Tag Archives: Management

It’s amazing what you can accomplish if you don’t get distracted

I’m helping an entry-level Associate learn prioritization. I remember what it was like, getting asked to perform tasks by multiple superiors. Everyone wants their stuff to be priority, so much so that they employ a little trick with the line staff (some consciously, some not): they don’t even give a timeline within which something they need done should be completed. They just assume the Associate interprets the request with the directive, “Now.”

But there are multiple “nows” – multiple time horizons upon which we determine when something should be complete. And I’m sure you know, dear Reader, that many deadlines are actually artificial.

Of course I still need to prioritize. Big time. I fell a little short of my numbers this year. It was close enough that if I had really been focusing on the numbers, I think I could have nailed it. Instead, there were high-level organizational growth issues to deal with, and I worked on those happily because it is important and interesting and intellectually stimulating.

Our company has a goal to double revenue from 2013 to 2018. And you know what? We’re on pace. We’re on pace!! That’s a big deal for a small company, and I’m so proud – proud of my colleagues and all the line staff who are putting in good work every day, proud of my contributions to that pace (even if I fell a little short this year).

But let’s be clear – we’re only going to make it to Goal if we keep our eye on the ball. Whether it’s managing tasks from multiple superiors, hitting annual targets, or realizing 5-year strategic plans, we can’t get distracted.

So I told that Associate who struggled with prioritizing requests to ask for timelines for completion from the requestor, and if the Associate could accommodate it within her already established priorities, then fine. But if she couldn’t, that she should refer the requestors to me to determine whether priorities need to be shifted, they need to wait, or they need to find another solution to get it done.

I will need to continue to do the same. We love to talk about organizational development! Let’s do it within the context of existing priorities, talk about it after we review where we are on our first-tier goals, or create a new organizational development goal and rework the relative percentages of focus for all goals.

Because if we do that, we can manage well not only our business days, but our business years!

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Writing well in business: 4 tips for succeeding, borrowed from academia

When I was in the College of Chemistry at UC Berkeley, I had a professor who was appalled that science students bragged about getting through college without having to write a single paper. He attempted to correct that by making a paper required as part of his class.

I work with people coming out of finance or life sciences at the university level, and some days, I wish I could just surround myself with humanities majors – you know, people who know when to use who versus whom. Sometimes, people are not very practiced at writing well in the business environment, and it’s to the industry’s detriment. So much weight is placed on doing the actual research that the communication of research findings can be lacking. (This shortcoming is best illustrated when I see work plans that reserve 90% of time to doing the research, and only 10% of time to summarizing it all!)

I’ve been following Daniel Wallace’s collection of essays on teaching composition at the university level. Over the course of 15 years in consulting and managing junior and mid-level consultants, many of the challenges Daniel discusses and helps to solve actually resonate with my own experiences outside the university environment.

A few things I have learned, or discovered for myself, after reading his essays:

  1. We are never really done learning how to write well.
    • There are infinite audiences, objectives, and environments in which we write.
    • Sometimes, we need to “unlearn” one way of writing to learn another. Over time, an assessment of what type of writing is required becomes a part of the natural process, but at first, people can have a hard time letting go of the one way they’ve been successful writing thus far.
  2. There is always an opportunity – and in fact, a goal – to gain a skill through an exercise.
    • The point of an exercise should not only be the deliverable to the client, but to ask ourselves: are individuals on the team and the team as a whole going to do it better and more efficiently next time?
  3. Sometimes, you just have to be explicit about how it should be done.
    • There is a lot to be said for giving people space to figure it out on their own… unless they start to spin their wheels. A roadmap, especially the first time, goes a long way.
    • For example, one habit that I’ve tried to break new consultants of is the tendency to leave the punch line until the very end. Your writing process does not have to mirror your research process. This isn’t some dramatic conclusion you’re building up to! You’ve got C-suite level decision-makers who want to know the bottom line. Go ahead and put all the need-to-know information up front in an executive summary. It doesn’t minimize your research diligence and in fact, a fantastic executive summary does more to demonstrate your research chops than anything else in the deliverable.
  4. Every sentence is a question.
    • I’ve pulled this directly from Daniel Wallace’s sixth essay in his series. This is a fantastic strategy for making sure your staff are leaving no stone unturned in your analysis or presentation of findings. It’s a great way to review and provide feedback on drafts, as well.
    • Especially in niche professional services, industry jargon can be used as a crutch. The key to ensuring that your message is getting across to clients, and is organized well, is to ask a question after every statement or concept, to fully explain rationale and bring your client along your thought process. Don’t leave it to them to connect the dots on their own.

