Catch them doing something right

Photo by Fishking_1

I have written a number of times about the concept of MBWA – management by walking around (see here, here and here). Somehow, in the last few months it hasn’t come up. I was so happy to encounter it again, this time from a different perspective. I am currently listening to the audiobook of Shine: Using Brain Science to Get the Best from Your People by Edward M. Hallowell. In the book, Hallowell shares a quote by Brigadier General Thomas V. Draude, USMC (Ret):

My employees responded well to the example of me showing up when they didn’t expect me to. Not that I was sneaking up on them. They used to say it was an opportunity for me to catch them doing something right. And also to be there after hours and on Saturdays. When I first began to do it the employees would say: “Why are you here?” And I would say: “Because you are here. If you are here doing the things that are necessary, the least that I can do is to dignify your efforts with my presence.

What a wonderful idea: “opportunity to catch them doing something right”. If you are not out there, walking around the people, talking to them, watching their experience, you can’t really understand them and the challenges they are facing fully. And maybe more importantly, if you aren’t there to see it, it will be a lot tougher to recognize them for doing the things right.  To find out what works. To focus some of our attention to those who show up every day and maintain the standard.

When is the last time you actively caught you team members or employees doing something right? Isn’t it time to go and take a look?


Should managers Push or Pull

Photo by Robert S. Donovan


A discussion in class yesterday prompted me to think about the subject of Push vs. Pull management. What does that mean? Ask yourself – when do you actively engage with your employees and when do you wait for them to come to you?

My guess is that for most managers, the instinct of when to push and when to pull is out of tune.

They tend to push criticism (not feedback), rules and answers.

They tend to pull feedback (that is, they give feedback only when asked to), recognition (yearly performance reviews, anyone?) and taking hurdles out of employees’ way (that is, wait until the employee comes to them with a problem).

One example. Do you have an open door policy or do you practice MBWA (management by walking around).

Another my favorite examples, resisting the temptation to give answers and to tell people what to do. Seth Godin wrote a few days ago:

People are just begging to be told what to do. There are a lot of reasons for this, but I think the biggest one is: “If you tell me what to do, the responsibility for the outcome is yours, not mine. I’m safe.”

When asked, resist.

Instead of pulling people to ask you what they should do, resist the temptation to give answers and push back with some questions. Susan Docherty, who leads the United States sales, service and marketing team at General Motors, said, in an interview on the New York Times:

It’s one thing to say that you’re inclusive, but it’s a whole other thing to be inclusive. And when people come into my office, they feel welcome. My door is open. They can bring ideas. They begin to understand that, as a leader, I want to be collaborative. I don’t have all the answers or all the best ideas, nor do I want to.

You don’t have all the answer either. So, why not start asking great questions instead?

The ability to pull and push in the right times is critical. When do you push and when do you pull?


Is listening to customers and employees enough?

Photo by Lepiaf.Geo


I love the movie “Big” with Tom Hanks. It is a classic. There are so many great scenes there, but this is one of the best  (this is the source):

JOSH: I don’t get it.
PAUL: What exactly don’t you get?
JOSH: It turns from a building into a robot, right?
PAUL: Precisely.
JOSH: Well, what’s fun about that?
PAUL: Well, if you had read your industry breakdown, you would see that our success in the action figure area has climbed from 27 percent to 45 percent in the last two years.  There, that might help.
PAUL: Yes?
JOSH: I still don’t get it.
PAUL: What?!
MR. M: What don’t you get Josh?
JOSH: Well, there’s a million robots that turn into something.  And this is a building that turns into a robot.  So what’s so fun about playing with a building?  That’s not any fun!
PAUL: This is a skyscraper.
JOSH: Well, couldn’t it be like a robot that turns into something like a bug or something?
PAUL: A bug?
JOSH: Yeah!  Like a big prehistoric insect with maybe like giant claws that could pick up a car and crush it like that!

I was reminded of the scene while reading Bruce Temkin’s post on the Customer Experience Matters blog titled Don’t Listen To Customers, Understand Them. He reminds all of us of a point I mentioned a number of times in this blog – listening to customers is not enough, because they cannot always tell you what they really want, because they cannot articulate it. Here is a little excerpt:

I really like this quote from Sir Denys Lasdun, the English architect, saying that the architect’s job is to give a client: “Not what he wants but what he never dreamed that he wanted; and when he gets it, he recognizes it as something he wanted all the time”…

Instead of looking at direct responses to questions, breakthrough innovations often require a different type of customer input: Observation.

