30 Second MBA

August 31, 2009

I don’t have an MBA, so I don’t have direct experience of the programs; and I’m sure most of them deliver a great education in business, finance, analysis, operations, and all the trimmings. But I’m not a fan of the idea because of my personal experience with so many of the MBAs who came out of their programs in the 80’s and 90’s.

The irony was that most of these folks were straight out of biz school when I knew them, and they didn’t know anything about how business really worked. They only knew how it was “supposed” to go. They’d been taught that business was something that could be managed utterly by numbers, and that the end results justified the management means. Some of them were the dumbest smart people I’ve ever known.

I had plenty of conflict as an executive: it’s part of business, and most of it was straightforward and quickly resolved. Good conflict — effective and productive. The bad conflict I had was always with those MBAs who answered human needs — for respect, for communication, for collaboration — by pointing to the numbers and saying Look how well we’re doing, that’s all the answer you need. And a lot of times that’s all the answer our company looked for: having an MBA gave those inexperienced people more credibility than the advice — and the results in engagement, loyalty, productivity and retention — of the experienced managers.

But I think MBA programs are changing. I think there’s attention paid to the subtleties of managing people as well as the subtleties of process improvement and evidence-based decision making. And there is so much we can all learn from experienced people about how to manage them all together.

That’s why I’m glad to see the 30 Second MBA at Fast Company. Every day, a business leader or expert delivers a thirty-second distillation of his or her advice and experience on a particular topic. They’re not all great, but that’s part of the lesson — using your own instincts to tell you what tips make sense is the only way you’ll ever refine those instincts. The 30-second limit means there isn’t a lot of depth, but that’s also fine: the point is to give you simple and effective ideas, insights and techniques. (And one of the things I’ve already learned: if you have a 30-second limit, don’t go over it. It makes you seem either unfocused or arrogant; either way, people stop listening).

I don’t think this is a substitute for either education or experience. But if you can spend 30 seconds a day evaluating someone else’s advice, and perhaps putting another small piece of your own management style into place, that seems a pretty good return on investment.

What should a new boss do?

August 24, 2009

I have so many of Bob Sutton‘s blog posts bookmarked that they could probably fill a virtual shelf. Bob’s thoughts on management and leadership are wide-ranging and cogent, and the community conversation that follows is always fascinating and helpful.

Today I want to point you to one of my favorites — a lot of smart people talking about what a new boss should do the first few weeks. There is great advice there for any “first” situation: you can do these many of these things not only in your first days with a new team, but also in your first ten minutes in any new work relationship.


August 17, 2009

I found today’s link thanks to Clay Hebert of fear.less, an online magazine with a spectrum of stories about people overcoming fear. Go read it; there are great things there.

But this post from Michael Hyatt is not so much about fear as it is about perspective: what is the most important question you can ask yourself when life goes off the rails in small ways or large? Is it What did I do wrong? Or Why is everything so unfair/hard?

Me, I think Hyatt’s got the right answer.

Hello, my name is Kelley

August 10, 2009

I didn’t go to President Obama’s inauguration, although I did weep for joy through the entire event in the comfort of my own living room (see Comments section to learn why this is edited). But if I’d been there, I would certainly have been wearing a name tag.

Sharing your name is an act of courtesy, courage, and confidence. It’s a way to connect; it’s the beginning of community. Forget about those people who throw their name around like a weapon or a bribe (and just so you know, if you do that, other people talk bad about you when you’re not around). Most people aren’t impressed by your name; they’re impressed by the gift of it.

So don’t ever assume that people at your company or in other parts of your life “know who you are” — that just makes you look either insecure or enormously arrogant, neither of which is really the ideal path to getting things done.

It’s not hard. Smile and say, “Hi, I’m Kelley.” From that simple connection, you can go almost anywhere.

AA doesn’t get an A

August 3, 2009

A lot of people blame bad design and bad customer service in big organizations on the fact that they are big organizations. This is what Mr. X did. But that’s a cop-out. The reason large companies with bad design are the way they are is because they are run poorly from the top, with philosophies that force the entire company to behave like its lowest common denominator.
— User interface/experience designer Dustin Curtis

A while ago, I came across this Open Letter to American Airlines from user interface and experience designer Dustin Curtis, who was so exasperated by his experience on AA’s website that he wrote to tell them that their site abused and alienated customers. Then he took a couple hours out of his life and redesigned it for them.

I cheered. I hate that website with a passion, and in fact will pay Expedia.com potentially ridiculous fees to make my reservations so that I don’t have to deal with AA. They aren’t alone — many companies that depend on revenue from customer loyalty and margins from lower-cost online operations shoot themselves in their incorporated feet by providing an online experience that feels like a visit to a special circle of hell.

And then Curtis got this heartbreaking response from an anonymous user experience architect at AA. It turns out that the problem is not the capabilities of the folks working on the site — it’s the corporate culture that makes it nigh on impossible for capable people to do a good job.

That’s #managementfail on a grand scale. This is the 21st century. Every company needs to embrace the fact that you are defined as much by your online presence as your in-person customer interactions. Pixels don’t hide poor management: in fact, sometimes the flaws show even more.

Everyone’s got one…

July 27, 2009

… a client who thinks that their need is more important than your effort.

Sure, client needs are important. Delivering quality, expertise, convenience, customized service, turnkey solutions, great products — that’s bread and butter for most companies. But especially in tough times, it’s easy for people to forget that we aren’t here to serve each other’s needs: we’re here in an exchange of value for value, and meeting needs is the primary way that humans make that kind of exchange. My work for your money. My money for your product. My love for your love. My financial support for the services your nonprofit provides to a community I care about. And so on.

