Category Archives: Managing people

The “I” in TEAM

The “I” in TEAM

Ask any athlete what the crucial element of success in a relay race is and nine out of ten will tell you it’s the hand over of the baton. The relay race is an analogy often used in business environments. Managers and trainers use it to emphasize the importance of team work, working together, the grey areas of hand-over where mistakes lurk and so on. I use the analogy myself. In my opinion, especially in businesses, the most crucial element of success is to get everybody running in the same direction. Then you can focus on the details.

In a recent workshop I rediscovered for the umpteenth time the problem with teams in small businesses: They aren’t teams. The team members may be good at what they do. If asked what it is they do they will focus on the technicalities. I type, sell, draw, analyze, call customers defaulting on their payments etc. They seldom refer to what they do in reference to what the company is supposed to be doing or with respect to what the customer expects. So what’s the problem? Well it boils down to either having a team or having several individuals working in the same company. A team has a common goal. Its members know what the team philosophy is and the team leaders promote a healthy team spirit and set clear targets. The team knows what it has to achieve. It knows who the enemy is and will defend what it considers its own with an almost fanatical zeal. In the other case, when asked what the company offers, replies read like a menu. “We do this, we do that, we do the other”. What is missing is the element of passion. Passion at work usually relates to a brand. If the team doesn’t have a flag to rally around, be proud of, defend, hold up and conquer, then there’s not really much hope. If your people are not a team, spend time on forging them into one. It can’t happen over night but it can be done. Build up what the company offers. Why should any customer come to you and not the guy next door? Your people should be fans of your company. Talk to them. Listen to them. Create a culture of cooperation and weed out any individuals that drag the others down. Build up a brand: what do people think of when they hear your company name? What are your values? What do you stand for? Why?

I am sick of reading smart ass tips of the day written by people who think they are on par with the likes of Winston Churchill and Victor Hugo. They come up with disjointed, isolated apothegms like, “The road to success is full of crossroads” or “Being right is an attitude” and similar shallow BS. One of these one-liners I don’t subscribe to is “There’s no I in TEAM”.  Of course there is! Teams are made up of individuals with different approaches, perspectives, talents and expertise. People work towards satisfying their need to succeed. If you can achieve a team that succeeds by its members succeeding as individuals working towards a common goal, you will win the relay race every time. Set out some team building goals for the New Year. You’ll be surprised to see that the value of the whole is indeed higher than the sum of the values of the parts. Enough clichés for one blog. Get them all running in the same direction, work on the hand-over and if necessary hit somebody with the baton…

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Posted by on 28/12/2012 in Managing people


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Appraisals and other HR monsters

It shouldn’t be grey and fuzzy

OK, so it’s that time of the year again. You are snowed under, rushing to meet your deadlines, running around closing deals, signing lots of papers, preparing the business review presentation… and then you realize it’s appraisal time. Damn! Damndamn! Admit it.

For many managers this is a pain in the proverbial. Why? Because, to quote a classic, they are doing it wrong…

We tend to set up appraisal mechanisms designed by benevolent people with several assistants to ensure people get a fair review. What they end up ensuring is that a manager (usually with no assistant) up to her neck in urgent matters ends up rushing through the process for the purpose of compliance. This usually happens in the larger type of organization. In smaller operations these items tend to get filed under “BS” and never get done.

In both cases, we are missing the essence of the matter: You need to pay attention to your people. In a small company, appraisals are usually continuous and part of the daily routine. “Nice job, Georgia”, “Let’s take a look at that report you set up, Paul”, “What the hell were you thinking, Jean?” and so on. Fair enough. But if you want to develop professional co-workers, you must first act professionally and treat them as professionals. That means taking the time to pay attention to their performance, taking time to understand what makes them tick and then sit down with them and tock (sorry-couldn’t help myself).

People prepare for their appraisal. Many get stressed out about sitting with the boss. They lose sleep the night before and may even rehearse what they are going to say and try to anticipate your input. So don’t take it lightly. Prepare for the meeting and set aside the time. Avoid interruptions, set up a neutral space (a conference room) and have a numbers based discussion. Yes, it’s back to the numbers. You should be able to build a case by combining the cold facts with the personal reality sitting in front of you. If you have been clear in setting targets for your people, appraisals are so much easier. They have their hard targets, their soft targets, their professional development targets and they know how they measure up against them. If you have not set your targets carefully you are in for surprises. People without clear targets will always assume that they are in the green. Wait for the shocked silences when you paint a different picture. “What do you mean I’m below target? I’ve brought in LOTS of revenue and a BUNCH of new customers!”. Of course when asked how much 5% of LOTS is they usually have some trouble quantifying.

