Are you listening?

Are you listening to your employees?

I find it fascinating how often the employees have great suggestions and ideas and how they are just as often ignored until a 3rd party comes in and repeats exactly what they had been saying for free. If you have a great team, maybe listening a little closer could pay some great dividends? And I bet employee satisfaction goes up too.

Side note: don’t ask for feedback or suggestions if you aren’t going to do anything with the data. Asking for the feedback and then ignoring it is not only disrespectful but it will also teach the team their opinion will be ignored. Don’t waste that trust.

Does owning a camera make you a photographer?

Just because you own a camera, it does not make you a photographer.
Just because you know where Home Depot is located, it doesn’t make you a General Contractor.
Just because you own a car and you know where the hood release is located, it doesn’t make you a mechanic.
And just because you own a computer and set up your wireless network at home, it doesn’t make you an IT professional, much less a CIO.
There is a difference between a hobby and being an expert in something.  Novice vs professional.
Do you know how to do it right?  And why it’s “right?”
Do you know the dependencies and the trade offs?  The gotchas?
Have you spent the time to get the education and put in the hands-on the job time required? Have you put the time in to become an expert and are you ready to put your name (or more) on the line?  We all have opinions, depending on the subject at hand, some of those opinions mean more than others.
Let the professional do their job, watch, and see what you can learn.
And, for the argumentative out there, just because you own a camera, it does not make you a photographer, it means you can take a picture.  It doesn’t mean you know composition, lighting, depth of field, etc. – it means you can click the shutter.  And we’re proud of you, it’s a start, now go learn from an expert…

Interview questions

Some of my favorite interview questions.  It’s about logic and your thought process, less about a specific correct answer: 

– why do you want to join this team? this company?  (hint: a paycheck is not a good answer)
– what do you bring to our team that we don’t already have?
– tell me about the most difficult project you had to work on and how you prevailed? Or failed and how you would approach it different next time.  Either is fine.
– tell me about a time you worked on a project that failed.  What did you do?  What would you do differently?
– tell me about the best project you worked on.  What made it so great?
– tell me about a time you had to work with a difficult person.  What did you do?
– what would you do if a client keeps asking for more functionality on a project that is already in development?
– how would you estimate the height of a building if you didn’t know the height of the buildings near it?
– why are manhole covers round? 

I’d love to hear any great interview questions you use.  Please share them with me.

Hiring – recruiting and interviewing

Employees are normally one of the largest expenses for most businesses.  And just the hiring and training of new employees are a huge expense, both monetary and time invested. So, my question is, why don’t we invest more on recruiting and interviewing?

Too often job descriptions are done just because HR forces the manager to write it. Very little real thought is put into the skills and experience required to succeed at the job. Rarely is there training for managers on how to write a good job description. I’ve heard HR complain about how poor the job descriptions are that they have to work from, but then I don’t see them coaching the managers on how to improve them.

What is the saying? Garbage in, garbage out…

Interviewing is another area more investment could be made.  How many interviews turn into popularity tests? The interview ends up coming down to do they seem like a nice person? But this isn’t a first date. The question should be “do they have the skills and experience to do the job” (ok, and would they fit on the team)? If there is more than one candidate can you, in a unbiased way, truly compare their skills, especially if the interviews were done over a period of time? If you have different people talk to the different candidates could you compare the assessments?  Could you defend the hiring if you were sued?

If you need justification, just look at how painful is it if you end up hiring the wrong person.  Both for you and that poor person! And it hurts the business – if nothing else, the delay in building a high performing team. Not only does a bad hire (bad may be a strong word – how about a wrong hire) effect the employee but the rest of the team also.

So how much should we invest into the hiring process?  Are you investing enough?

Ready, Aim, Fire!

I wrote my last post about project management. How you should know what your targets (due dates and milestones) are before you start firing (start development).  But the same is true in business too.

How often are decisions made focused on the now, the immediate need? It may fix what is broken, or at least the visible symptoms, but does the solution fit into the larger picture?  Will it cause other issues later?