And I was also reminded of this scene while reading a great post on the Harvard Business Review blog by Roger Martin titled Management by Imagination. In this post, Martin claims that true innovation doesn’t come from looking at the past and measuring it better, but by imagining a future that is completely different than anything that ever existed in the past. Again, a short excerpt:

We need to get away from all those old sayings about measurement and management, and in that spirit I’d like to propose a new wisdom: “If you can’t imagine it, you will never create it.” The future is about imagination, not measurement. To imagine a future, one has to look beyond the measurable variables, beyond what can be proven with past data.

I would like to take these ideas and apply the same approaches in managing our employees. It is important to ask them what they want and listen to them, but it is more important to give them things that they are not even able to think about asking, because they have been schooled to become cogs and bombarded with mistaken conventional wisdoms. It is more important to observe them in their places of work because that is the only way we can understand what they are going through. Above all, it is important to let go of the mechanisms of control and stop trying to limit them with rules that enable their measurement and instead equip them with tools that allow them (and the managers) to imagine a better future.

Do you really understand your employees?


Shorts: The Nametag Guy (@nametagscott) on Commitment

Watch this short presentation by The Nametag Guy. Here is a quote:

It is about commitment. And more importantly, it is about visually, daily, remind people of that commitment. See, people, customers, fans, they are not going to give you credit for what they hear you say. They are going to give you credit for what they see you do

In other words: Show, don’t tell.

Here is what I wrote, not a while back:

The more practical thing I was thinking about is the importance of leadership on the creation of culture. There is a wide agreement among researchers that leaders are the main agents of change. And new leaders have the most prominent effect on the organizational culture. The problem I think most of us face while dealing with leaders and their attempt to change culture is hypocrisy. Leaders who say one thing and do another. I think the most frustrating thing people encounter. Sometimes the hypocrisy is intentional, sometimes is just a matter of bad practices. If it is intentional, well, there is a bigger problem. If it is not intentional, I think many times it is a matter of disconnection with the reality of the organization and the people who operate it. The leaders don’t know what is really happening. That is why I think one of the most important process leaders should adopt is MBWA – management by walking around. Go to your people, walk around them, talk to them, be the costumer, deal with a costumer, see where the people are sitting or working … If you consider yourself a leader, this is as much a part of your job as sitting in your office. It is more than that – it is something you need to put into your schedule. How many leaders you know have “walking around” in their schedule?


Shorts: Bill Taylor on Office Hours

In the Harvard Business Review Blog Bill Taylor writes:

Lately, my rule of three convinced me to check out the rise of “office hours” in business and finance. And it looks like a pretty sound idea. If you, as a busy and stressed-out leader, want to stay in touch with your colleagues and stay connected to the market, then clear your calendar for an hour or two each week, invite colleagues and customers to stop by your office, and answer their questions. What could be simpler — or, in this era of information anxiety, more effective?

Three comments:

  1. Is this really a new trend/Idea? As Taylor mentions himself, the idea has been around in universities (and other organizations) for a long time. To me, it just seems like common sense. Not having open office hours is a trend we should report and be worried about.
  2. Is it enough. Office hours are a passive activity. We stay in our office, waiting for our employees or customers to come or call. Shouldn’t we be proactive? Make sure that we spend time with our employees even if they don’t come on knocking?
  3. While being available in your office is important there are great opportunities in doing the “open office” in your employees’ or customers’ natural habitat. There are some things that you can understand only if you see it from the other side.


Understanding the other side

Photo by Scarleth White

Seth Godin writes today about watching the money:

Money is more than a transfer of value. It’s a statement of belief. An ad agency that won’t buy ads, a consultant who won’t buy consulting, and a waiter who doesn’t tip big—it’s a sign, and not a good one.

The idea – in order to really sell something, you have to understand it completely, to live it form the other side. And I completely agree. There is something about putting your own money, from your own pocket, that transmits a signal about your beliefs (and in an unrelated note it might be better than executive bonuses).

The same logic could be used to everyday people management. If you want your employees to do something, you have to do it yourself. Not only because, as Godin says, it sends a signal to your employees, but also, and this is the important part of Godin’s post, it leads to better understanding of the feelings and experiences of the employees. Simple MBWA.

It is quite clear (or is it?) that if we want to understand our customers, we need to act like customers – try to acquire a service or a product from our own company. However, the same could be said about you as a manager. Can you put yourself in your employees’ shoes and try to “acquire” feedback, recognition or just time with you.

