Characteristics of a Leader and Good Leader Qualities
Moving into Management
You’re respected by people inside and outside of your group. When there are hard problems to be resolved, you’re the person who makes things work on time and under budget.
More than once, you’ve pulled a complete miracle out of your hat. And when the team needs a new manager or team lead, you’re the person at the top of the list.
Unfortunately, the skills that make a good technical staff member do not always translate well to management. How do you make the leap?
There are a lot of pitfalls for people making the leap from technician to a manager or team lead. A typical scenario is the IT hero syndrome:
You know that you can do things better, so you do them yourself.
You get frustrated with your team members because they aren’t pulling their weight.
The situation deteriorates as you assign yourself more and more of the difficult work.
You spend so much time solving technical problems, you fail to provide leadership to your team.
You make yourself the indispensable person—right up until the moment you burn out.
It is one of the ironies of life that just as you really get good at a job, you are promoted to a new level of responsibility requiring skills that you may or may not have developed.
Most companies do not have a new manager training program to teach you how to step up to the next level, and experienced managers may not remember how difficult it is to make the transition.
In this blog, I will share some of the tips and skills that I have learned the hard way, by transitioning from a solid performer to a team manager and explain the characteristics of a leader and good leadership qualities. There are a lot of resources available to help you make the transition.
Your entire world has changed. You are no longer judged by how elegantly you can resolve a technical puzzle. Now you are judged by how effectively your team can make the environment work to the benefit of the whole organization. This blog is all about proving that you are an exception to the Peter Principle.
Peter Principle People in an organization tend to rise to their level of incompetence.
Right from the Start
Today’s tech world is more fast-paced than at any other time in history. You should know; you have been part of what keeps that world humming. The rule of thumb is that you have 90 days to define how your term as a manager will evolve.
During this time, you set a tone and communicate expectations to your team and to your superiors. You can fix mistakes later, but it is much harder, and there will be a tendency to backslide into the rut established in the first 90 days.
The first 90 days of your new job are a project. Approach this project with a plan. You don’t have a plan if you just have a vague idea of how you want things to be. You have a plan when you have written down specific goals and timelines. Then you make yourself accountable for carrying out your plan by presenting it to your manager.
This is scary stuff, especially for a new manager
Every team and every situation is different, but they tend to fall into a few larger categories:
Your team is a successful team with a history and established procedures. Your role is envisioned as continuing the successful policies of the past. Any stumble or bobble will be viewed as a sign of weakness in the new manager.
Your team has had problems in the past. There may be interpersonal tensions, and you may be replacing someone who was fired. Maybe the team is doing something well, but it is not aligned with the rest of the organization. Your role is to turn the team around, and the clock is ticking.
Your team is new, either in a new organization or filling a new role in an existing organization. Your role may not be entirely defined, and there may not be any procedures in place for even the simplest functions.
You’ll have a brief honeymoon period, but then you will face divergent expectations from different stakeholders, who will want you to fix their most pressing problem. Now.
Teams all require similar things, but there is no way to put them all in place at the same time. You only have 24 hours in your day, and you should not use them all at work. You have to prioritize your goals. What does your team needs most?
Just to emphasize: you have to prioritize what your team needs. Not what you feel most comfortable with. Not your greatest technical strength. Not the most interesting technical project. What your team needs.
Characteristics of a Good Leader
There may be several of your team members who saw themselves in the team manager role. They may resent that you were given the job instead—regardless of whether you came from outside or were promoted from within.
The hard part is that you have to earn your team’s respect. What makes this even harder is that this type of interpersonal dynamic does not come naturally to many skilled technical people. There is no easy way to get peoples’ respect. But there are some characteristics that go a long way toward earning it:
Be fair-minded. Put yourself in the other person’s shoes. Try to understand how things look from the other side of the fence. You don’t have to give in to their demands, and you don’t have to adopt their worldview, just understand and respect it. This applies to your subordinates, your management, and your customers.
Be honest. This includes telling people what you intend to do, setting reasonable expectations, and coming clean when you mess up or when you are not going to be able to deliver as promised.
Be ethical. There will be many opportunities to take advantage of your employer or your subordinates. Don’t. You have an internal compass; you know what is right and what is not. Do the right thing. Even if it makes people mad at you, they will respect you for sticking to your guns.
Be approachable. Your subordinates and customers are going to see problems before you do. How are you going to find out about these problems if you don’t make yourself available, physically and emotionally, for them to talk to you?
Have clear expectations. Your team is made of professionals who want to make things work the right way. The manager’s job is to provide a clear set of expectations that your technical staff can meet.
Recognize achievement. How will your team understand what you want, if you don’t point it out when they do it?
Identify and resolve failures. Problems don’t just disappear; they fester. Take them on, find a resolution, and fix them.
Being the boss is different from being a good team member. You are not just another teammate anymore. It is your job to set the direction, strategy, and tone for the team.
If you aren’t willing to make the tough decisions, they aren’t going to be made. If you don’t keep your team’s respect, they will fight against the decisions you have to make. But if you don’t trust your team members, you will not inspire them to reach their potential.
GOOD LEADERSHIP IS ABOUT BALANCE
Set standards, but allow flexibility for team members to exercise their strengths.
Emphasize delegation and collaboration.
Be accessible, but maintain discipline.
Be decisive, but make the decisions after you understand the situation. Recognize that one of your team members may know more than you do—don’t be afraid to ask questions.
Make the tough decisions, but be humane and fair. Leaders lead. They don’t hide from responsibility.
Simplicity is almost always better than complexity.
Develop a healthy respect for Murphy’s Law. If something can go wrong, have a way to recover from it.
Establish reliable, repeatable processes. Good processes help your team do jobs consistently and well. Then look for ways to improve those processes.
Challenge the status quo and look for ways to improve the environment.
Many decisions that you will face as a manager have to be made quickly, in the heat of the moment. You may not have all the information you want before you have to make a decision.
Weak leaders wait until they have every last bit of information before proceeding on anything. Unfortunately, by the time they have the information they need, the opportunity has passed by.
There will be times when you have to make a decision without having enough information. Here are some questions you can ask yourself to focus your thinking before making a decision.
Is there more relevant information that can be obtained quickly? You will never have all the information, and you will only rarely have the optimal amount of information to make the best possible decision.
What are the downside risks of the different options? If the risks are too great, you may need to decide to delay your final decision. ( Just remember that deciding to delay is itself a decision that has its own set of downside risks.)
What is driving a quicker decision? Are there real priorities being expressed or just a preference for action?
When you do make a decision, own it. Part of being a leader is accepting the consequences of your decisions.
After the decision is made and the impact of your decision is known, circle back to look at the decision itself and the process used to make it. Were there better options?
What additional information would you have needed to choose the other option? Are there ways to make adjustments to improve the situation? Are there ways that you can start gathering information now to make other, similar decisions better in the future?
Good leaders model the behavior they request from their team members. For example, if you ask for punctuality, be punctual. If you ask team members to deliver their commitments on time, deliver your commitments to them on time. If you ask for responsiveness, be responsive.
One of the quickest ways to lose your team’s respect is to be seen as a hypocrite. You are asking your team to work hard; work at least as hard. You are asking them to think outside the box; be innovative in helping your team accomplish its tasks.
You are a member of your team. Granted, you have a unique role within the team. But your team members will expect you to live up to the expectations that you set for other team members.
We technical people like to make fun of marketers. Dilbert creator Scott Adams has made a mint from comic strips showing marketers in a bad light. But they may have something to teach us. Identify the characteristics you want your team to embody. Then market your team in terms of those characteristics. Message relentlessly.
Messaging is different from nagging. Don’t walk around pointing at everything that is not the way you want it to be. Instead, recognize excellence. Send team emails congratulating a team member for exemplifying one or another characteristic that you consider important (and cc your boss on those emails).
Catch people doing the right thing, and thank them for it. Write things on whiteboards. Put up posters. When you talk about your team, describe your team as you want it to be.
Above all, never give up. Continue to message about your team every chance you get. If people make fun of you for it, laugh along with them because sometimes it does seem a little silly. Then get right back to it.
But the most effective messaging is the message you send by your own example. When you define a character as being important, your personal behavior should be a sterling example of that characteristic.
The Principle of Leverage
The key to effective management is leverage. You are only one person. To succeed and accomplish anything really great, you need to motivate and train your team to accomplish far more than you can achieve by yourself. For a lot of technical managers, this is a hard thing to learn.
After all, you may have been put into the leadership position precisely because you are more adept technically than the rest of the team. The challenge is to bring the team up to your standard.
Think of yourself as a seed crystal. Team members will gravitate to structure. Provide a reasonable way for the rest of the team to fit as part of a durable whole.
This will involve mentoring, training, and a heck of a lot more time and effort than it would take for you to just do the job yourself. But that’s what it means to be a leader, not just a really good tech.
This does not mean that you should become a micromanager. In fact, you have to avoid becoming a micromanager. Follow up with your direct reports to check on their progress.
Make sure they are not facing obstacles they can’t overcome. But don’t hover. If your team members don’t have the space to try things out and even make mistakes, they will not grow. If they don’t grow, that means that you fail.