Always make allowance for that annoying little thing called human nature. People have things going on outside the office. Some are good, some not so good, others may even border on the illegal. Try to know if there is a personal reason behind the sudden drop in performance. Then handle it discretely.

Remember, a co-worker should walk out of an appraisal meeting feeling refreshed and focused. There should be a sense of justice, recognition and direction. Otherwise just send the targets through the mail.

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Posted by on 01/11/2012 in Managing people


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Action Plans and why they fail

Without discipline and focus on the target, your project won’t even get off the ground

There is an African saying that roughly translated (and I take this on faith) states that next to “I shall do” you will always find “Not done yet”.

Maybe this rings true to most of you. If you are not a “must do” fan, then surely you have heard it all from politicians and inefficient managers. Especially in times of downturn, we should be hearing more “This is what we have achieved so far and that is what we expect to have completed by blah date”. Instead, we still hear what committees have to convene to examine the possible ways forward and propose alternative solutions which will generate plans. Sometime, somewhere over the rainbow, any day now. The road to unachieved change is paved with procrastination. There are loads of proverbs that describe how people will find excuses not to do something while putting up a show of trying to attempt it. On the corporate level, the tool most frequently employed to achieve this is known as an “action plan”. The two words seem to put together a contradiction in terms. In most cases they do. You spend too much time on planning and not enough on action. Semantics aside, action plans under any name are crucial if a team of people is to come together under certain guidance to achieve a specific goal. In a company where people pull out “We need an action plan” too often and leave it at that, the term simply becomes associated with sarcasm and is filed to the bottom of the priority pile. The truth is that we DO need action plans. So how do we go about getting them to work?

In order for an action plan to work, four statements must ring true:

  1. Management is backing it
  2. It is detailed and specific
  3. Everybody involved has bought in
  4. Progress is being monitored

If either of the above does not apply, the goal will most probably not be achieved. If Management is not behind it, people will realize this is not a priority and treat it as such (that’s right, good old human nature again). On the other hand even if managers are selling/pushing/imposing it day-in day-out, if people are not clear on what it is they are supposed to be doing deliverables will not be delivered. Finally, even if a plan is specific and precise, if nobody is following up it up it will ultimately fail.

So why do people take it more seriously when you refer to a Project Plan? Because it has a better reputation. It gets things done. It uses specific tools. It sets time frames and assigns responsibilities. It has a project manager whose purpose of existence is to see the plan through and deliver within budget and on time. Is there a message in there somewhere? Obviously. So where do we start? Well, first of all you need to determine the value of whatever it is you are thinking of drawing up an action plan for. Under current market conditions you need to be constantly questioning which projects and activities are adding value to your organization. Once you have determined that, yes this must be done, then start talking about it. Call in your team and ask for their input. It has to be clear where the buck stops but a Manager who arbitrarily goes about imposing his or her ideas on people runs the risk of rejection, passive resistance and of course missing something. You need different types of people in your brainstorming sessions: experts, visionaries, worker bees and at least one Omega type. Even if you can’t have the others, make sure you have an Omega. These are the types that disagree by default. They always find fault with the reasoning on the table. If allowed to get out of control they can destroy a team and stand in the way of anything getting done. If handled correctly they can be invaluable to the process. You can be sure that they will always find that one problem you overlooked. Whatever you do, don’t put together a team of yes-people. Otherwise don’t waste time on getting input.

The next step is to start putting your action plan into place. Involve people and get their buy-in. There are workshop tools for process building that can help these sessions be productive.

At the end of the process you should have a Plan. Everybody knows what is expected of them. With dates, milestones and measurable parameters. Finally you need control. You have defined what you want everybody to do, you have determined how you will measure progress. Now the whole process needs to be followed up. Relentlessly. No excuses for lack of adherence. Remember? Everybody involved has already signed off on the solution they contributed to.

In our new world we don’t have the luxury of missing opportunities or doing things in a half-assed way. It’s all about discipline. And just a while ago, from the perspective of a generation, we must admit, discipline has not been a strong point. Were this the case we would not be in the predicament we have found ourselves in today.

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Posted by on 14/10/2012 in Managing people


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Rules of engagement

Are we engaged yet?

