Leading a (Virtual) Team

Leading a team has been the most challenging, and the most fun, part of my job. At times I’ve had team members not actually in the same room as me – or even the same country, that makes it more challenging but the principles of managing a team remain the same. Here’s my take on it.

There’s a lot of discussion about working remotely particularly as Yahoo and IBM removed that option for their employees, however there’s research out there indicating that remote teams can be as productive or even more productive than co-located workers.

I’ve had remote workers in three different set-ups;

  •  remote, working from another location including one in another country (with a different time zone)
  • regular, working from home 1-2 days per week
  • occasional, working from a different location for an occasional short period, for one colleague it allowed him to be in Spain for the bachelor party and the wedding of his closest friend.

In all three cases there were good business reasons for the person’s choice of work pattern, and I always had a team who were mostly in the office together. In the case of the person working at home 1-2 days per week it saved a rather long commute.

In leading my teams I’ve always tried to provide; a clear purpose, clear work assignments, regular progress evaluations, a good relationship with me as the manager and a connection to the rest of the team.

Team in the Room Remote Team
A Clear Purpose -annual/quarterly conversation for whole team to discuss team purpose -annual/quarterly conversation for whole team to discuss team purpose
Clear Work Assignments -annual performance review sets high level deliverables
-project design sets short term deliverables
-annual performance review sets high level deliverables
-project design sets short term deliverables
-rolling email tally of tasks and progress
Evaluate Progress -1 on 1 meetings each week (or two weeks)
-publish project progress
-1 on 1 calls each week (or two weeks)
-publish project progress
Relationship with a Manager -1 on 1 meetings each week (or two weeks)  -1 on 1 call
-daily chat on messenger
Connection to Team -Bad music Friday
-Friday team lunch
-Team events
-virtual “watercooler”
-project with team
-bring remote worker into team events

As you can see it’s not much different to manage a remote worker, but as a manager, I needed to document things in more detail because I wasn’t seeing them each day, and I had to make a specific effort to have a chat for a social purpose, the chat could go into work territory but typically began with a mention of coffee.

HBR did some research into how to make virtual teams work that backs up my empirical conclusions, particularly the idea of having regular contact across the team and between team the manager and the remote colleague. Unsurprisingly communication is the key to making it work.

Personally, I like having the option of working remotely, it allows me to really focus on an assignment. It can also be convenient if I have a mid-day appointment. I know that the flexibility is appreciated by team members. I haven’t seen any change in the productivity of any individual.  As a manager I wouldn’t want to manage a team where everyone worked remotely all of the time. At some point it would be hard to maintain the connection with each team member and across the team. But with a team of motivated professionals the option to work remotely is positive for the team members and the team.

Image:  Teamwork  |  ThoroughlyReviewed  |   CC BY 2.0

Scandals and Company Culture

Shhh; Scandal and culture

Years ago a court judge in New Zealand was convicted of expenses fraud, the judge’s defense was that he hadn’t understood what the forms required. The public reaction was disbelief; either he just thought he could get away with it or he was too stupid to be a judge.

Since that early example I’ve looked at company scandals and the explanations given with a suspicious eye. In every case there are signs of how the company culture has effectively colluded around the scandal – it’s never just one person, it’s people turning a blind eye, it’s fear of whistleblowing, it’s the company culture, it’s the CEO.

Following the Enron scandal I heard a story, possibly apocryphal, of a manager who joined the company. Shortly after joining he heard that the ambitious revenue targets had been sent out across the company, requiring a jump of 25% in sales from one quarter to the next. At the end of the next quarter, to his amazement, those sales targets had been met across the company. He smelt something rotten and decided to update his CV and move on, he was not surprised when the Enron scandal broke. At the time it was the biggest corporate bankruptcy the world had seen. The Sarbanes-Oxley Act was passed to prevent scandals of this scale ever happening again (it didn’t).

In the Bernie Madoff Ponzi scheme his family members were involved in the company, including his brother who was appointed as Chief Compliance Officer. There are rules in many companies about potential conflict of interest when partners or family members work together.

