Managing remote workers

You know that whether they’re teleworkers or members of virtual teams, you should manage them according to their achievements, not based on the time they spend working.

Can’t quite bring yourself to do that? Sue Shellenbarger suggests three tactics that can help:

  1. Use a shared calendar to track projects and scheduled meetings.
  2. Have ‘virtual face time’ with email, instant messaging and quick phone calls.
  3. Track whether people from home are working with computer-monitoring programs; they also provide summaries of, for example, what websites remote workers are using so you that can manage by eyeball a little bit without being invasive.

The best questions to end the week

I recently read an interesting blog called ‘7 questions to end your week with’. I’ve adapted the questions for managers because you know as well as I do that as a manager, there’s a danger that you’re so busy, you don’t have time to pause and reflect. These questions put that right:

What pleasant surprises did I discover this week? Answering this question will improve your mood and make you generally happier. It may also give you some valuable insights into the way your organisation, your team or team members work and help you avoid blind spots. Luck favours the prepared mind, as they say, and many a scientific discovery and valuable innovation are the result of unexpected discoveries.

What lessons have I learned that I can build on next week? Think about what worked and what didn’t work and extract what is useful. That’s how you innovate and improve.

Did my efforts align with my long-term goals? Be alert to spending too much time on unimportant activities. You want to focus on high value-adding activities that move you toward your own and your organisation’s goals.

What could I have spent more or less time doing? This question links with the previous question. Commit to acting upon your answers.

How did fear and uncertainty affect what I did and didn’t do? Change swirls around most organisations and change is threatening to most people. Add to that the fact that we’re operating in uncertain times and we have a pretty good recipe for paralysis, making it easy to take no action and avoid decisions, rather than take the wrong action or make the wrong decision. Deciding and acting can be difficult, but it’s better than standing still. When you get it wrong, you can always try something else.

What mental clutter can I clear? Answering this question means you won’t carry excess baggage into next week. Did you make a mistake? Move on. Have a disagreement with someone? Move on. Forgive yourself; forgive others; carry into next week only what is most useful in terms of lessons and memories worth keeping.

What is the first thing I need to do next week? Know what your priorities are so that you can get straight to work on them.

Leading from under the Sword of Damocles

Managers at every level regularly face difficult situations, but perhaps none more difficult than leading employees who know or fear they are going to lose their jobs. The announced closure of Holden’s manufacturing operations in 2017 brings this home in spades. Team leaders of the 13,200 employees likely to face the prospect of finding new ways to earn an income as a direct and indirect result of the closure are faced with helping their staff perform to the best of their ability until the axe falls.

The continuing restructuring of the Australian economy to keep the country prosperous, reducing jobs in the manufacturing sector and increasing jobs in the service and knowledge sectors, is likely to be cold comfort to the employees with the prospect of their own eventual job loss and the job losses of their friends, neighbours and colleagues hanging over their heads. Let’s face it, it’s hard to take a holistic view when when you and your loved ones are standing under the Sword of Damocles.

Discussion questions

What steps would you take if you were leading a team who know or fear their jobs are going to disappear in the next two years? What messages would be important to communicate to them? What would you do to keep up current levels of output, quality and customer service? What risks to output, quality and customer service would you identify and want to remain alert to?

Are you a leader? A quick quiz.

While there is no one best style of leadership, or one best ‘way’ to lead, here are some questions you should be able to answer ‘Yes’ to if you claim to be a leader:

  1. Do you communicate clearly, honestly and in a way that motivates and engages peoples’ best efforts? You can’t get the results you need on your own and you can’t force people to do anything, but the way you communicate, by word and deed, can encourage peoples’ performance.
  2. Do you honour your promises and commitments? This makes you an honourable and trustworthy leader.
  3. Are you able to deal with disappointments by seeing them as pebbles in your path rather than as insurmountable boulders? This makes you a resilient leader and a good role model.
  4. Do you talk to your team members and really listen to their thoughts? This builds effective working relationships.
  5. Have you built a team that works well together to achieve its goals? People working at cross purposes or in a tense atmosphere can’t perform well.
  6. Do you pay attention to people and processes as well as results? Without the right people and processes, you can’t get the results.
  7. Do you provide positive ‘moments of truth’ with each of your employees? This builds employee engagement.
  8. Do you give specific, positive feedback and constructive performance-building feedback? This builds team members’ skills and performance.

Discussion questions

Do you need to strengthen your skills in any of these areas (or are you perfect)? What else have you found effective leaders do?

The price of risk

This morning’s Akenhurst Newsletter by Alastair Dryburgh had some interesting comments about risk and reputation damage, which of course, can be much higher to an organisation than the dollars needed to rectify a realised risk.

Dryburgh points out that when we think about risk, we tend to combine it with reward, but that’s only part of the picture. He offers some models you can use to make sure you aren’t avoiding good risks and not realising that you’re taking some bad ones.

