A Week as "Guest Faculty"

November 21, 2008

I had the honor to be asked to serve as “guest faculty” at a Management Excellence event this week.

I learned as much, I think, as the participants. It was a terrific experience, and I got to practice some skills myself by virtue of knowing I should at many times listen to how things were said rather than what was said.

I also led some sessions. My first session was on managing up. I started with a scene from the movie Gettysburg — a film well worth watching in its entirety, BTW. In the scene, Southern General Longstreet — Lee’s #2 guy — orders General Hood to “take that mountain” (Little Round Top). Hood recognizes it is a poor tactic and proposes an alternative — a tactic Longstreet himself preferred. But Lee had ordered Longstreet specifically to capture the hill. And so Longstreet passes the order to Hood, who is later unable to execute successfully.

My obvious intent was to focus attention and to provide two examples of managing up, a direct one (Hood to Longstreet) and an indirect one (Longstreet reporting on his failure to convince Lee). We had a good discussion on the scene as metaphor that led to analysis of manage-up tactics, concepts, etc.

But what I found really interesting was the number of times later in the week I or others would refer to that scene. It became a metaphor for a number of items — management vs. leadership, the difference among mission, vision, and goals, and more.

It reminded me — again — of how powerful storytelling and metaphor are as management tools.

Leaders lead by telling stories — not battle stories, but personal tales of your vision, future histories of a better world. Steve Jobs is famous for his “reality distortion field,” but all leaders do it.

Think of Reagan and “morning again in America,” or Clinton and his “bridge to the 21st century.” They’re memorable phrases, but they stem from stories in which the speakers believed and wanted us to believe. And they’re powerful visual images, too.

Management may often be words and numbers, but leadership is pictures and vision. If visuals are a powerful teaching tool, as I rediscovered, think how much more powerful they are when they’re part of your story.

Oh — and if Lee had listened to Longstreet or Longstreet to his heart, all us Yankees might live in a narrower nation of but 35 states. (It makes an intriguing alternate-history debate over a few beers if you’re a history buff.)


Kaizen, Nietzsche, and the Fly Lady

November 21, 2008

As I was driving into the office yesterday morning listening to local talk radio, the host mentioned ‘creative destruction’ in a segment on the need for government to retool and purge itself of outdated ideas (and legislation). Creative destruction is a term made popular by economist Joseph Schumpeter to describe the creativity that springs forth from the continuous cycle of destruction and rebirth.  The philosopher Nietzsche also used this idea in his writings, but with an existentialist (and slightly less 200px-FWNietzscheSiebe optimistic) perspective. I was familiar with the concept, but it got me thinking — about both my own team, and Microsoft at large. Creative destruction is, in management terms, the process of innovating over bad design. Or less efficient design. This is, as the Japanese refer to it, Kaizen: the act of continual improvement.

The concept is simple enough: every product or process has a lifecycle. An idea is formed, a prototype is created, it is introduced to the market, it grows and matures, it goes into decline, and then…

Well, if it’s a policy or process that we’re all used to because “that’s the way things have always been done,” then nothing usually happens at the logical end of its life. Occasionally someone brings out a can of fresh paint and spruces up that old process with a fresh coat, but it’s still outdated.

Think about how you are managing your team, and whether this describes your modus operandi. Are you throwing fresh paint on a tired process or bad habit? Or are you constantly throwing away what clearly doesn’t work, looking for incremental improvements? Are you taking time in team meetings or in your 1 on 1 sessions to get some real feedback about what you or your team are doing right, areas where you can improve, and processes that you can retire?

Jumping to the third item in my cryptic post title: my mother in law introduced my wife and I to the Fly Lady a few years back. I don’t flylady_toonexpect many people reading this to have heard of this self-help system for de-cluttering your home, but my wife and I really took to it (we are HUGE fans of the control binder). Something that I have incorporated into my professional life, in a way, is the concept of “de-cluttering”: simplifying your life one baby step at a time, identifying and ridding your house/office/life of clutter. The idea is that once a week you find 27 items to throw or give away. I don’t know the magic behind the number 27…..so find the right number for you, and just do it. Make a conscious effort to simplify your life, your team processes, and your product solutions.

