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


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.

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 


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.