More recently Wells Fargo came under fire for the cross-selling scandal where staff opened credit card accounts for non-exisiting clients in order to meet targets. In companies employees focus on what gets rewarded; and when enough pressure is applied from their bosses and their colleagues some will break rules to meet those targets. The company directors’ failure to halt the scheme was called “gutless” by Elizabeth Warren – the company maintains that the employees – all 5,600 of them (so far) acted alone. Either the bosses knew or they should have know, but so far none have taken responsibility.

John Oliver’s piece on the US police system exposes the myth of the “one bad apple” and looks at some of the systemic issues behind the fatal police shootings in the US. The failures of process and policy erode the public trust in the police, reducing their ability to their job.

The points John Oliver makes could equally apply to businesses.

  1.  Leadership
    Your leader must lead, her actions must demonstrate her high ethical standards and she should speak clearly and frequently about the company’s ethics.
  2. Monitor/Collect data
    We can now analyse data and patterns of performance, look at patterns and changing patterns. At a financial institute I worked at we were required to take a break of at least two weeks. HR sold it as being good for employees but my security colleagues gave another explanation, the two week break was long enough to highlight any odd activities.
  3. Avoid conflict of interests
    Keep review processes independent, external if possible. Don’t hire siblings or partners into the same field. Declare any outside interests that might raise a red flag – I wrote some columns for a (former) supplier. I had to declare this and I donated the income to charity to remove any potential conflict. Independent reviews make a difference
  4. Transparent Processes
    The more open you are, the more public you can be about your processes, the less opportunity there is for fraud or scandal. A very simple example; some universities are using blockchain to certify their qualifications, as that becomes a public record there is no chance to create a fake degree.
  5. Rewards
    Be careful what you reward, that will direct the employee’s focus and in extreme cases leads to unethical behaviour to reach stretch targets.
  6. Whistleblower procedure
    Even with all the best practices in place something could go wrong. Create a robust, independent whistleblower procedure.  Whistleblowers are generally punished for coming forward, be the exception.

Building a scandal resistant company culture is not easy; not doing so is expensive, even fatal.

Image: Shhh  |  Grey World  |   CC BY 2.0

Facebook Dilemma

Scenario

Imagine you run a retail company. You find a Facebook account that is incredibly derogatory to your company. I think every company has unhappy customers but when you try to find out what caused the person to hate your company so much it turns out that the Facebook account holder is an employee. You have a policy in place to guide employees on using social media, which does state that employees should be respectful.

Options

What would you do?

Outcome

Well, this is based on a real event, at a real company. The manager of the webcare team who found this choose to contact the employee’s manager and ask them to have a discussion with their team member. The reasoning was that although the account was damaging to the company there was a bigger potential problem; a very unhappy employee.

It turned out that although the Facebook account used the person’s identity and a photo of them, they had never created the account and did not know it existed.  The webcare team then helped them contact Facebook and get the account removed.

In companies there is a temptation to look for a rule to solve anything negative. Managers often ask “what is our legal position?” or “what’s at risk?”, which leads to blame and punishment. By stepping back, thinking about what might be really happening and asking what would be lowest level of response to resolve the issue the company should a great deal of trust in their employee.

The course chosen to address the issue tried to use the “Most Respectful Interpretation” of the employees actions. The team thought that it could be a case of identity theft or that something terrible has happened at work and the employee is lashing out. The course of action chosen would lead to a swift resolution in the case of identity theft, or to the first step on resolving a serious issue if it had been the later case.

What would you have done?

Image;  Red pill/blue pill   |   tom_bullock   |   CC BY 2.0

Building Diversity

BuildinbuilddiversityThis video came up on the Facebook page of Clementine Ford, an Australian Feminist. It’s about “unconscious bias” the biases we all carry that affect decisions we make, including hiring decisions. It cites the orchestra that auditioned musicians from behind a curtain so that the judges could not determine their gender. Now an Australian film festival is doing something similar after noticing that only 5% of finalists were women, following blind judging that number rose to 50%.

Sexism is not the only bias judges and employers hold, there are reports from the US, Canada, the UK and the Netherlands that associations of race and nationality are made based on a person’s name, often to the disadvantage of non-white candidates. And we all remember the Academy awards a few years ago releasing #OscarsSoWhite.

We know that diversity is good for business, but we’re bad at it.  So how could we make our hiring or judging processes better for diversity?

