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Lessons From Broadway, Part 2 August 14, 2009

Posted by Chuck Musciano in Leadership.
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A recent opportunity to see three Broadway shows in three days has me finding leadership lessons on the Great White Way.  Here’s another.

One of the shows I got to see this summer was Mamma Mia!, a love story set to the music of Abba.   Mamma Mia! is a great show on several levels, despite the fact that it forces people to put an exclamation point in the middle of a sentence when they write about it.

The story is actually two stories: a young girl seeks to find her real father just before her marriage, while her mother comes to terms with the love she lost long ago.  As a result, the show has two casts: the young girl, her friends, and fiancé; and the mother, her friends, and previous lovers.  These groups interact, of course, but they also spend a lot of time on stage independently of one another.

While the show is wonderful, it quickly becomes clear that the older troupe can act and sing rings around the younger cast members.  Their timing, presence, and stage business is subtly better; they are more natural on stage and deliver a better performance.  The younger actors aren’t bad, but the older ones are better.

The younger group, on the other hand, can dance like there’s no tomorrow and get to engage in more physical numbers and a bit more shtick than the older group.  And irrespective of acting chops, spandex jumpsuits favor the young.

I’m hopeful that most of us do not deal with spandex at work, but almost all of us are dealing with a similar generational divide in our teams.  More than ever before, we have waves of younger employees coming into our businesses with distinctly different skills and approaches to life and work.

Much has been made of this Millennial Generation and how we need to reshape our world to accommodate their new ideas.  The more seasoned members of the team, naturally, are a bit put out by this approach and wonder why their ideas and approach are suddenly out of favor.

I’m not a big fan of turning our business world upside-down to make Millennials feel all warm and fuzzy at work.  But I’m also not convinced that the “old ways” are the only way.  The reality is that there are useful ideas on both sides of this generational divide, and we need to exploit them all to be successful.  Like the blended cast that makes Mamma Mia! successful, we need to draw from both groups to build a better whole.

The rapid changes that social media and web-based technology are bring to our world are important, if not fully understood.  The Millenial enthusiasm for that technology is important, and we need to harness it, no matter what the older curmudgeons say.  Conversely, with age comes perspective, and there are some real traps in those tools that are only understood by those who have been burned before.  The risk needs to be managed, despite the complaining of those young whippersnappers.

Where should the leaders be?  Right in the middle.  That’s why you need to engage this technology, not just read about it in an airplane magazine.  Most of us have the experience part, but we need to learn, first-hand, what these tools can and can’t do.  With real data in hand, we can speak to both sides of the issue and pull the best parts from each.  But that direct experience is crucial, allowing you to earn the respect that lets you speak credibly to your younger team members.

Each of us have to craft a successful show from all the actors at our disposal.  Find the best singers, dancers, and actors, and get them on the stage together.  But please, avoid the spandex.

The Price Of Folly August 12, 2009

Posted by Chuck Musciano in Leadership.
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One of my favorite quotes is from Herbert Spencer:

The ultimate result of shielding men from the effects of their folly is to fill the world with fools.

Spencer was a Victorian-era English philosopher who focused much of his thought on evolution at a higher, social level.  He coined the phrase “survival of the fittest” and was an very well-known thinker in his day.  It is safe to say that he would not suffer fools gladly, regardless of how they were produced.

Spencer’s quote was directed at some of the prevailing political ideas of his time and was intended to shape broad public opinion.  Regardless of how you define “folly” (or “fool,” for that matter), his quote is a cautionary one: do not protect people from their mistakes, thus preventing them from learning from them.

His advice is just as important in the day-to-day business world that we all manage.  Mistakes happen all the time, caused by hundreds of different reasons, let alone folly.  How we handle them not only says a lot about our leadership skills, but also dictates how our organization succeeds.

With the current emphasis on soft skills, many leaders try to soften the impact of a mistake.  Even when people are upset, we try to soothe them and diminish the impact of the error.  Our goal is noble, and we may make them feel better, but we also miss an opportunity for someone to really absorb the impact of their error.  Shielding a person from the impact of their mistake can be disastrous, leading them to believe that mistakes, although unpleasant, aren’t all that bad.

The opposite kind of leader is just as bad.  Ranting and raving may make you feel better, but you are not helping the person who made the mistake.  While Spencer may be happy that you have certainly not shielded them, it isn’t clear that you have helped them either.

