Thursday, August 9, 2018

Mom's lesson to her son

** I'm porting over some of my old posts.  Enjoy! **

Growing up I was a bit of a nerd.  My favorite activities included Band, BMX bike riding, and roller blading, but my favorite by far was Dungeons and Dragons (D&D).  My mom worked at a McDonald's in Stillwater Oklahoma, home of the OSU Cowboy's.  Being a college town, many of the people who worked with her were students (both college and high school).  Being a bit of a latch key kid, I spent a good amount of time around her at work in the summers.  She would drive me into town, and go to work, and I would walk to the Library, or the Dark-Mave (a coffee shop that catered to "my people"), or some other hang out.  I'd be back for lunch, and then the trip home.  During these visits I had struck up a conversation with college students, and managed to wrangle an invite to an all weekend D&D session with them.  The friend who invited me, we'll call him Jack, made it clear he wanted to hear my mom say it was OK before he would let me join.  She was OK with it, and dropped me off Saturday morning before her shift.

There was a knock at the door, and looking at the clock it was 7 o'clock.  We had been playing all day, and had lost track of the time.  Jack answered the door, and there stood my mom.  She had bought us a ton of pizza's, claiming she "knew how us boys could be when in the zone".  She asked if I would come help her unload the car.  I jumped at the offer of pizza, as I realized I was starving have skipped lunch.  When we got to the car, and as she was loading me up with pizza's, she asked if everything was OK.  She told me if I had any concerns, she would tell them that the pizza's were really an apology and that she wasn't ready for me to be hanging out with college kids yet, and that she was taking me home.  She would take the brunt of their displeasure.  She even offered to let me pitch a fit to make it clear I was not to blame.  I assured her I was fine, and having a great time.  The guys where all cool, and treating me like one of gang.

We went back up stairs, and she dropped off her half of the pizza's and left with a waive and a gentle chide not to eat all the pizza tonight, as we would need breakfast too.  As soon as the door shut, Jack without looking up from the quest book we were playing out of asked "Checking in to be sure we weren't corrupting you?"  I nodded... "You have an awesome mom." he replied.. and that was it.  You see, he recognized the reason for her concern.  Everyone there had a beer but me, and there was always the potential for it to be something worse than beer at a college get together.  Add to that the concern many at the time had, thanks to the Movie Mazes and Monsters, that D&D was harmful to the psychology of children, and the college element.  It was natural for her to be concerned.  Jack however was impressed by the way in which she checked up on us.

My mom had observed through many games at the house that we would get lost in the game, and forget to eat.  She used that knowledge to check in as unobtrusively as possible.  Providing me an escape hatch if i needed it.  Providing her reassurance we weren't dancing in our underoos in a cloud of pot.  Protecting Jack and his friend's dignity.  It probably didn't hurt that there was free food involved either... maybe the bribe statement went beyond "if" I left...

My mom really impressed me that day, as she did on so many other days.  She took great pains to consider my feelings as well as the feelings of my new friends.  I strive to imitate her in that.
In business, as a manager, there are a lot of potential situations that can leave an employee feeling embarrassed, and/or angry.  Here are the ones I try hardest to avoid:

Reprimands:  Reprimands should never be made publicly.  I'm not going to lie, there have been times when someone has acted in a way that infuriates me.  I have wanted to grab them by the arm, and walk them out, yelling the whole way.  I have never done that, however I have slipped with angry retorts.  Invariably I have regretted those later.  It never does any good to respond to someone angrily.  Especially in front of a group of their peers.  It just upsets them more, and makes you look unprofessional.  So what should you say when faced with an unruly employee?  I found what works best for me, is buy a little time.  "Let me give that some consideration and get back to you."  Then, when you get back to them, do so in a more appropriate setting.

Chewing: Mistakes are not dog bones, so stop chewing on them.  There are some mistakes that can stay with a person for far longer than it really should.  I have seen people leave a company due to one mistake they made that no one would get over.  It is important that everyone recognize, and respond to mistakes.  What I try to avoid is harping on them well after the lesson is learned.  Most people know when they have messed up.  It is OK to point out the issue, and help them identify how to keep it from happening in the future (in private... see above).  It is even OK to remind them of their new process (not the mistake, but the process) if you see them slipping.  But bringing the mistake up every time you talk to them isn't going to motivate them to do better.  In fact it is likely to make them give up on improving.  "He'll always remember me for XYZ, I'll never live that down.  No use in trying."