It is wonderful to be able to learn from other academic and professional avenues! So much of our success depends upon recognizing where someone is coming from, and adjusting our teaching or communication to optimize behavioral change.

 

Lesson learned: agreeing that there is a problem to be solved

At my weekly one on one meeting with my boss, the President and CEO of the firm I’ve worked at for the last 15 years, I ran a problem by him that I was wavering on how to address well.

In pitching to a potential client, I found two of our department heads speaking very expertly on issues in their particular domains, but talking past each other where those domains intersected. There was insufficient coordination between them in how their domains overlapped for this client.

After explaining the problem to the boss, brainstorming the various ways I could help them solve this problem both for this client and future clients, and asking for his opinion, he asked me a very simple question in response.

If you take a possible solution to them, do you think they’ll have any idea what you’re talking about?

He must have taken my slightly stunned silence for a negative. He proceeded to remind me that:

1. Individuals need to recognize that there’s a problem.

2. Individuals need to agree on what the problem is.

3. Individuals need to agree to collaboratively work on a solution.

Only then we can determine what to do, whether I have a role, and what that role  might be.

Afterwards, I tested the water by asking one of my colleagues involved how she thought the call went. She thought it was fantastic.

Huh.

It occurred to me that perhaps what I believe (department heads shouldn’t talk past each other and should reconcile their respective services for potential clients) might not necessarily be what others believe (perhaps part of a department head’s job is to advocate for their services to a client and they are not responsible for other department’s service lines).

The aha! moment I had with the boss will definitely lead me down a different path in terms of a next step with these folks.

Still learning!

Onboarding new employees: what I’ve learned and have yet to figure out

Feedback from new employees indicate that the top three areas in which employers most miss the mark in onboarding are the following :

  1. Clear guidelines on responsibilities
  2. Effective training
  3. Friendliness and helpfulness from fellow employees

I’ve been onboarding employees for 10+ years, and here are some tips to ensure that the investment you’ve made in recruiting and hiring someone doesn’t go to waste:

  1. Have a clear job description for them. Use it as an anchor for check-ins and reviews, and be open to refinement.
    • Set up categories of duties, so that it’s not an unending list of activities that can be hard to manage and refer back to.
    • Include relative percentages of time for those categories, so that employees know what they should be focused on.
    • Have a couple of items in each category that fit under “things that are not required but you may be asked to do.” Here, you can list professional development opportunities that don’t have to be performance-based.
    • Things change. That’s OK. But go back to the job description once a year and refine it, ideally to the agreement of both parties.
  2. Assess whether training was effective, and retrain if necessary.
    • I use simple multiple choice survey monkeys for the basics.
    • Use case studies for training someone on how to apply the material. Some case studies have served me for years; they don’t have to be from yesterday, as long as the application is still relevant.
  3. Set up side meetings or social encounters to help facilitate connections with other employees.
    • Have an open welcome the employee’s first morning, in which everyone is invited for a meet and greet. At my company, the operations folks do a great job of organizing a round of everyone sharing one “fun fact” about themselves. It’s a nice 15 minute welcome.
    • Sure, I like to take the new employee out to lunch the first day! Even better, invite one or two other employees to join you, so the new employee has a chance to develop early connections outside of the managed/manager one.

What I haven’t figured out is just as important a thought exercise for me. Here are some areas that I continue to either stumble through, or implement new strategies on a trial and error basis with mixed results:

  1. Assisting with full assimilation into the company. How can I best help the new employee infuse their unique perspectives into how we have “always” done things?
  2. Diagnosing trouble spots and making course corrections earlier. How do I obtain truly honest feedback from new hires and get an opportunity to make refinements in their experience when and where it counts?

I will continue to noodle on these critical and lingering issues for a long time, as I’m not sure there’s a magic answer out there, but I am open to ideas.

