Recently I finished the book “Manager’s Guide to Fostering Innovation and Creativity in Teams” by Charles Prather.
My key takeaway from this book was not the process and exercises that were presented to help generate creative solutions to problems. Instead it was a point that was brought up many times in many different ways. As managers and leaders we play a very large part in fostering a creative environment. Our attitudes and biases can enhance the creative process, or they can completely stymie it. A command and control manager rarely leads a creative team. That leads to only one person’s ideas driving the team’s results. Managers who lead creative teams engage the hearts and minds of their employees to solve the biggest business problems. You have to step back and acknowledge that you are not always the expert, but that the members of your team are. That is why you hired them and why they remain part of your team.
This book builds upon previous work by Goran Ekvall and Scott Isaksen describing the dimensions of the climate for innovation. In order they are (with 1-6 being the most important overall in studies):
- Challenge and involvement
- Trust and openness
- Risk taking
- Idea time
- Idea support
- Debates on the issues
- Interpersonal conflict (negatively correlated)
- Playfulness and humor
- Value for diversity of problem-solving style
Are your employees challenged by their work and emotionally engaged in it? Do you promote an environment of trust and openness that facilitates risk taking and freedom of opinion and action? Does your team trust you enough to admit their mistakes early or to ask for help? If so, you are well on your way to fostering a creative environment.
I absolutely LOVED the book “Good Boss, Bad Boss: How to be the Best… and Learn from the Worst” by Robert Sutton. You may recall that he also wrote the book “The No Asshole Rule” which is also terrific.
Key takeaways for me:
- No matter what your intentions, if you are “the boss” people will read something into whatever you do or say. As a good friend of mine once said – “sometimes my words took on lives of their own”. You need to be very careful – your people are watching you all the time trying to figure you out.
- KISS. We all know this one, but in business we forget it. KEEP IT SIMPLE. Figure out what is really important to your company, your department or your product. Bring it up frequently. If you are measuring 25 important things, none of them will get done. Find a handful – manage to those.
- Power can go to your head easily. Don’t be a bosshole ( I love this word!).
- If dirty work needs to be done, do it. Layoffs, firings, and other uncomfortable conversations are dirty work. Don’t drag them out. Do what needs to be done, people will respect you for it.
I highly recommend this book for anyone who is a boss or aspires to be one.
I think that everyone has heard the tale of the frog and the pot. If you put a frog into a pot of cold water and place it on the stove, the frog will happily sit there until it is cooked. If you attempt to put a frog into a pot of boiling water, it will do its best to jump out.
I recently read a blog post entitled “Why Newcomers Often See Things More Clearly Than Old Hands” by Bob Sutton. FYI – he’s also the author of “The No Asshole Rule” which is an entertaining read.
I liken the newcomer to the frog placed into a pot of boiling water – the newcomer will have a reaction (either good or bad) to the host of interesting things that don’t even phase the long term employees. I know that I’m still in that place right now. I’m about 6.5 weeks into my employment now. There are things about my new place that still leave me starstruck. My goodness, the walking trails and rec center are amazing! I work with some people who are totally passionate about what they are working on. Now, on the dark side… it’s been a very long time since I’ve worked for a big company. Small companies are very nimble. I’m used to grabbing a few stakeholders and making important decisions quickly. These days I am feeling my way around – trying to understand which groups need to be included in what decisions. I’m learning all sorts of new processes – and some of them leave me scratching my head.
I think that a manager can always benefit from listening to what is causing a new person concern. So far my new manager has been pretty open to my comments, and I’m thankful for that.
Starting a new job always means getting to know the company that you now work for. The company also has to get to know you too. Everyone is usually on their best behavior during the interview – and this does not just mean the interviewee. As a company, when you have a good candidate, you want to show off the team in its best light as well. Once the new person starts, there typically is a nice honeymoon period. In some ways it is like dating someone new – you’re focusing on all of the good things to justify your decisions (both on the hiring and on the deciding to work there sides). During this honeymoon period a lot of time and energy is spent on learning.
