Tuesday, July 31, 2007

Management Perspectives - Blog performance review July 07

As you might expect, blog traffic was well down because of the way the short pause in posting I mentioned on 10 June stretched out and out. Only now am I starting to catch up. That said, there have been some interesting changes in the pattern of the top posts since my last performance review.

As before, the front page scored the highest number of visits. By far the next most popular post was Changes in Public Administration and their Impact on Public Policy 1 - Introduction. I was pleased about this, because this post is an entry point for a whole series.

The next most popular post was Demography and Demographic Change - an update. Again, this post is an entry point to a series of demographic posts.

Then came three posts with equal ranking.

The first was one of the posts in the Changes in Public Administration series: Changes in Public Administration and their Impact on Public Policy 6- A view from the Past. The second was my last blog performance review. Then came a label search on ageism. So far there are just two posts here.

The interesting thing about this list is that, apart from the front page, there is not a single post from the last list again registering in the top list.

Sunday, July 29, 2007

Common Management Problems Series 1 - Introduction

Over recent months we have run a series of posts on the Managing the Professional Services Firm blog on common management problems. Our aim was to provide simple, practical, advice.

We are now grouping the posts together on this blog in a single series to make the material more accessible. As we post, the material will back-fill from this post. Each post will have a link to the next and previous post.

As always, we welcome comments.

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Tuesday, July 24, 2007

Common Management Problems Series 1 - the isolation of being boss

I thought that it might be of interest if I shared with you from time to time some of the problems I have experienced as a manager.

Australia has what the Australian historian John Hirst has called a democracy of manners. Differences of wealth, authority and power do exist in the country and have widened in recent years. But our language and attitude are egalitarian, democratic and somewhat cynical. This flows through into the nature of relationships within organisations.

I grew up in this world. It influenced my attitudes and approaches when I first became a manager in the Commonwealth Public Service. Among other things, it meant that I identified with and was close to my staff, an approach that got very good management results. Then suddenly I was promoted again and met a problem that took me a while to even recognise.

The Australian Public Service was then broken into four divisions:

  • the first division made up of the heads of Departments and senior statutory office holders - a small group - was at the top
  • then came the second division, a smallish (several hundred) group of senior managers across the Service from branch head to deputy secretary level.
  • followed by the third division, the main administrative/clerical division
  • and then the fourth division, all the support staff.

To put all this in terms that may be more familiar, the first division was equivalent to managing partners, the second division to partners in general, the third division covers all professional staff, the fourth division paras and support staff.

At the time of the promotion I referred to I was a Chief Finance Officer (Director) in the Commonwealth Treasury in charge of a section with nine staff. I had acted as branch head for extended periods, but I was still seen in terms of my third division role. In addition, Treasury was a relatively open non-hierarchical Department in part because of the number of well educated, ambitious and highly intelligent junior staff.

I was then promoted to the Department of Industry and Commerce as its senior economist in charge of the Economic Analysis Branch. I was now a senior officer in a much more hierarchical department with three sections and seventeen staff. I had also also inherited a branch under pressure with serious internal problems that needed to be fixed.

I had made special transition arrangements and had been receiving copies of the pinks, all branch correspondence, for a month before I formally took over. I had also met all the staff at lunch and had spoken on a regular basis to the acting branch head. So I had a fair understanding of the nature of the work and indeed was already carrying out some of the duties at the time I moved across.

Then I hit a wall on arrival. I knew that there were problems, but I wanted to make my own mind up about them. And indeed I am very glad I did because the problems were not quite as they had been presented to me. But initially I found it impossible to get the information I needed to make judgments. There seemed to be some form of barrier.

I had not changed. I was still applying the management approaches that had worked so well in Treasury. So was was the difficulty? It may sound dumb, but it took a little while to work out that I was now being treated as a senior boss, that I had moved from being one of us to one of them. As a consequence, people were now filtering what they told me.

I know that this problem is not unique. I also know that most managers are aware of it, although my experience has also been that a surprising number do not recognise its full extent. I have seen too many CEOs in particular who think that they know what is going on, that they do get good information, when the opposite is clearly the case.