It can be even harder to make this transition if you have to fill both your old and new positions at the same time. This is not uncommon, especially if you are promoted from within and have to backfill your old position.
Separate the thought patterns you need to carry out your old responsibilities from those you need for your new position. Work to transition out of your old responsibilities as well as you can, as quickly as you can.
One of the toughest parts of leading a team is getting everyone marching in the same direction. You can try to just give orders. Good luck with that.
To really be effective, you need to get your team members to buy into what you are trying to accomplish. When you can get your team members using their individual skills to accomplish a single goal, you have become a good leader.
For you to get your team moving in the right direction, you have to develop a habit of transparency. Without transparency, your team will not have a good understanding of why they are doing what they are doing, and what the priorities are.
If they do not understand their role in the overall scheme of things, they will be forced to wait for you to tell them what to do next. This is not where you need to be.
In a transparent environment, solutions to difficult problems may come from people who have different points of view and different skill sets. A good solution is much more likely to emerge in a collaborative environment. If the manager is the only one proposing ideas, the team is in serious trouble.
When the entire team is involved in the planning process, they become invested in the project. The team members understand the reasons for the different steps in the plan, and they will have a better idea of how to react to unexpected issues that may arise.
Micromanaging is horribly inefficient. When a manager relies on micromanaging rather than transparency, team members will frequently freeze in place waiting for instructions before proceeding.
In a team where transparency has become a habit, people will be able to think and reason for themselves and will be able to select an appropriate course of action.
Your team needs to be productive. It can’t be fully productive unless they understand what they are doing and have the freedom to execute the task appropriately.
Effective managers operate in a different space than team members do. Team members typically need to focus on the details of a finite number of discrete tasks, while a leader needs to understand the shape of the overall problem.
The key is to communicate the scope of the problem and the approach to solving the problem so that the individual contributors can tie their efforts together.
Enabling Your Team Members
One of the most useful things you can do as a manager is to clear roadblocks out of your team’s way. Find out what is keeping your team members from doing a better job, and help them fix it.
Help team members communicate tricks and tips among themselves. Recognize team members who enable their teammates to do a better job. Ask your team members to provide their best work, and recognize them when they do.
Problems Caused by Poor Leadership
A team is more than a group of talented people. A team is formed to work together to accomplish a goal. If the talented individuals do not have a clear direction, each will make decisions based on what that particular person knows.
When a team has a weak leader, everyone only understands a small piece of the overall project or environment.
Here are some common reactions to weak leadership:
Inaction. Someone may be afraid of doing the wrong thing and do nothing at all while waiting for instructions. Progress grinds to a halt.
Individual judgment. Someone may proceed based on an understanding of a small piece of the puzzle and cause problems elsewhere in the project.
Conflicting priorities. Team members may work on tasks in an order that does not match the organization's needs; this results in project delays or an unstable environment.
The leader’s responsibility is to help the team members to see how their particular part fits into the overall whole. A good leader helps his team understand the end goal, how every contribution is important to achieving the goal, and why the goal is important.
In short, a good leader inspires and organizes the team to work together to help the organization meet its overall goals.
The Core Challenges
You don’t have a lot of time to make the necessary changes. In most environments, you may have 90 days to get your team working toward a common plan and achieving real results. If you haven’t made measurable progress toward your end goals by then, you are in trouble.
Management guru Michael Watkins categorizes the key challenges facing a new manager as being the following.
Promote yourself. Your company has promoted you. Now you need to promote yourself. Break away from your old thought patterns. Make the transition to thinking like a manager. If you don’t do this at the beginning of your tenure, it will be increasingly difficult to do it later on.
Learn fast and well. Learn as much as possible about the organization as quickly as possible. This includes information about what the company does, and how the company does it. It also includes information about the company culture, and how it affects the overall company mission.
Identify the right strategy. Every job is different. Don’t stick slavishly to a plan, even one that worked somewhere else. Come up with a plan that will work here and now. If your initial plan is not going to work, change it so that the new plan has a ghost of a chance of working.
Achieve early wins. Early wins build team momentum and credibility. You will need both to tackle your team’s challenges going forward.
Negotiate success. Manage your boss’s expectations. Present a 90-day plan to your boss, identify the early wins you expect to accomplish and negotiate what success will mean for those early wins.
Align. Work with your boss, your peers, and your partners to make sure that your team is pulling in a direction that helps the overall company mission.
Build your team. Evaluate your team’s members. You have to pick the right structure for your team. And you have to select the right people for the right slots.
Create coalitions. Just as your team needs to work together to really get things done, your team needs to fit into the larger landscape for the company to move forward. Identify people whose support you need, and figure out how to work together with them.
Keep your balance. There is a lot to do, more than you actually can do. Prioritize. Keep your sense of perspective. And remember what your overall goals are.
Transition to others. The faster you can get your direct reports, your bosses, and your partners used to how things work now, the faster you can start to achieve the results you were hired to achieve.
We discussed the challenge of promoting yourself in the previous section. Keep the other challenges in mind while reading the rest of the blog, especially when working on your 90-day plan.
Avoid mistakes by engaging your team and listening to them. Instill a sense of discipline about verifying and validating. Have the right information before you make a decision.
CONSEQUENCES OF POOR MANAGEMENT
Kenneth Brill of the Uptime Institute reports that only a third of data center failures are caused by equipment failures. Of the remainder, 70% are caused by management decisions or management inaction.
When you are a team member, you may cause problems by making a mistake. When you are in charge of the environment, the types of mistakes you can make are magnified. That is why most serious problems are ultimately caused by management decisions.
Your Transition Plan
Congratulations! You’re in charge. Or are you?
When you start a new leadership position, you do not have the luxury of a settling-in period. Given the pace of the modern IT environment, pausing to catch your breath would be a deadly mistake.
At the same time, you can’t do everything all at once. Your team may not know you or at least does not know you as a leader. The team is not yet the well-oiled execution machine that you will build later. The team is still a bunch of people trying to figure out who the new boss is, and what the boss wants.
Depending on the history of the group, some of your team members may not have your best interest or even the best interest of the company at heart. You have to lay the groundwork to get the team moving in the right direction.
Start by focusing on a few early wins. This will teach the team how you like to operate, get them used to achieve within that framework, and buy you some breathing room from your own boss.
Identifying early wins depends on what you learn about the environment, what your boss expects of you, and the direction you want to take the team. Select early win tasks that address all three issues. This is not the time to pick a fight.
A change in leadership is a tremendous opportunity for the organization to make needed changes in direction.
But it is also a time when the incoming leader is vulnerable. The new boss has not had time to develop the working relationships or loyalty needed to make the team work effectively.
Be aware of the vulnerability, but don’t be captured by it. Embrace the opportunity.
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In your first 90 days, you have to build your team, and learn to make your team work well within the overall organization.
One of the most critical drivers for your team’s success will lie in the decisions you make about how to structure your team. You have to decide on an appropriate structure for the team, and who will fill which roles within it.
The earlier you make these decisions, the more you will be able to leverage the changes during your first critical 90 days.
The irony is that you may need to make these decisions after insufficient time to learn about the people in your team, and what their strengths and weaknesses are.
So you will have to gather as much high-quality information as you can, as quickly as you can. Interview team members personally. Speak with key stakeholders in other groups to get insight.
But don’t get caught up in the echo chamber of the first person to catch your ear. Sometimes the most insight is held by the members of the team who are least likely to speak up. You have to gather the information quickly, but also filter the bad information from the good.
Besides building your team from within, you also need to be building relationships with other supporting teams. Your team needs to fit into the landscape of the overall organization.
Some of the people you are supervising may be jealous of your new position, especially if you are promoted to supervise people who were once your peers. Expect that your leadership will be challenged.
Meet those challenges with firmness, fairness, and decency. If some people in your organization simply will not accept you as the leader, they will need to be moved out of your organization, the sooner the better.
The way you meet these challenges will set the tone for your tenure as the leader of the team. Grasp each challenge as an opportunity to set the tone for your team as it will become.
Evaluate Your Team
If you have inherited an existing team, you need to speak with them as early as you can. You need to find out who does what, how each person works, and who is ready to follow directions.
You also need to find out who is willing to give you a chance. Some team members may not be happy with you as their new manager. Try to work it out, but be prepared to shift them out of your team if necessary.
Don’t let problems fester. There is a temptation to ignore problems, but they will get worse rather than better. Try to address issues head-on, usually in one-on-one discussions.
Explain your expectations and ask for a commitment. Make it clear that comments are welcome, and plans may be adjusted as the situation evolves, but the plan is the plan. The manager’s job is to define the plan; the team member’s job is to execute it.
Read the evaluations left by your predecessor, but take them with a grain of salt. Not all managers are entirely objective, and you need to be wary of evidence that the previous manager may have played favorites at evaluation time.
Take a look at the group dynamics to see how team members work together. Identify which strengths and weaknesses exist in the communication and interaction between team members.
You will need to identify which team members fall into which of the following categories:
Key player. Keep these people where they are.
