Are managers spending their time wisely ?

What are managers focusing on ?

One of my biggest pet peeves over the years has been that managers in most organizations do not spend their time on the right things. Managers swing between  micro-management and too little engagement. This is true for most mid-level managers in companies but is especially true for project managers.

This happens because the role of the manager is not as well-defined as it should be. When someone is made a manager, they are just told that they now have additional responsibilities. Sometimes this additional responsibility comes with additional authority, but it almost never comes with a “playbook”. Even in organizations where there is a playbook for each role, most management work is part of the “company culture” and most managers play it by the ear.

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Leadership does not come with a title

The lament…

Among people who report to me, a common complaint I have heard is: “I know you keep talking about demonstrating leadership, but you never appointed me a leader for any team…how do I demonstrate leadership without a designation”.

To be fair, I have spoken the same lament to my bosses in the past. In fact, I used to do that at every opportunity. All that stopped when my boss once told me: “Leadership is not a designation, it is a role. Leadership comes from what you do and not what your designation is.” That was his way of telling me to stop with the excuses already !

Does leadership come from authority ?

But if you look at it more closely, it does make sense. In most hierarchical cultures, leadership is identified with your designation. Indian society, for example, naturally identifies leadership with authority and sets the expectation that knowledge and instructions flow from the boss to the subordinate and rarely the other way round. When you grow up in such a culture, you tend to assume that you are not a leader until you have people reporting into you. In most cultures (organizations even) your worth is measured by how many people report into you.

But leadership is really much different from authority or influence. Most of the top organizations realize this. Leadership is your ability to take a path few would choose. Leadership is your ability to feel comfortable with being accountable for something. Leadership is willingness to put your neck on the line.

Did you say “neck on the line” ?

When someone writes on their resume that they have “leadership skills” (or “proven leadership skills”) more often than not it means that they have mastered the art of telling others what to do. Very rarely does it mean that they have taken risks and set the trend for others to follow. Very rarely does it mean that they have put their neck on the line. Very rarely does it mean that they feel comfortable being accountable for something.

The bottom line…

What my boss was trying to tell me was this: if you want to try a new solution to a recurring problem, if you want to take the path not prescribed by the company, you don’t need to be made the team-lead. All you need is the conviction that you are onto something…you need to take the first step yourself and learn your way through. It is always better to ask forgiveness than to ask for permission. When you try something new and fail, good bosses will never take it out on you. And the bad bosses ? Well you shouldn’t be working for the bad bosses anyway, should you !

How to deliver an effective annual performance feedback

The annual appraisal: tips for managers

The second side of the feedback coin is delivering it to people who report to you or work for you. For most managers, this is only slightly better than having to fire someone. This is especially true if the feedback that you are about to deliver is not very positive.

It behooves the manager to prepare for this very well. It is important for managers to realize that this is a professional conversation they are about to have. You will need to avoid personal over-tones while continuing to show empathy. It is also important to realize that this is just a performance review…not the end of the world.

What Preparation do I need to do ?

Setting goals:

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Dealing with the dreaded annual appraisal

The Dreaded Annual Appraisal

Year-end performance appraisals are hard on everyone — the person giving the feedback and the one receiving it. There are horror stories on both sides … of sweaty palms, of the feeling of disgust and loathing, of self-pity, of the “why me !” and of the “not again !”.

So what can the person receiving the feedback do to lessen the pain ?

First Things First – It is just an appraisal

First, everyone needs to understand that appraisals are just a perception your manager has on your performance. No appraisal, however thorough/objective, is an exact reflection of what you did. There is always a human perception factor built into each appraisal discussion. As with any perception in our human interactions, you can only control how others feel about you and your work to a certain extent. How your manager perceives you and your work depends (atleast to some extent) on his/her viewpoint, on their conditioning, on their style of functioning etc. That part, you cannot control. You can only hope to find a manager who thinks exactly like you do…and that is almost impossible.

So, the most important thing for anyone receiving feedback is to realize that they need to take pride in their own work, on what they have accomplished, on how they have grown. No matter what the feedback, there is almost always something that you have accomplished that you can be proud of…you need to find that thing and treasure it.