Client reviews: A 6-step approach to conduct a good one, and make your business better

Part of my job is to conduct client reviews. I’d say about two-thirds of the reviews have some negative feedback. This is largely selection bias – when things are going very well, clients often don’t take me up on my offer to do a review, but if there is something we could be doing better, clients will often want to let me know.

Of course, in a professional services business, ideally you want to seek feedback on a continuous basis. At my organization, we’ve implemented a bit of a third-party approach: I head up business development and am no longer in the weeds on individual projects. Therefore, I know our service lines well and can offer a review outside the members of the project team, in which the client may feel more comfortable being frank. Here are some things I’ve learned in the last couple of years.

1. Tailor the “ask.”

Not all client reviews are created equal. How you position the invitation to a review can influence whether the client takes the bait. And you always want the client to say yes.

Some clients might not be interested in being singled out, and therefore, positioning the review as an annual or quarterly assessment that you’re doing with a number of clients might sit better with them.

Some clients have invested in a huge project, so instead of waiting for the project to be done, you may ask to do a mid-term, interim review to see how things are going and position it as an opportunity to make course corrections through the rest of the project.

For some clients, just giving them an opportunity to vent their frustrations about the industry, their internal politics, and the project difficulties to an outsider helps to release some steam and gives the opportunity to commiserate on joint challenges.

Sometimes, things are going well, and you want to confirm that you’re on the same page. Those are nice, too. (In these cases, make sure you confirm they are willing to be a reference or willing to write a testimonial.)

2. Do your homework before the review.

Interview the project team(s). Who last spoke to the client, and about what? Any difficulties or frustrations the client mentioned recently, even off-hand? Where are/were the pain points in the project? (You as the reviewer don’t want to be blind-sided if the project team knows full well about a sticking point with the client.)

Look up the company/industry for recent news. Is there anything – potential acquisition, product controversies, huge upticks in sales volumes – that might be giving people heartburn? What are their competitors up to? What do you think might be keeping your clients up at night?

3. Have a discussion guide, but roll with it.

Have a few questions ready, but let’s be clear: the clients who signed up for this rodeo probably have a thing or two they’d like to share. Unless you need to get some particular information out of the review, let them drive and listen.

4. Seek out opportunities. Turn a negative into a positive.

As I mentioned, most of my reviews have some negative peppered into them. Sometimes, you need to pull it out of the clients, though. If you ask people how it’s going, and they tell you all is peachy, I would probe further. Clients might not even be aware that our organization can help them for other business problems unrelated to a project we worked on. Probing to discover what their larger organization is grappling with may present some opportunities for additional business.

But negative feedback can be tough to hear. The key is to drill down to the core issue that represents an opportunity for change. When the work on things the client asks for is spectacular, it would be even better to have someone on our team do some horizon scanning for them and bring issues and possibilities up to the client that might not be on their radar. I love this because it allows me to go back to the project team to find ways to truly partner with our clients.

5. Implement real change, and measure it.

It’s not enough to bring the feedback to the project team. I try to work with our teams to evaluate how we will do things differently in the future. Make it tangible, make it measurable.

The client would have liked more proactive communication? Turn your emails into calls, and ping yourself with a weekly reminder in your calendar. Document your conversations and the outcomes/next steps with your client and team.

The client was concerned you may not have been operating at optimal efficiency? Review the roles and throughput of team members and make recommendations on changes to implement by a specific time, and determine how you will assess efficiency compared to baseline at the next invoicing cycle. Or, if you are at optimal efficiency, determine an effective follow up with the client that educates them on the work requirements and communicates the complexity (and value!) of the work by reinforcing what they get out of it (or perhaps adjusting your deliverables so it’s clear!), or illustrate what minefields they are avoiding.

Bottom line: what will the organization do differently so that this piece of negative feedback isn’t heard next time, or with another client?

6. Follow up.

Client reviews are pointless without a follow up to confirm that issues previously raised were addressed, and addressed well.

Did the client confirm that it actually worked? Good. You’re not done. Make sure everyone in the organization knows about how the project team turned it around, created a new best practice, has a favorable client management case study, landed a follow-on project, etc. Spread the love throughout the firm. Give props to the people who turned that negative into a positive.