Yes, I know, the comparison is not complete and you cannot disguise yourself as a mystery shopper in order to obtain feedback from… well, you. This line of thinking might only manifest itself as a mental exercise. But, if you think about it carefully, I am sure that you can come up with ways to actually try to acquire management services from yourself (start by examining you schedule and how much of it is dedicated to being with your employees, and which ones).

However, what is more important is the frame of mind. The understanding that as managers, we are there for our people and to help them excel, we need to try and see things from their perspective.

So, when is the last time you saw yourself from your employees’ eyes? And how? Please leave your thoughts in the comments.


Getting down from the ladder


Photo by doortoriver

Our integrative experience in the AGSM MBA this week included a big chapter on adaptive leadership. One of the concepts that were mentioned time and time again was that of rank. How we perceive our and other people’s rank and what effect it has on our assumptions and behaviours.

One sentence that one of our facilitators mentioned (he actually quoted someone else, whose name I don’t remember) struck me as especially interesting. He was talking about rank in organizations and about people “going up the ladder”, being promoted. Then he said:

“When we go up the ladder, we look down and see a lot of shiny happy faces. When they look up, they see…”

Well, he did not finish, so I don’t feel I need to. But that reminded me of the “Toxic Tandem“. People in positions of power tend to be oblivious to the needs and actions of the people who have less power than them. Or in other words, as we described it in class: “managers are usually blind to their rank”. As a manager, it is easy to forget that you are up there on the ladder. That means that the focus of all eyes is on you. And it also means that you are in a different position than everybody else is. Which means it is harder for you to understand them.

Too many managers get to a management position and continue to do what they always did. Their work. Which is good, but not great. The problem is that now their work is being a manager. And that is a totally different job. A job you cannot do without leaving your desk. With out being active about it. without a little, MBWA.

So, the fact that you went up the ladder does not mean you have to stay there all the time. From time to time, you can climb down from the ladder and let the people see your happy shiny face, instead of your…


Silence, “I don’t know” and problems & solutions


Photo by said&done

This week we had workshop on Adaptive Leadership as part of our integrative experience in the AGSM MBA. Part of the workshop entailed peer consultation regarding dilemmas the students are facing. We formed groups of five people and in the group we had a very specific process that we had to follow:

First, the person presenting the dilemma had five minutes to present without anybody interfering. Second, the group had ten minutes to ask open-ended questions. Third, for 15 minutes, the group had to discuss the problem. At this point, two rules were put in place. The first is that the presenter should be absolutely silent. The second is that the discussion of the dilemma should not be about solutions, but only an attempt to understand the situation and what is the dilemma made of. The forth stage was a ten minute discussion regarding possible courses of action. Finally, the presenter had five minutes to recap what he found useful.

As someone who likes to focus on the process and its importance, this exercise defiantly appealed to me. I think some bigger insights can be gained from it:

The importance of silence – I think that this is a great reminder to the importance of silence. When you sit silently while other are discussing you become attuned and aware of other things that you usually miss. Your mind is focused on listening and not on the next sentence you will try to push into the discussion. Silence and listening are important tools for communication that are usually underused. I just finished reading the book: “The McKinsey Mind” where one of the tips the writers prescribe is: “we have one mouth and two ears”. This is especially important in feedback sessions and in today’s managerial setting where the manager usually is not the content expert. Listen as twice as much as you talk. This relates to a concept I really believe in: “MBWA – management by walking around”. Go around the office, firm, plant, company. Be silent and listen. What do people say? What do they do? What do the customers say? I grantee, you will learn plenty.

Don’t accept “I don’t know” as an answer – in the same book the authors talked about not accepting “I don’t know” as an answer. They claim that if you go and interview somebody, let’s say, about the causes of a certain problem, many times he will answer: “I don’t know”. But people do know. Maybe they don’t have the entire answer, but they always have opinions, knowledge and theories. And these sometimes prove more valuable than they think. I believe that the silence is important here is as well. Try this next time you interview someone or give feedback to someone. Ask a question. Listen to the answer. Then wait. Don’t go to the next question. In high percentage of the cases, that person will, after a short uncomfortable silence, continue talking. People don’t like being silent. You would be surprised how much they will tell you just to avoid being silent.

Problems and solutions – people in the business world tend to be practical. They want to see and reach the bottom line. They ask: “So what?” all the time. But in our race to be active and create an impact we sometime bark up the wrong tree. We miss focusing on the real problem and create solutions which don’t really solve the problem. We keep trying to deal with fires and don’t ask ourselves how they were caused and why. I mentioned here in this blog that I believe we should be more focused on preventing problems then on solving them. Understanding the real problems is an important part of that. In order to do that, it could be beneficial to limit the discussion to the problem without talking about solutions. It allows us to talk about concepts. To take the balcony view. To think about the underlining rationale. Then, the discussion of the solutions will be much more effective.


