Sunday, February 20, 2011

Lessons Learned

I’ve been managing people at O’Reilly and elsewhere for over 25 years now. I’ve made boatloads of mistakes during that time, but I've learned a lot, too:
  1. Manage up and out, not down. Represent the best interests of your group by managing your manager. When the people who report to you need support and guidance, step in.
  2. Understand that it’s not about you. If you don’t get that, you’ll never be a good manager. Or a good employee.
  3. Treat your employees like adults. You’re not their parent or their third grade teacher. You’re a mentor and advisor. You define the goals and objectives for the group and for each employee. And then you help them do what it takes to get there.
  4. Be as committed to your employees’ success as you are to the success of the company. And vice versa. One feeds the other.
  5. Let go of controlling how people do their jobs. As long as people are doing their jobs effectively, let go of the how and keep your eye on the desired results. Insisting that things be done only your way prevents your employees from developing their own ideas, and limits the organization as a whole. Your employees are not extensions of you. Give them room to do it their way, as long as they’re not disrupting anyone else’s work and you’re getting the outcomes you’re looking for (or, odds are, better outcomes than you envisioned).
  6. Don't forget that you don’t have to have all of the answers. Your job is to figure out what questions to ask, and to work with your employees to find the answers. Collaborate with them to solve problems, and ask for their help when you need it: it’s a two-way street. If employees are always coming to you for answers, they don’t develop the kind of independent thinking that results in big benefits in the long run. Challenge them to figure things out for themselves; be there to advise and consult.
  7. Let people make their own mistakes, and don’t come down hard on them when things go awry or fall through the cracks. If you have good relationships with your employees, they don’t want to disappoint you. They feel bad enough about making errors. If people don’t feel that they’re empowered to make decisions—and allowed to make some mistakes—they’ll turn to you to make all of the decisions. That’s not helping anyone, especially you.
  8. Don’t ask questions without context. “Did you know about this?” in email can make an employee wonder whether you’re pleased with whatever you’re referring to or if you’re asking what their culpability in the situation is. Not knowing what’s behind the question makes it feel like a trap.
  9. Try not to put people on the defensive. It makes them far more likely to develop the habit of covering their asses (CYA) rather than doing things that might lead to new and useful developments.
  10. Avoid contempt. Try to keep it out of your attitude and out of your voice, no matter how you may feel about some of your colleagues and their work. Perhaps you need to spend a little time examining what’s behind any contempt you may feel, as it probably says a lot more about you than it does about anyone else.
  11. Don’t be harsh with your employees. You can register disappointment without raising your voice and/or being a jerk. Being harsh with your employees puts them in self-protective mode. They’re less likely to seek your guidance and advice. Less likely to tell you what’s really going on. And more likely to be afraid to take on additional responsibility.

    Harshness makes people contract and harden, not expand and flow. It makes them feel incompetent, erodes their self-confidence, and causes them to second-guess themselves far too often. It makes them afraid of you, which is counter-productive (and not much fun for either of you). Working with you should be a positive experience, not a minefield your employees have to tread carefully.
  1. Take responsibility for your actions. If anything you’ve done has added to a problem, own up to it.
  2. Give your employees context. Explain what’s going on in the company, or with a new initiative. Tell them what they need to know to understand how what they’re doing fits into the big picture.
  3. If you can, give each employee meaningful responsibility for something: make each one the go-to person on a project, an ongoing task, a topic area. Give them ownership. Be clear about your expectations and then get out of the way. Pay attention but don’t micromanage. When other people come to you with questions, first direct them to the person responsible for that area. Be there to advise and support, and guide them back on track if you see things going off the rails. And then get out of the way again.
  4. If someone’s behavior is inappropriate, discuss it in private. Getting your knuckles rapped in front of your peers is humiliating. Don’t put your employees in a situation where your actions cause them to lose face in front of others. Note I said “discuss” the behavior. No yelling. Be clear and straightforward with your feedback. And give them a chance to explain.
  5. Don’t speak negatively about an employee with his/her peers.
  6. Give your employees overt, public credit for their successes. And when they do something well, let them know that you noticed—and that you appreciate it.
  7. Meet with your employees privately at least once a quarter to check in. This is in addition to the day-to-day interactions you may have. There should be no surprises on their annual performance reviews. They need to know how they’re doing – and you need to know what they’re struggling with – on an ongoing basis.
  8. Give people your complete attention when you’re interacting with them one-on-one or as a group. 1) It’s way more efficient than trying to multitask, and 2) it lets people know that you take their concerns seriously.
  9. Listen at least as much as you talk.
  10. Ask for feedback on your performance as their manager. Find out what your employees think you might do better in general, what you could do to help them more effectively, what you perhaps should stop doing. LISTEN. Acknowledge what they’ve told you. It’s fine to explain the things you feel you need to, but wait until the person giving feedback has said their piece. Avoid sounding defensive.
  11. Know when to cut your losses. If you have given an employee as much support and guidance as you can and they’re not able to perform up to the requirements of the job, help them move on. If it’s not a fit, it’s not a fit, and there’s nothing that either of you need to apologize for. That may mean letting them go or suggesting other, more appropriate opportunities for them in the company. Don’t let situations that aren’t working fester. Do what you need to do for the employee, your group, and the best interests of the company.


Kathleen Dames said...

Edie, you should write a book (or maybe you just did here). I always refer to you as my mentor, since you were the best manager I have had. I'll be sure to refer back to this list when I get back to the "working" world.

Anonymous said...

Wow, thanks for sharing, Edie. I've been looking for something like this lately. :-)