When I was an engineer starting a new job my focus was always on the technology. I almost always came into companies that were launching new products. In this respect I was really fortunate. I was part of the team that was defining the design, and a lot of times the technologies that were being used. That didn’t mean that there wasn’t anything new and different to learn right up front. For example – almost every company that I have ever worked for used a different code management system. I’ve used proprietary, PVCS, Clearcase, CVS, and Perforce. On the bug tracking side I’ve used ddts, bugzilla, and devtrack. I’ve utilized a number of programming language environments, and dealt with a lot of different processors and operating systems. The good news is that unless you’re coming in as the architect of a large project the scope of what you need to learn is rather focused. You will own something specific and hopefully manageable.
As a manager the scope of the things to learn is much greater. Not only do you need to have a high level understanding of the technology and the product you are building, you need to understand some of the more amorphous details.
Who are you managing? Did any of them aspire to the job you were hired to do? Are any of them unhappy and looking to leave? Any performance problems to suss out? How do you build trust? When you lead them, will they follow?
But this is just the beginning. Who are you peers? How do you need to interact with them?
Still not enough – what other groups are stakeholders in the technology you are managing? Project managers. Product managers. Sales. Marketing. Consulting.
It’s time to drink from the fire hose.
I recently read a blog post written by a friend and former colleague of mine that made me think about how important focus is. For background – see Don’t Die in the Wrong Lake by themadepeacock. He describes a scenario where his former employer was so focused on one particular industry that she killed the company by ignoring all of the other possibilities. This is when too much focus – or even more specifically the wrong focus is very bad.
To play the devil’s advocate, I have to say that normally, strong focus is very good. There is nothing worse than working for a company with very limited resources (time, money and people) that is trying to be everything to everybody. Diversity in focus is great for profitable companies and especially profitable companies that want to grow into other industries and have the means to do so. Too much diversity can kill a small company just as quickly as the wrong focus can.
First of all, small companies are highly dependent upon each one of their customers. This is because typically small companies only have a few of them. If you only have 10 customers it is really painful to lose 1 of them. For a bigger company losing one customer is only bad if it is a really high profile large customer.
If you are a customer of a small company, you know that you are taking a risk in buying from them. If you are working with Joe’s Software Emporium you don’t know if the company will be around for the long haul or not. Joe is clearly not IBM. The reason you *are* working with Joe is because he can provide you with something very specific that no one else can provide. This may mean a particular piece of functionality, a particular customer service capability, or even just the fact that you can get something small and simple at a price point that larger companies may not be interested in selling as an independent product (it’s not worth their effort). Joe’s customers are dependent on his focus. They care about what he is providing to them now, and how it will meet their needs in the future. What if Joe decided to put most of his resources on another product that his customer’s aren’t interested in – splitting his focus? He might lose his current customers trying to get different ones.
I’ve worked for a number of companies that decided not to focus on the product that they were successfully selling in the market place even though it could be improved and its revenue could be grown significantly. Instead, these companies started multiple new efforts, sometimes it almost felt like the flavor of the week. What this caused was significant alienation of their existing customer base as well as frustration at the employee level. Some employees could clearly see the customer problems and were powerless to stop them due to a lack of resources. Other employees were getting whip-sawed among multiple top priorities and were never able to focus (there’s that word again) successfully on getting anything done.
Remember – focus is good. It’s only the wrong focus that is bad.
Continuing on my book review binge – today I’ll talk about “The Inspiring Leader” by Zenger & Folkman. This is a followup book to their Extraordinary Leader tome that I recently read. I have to say that I was a little bit disappointed by this book. On the whole, it wasn’t bad, but it was very predictable. There was really nothing in it that made me go “AH HA! That’s the key!” I found it to all be common sense and many of the studies and literature that they referenced were things that I have already read. I do think that this book has value, especially for someone who hasn’t been in the management trenches for a long time or for someone who really isn’t big on reading management theory or self-help books in this area. It’s a good concise read that gathers a lot of loose ends together.