Many times, in this tight economy, this is driven by a perceived lack of resources, but as I have posted before (in my review of Rework) when resources are scarce is the time when you need to be more creative. Not enough money to keep up your MS Exchange infrastructure?  Dump it and move to Google Apps email (Enterprise level email).  Not enough money to expand you SAN for network drives for your users?  External hard drives are cheap now.  Not enough money for your DR plan for your production site?  Move test and staging to a different location and make that your hot swap (just make sure you built the infrastructure properly).

Sometimes a disjointed strategy, or one that not all the leaders have bought into, can also cause decisions to be made that are fine for the silo’ed department, but maybe isn’t the best decision for the entire company.  I have to believe that those VPs really do think they are making the best decision for the company.  I hope it isn’t just ego getting in the way.

And, it could just be the company has grown so big, or is spread out in multiple locations that it becomes real difficult to make the “right” decision that works for the entire company.  And finally, I will admit in certain cases there isn’t one “right” decision. Sometimes you have to pick the lesser of two not super solutions and make it work.

But in general, when making large IT purchases or fixing broken business processes it is so much better for the company long term to take the time to make the right decision now.  It isn’t easy to do the leg work and do the research.  It isn’t easy to get agreement across departments.  It isn’t easy to sacrifice your political capital.  But it is so much better than creating new problems for yourself because you didn’t do the work. And it is so much better than having to un-do it later and then put in the right (better) solution.

Does your company have too many people paid to say “No?”

Does your company have too many people paid to say “No?”

Is it harder then it should be to get simple things done?  Have employees been trained that it is impossible (or at least hard) to make change or to improve things so they have given up (think most Federal Government jobs)?  Talk about killing innovation!  When it is hard to even get your job done and to make incremental change, why would anyone be crazy enough to try to innovate?
Some companies just seem to slide into a culture of No.   “No” is safe.  It is easy to say “No, you can’t do that. Convince me why we should.”  They exert their power.  They may even get patted on the back for saving the company money (at least in the short term).  Good thing you shut down that crazy idea.
Soon everyone becomes a road block. The company is able to cut short term expenditures, but there is no growth.  Even if the leadership talks about grand vision and goals, if they don’t change the culture of No it will never happen. That vision will be killed by 100 little No’s from everyone “just doing their job.”  Then management will wonder why that grand idea didn’t come to fruition. Must have been a failing on how it was implemented, right?

Maybe it’s time to convert some of those “No” people into “How can we do that?” people?

Communication – it’s a two way street (even at work)

I have done a few postings on communication already.  But they have been on how a manager should communicate with their employees:
There is a reason I focused on the managers – one bad manager can ruin a high performance team in no time at all.