Development project. This person isn’t quite there but shows potential. Work out a plan to develop it.
Move. This person might fit better in a different role.
Observe. You aren’t going to figure out everyone right away. Give yourself space to watch and think if you aren’t sure.
Replace eventually. This person should be replaced, but it can be done at the right time.
Replace immediately. Find a way to move this person out. This can either be someone who has an attitude problem that can’t be resolved or someone who is irredeemably incompetent.
The type of task that you select for an early win depends on the type of environment you have inherited. The strategy you employ needs to match the situation you find yourself in.
Even the definition of a “win” can shift over time. When you make your 90-day plan, present it to your boss. Get buy-in and define what success means, and how it will be measured.
Your boss, your peers, and your partners can also help align your priorities with the organization’s priorities. If you are succeeding at something that is less important to the overall organization, you are failing to reach your potential.
Some of your early wins may be organizational. Not all of these may be reportable to your boss, but you need to accomplish them to get your team off to a good start. Track these on your 90-day plan, and don’t let yourself get side-tracked from taking care of them:
Get to know your team. Talk to each of them. Find out who they are, what they like to do, and what they want to do.
Get acquainted with your colleagues. Find out how they work, and what their expectations are of your team.
Talk to your boss. Find out what your boss’s expectations are.
Find out how your team is currently structured.
Who does what? Who owns what?
If you haven’t gathered this information, it will be impossible for you to work on your first early win: Structure the team for success.
Structure the Team for Success
It may be the case that the team is already well structured. In that case, reinforce the parts of the structure that work. Assure the leaders that you like the work they have been doing, and encourage the staff members to continue.
It is more likely that there are some adjustments that need to be made. There may be someone on the team who is hoarding knowledge or interesting work.
There may be someone who is more interested in exercising authority than performing with excellence. Or there may be someone on the team with potential that has not been realized yet.
As an outsider, you have an advantage. People within a team see the work that they have always done, divided up the way they have always divided it. Based on your conversations with your peers and your boss, you have a view of the work that needs to be done, and what the priorities are.
When you restructure the team, you do not have to divide up the same work the same way and just reshuffle the names. You can take what you know about what needs to be done, add some tasks, de-emphasize some other tasks, and divide up the work in a way that matches up with the people best able to execute it.
Spread learning experiences and interesting work around as far as possible. Design and evaluation tasks should be spread among several people, not just always assigned to the same person. Teach your team to work together on these plum tasks, and those same work habits will carry over to the less fun work.
You will probably make some mistakes, so make it clear that responsibilities will rotate over time, as appropriate. Set an expectation that things are not set in stone.
Also make it clear that you expect success as a team, and that you value and reward teamwork. Just as your power comes from leveraging your team, your employees’ power comes from being part of a well-functioning team.
Defect Rates and Tracking Success
It is easy to claim early wins. Lots of people skate through their careers, claiming successes that they have not earned. You should be different: document your progress and track your successes.
Documenting and tracking progress needs to become second nature to your team. Set up a method for people to identify the work they are doing and to measure their success.
If you have a ticketing system, that is a good place to start. Work should be reflected on tickets, and the success of that work should be reported there. If you don’t have ticketing or work tracking system, implement one. That can be one of your early wins.
Whatever your team does, the key thing to measure is the defect rate. Defects are what trigger rework. Defects are counted differently for different disciplines, and you will need to define defects in a way that works for your team.
If you are gathering requirements, a defect would be having to circle back and redefine the requirement. If you are coding, a defect would be a bug (i.e., a failure to meet a requirement). If you are building a server, a defect would be having to go back and reconfigure something on the server.
What you want to see is the defect rate dropping over time. That doesn’t happen by itself. The way to lower the defect rate is to analyze the defects and implement processes and procedures to avoid them.
A better template for collecting requirements, a different type of code review process, or a more defined building process would be ways to correct the three types of defects we discussed earlier.
So, how do you track the defect rate?
It would be really cool if your team just collected and reported the defect rate, but that seems unlikely. Once you can convince your team of the power of tracking defects, you might be able to get them to do that.
Postmortems—On a Small Scale
One way of getting the team into the habit of tracking defects is to select work items (e.g., tickets) and ask your team members detailed questions about them. What were the time-intensive parts of that task?
Which parts were frustrating? What mistakes were made? What rework was needed? How could the process have been changed to avoid those problems in the future? This sort of questioning is sometimes called a postmortem.
This is a habit your team should get into, and one that they should be able to execute without you. But you may need to jumpstart the habit by interviewing your team members individually or in groups about what they are working on.
Take the time to listen and ask questions. You have an advantage that most managers don’t—you know the technology, or at least you know the technology well enough to ask penetrating questions.
Take notes about the defects in the process and the suggestions that are raised to help avoid them in the future. Circulate the suggestions in the group, and get suggestions from other group members.
Foster the conversation, and then stand back and let it happen. Assign someone to rank the suggestions, and assign the best ones to team members for implementation.
This is not magic. Postmortems are a common enough discipline, in the context of major undertakings. But if you look at your team’s work, most of it is done on a much smaller scale.
Postmortems on a selected sample of common work items can result in a large overall improvement in your team’s efficiency, and in your team’s morale. Nobody likes rework.
How do you track the defect rate over time? There are a couple of ways to approach it. If you can get to where defects are self-reported consistently, you can track the defect rate directly. You can also sample a certain number of tickets of a certain type each month and look at them for defects, then track the defect rate and report it.
Try to focus on work that is common and visible first. Those are the low-hanging fruit where your efforts will be most visible and have the best feedback effect by reducing the amount of time and effort your team spends executing them.
Once your team sees the power of postmortems, you will start to see team members executing them on their own. When you see that happening, you know that you have accomplished something.
Leveraging your team will not be possible without communication. Your team should become used to communicating in a few standard ways. There is a balance between execution and communication. If people spend all their time on inefficient communication, they will have less time for executing the work.
It is most effective to standardize on a few ways of communicating. These should have different purposes and should be used appropriately.
Face-to-face. In-person communication allows for faster transmission of information than other communications methods. Eighty percent of what is communicated face-to-face is nonverbal. Video conferencing can capture some of this nonverbal communication and may be a reasonable alternative when travel is not practical.
Voice. Telephone and conference calls allow for some of the nonverbal communication to take place. Tone and pacing can communicate as much as the actual words.
IM. Most companies specify an instant messaging standard. The advantage over email is immediacy because most people respond to IM more rapidly than email. On the other hand, that means people can spend all their time messaging rather than working. Mentor your team members on when to use IM to best effect.
SMS. This is similar to instant messaging but sent to a cell phone. I ask my team members to send me an SMS to notify me of an outage, or of a personal illness or emergency. That way, they can be reasonably sure that I will see their message right away.
Tickets. Ticketing systems can allow for work to be submitted, then executed by the next available team member. All work requests should be submitted by ticket, not email. With tickets, team members can see if someone else has picked up the ticket, and the requestor can track progress as long as the implementer updates the ticket.
Calendaring. I ask my team members to send their vacation and sick day requests by requesting a meeting on the calendar system. That way they have a way to track my approval, and I have a reminder of who is going to be out on which day. (This is in addition to the SMS to notify me if the person needs to take a sick day.)
From the beginning, set up expectations about how people should communicate. The expectations you set, in the beginning, will set the tone for the time you manage the group.
When senior executives were asked about the most influential positions they held in their careers, they typically pointed at positions that had involved major challenges. These included turnarounds, positions with significant new responsibilities, start-ups, or relocations overseas.
The fact is that we learn more from challenging assignments than easy ones. If you are coming into a challenging position, all the more reason to treat the transition seriously.
For a lot of technical managers, we tend to be stronger at technical challenges than at political or cultural challenges. Our impulse may be to focus on what we are strongest at and ignore challenges in the other domains.
It is counter-productive to ignore these challenges. There are some strategies for dealing with challenges that make us uncomfortable:
Self-discipline. You have gotten as far as you have because you are able to focus on unpleasant tasks. Recognize that political and cultural challenges are part of your job, develop a plan to take care of them, and devote the time to execute your plan.
Find mentors. You have developed relationships during your career. Many of those people can give you good advice about how to deal with the challenges that may not be up your alley, whether they are technical, political, or cultural.
But deal with these people from the mindset of your new position, not your old one. You will not succeed unless your mentors and friends see you in the light of your new position.
Build your team. Some members of your team may be able to help you with areas that are not a particular strength of yours. Ask them to assist you with these challenges, as opposed to avoiding challenges you would rather not face. Recognize that this is a skill you must develop to succeed.
You face expectations of several stakeholders. Your boss, your direct reports, and your internal customers all have needs and expectations. Your former boss may not be willing to let you go.
All of these expectations have to be managed, or they will eat you alive. If your former boss needs you to transition, set explicit expectations and deadlines. Your priority is your new job, not your old one.
With your new boss, sit down to develop a 90-day plan of action. Identify some specific milestones that your team will meet within that time frame, and specify what qualifies as success for each one.