Hopefully you can see how these things all fold together. At least they did in my mind in the short time it took for me to turn from Novelty Hill onto Avondale while driving toward the end of 520.

Find what is broken, what has stopped working, what has no value and get rid of it. Embrace the creative destruction, find your inner Fly Lady, and maybe get a little existentialist.

And I’ll try to focus more on the road next time…


I’ll Give You 30 Minutes Back in Your Day With Just Two Mouse Clicks

October 30, 2008

You’ve got Outlook (or some other mail program) open, right?

Click File. Click Exit.

Now go and get some work done. Don’t reopen Outlook for at least three hours. Lather, rinse, repeat.

======

Context switching is expensive for an operating system: service one program for a bit, save its state, restore the state of a second program — oh, wait, that driver is requesting service, so put everything else on hold for a moment….

Context switching is even more expensive for a human being.

You rarely have to be on email. You’re addicted to it; many of us are.

Wean yourself. Start by turning off the new-mail sound and cursor flash. Then turn off the “toasts” (blue ghosties) that fade in and out of the bottom corner of the screen.

As a next step, put your mail program behind your other windows. Try it for 30 minutes, then for an hour, then for three hours.

If the world hasn’t ended, go for the big step — shut down your mail program.

Want to talk with someone on your hall? Get up and walk to their office. Or pick up the phone. Or simply hold your question for a bit.

I guarantee you’ll get more done. You’ll even feel better about your day, less stressed and rushed, once you get over the awful feeling that the world is going by without you.

It mostly goes by without you anyway. Email is just the illusion of control, of being in the center of things.

======

The great benefit of Email from the start was its asynchronous nature.

The phone interrupts. Email waits patiently until you are ready.

At least that’s the way it was designed. Do you really want to turn Email into call-waiting? (“I don’t know who’s calling, but they’re more important than you are, which is why I’m putting you on hold to see who it is.”)

======

What do you do with those 30+ minutes?

You can think. Put in concentrated time on a project. Really analyze a spreadsheet or report. Understand the invariably bogus statistics behind the substitute metrics in your scorecard. Learn more about the industry you’re a part of. Actually talk with your team and your peers. Take a walk. Go home early; play your guitar or play with the kids.

Or how about this: you work about 240 days a year, give or take. Gain 30 minutes a day, and that’s three full weeks a year. What would you give for three extra weeks vacation?

Three extra weeks of vacation without having to move to Europe. Two clicks.

Of course, you have to take that vacation half an hour at a time; on the other hand, you get a bit of vacation every day.

Now it’s time to go play with my kids. I’ll check Email after they go to bed… but not until then.

  — Steve

(After I wrote but before I posted this, the NYTimes published an article about the difficulty of human multitasking.)


Exploring Management Conference

October 24, 2008

Yesterday I had the honor of serving once again as “table coach” for five sessions at the Exploring Management Conference. (A table coach sits at a large table and leads a discussion on a given topic for about 20 minutes; then the attendees change tables and you do it again.)

First, I encourage any experienced manager to do this. If you’re at Microsoft in Redmond, participate in the formal Exploring Management sessions. Otherwise, gather a bunch of folks who wonder about moving into management and have an open, honest discussion about some of the pros and cons — and your experiences with them. You’ll learn as much as those you coach, not just about them but about yourself and your assumptions.

My topic this time was “Tradeoffs: Manager vs. Individual Contributor.” I’ve done considerable coaching on this topic with newer managers working for me.

One day some years ago, a new manager threw himself down on the couch I’ve squeezed into my office and asked, “Why do I feel so bad about my job as manager? I work hard, I like everyone I work with, I even like you, but at the end of the day I feel exhausted and like I haven’t accomplished anything.”

Think about that for a minute. Have you been there?

We came to a realization through coaching. [My coaching technique is to pose clarifying questions to the person I’m working with and help them work out an answer — an answer that I myself may or may not know.]