The other thing you need to do is to understand that this is just one person giving you feedback about one year on one aspect of your life. There are several others — your friends, family — who appreciate you far more and for far longer than any boss ever can. There is more to life than work and there is more to self-worth than an appraisal.

Good…now what should we do ?

Now that we have those things out of the way, now that you have learned to take the appraisal in your stride, what can you do to positively influence the feedback itself ?

Here are a few things:

  1. Find an advocate for yourself who can influence the decision-makers. It could be your manager, it could be your senior colleague or a “godfather” at a senior management level. You need the advocate to say good things about you, to defend you when others are gunning for you and to put their weight behind you. Your advocate needs to be two things:
    • They need to have influence in the organization. There is no point in someone speaking up for you if it doesn’t make any difference (though that is very sweet)
    • They need to have a stake in your success. When the going gets tough, most people will sell their proteges to save their own assets. Unless someone has a stake in your success, their support for you can be very fickle.
  2. Record your accomplishments at every opportunity. Use a brag sheet. Save emails as evidence. Talk to your boss and tell them every good thing you have done. Bask in the glory when you have the chance.
  3. Align with your boss. There is no use if you work 100 hours/week if you are working at cross-purposes with your boss or your organization. Most organizations reward people who are aligned to the organization goals. Make sure you spend time with your boss to understand their goals and their expectations from you. Never assume anything.
  4. Make your boss look good. This is probably the oldest trick in the book. Every time you do something that makes your boss look good in front of their boss/client, they will like you a little better. But be careful to ensure your boss doesn’t forget that you were the reason for them looking good
  5. Stay fresh in the mind of your boss. Out of sight, out of mind…never let that happen to you. People who only interact with their boss once/twice a year usually get worse feedback than those who stay engaged with their boss more often. Just be careful to make sure your boss does not notice you everyday for the wrong reasons.
  6. Do not let your boss be the only one who knows about your capabilities. It is better to have 2 advocates of your capabilities than just one. You never know who will move out of the company just before the appraisals. Make sure you are noticed by your boss and their colleagues. Make sure your boss’s boss knows about your abilities.
  7. Always be professional and courteous to everyone — bosses, subordinates, clients, the janitor…Every good deed will help you.

But remember, this is still just an appraisal…

In the end, do understand that every career has ups and downs. Very few people get straight A’s all their life. There will be times when you think you have done all the above things and still get a negative feedback. That is life…there are no guarantees. The best thing to do is to take it in your stride, pick yourself up and move on.

Never make a big decision right after an appraisal discussion. Never get emotional, stay professional and courteous even if you do not agree with the feedback. It is tough to do that, but that is the price you pay for a long career.

What’s next ?

So, what about the other side ? How do managers prepare for sharing feedback ? How do managers sidestep the pitfalls and the heavy emotional toll of having to give a negative feedback ?

That is another blog post by itself….

Top-heavy organizations lead to more discontent

I was stating on my twitter handle today that the biggest problem with the Indian governments over the years has been that they have been too top-heavy. Bottom-line: too many decisions are made by the top leadership and the middle to low-level managers are left with the cleaning up acts.

Specific to the current Congress-lead government, decision-making authority has been divorced from any accountability. Which is why we have a 40-year old “youth leader” (a.k.a “the Prince”) running around making irresponsible and nonsensical statements. However, this is not a political blog.

The reason why the governments have been top-heavy (and this has been true for non-Congress governments also) is that very few of the political parties have any meaningful form of internal democracy. Most of the top party leadership positions are shared by kith and kin of people who are already at the top — again, true for most parties and not just the Congress.

A closer look reveals that Indian society is itself top-heavy…Indian families are top-heavy. So, it is more or less a cultural thing. I do not have a solution written down for this, yet.

What happens in top-heavy organizations is that there are two groups of people — those with authority who sit at the top and direct and those who form the “worker-ants”. Further, the two groups are not formed based on merit, rather on who you happen to know or who gave birth to you. True, there are exceptions to this rule, but great organizations cannot be built on exceptions. This eventually leads to frustration among those in the second group…especially when those in the second group are more capable than those in the first. When you are a smart person with great ideas but are repeatedly being shot down by a boss who is not as smart and there is no way for you to work around that boss, you will get frustrated.