Use Data

You need to make the unconscious bias visible. In the Tropfest case the organisation looked at their finalists and found that only 5% were female. I’d bet good money that was a lower percentage than anyone realised before doing the research.

Do some research in your own organisation; how many women and minorities are hired? How many are making it through to the highest decision-maker level? If you’re organising a conference do you have a diverse range of speakers? (if you have to try harder it’s your network at fault) If you’re an award giving organisation how many of your nominees are people of colour, LGBT+ or women? And how many of your judges… you get the idea.

Be aware of stereotypes associated with roles, I had a somewhat technical role in a communications department. The head of department congratulated me on helping the department’s diversity figures by hiring a man into a comms team. In reality I’d hired a guy into a slightly technical team – hardly striking a blow for equality. (For the record the gender split in my team was 40:60 women to men, while across the department the split was around 70:30)

Address the Gap

Make sure your company policies and practices encourage diversity – write new policies for your organisation if they don’t. Hint; do this with a diverse group for best results.

I wrote about other steps you can take in an earlier post called Diversity Works. This won’t get better just on good intentions, you will need to take action.

  • make your hiring process more open; from neutral job ads to diversity on the interview panel, can you remove gender and ethnicity signifiers from the CVs for the first round of assessment?
  • look for role models across the company from diverse groups, help them gain visibility across the company and outside the company. Think of the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media, their slogan is “if she can see it, she can be it”.
  • support groups set up to help minorities in your organisation
  • state your diversity practices on your website and in your job advertisements (Shell has a statement about women in leadership that it puts on every job vacancy)
  • make sure senior people in your company are able to speak about diversity, and do so comfortably – nothing will sink your diversity efforts more quickly than an insincere executive.
  • educate your leaders, your managers, your teams
  • build diversity into your personal network

Diversify Your Network

We all gravitate towards people who look like us, sound like us, share our values. Start building your network to be more inclusive; follow people on twitter who are not like you, read different perspectives, listen to speakers from radically different backgrounds. LISTEN to what they have to say. Resist the temptation to disagree, to put your point of view, to defend yourselves (this is the misstep made by all those well meaning #notallmen posters).

One of the best posts around on this is from Tin Geber, he’s talking about male privilege in relation to inviting women to speak at conferences, but the principles still apply. As he concludes;

It’s on me — and each person reading this — to actively strive to rebalance the playing field.

Measure Progress

The Australian Film Festival went to 5% women finalists to 50% women finalists. They measured their progress and then they talked about it. It must have given aspiring women film directors a boost.

Measure your progress, and talk about it only once you have seen specific improvements.

A lack of diversity won’t change without specific, sustained action. Starting with people of privilege listening and making room.

Image: Diversity  |  Nabeelah Is  |  CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Building Diversity

builddiversityThis video came up on the Facebook page of Clementine Ford, an Australian Feminist. It’s about “unconscious bias” the biases we all carry that affect decisions we make, including hiring decisions. It cites the orchestra that auditioned musicians from behind a curtain so that the judges could not determine their gender. Now an Australian film festival is doing something similar after noticing that only 5% of finalists were women, following blind judging that number rose to 50%.

Sexism is not the only bias judges and employers hold, there are reports from the US, Canada, the UK and the Netherlands that associations of race and nationality are made based on a person’s name, often to the disadvantage of non-white candidates. And we all remember the Academy awards a few years ago releasing #OscarsSoWhite.

We know that diversity is good for business, but we’re bad at it.  So how could we make our hiring or judging processes better for diversity?

Use Data

You need to make the unconscious bias visible. In the Tropfest case the organisation looked at their finalists and found that only 5% were female. I’d bet good money that was a lower percentage than anyone realised before doing the research.

Do some research in your own organisation; how many women and minorities are hired? How many are making it through to the highest decision-maker level? If you’re organising a conference do you have a diverse range of speakers? (if you have to try harder it’s your network at fault) If you’re an award giving organisation how many of your nominees are people of colour, LGBT+ or women? And how many of your judges… you get the idea.

Be aware of stereotypes associated with roles, I had a somewhat technical role in a communications department. The head of department congratulated me on helping the department’s diversity figures by hiring a man into a comms team. In reality I’d hired a guy into a slightly technical team – hardly striking a blow for equality. (For the record the gender split in my team was 40:60 women to men, while across the department the split was around 70:30)

Address the Gap

Make sure your company policies and practices encourage diversity – write new policies for your organisation if they don’t. Hint; do this with a diverse group for best results.