What is employee engagement? You have probably been assigned the task (especially during these trying times of slashed budgets) to increase your team’s engagement. But without spending anything. It has been a well known fact for many years that salary isn’t everything. These days, some may argue, “A” salary is everything; in so much as you have a job and are being paid to do it. So it’s back to good old Muslow and his pyramid. Just when these guys were going out of fashion, the markets get thrown twenty years back and the golden oldies are making a comeback. Gone are the cash rich and time poor customers. Gone are the affluent customers, hell, where did all the customers go? So now, we are left with highly sophisticated buyers with even more time to research purchase options (because of the unemployment) and less disposable income (because of the unemployment). It’s a marketer’s nightmare.  Add lot’s of amateur entrepreneurs buying market share and you get the picture. Still, you need to engage your employees. In a cost effective manner. What the hell is the boss thinking? Actually he is thinking along the right line if you think about it and assuming that he or she has. Many companies are looking at zero voluntary turnover. This is not a sign of a healthy market. Quite the opposite. Come on, guys! Somebody has to be ticked off with The Man. But if you walk these days, it’s straight to the unemployment line. And the line is getting longer. So where does engagement come in to the picture. Let’s imagine we are back in the good old days. What is employee engagement? Actually it’s the same as it is today. But back in the GODs, the boss probably said something like, “throw them a party”, or “throw them some money”. Now, we are actually getting it right. A disgruntled employee with a pay rise, in three months time will simply be a disgruntled employee in a better suit.  So what is engagement? If you ask me, it is what makes somebody prefer to work for you rather than for somebody else with the same salary. Think of your employees as your customers: we are talking value for money. That is, in fact, the secret to selling and it is no different if you are selling employment. So, back to Muslow: People need esteem. They desire respect and acceptance from others. Couple this with the fact that they don’t want to lose their job plus the fact that happy employees mean happy customers and it shouldn’t be too hard to connect the dots. Show respect for your team’s work. Show understanding to their needs. Reward them with recognition. People know it’s difficult to give fat pay raises these days. Get them to want to come to work because they feel valued. Make them part of the system. Then they will look to make things better. They will feel included instead of excluded. They will accept brutal facts easier. If you can achieve this, even if you are no longer dishing out the fat bonuses, you will see a continuous improvement in the level of your customer service. Engaged people care about their work and this becomes apparent to the customer. They become recipients of genuine customer care rather than customer service policy.

Keep people in the loop. Be honest about the company finances. Make it clear that as long as you have paying customers you will be able to be a paying employer. You will be surprised at the impact this will have on the sales effort and the tendency to give big discounts at the drop of a hat.

Treat your people as that: your people. It makes all the difference.

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Posted by on 10/10/2012 in Managing people


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Training: getting the best out of your people without permanent damage

Make sure to keep it genuine

In my post on recruitment (Recruitment is everything, Aug 29) I refer to the importance of getting the right people on board. If your basic building blocks aren’t high quality material, you can train until you are blue in the face but you can’t turn lead into gold (the physics involved cost too much). Having said this, even the best of people need training unless you are running a business which sells something people are born to. Some of these are illegal in most countries but I am sure that even in these more specialized areas training comes into the equation at some point.

Sales and customer satisfaction are, in my mind, directly correlated to the level of training provided by a company. You should train your people for everything: how to answer the phone, what to say to customers, what not to say, how to handle or escalate complaints, how to sell, how to dress, how to negotiate, how to compare your offering with that of your competitors, how to comment on competitors – you get the picture. This ensures that you are projecting your company to the outside world as you have strategically decided to do so. Leave nothing to luck and, God forbid, common sense.  Also training, when done correctly, can be very motivating as demonstrated by today’s image.

Training manifests itself in various forms. Let’s look at three common manifestations:

1. Training: Sit everybody in a room and talk at them about how to assemble a PC. With diagrams.

2. Mentoring: “I’m great at what I do! Come, little Grasshopper, see how I do it”

3. Coaching: “We hired you because we believe you are suitable for the job. Let’s see how we can aim you in the right direction. Oh, and by the way, here are some tools”.

Horrifying as it may seem, I believe you can’t avoid any of these three types. “Let’s discuss the processor speed of the new tablet we launched. How fast do you think it may be?” You sometimes need to sit people down and brief them. But you can make it interesting and fun. With chocolate prizes for the ones that stay awake. It is, of course, necessary to let people watch the experts at work. And it is crucial to develop a coaching program. This is where you support intelligent people (the ones you correctly recruited, remember?) to develop their skills and knowledge so that they can fly solo. My apologies to the control freaks reading this.

Whatever the mix you choose, your people need to receive training, even for the basics. You need to massage them into the company culture. You don’t have to spend huge amounts. If you run a small business you may even run some sessions yourself on a Saturday. You will probably also do most of the coaching. Throw in lunch. This is especially important for sales people (the coaching bit, not the lunch). In these days of crisis I would go as far to say that on a typical coaching ride (you sit back and observe the neophyte at work and then go back to the office and talk about it) it may even be ok to breach coaching etiquette and step in if the rookie is about to blow the 100K deal.