Whatever the specifics, in order to be sustainable, our relationship has to be based on mutual acknowledgment of the value. This video makes the point brilliantly. Have a laugh; spot your own “I’m so special” client in this mix; and then please make sure you’re not ever one of these clients for someone else.

And here’s a notion: what if instead of clients and vendors, we think of managers and employees? Please, make sure that as a manager you’re not placing your “I’m so special” needs above the value of people’s work. Don’t ask them to give so you can take: instead, support them in creating and receiving value. Everyone wins that way.

What shall we do with the young people?

July 20, 2009

The radically changing workforce demographic can be a source of stress for any organization. It’s more than just an “age difference” — it’s the meeting (sometimes the collision) of widely different worldviews, values, technological experience and expectations of what “work” should be and how it should feel.

Differences can’t be executive-memo’ed or or human-resourced away: they have to be engaged, explored, and integrated into your workplace process if you want your workplace to be effective.

Here’s one organization that’s doing just that — read this long and thoughtful article about the strategies Swedish Hospital is using to integrate and engage younger workers.

It means that when 25-year-old ICU nurse Talina Silbernagel comes to work at 7 p.m. for a 12-hour shift three nights a week, she has lots of duties but also a support network to keep her from slipping through the cracks or feeling helpless when things get rough.
For her, “What do you need?” is about the best question her bosses can ask.
— from “Seattle hospital thinks young for its workers” by Tyrone Beason

You’ll find much more good advice in the article.

Training makes a difference

June 15, 2009

From Harvard Business Review, a study by Ellen Ernst Kossek and Leslie B. Hammer showing that “Supervisor Work/Life Training Gets Results”.

I haven’t read the full article, but even the brief, cogent summary will give you some ammunition to support manager/supervisor training within your organization. The summary indicates that Kossek and Hammer describe some good approaches to low-cost, low-impact ways to begin helping managers better address the human aspects of work; and that even brief online tutorials focused on these skills made a positive difference to manager effectiveness and employee engagement. Of special note is the final step of setting goals and observing/recording their own experiences: that’s a great tool to motivate people to practice and integrate their skills.

The message is clear: do whatever you can to help your managers get these skills. If you’re a manager whose company doesn’t support this kind of training, start finding your own resources. Download the Humans At Work curriculum (see the program page sidebar); investigate some of my suggested resources; or head straight over to the Harvard Business Review website, where you’ll find a great many ideas, strategies and conversations about what lots of other managers are thinking and doing these days.

Fulfill yourself

May 19, 2009

Yesterday I wrote about an interview with Greg Brenneman that I found not only rich in content, but a great example of modeling the behavior he’s talking about. I thought he made a lot of great points.

And perhaps I most especially appreciate his point that it’s not all about work.

I think it’s important to talk to people about how we’re in a fundamentally different world. Ask the question, “If compensation isn’t going to be the same for a while, where do you get your fulfillment in life?”
— Greg Brenneman, CCMP Capital

We’ve all got a different answer to this question. And when times are hard, when compensation isn’t just “not the same” but perhaps the difference between the mortgage payment and the foreclosure, I believe it’s important to remember to do things that fulfill us. Because fulfillment makes us strong.

When we feel fulfilled, we feel alive and active in our most essential self, the self that cannot simply be described by our title or job description. Feeling fulfilled means that we are full in all our best ways, and that fullness, that richness of self, creates within us enormous energy and stamina for the sometimes very hard things we have to do in order to survive.

If you’ve read about me, you may know that I’m a writer as well as a — well, whatever you’d call me when I’m here talking about being human at work. I generally don’t discuss my writing life in this space because I don’t want to confuse issues: this is not my personal blog, although I’m very personally invested in Humans At Work, and in all ideas about excellent management. But today I’d like to point you to a personal essay about the importance of staying connected with our deepest selves in trying times. At work, as everywhere else, we need to share our strength so that we can all be successful together: and strength is not about who works longest or hardest or has the most meetings: it’s about staying aligned and connected with ourselves so that we find the strength we need.

If you are a manager — if you are responsible for helping other people accomplish their work, so that they can pay their rent and feed their families — then do not neglect to replenish yourself. The first rule of airline safety is to get your own oxygen mask in place before you start helping other people with theirs: or, as the essay says, don’t forget to breathe.

Style is substance

May 18, 2009

I think everyone with a job of any kind should read this interview with Greg Brenneman. He distills some of the essential skills of planning, management, communication, engagement, authenticity, and interacting from our values at work. Sure, he’s talking about his experience at the CEO level, but the strategies and skills he highlights are those that any of us can, and should, be using in our jobs. These are all things that will make our work together better.

You’ll notice that Brenneman emphasizes simplicity and focus. When you read the interview, pay attention to his style as well as his words. He comes across as smart and succinct. That’s a marvelous combination in a leader — whenever you find such people, pay attention to how they do it, and notice the impact it has on those around them. When people realize that you’re consistently clear, authentic and on point in a few well-chosen words, they will always pay attention to what you say.

So many managers and leaders reveal their insecurity by needing to say everything in detail at least three times without checking whether the folks they are talking to actually need the repetition. It comes across as either patronizing, or as if you’re not that clear yourself on what you have to say. Be clear with yourself; then be clear with the people around you. That’s effective whether you’re a manager or not, no matter where you work.

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