I do think that one thing really bears repeating. Extensive studies show that positive communication is critical to high performing teams. As in marriages, the ratio of positive comments (approval, praise, support, compliments etc) to negative ones was one of the highest predictors of success or failure for a team effort. The best performing teams received positive-negative feedback in a 5-1 ratio. The worst performing teams received 1 positive for every 3 negative comments. As a leader you have a lot of control over that. You set the stage. You are the role model that the team follows.
Have you ever worked for a leader who was critical of everything that you did? I have. That sure didn’t make me want to work harder because it really didn’t matter what I did, it was wrong, bad, not good enough. Maybe I am a little sensitive, but it made me want to curl up into a ball and go into protective/defensive mode. On the other hand, when I had a leader who recognized the difficult things that I did, or pointed out specific – very concrete – behaviors and accomplishments that they appreciated I would double my effort to help them be successful.
Another thing that I thought was valuable and too infrequently used is leader visibility. If you want to drive certain behaviors in your company you need to walk the talk and you need people to see that you do that. There should be no double standards for you versus them. Hold all hands meetings and be transparent to your employees. Allow them to interact with you and answer the tough questions honestly, don’t dance around issues. Practice management by walking around. Talk to your employees, show and interest in what they are doing, ask how they are. If your organization is divided across multiple locations – visit – FREQUENTLY. Out of sight = out of mind. A visit from a leader can have a strong positive motivational impact. Of course this depends highly on the leader’s behavior while in the remote office. Even though you are the leader, you are still a guest in that office. Show up on time based on the local conventions – do not force the entire office to bend to your whims and time frames when you are there. Be a true role model.
“The ability to make a person feel that, when you’re with that person, he or she is the most important (and the only) person in the room is that skill that separates the great from the near-great.” from What Got You Here Won’t Get You There by Marshall Goldsmith
I have to say that this quote is what really made an impression on me in this book. I can see so many applications of this in my day to day life – both at work and in my personal life. For the curious – the workplace habit to break in this instance is Habit #16 – Not Listening.
I think that many people are attentive only when they think it is in their best interest. Who wouldn’t pay close attention to the CEO or to a key interviewer? The power of a conversational partner will make a lot of people turn up their skills a notch. I think what is really impressive is when someone does that regardless of who they are talking to. This is clearly a way to make everyone, from a receptionist, to a new hire, to a difficult customer feel valued and respected.
A key aspect of this skill is the ability to focus and really hear what a person is saying. This includes both verbal and non-verbal communication. Sometimes reading the non-verbal is much more important because it will provide clues to what the person is really thinking.
This level of focus can be very difficult. Most of us have a running dialogue in our heads – formulating what our response will be. Many times we are concentrating so hard on what we should say next that we stop listening to the other person. Other times we are worried about something else entirely and we just want the conversation to end quickly. I don’t know about you, but I can tell if someone is not really listening to me. It doesn’t encourage me to continue sharing information.
The next time you’re talking to someone try this. Ask a question – and really listen to their answer. It might surprise you. Stay engaged.
On the whole – I enjoyed this book. I was surprised by how much the author suggested that to become more successful as a leader that you need to talk less and listen more. I tend to agree.
Recently I had the opportunity to reflect back upon all of the training I’ve received in order to become the leader that I am today. In my career I was extremely fortunate that I received a significant amount of management training before I was even considered for promotion into the role. I find the coaching of potential, junior, and mid-level managers to be critical to longer term success. Even as a senior manager I believe that it is important to continue learning, and to not always fall back on previous experiences.