Fired/Laid Off/Quit:  I always get the question "What happened to ..." after someone leaves.  Employees get to know one another, and they are concerned.  However, commenting on someone's departure is a bad idea.  Setting aside the legal ramifications for a moment, it can be embarrassing to the employee if they were fired or laid off.  And by process of elimination if you tell people when person X quits, but won't say anything about person Y... they probably didn't quit.  My policy is to stick with suggesting they reach out to the individual if they are concerned.  Regardless of why the person left, it can be gratifying to know you are missed enough for a co-worker to reach out.  Is there a chance the employee will bad mouth you. Yes.  It has happened before.  I hope that I have built up enough report with my team that they are well armed to make their own decisions.

Awards (Birthdays/Births/etc..):  I am a fairly outgoing guy.  I love to receive recognition in front of large groups (I originally wanted to make a living on stage, and recently got back into it at a small local theater).  It was very difficult for me to grasp that some people are morbidly afraid of being pulled up in front of a group of people, even to be recognized for something they have done right.  Generally speaking there are some people I'll call out in front of the group, and others I'll take aside.  It is difficult sometimes to look at someone and know.  Unless it is blatantly obvious which group then belong in, I'll simply ask them.  "I wanted to thank you for XYZ in front of the team so they will know you went the extra mile for our success.  How do you feel about that?"  Usually the ones that don't want to be publicly recognized will immediately look uncomfortable.  Sometimes the best thank you is a heartfelt and hand written note that is hand delivered.

What pitfalls am I missing?  What else should we try to avoid in order to keep from damaging our relationships with others.

Interview Mistake

** I'm porting over some of my old posts.  Enjoy! **

I was interviewing a young lady for a client facing development position some time ago.  She had a very thick accent, and although I could initially understand her, she progressively spoke faster and faster.  As her speed increased, I had more difficulty in understanding what she had to say.  I explained that I was having difficulty understanding her, and pointed out my observations that as she gained speed, it became more difficult to understand what she was saying.  The poor woman couldn't help herself, I truly think her nerves got the better of her.  After two attempts to calm her and slow her down, we completed the interview, and I had notes on half of the questions.  We had run out of time, and I had another meeting I had to run to.

Nerves are what they are.  They are hard to control.  But an interviewer usually only has so much time with you before they need to move on.  Sometimes the best way to make good use of that time is to take a deep breath, and answer their questions slowly, and clearly.  Use the time to your benefit.

I had another interview with a young woman who was very thoughtful with each question.  After each question she would pause for a solid two seconds, clearly composing her response.  This allowed her to clearly, and confidently answer my questions, and she rocked that interview even though we had to stop a few questions short of the list.  She made excellent use of our time together.

I think the biggest part of this is the candidate's mindset.  I can't help but think that the first candidate was a little less sure of herself than the second.  I think everyone has something to bring to the company, the only question is "will the hiring manager see it?"  If this company doesn't see how they need you, then your job is to relate to them what you bring to the table.  Help the hiring manager see why you are the solution to their problem.    In order to do this you have to understand your strengths, and be prepared to "sell" them.  If you don't see a clear link between your capabilities and the company you are interviewing with, then you shouldn't put in for that position.

Thursday, August 2, 2018

Executives are people too

** I'm porting over some of my old posts.  Enjoy! **

My first conversation with an executive was one I will never forget.  I had risen to my position of Supervisor more quickly than usual, and my manager at the time was very supportive.  These facts made me a bit more comfortable with my position than was probably wise.

When I found out I had gotten the promotion, I ran out and got "desk supplies" so I would be ready for my first day.  That morning, the boss noticed I had a new pencil holder on my desk.  He inquired where I had gotten it.  Turns out the company would pay for such things if you request them through procurement.  (A new concept for me given my previous experiences hadn't included a desk, or even a stationary work space.)  For the rest of the day we made a running gag out of it.  "Oooo... nice bic pen, I need one of those!" ... "Can I interest you in a shiny new paperclip?"... etc.
That night, while surfing the web, I found the chair to end all chairs.  This thing rotated with the sun so you would never have screen glare, the entire station reclined as a single unit, and was designed such that the screen and keyboard were optimally place no matter what angle you sat at.  It had a soda cooler installed and had a specialized vent system to air condition your bum.  All of this for the low price of $5k.