  • – As an IC, you get a win every day. Tasks are bounded and relatively short. Code a function, contact a customer, prepare a report. Tasks usually have a clear beginning and, more importantly, a clear end, one at which you are present.
  • – Managerial problems beyond the administrative tend to be formless. They drift up on you, you work the levers of influence and coaching, and eventually there is improvement in the situation. You probably spend the same amount of time on a given task/problem, a day or two. But it’s discontinuous time. These tasks often lack a clear point marking the start of your ownership. And they almost never have a clear end, an “aha!” moment. Three weeks or three months later, you may notice the change, the improvement. But by then, a dozen other tasks and problems have drifted down on you.

In other words, a manager spends much of his or her time setting wheels in motion — but at the end of the day, she has dealt far more in moving problems along than in exulting in solutions. Closure is hard to come by.

And if you don’t recognize that, you go home miserable, sometimes kick-the-dog, hate-the-job miserable. Or you start doing more and more IC tasks to get those endorphins flowing — which deleverages you and makes your team wonder why you’re micromanaging.

That’s the cost; what does the manager get in return? I got a sense of pride in helping my team grow, and a sense of accomplishment in making progress on larger problems than I would normally see as an IC. But there were many days where I had to think about that consciously.

What’s your experience?

  — Steve


Addressing Economic Woes through Management Innovation

October 22, 2008

One need not read this post to understand the breadth and depth of the economic crisis upon us all. Banks are failing, Wall Street is crumbling, and companies all over the world are evaluating new ways to deal with long term economic hardship.

Gallup polls over the last few years have indicated that approximately 30% of employees are disengaged, with 15% of those, “actively disengaged”.

In 2007, Gary Hamel published a great book titled, “The Future of Management“, which asserts that while technology, employee talent levels, and market diversity, have changed dramatically over the last 100+ years, management techniques have not, and that management, as a discipline, is a ripe area for innovation.

Typically, in hard times, managers will try to squeeze that extra 1% out of inventory, or layoff 10% of the workforce to reduce costs. Rarely do we hear about new management techniques being deployed to extract effort from the 15% who are “actively disengaged”.

If a manager were to experiment with rewards tied to earnings, self managing teams, and innovative ways to reach the Gen X or Gen Y worker, would it lead to a greater economic efficiency than squeezing any more “fat” from the production process, or reducing pay for long time employees?

Often, in times of stress, people revert to what’s worked in the past, but it’s hard to believe that last year companies were running their production lines with a bunch of extra fat, or that they truly employed too many workers or were paying people too much.

Perhaps, instead, it’s time to look at that big, juicy 30% of disengaged workers as a target for improving the economics of the firm.

And guess what, if managers turn things around and engage the disengaged, people will be having more fun too. Work will be a more pleasant place to be, and earnings and morale will rise. As Adrian Gostick, one of the authors of “The Levity Effect” says, “If you’re demanding, you can drive people for a short period, but if you’re fun, you have them for the long haul.”

The Great Place to Work Institute has consistently found that companies that are classified as “great” score unusually high marks from employees on the question “Are you working in a fun environment?” Great companies scored 81% on this, compared to 62% for companies ranked “good”.

If managers can innovate to improve the lives of the managed, then the “fallout” should be a reduction in the percentage of disengaged workers, leading directly to increased productivity, reduced costs, and improved earnings. If all of a sudden, 30% of the workforce starts doing more work, then that must have a positive impact.

It’s at least something to consider instead of the knee-jerk reaction to squeeze harder. Successful companies don’t cost-cut their way to greatness.

The Management Innovation Lab, an offshoot of Hamel’s efforts, defines management innovation as “anything that substantially alters the way in which the work of management is carried out, or significantly modifies customary organizational forms, and, by so doing, advances organisational goals.”

There is a lot of room for interpretation and experimentation. Could Alfred Sloan have predicted the pervasive use of IM (instant messaging) – or when Henry Ford introduced the assembly line, did he anticipate the use of wikis as a way of sharing information between workers? How about texting, YouTube, Facebook, LinkedIn, Sharepoint, Twitter, etc? All these new school techniques facilitate more rapid and deeper communication, much in the same way the “organizational memo” of the 1950’s did in that era.

