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.

Power Talk

July 13, 2009

Power Talk offers brief ideas and good basic suggestions for communicating more authentically and effectively in personal and business situations, and to groups. Pamela Ziemann offers a variety of perspectives ranging from the spiritual to the pragmatic — check out Power of Speaking with Intention and Notre Dame Speech, my favorite line as examples.

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.

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.

No one does it alone

February 18, 2009

Here’s a great post by Phil Gerbyshak about seeking feedback to be more effective in how you deal with people at work. I particularly like the emphasis on asking direct reports these questions — that can be a vulnerable thing for a manager, but trust me, it’s so much easier to manage people well when you don’t have to read their minds. I also like the specificity of asking “What is one thing I need to know about working with you?” The answer to that question might open a door to a much more effective relationship. Ask it with a smile, be open to the answer, and then use the information — and watch how much richer your interactions become.

Phil posted this article as a guest-blogger on Terry Seamon’s blog (and I’m looking forward to guest-blogging for Terry later this month as part of his series “Leading in the Crisis”).

And there’s a great example of the importance of relationship to business success. Terry and Phil have connected and made the choice to support each other — and in doing so, they’re also making their own work more effective, and opening doors to new relationships as visitors flow back and forth through their blogs. Old-school values tell us to “protect” our resources — our audience, our clients, our secret techniques for making managers better. But most of us don’t go that school anymore because we realize that success comes through sharing and supporting others. That way, we all get stronger.

Have you heard the saying, “Hell is other people”? Well, I think success is other people. That’s certainly where our success as managers begins.

You’ll find more of my ideas about work relationships in the Humans At Work Session 1 curriculum.

You’ll find lots of great ideas, tips and tools for managing at Phil Gerbyshak’s blog Slacker Manager, and a wealth of inspiration and conversation about leadership, courage and spirit at Terry’s blog Here We Are. Now What? I highly recommend both.

100 Best Business Books

February 12, 2009

I think all of us who are serious about improving our managing skills ought to read when we can. It can be tough to carve out the time, but there is a wealth of information out there — good ideas, practical skills, effective strategies, new ways of thinking that can really help us do our job more effectively, with less stress and more joy.

But there are more than a million business books available right now. So when your time is limited, how do you choose?

Well, you can start with the books in the Humans At Work curriculum, which is my “best of” list for managers looking to establish or improve the core skills of managing people well. I see them as the foundation of a good manager’s library. They are all books that I still read over and over again.

I’ve decided to add two more books to my “essential” list, and will be including them as program materials. They won’t be incorporated into the general curriculum; rather, I will offer them as “graduation gifts” to take managers into the next phase of practicing and expanding their skills.

I’ll talk about the second book in an upcoming post. Today I want to focus on The 100 Best Business Books of All Time, by Jack Covert and Todd Sattersten.

This is a great resource for every manager. Covert and Sattersten have identified books of big ideas and practical benefit in a variety of areas — self awareness, leadership, strategy, management, innovation and more. They provide cogent summaries of each book — the central concepts, perspective, and the benefits it can offer. They share their personal experience of, and response to, each book. And they point you to additional books and resources. This isn’t just a “list,” it’s a road map to help you navigate through the jungle of those million-plus books that none of us have time to read. I’m turning to it right now for insights on getting things done more effectively and staying strategic: another time, I’ll probably be diving into case histories or scorekeeping. This is a resource I can turn to in a variety of situations when I want to jumpstart my thinking in a particular area, or when I want to remind myself what smart people have already said on a particular topic.

I’ll talk about the other “graduation” book in a forthcoming post. Today, I encourage you to look through the “100 Best” table of contents, and read an excerpt, at amazon.com.

The zen of engagement

December 17, 2008

I’m a member of the Employee Engagement Network, and recommend it as a resource for anyone who is interested in being a better manager.

“Employee engagement” is one of the HR terms in vogue right now. If it seems too much like corporate-speak, then think of it — as I do — as finding ways for people to connect as fully as possible with their work and the people they work with. When we feel engaged, we’re more innovative, more productive, more successful. That’s a good thing for everyone.

Recently, the leader of the Employee Engagement Network put together this PDF of advice from members of the network: Employee Engagement Advice in One Sentence. You’ll find 52 ideas about getting and keeping people engaged at work. Please download and share it with whomever you wish.

Think of these not as “how to” instructions, but as management koans. They may seem obvious, or they may seem superficial, but there’s a lot of distilled wisdom in many of these ideas. The more I think about them, the more I find to think about. I hope you’ll find something helpful too.

Get connected

November 24, 2008

I recently got my virtual hands on a copy of “The Connection Culture”, a manifesto by Michael Lee Stallard proposing that fostering a sense of connection among people at work has a direct impact on employee engagement, productivity, and business success.

One measure of connection is Gallup’s Q12 survey that asks questions such as whether people care about you at work, encourage your development, and seek and consider your opinion. …[T]he research showed that business units with higher Q12 scores — in other words, higher connection — experienced higher productivity, higher profitability, and higher customer satisfaction as well as lower employee turnover and fewer accidents.
 
— from The Connection Culture by Michael Lee Stallard

The connections Stallard describes have a powerful and profound impact on people and companies because they are how people behave with each other in ways that get the job done better. Management is behavior: all the good intentions or business acumen in the world won’t make a speck of difference in your company if people don’t behave in ways that help everyone work more effectively towards common goals. Managing humans well makes them feel more connected to their job, their team, their company and to themselves. That’s when you get people’s best ideas, best effort, and their most consistent results.

For those who are suspicious of “fuzzy stuff” at work, let me point out that Stallard is not advocating (as an HR friend of mine says wryly) “linking pinkies and singing Kumbaya.” You don’t have to sing, I promise. As a manager, what you have to do is make it possible for people to engage — with the work they do, and the people they do it with — in ways that keep everyone focused, effective and productive even in chaotic and frightening times.

In fact, I submit that it’s in such times — like now — that we most need to be engaged, to be connected with each other and our common goals rather than hunkered down in defensive silos. It’s by working together that we’ll find ways to move our businesses down this stretch of very rough road.