I wrote about other steps you can take in an earlier post called Diversity Works. This won’t get better just on good intentions, you will need to take action.

  • make your hiring process more open; from neutral job ads to diversity on the interview panel, can you remove gender and ethnicity signifiers from the CVs for the first round of assessment?
  • look for role models across the company from diverse groups, help them gain visibility across the company and outside the company. Think of the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media, their slogan is “if she can see it, she can be it”.
  • support groups set up to help minorities in your organisation
  • state your diversity practices on your website and in your job advertisements (Shell has a statement about women in leadership that it puts on every job vacancy)
  • make sure senior people in your company are able to speak about diversity, and do so comfortably – nothing will sink your diversity efforts more quickly than an insincere executive.
  • educate your leaders, your managers, your teams
  • build diversity into your personal network

Diversify Your Network

We all gravitate towards people who look like us, sound like us, share our values. Start building your network to be more inclusive; follow people on twitter who are not like you, read different perspectives, listen to speakers from radically different backgrounds. LISTEN to what they have to say. Resist the temptation to disagree, to put your point of view, to defend yourselves (this is the misstep made by all those well meaning #notallmen posters).

One of the best posts around on this is from Tin Geber, he’s talking about male privilege in relation to inviting women to speak at conferences, but the principles still apply. As he concludes;

It’s on me — and each person reading this — to actively strive to rebalance the playing field.

Measure Progress

The Australian Film Festival went to 5% women finalists to 50% women finalists. They measured their progress and then they talked about it. It must have given aspiring women film directors a boost.

Measure your progress, and talk about it only once you have seen specific improvements.

A lack of diversity won’t change without specific, sustained action. Starting with people of privilege listening and making room.

Image: Diversity  |  Nabeelah Is  |  CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Diversity Works

diversity

Diversity works. I know this from personal experience, I’ve always sought to hire people from a range of backgrounds. I know I don’t have all the skills needed in my team so there’s no point hiring more of me. To be specific I’m not great at fine detail; I can go through massive ugly spreadsheets but it’s not my strength. I hire people into my team who have those skills and I value them – partly because I admire the skills and partly because I’m so grateful. In addition for me it’s more fun to hear about Romanian culture, Spanish idioms and Turkish cuisine over lunch than all Dutch stories.

But you don’t have to take my word for it. McKinsey’s research reports a “diversity dividend” of 15% for companies that are gender diverse, and a rocking 35% for companies with ethnic diversity. Correlation does not equate to causation; it may be that high performing companies choose diverse workforces and executive teams rather than diverse teams causing improved performance.

Harvard Business Review unpacks behaviours around diversity a little further and reports on some behaviours that point to diverse teams being smarter. Apparently diverse teams focus more on facts, which contributes to better decision making. Diversity also contributes to innovation.

The studies mentioned so far focus on gender and cultural diversity, but we should look at other personal characteristics such as national origin, age, gender identity, sexual orientation, and ability/disability. I’ve also heard one argument that the NASA team responsible for the first moon landing was more diverse than today’s team; back then there weren’t specialised astronautical studies programmes so the team was the best they could find from a range of fields. Which suggests we should be open to different training and work experience backgrounds (when the role allows it; don’t hire a plumber to a medical team!)

Global PillageFor a very light-hearted look at diversity, in fact an experiment in diversity, listen to the Global Pillage podcast. Each episode takes on a theme and opens with contestants identifying the ways they are diverse – gay, transgender, brown, immigrant, multi-lingual, vegan, left-handed all get a mention. The format is then a quiz between two teams of two people, with the audience able to give their answer. Spoiler alert; the audience (a bigger and presumably more diverse group) usually wins.

To get a more diverse team you have to change how you hire and how you work. Here are some ideas to get you started.