Client reviews can be intimidating. It’s important to be prepared, let the clients drive, let the feedback fuel real change, and check in to make sure the change hit its mark.

Can do vs have done: To what bar do we hold ourselves, and does it hold us back?

“Too many women still seem to believe that they are not allowed to put themselves forward at all, until both they and their work are perfect and beyond criticism.” — Elizabeth Gilbert

This quote has really been sticking with me for a while. Maybe it’s because I have a middle management crisis on my hands, and I’m trying to diagnose issues to help resolve some bottlenecks. Did I promote the wrong people, or is there something else going on?

Issue: the women I promote to middle management really struggle with ambiguity in their new positions. As a junior person, you’re told what to do. As a manager, you direct others. But what if you haven’t directed others before? I observe paralysis from women who are uncomfortable with being promoted to a role in which they are now the ones who have to define a way forward.

I’m coming to the conclusion that many women gain confidence through experience. There’s nothing wrong with that, but it’s not the only place confidence can come from, and in fact, the higher up the ladder you go, the less first-hand experience from doing the individual mouse clicks comes into play. At all levels, for junior, middle, and senior female professionals, confidence needs to come from a place of “I can do that” (i.e., skills) as much as “I have done that” (i.e., experience).

The quote above points to women not being confident in what they believe they can do vs what they have actually done. Men may define their qualifications in terms of possibilities, while many women may define their qualifications in terms of battle scars.

I would like to see many more women think in terms of possibilities, point to examples of how they used relevant skills to get something, even something unrelated, done, rather than opting out of new roles entirely until they have an example of having done a particular thing.

Another aspect of this issue is what happens after a thing is done. Failure – a word I hate! – is an unpleasant but possible/acknowledged outcome in some circles. It’s always something you try to avoid, of course, but if you fail, some are privileged to have a great support network in leadership, or a decent place to land. Many white males in white collar professions benefit from this, and as a result, bounce back from “failure”, both professionally and mentally/emotionally, better than others.

Many women are terrified of failing in general, and some of this is due to societal pressure – fear of failing at being the ideal wife (“What did I do to make him leave me?”), fear of failing at motherhood (“You should breastfeed or your baby will be sickly or not as good at math!”), and certainly fear of failing in the work place. Double standards still exist, but the root of the confidence crisis in middle management among the women I observe is that failure is unacceptable rather than just unpleasant. A lack of a safety net in terms of professional network (in leadership above her pay grade, not just peers) may cause a woman to be more cautious than her male counterparts. But more often than not, we are likely to rise up to meet the challenges, realizing our potential, not come crashing down!

We can all be a part of each other’s safety net. We will pick each up, we will give each other support, and contrary to the thought that I promoted the “wrong” people, I like to think that we will give each other opportunities, learn to see possibilities, and see each other through shifts in thinking – to be successful in the end.

 

Hello? Who just joined?

My 18 month old daughter puts anything and everything up to her ear and starts talking and gesturing like she’s on a phone call. TV remote controls, toy cars, music boxes, you name it: it goes up to her ear and she babbles away.

I suppose I do too many conference calls around her.

I miss the days where you could talk to one person at a time. These days, everything is a conference call.

Everyone has to be there! Everyone has to be involved! Everyone needs to know what’s going on! It saves time from explaining things to others later! IT IS SO MUCH MORE EFFICIENT!

Except that it’s not. When people are on conference calls, I can hear them tapping away on their keyboards, or I can see them scrolling through their iPads checking email. They are trying to multi-task and while I’m a BIG proponent of multi-tasking where you can, the usual conference call is not the best example of good multi-tasking. “I’m sorry, can you repeat the question?” (Cringe.)

So, I’ve been trying to limit the invitees on my calls, thinking I’m giving people a gift. I’ll send you a summary! I’ll rope you in later at our one on one meeting! I’ll let you know if I need you, but otherwise, live wild and free!

Doesn’t work. People ask me, “Why am I not on that call?” and “Don’t I need to be on that call?”

Dude, you’re already double booked for that time anyway. I don’t need you multi-tasking on my call as well.

I know one thing: my daughter does NOT like it when I multi-task around her. Her whining and mischief is directly proportional to the energy I’m expending checking a quick work email at home. She is no fool. She’s teaching me to practice what I preach.