Be aware that some people may not have your best interests at heart. People may be jealous or may be looking to dump responsibilities that they don’t want to carry anymore. Some may be looking for a fall guy for a long-festering wound.
Keep an eye out, and concentrate on the areas that you have actually been assigned. Make sure that expectations are documented and clear. And then keep your boss up to date about progress on those tasks as well as any challenges you are working through.
And when you set expectations, always err on the side of under promising and over delivering. Allow yourself a margin of error, whether it be in terms of money or time. Something will always go wrong, so you need to allow for that in your plans.
Managing Your Boss
Part of managing is managing up, not just down. You have to develop a good working relationship with your boss. Your boss is ultimately the person who will give you the resources to succeed. Fighting with your boss is almost never a good idea.
There are some key pitfalls to keep in mind as your relationship with your boss develops:
Stay in touch. You are responsible for keeping your boss up to date, not the other way around. Schedule regular one-on-one communication with your boss; otherwise other people in the organization will do your communicating for you. And you will almost certainly not like the results.
Come clean on problems. Nobody likes to be the bearer of bad news. But it is all going to come out any-way, so it is better to communicate early rather than late.
When you tell your boss about a problem, also explain what you are doing about it, and how and when you expect the problem to be resolved. If you handle this right, you can turn the problem resolution into one of your early wins.
Don’t lecture the boss. Your boss probably has a different working style from yours. You need to respect the difference and learn to work with it.
This doesn’t mean that you should try to mimic your boss’s style; you need to develop your own style. But learn your boss’s rhythms and how and when to communicate information and plans to fit into that style.
The relationship is your responsibility. Don’t expect your boss to make contact with you or ask you leading questions. You need to provide your boss with the information before your boss even knows that he or she needs it.
Negotiate expectations and timelines. Part of providing the information is providing updates and renegotiating expectations if necessary. It is obviously better to negotiate solid timelines and expectations up front, if at all possible.
Align with the boss’s priorities. Just like you expect your direct reports to follow through on the tasks you assign them, your boss expects you to work on issues according to the priorities you are given.
Be aware of your boss’s peer relationships. Your boss gets information about your team from several sources. Be aware of who else is feeding your boss information, and make sure that they know what you are doing to help them with their priorities. If your boss is getting mixed messages about you, it will only undercut your effectiveness.
Don’t touch the untouchables. There may be particular areas where your boss does not want you interfering. It is important to identify those as early as possible because it will be a waste of time and effort to take those on. You may have to rely on subtle cues like body language or the tone of a response to a query.
“Managing up” is one of the critical skills you will have to learn as a new manager. Observe how other managers interact with their manager. Tap into your network of mentors and friends for advice. Do whatever it takes to get this relationship right, or nothing else is going to work.
Drinking from the Fire Hose
Every new job brings new challenges, but new management jobs more than most. Not only do you have to learn a vast amount of information in a short amount of time; you are the one responsible for identifying and prioritizing what you need to learn so that you learn the most important things first.
Identify the most critical pieces of information you need, and then develop a plan for finding and verifying that information. If you just try to drink from the fire hose without structuring your learning efforts, you are not going to learn what you need to know in time to be able to use the information.
One key question that has to be answered is how things got to be the way they are. If you don’t learn the history of the group, you are likely to make the same mistakes that were already made.
The people who work for you are not stupid; they have probably tried a lot of different things. Maybe some of the things that look strange at first glance are just creative ways to work around an issue you may not realize that you have yet.
Admitting that you have to learn new information can be difficult. For some technical people, it can feel like an admission of weakness to admit that we don’t know everything yet.
But we have to deal with reality as it exists. And the reality is that we don’t know everything, and we have a lot to learn in a short amount of time. Pride is just going to get in the way.
On top of that, the denial that comes with pride can cause us to start to blame our team members for our own failings. Once that dynamic gets started, nothing good will come of it.
Accept that you have a lot to learn. You are going to have to ask for help. It is not weakness; it is a reality. Prioritize what you need to learn, make a plan, and get on with it.
What You Need to Find Out
There are several types of questions you need to be answered. Michael Watkins suggests several topics that you should explore when generating your list. Here are some of the questions I ask; you will need to create a list for your environment.
How have objectives been set for this team in the past
How well has this team met them?
Do people external to the team agree with that assessment?
Were the objectives appropriate? (Were the objectives too easy, or too hard?)
How was success measured?
What behaviors were encouraged by these measurements?
Which behaviors were discouraged?
What were the consequences if deliverables were late or of poor quality?
What are the root causes of this team’s successes?
What else contributed to those successes?
What caused or contributed to the team’s failures?
How has the environment contributed to the team’s success or failure?
Who has driven the changes that were attempted?
What changes have been suggested but not attempted? Why?
Is the stated strategy taking the organization in the right direction? Is it getting in the way? Or is it unclear?
Which team members have contributed to the successes and failures of the organization?
Can less capable team members be trained to fill bigger roles or to behave in ways that contribute to success?
Who can be trusted?
Who has influence within the organization?
How are the existing processes contributing to team success or failure?
Are there hidden surprises in your team’s environment that need to be addressed before they blow up?
Are there cultural or political landmines that need to be avoided?
What challenges does the organization face in the near term?
What long-term challenges does the organization face?
Are there opportunities that need to be exploited?
What barriers have prevented change?
Which teams are already performing at a high level?
Which capabilities do we need to develop?
Which aspects of our culture helped us to succeed or caused us to fail?
Who has the authority to make decisions? Is that a function of the person’s position, expertise, or personality?
What are actions within the organization perceived as creating value? Which are perceived as destroying it?
What structural or geographic culture differences exist within the organization?
How do different professional groups (managers, engineers, and support staff) interact with each other?
Where are the policies and procedures documented? How complete is that repository? Are staff members following standard procedures where possible?
These are the questions you need to answer for yourself. You can’t reasonably put these questions to everyone in the environment. But you can schedule the time to speak to individuals and ask them open-ended questions to get the information you need.
One problem to avoid is a bias toward the responses of the first people you interview. One technique for avoiding this problem is to start with the same script for everyone you interview.
For example, the answers to the following open-ended questions will get you a lot of the information you need. They will need to be customized for your environment:
What challenges do you see, either now or in the near future?
Where are these challenges coming from? Are the causes of internal or external?
What opportunities do you see that are not being exploited? What are barriers preventing them from being exploited? What do you see as the most important thing for me to focus on?
Keep notes, use the same script, and look for similarities and differences between the responses. This technique can be used (with different scripts, of course) to look at responses from your customers and peers as well as your team members.
Compare responses from people at the same level as well as looking at responses within the same vertical within the organization.
Some information may also be available from things such as employee or customer satisfaction surveys. If it is not, find a way to take the temperature of both your team and its customer base.
If a root cause analysis has been run on areas where the team has failed, you will also need that information. If it has not, you may need to convene a group to investigate the failure and suggest responses.
Conversations with Your Boss
One of your key constituents is your boss. You have to find out how your boss sees the situation to identify the early wins, align with the overall organization, and negotiate expectations.
Some key information that you need from your boss
Current situation. What are the characteristics of the environment as it exists today? Are you building it, are you continuing the success of a previous leader, or are major changes needed?
You may not end up agreeing with your boss’s diagnosis of the situation, but you will need to discuss that from a starting point of what the boss thinks today.
Expectations. How will your performance be measured? What specific milestones do you need to hit?
Style. How does your boss prefer to communicate? How should you present the information? What level of information does your boss want you to provide, and how frequently?
Resources. What do you need? How will you use it? When will the resources be needed? What is the impact of not getting some of the resources? (You may want to phrase this conversation in menu fashion, e.g.—“If you want x%, it will cost $y; a% will cost $b.”)
Personal development. How will your performance affect your growth within the organization? What is it you want, and how can your boss help you get it?
Not all of these questions should be addressed the first day. In fact, some of them require that you gather information beforehand or at least develop a level of trust between you and the boss.
In particular, the personal development conversation will need to wait until you have developed some trust with your boss, and hopefully after you have achieved some of your early wins.
These conversations will go better if you prepare beforehand. Your boss also needs to prepare, so agree to an agenda beforehand.
At different stages in your 90-day plan, you need to include activities to learn the environment so that you can steer your team in the right direction. Include your learning plan in your overall 90-day plan.
Here are some suggestions of the types of learning activities you can include for different stages of the 90-day plan.
Before Your First Day
Read external comments and articles by people who know your organization. Google is your friend. Look at write-ups in the annual report as well as news items and blog postings. Speak with your group’s suppliers or customers, if possible. Draft a script and look for commonalities and differences across these interviews.
If possible, speak with your predecessor. Depending on the situation, this may or may not be possible. Listen without being captured by the previous leader’s world view. You will bring your own perspectives and talents into the environment, so you may or may not end up agreeing with what the former leader has to say.
Speak with your new boss. Try to understand both the environment as well as the boss’s expectations for your team.
Generate hypotheses. Then identify ways that you can confirm or refute these hypotheses. These should make their way into the next phase of your 90-day plan.
Review the detailed internal information that was not available to you before starting. This may include items such as satisfaction surveys, the files of the people who work for you, and root cause analyses of problems.