Wouldn’t it be impossible for management styles NOT to be impacted by a change in communication styles and techniques?

Wouldn’t extending an olive branch to these disengaged workers through the application of new and improved management capabilities be a great way to initiate positive change in a challenging economic climate?

 



Team Morale Is Not an Events-Driven Protocol

October 16, 2008

I think we sometimes try to buy rather than earn morale.

Many companies, Microsoft included, have these things called “morale events.” They often run something like this: Take[1] the team[2] on some activity[3] and then have food[4] at the end.

  1. In other words, they require significant time out of the office, often spent in transport.
  2. In part as a consequence of #1, there are numerous no-shows.
  3. High-tech-industry managers seem to gravitate toward ropes courses, rock climbing, and mini-car racing. My own experience is that mini-golf and bowling work better — everyone is (usually) equally horrible, and we all start laughing at each other.
  4. Catered food at these events is usually very expensive and not terribly good. If you really want food to be a part, take the team out to a restaurant. It doesn’t even have to be a good restaurant; it’s the camaraderie that matters.

You can’t buy morale any more than you can buy morals. (I can’t tell you how many times in my 16 years here I’ve been invited to “moral” events.)

The best morale events I’ve ever been involved with have been cheap or free. Getting the team together for late-afternoon beer and cookies, for example, is cheap and effective. (Don’t cater it; buy and expense the beer if that’s allowed.)

Giving out $6 lunch or $3 espresso cards is also effective; have a bunch handy and award them generously for even minor above-and-beyond acts. (Obviously this particular item works best when the team is in one place.)

The best morale event I ever held, according to my team, was taking them out for an afternoon on my sailboat and letting them all take turns on the wheel. Yes, I’m lucky to have had a big sailboat, but the point is that I used “available materials” to come up with a fun, inexpensive (for Microsoft) event. Even as that particular team grew, they continued to look back fondly on that afternoon.

But I think the four biggest morale boosters are free:

  1. Trusting your team. There are many right ways to do something; it doesn’t have to be your way.
  2. Listening with respect, always, no matter how frazzled you are.
  3. Saying “thank you for your work” and “well done” regularly and at least some of the time in public.
  4. Telling your team the truth rather than trying to build your status by information-hiding.
  5.  

I won’t pretend I have always practiced what I preach; I certainly screw it up at least as often as most of us. But I know that when I am open and honest, when I praise solid work, when I have trusted them, my teams have responded very well.

So now that times are tough and money is tight, consider how to build team morale. Sometimes constraints are a blessing in disguise.

  — Steve 

 


Exploring Management, The Event

October 7, 2008

One of the goals of ChannelMEC is to provide some transparency into the management pipeline here at Microsoft — to discuss the roadmap to becoming a manager, and to share our collective experiences. As part of this roadmap, Microsoft offers a program called the Exploring Management Program, facilitated by the Management Development Group (MDG). Here’s a quick overview of the program:

The Exploring Management Program (EMP) is focused on developing an intentional pipeline of potential managers across Microsoft. The EMP focuses on exploring the manager role at Microsoft. The program provides opportunities for participants to develop managerial skills and to make an informed decision about whether to pursue a management career. The EMP is a 12 – 18 month program that contains a sequence of on-the-job learning activities, opportunities to learn from others, and formal learning events within the rhythm of the business.

Program Outcomes

Upon completion of this program, participants will have:

  • Gained an in-depth and realistic preview of the role of a manager at Microsoft.
  • Built a network of exploring management peers and Microsoft managers.
  • Used the provided tools to hold ongoing discussions with their manager regarding a management career path.
  • Completed a self-assessment with their manager to determine their managerial readiness.
  • Completed a development plan to use to explore management and to develop managerial skills.
  • Made an informed decision, with their manager, on whether or not to pursue a management career path.

As program participants explore the Management Career Path, the program provides an opportunity to investigate the Management Career Stage Profiles (CSPs) defined for management roles in each profession to see how their current role and skills might align. In November 2008, newly revised CSPs will be available which will more accurately reflect the scope, impact, and complexities of the manager role at Microsoft. These new CPSs will be introduced and used throughout the EMP.