Manager’s Toxic Tandem Dilemma


Photo by John-Morgan

Yesterday I was listening to a podcast from the Mckinsey Quarterly titled: “Good boss, bad times“. It is basically a very interesting interview with Bob Sutton from the Stanford Graduate School of Engineering about an article he wrote for Harvard Business Review.

One of the concepts he mentions is the “Toxic Tandem”. Here is the explanation:

…it’s a combination of two things about power that are very well documented. One is that when people are in positions of power, for better or worse, they often become sort of oblivious to the needs and actions of the people who have less power than them… And the other part of the toxic tandem is sometimes called hyper vigilance…  The spotlight raises on you. They’re looking at you really closely. So if you think about the toxic tandem, you’ve got the boss, oblivious, and then the subordinates, even more and more worried. People tend to devote a lot more energy to their boss—or to their board, even, if they’re CEOs—to figure out what is going on. And they don’t engage as much with the people who are under threat.

I think this is a particularly interesting concept because at least the first part of it is so opposite to what a good manager should do – engage with his employees and become more aware of their needs. Being oblivious to your people is a real danger as a manager.

You hear a lot of managers saying that they feel they don’t have time to do their work since they became managers, because they have to spend so much time with their employees. Then they start disappearing, employing closed door polices and so on. This is because people are promoted on the merit of their old job, without regard to whether they are compatible to being a manager. To whether they have the inherit talent for it. So, they try to do what they did before, but just better. But when you are a manager, it does not work. Because being a manager is about more than being a great professional, no matter what your profession is. Because you cannot afford to be oblivious to your people as a manager. Your job is your people. Their feelings, their thoughts, their success, their excellence.

I believe that one of the most important aspects managers should adapt to their management style is MBWA (management by walking around). I find the importance of this concept not only in managing people, but also in other fields likes marketing (the best companies spend a lot of time with their customers) and operations (actually walking to the production level and seeing things with your own eyes). But when we talk about managing people, it is a must. It is the key to understanding your employees and to making sure you are not oblivious about them.

So, how have you been fighting the Toxic Tandem Dilemma?


Why you should go and observe someone else’s work?


Photo by Timothy Valentine

Last week in our strategy class we were talking about competitive advantages. We learned about the two main ways you can create competitive advantage – cost advantage and differentiation. Then, as an answer to a student’s question (I don’t remember what it was exactly) the professor said something like this: if you are looking for how to create cost advantages – you need to look for answers in the operations class. If you want to create differentiation advantage – you need to look for answers is the marketing class.

I can’t say I agree.

I think one of the major problems companies are facing today is to create ways disengage from this kind of thinking. To create synergies between operations and marketing. And finance, accounting and HR for that matter. The thought that the advantage of the company, whatever that is, lies in one aspect or one discipline of the business is counterproductive and for me, counterintuitive. With everything we know about the importance of diversity in the creation of innovation, about the effects of social capital derived from interaction between different parts of the business, even thinking about competitive advantage as being the responsibility of one part of the business is dangerous.

I am sure our professor acknowledges that as well. All the examples of successful companies we keep seeing are examples of companies which succeeded to do both cost and differentiation advantages. Doing both requires coordination.

More than that. In the operations class we learn about things like TQM and Six-Sigma. These are concepts that not only reduce cost, but also increase quality and can create differentiation. Marketing decisions can have cost implications. The fact the Apple chooses (or choose) to create the I-pod with a very limited user interface (which I find terrible) is a marketing decision. But I am sure it has operations and cost implications. Design of the product can be a competitive advantage – who does it? Marketing or operations.

In the words of Guy Kawasaki:

The separation of engineering and marketing is artificial. It presumes that engineers build feature-laden crap that no one cares about but engineers. Maybe mediocre engineers do this. Great engineers create with a customer in mind. Fantastic engineers create with themselves in mind as the customer. Every Nokia engineer should give their prototypes to their mothers, fathers, and kids. That would fix everything. The user interface of almost every phone is unintelligible. Anyone could have done an iPhone—it’s not like Apple has a monopoly on design.

I understand the need to simplify concepts for MBAs. But the fact that we study each and every one of the courses separately is enough to create silos of thinking instead of integrative thinking. I think all disciplines, and especially strategy, should embrace an integrative look.

No matter where you work and what is your pre-defined role in your company, you should try to schedule an hour, a day, a week – with another department – to understand their work, their needs and their problems. What you will learn will be invaluable to your work.