  1. Writing the vacancy notice
    Use gender neutral words, define the role in human language, state your diversity policy (don’t have one? write one). More tips here.
  2. Place the vacancy where it will be visible to diverse groups
    Look for publications, online communities and organisations associated with a range of groups. Reach out to Women in Tech groups for example.
  3. Interviewing across cultures
    Take some time to understand what cultural differences might exist between you and your interviewees. Habits of eye-contact may differ, some cultures show more deference which may seem like a weakness through an anglo-saxon filter.
  4. Flexible working environment
    Are you ready to accommodate someone with disability needs? What about someone who observes Ramadan? Or who celebrates Easter a week later than your company does? Are you able to allow people flexible hours and working from home options? The more you can answer “yes” to these hypotheticals the easier it will be to hire a diverse team.
  5. Culture of inclusion
    It’s not enough to just hire a cast of diverse colleagues, you need a workplace culture that is inclusive – where, as a colleague put it, “everyone can be their best selves”. The more widespread this is, the better. But you can have it in place in your own team, after all, you’ve got to start somewhere.

I’ve lived in several different countries, I’ve learnt several languages, my influences are from different sources. For me diversity is an important part of the work environment and yet from the outside I appear to be of the majority. Maybe diversity practices are good for us all.

 

Image: WOCinTech Chat  |  WOCinTech  | CC BY 2.0 

 

Holacracy

holacracyHolacracy is often linked to a boss free work environment, a flat organisation structure,  and having the freedom to choose what to work on. The same characteristics are cited by those in favour and against the concept of holacracy. To me those characteristics sound good, I like having autonomy at work. When I studied organisational design we talked about entrepreneurial organisations, machine bureaucracies and ad-hocracies according to Mintzberg’s model. At that point Holacracy hadn’t been invented, but some of the ideas around self-management were evolving.

What is Holacracy?

Holacracy is a system of company governance that enables colleagues to self-organise around the work. There is still an organisational structure, but now it’s based on circles of work rather than a hierarchy. Roles are defined, and a person may have be part of more than one circle and fulfil a different role in each. The specific system was developed by HolacracyOne, and has been adopted by around 300, mostly small, organisations.

As with any new idea there’s a fair amount of hype, with supporters and detractors talking about it in equal amounts. There are numerous articles, explaining how it works,

it gets a fair amount of hyper and an equal amount of detractors.

There is a decrease in the bureaucracy of planning and approvals that you see in a standard hierarchy, instead there are monthly governance meetings and processes specific to maintain the holacracy.

Who is it for?

Every company sits somewhere on a continuum from reliability to adaptability. Holacracy enables faster decisions to be made closer to the customer, as a system it is probably going to work best in younger, smaller, creative companies at the adaptability end of that scale. Of course older, larger, regulated companies can (and do) adapt the ideas of self-management into their teams but I think would struggle to deploy a full holacracy at scale.

Advantages and Disadvantages.

Companies have reported specific quantifiable benefits from using various systems of self-managed teams; FedEx cut service errors by 13% in 1989 for example. But strong results on holacracy are harder to find, that’s partly because it’s early days – we’ve had a hundred years or more of business hierarchies, it’ll take a while to figure this out. Even one of the founders, Brian Robertson, predicts that it will take a few years for a company to embed the Holacracy system and move into working within it in a stream-lined way.

Benefits cited are; increased employee engagement, increased adaptability, decreased office politics (although one article regarding Zappos casts some doubt), increased transparency, increased focus on organising around work.

It also sounds good, so what’s the downside?

Medium moved away from holacracy earlier this year, and while they still embrace the principles behind holacracy they found that “the system had begun to exert a small but persistent tax on both our effectiveness, and our sense of connection to each other.”

HBR published an excellent article “Beyond the Holacracy Hype“, and they point to downsides relating to increased complexity particularly around doing work – if an employee is in multiple roles each with a set of responsibilities then it becomes hard to know where to focus their effort, Zappos went some way to solve this by evolving a “marketplace” that assigned points for work allowing the company to set priorities via the Lead Links (team leads).

When someone has multiple roles compensation becomes more complex, as does hiring – including internal hiring.

It becomes hard to scale up to complete initiatives that would go across several circles – it’s also hard to do this across departments in a traditional organisation, but it seems the effort of co-ordinating this becomes even steeper in a fully self-managed environment.

Who is using it?

The Holacracy site claims that over three-hundred organisations currently use their system, of the four on the front page the largest is Zappos – and they are now moving on to become a Teal Organization.

