What if I suggested to you that as a first level manager you should be spending about 10% of your time in a year managing your team and the rest of the time leading them?
I really do believe this. I worked for 32 years at a major US corporation. During those years I worked as an engineer, lead engineer, consultant to Directors and Vice Presidents and a first level manager. I spent the last five years as a first level (you used level above, you should be consistent) manager. Up to that point I had stayed out of management because I didn’t think it was the best use of my talent for the company. But there came a point when I wanted to see if I could change the way managers were interacting with their groups and if I could make a difference as a manager. I remember when I went into management, a manager and good friend of mine, said “You may think you will change us, but wait and see you will become us.” Maybe that is why I retired five years later, before I became one of them. I am not sure if that is the reason, but it was time for me to try something else in life.
The group I managed were self-efficient and ran themselves to levels no other group was achieving. How was it done?
One of the first questions I asked myself was, “Do I believe people come to work every day to make a difference and want to achieve some things during the day?” I didn’t take this question lightly, I searched my soul to come up with the answer. I really did believe people came to work to make a difference. OK, so if that is the case and they are not making a difference, and I am their manager, isn’t a lot of the reason they are not making a difference my fault, my responsibility to fix? What needs to be done? I then contemplated – What is my role as their manager to make sure they can make a difference each day. Here is what I came up with:
• Provide clear direction as to where we are headed – sounds like vision work, except it is specifically for the next year, and it lines up with the vision of the organization.
• Encourage the team.
• When the group needed something from me – I would take care of it immediately even if it meant I missed a meeting with the other managers. After all wasn’t that my job to make sure the group was successful?
• Make sure they are properly trained to do the job.
• Protect them from outside influences who are trying to steal their time and attention.
• Trust them and let them own their processes.
• Be a manager when I need to, but a leader the rest of the time.
To put this into perspective I had a wide variety of skills in my group. Technical Designers, Structural Design Engineers, Analysis Engineers, Manufacturing Engineers, Tooling Engineers, Process Engineers, Lean Consultants, Computing Services, coordination of all organizational meetings and Communications. All these groups reported to me, but each had functional fathers who still wanted to control them and their careers.
During October each year I sat down and looked at everything we had achieved during the year. I looked at what hurdles we had coming at us the next year and then I looked at the potential I saw in the group. From this exercise I wrote a summary document that stated the results of the above exercise. It was intended to celebrate all they had accomplished, let them know what was coming, and challenge them to achieve even more the next year. When I finished this document, I called them into a conference room and went over it with them. I then asked them to take it, read it, and talk amongst themselves and the following week we would get back together to discuss their thoughts. They had three options: do none of what I proposed, do what I proposed, or a lot of times they would amaze me and come back with more than I could have imagined. It is still October and we have a couple months to finalize what we are going to commit to do for the following year. We would take each project and break it down into a charter. A charter was a form we created which documented each project. It included:
• Task Title
• Owner – team leader
• Team members
• Current Condition
• Target Condition
• Major Milestones
• Status symbol – green was on track, Yellow meant behind schedule, and red meant “HELP”
As a team, they would decide who the team leaders were going to be and write up the background, current condition and target condition.
Once the team leaders were in place, they presented each charter to the team during a follow-up meeting. Each person was asked to pick the top three teams they would like to be on next year. We would pin the charters on the wall and they would put a post-it with their name on it next to each charter they wanted to be on, or none at all. As a group we then filled the teams with team members. Some teams may only need 4 people on it, so as a group we would discuss and pick the members. It is now November and we had the team charters in place with clear direction on what we were going to accomplish during the next year with team members identified. Now they can write up their performance commitments for the following year. The last task the team leaders would do for that year was to schedule the meetings and get it on everyone’s calendar, starting in January. These teams were all improvement teams that were going to make our group better. This was in addition to their normal jobs.
I learned a couple of important lessons during this time.
1. The people who reported to me were smarter than me, especially in the areas they were working.
2. Trust them to get to the right decision, even if you know the first idea won’t work. I was amazed how many times their second or third try was way better than I could have ever come up with.
3. Make sure they get all the credit for what they have achieved.
4. When they come to you to help them fix a problem, ask them three or four questions. Most of the time their answers would lead them to the right decision or at least right direction and they still owned the problem.
5. Know your people, if they are having a bad day, let them have a bad day. Unless it becomes a norm, let it go.
6. Let people know that when a mistake is made it is a great lesson for the whole group to learn from. We would look at it, see where the process let us down, fix it as a team and move on. There was no holding it against people. Mistakes are where we learn and get better.
7. When the people own their processes they take pride in them and make sure they run smoothly.
8. Always allow people to bring their work related issues to you. When people have a problem and come to you, let them express their problem in their own terms. If they are mad let it come out mad. Your job, as a manager, is to hear where the problem /opportunity is and not the way the problem was presented to you.
9. When your group brings you a problem, take immediate action and fix it, don’t put it on the back burner. After all what is more important to you than taking care of your group so it can run smoothly.
10. Always be honest and open with them. Tell them what you know, that is ok to pass on. They may not like it but they need to hear it from you, and they will hear it from someone. Be sympathetic and help them to work through it.
I’m sure there are more, but these are the few that stuck in my mind.
I was always amazed at how much time managers spent in meetings and were not available to their groups. I was a lead for years and after I became a manager I made sure that I was not that type of manager. It helped that technically I knew what was going on and could get up to speed quickly on any problem that presented itself. I guess that was why I didn’t need to hide in meetings all day long. My job was to help the group be successful and the very best they could be. That meant I needed to trust them and lead them the majority of the time. I was able to lead 90% of the year and act as a manager when I needed to. I don’t see any reason why others can’t work towards this goal also, it just takes focus on the future and knowing that your people are smart at what they do and want to make a difference. Give them the chance to prove it to you and watch your group excel.