Now, at this point I should let those of you who don't know me so well in on one of the worst kept secrets among those who do.  I'm a bit of a wiseguy.  So the next morning, I obtained a procurement form, and filled it out for one of these specialized, ergonomic chairs, and left it on my boss' desk for his signature.

Nearing the end of the day, I went to ask him about my "little request".  Without missing a beat, he informs me he approved it, and sent it on to the Director for signature since it exceeded his signatory limit.  The pit of my stomach clenched up, the world around his office swam just a bit, and I wanted to cry.  Having so recently (and quickly) been promoted to supervisor, it didn't take a genius to realize how bad this was likely to end.  The Directory was a very traditional man.  You didn't speak to him unless you were spoken to, or you were above a certain pay grade within the company kind of traditional.  Above all, no one ever saw him smile.  I was as good as fired.
I returned to my desk, and about 15 minutes before I usually left, I got the call.  The Director wanted to speak to me.  I stuffed a few key belongings in my pockets, and slowly walked across the building to his office.  I knocked, and received a curt "come" as my welcome.  I entered his office, and took the seat he waived me too.

The director sat in an office that was in my opinion more of a closet.  It was the smallest office in the building as far as I was aware.  The storage room was larger by a good 2 feet.  His desk took up almost the entire room, and you could only sidle sideways into a chair, of which there were only 3.  The walls were mostly bare, and the desk was neat and orderly.

In front of him was my request form.  My boss' signature blazoned across the bottom in Bic blue.  He looked down at the paper, and began the conversation by acknowledging the features of the chair, followed by the price.  He didn't sound particularly upset.  He then asked me what value purchasing this chair would bring the company, and then came the longest, most pregnant pause in a conversation I have ever taken part in.  There was no value in this chair.  It was a joke, and I had no idea how to tell this man, who at the time I was convinced made more in an hour then I would make in a lifetime, that the request was never meant to go this far.  Having been raised to take your lumps however, I eventually dove into my explanation to the very imposing man behind the desk that the request had been intended as a joke.  Grim faced, he rose, sidled over to the door, and opened it.  This was it, I was being let go.

On the other side of the door was my manager, red faced from his struggle to contain his laughter.  The director then explained that my boss had showed him the chair, and explaining our running gag.  The director it seems had decided to incorporate our little joke into his normal welcome to management talk.  We had a laugh, then sat back down, and got back to business.  After that, I was made to feel very welcome in my new position as a manager.

This worked largely because my manager recognized my sense of humor ran deep enough that I would take this as a welcoming gesture.  I don't know that I would ever recommend doing this to someone unless I was 110% sure they would share in the humor.  In the months that followed, both of these men checked in on me, and there were a few more practical jokes thrown in for good measure.  But that "little chat" really drove home for me that everyone, at the end of the day, are just humans.  The persona we see in our manager, or exec is not the entire person.  They are just trying to get through the same messy world as the rest of us, some even have a sense of humor about it.  Since then I have been less fearful of having conversations with someone at the top.  Some are still scary, and I still worry at making sure I'm prepared.  That's only common sense.  But I try to get a sense of the underlying person.

I wish more execs that I've met since had shown their human sides, even those who aren't pranksters.  I think doing so provides an approach-ability that so many of today's leaders lack.

Have you ever had an encounter that changed your perceptions?

Thursday, July 26, 2018

The Myth of Excellence

** I'm porting over some of my old posts.  Enjoy! **

The Myth of Excellence is a book about focusing your efforts where they will do your company the most good.  No company, and no individual can excel at everything all of the time.  The premise of the book is to make a thoughtful choice on what your business will focus on.  It breaks business down into Price, Service, Product, Experience, and Access.  The authors suggest you choose one of these to excel at, one to differentiate yourself on, and then suggests you try to meet expectations on the other.

I like this concept as many of the companies I have worked for that didn't do this were frustrating to work for, and failing.  One I worked for attempted to focus on all of these through their corporate motto, which was a conglomeration of words that basically stated they focused on everything.  Employees, Customers, Income, Product, and their processes.  Who can keep up with that?  How do you make decisions?  Another company I worked for didn't even give you that much.  Each time you would complete a project they would simply complain about whichever attribute you focused on the least.  The idea being that everything should be at such a high level of perfection as to leave nothing to complain about.  Most of the people I worked for there were burned out.