Participants

Participants in this program have:

  • Been a full-time Microsoft employee for at least six months.
  • Achieved or exceeded commitments in their last performance review.
  • Never been a manager (with at least one FTE report) at Microsoft.
  • Not attended previous Exploring Management Conferences.
  • An interest in pursuing a manager role within 12–18 months, and in becoming a great manager.
  • In the opinion of their current manager, demonstrated management capability in their current role.
  • The endorsement of his her manager.

Program participation begins by attending an Exploring Management Conference. Within Puget Sound, managers self-nominate themselves and their managers decide whether or not to approve their nomination based on the program requirements. In the U.S. Field and International, managers directly nominate participants to the program.

I was able to participate in the Conference this past week, led by MDG’s Leah Wedul, who focuses on the pre-manager space. My role in the event was as a “table coach” — a group of current managers who share their experiences on a number of topics important to prospective managers, such as making the IC to Manager transition, how to develop your team, and so forth. It’s also a great opportunity for the participants to network, and just ask questions. The event is newly redesigned — instead of a single, huge event twice a year off-campus, the new format is to hold weekly events on campus for a month, allowing more people to attend. In October, there will be 4 different one-day events.

I thoroughly enjoyed participating, and will be coaching again the last week of this month. For those interested in attending, there will be another event held next spring — so be sure to self-nominate and start discussing this event with your manager.


Monthly MEC Mixer Monday Mania

September 30, 2008

Yesterday was the kickoff of the new Monthly MEC Mixer Monday (Mmmm) events at  various locations around Microsoft in an effort to get localized networking off the 100_0603ground. Our hope with these events is to provide a regular event at multiple locations, so that no matter where you are on campus or around the world, MEC members can get together and discuss topics that are important to them and their teams. All events are held on the same day, same local time (11:30am to 1:00pm). There are no agendas, no formal programs — just drop in, meet people, and talk. One of the benefits of this format 100_0604is meeting MEC members outside of your own organization – and outside of your building.

The attached photos are from the Mmmm event held in Redmond Town Center. Other locations holding Mmmm events yesterday include Buildings 37, 43, and 34, Westlake Terry (downtown Seattle), Redwest, Millennium, New York, and Dublin Ireland. In October, we’re looking to add Sammamish and Advanta locations here in the Puget Sound, Charlotte NC, Las Colinas TX, Mississauga Canada, Singapore, Germany, and the Netherlands.


Delayed Gratification

September 29, 2008

My seven-year-old wants everything now. Delayed gratification for him means a few minutes. The future isn’t quite tangible yet.

Most new managers I’ve worked with want everything now. Delayed gratification for them means a few days. The future isn’t quite tangible yet.

My seven-year-old, with much mentoring from my wife (and with insufficient help from her spouse), is growing out of it.

New managers need delayed-gratification mentoring too. Unlike children, they often don’t get it.

—-

Most managers are promoted from individual-contributor (IC) roles. They’re very good at some set of tasks — writing code, or managing a project, or selling to customers, say. A great hand comes down from the sky, extends its finger toward the IC, and suddenly the IC is a manager.

It’s supposed to be a reward for good work.

Instead, it’s often a recipe for failure.

The IC is no longer doing what she’s good at. So the company loses the value of the IC work she did, and has to make up the value and then some in her managerial leverage. Without planning, it sometimes works, sometimes, doesn’t — but there’s a lag in the value curve either way.

That story is pretty well known. Good companies and good managers and good HR folks have some awareness and strategies and methods.

(For now, let’s leave out the variant of this story where the new manager is expected to do everything she did before and also manage some people and exert a degree of functional leadership. That’s a post of its own.)

But I’ve rarely seen new managers prepared for the sudden shift to delayed gratification that managing brings.

The IC got stuff done. Bug in the code? Go fix it. Project slipping? Examine the schedule and address it. Customer isn’t buying? Get out there and close the deal.

All of a sudden, the problems are different. The manager isn’t dealing with today’s bug, or finding hidden slack time, or negotiating a close.