There is a middle ground, of course, but it can be difficult to achieve.  I do believe that people need to understand the impact of their error.  Tiny errors at one level can cascade to become disasters later, and people need to come to terms with the magnitude of their mistakes.  I will often explain to a person all the potential issues their error could lead to, not to make them feel bad (they should anyway) but so that they understand the real price that others may pay for their lapse.

But you cannot stop there.  At that point, you must then work to find ways to keep that mistake from happening again.  The only bad mistake is the one you do not learn from, and the only unforgivable mistake is the one that keeps happening over and over.  As you analyze why a problem occurred, people may begin the process upset and remorseful, but they should emerge with a plan and a positive approach to make things better going forward.

You should apply this to yourself as well.  When you know you’ve screwed up, you should feel terrible about it.  But instead of wallowing in the remorse, figure out ways to keep it from happening again and move forward.

People don’t fail because they make mistakes.  People fail because they don’t learn from their mistakes.

Help Someone: Fire Them! July 29, 2009

Posted by Chuck Musciano in Leadership.
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In my last post, I wrote about helping successful people succeed even more by finding them opportunities outside of your organization.We can’t always accommodate every successful person; good leaders help these high-achievers by letting them go to excel somewhere else.  It’s hard, but it’s necessary.

But what of those who are not succeeding in your team?  Ironically, you use the same solution: you let them go to excel somewhere else.  It may be even harder, but it’s certainly just as necessary.

Typically, a person is failing in your organization because they cannot handle their job.  We’ve all been in this position, recognizing that an employee simply is not going to be successful for a variety of reasons.  In these cases, after exhausting every way to make them successful in their current spot, we must find ways to make them successful somewhere else.

For people who truly want to succeed, this can ultimately be a rewarding experience.  I once had a person who worked for me as a Unix administrator.  Believe it or not, this was his dream job, but for everyone else it was a nightmare.  He was simply not cut out for the world of Unix systems administration.  As his performance declined, I finally had to sit this person down and give them the bad news: he was being removed from the Unix admin team.

Tears literally rolled down his cheeks as he saw his dream job disappear.  But we did not fire this person.  Recognizing the desire but acknowledging the skills mismatch, we moved him to the email management team.  And he thrived!  He became the greatest email admin ever, and grew to love that job.  Later, he shared with me that being cut from the Unix group as the best thing that ever happened to him. The pain of breaking his heart led to the joy of unforeseen success.

But what if you don’t have a great alternative position for someone who cannot handle their job?  You still must let them go, but it is up to them to find their new opportunity.  Even when we have to fire someone, it is still in their best interest.  Someone who is not succeeding in their current position is not happy.  That negative influence makes everyone unhappy.  By moving them out so they can find a place to be happy, everyone ultimately wins.

I’ve had the unfortunate opportunity to fire a number of people. In almost every case, when they ask why, I explain how they will be incapable of succeeding in their current position.  I try to show them that moving to a new opportunity really is for the best, but that’s hard to see right away. But when that person moves on to some place new, where they can succeed and become happy, they will look back on being fired as a good thing.  Getting let go is always awful, but it can be the cathartic moment that leads to unimagined success.

Most people hate the thought of firing someone and will avoid doing it at almost any cost.  That’s a bad decision and the mark of a weak leader.  If you can honestly say that you have exhausted every tool at your disposal to help someone succeed, you have no choice but to let them go. Retaining poor performers to avoid an unpleasant confrontation hurts them, hurts your team, and ultimately hurts you.  Good leaders fire unsuccessful people.

And therein lies the importance of firing someone.  You are not punishing them for poor performance; you are releasing them to deliver a better performance somewhere else.  In these cases, the only true failure is the leader who does not have the wherewithal to fire someone so that they can succeed somewhere else.

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Here Or There? July 27, 2009

Posted by Chuck Musciano in Leadership.
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I believe that a leader is responsible for the success of his or her people.  There are two simple rules to make sure that happens:

  1. Help everyone succeed.
  2. Hopefully, here.

Our job is to follow rule 1.  Through a combination of coaching, mentoring, challenging, prodding, wheedling, and cajoling, we want to make our people successful.

Ideally, we also want to achieve rule 2. We want our people to be successful while they are on our team.  Their individual success contributes to the team’s success, and that’s good for everyone. But the unfortunate reality is that most people will achieve rule 1 but break rule 2.  Why?