In the late 90's I worked at Creative Labs.  When I first started, we had a clear focus.  We built the best product out there, and we provided strong service to back that product up.  Everything else was secondary.  Don't get me wrong, we met expectations in the other attributes.  We had to, to do otherwise was to throw customers over to the competition.  Later the company began to focus on more, and the company faltered for the next few years.  I understand they have more recently begun to pull back, re focus, and rebuild.

The ideas in this book resonate with my personal experience.  It provides guidelines on how to keep a business running with a clear set of priorities.  I enjoyed the book and recommend you read it.

Get to reading!

Thursday, July 19, 2018

The Wisdom of Teams

** I'm porting over some of my old posts.  Enjoy! **

Those of us who have been fortunate enough to be a member of a team, look to find organizations that build teams.  Managers who have seen teams in action from afar, look for ways to imitate the results they saw.  Few people really know how to "make" a team.  If you want to build an environment in which a team can form, and flourish you should pick up a copy of The Wisdom of Teams.

The authors start off by describing what teams are, and why we want them in business.  The then walk you through what it looks like when a team forms, how to leverage the team, and when you do and don't want to try and form a team.  Throughout the whole process, they relate both success stories, and stories of failed teams.  They analyze each story, and provide their insights on the processes used.

I highly recommend this book!  Get to reading.  ;)

Monday, January 23, 2017

Panic vs. Experience

Recently I went on a backpacking trip with some friends. Some of those who went had never been backpacking before, others had some experience and a few were very experienced. All involved were rock climbers though, so it was decided by the group we would take a spin on a little path in Arkansas called Eagle Rock Loop.

Eagle Rock Loop is billed as the toughest hike in Arkansas. All Trails states it is only recommended for "..very experienced adventurers". The trip has some advanced route finding on it, and the site also states it is 25.2 miles long 4,783 ft of elevation gain. Most of that is in one 10 mile stretch in which you cover 6 small mountains, the final (when done clockwise) 2 being among the steepest. On day 2 we planned on going through a flood plain that took the lives of 16 people back in 2010 and sleep high above the river. Day three was intended to be a quick stroll back to the cars then off to get a meal. In trying to help plan the trip I lobbied multiple times to try an easier loop so our first time backpackers wouldn't burn out. Apparently we are climbers... we can handle it.

The week before, there was some weather. We were checking water levels and forecasts daily. With a final check the morning of departure, we determined there would be a window large enough to make the trip in. So we loaded up the soccer van, and headed to Arkansas. After several hours of riding, talking, laughing, and generally having a good time, we found ourselves arriving at Caney Creek Trail Head (roughly N34.347103 W093.984343) late in the evening. We setup our first camp near a friend in his camper/truck outfit, and slept.

To give you some context to my sleepless nights, I had been reading up on the trail as I regularly do. The trail report that most stuck out to me was a group that started with 8 people, and finished with 3. Most left the trail injured. Everyone in that team was experienced. I was awake a long time thinking through various scenarios, bail points, and alternate plans. Once asleep, it didn't feel all that long before I was getting up again.

My friends and I were excited to get started. After a quick breakfast we loaded up and headed out on the trail. In order to ensure we got off to a good start, we immediately overshot a trail junction, and got lost. After hunting for the trail, backtracking multiple times, and one hilarious fall later (he was fine, and even posed royally and asked for a picture), we found the trail and got back on track. The plan was to hike the first 11 miles or so and find a place to camp near the river. The hope was to find a waterfall to camp near. We lost nearly an hour on our little side adventure, but spirits were high. We nearly bounded down the trail.

As the light began to fade, we were coming down the final mountain for day 1. Each step felt heavy, and painful, each breath labored. Several members of the party were limping (myself included). No injuries as of yet, just fatigue. Happily, everyone was still smiling also. We are after all climbers, we know how to enjoy ourselves while in pain. We began looking for a camp site, having just passed the 10 mile mark. We were still a bit short of a little field I had mentally marked off on my map as a potential camp site, but when we found a little field just off the river we couldn't resist stopping (read: collapsing) to setup camp.

Dinner consisted of the usual suspects, re-hydrated spaghetti, lasagna, Thai noodles, and the like. That is up until someone brought out a re-hydrated cake and passed it around to the tune of happy birthday. Three of us had birthdays within two weeks of the trip (one was the day we started out). The cake was probably mediocre at best, but out there, around a camp fire after a day of ups and downs (pun intended) it was possibly the best cake I have had all year.