Rather, the manager’s problems are that the code is more buggy than normal, or the schedule seems divorced from reality, or the customers aren’t buying what the team is selling.

In other words, it’s stuff the new manager can’t fix by herself. She needs to work through others.

Working through others takes time.

The problems may present as symptoms. An employee mentioning that he’s stuck on a bug. In a one-on-one, the report notes that Task X will be late. In a team meeting, the manager hears that Customer Y is being difficult and another salesperson chimes in with similar information.

What’s a manager to do?

What the manager should do, in some way, is gather more information, distill it down to “facts” (i.e., best bets on what’s actually happening), confirm, and then think about the direction in which solutions might lie.

And then the manager coaches her reports on how to address the issues in a way that helps the employees grow.

So the employee figures out the bug and how to improve the overall state of the code. He gets the project back on track, or at least keeps it from falling further behind. The team improves the value proposition and messaging and starts winning customers.

They do that over the ensuing weeks, or months.

None of these issues are explicitly solved; there’s no dramatic “bomp-bomp!” music from the Law & Order theme to indicate a solution; there’s no drama. Stuff “just” gets better.

And in the meantime, the new manager has weeks filled with issue after issue. She sees the issues, feels the pain… but doesn’t get the resolution. Not directly, anyway.

So the new manager gets discouraged. She starts to hate managing; it’s all pain and no emotional rewards.

Or she solves some of the problems directly, goes back to being an IC instead of exerting leverage. Suddenly managing is fun again… for them. She wonders why her team’s morale suddenly starts dropping, though.

—-

Managing is about delayed gratification. Being an IC is a win every day; you see a problem, you solve it, you go home happy.

Being a manager is a problem every day, but the win is diffuse, in the future, often unseen, the problem long since replaced with newer, hotter fires to fight.

Managers will work through this on their own, often, with a variety of strategies. Some become the seagull manager, dropping in to poop all over something as an instant IC before flying away again. Some give up managing. Some become distant and withdrawn. And some, of course, figure this out themselves and adjust.

Just like some seven-year-olds eventually “get it” without mentoring from their parents.

But it’s not efficient or effective to wait for the manager (or seven-year-old) to figure it on herself.

—-

If you’re elevating an employee to manager, or coaching a new manager, watch out for the delayed-gratification slump. Make sure the new manager is aware of this pattern. Help them understand the long-term value of working through others — and the rewards that come from making an employee stronger.

It’s not the same reward as fixing the bug or closing the sale, but it’s a reward nonetheless — and I think a bigger, richer reward once you recognize it.

Or maybe it is the same reward after all. You spot a problem and you solve it.

It’s just that the problem you’re solving is the human one.

The reward just takes longer.

  — Steve


Beau Knows Management

September 29, 2008

At the Management Excellence Community (MEC) Speakers Series this week, Beau Parnell from the Management Development Group here at Microsoft spoke on ‘Crossing the Manager’s Chasm.’ Beau has spent the past 30+ years in leadership and organizational 100_0598development, working in hi-tech and teaching at some of the top universities in the country. Turnout for the event was high, with some great participation from the audience.

Instead of trying to recreate Beau’s presentation, I thought I’d share a few of my own key takeaways. My points below are not as polished as was the presentation, but then again, it’s hard to capture 2 hours of activity in a single post. I welcome comments from anyone else in attendance if you feel I’ve missed any salient points.

Focus and Motivation

He started the conversation by asking the attendees to name the one thing that we all require from our leaders. Inspiration, trust, direction, authenticity, and recognition were all discussed, but Beau’s golden nugget for leaders is “clarity.” He talked at length about how many leaders struggle with clarity, especially in the technology field because we’re seduced by the latest shiny toy. Leaders don’t know how to be clear in their communications, and how to let their people know where to focus.