The first thing that I had to accept in my new role was that the problem was real and was not going to go away. It made perfect sense for my staff to treat me with a degree of caution because I was simply too important to them to do otherwise. Importantly, I was now wearing a wider range of hats so had direct responsibility for enforcing policy in a way that had not applied in the past.

I also had to accept that it was going to take time to build trust. Trust did not mean, to use an old Australian phase, being one of the boys, boys in this case including both sexes. Rather, it meant treating people consistently and fairly, protecting confidences, recognising achievement and providing top cover. We used the term top cover to recognise my continuing role in protecting my people, in ensuring that they had the operational freedom they needed to do their job.

I will write on the top cover issue in more detail later because I believe that this is an absolutely critical condition for the creation of high performing teams.

Given that the communications problem was real and that it was going to take time to build trust, I still had an immediate need to find out what was wrong in the branch, what to do about it. Here I did two things:

  1. I focused on understanding work flows. What was being done, who was doing it, how was it being done, at what standard? I must emphasis that this did not mean micro-management, itself a major problem in professional services. I saw my role in setting quality standards and then letting people get on with it. As I gained understanding I was able to identify a few immediate problems that I could act on that would help people, thus building trust.
  2. I also got out of my office a fair bit, just talking to people, while also encouraging a range of branch activities. Some of this was informal and social, just stopping by people's desks to ask them something, follow up something. I also tried to find ways of working with as many people as possible, trying to help them on particular tasks.

In combination, this started to give me a feel for the the real scope of branch activities, of the strengths and weaknesses of individuals, of the real problem areas. I was also able to triangulate, to look at a person or an issue using several different information sources.

People's perceptions are always imperfect.

Two of my people were perceived by the Department as non-performers. I formed a different view.

One in a fast response, high pressure area was being so badly crippled by tension induced migraine headaches as to render him a non-performer. Yet when I talked to him I found his deep knowledge of the Australian economy and of economic statistics invaluable. He also had a female staff member who I felt was being under-rated, who had considerable potential.

In this case, and with his full agreement, we restructured section operations so that the female staff member and I worked on the fast response stuff, mainly daily economic briefings to the minister, while he focused on longer term issues. His migraines eased, the standard of our economic advice improved, while the female staff member seized the opportunity, in so doing moving onto a faster promotion path.

The second case involved a deputy section head who was perceived as non-performing in large part because he could not work the required hours. When I looked at this case I found that he had a non-performing section head who spent a lot of time on a private business interests and that he was in fact trying to carry the section. I also found that he was a single father with four children, creating enormous problems for him in trying to balance work and family. There was simply no way he could be on call in the way the Department was trying to demand.

In this case I facilitated the exit of the section head. I say facilitated because the section head and I agreed that he should go on immediate leave without without pay to do other things. A little later he resigned.

In doing so I found that the Department was well aware of the performance problem. I spoke to the section head in the morning and then prepared the necessary request. The required Departmental and Public Service Board approvals came through in just two hours, with the section head on leave that afternoon. When I commented on this, I was told that it had been just too difficult to handle previously!

I now restructured the section, making the deputy section head acting section head. With his cooperation I also restructured the work to give him greater time flexibility to meet family needs with other staff providing back-up when he was not there. He was later confirmed in the section head position.

None of this would have been possible if I had not spent the time required to overcome the communication barrier created by my role as boss.

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Saturday, July 21, 2007

Common Management Problems Series 1 - the over-enthusiastic boss

This post continues the Common Management Problems series, sharing with you from time to time some of the problems I have experienced as a manager. This one focuses on the dangers of the over-enthusiastic boss, a danger that I am personally prone too.

I suspect that we all know the type of person I am referring too. Brimming with enthusiasm and new ideas, he/she cannot restrain himself/herself, but immediately wants to share the new idea with those working for him/her. Staff may roll their eyes, but really have no choice but to listen.

Often, the over-enthusiastic boss has another feature as well, failure to indicate the purpose of the discussion so that staff do not know what they are meant to be doing with the discussion. Is this a new task, am I meant to be doing something with all this?