Day two started out pretty well. We were rested, spirits were again high. Camera's were out, and we started down the path, determined to press on. Very quickly though we became concerned for one member of our team. She began to limp more and more, and her pain was evident. A little after midday, we all came together and made a decision. She and one other would stay behind and the rest of us would make a push for the cars. We planned to be back the next day to pick them up. We left them behind in a campsite were the worst of the flood had happened years ago.

We now needed to make up time we lost during the day, as well as the time needed to backtrack in the vehicles to pick up our two stranded friends. So the remainder of the group pressed on hard and fast.  We pushed on and made it just past the location we initially intended to camp.  In stead we camped riverside again about a quarter mile further on.  It was already dark when we selected our campsite, made our dinner and collapsed into our tents.

That night, I woke the sounds of mother nature gently tapping on our tent a few hundred thousand times... it was raining, and we had left our team mates in and then subsequently setup our campsite in the flood plane.  We got up earlier than we hoped, and jumped into action.  Camp was dismantled and we were on the trail eating a cold breakfast and moving even faster than the night before.  We scrambled quickly over rocks and downed trees.  Over the remaining mountains and finally found the trail back to our cars.  As we topped the last mountain I remember looking up the last 50 feet and wondering if we would make it back in time.

As we stepped off the trail and onto the road that would lead us back to our trucks, it was nearing 1 o'clock.  We hastily dropped our bags into the soccer van, and jumped into the two vehicles.  The roads were wet, and mostly mud.  Where the mud ended, holes began, and the going was slow.  We rounded a corner and there before us were two wet and bedraggled hikers.  Our two friends had bailed when the rain started, and began making their way to the cars, hitch-hiking and when necessary walking.

With the party reunited we began the trip home.  Stopping of course for the obligatory burger and fries overload.  I think we may have gotten an ice cream at some point.

Initially my fear told me this trip was a bad idea.  I was actively campaigning against it. However everyone involved had a great time.  All things being equal I would have missed out on a great trip had I let my "Experience" rule out this trip all together.  That is not to say we should throw caution to the wind.  We had several bail points, and the elevated risk of minor injury was worth the potential pay off of a great trip.  Experience is what provided the insight on how to asses this risk.

Many times I feel we mistake panic and fear for experience.  We hear an idea, fear the change it will cause, and reject the idea before really assessing it.  In business, experience tells us that change can be good, fear tells us to stay the course.  One of the biggest flags for me is when a quick decision is made when speed is not a factor.  Sometimes decision must be made on the fly.  All to often however a decision is made in the heat of the moment that could be given some consideration over a few days, or even weeks (depending on how big a decision it is).

Slow down and give some thought to what is driving your decisions!



Friday, January 20, 2017

The Art of Misdirection


Reposting an old post from the last blog.

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This weekend I found myself in line at the drive though at a local Chick-fil-a.  What was remarkable was that orders were being taken by two young ladies, and relayed inside via a headset.  Their regular drive through PA system was down.  They could have put up a sign and asked us, their clients, to move forward and order at the window.  I have seen many restaurants do this in the past.  Why would Chick-fil-a pay two employees to stand out side on a chilly morning instead.

The answer came to me as I pulled up to the first window.  I was greeted by the manager, who apologized for the inconvenience of their equipment failure.  He was immediately replaced by the employee handing me my food.  Thinking back, it probably did take me longer than usual to get through their drive through, but I didn’t notice.  Why?  The employees standing outside were chatting with me, about the weather, about my day, and my sleeping daughter in the back seat.  They took my mind off the wait, so I didn’t notice it.  The employees where out there in the cold, engaging us, and giving the person at the window the time to assemble our order.  When I pulled up, my food was ready.  It was seamless, and flawlessly executed.  “Excellent job” to that manager and his team.

Everyday, we run into hurdles, roadblocks, or just plain bad days.  It affects our ability to provide service to our clients.  When we focus on the problems, our clients focus on the problems as well.  They see the issue, they see it is affecting your delivery, and they are not happy.  I wonder what would happen if we focused on our customers experience?  Could we misdirect, or better said, refocus our customer attention so they hardly notice the issue, but rather want to thank us for our flawless delivery even given the circumstances.

What do you think?