Indian organizations – families, societies, communities, governments, political parties — all of them, need to get out of this mode. Top heavy doesn’t work. It tends to concentrate power and authority in a small group and that is what is called “lack of empowerment”.

If the person on the street feels “lack of empowerment” at every step, democracy has failed.

For companies, the lesson from this is that if you do not make each of your employees feel empowered, you will not see great ideas and initiatives come through. No matter how smart your CEO is, he/she is not going to come up with all the brilliant ideas on their own.



What is wrong with large organizations ?

Scott Berkun has a new book out (The Year Without Pants: and the Future of Work) in which he talks about his experiments working for

One of the ideas he explores in the book is how small, smart, focused organizations are changing the way work is done in the “new world”. He describes the cynicism of “experts” who are quick to point out that while such-and-such is a great idea, it would hardly be scalable. Somehow that is supposed to mean that the idea is not practical.

Scott asks :

What good is something that scales well if it sucks? Why is size the ultimate goal or even a goal at all ?

As an employee at a large company, when you propose an idea, the first question that is asked is: can this work at the organization level ? Sure, this is a great idea for this specific group, but will it work across all departments ?

Now, most ideas do not work everywhere. Not all departments are the same, not all groups have the same problems/goals. Ideas come with context to the specific problem/goal that the specific group is trying to address. So, why are new ideas passed through this lens when they are proposed ? Why are ideas expected to work on a large scale as well as a small scale ?

I believe that this is where large organizations (and that includes most governments) fail to innovate. Large companies that do innovate are mostly those that work on small scales. ..those that have hundreds of small, focused groups instead of being one huge monolith.

Software development, especially is meant to work on micro scales. You build small programs that address specific problems and then try to integrate the smaller pieces into one big piece. Object oriented programming took us in that direction decades ago. That is how organizations should work as well. They should be made up of small groups (of 5-10 people) that address specific problems and do that well. It is, then, the task of the senior leadership to integrate these small groups.

We are quickly moving into an age when organizations need to build themselves around small groups (or even around individuals). There was a time when individuals molded themselves (and their style of working) around the organizations that they belonged to. That time is long gone.

The problem with Maslow’s model…and everything else !

This video trigerred off a thought process on Maslow’s heirarchy of needs.

Maslow’s model is one of the most elegant models I have come across in HR management. Unfortunately, it takes a lot of experience with actual people to grasp the point that this is just a model that only partly describes the utterly chaotic way people behave in a “live” organization.

Organizations are like living breathing animals made of tiny micro-organisms that are each fighting for their own survival. (It has been subtly argued that the human body itself is a microcosm made of billions of “living” genes that are each fighting to survive into the next generation…but that is a topic for a seperate post). To claim to have a model that can accurately predict how an organization will work (or not work) is a stretch …unfortunately that is exactly what most organizational behaviour theories do.

To get off my soap-box, I will have to admit that Maslow’s model does provide some direction on how people might be expected to behave under specific circumstances. This is the assumption (and prayer) on which most organizations design their reward/punishment set ups.

Maslow states that individuals have hierarchical needs that follow an order. For example, the first thing any individual needs is air to breathe, food to eat and water to drink. Only once these needs are met do individuals look for other needs. There is also a “diminishing returns” flavor here in the sense that once a person’s non-esteem needs are met (meaning he has enough money) simply adding more money will not increase the motivation. And so forth…you get the general idea.

However, this is obviously over simplified. How much money is enough ? When does a person’s self-actualization need kick in ? Do all individuals have this need ? Arent there individuals whose sole mission in life is to make money ? Aren’t there individuals whose mission in life depends on making a whole lot of money ? This is where the model loses its smooth curves and acquires rough edges.

The bottom line is not to trash this model specifically. The point is that too much of HR management in companies is based purely on these models. A more popular crib is against the “bell curve” where organizations rate their employees on the bell curve without considering the fact that each employee is different (moreover treating employees like just another statistic is a little “yuck”!)…it is a pathetic and lazy practice and should be discontinued.

Too many managers get ahead in life just by mouthing these theories and models. The true leader is the one who understands his own ecosystem and is also brave enough to admit that he does not understand well enough to generalize…I am waiting for that kind of leader !