But I have run into situations where I was shocked at how little communication was going on among peers, inside teams, and up the chain.  I have tried to follow my own rules.  I have made sure:
  • I am trying to set a good example myself
  • I try to set expectations and make sure they're very clearly communicated
  • I am trying to make sure no one is in the wrong role or has been set up to fail
  • And I don't think anyone on the team truly is an a-hole
So, for the benefit of all employees out there, here are a few simple rules for you, too:
  • Treat others like you would like to be treated
  • It seems to be true, everything we need to know in life we learned in kindergarten – play well with others, share, use please and thank you, be on time, fess-up when you make a mistake, don't lie, etc.
  • Let me know as early as possible that there is a problem
  • Ignoring a problem or waiting to tell someone about it didn't work when you were 5, why do you think it is a good idea now?
  • Don't wait till you turn in the work to let me know you couldn't do part of the job (so you just ignored that part of the task)
  • It's even worse if you turn in the partly done work on the due date or late
  • And if you are going to go over budget (hours or dollars), bring it up as soon as you know it is going to happen. Don't wait till you have exceeded the budget to ask for more. 
  • If you have an idea that is better (simpler, faster, cheaper, etc.) bring it up! If it's not appropriate to bring it up in the meeting, then grab me later and tell me your idea
  • If you know something isn't going to work or will fail, let me know! Don't assume I know it didn't work the last time someone tried X
  • Don't ask someone else to do something you wouldn't do
  • If possible, come to me with a solution, not a problem (but don't use this as an excuse to not tell me about a problem)
  • If you are handing something off to the next person on the task don't assume they'll read the project notes and understand everything perfectly, take the time to walk them through the task and make sure they understand the due date and the scope of the task at hand 
  • Communicate with others like you would like to be communicated with
  • Don't say things in email to someone you wouldn't say to their face
  • The best rule to follow with email is to assume it will be read by everyone – don't write it if you don't want it published. How many times has a forward been sent to the wrong person or someone did a 'reply all' by accident? 
  • Don't hide the important information in an attachment, put it directly in the body of the email
  • And don't put the important information at the bottom of a 5 page declaration – you are lucky if most people read the 2 paragraph, bring it up early
  • Bullet points are awesome (as you can see from my over use of them)! But not all subjects should be addressed in bullet points, sometimes using big boy words and actual paragraphs is required!
  • MS Power Point can also be abused, don't fall into the trap of using Power Point to sketch out your thoughts, make sure you start with a fleshed out complete thought before you use the bullet list short hand for the thought or idea. It is hard to communicate what you haven't thought through…
  • Sometimes it is just a miscommunication.  If it seems wrong or odd don't just go with it, maybe one of you misunderstood the other. Make sure you understand what the other person is saying and that they understood you
  • An email at midnight letting me know about an 8 AM meeting isn't nearly as helpful as one sent a few days before or at least one sent before 5PM
  • Sometimes a phone call is 100 times better than an email, face to face can be 1,000 time better!
Ok I was torn about this one, because it seems harsh, but I have to say it:
  • It's not all about you – don't take it personally
  • That slightly harsh email sent out by the VP? It wasn't about anything you did. 
  • "Why did they ask me to do this? They know I don't like it!" – maybe they are in a rush to do 20 things also and you are their go to person

That seems like a huge list!  But what did I forget?  Anything I should add?

Internships – investment or charity?

How do you look at internships at your company? Is it an investment or charity (goodwill at least)?

It drives me crazy when I hear someone talking about the college kid next door needs a summer job can we hire him as an intern. What are they studying? Is it in line with what we do?  Do they have anything to offer us?  Do we have anything, besides a few bucks, to offer them? No one needs someone to make the coffee and do photocopying anymore. 

I've always looked at internships as part of the bigger recruiting and staffing strategy.  Interns can be a great way to load the hiring pipeline two or three years down the road. It is a great way to recruit the cream of the crop of the graduates coming into the job market and in a tight hiring market it is essential (the market will turn around someday!). What is better than being able to hire new college graduates, that know your business and that have been trained by you?  Even if your interns get hired away by the big competitors, at least the interns spread the word on campus what a great company you are.  This can be a huge help for a smaller company to compete with the big well known competitors.  Many firms have great college hiring programs that help them compete in this tight market (cheap, very talented, eager labor).  If they target schools known for producing the best in their industry it can be a huge differentiator. 

But internships are an expense, especially if done right.  It rarely works out to be cheap labor for two months.  A company needs to build a plan and program to manage the interns over the summer. Then during the actual intern period company resources need to spend time managing the interns and making sure they are productive.  Even if the interns are not a big expense pay wise (even if they are unpaid), they will want to learn something over the summer (or at least I hope they do). That planning and management time is a cost…

On the flip side, college students should look at internships as more than a way to make a few bucks over the summer.  It is an opportunity for them to get valuable real life work experience. Even better if the company they are interning with ends up hiring them after working two or three summers.  But if nothing else, it is a way for them to separate themselves from all the other graduates.  I know when I am interviewing a collage hire and internship that gave them real world experience is a huge plus. 

So does your company have an internship program?  Does it make sense for your business?  Should you have one?