Meet with each of your direct reports individually, and ask the questions from the script you developed in the last phase. Compare and contrast the responses, and use the information to adjust your hypotheses, and to develop the next round of scripts.
Talk to sales, customer service, and purchasing to see how they perceive your group. See if they can help you identify problems or opportunities to be exploited in your 90-day plan.
Ask people at different levels within the organization about the vision and strategy of the organization. Are the responses similar, or at least consistent? If your team is going to be successful, you need to be pulling in the same direction as the overall strategy, and the teams around you also need to be aligned.
Test your hypotheses about challenges and opportunities by checking first with lower-level people, and then use the same script at progressively higher levels within the organization. This will give you a feeling for how well information is filtering up.
At the end of your first week, discuss what you have found with your boss. Present your current hypotheses about challenges and opportunities, as well as your adjusted plan for the next phase.
Continue to follow up to confirm or refute the hypotheses you have developed. This will mean circling back to some of the people you have already spoken with, and it will mean requesting data to confirm or refute what you suspect is the situation.
Look at how people on the outside of your organization perceive you. When you ask questions to gather this information, start from the outside in. This will include people such as sales reps who are completely outside of the company, as well as your team’s internal customers.
Examine some of the key processes that your team is responsible for. How are requests received, how are requirements specified and determined, and how are requests executed?
Look for process improvements that will benefit both your customers and your team. Process improvements are usually fertile ground for early wins. Document these early wins for your boss; these will help you lock in the credibility you will need for harder changes you will need to make.
Find the old-timers and integrators within the organization. From them, you can learn organization history and why things are done the way they are. Maybe the processes are outmoded, but maybe there is a real reason for the way things are.
As you gather this information, update your hypotheses and your 90-day plan. Your 90-day plan cannot be viewed as a static document. Don’t let yourself get locked into your original hypotheses.
When you meet with your boss, present the changes you have made to your plan and explain why you made them. By this point, you should have identified some early wins, and hopefully even implemented some of them. Highlight these, and negotiate with your boss to identify the success criteria for each of these wins.
The second month needs to be where you start putting some of your changes into place and measuring the results. Ideally, you should have some early wins during the second month.
This is where metrics come into play. If you can’t measure and list your accomplishments, everyone will assume you are just mouthing words. For each of the changes you are putting into place, identify a way to verify and measure the effect of the changes.
At the 60-day mark, review your progress toward the overall 90-day plan, and make adjustments for the coming 30 days.
Don’t be too proud to change the parts of your plan that aren’t working the way you expected. Plans need to evolve to reflect the changing face of reality.
Matching the Strategy to the Situation
Broadly speaking, Michael Watkins identifies four major types of situations you may encounter as a new leader.
Start-up. You are building a new team, possibly entirely from scratch.
Turnaround. The team or organization is in serious trouble that must be fixed now.
Realignment. Move a once successful team into sync with the larger organizations goals and requirements.
Sustaining success. Take over the leadership of an already successful organization.
Each of these situations has unique characteristics. For example, start-ups and turnarounds require that the leader make difficult and critical decisions right away, possibly on the basis of inadequate information.
That same strategy would be wrong for a sustaining success or realignment situation, where the existing team has significant strengths that should be leveraged to meet new challenges.
Start-ups pose several paired challenges and opportunities. While you will not be encumbered by old, broken structures, you will have to build structures and documentation from scratch.
You can recruit your own team, but you will not have an experienced team to back you up. Your team will have to be mentored and fostered to develop the relationships, procedures, and lines of communication that will make it effective.
In a turnaround situation, it is likely that you are dealing with compressed time scales, limited resources, and a demoralized team.
On the other hand, there will be a recognition that changes are necessary, and it is likely that you will be given the necessary support to implement those changes.
As your changes start to bear fruit, you will be able to build momentum and support quickly. People want to be part of successful teams. On the other hand, the pressure for early wins is higher in a turnaround situation than in the others.
If you can’t start making measurable progress right away, the organization will bring someone in to clean up the turnaround situation you will be leaving behind.
In a realignment situation, you face a team that has been strong but is no longer contributing to the organization’s overall strategy. This type of situation can be tricky. On the one hand, there are strengths within the organization that can be used as a foundation for growth.
But there are also engrained ways of thinking and acting that are no longer as productive as they once were. Your job will be to convince your team, your peers, your customers, and your boss that the team needs to move in a different direction.
Start-up and turnaround situations require immediate decisions and action, but realignments need some careful thought. You don’t want to break what is working well. You also can’t have your team wasting energy bucking against the organization’s strategic direction.
This type of situation is both the easiest and the hardest type of environment to walk into. On the one hand, there is a strong culture in place that is accustomed to contributing to the health of the overall organization.
On the other hand, it is very difficult to get the credibility to make the changes that will need to be made as the organization evolves. Complacency is a tough foe to vanquish.
As you build your team, keep an eye out for some common types of management failure. Be honest with yourself; if you have any of these problems, they will not go away on their own.
It will require a concentrated effort to overcome them. It will be easier to resolve these issues in your first 90 days than later. Spend the time and energy to resolve them now.
Unclear direction. Your staff needs to understand what your priorities are, and how they fit into the overall organization's direction. When people don’t understand the priorities, or why the priorities are what they are, they will waste a lot of time on unproductive work.
When people understand why they are being asked to do something, they will be empowered to make the right decisions and to spend their energy in the right direction.
Living in the past. It may be that your team is doing things that made sense some time ago, but don’t match the way things are now. This is common in environments that have undergone significant growth, where people try to apply a small group mindset to a data center environment.
Complacency. Things have been going okay, but people have stopped looking for ways to improve the environment. Your competition is not sleeping, and you should not be sleeping either.
Change fatigue. Teams can only digest so much change at a time. If everything is changing at once, the team’s members will lose focus. Mistakes and shoddy workmanship will result.
No consequences for poor performance. A symptom of this is when there are a lot of oddball report-ing relationships that are left in place to avoid hurting peoples’ feelings. Sometimes emotions are necessary.
They aren’t easy, and should not be undertaken without trying to mentor the person to fix the problem. On the other hand, you cannot tolerate poor performance, or your good performers will not see the incentive to keep pushing.
Inadequate delegation. When managing a turnaround situation, or when training inexperienced staff, the manager may need to be more involved in the beginning. But the expectation needs to be that the manager manages by delegating work to the team members, and the team members execute the work.
The lines get muddied a bit if you are expected to be a “working manager” or “team lead” for a small group, but delegation is important. Assign responsibility along with the task, and try to foster a sense of ownership among your team members.
Unclear communication. Set expectations, set them clearly, and set them in a standard way. Follow up and ask questions to ensure that the team member understood what you were asking for. Track assignments, and make sure that deliverables come back with what you expected.
Selecting Your Early Wins
When you are planning out your early wins, it is important to recognize that they are stepping stones into the future. You have to pick early wins that will be templates for what you want to accomplish and how you want to accomplish it in the future.
You can’t improve everything at once. The focus is important, so you will need to pick wins that matter, either in isolation or as part of a larger win that is coming later. If you spread your attention across too many areas of focus, you are not focusing on anything.
Wins should be something that matters both to your plans and to the overall organization. Emphasize to your team that business alignment is a key part of measuring success.
If your boss or the organizational culture does not recognize your wins as important, they will not garner you the credibility you need. That is why it is critical that you sell your proposed wins to your boss as part of your 90-day plan, and that you are selecting things that will be seen as legitimate wins within your team and throughout the organization.
The process is important too. If you accomplish the goal, but you don’t use it to set up the processes you want, you have wasted an opportunity. Early wins are important for building momentum, team morale, and credibility, but they are most important for setting up future changes in processes, strategy, skills, and structure in future waves of change.
Early wins have to be selected and executed with the bigger picture in mind. Early wins are most valuable as learning opportunities. The tasks leading up to the wins are your opportunity to get the team working together with the way you need them to work together going forward.
As you are selecting items for early wins, look for structural, strategic items that can be put in place to make your team work more effectively. If you can implement something to replace or optimize manual processes that will pay off in spades later on.
Your Team’s Transition
Your direct reports will need to work with you in your new role. Help them to make the same transition you are making with your own boss.
The steps are basically the same as what you need to carry out with your boss but in reverse. Make things easier for them. Reach out, schedule time, and make yourself available. Structural items such as regular planning meetings in small groups can help create the team identity you are trying to create.
Get to know your team members, and let them know that they are valued. Identify their strongest characteristics, compliment them on those characteristics, and think of ways that you can assign work to take advantage of their strengths.
Everyone likes to be valued; value your employees. Make them look good, and they will make you look good.
Communicate your expectations clearly. Be fair. Be available. Be the kind of boss you would like to have.
The New Boss’s To-Do List
Helping your people get used to you involves a lot of the same things that we listed earlier on how you should learn to work with your new boss:
Stay in touch. Make yourself accessible to your team members, and schedule time with each of them. You will need to spend a lot of time with them early so they can learn how you like things done.