  • The Horseburger Risk, named after the recent horsemeat in beefburger scandals in Europe: This is a risk that, when you’re lucky, produces a small benefit and even produces a small benefit when you’re mildly unlucky. But when you’re really unlucky, you’ve got a catastrophe on your hands. This type of risk could also be called the BP Deepwater Horizon Refinery Scandal or the Apple iPhone 4 Scandal (see the Theory to Practice Box ‘The Well from Hell and Bad Apples on page 520 of the text). The danger of The Horseburger Risk is that we can see the regular, small benefit of taking it, but are blind to the catastrophe waiting to happen.
  • The Convex Risk is one where you gain a lot when you’re lucky but lose less than the equivalent amount when you’re unlucky. This taps into the brain heuristic that programs us to avoid risks more than to go for gain. Alastair’s example is offering you $150 if he tosses a coin and it comes down heads, but if it comes down tails, you give him $100. Few people take that one because the psychological pain of losing $100 outweighs the pleasure of winning $150, but if you made a logic-based decision, you’d say yes to this bet every single day and be better off to the tune of $90,000 in ten years time. (See pages 520 – 523 of the text for more on brain heuristics.)
  • The 50 Shades of Grey Risk, named after the self-published book of the same name. It could also be called the Harry Potter, Lady Gaga or Rolling Stones Risk: When you are unlucky, you have a small cost (no sales); when you’re moderately lucky, you still have a small cost (small sales); but when you’re very lucky, you have a huge and lucrative win and become fabulously rich; this doesn’t happen often.
  • The Sausage Machine Risk is a predictable risk, just like a sausage machine: put the meat in, turn the handle, sausages come out. The more meat, the more sausages. This is a good risk when it produces a big enough payoff.

Dryburgh advises putting this to practice this way:

  • Look at what you’re doing and eliminate the horseburger risks; every time you do something to reduce costs or improve efficiency, work out where the potential catastrophic risk lies and manage it properly.
  • Overcome your psychological bias against convex risks; work out the odds and take more of convex risks when the odds are in your favour.
  • Experiment with potential 50 Shades of Grey risks when you have time (but know the odds are against you).
  • Build a sausage machine that produces a good payoff.

Discussion questions

Just the other day, we learned that Flight Centre has been found guilty of price fixing, despite its strong anti-bribery and corruption policy. On the day of the Federal Court’s guilty finding, Flight Centre’s shares dropped six per cent. What other reputational damage might Flight Centre expect? What advice would you offer Flight Centre branch managers in responding to staff and customer concerns?

What type of risk would Dryburgh call Flight Centre’s attempted price fixing? Would you have taken it?

Seven ways to make your messages memorable

Whether you need to make a point about health and safety, establish a standard operating procedure, train a team member or introduce change, here’s how to make sure your messages hit home:

  1. Use positive language by stressing what you do want, not what you don’t want. For example, don’t say or write ‘Don’t go up an unsecured ladder on your own’, say or write ‘Always have someone hold the bottom of an unsecured ladder while climbing it’.
  2. Use a photograph or illustration when you can, because, as they say, ‘a picture is worth a thousand words’. For example, when your safety instructions or standard operating procedures say ‘Always have someone hold the bottom of an unsecured ladder while climbing it’, insert a photograph of two popular team members doing exactly that. (Because images stick in our minds, make sure the photo or diagram shows the right way, not the wrong way.)
  3. Write actively, not passively to keep the word count down and make your points more ‘alive’ and memorable. For example, ‘Always have someone hold the bottom of an unsecured ladder before climbing it’ is active and more interesting than ‘Unsecured ladders should always be held by another person while being climbed’. (You’d never say it like that, so why write it like that?)
  4. Keep your messages short and simple, and in the (polite) language of the workplace so they’re easily and quickly read and understood.
  5. Use the ‘you’ word: writing personally makes it clear your message is for the reader or listener. For example, you could write ‘You should always have someone hold the bottom of an unsecured ladder when you climb it’.
  6. Remember the WIFM—What’s In It for Me? Give people a reason to listen or read. For example, ‘For your own safety, always have someone hold the bottom of an unsecured ladder before climbing it’.
  7. Repeat your most important messages often, using different words, different examples and different mediums (e.g. computer screen savers, emails, face-to-face meetings, posters and Twitter).

Why bother with goals?

Why bother with goals? Because when you just schlumph along doing the same old, same old, you don’t get any better and, unless your life is already perfect, you aren’t building the life, the team, or the business you want. That just grinds you into a rut and as the novelist Ellen Glasgow said, the only difference between a rut and a grave is the dimensions.

When you set a goal, either a personal goal or a team goal, ‘the universe conspires to make it happen’ (the writer Ralph Waldo Emerson said that). You can add power to your goal by writing it down–research shows that people who write down their goals are far more likely to achieve them that people who just think about what they’d like to achieve.

Write your goal in clear words and put it where you (and the team, when it’s a team goal) will see it often. The more you see it, the more that goal imbeds itself into your subconscious, which makes it a lot easier for the universe to conspire to help you make it happen. It also means when you have a lot on your plate, you won’t lose sight of your goal.

And remember to make that goal a stretch goal–not so easy you won’t bother and not so hard you give up before you begin. Here are some other tips for writing goals:

  • Make sure you have the background information and knowledge you need to achieve it. When you don’t, go and get it.
  • Break down big goals into smaller steps. Someone once emailed me asking for advice on how to become a film producer. Well first, (unless he’s got great connections, in which case he wouldn’t have been asking for my advice!) he’ll probably need to take some courses in art, cinema, and theatre and in production. Then he’ll need to get a job in the film industry, no doubt at a lower level than producer! He’ll probably need to start hanging around people in the film industry, too, and start behaving and thinking like they do and listening to them and absorbing their knowledge and experience. Action steps like those turn a wish into a goal.
  • Be willing to pay the price in time and effort to achieve your goal. But first, you need to commit to making some changes in order to achieve that goal. As the Greek philosopher Epictetus said, ‘First say to yourself what you would be. Then do what you have to do.’
  • Know why you want to achieve that goal. That will keep you going when the going gets tough.

(When you’re writing a personal goal, you may want to check out my blog on keeping your personal goals to yourself.)

Discussion questions

Do you and your team have realistic, clear goals? Is the purpose behind those goals clear? Are you doing what’s needed to achieve them?