Sometimes, a member of your team is growing and succeeding faster than you can support them within your organization.  Particularly in these constrained times, there are few opportunities to create new positions to reward and challenge these high achievers.  In these cases, people may leave your organization to become even more successful somewhere else.  Ideally, you’ll help them find that new place, even if it means that you’ll lose a good person.

That’s a challenge to your leadership skills.  “A” leaders will help a high-flier move on, sad to lose a great person but happy to see them go on to bigger and better things.  “B” leaders hoard their best people, denying them the chance to excel by trapping them in their existing positions.  That’s a selfish way to run a business, and those good people will someday just quit anyway.

People need not leave your company to become successful.  They may need to leave your organization to grow and thrive in a different part of the company.  That’s a wonderful scenario for all concerned: the individual gets to succeed, the company retains a great employee, and you gain an ambassador for IT in a different part of the company.

This last benefit can be a huge one.  Very few people outside of IT understand how we really function.  This lack of understanding can lead to confusion, disappointment, and conflict.  By placing experienced IT people into other groups, you create an opportunity for others to learn more about IT, defusing those confrontations and gaining the trust of the business.

Even when good people must leave the company to move on, you should be happy to help them find success elsewhere.  While the future daily interaction with them will be far smaller, having good relationships with other companies always helps.  You never know when you might have to call on that person to assist with a problem, smooth a negotiation, or reach out to someone else.

I’ve had the privilege of being part of both of these scenarios.  It is rewarding to see IT people move on to successful roles elsewhere in the company, and to see how they bring positive benefits back to IT in their new position.  I’ve also mentored people who were struggling with a new opportunity, advising them to take it even when it meant they were leaving my company.  When I see them succeed in their new company, how could I have advised them any other way?  When they provided a beneficial connection to someone in their company, that’s just icing on the cake.

When all is said and done, all that matters is rule 1.  You must achieve rule 1, even at the expense of rule 2.  As a leader, are you ready to let your best people go to succeed somewhere else?

Let Go Of The Details July 8, 2009

Posted by Chuck Musciano in Leadership.
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IT leaders tend to manage a detail-oriented bunch of people.  Technology only works because someone pays attention to the details, and those who ignore the details are not long for our business.  We actively seek those who can absorb and deal with vast detail on a regular basis.

As qualified individuals rise through the ranks of IT, they face a troublesome trend: more and more of their job involves letting go of the details.  This can be a terrifying proposition for many of us.  If letting go of the details has been a proven recipe for disaster in the past, how can letting go of the details be crucial to my success going forward?

Leadership involves owning responsibility for more stuff than any one person can handle.  To manage all that stuff, we build teams that can collectively address the problems at hand.  Within that team, we divide and conquer, assigning different details to different people to get the job done.  Once assigned, we need to let go of those details and trust our team to handle it.

This is agonizing, especially for new managers.  I can remember when I made the transition from being a Unix systems administrator to managing the team of Unix admins.  As I relinquished my direct responsibility for our storage systems to another admin, I could feel my fingers shaking as they were pried off the keyboard of the console.  I was like a mother advising her newly-minted teenage driver as they took the car keys for the first time, blurting out bits of advice in an effort to forestall what I was sure would be an unmitigated disaster.

It wasn’t a disaster, of course, and that team of admins did a great job managing the servers that were once mine.  But the desire to stay engaged at every level, to track every detail, was overwhelming and almost fatal.  It took a lot of effort and focus to let my team do their jobs.

Failing to let go creates disaster in several directions.  At the very least, it tells your team that you do not trust them, and that you must stay engaged in order for them to do a good job.  Your lack of faith in their abilities will become a self-fulfilling prophecy, creating a team that lives up to your expectation of inadequacy.

Your constant meddling will also drive your team crazy.  What you see as helpful interaction is really micromanaging, and nothing is more frustrating to a competent employee than a micromanager.  You’ll lose your team’s respect and with it, any ability to actually manage them when it really matters.

Finally, all the time you’ll spend doing their job will keep you from doing yours.  Your boss is not expecting you to continue in your old role; he or she expects you to take on new responsibilities and deal with issues at a more abstract level.  Given that time is finite, every moment you spend mired in detail is a moment you could have been dedicating to your new job duties.  This incremental neglect of your new role will ultimately destroy your career.  If you really want to deal with all that detail, your boss will be happy to return you to a position that provides that opportunity.

Let go of the details.  Let your team do their job, so you can get on with doing yours.