task identification, assignment, and tracking are fundamental to the success of a project/strategic initiative.

However, many managers struggle with the idea of delegating projects/tasks and thereby remaining in control of the progress. This is a must-learn hard skill for all managers, which seems to be woefully missing – at least in the SMB segment. Lack of systems is a major reason, but lack of awareness seems to be the real cause. I have seen this cause a lot of heart-burn, ill-feeling and “supposed” communication issues, affecting the “Happiness at Work” for the managers in-charge of such projects, their team members and the clients/executives who are sponsors of these projects.

This article explains how a simple To-Do list can get you started in the right direction.

Many managers just talk about what needs to be done.

Whenever there is a project or a special initiative, the Manager in charge of the project explains the tasks to the team. Sometimes there is a periodic (daily/weekly etc.) team meeting where the Manager describes the tasks for each team member. Some team members take notes; others just listen. And then they perform the tasks as best as they can remember and understand them.

Many a time, things fall through the crack because who is supposed to own them has not been clearly specified. “Everybody thought Somebody will do it, but Nobody did it!

At other times, there are quality issues because of poor understanding of exactly what was to be done. The knowledge about work performed in the project is lost when people leave the organization.

A manager may be able to manage one or two simple projects using such informal and verbal instruction only approach. But managing more projects using this approach is certainly challenging, even for the most capable. And certainly not recommended for your most important strategic initiatives!

So the logical next step is to create a written list of tasks for the team.

You can implement a To-Do list in many ways.

I have seen managers routinely using whiteboards or asking their subordinates to use diaries / notebooks for keeping track of tasks. There are many other media such a To-Do list can use. For example,

  • Daily printout for each team member
  • Email to each team member
  • A shared excel sheet with list of tasks for all team members

At a minimum, a To-Do list should capture, for each task, the following:

  • Task Description – Detailed information
  • Assigned To – Person responsible for carrying out the task
  • Task Status – Not Started, Work in Progress, On Hold (Due to some reason explained as a comment), Completed.
  • Target/Due date (optional) – Date by which the task has to be completed.
  • Priority (optional) – Assigning priority to Tasks helps team members schedule their own work in accordance with the project requirements.

Comparative analysis of various approaches:

Notepads and printed lists, though convenient, are not easy to share, and status updates require additional effort from team members. In fact, the dreaded Status Meetings are a result of such methods used for Task Tracking. In addition, copying, carrying forward tasks or reassignment requires additional effort.

A shared Excel sheet frequently serves well for small projects and teams. Each person has a complete visibility, and status updates can occur offline. However, with shared files, there are issues with simultaneous updates, overwriting each other’s changes, etc. Keeping track of history of the updates is also challenging and requires special effort for version control.

Shared Task Tracking System for the team simplifies communication.

Work assignment and progress reporting becomes much simpler with a centralized task tracking system. Such a system can be used to define, assign, and track tasks and helps segregate the functions of Planning (Task Identification), Scheduling (Resource Identification and Task Assignment) and Tracking (Monitoring progress against plan).

And of course, the same techniques/systems are useful for day-to-day task assignments and action items generated from various meetings.

A web based Task Tracking system is ideal when the team members may not be co-located.

It is simple, easy, and increases team effectiveness.

According to Peter Drucker, one of the secrets of being effective is taking responsibility for communication.

“Whenever I, … start to work with an organization, the first thing I hear about are all the personality conflicts. Most of these arise from the fact that people do not know what other people are doing …, or what contribution the other people are concentrating on and what results they expect.” – (Classic Drucker – HBR 2006 – “Managing Oneself”)

A shared To-Do list goes a long way in developing this understanding and increasing the overall effectiveness of the team.

Success begets success.

The list of completed tasks creates a sense of achievement for individuals and the team. And as Zig Ziggler says, action creates motivation, which is not bad for the success of the project and happiness of the team!

Why Don’t Leaders Communicate

Most readers of this blog must have felt at some time or the other that their leaders do not communicate enough.

Communication from the top is key, when it comes to happy, healthy organizations.

As a stakeholder, I want to know where we are going.  How good is the future for my organisation and therefore, for me.

Lack of such communication creates heartburn. It is one of the biggest factors contributing to employee turnover after “bad boss”.

We know this. The question then is, is why don’t leaders then communicate?  I am talking here specifically about organisation wide messages that CEOs need to send to their employees.

I think, leaders know that communication is important.  The reality however is: it is tough to communicate!

Here’s why:

1.  Not having a clear idea of the future.

Listeners are looking for clarity on where the organisation is headed.  This clarity is often not there.  Leaders know what they are going to TRY but not always about how things are going to turn out.  Leaders don’t want to wind themselves up in knots with this.

2.    Wanting to look in control

Leaders feel the burden of expectation of being the one with all the answers.  Reality is, they don’t. It is tough to stand up and say so.

3.  Need to have winning news

This MD friend of mine thought that we should have a town hall meeting only when we had clinched a big deal.  “Else”, he would ask “what is there to tell?”

It feels nice to stand up and proudly announce winning news.  But that may not always be the case.

4.  Not making commitments

Leaders need to make forward looking statements.  It is a headache to publicly make commitments and put that pressure on oneself.

5. Keeping options open

Leaders find it easier to use “unofficial channels” to communicate ideas in ways that allow them to keep other options open.  They find this much more “manageable”.

6. Managing expectations

Listeners are looking for BIG news from leaders.  Often, progress is achieved in small steps.  So, even when the organisation is inching forward as it should, leaders find it tough to manage expectations people have from such “events”.

So, next time you catch yourself complaining about this, give your top management some rope.  Take the initiative to talk to them about where the organisation is going.   Don’t expect clear answers always.  But keep talking.

Take The Lead

Don’t wait for such town halls.  If your company is listed, you will definitely be able to see the financials.  The best place to understand the business is by looking at cashflows.  If you are not familiar with this subject, read up.

Understand what the operating cashflows are and how they have changed over time. If the reports provide department wise or BU wise cashflow details, understand which businesses are generating more cash than others.

Take an interest in knowing the company’s strategy and ask questions when you can.

What Is My Purpose

At the core of the communication question is the question of purpose.  Purpose is the meaning that we derive for our work.   This is not just vision or mission.  It is the reason why we as an organisation exist.  It is how we contribute to the world.

Sadly, sometimes leaders fail to communicate even this.

Find out the purpose that your organisation stands for.  Next, build a mental link between your work and the purpose.

Here is an example from a company that makes specialized software products that banks use to process payments.  “Payments is the pulse of every business.  We keep that pulse ticking.”

As a programmer working in the company put it “When I write code I imagine that somebody’s heart operation is waiting for a payment to reach.  My program makes that happen- swiftly, efficiently, without errors.”

You are not alone in that cubicle.