Given that both Zappos and Medium have moved away from using Holacracy, but still maintain the principles of self-management, I wonder whether the full Holacracy model will be seen as a stepping stone in the future, a transition to go through as you redesign your company or whether companies will evolve their own systems of self-management without spending time in a rigid holacracy

What’s the future?

The principles of self-management are good; positive for employees which has to benefit customers and the company. Holacracy as a system embeds transparency and forces a focus on the work, but seems to place a burden on the company in terms of added complexity, and it may limit scaling – or need to evolve to enable scaling.

However even large, older, regulated, dinosaur companies have been borrowing what makes sense for them and creating hybrids of hierarchy and self-management. It may be a slower track to the company of the future but they’re benefitting from the experiment as well.

Image: I made it

Zombie Project

2016oct-zombie

If you’ve ever been in a project that limps along with extended deadlines, never taking off but never quite failing you may have been on a zombie project. I admit I’d never heard the term until a friend used it in a bit of a rant recently.

Projects are started with the best intentions; a good idea, a business reason, feasibility analysis, management sign off and resources allocated.  Some projects never really take off and make the expected progress, for a multitude of reasons – I’m sure you’ll recognise one or two of these;

  • a change in the business environment affecting the company’s finances or priorities
  • a competitor does something unexpected
  • management support dwindles
  • technology doesn’t work as planned
  • a key stakeholder withdraws
  • legal/regulatory/risk concerns start to slow progress and/or outweigh the project’s potential benefits.
  • competing priorities from other departments/teams

Often the momentum of a project will carry it on through some of these setbacks and it will go on to be successful – even if it’s delayed. Sometimes the delays accumulate and the momentum drops, progress meetings become further apart with much less to report. But the optimism behind the initial idea makes it hard to kill the project and it lives on in a strange half-life – your project just became a zombie.

We’re good at ignoring bad news, and bad at acting on what, to an outsider, might seem obvious. Our initial optimism and emotional investment in the idea make us reluctant to point out when something is not working. In addition failed projects have a way of being penalised when it comes to performance review time.

However zombie projects consume resources, and therefore have a drag on the companies bottom line. Logically companies will want to review their project portfolio and kill any zombie projects. One way to do this is to hold a “zombie amnesty”, where projects are reviewed and if they no longer promise value to the company are killed. In one HBR report a company found 20% of its IT projects fell into this category. For this to be successful you will need;

  • transparent criteria for the assessment of each project, you should ignore sunk costs and look at the cost and benefits from today
  • an independent reviewer or review team, it’s hard to be objective from inside the project
  • a “celebration” of the projects that are closed, you need to communicate the reasons for stopping the projects, and the benefit to the company as part of the no penalty clause and as a way to encourage future zombie killings.

In your assessment you may find some projects that are languishing on the border of the zombie zone but they have potential to provide value. You then have a choice to kill or relaunch.

Don’t relaunch just because there is value, check all the issues that led to the project failing. Change it up, add resources, tighten the governance, get a new – more demanding – executive sponsor. It needs to feel like a new project.

If the project is killed it may be resurrected in a shiny new form in a year or two. Try not to be the person that says “we tried that already”, but examine it as a new project.

I’ve talked about this from a manager’s perspective, but I promise you the people on the zombie projects already know that their work isn’t valuable to the company. If you can edit the projects and focus on the ones that will provide value they’ll thank you for it.

From the perspective of a project team member try to avoid these projects, they’re draining and will never reflect well on you. If it’s unavoidable then be brave enough to call time on the half-dead.

 

Image: Businessman Zombie  |  Lindsey Turner   |   CC BY 2.0 

 

Mental Health at Work

Mental Health

Yesterday was International Mental Health Day,  sponsored by the World Health Organisation (WHO).  This year the focus is on psychological first aid, WHO points out that in times of crisis it’s not just physical help that will be needed but also psychological support. I think they’re thinking of people working in the field and addressing the immediate aftermath of a crisis, however we will see people who have encountered crisis in the workplace, we need to learn some of the same skills.

I’ve worked with people who have been dealing with some personal crisis, suffering from “burnout” or who have diagnosed mental illness. I’ve come up with some “rules of engagement” that work for myself.

