Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Know When to Delegate

The managers I talk to are slammed with work and time is a precious commodity that always seems to be in short supply. Yet when I ask them about sharing the workload with their direct reports – an excellent way to develop employees and groom successors – they often have legitimate excuses as to why they don’t do it as much as they could or should. And the biggest reason revolves around time. It does take a bit of time to delegate effectively.

Expectations need to be clearly defined. This is the most difficult part, and the most crucial. In the future, I am going to dedicate a blog posting solely to communicating expectations, but that’s not the topic today.

Besides setting clear expectations, managers need to ensure their delegatee has all the tools, resources, knowledge and skills to do the task. Sometimes check-ins during the task or project delegated are necessary. When the task is completed, the manager needs to follow up with their direct report to debrief and express appreciation. Or alternatively, to back up and make some changes if things didn’t work out as expected the first time.

When I recently spoke to one of my clients who is always overwhelmed, I was surprised to find that he was less stressed and seemed happier with how things were going. When I probed, I found out he had finally taken the plunge to delegate some responsibilities off his plate and onto his employees, who were happy to be trusted with meetings, customers, and tasks that the boss had previously kept to himself. It really didn’t take as much time as he thought it would to delegate effectively. It was a leadership step that freed him up to be a better leader.

Delegating builds relationships, and your employees will feel like they’ve gained (more of) your trust and respect. In return, you’ll get more loyalty from them. If you are afraid that you would be overloading them, just be sure to let them know if they feel they can’t handle the extra work, to let you know. You can then help them with prioritization and perhaps redistribution of their workload.

Delegation is an underused development tool. Survey your current responsibilities. What could you pass on that would expose your direct reports to new people, new situations, new knowledge and new tasks? And would lighten your load in the process? You could use that extra time to concentrate on planning and yes, leading.

There are some instances when you do not want to delegate. As you survey your responsibilities, determine which are:
• Extremely time-sensitive. It may be necessary for you to keep the task if explaining it and a ramp-up training time is too long.
• Too political or protocol-oriented. Some tasks just need your personal attention.
• High risk. If it is a task that cannot handle a less than stellar performance as your delegatee gets up to speed on it, then keep it in your own hands until that person can do it up to standard every time.

If any one of the above points are true, it’s better not to delegate that task. In addition, sometimes you just don’t have the candidate with the right stuff to do the job. Make sure you know your direct reports well, and understand their current skills, their working habits, their interests, their potential, and their knowledge. You want to be able to delegate the task or project to just the right individual – one you can trust and who sees the extra responsibility as an opportunity to develop their skills and stature in the organization.

Delegating is a leadership skill that benefits everyone. Take the time to delegate effectively and watch as not only your open time grows, but your employees do too.

Thursday, August 19, 2010

Change Management => The Costs of Efficiency Can Be High

“Two more days,” my friend groaned-sighed as I was driving her home Wednesday evening.

“You used to like your job,” I said.

“I loved my job. I used to love my job. Now I just go in and try to make it through the day.”

A year ago my friend ‘s department was reorganized. Everyone in her area was either laid off, quit or transferred. She was moved to a different building, and she got a new supervisor. She was nervous about all the changes, even though she was receiving a slight promotion. (“A forced promotion,” she called it.) So to help her look on the positive side of this transition, we held a barbecue for her with a “Dress for Success” theme. We added padded shoulder blazers to our shorts and partied on a friend’s patio.

Her job changed significantly. She had to learn new processes to accomplish the same ultimate outcome as in her old job, only this way was supposed to be more efficient, and better for the bottom line, as well as the customer. In this case I can’t speak for the bottom line or the customer, just for my friend, the front line employee.

My friend works for a hospital, one of the hospitals mentioned in this July 10th The New York Times article, Factory Efficiency Comes to the Hospital. These hospitals have adopted a Japanese efficiency system that is widely accredited to Toyota, and now taught by them. (Toyota actually learned these processes from American management guru Dr. W. Edwards Deming.) “The program, called “continuous performance improvement,” or C.P.I., examines every aspect of patients’ stays at the hospital, from the time they arrive in the parking lot until they are discharged, to see what could work better for them and their families." According to the article, “checklists, standardization and nonstop brainstorming with front-line staff and customers can pay off.”

From what my friend says, the checklists and standardization are overwhelming. It took her quite a while to finally master them, with a few tears along the way. In the first few weeks, she didn’t know if she could get a grasp on everything. “Hang in there,” I told her. “It will all fall into place eventually." Tonight my friend told me they hired a new employee a few weeks ago who is still struggling and can’t be left on her own even though she has had two weeks of one-to-one training on the procedures.

And the “nonstop brainstorming with frontline staff”? Non-existent. Oh yes, she was told to let them know what suggestions she has. But she says that’s useless since they don’t listen to her.

After breaking down a few times at work and coming down with a case of hives, she has finally found how to deal with the stress. “I just tell them ‘You created this, not me. I’m the one who has to figure out how to deal with it, and this is the way I’m dealing with it.’ Then I take my time and work at my own pace. It’s not worth trying to get everything done as fast as they want it. Some of those doctors and nurses are really demanding and rude. My health is more important than paperwork.”

I’ve offered to help her get her resume up to speed. Life is too short to be under so much stress all the time. It’s been a year, and the reorganization has not settled down and smoothed out. Management has put too much emphasis on “factory efficiency” and forgotten about the effects on real people. In this case, a loyal, long-term employee has become just a cog in the wheel of efficiency.