Teach them that they can trust you with problems. Nobody likes to report a problem to the boss. Don’t shoot the messenger. Teach your team that you want to have problems reported to you. But also teach them that you want them to report possible solutions at the same time they report the problem (“I see XYZ, and I think ABC would help”).
Learn your people’s working styles, and learn to fit them into your team’s work. Different personality types are needed for different types of tasks; assign work intelligently.
Take responsibility for the relationship. Don’t let resentments fester. Discuss them. You are the boss and never forget it. That doesn’t mean you are perfect, or that all the decisions you make are optimal. Learn to listen, and consider what is said. You may not agree with it, but most people appreciate being heard out, even if the decision goes against them.
Lay out expectations and priorities clearly. This includes timelines, as well as concrete deliverables.
State your untouchables clearly. You have some bottom lines about what you expect, things that you will not compromise on. Communicate those clearly and explicitly, and label them as non-negotiable.
The 90-Day Plan
Your 90-day plan will be a living document. Include your early wins, as well as the steps you are taking toward the longer-term changes you will put into place. Include your learning plan, and report the results to your boss.
Throughout your first 90 days, update your plan and review it with your boss. Make sure your boss understands what wins you have logged, what challenges you have overcome, and what plans you have for facing other challenges within the organization.
The exact format for your 90-day plan depends on what you and your boss decide is a good way to capture your observations and goals. It could be a spreadsheet, or a project plan, or a text document. The key is that it captures and documents your priorities for your critical first 90 days.
You will probably want to have a few different versions of your 90-day plan. These can be maintained by using a filtering function on a spreadsheet or a project plan, or they can be separate documents. You may want to keep versions of your 90-day plan for different audiences.
Yourself. This can be the most detailed version of your plan and can include specific action items for developing your relationship with different team members.
Your boss. This version should be geared toward the meetings you have with your boss to track your progress. Your boss does not want to know every detail, just your progress toward your goals, and the areas where you need air cover, a decision, or executive support.
Your team. Your team should understand where you plan on taking them. State and restate your goals. Publish them. Make sure that your plan reflects your priorities, and then engage your team to work the plan.
The organization. Your peers and other related groups need to understand what direction you are going. Sell them on the advantages of what you are doing, and publish your progress, so they can see what your team is working toward.
The 90-day plan can provide a focus and agenda for your regular discussions with your boss. It will help keep you aligned with what the boss wants, the organization needs, and what you want to accomplish as the leader of your team.
When you were a team member, you managed your own time. You probably did a pretty good job at it; you were effective enough to be seen as a leader.
As a manager or team lead, you suddenly have a whole new set of challenges. Now you no longer manage just your own time; you have to make sure your direct reports’ time is being used effectively as well.
The Multitasking Myth
Before you can help your employees conquer their time management demons, you have to vanquish your own.
The key to managing your time effectively is to develop good habits. You are a human being, and you have limitations.
As a techie, you are very familiar with what happens when a system context switches. When a computer switches contexts from one task to another, the CPU dumps its cache, loads the new context into the cache, and starts scheduling tasks for execution.
In a lot of ways, that is exactly what happens inside of your head when you are interrupted and are forced to context switch. You “lose track” of where you were in the original task, and you have to spend time syncing back up when you go back to what you were doing.
There is overhead associated with switching your mindset to deal with the new task. You know that it is true if you are honest with yourself. Study after study shows that context switching comes with a performance penalty, whether you are talking about a silicon or an organic computer.
Multitasking is a myth. At best, you are time slicing, where you move rapidly between tasks, pushing each of them just a little further along. Because of the context-switching overhead, it takes longer to get everything done with multitasking than if you handle tasks sequentially.
The exceptions to the “no multitasking” rule are tasks that have a long lead time. Examples would be starting purchasing paperwork that will take a long time to complete, downloading large files, and requesting information that won’t come back for a while.
In those cases, get the tasks kicked off, set reminder tasks for yourself to follow up, and move on to something else.
It would be a beautiful world if you could somehow schedule all your work to run sequentially. Good luck with that. I’ve never seen an environment where that was actually possible. But you can control how frequently you have to switch contexts. That is a huge win all by itself.
You are going to face interruptions. That is a reality, so we have to develop habits and techniques to work around interruptions.
Scheduling, Calendars, and To-Do Lists
Before you can get your arms around how to schedule your day better, you have to be honest about what you actually do. One technique is to log your time every few minutes through a “typical” business day. The data you gather can help you identify where your time is actually going.
As human beings, we spend an astonishing amount of time trying to remember the next task we need to work on and prioritize our work. Two tools have been time-tested and proven to help you organize your work: calendars and to-do lists.
Before you go too far, you need to designate a single repository for your scheduling information. Modern technology is wonderful. It is relatively easy to set up a computer-based calendar that will sync to your phone (or PDA), so the same calendar and to-do information is available to you on multiple platforms, wherever you are.
If you work around this capability by setting up multiple calendars and to-do lists, you are just working against yourself.
The real key is to develop habits. You should have a routine every day that involves reviewing the work for today on the calendar and your to-do list. This routine needs to become a habit that you execute without even thinking about it.
Your office probably has a calendaring standard. It makes the most sense to adopt this standard because it will let you check other peoples’ schedules when you are setting up meetings and appointments. Sync this calendar to your handheld device one way or another; you always need your calendar with you.
Make sure that your calendar reflects your priorities. Each day, look at what is on your calendar. If there are meetings or items that do not align with your priorities, arrange to move, cancel, or redefine them.
To-Do Lists and Ticketing Systems
To-do lists are different from calendars. You have a certain number of high-priority tasks that have close deadlines, but no specific time associated with them. Where possible, move these tasks onto either your calendar or one of your subordinates’ calendars. (If you delegate a task, you need to add a task for yourself to follow up and check the status.)
To be effective, to-do lists need to be short. They also need to be reviewed every day. Block out time every day at the beginning of the day to structure your to-do list. Move tasks onto a calendar, and prioritize the tasks.
The key here is to develop a habit of setting up your to-do list every day, as your first task.
This may mean that you process it before you travel into the office, or it may mean that you kick everyone out of your office or cube for the first 10 minutes you are at work. This has to be part of your daily schedule, and it has to be right at the beginning.
The key to a successful to-do list of any sort is prioritization. There are a few different schemes for prioritizing things, but sometimes simplest is best. The two most useful and flexible ways to prioritize are either to list items in strict priority order or to assign items to priority buckets (P1, P2, P3, etc.).
Priority lists are usually most useful when considering a relatively small number of items. For a handful of items, it is useful to decide in what order the items will be addressed. But when you get to more than ten items or so, comparing the relative merits of every two items on the list starts to take more time than it is worth.
For longer lists of items, it can help to sort them into buckets. This will only work if you take a very hard look at items that are categorized as P1 and P2. Most items need to be categorized P3 or below.
You can assign priority definitions as is useful in a particular case. Some common definitions would be as follows:
P1. Needs to be addressed immediately. (For example, a customer-facing production system is down and needs to be recovered.)
P2. Needs to be addressed as soon as possible. (For example, a system has a failing component, and maintenance needs to be scheduled in the next available maintenance window.)
P3. Urgent, but can be scheduled in conjunction with other priorities.
P4. Important, but can be scheduled when convenient.
P5. Planning and analysis underway to determine an appropriate priority.
The best to-do list is a ticketing system.
It is easy to delegate tasks by assigning them to someone's queue.
You can track completion and progress. (A key to that is to enforce discipline on people keeping their ticket queues in shape.)
Customers can assign you tasks without walking over and interrupting you.
Your boss can see what you are doing.
It allows people to schedule tasks in an optimal way, rather than working on an interrupt basis.
If you can get the discipline of a ticketing system going, it will save tremendous amounts of time. If you do not have a ticketing system in place, this needs to become part of your 90-day plan.
There are many structural advantages to having a ticketing system. Customers know that they can make a request, and it won’t be forgotten or buried. There is accountability because you know exactly how long it has been since the ticket was opened or actioned. And it becomes very easy to run reports to see what peoples’ workload is, and what they are working on.
Every good boss I have worked for has needed a way to check on what my team is doing. A ticketing system allows us to set up a canned report that he can click on to see workload, outstanding tasks, and which team members have accomplished what tasks in the last week.
This is a huge time saver for everyone, and totally removes the need for me to spend hours generating reports on peoples’ activity.
And because we are disciplined about adding all our work into the ticketing system, it becomes much easier to write up annual reviews, because I can generate a summary of tickets completed to remind myself what each person worked on.
Here are the keys to making the ticketing system work for you rather than being just one more chore:
Every person reviews his assigned tickets at least twice during the day, at the beginning and near the end of the day.
Every task that takes more than a few minutes to execute gets a ticket. (If your ticketing system takes more than a few seconds to open a ticket, that is a serious problem that needs to be addressed.)
The team’s outstanding active tickets are reviewed once a week between the team manager and each team member. If there are obstacles, additional tasks are opened to clear them.