A common theme from the last few MEC events has been the question of why Microsoft executives do not seem to be paying attention to what is happening within the MEC. The point was made again by a few people in the audience. Beau reminded us all that they’re just human, and at the GM level and higher, are being driven pretty hard — its a bandwidth issue, more than anything. But he also used the question to delve into the primary motivations that drive business: high achievement (which is at the core of Microsoft’s culture, affiliation (building relationships), and power (individual and socialized/team). Personal achievement and passion for technology are the two primary motivations here at Microsoft. The problem is that high tech companies are big on throwing people at the wall like spaghetti — to see what sticks. This is certainly true at Microsoft, and if we don’t like the outcome, we tell ourselves they were the wrong person. (This whole line of conversation made me think of Deming‘s idea that blame is commonly placed on the individual, instead of the system) The problem is that we (Microsoft) can be seen as unwilling or unable to adapt, and to incorporate different styles and perspectives. As managers, we switch positions so often, change teams or reorg so quickly that it’s difficult to see if methods or solutions we’ve put in place could be 100_0600successful. Beau’s point was that we often don’t do things long enough to really measure success.

Connecting With our Teams

After a short audience exercise where we were asked to think about our own experiences, the topic turned to accountability and making changes at the manager level, discussing what it takes to sustain your people. Beau challenged managers to spend more time with our people, walking the hallways, sitting in the cafeteria. He then related a story of of an interaction with Colin Powell, who, he had heard, would go for a walk every day at 3pm and use that time to talk with people. Everyone knew that he was approachable at that time, no matter what level/rank. Beau met Powell and asked him “Did you really take those walks?” Powell laughed and said, “Yeah, I did.” He then asked “Did you have any problems with that?” meaning did his direct reports feel that he was going around them to the lower ranks? Powell said that yes, he did have to clarify his intent with his directs. His staff managers had a problem with it until he explained to them that he wasn’t going above/around them, but wanted to learn directly from the people within his command.

His point in relating this story was that we aren’t even talking to our own customers, to understand what they are feeling. Beau recommends spending more time in the trenches with our teams. Managers are hiding in their offices, because they don’t have all the answers, and they’re afraid. Beau asked us to think about what your people are going through today, not just in their jobs, but in their personal lives. In this climate of change, we all need to be out among our people. People want to know that they’re relevant and important.

Managers Should Be Teachers

As we worked our way through a few slides, Beau reminded the group of Microsoft’s stated brand: the company’s mission is to help people and business realize their true potential. Within this, there are clear requirements for what is expected from managers: leaders who give employees enormous autonomy but maintain the focus on work, that engage people to develop and learn and grow to reach their true potential, and, at the end of the day, to hold people’s feet to the fire.

Microsoft’s new vision statement is “to create seamless experiences that combine the magic of software with the power of the Internet across a world of devices.” To achieve this vision requires collaboration, something we’re not good at. Microsoft is a culture of lone wolves, where “Look at me! Look what I’ve done!” can be heard in every hallway. We reward based on individual contributions, and not on team contributions — or good management. But we want to move to the ‘aspire to’ culture, and are heading in that direction with efforts such as MEC. Beau asked the audience to think about how we position the massive amount of work in front of us with “perpetual motivation.” Just because a team was aligned once does not mean they are aligned always. We need to constantly reinforce and communicate by understanding the story, and telling the story again and again.

A few comments from the crowd indicated that people were frustrated by their inability to see or make change within the company. Beau pointed out that Microsoft needs more disrupters; people who are willing to adapt enough to Microsoft’s culture to gain credibility, and stick around long enough to make change. We lose a lot of good people because they don’t find a “fit” within our culture, and then we collectively dust off our hands and tell ourselves “good riddance.” The problem with this cycle is that we’re failing to learn from these people and make ourselves better (which again reminded me of Deming). Beau reminded us that performance is situational — just because your team is good at one thing does not mean they will be good at everything, so have patience. People have to buy into you before they will buy into what you are saying — credibility is everything at this company. Your people want to know that you yourself can do the work.

Beau’s final statements were around the idea of managers as teachers. He told us that we have to let our people drive the content, and our job as managers is to tie it all together, driving clarity. We need to have a vision of where we want the business to go, and be able to communicate that across all channels. Ultimately, its all about execution, or we miss our opportunities. And finally, you cannot be a leader and go around complaining. You have to understand that clarity and credibility are everything – you ARE the message.