By the way, having trained your people, you can be very specific about what is expected of them.

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Posted by on 26/09/2012 in Managing people


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Conflict management: It may not be easy, but it can be simple

Ira furor brevis est – anger is a brief madness. The consequences of decisions made in anger are not

A friend received a letter of resignation the other day which was, in my opinion, the culmination of a series of management mistakes. Tension had been building up for some time as I understand. The result was a verbal showdown in front of colleagues and the resignation of the employee involved. So what does the autopsy show? Let’s make a to don’t list:

1. Don’t lose touch with your people

Even if they work at a remote location, you need to be in personal contact. Remember, we are talking about small and medium sized operations. When you limit your communications to phone calls, emails and, god forbid, scorecards and reports you are missing the essence of what you keep saying is your company’s most important asset: its people. Your people. How can they be your most important asset if you are not willing to take the trouble to drive out and find out up close and personal what’s up (or down) with them. If they are facing personal issues or even tragedies, shouldn’t you be aware? When you communicate personally with people there are so many messages between the lines. “I am unhappy”,” I am pissed off”, “I am about to blow a fuse”, “Why does nobody appreciate the fact that I put in twelve hour days without clocking overtime?” Did you even know this? Probably not if you are only calling them during work hours and only looking at the OT sheet. You visit the premises and as soon as you walk in the door you can tell if everything is running smoothly or not. Is it tidy? Is it clean? Is there a good, bad or ugly atmosphere?

2. Don’t only listen to one side

This is cradle of bias. Get all the facts from both sides and then get some third party input. Then sleep on it. Let them sleep on it. Then decide on what approach you will use. Remember that everybody, with the exception of certain historical figures and the highly professional, assume that they are right, the better person and perfect at their job. This, of course in combination with a healthy dose of self preservation instinct will have an effect on their narrative. Use all your senses, including your instinct when listening to accounts of incidents. Always see things within context. Nothing happens in a void. People favor other people, harbor grudges and have wants and needs. Examine the incident with reference to the frame within which it occurred and look for hidden factors and parameters. An upstanding, trusted co-worker faced with a sky high doctor’s bill for their child might develop long fingers.

3. Don’t let angry dogs lie

Deal with conflict immediately and personally. Things we hope will go away if we ignore them are limited to school yard bullies and pushy sales people. The rest need to be dealt with.

4. Don’t tolerate unprofessional conduct from your managers

The people you trust to manage other people are people. They have people reactions. You need to recruit correctly and then train and coach. Especially newly promoted managers or team leaders. They need to learn one simple rule: Treat your reports as you would like your manager to treat you. Nothing more, nothing less. If a co-worker is indeed out of line and his or her manager handles it badly you will become involved in a “yes, but” type of conversation. The friend I mentioned at the beginning was in a difficult position because although the team leader was right, the issue became not the performance of the employee but the unprofessional conduct of his manager. Lawyers love this kind of thing. “You see their performance was negatively impacted by the manager’s bad handling and personal grudge”…

5. Never lose your temper

Back to the historical figures again. This is impossible. It is possible to control it though. This takes effort for the more hot-headed amongst us. It takes a conscious decision and self discipline. If even I can do it, so can you. If you see yourself ready to explode, interrupt the meeting, ask the other party to come back tomorrow with the facts and sleep on it. Sometimes the implication that you are so angry that you can’t continue the discussion in a civilized manner is enough to make a point. You will regret nine out of ten decisions you make under the guidance of anger. Even if it is the decision to use harsh language. You can not be in control of your company if you can’t control yourself. Having said this, a staged, controlled outburst does have an effect in some cases. It depends on who you are dealing with. If this were not the case “0” on the phone would have “Pearly Gates” printed next to it instead of “Reception”.

6. If you do, do it in private

This is another, less sung, reason to reprimand in private. If it comes to the point that you are out of control, you don’t need an audience. Telling people off in private, removes 90% of ego from the equation. They don’t have to save face or put on an act of saving face, usually manifested as defiance, in front of colleagues once the boss has gone. You can have very extreme conversations behind closed doors and once the steam has dissipated, you can close with, “To everybody outside this room this conversation never happened”. Both parties walk out smiling and the issue is contained rather than costing man-hours in gossip in the form of extended nicotine and caffeine breaks.