  • confidentiality
  • listen
  • ask for clarification, but don’t ask for more than the person is willing to share.
  • comfort in; dump out (within the bounds of confidentiality)
  • keep contact even if the person is struggling
  • allow person space for their own thoughts
  • bring the person’s attention back to work
  • be aware of my own limits and don’t be afraid to set boundaries for my own self care (this is hard as it feels selfish)

This is a pretty close match to the UN’s own guidelines, which validated my instincts.

How does this play out?

When you’re a manager and someone in your team is suffering from burnout you have to listen to them. You don’t explain or justify it. You believe them.

When a colleague who has mental health issues confesses to a history of abuse, you don’t tell anyone else – even if it becomes apparent that other people also know.

When a New Arrival in your country starts working with you don’t introduce him to everyone as a refugee – that’s just an immigration label and it invites the question “how did you get here?” Introduce someone by their name and the role they’ll perform. Let him/her talk about how they got here when they’re ready. Which may be never.

There are thousands of new arrivals who will become our colleagues, there are people who already have PTSD, sufferers of depression and other mental illnesses. We may all need psychological support through tough periods in our own lives.

Take the time to think about how you can help, think about how  you would lead your team in supporting someone who was struggling. If you see someone struggling, reach out, invite them for coffee and a chat… and keep the invitation open if they’re not ready right now.

Image: Thoughts  |  Derek Bruff  |  CC BY-NC 2.0

How Dumb are Those Rules?

Law books - company rules

I’m not a fan of bureaucracy, I try to avoid, reduce or eliminate it when it’s in my power to do so. However I’ve also worked for large companies where a certain amount of bureaucracy is inevitable and I’ve worked in regulated industry where the regulation is there there for a reason; to protect the health or the finances of customers.

So when I came across and article that talked about 10 dumb rules that make your best people quit I was initially cheering.  But some of those rules are there for a reason; sometimes the reason is the law and sometimes it’s a real risk and sometimes it’s just that not everyone is honest. So I decided to unpack the rules further think about the reason companies put such rules in place and discuss how there might be a different way to work with such rules.

1. Dumb rules for hiring.

This is a lament about the black hole a resume goes into when you apply for a job. I absolutely agree with this, the process used by many companies is so disrespectful. It is not difficult to make a humane process for handing job applications, whatever the size of your company.

  • Respond to every application; since applications are made online this is an email. It can be a standard email for those who don’t make the shortlist.
  • When people make the shortlist or the short-shortlist and have been unsuccessful at the interview stage send a personal email saying what was missing.
  • Be clear about the decision timeline and stick to it.

My best recruitment experience was one where I did not get the job.  Since then I’ve tried to follow that example – that might be a separate post for a later date.

2. Dumb rules for performance reviews

“Performance reviews are a waste of time. Brilliant and talented people deserve better than being slotted into some bureaucratic five-point scale once a year.” begins the complaint on performance reviews. I agree, but performance reviews aren’t about feedback.

In a large company you need to find a fair way of distributing the rewards, aka pay rises, and the performance review system is what has evolved to fulfil that task. I have written about performance management before and agree that it’s a flawed system; it’s not always fair, and even when people get good reviews they don’t like the process. Some companies are testing other methods, moving away from rigid review and stacked ranking systems. However all companies need to find a fair way to judge the performance of employees.

I think it needs to change. In the meantime managers can improve the process for teams by giving feedback throughout the year, and by being honest about the purpose of the dreaded performance review.

The article ends this subject with “Trust them to produce, and if they are not producing let them go” it’s not that easy under EU law to just let people go, and I think if you’ve hired someone and they are not performing you have a duty to coach for improvements.

One last reason to have a system that attempts to be fair; lawsuits.

3. Dumb rules for onsite attendance.

Agree. With the tools we have available now onsite attendance can be optional in many jobs. I’ve always agreed to work from home agreements for team members. That trust has been more than rewarded; it’s meant that one team member avoided 6 hours of commuting per week, another could extend time with his family in his home country, and a colleague could help a sick relative. I have never seen any decline in work delivery – if anything the team members feel more dedicated.

I have often connected with the team member via some chat app. Not to “check up” on them, but to emulate the office situation and maintain a connection.