This can make over-enthusiastic bosses very poor delegators. They give new tasks before previous tasks have been completed. They also think in their enthusiasm that they are being clear when in fact staff may be completely confused but too polite to say so.

If you are an over-enthusiastic boss my advice is to pause, to take a deep breath before rushing out with the latest idea. Remember that a core part of your job is to help your people do their jobs better, and you do not do this by overloading or confusing them.

If you work for an over-enthusiastic boss your position is more difficult. However, there are a few things that you can do.

If you are not clear just what is intended by the discussion, ask. If you are being asked to do something, but it is not clear to you just what, again ask. If you are working on a priority task, then say that. Finally, if you are finding the whole approach creating really serious problems for you, then have a private chat with the boss.

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Friday, July 06, 2007

Common Management Problems Series 1 - managing up

People's inability to delegate properly is one of the most common complaints at the various management training workshops I have run, a failure I have discussed elsewhere.

A related but less recognised problem is the inability of many staff to manage up. By managing up, I simply mean structuring what you do and how you do it to make life easier for you and your boss.

Why is this important? Well, the delegation problems that staff complain about are difficult in part because staff have no direct control over the manager, they just have to put up with it. By contrast, staff can control what they do and how they do it. This includes managing the boss to make life a little easier for all. So how do you do this?

Take Personal Responsibility: The starting point is to take personal responsibility for managing those things that you can control, focusing on the way you do things. This sounds simple, but the most common complaint among bosses - and especially from those who are in fact bad delegators - is that staff will not take responsibility.

There is a chicken and egg problem here in that bad delegation makes staff less willing to assume responsibility, thus adding to the problems created by the poor delegation.

Management Styles: The next point is to look at the way your boss works. Each person has an individual working style determined by the mix of character and experience. You have to fit the way you approach the boss within this style.

To illustrate by example. In an earlier post in this series on the over enthusiastic boss I talked about bosses who overflow with enthusiasm and new ideas, moving onto new things before past things are completed. Here I said in part:

If you are not clear just what is intended by the discussion, ask. If you are being asked to do something, but it is not clear to you just what, again ask. If you are working on a priority task, then say that. Finally, if you are finding the whole approach creating really serious problems for you, then have a private chat with the boss.

Making Things Easy for the Boss: The nature of much professional services work is individual, with a focus on individual performance. I do complain about this and the way it affects overall firm performance, but it is a reality that has to be dealt with.

Under individual pressure, people are less willing to invest time in managing others. The easier you can make things for your boss in managing you, the better the outcomes. What you do here has to be tailored to the boss's style, but there are a number of very practical things that you can do that generally work.

Perhaps the single most important thing is to adopt a structured approach so that your boss knows what he/she is dealing with in managing you. Bosses form views anyway, but you can determine or even change those views.

When asked to do something, ask questions so that you properly understand the task as well as any time lines attached to it. Summarise at the end to ensure that you are clear.

If you strike problems on a job, find yourself unclear or are likely to miss a deadline, let the boss know in time to allow a new approach to be worked out.

When you go to the boss with a problem or to report on progress, present in a clear and structured way. Don't just say I have a problem. Explain what the problem is, put forward any suggested solutions that you have. This makes it easier for the boss to understand and to respond in an effective way.

Be clear about the purpose of any communication with the boss, explain what you hope to achieve.

By the nature of the beast, most bosses feel instinctively obliged to provide solutions, answers. That's fine if that's what you want. But you may in fact simply want to discuss ideas, issues to help your own thinking. Things can get very messy indeed if the boss automatically moves into problem solving mode, leaving both sides completely dissatisfied. So tell the boss the purpose of the conversation.

Remember the boss is a person too. Here have a look at the first piece I did in this series on the isolation of being boss, a post written very much from a boss's perspective.

Most people like some degree of social interaction. They like to feel that people are interested in them. So take some time to chat, to find out what the boss has been doing. Your approach here has to be tempered by their personality and style.

Finally, try to structure your formal interactions so as to minimise time demands on the boss.

This is partially a matter of approach as already discussed, presenting things in a structured way. But you can also do things like working out how much time you think you need and then making an appointment, thus creating a structured meeting. You can also often wait until you have several things to discuss, again minimising disruption.

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