7. Don’t think like yourself

If you are going to get to the root cause of problems and find long term solutions, as opposed to fire fighting, you need to walk a mile in the other person’s shoes. If you refer to Rule 1, and if you are actually communicating with people, then you should have a sound understanding of what everybody does or is supposed to be doing.

Let’s stop here. Just remember that steps 2 through 7 are usually redundant if you practice Rule 1 until you are perfect at it.


Posted by on 19/09/2012 in Managing people


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Are you being spoon-fed Feedback?

The building blocks of communication: Two ears, one mouth and a brain

Feedback is a process which takes information on something that has happened and uses this information to influence how this something is done next time around (definition freaks please allow for poetic licence). There are certain assumptions we make regarding feedback. So here is a hint: stop making assumptions. About anything. We assume that the feedback we are receiving is correct and unbiased. We assume that the feedback channel is accurate. When referring to people and not sensors, we assume that they have a clue or give a damn about whatever it is they are feeding you back on.  If we get as far as deciding on actions based on feedback, we assume they will be carried out. That’s a lot of assumptions in one paragraph. You may take it for granted that most of them are wrong in most cases. So what should we do? We should go back to basics. Start by asking yourself the following questions:

  1. Do your people know what you want?
  2. Do you know what you want?
  3. Do you know what is expected of you?
  4. Do people that you should be receiving feedback from have the knowledge, ability and channel through which they can provide it?
  5. Do you act on feedback?
  6. Do you follow up on actions taken based on feedback?

As you can see feedback, although often referred to and used freely at various forums, can not survive in the wild. It needs to be brought up in a controlled environment, nurtured to maturity and then tended to frequently.

Start by making sure that your people have a clear understanding of what is expected of them. Then spend time following up. It is human in nature, given the absence of evidence to the contrary, to assume that we are doing a good job. If you do not provide feedback to people that are falling behind, don’t expect them to understand why they are being chewed out at year end or salary review.  Set up frequent short meetings with your reports, say once every one or two months. If you have set things up correctly, each person should have specific goals and targets. These should be measurable. They should be related to their specific role. Each person must be able to affect the outcome of these KPIs and part of their reward should be linked to said outcome. Said outcome, of course, must be totally aligned to the company strategy. When this is your basis, then you can:

always start feedback sessions based on numbers.

Choose the correct opening statement:

  1. I feel you are not doing so well.
  2. Your Blah factor is off target by 12%, how do we go about fixing this?

Then you can use all the touchy –feely feedback techniques, but please don’t insult peoples’ intelligence.

You should be fair, objective and specific. You must always do your homework and get your facts straight before appraising somebody. And by the way, don’t call somebody in and yell at them for something that happened three weeks ago. In some cases, feedback needs to be immediate and ad hoc.

Once you get a healthy communication feedback channel set up, you are receiving it as well as supplying it. You then need to take action so that the information gained does not go to waste and actually contributes to improvement. Also not following up discredits the whole process. Once actions have been taken and processes amended, you need to follow up on these amendments. Otherwise your process will degenerate. But that’s another story.

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Posted by on 10/09/2012 in Managing people


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Recruitment is everything

Get the right people on board – or else

You may be familiar with the credo that human capital is a company’s most important investment or asset or whatever. There is a problem with this statement if it does not contain a disclaimer. You see, investments often do not offer the expected yield and assets at some stage need to be written off, become obsolete, defunct etc.

So what is the disclaimer? Yes people are what companies are made of but they are only the most important investment if they have been correctly selected (just like shares, actually). They are only an asset (not in the accounting context) if they actually do what they were put there to do. Otherwise they are in fact a deficit, loss, waste or whatever else you would like to call it for the sake of political correctness.

I am something of a pragmatist, so I tend to get strange looks at meetings. One statement that earned me certain looks at an HR meeting was: “Most companies continue to employ people who are incompetent, unsuitable and downright wrong for the job”.

So how does this happen? Crappy recruitment, followed by lukewarm or non existent induction and initial follow up on new recruits.

There is so much emphasis placed on training and development. This is a good thing. It absolutely necessary and it costs sooo much. But… would you try to train your grandmother for the decathlon? Would you start training for the Olympics tomorrow? You can’t teach a cat to heel. So why does everybody insist on trying to. You can not train a self-centered, rude, uncouth b*st*rd to be customer centric. You can probably make them up to seem customer centric but that’s not culture, that’s fashion. And (surprise!) a good recruiter could have picked up on the negative traits fifteen minutes into the interview.

If you want to get things done, make sure to get the right person in the right position. Then you can help them develop to unbelievable levels.

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Posted by on 29/08/2012 in Managing people


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