This came easily to me, perhaps because I’m used to working online, for many managers new skills might be needed.

4. Dumb rules for approvals

“Do you really want your best workers to spend their time chasing people for rubber-stamp approvals?”

Oh man. This is one of my biggest complaints. At one company I had authority to make spending decisions on items in the tens of thousands but would have to get a 20 euro expense invoice approved before it was re-imbursed. In another I had a team member based in another country – the CEO of that country organisation had to approve her expenses that were being paid from my budget. (He did, and after the first time it was no issue).

This comes down to regulation. If you’re in a publicly listed company accountancy rules come into play and the company has to double, or triple check expenses and spending to ensure there is no fraud. Even though the company knows you’re trustworthy they can’t actually trust you.

Although I understand the need the approval request systems make me grumpy.  my team used to make jokes and take me out for coffee after I’d been filing expense reports. Perhaps the answer is coffee vouchers for every approval request?

5. Dumb rules for time off

“If a dedicated employee doesn’t feel good enough to come to work, what’s the point in making them drag themselves out of bed to get a doctor’s slip?”

Here’s a win for the European way! I think it takes six weeks absence before a doctor’s note is needed. Absences are monitored, repeat absenteeism is a sign of stress or longer term health issues. But the Dutch system is sensibly generous about this.

6. Dumb rules for frequent flyer miles

The article assumes that this is a reward for work travel, and should accrue to the employee doing the travel. That’s the system I’m used to here, but I have also worked for a government department where we could not legally accept frequent flyer miles. But then no-one could which is annoying but fair. I also know of one company that collates them and reshares them across all employees. Work travel in that company is usually only by senior people and is widely seen as a benefit and the idea that should only accrue to senior managers seems unfair to them.

I’d stick to it as a reward for work travel if I were making the rules, but it’s not a deal breaker in the grand scheme of things.

7. Dumb feedback methods

“I have worked with companies that put complete faith in employee engagement surveys, but frankly I believe they’re a sham.”

Agree. Having worked for a financial services company right through the financial crisis and seen the outcome of annual engagement surveys I noticed that the engagement scores trailed the fall and rise of the share price.

screen-shot-2016-10-18-at-15-10-03Few companies consider the cost of conducting an big scale engagement survey. In a company of 100,000 employees it could be 15-20 full time employee equivalents to complete it (assuming 70% response rate), do you get a commensurate value of improvements?

I’ve worked through the feedback process numerous times, and it becomes so complex and unwieldy that little is really achieved. I think you could do more by talking to people, using smaller targeted surveys, asking for feedback on your sites, and making smaller – more useful – changes.

8. Dumb rules for cell phones

Apparently some companies make staff check their phones in as they enter the company. I haven’t encountered this, although I have been asked not to photograph or record in certain areas of a company. I can understand the need in, for example, the design lab at Apple. But it’s not a rule that shows trust in employees, for most companies it’s overkill.

9. Dumb rules for internet use

I’ve seen Facebook and LinkedIn banned, and in fact blocked from company computers out of a fear of what employees might post. Well it just shifts the problem to out of work hours. A better solution is to talk to employees, make it clear what can and can’t be posted online. Employees can understand that discussing client information, sharing company results early, or dissing their manager might be a problem. Even better give them some good news to share!

10. Dumb probationary rules

Many organizations still have the throwback rule that employees have to be in a position for six months before they can transfer or be promoted”

While I’ve never come across a defined limit I can understand that in general as a manager you want people in the job you hired them for, it’s a pain in the neck to re-hire people all the time. My personal attitude is that if a person wants to move then it’s time for them to move – regardless of my assessment of their abilities or performance. I’m far more likely to recommend someone who has performed well for 18 months, than someone who’s been in the role for 3. But the roles I’ve managed have expertise levels that require a bit of learning. I might feel differently about managing wait staff in a restaurant for example where the skill set is simpler and success is more a question of personality.

I don’t love the bureaucratic rules, but having worked in regulated industries I grudgingly admit that I can usually understand the business need. That makes it possible for me to adapt and find the smartest process that will work for everyone – most of the time. Of course I still get frustrated, but then I take a coffee break and move on to the real work.

Image:  Law books  |  Waikay Lau  |  CC BY-NC-SA 2.0