Switch: How To Change Things When Change Is Hard

Switch: How To Change Things When Change Is Hard is one of those books that once you read it you go "well, that was common sense," but then you think "if it was so common sense, why haven't I been doing that?" Why have I been trying to make change the hard way?  Why does some (ok, maybe quite a few) of the "things" I want to change never happen? Or are only partially adopted?  

Change is hard (speaking specifically about change in business, but it is true in all facets of life). But if the change is needed, shouldn't I do the best job I can to make it happen? So, why didn't I put as much thought into making the change happen, as I did in figuring out what needed to be done?  If I think the change is needed then everyone else should understand that too and just do it! Right?  🙂  I was guilty of many of the standard approaches most people use that just don't work, as the book points out. 

I can't do a full review of the book (I wouldn't do it justice).  I also won't use the Heath brothers analogy of elephant and rider, but it does get it's point across.  But I will try to highlight some of the techniques they suggest:
  • Look to see if someone is already successfully addressing the issue you have. If someone else has found a solution, why not copy it?  Either someone else in your organization, a competitor, or business in another industry. More than likely you are not the first person to run into this issue, how are people handling it already?
  • Instead of trying to address the big picture all at once, try a very specific change. The example in the book was instead of trying to address obesity, educate people to switch to 1% milk instead of whole milk. 
  • Be very specific in communicating the end result or what the end state should be.
  • Getting people to feel that the change is needed, is much better than that they think the change is needed.  Think late night SPCA television ads (I support the cause, but the ads just kill you to watch, even worse if you have young kids watching with you). 
  • Make the change seem do-able, so it is not overwhelming to the people you are trying to reach. Make it as small as you can (think 1% milk instead of whole milk).
  • Build an identity around the change and then encourage the mind set. The example from the book was Brasilata calling their employees "inventors” and how they implemented the changes suggested by the employees. But just a title change alone isn't going to change anything long term – look at McDonald's "team members…" You have to walk the talk too. 
  • Change the environment to encourage the change you want. Think Amazon's one-click buying. 
  • Look for ways to make the change a habit.
  • Behavior is contagious, so find ways to encourage the new action.  Think seeding the tip jar to encourage people to give tips.
Like I said, once you see the suggestions it all seems so common sense after you read it, but I know I will use this framework from now on. 

But the Heath brothers did a much better job explaining this all in their book (and they provide many more examples and suggestions).  So what are you waiting for?  Go buy the book already! 

Outside links:

Focus on what is going well?

We have always been told to work on our weaknesses.  And I think in general that is good advice, but lately I have seen more and more people talk about focusing on their strengths or focus on what you do right (warning, I just bought Switch: How to Change Things When Change Is Hard).  And I do think this is excellent advice.

I had one employee who would get grouchy at times (especially if she felt she was dealing with incompetence or stupidity – you've meet these types of people before right? "old grouchy man" in a young persons body), but she did a great job most of the time and was well liked by her peers.  I talked about this employee before in my The Rules for Managing People post.  I took her from a front line role, where she could get into trouble and moved her to a tier 3 role where she excelled.  She would study at night and on weekends to strengthen her technical skills to be better at tier 3 support.  Later she even took on a QA role to help stop some of the customer support issues we were experiencing.  I could have worked with the employee to improve their attitude (and I did and continued to do so honestly), but it would have been a battle for both of us.  It would get better for a few days, but then the employee would slip back into their normal behavior. Frustrating for the employee and frustrating for me.  I would have ended up having to fire the employee I bet.  But by focusing on their strengths and what they did well, I ended up with an awesome Tier 3 support person and later the best QA person the company had.

I focused on what this employee did well and their strengths and in the end it was rewarding for the employee and for the company (and, honestly, for me too).  I could have focused on what was wrong and tried to "fix it."  But I don't think I would have ended up with even close to the same results.

So next time you look at an employee, instead of focusing on what she's doing wrong, try looking for something new she does right that you never noticed before.  And reinforce that behavior!