Incorporating change always takes longer than we think it will. A lot has been written about how to introduce and implement change, but rarely does management follow the advice, even if they are aware of it. The costs of poorly implemented change are high, and not just to the bottom line. The costs to human psyche and health can be deep.

According to Brain Rules author Dr. John Medina, the type of stress my buddy is going through affects our brains in all types of negative ways, including reducing productivity. Sounds like just the opposite of what management’s goal is.

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

How Important Is Corporate Culture?

How important is company culture? Does it really matter to the bottom line?

Tony Hsieh, CEO of Zappos.com, thinks so. Tony is all over the business news these days, as his new book Delivering Happiness: A Path to Profits, Passion, and Purpose was recently published. His nation-wide book tour launches on August 14th.

Says Tony: "Our number one priority is company culture. The whole belief is that if we get the culture right, the rest of the stuff like building a brand and great customer service just happens on it's own."

Tony acknowledges that he looks long-term - 5 to 7 years out - and with that strategic outlook his ideas make sense. But they may not work well for those leaders who need to focus on immediate gains and so rely on more traditional practices such as hiring primarily for skills, or following call center scripts.

What stands out for me in reading his book - which I recommend, by the way - is that Tony insists his company really walk the talk. The company culture is based on ten core values that guide the employees like the Ten Commandments guide Christians. After the employees created their core values, they were incorporated into the hiring process by using interview questions that support each of the ten values. If a candidate doesn't pass the culture fit interview, they are not hired, even if their skills and knowledge are exemplary. Once hired, a candidate goes through training and a couple weeks on the job, after which they are offered $2,000 if they wish to quit the company.

The core values are not forgotten after the interview process. Fifty percent of an employee's performance review is based on how well they have upheld the core values. Every year, a new culture book is created by the employees themselves, where they write about their experiences of the core values.

Although Zappos.com was merged with Amazon.com last year, part of the agreement was that Zappos would operate independently and be able to keep it's culture.

It's wonderful to have employees that are all aligned with the purpose and culture of the company. With everyone so engaged, progress toward mutual goals is no doubt swift. However, I have to wonder whether so much emphasis on culture might result in a bias toward hiring similar behavior styles. And when everyone in the company is predominantly one or two behavior styles, blindspots are overlooked or are overruled by the dominant behavior styles. For example, if a company's employees and culture are primarily Persuader-Controller, then possible blindspots would be thorough analysis of options, cutting corners, following processes, and follow-up. I don't know that this occurs at Zappos, but I have seen similar trends in other companies.

Zappos.com is currently number 15 in Fortune's Best Companies to Work For. That's pretty darn good. But their employee turnover is 15% and REI, which is number 14 and in a similar industry, (and one of my former employers) has a turnover of 8%. If there is such an emphasis on hiring for the right fit, why is turnover 15%?

These are just a couple of the questions that came to mind as I read Delivering Happiness. My overall impression after reading the book is that Tony is a groundbreaker and a revolutionary manager. Tony’s standout traits as a leader are intelligence, creativity, integrity, and caring about the people in his company, and I don’t mean just employees. He talks about his customers and his vendors as much as about the Zappos staff. He applied learnings from the positive psychology movement to his business, which resulted in employees having more control over their promotions and pay, among other things. With a leader like Tony Hsieh in the business world, evolutionary management is alive and doing well.

And to answer the question about whether company culture affects the bottom line, well, take a look here at the most profitable companies in the world.
With the notable exception of Google (#4 on Best Companies to Work For and #47 on Most Profitable), none of them are known for emphasizing their positive corporate culture.

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Be the Best Coach They Ever Had

In one of the exercises I facilitate in my management training classes, I ask the participants to think about the best “coaches” and “mentors” they have had in their lives. What qualities did these mentors have? What behaviors did they display?

“They brought out in me things I didn’t realize I could do – they challenged me and believed in me, even more than I believed in myself sometimes.”

“They were straight with me and I knew I could trust them.”

"I knew they were on my side.”

“They encouraged me.”

“They were good communicators – they listened well.”

“They knew me, and I felt they cared about me.”

“They spent time with me – because they wanted me to have success.”

“They walked their talk – that’s inspiring.”

Variations on these comments are repeated every time. In short, the best mentors and coaches inspired them to stretch and do their best by getting to know them well enough to understand their strengths, weaknesses and goals. They gave them helpful feedback, and encouraged them to take risks in order to develop their strengths and move forward. They were effective communicators, and even rarer, good listeners. They were trustworthy and honest.

These are the characteristics of a great manager, not just a great mentor or coach. Great managers bring out the best in their people, and everyone benefits.

Challenge yourself: can you list the strengths, weaknesses and goals of each of your employees? Do you know what motivates them? Challenging work tied to a larger purpose is the common denominator that motivates everyone. But what does that mean to your employees? What kind of challenging work would they be most successful at? What larger purpose do they want most to be a part of?

When I asked managers if they knew the answers to these questions, invariably they would say something like “I’ve known Val for 15 years. I know everything about her.” I would challenge them to call the employee they knew best on the phone during the class and ask them a series of questions. Every single time, the manager was surprised at some of the answers they received.

Don’t assume – take the time to have an in depth conversation. Do this, and you are on your way to becoming the one they describe when I ask them in the management training class: “Think of the best mentor or coach you ever had…..”