Tickets are marked “resolved” when we believe the work is complete. This notifies the customer that the work is complete. The ticket is not “closed” (i.e., made so that it cannot be re-opened) until either the customer confirms that the work is good, or a defined time period has passed without a response from the customer.
Work progress is tracked in the ticket.
Emails about the task include the ticket number for reference. (Our ticketing system can be cc’d on the email, so that the email stream itself is logged into the ticket.)
Scheduling To-Do Items
When you review your to-do list (ticket queue), you should be able to estimate approximately how long each task will take, and what its priority is. Use that information to schedule work for the day, delegate as much as you can, and postpone some of it to tomorrow’s list.
Priority is not just a matter of working the most important stuff first. Sometimes you will want to group items together into clusters with shared elements. If you can knock off two jobs with overlapping requirements, that is a good thing, as long as one of those jobs is high on your priority list.
Given a list of tasks, it takes the same amount of time to do them in any order. If you can do them in an order based on their priority, you will be perceived as working faster and better. This is an important life lesson. Work the tasks in priority order, and you will be more effective in the same amount of time.
Emergencies come up, and they will kill your schedule when they do. That is a reality, but it is also an excuse. There are a few time killers that are common across a lot of managers:
Overreaching. You have gotten as far as you have because you are able to get a lot done. But if you take on too many tasks, your effectiveness nosedives.
Reverse delegation. It is very common for a manager to be overwhelmed while the subordinates have the slack capacity. This is a symptom that tasks are not being delegated to the subordinates properly, or that the tasks are bouncing back onto the manager.
Time wasters. There are a lot of little time-wasting habits that add up to significant time over the course of the day. If you are honest when you create your time log, you will find out what your particular time-wasting sins are.
Here’s a quick look at how to deal with each of these.
There is always more work to be done than time to do it. That doesn’t mean that you have to commit to doing all of it right now. You are a manager. Prioritize.
You may not have the information you need to prioritize effectively. Use your subordinates. Assign one of them the task of gathering the information you need so that you know what requirements surround a particular task.
What is driving the urgency? What is involved in fulfilling the request? Be specific about what you are asking the subordinate to gather, otherwise, you will just waste time and energy repeating the exercise all over again.
Reverse Delegation and the Clinging Monkey Problem
A classic business analogy is of a problem being a monkey on someone’s back. When you delegate a task, you put the monkey on the subordinate’s back.
When an employee hits a snag, he or she may properly come back to the manager to discuss the problem and get advice. Common mistake managers make is to take the problem back away from the subordinate.
That is a self-defeating strategy because soon the manager is doing all the hard tasks assigned to the team, while the subordinates run out of important work to do. That is poor management of the team’s bandwidth.
If you take back the monkeys, you do several things:
You set up a dynamic where the manager is personally executing all the hard tasks.
You create an environment of dependency, where your subordinates lose faith in their own abilities to resolve problems.
You slow down the entire group’s work because you are executing tasks rather than managing the team.
You have a full-time job already, running the team. You need to empower your subordinates to execute their jobs and to resolve the outstanding problems.
Why Do Managers Take Back the Monkeys?
Technical managers may well be able to execute the task more quickly and better than less experienced team members. It may take less time on a particular task for the manager to just execute it than to enable the employee to execute it.
Managers like the sense of power and control that comes from executing the tasks.
Maybe you can do the task faster and better than a more junior team member, but that isn’t the end goal here. Most problems are not one-time problems; you will keep seeing the same type of problem coming back repeatedly. If you can train a subordinate to take care of that problem effectively, it will disappear from your plate.
Your more junior employee becomes more capable, an entire class of problems becomes easier to handle, and the bandwidth of your team expands when you teach your junior team members to handle a problem effectively.
It takes discipline to break the habits of a professional lifetime and leave the monkey on your employee’s back.
Your team members need to understand what you are doing because they are probably aware that you can execute the task faster and better than they can. You can even use the language of the monkey and explicitly tell them that when they come into your office with a monkey, they have to take the money back out the door with them.
It is appropriate for team members to upward delegate a task that requires you to use your authority as the team lead. This is different from them asking you to resolve the problem or take ownership of it.
An example would be when there is a political obstacle that is happening at a level above your team member, and you need to speak to a corresponding manager or even delegate upward to your own boss.
When you accept an upward delegation, make sure that your team member understands that he or she is still accountable for the overall task. Then take care of your part quickly so that your employee can get back to work.
That is different from throwing the team member into the deep end of the pool and hoping he or she can swim. Hear your employee out. Maybe there is a legitimate problem that is preventing progress on the problem. See if you can help identify a solution.
If more research or information is needed, help your subordinate identify where the information lives, and how to get it. You may have to help the employee drill down a couple of levels to get to where there is a substantive task the employee can execute to push the problem forward.
If there is a query or request that needs to go out under your name for some reason, let the subordinate draft the request so that you can forward it, with the employee cc’d.
In the request, specify that the subordinate is the owner of the problem, and explicitly state that responses need to go to him or her.
These techniques may seem like they take a lot of time, and they do. But you have to be disciplined enough to leave the monkeys on your team members’ backs so that you don’t end up with the entire zoo on yours.
Your log should help reveal where your time is actually going. Here are a few common time wasters:
Paperwork for the sake of paperwork.
Meetings with no purpose or no direction.
Visitors who are just hanging out.
Phone calls that aren’t about the task at hand.
Lost efficiency during travel.
Watching the email queue.
IM/Twitter/RSS feeds/web surfing.
Together, these can eat up significant amounts of time. As each problem is recognized, it can be attacked. For a lot of these, you know what the answer is already; you don’t need me to tell you. Some tasks can be delegated. Some can be automated. For that matter, the task of automation can be delegated.
Paperwork is a good example. If you are filling out the same paperwork over and over, you should be able to find a way to use a template or a script to take care of it for you.
We already discussed the idea of using the ticketing system to help you produce activity and progress reports. Use that idea for other types of paper-work too.
A frequent type of paperwork involves inventory, whether it be for planning purposes, billing, or support renewals. Make sure your environment is inventoried on a database that is easily accessible.
Enforce the discipline in your team of keeping it up to date. Inventory updates need to be part of the standard procedures for adds/moves/changes. Assign tasks for regular verifications of the inventory.
If you keep your central database up to date, it becomes much easier to pull reports on the types of information you need when that maintenance renewal comes up or you have to count how many systems need to be moved for that data center migration.
If this is a meeting you are responsible for, either shape it up or cancel it.
Otherwise, check with the organizer to see what they expect from your team. Ask for the agenda. If the organizer has to assemble an agenda to respond to your question, so much the better. Your peers will also be grateful.
For a lot of meetings, there is no reason not to delegate them to one or more of your subordinates. Ask them to take notes and send you a summary. The only meetings you absolutely have to attend yourself are the ones discussing confidential information that your employees aren’t authorized to have. Hopefully, there should not be too many of those.
Nobody says that you have to take every phone call or chat with every visitor. Let some of the calls roll onto voicemail; you can add the important ones to your to-do list. Caller ID is a wonderful thing.
You know you shouldn’t do that, right? Problems don’t get smaller over time—at least they don’t for me. Develop a method and habits for dealing with incoming work. Put the work on a schedule and a to-do list, and execute it. You’ll spend less time just doing the work than you would avoid it.
Tell people in your office that you are working on something, and ask if you can get back to them later. If people have a legitimate question, you can assign a subordinate to gather the information and try to answer it.
Face-to-face meetings have a place and are more time efficient than long-distance meetings for some types of information transfer. But you have to take into account the amount of time and money spent during travel. Become effective at using conference and video calls, and recover all that time you used to spend hunting for an outlet in the airport.
You should not be watching your email for incoming messages. I can guarantee that you have incoming messages all the time. To manage your email (rather than having email manage you), you have to develop a strategy that works. Not all of these principles will work for you, but here are some ideas that have worked for others:
Don’t read your email before processing your to-do list (or ticket queue) in the morning. At most, scan the list for emails from your boss or with subject lines that indicate a real emergency and then close the email client down until your to-do list is complete.
When you process your mail in the morning, sort it by conversation, and process it by subject.
Look for the most recent emails. If something is really hot, it is likely that there is current traffic on it.
Look for emails from your boss. Your priorities are probably whatever your boss says they are.
Don’t leave the mail client running all day long. Schedule times during the day when you review your messages.
Don’t use email as a to-do list. If something needs action, open a ticket and paste the email into it. Then assign the ticket to the right person for follow up.
Don’t be part of someone else’s email problem. There are a few guidelines you should follow to be a good email netizen:
Be concise. Be simple. Be direct. Take the time to write an easily understood email in as few words as possible.
Use bullet points or numbered lists to separate key action items.
Request an action and a timeline for that action.
Don’t assume your email was actually read. Everyone else’s email queue is probably as busy as yours.
Separate out reference information into attachments or (better yet) links to the documentation repository. Keep the email down to the key action items.
Consider making a phone call. Sometimes a quick phone call can resolve something faster than an afternoon of back-and-forth emails.
Most important, don’t send the email if it doesn’t need to be sent.