Early in my career I worked for a company that had a mandatory training and assessment course for all potential managers. It identified if someone was ready to manage people, and the areas in which they were weak and strong. This was a course that could be failed and a person wouldn’t be promoted to a management position if it was. I remember this class as being very stressful. There were timed prioritization of work assignments, interviews, and video taped role playing exercises in which instructors acted as difficult subordinates and customers. This course started my foray into management.
I’ve also had some training that wouldn’t be classified as management training, but it helped me become a much better manager. One form of this type of training that I received is often dismissed by staff as being irrelevant – and that is diversity training. I found it helped me understand how to be sensitive to race, religion, and gender as well as realizing that different people have different motivations for what they do. Engineers may seem to all be very similar but in fact they are not. You can’t expect someone to want to do the same things that you want to do for all the same reasons. Some people care about money, some about life balance, and some about challenging work or career development. I find this to be key to being a good manager because by understanding what a person’s motivations are, you can assign them work that they can be successful at. This training course also was very clear about what is and what is not appropriate in a work environment. In a similar vein, I also took a class that included the Meyers-Briggs Inventory. This was an eye opener for me because it showed how much diversity there is in the various personality types and how the different types are perceived. It also provided suggestions for how to deal with the different types. In engineering there are a few common ones, but there are always some people that are different and harder to read and work with. I happen to be an INTJ in case you are familiar with this method of personality evaluation.
As my career progressed, I signed up for more intensive training courses that spanned longer periods of time. Another company that I worked for footed the bill for a year long class that required me to travel to San Francisco monthly. This program was designed for high potential women managers with a minimum of 7 years of supervisory experience who were being groomed for senior management positions. The program and others like it are run by an organization called Women Unlimited. If you are a woman manager or if you have one reporting to you, I’d suggest investigating this. I found it to be one of the most useful training programs that I ever attended.
Once I got to Director and VP level positions my training focus changed. Now I find it to be a lot more self-directed and individualized. I continue to read books and articles voraciously to learn about new trends and ideas. For the last few years at my last company I met weekly with a psychologist who works with leadership teams at small companies as a career coach. He taught me to depend not only on my analytical capabilities but also on my intuitive abilities. He also taught the leadership team as a whole to be more focused and to use empathy in dealing with one another as a way to speed resolution of issues. This was invaluable. A lot of times in business we focus solely on the analytic and reasoning aspects of our work and little on the people and relationship issues.
These days I also enjoy sharing the knowledge that I have accumulated. As those of you who have been reading this blog for a while know, last year I presented at the IGDA Leadership Forum. I enjoyed preparing my presentation and sharing my management experiences so much that it compelled me to start this blog and become more active in the Web2.0 world. There are a number of pages on this website that give management instruction through examples. I also frequently post and comment upon interesting articles and topics that are personal growth, business, and management related. I am experimenting with the use of twitter to share additional articles that I find interesting that I don’t necessarily feel the need to comment about. I have a regular following on both of these mediums, and it is growing. This is really cool.
Keep on learning. Sometimes it doesn’t feel like you have enough time or that it is worth the effort involved. Do it, you never know when what you’ve learned might come in handy.
This Business Week blog article notes that during the current recession employee engagement in their jobs is up – which is different than measurements of employee satisfaction. However…
“Despite the resiliency of their engagement, employees gave senior management poor grades on leadership, particularly when it comes to dealing with change and addressing future challenges. Only half of respondents said leaders are, in essence, leading.
Interestingly, Gebauer said her firm is starting to explore the concept of “healthy” engagement, where employees give their all while employers focus on their overall well-being, as opposed to unhealthy engagement, where employees risk burnout. The consultancy is even developing an index to measure this phenomenon across its client base, which I’ve dubbed the “Misery Meter,” although I’m sure Towers Perrin will come up with a more marketable moniker.”
I thought that I would share a presentation that I gave at last year’s IGDA Leadership Forum. In this I talk about management techniques and behaviors that I have found help reduce staff turnover.
You can find the video here.