Surfing and Goofing Off
There is nothing wrong with goofing off, from time to time. But it needs to be structured and should be used as a reward for accomplishing work. When surfing comes before you have reviewed your ticket queue, you are going to run into trouble.
You also have to be careful about the message you are sending. If you are surfing during regular working hours, your subordinates will think that they are free to do likewise. Define separation and have the discipline to stick to it.
We already discussed the “clinging monkey” problem earlier in this blog. A key principle to remember is that once tasks are delegated, they need to stay delegated. If you allow your team members to delegate tasks back to you, your team will not function properly. You will be completely overwhelmed, and your team will not be working to its potential.
There are several keys to effective delegation
Set clear expectations. This includes what you want to be done and when it must be done. Include all requirements about how the task must be done.
Make sure your team feels a sense of shared responsibility for the team’s work. This can be built by discussing the relationship of the team’s work to organizational goals in the weekly staff meeting.
Try to spread the interesting tasks among the staff.
Delegate some tasks that increase team members’ visibility within the organization.
Understand your subordinates’ capabilities and interests. Delegate appropriate tasks that the team members are able to handle, but allow them to learn and grow.
Provide coaching as needed
Delegate responsibility at a project or function level to encourage a sense of ownership.
Follow up frequently to monitor progress. Provide feedback and coaching as needed. Make yourself available if advice or instructions are needed. Delegation is one of the most important tools in your tool chest. Like any tool, it can be abused.
Do not use delegation to get out of unpleasant tasks that really belong to the manager. Politically charged meetings or difficult negotiations are legitimately the provinces of the manager, though you may want to bring one of your senior people along to answer technical questions.
Above all, you cannot be seen as using delegation as a way of getting out of your work so that you can leave early. That sort of impression is cancer that can eat your team’s soul.
You may not be able to delegate certain tasks, and you will only be able to delegate a portion of other tasks. Part of your job as a manager is to analyze the projects and functions facing your team, split them up as needed, and assign them to the right people.
Do not delegate tasks that expose your team members to consequences that are not appropriate to their positions. For example, the following types of tasks should not be delegated:
Tasks involving your management responsibilities toward other team members. (This includes items such as performance reviews.)
Solo negotiations with external customers or suppliers.
Tasks that require technical expertise that the team member does not have.
Communicating hiring, firing, or disciplinary information to other team members.
As team members complete tasks, use their progress to provide feedback on how they did. If you don’t provide explicit requirements up front and detailed feedback afterward, your team members won’t be able to meet your expectations.
In general, there are two types of meetings that need to be cared for. Some meetings allow people to report status on outstanding tasks. Other meetings are for working on a problem.
Status meetings typically have a large attendee list, because everyone on a project has tasks that depend on the status of what other people are doing. The person running the meeting should keep it moving along and should make a summary available (maybe on a shared folder or web page, maybe in an email) after the meeting.
It is a waste of time to try to solve problems in a status meeting. If there is a problem, the few people involved should convene a working meeting.
A working meeting should only include people who are directly contributing to resolving the problem. It should be focused, and attendees should receive a problem summary prior to the meeting so that they can prepare suggestions or relevant information prior to the meeting.
The person running the meeting needs to keep it focused on the task at hand. This may mean scheduling other working meetings for other tasks.
Review meetings for requirements, design, and code are frequently seen as a waste of time, but they actually save much more time than they cost. Of course, these meetings need to be run well to be effective.
When you are in charge of a meeting, distribute an agenda beforehand, arrive on time, start on time, stick to the agenda as far as possible, and send a summary afterward. If something needs further discussion, schedule a breakout session to deal with it.
Is a meeting necessary? Sometimes it can take a long time to discover a convenient meeting time to work out a relatively simple problem.
If a phone call or email can resolve the issue, use that instead of a meeting. It will save everyone’s time, and things will get done quicker.
Communicate the resolutions properly. This communication may be in a status meeting, an email notification or a status update to a project plan.
Make sure that your meetings are well-organized and focused:
Only call meetings that are necessary, with a clearly stated purpose and intended outcome.
Only invite people who need to be there. (Other people may be advised that the meeting is taking place, as appropriate.)
Provide an agenda before the meeting, with ample time for participants to request clarifications or changes to the agenda.
Make logistical arrangements. Depending on the nature of the meeting, this may include a meeting room, a conference bridge, a WebEx session, a projector for an introductory presentation, handouts, or refreshments.
Run the meeting professionally. This includes introducing participants (if needed), stating the purpose of the meeting, and laying down the ground rules before starting on the agenda.
Participation should be encouraged, but the schedule should be kept. Breakout or follow-up meetings may be scheduled as needed. Minutes are distributed shortly after the meeting, including only critical issues and decisions addressed in the meeting.
Not every one of those tools is useful for every situation. But sometimes something like an Ishikawa fishbone diagram can help organize the discussion in a productive way. Learn the tools and they can help you run a more effective discussion quicker.
The Art of Facilitation
Some meetings will involve hashing out a contentious issue. If you are hosting a meeting like this, don’t let the meeting get away from you. Establish the agenda early on, and stick with it. Sit in a dominant position in the room (maybe near the whiteboard, maybe at the most visible position on the table).
Listen to the ideas that are presented, but move the conversation along. Get to the kernel of what is being suggested, note it, and move along.
In some meetings, part of the agenda may be to establish which options are being considered. Rather than jumping right into the consideration phase, take the first part of the meeting to get a list of the options under consideration.
Structure the remainder of the meeting to discuss each of these options in turn. Make sure that the proponents of the different options know that their turn is coming, perhaps by posting a list of the options and the order in which they will be considered.
Use a similar analysis framework for each option (pro/con lists work pretty well in most situations) so that everyone feels that each option has received due consideration.
Meetings of this sort usually break down when someone feels that their point of view is not being represented or considered respectfully. It may be helpful to meet with some of the proponents one-on-one beforehand so that they understand that they will be heard. (Their idea may not be adopted, but at least it will be considered respectfully.)
Keep the meeting on pace so that there is time to consider each option on the list. Stick to the schedule. If the schedule is not going to work, schedule breakout or follow-up meetings for options that need more work or more consideration.
End the meeting on a high note, even if the only thing agreed to is the type of analysis that needs to be done and the questions that need to be answered.
One key to productivity on a technology team is allowing team members to concentrate on a task for significant amounts of time. In a world of constant interruptions, that can be difficult.
The interruptions will never go away. The nature of IT is that there are a lot of small tasks that can be done quickly. But if the whole team is in constant interrupt mode working on these small tasks, the big ones never get done.
A way to deal with this is to schedule different people on the team into a traffic cop role at different times during the day. The traffic cop can look over incoming requests, ensure the requests are in a properly formatted ticket, take care of the quick hits, and possibly assign the longer tickets to the appropriate team member.
By spreading the traffic cop role around the team, most of the team should be able to work uninterrupted on the tasks that need concentration and attention.
You can look at which of your team members seem to work best at different times of day, and assign the traffic cop role to appropriate people during different shifts.
On-call scheduling is something that nobody likes, but that is necessary for a well-functioning environment. There are a few principles to keep in mind when drawing up an on-call schedule.
Be fair. Everyone can count, so it becomes very obvious if someone is stuck on-call for an unusually large number of holidays or 3-day weekends.
Schedule in advance. Give everyone lots of notice of the on-call schedule, so that they can make plans or arrange to swap on-call shifts if needed.
Allow flexibility. Let team members arrange with each other to swap on-call schedules if necessary. Encourage team members to be generous, but ask them to handle exchanges among themselves. If someone starts to take advantage of teammates, call the person aside and discuss it.
Be humane. When someone has a late night or weekend on-call, allow them some flexibility to work reduced hours during the work week if they spend a lot of time working issues after hours.
Whether you should schedule yourself on-call depends on the size of your group and the scope of your responsibilities. If you are the technical lead for a team of equals, you should probably assign yourself an equal share of on-call duty.
If you are expected to be the point of escalation for your team, it makes sense for you to have less onerous on-call duties, or even no regular on-call (as you are effectively on-call most of the time anyway).
If you are a team manager with full-time duties that are very distinct from the rest of the team, on-call may not make sense for you. If you are not as hands-on as much as you used to be, you are more likely to make mistakes when responding to an incident.
The key is to be fair and to be ethical. Some team leads see their position as a way to get out of extra work or unwanted work. That is not the way to look at things. Your team members are not stupid. They will see such leaders as being lazy and will lose respect for them.
When your team needs to report an incident after hours, you will probably be involved in any case. You may need to report it upwards in the hierarchy, or you may need to approve an emergency change. Make yourself available to the on-call person, and respect their time as far as possible.
The on-call schedule needs to be published in a well-known location for other teams to be able to use it. A wiki or something similar is a reasonable place to put it, or possibly a spreadsheet on a shared drive.
Ideally, there should be a common place where all the teams store their contact information, because you will need theirs as much as they need yours.
Time management is a critical skill for a new leader. Your team will take their cues from you. If they see someone who makes effective use of time, they will follow your example. If they see a hypocrite or an ineffectual boob, they will either lose respect or lose the sense of urgency that makes a successful team go.