People Need Leadership

chaos to orderHave you ever been in a situation where it felt like no one was in charge, things were disorganized and everyone was working against each other?

I once learned a valuable lesson many years ago, during my time as an operational front-line supervisor.  My crew was moving a drill from one side of the pit to the other.  I had a good crew of people to handle these moves, including a lead person, so I went back to my office to catch up on paperwork.  At some point later I received a private call saying, “umm, we think we just hit some sort of overhead line.  Its laying on the ground.”  I’m embarrassed to admit that it didn’t really register what should happen.  No one was panicking, it didn’t seem like a huge deal.  Of course, the protocol, what should have happened, was that the lead should have immediately called out a mayday over the radio, which would have stopped all production activity and initiated an emergency response.  Failing that, I should have called it.  As it was, though, neither one of us did.  Instead, I told them to hold up and that I would drive out to take a look.  In the meantime, the production controller, not knowing that anything was amiss, asked my crew to move the drill out of the road because it was holding up truck traffic.  They complied and tore down three more overhead lines in the process.  What followed was utter chaos that took hours to sort out physically and weeks to sort out administratively.  Not a shining moment in my professional career.

It was a hard lesson, but I learned much from that debacle.  The most important thing is that someone needs to be the leader, rise to the occasion and do the right thing.  My experience taught me the grave responsibility that comes with being a supervisor and the necessity to take action when things aren’t right.  Fortunately, I was allowed to continue after and had the opportunity to redeem myself later on other incidents and events requiring strong leadership and good decision-making.

The takeaway is that people, teams, need leadership.  That doesn’t necessarily mean that there needs to always be someone in charge issuing commands.  However, someone does need to get out of the weeds, look at the bigger picture, develop a strategy and coordinate effort.  If no one does, chaos is the result.

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Get Out Of The Weeds

weedsAs an engineer, I always did my best work when I was allowed the freedom to set my own boundaries and became very resentful and unfocused whenever I had a boss who felt like they needed to be in my business. There are few things more frustrating to me than working for a micromanager. Why do they do it? Various reasons, many of which stem from lack of trust or their own insecurity. Some just can’t bear to let someone else do what they feel they can do better themselves.

Many of the managers I know have an engineering background. They are smart, detail-oriented people and often have a hard time resisting the urge to get right into the details. Even if those details aren’t important at the moment. Many of them also are more comfortable working with data and software than working with people, even the people they are responsible for managing. Therefore, they sometimes tend to take on work themselves that their employees should be doing instead.

Conversely, managers might not be comfortable with their employees’ decision-making abilities or capability to produce quality work. They are constantly requiring status updates, forcing their people to defend actions and decisions or insist on controlling employees and their work.

Chances are, most of us have experienced such behavior from a superior or coworker at some point. Obviously, there are lots of problems with these practices. In addition to humiliating and frustrating employees, it causes sub-par work performance, lowers morale and stifles creativity. Predictably, poor bosses create poor employees.

Just as bad, though, is that by focusing on the things they shouldn’t be, they aren’t doing their own job. Managers have a responsibility to keep their head up, look ahead and determinine what the big picture strategy needs to be. Not doing this is irresponsible and results in missed opportunities and sometimes even catastrophes that could have been avoided.

If you are a manager with these tendencies, you owe it to your employees to get out of the weeds. Think about your behavior and back off a little. Do what it takes to develop trust with your team, delegate and focus on the things you should be. You’ll be glad you did.

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The Right Balance

mine workersMines employ many different types of people, which sometimes makes for an interesting experience. There are technical specialists like engineers and scientists, very practical craftsmen who perform maintenance or operate equipment, accountants, human resources professionals and supervisors, department managers and general managers, who can have any of these types of professions in their background.

It’s interesting to watch the different personalities interact and understand their respective priorities, especially between the technical types and the managers.  Engineers, especially the newer ones, tend to approach everything from a technical viewpoint – how it works, how well it was designed, how well the design was followed when it was constructed, etc.  Their motivation often stems from being the best engineer or scientist they can be, as well as application of the best technical answer to a particular problem.  Sometimes the result is not as simple and practical as it could be and sometimes it isn’t in line with the company’s goals or priorities.

At the other extreme, managers (especially general managers) tend to view everything through dollar-shaped glasses.  Anything that looks like it will cost more than it should automatically gets shaved or cut out of hand.  In many cases it has been a while since their more technical side dominated their thinking and experience says that reducing cost takes priority.  Often, this is sound thinking but it can also sacrifice long-term value or create quality problems.

This dynamic is highlighted in the case of high-grading, where the highest grade material is all taken now, leaving the lower-grade and the waste until that is all that is left and the damage is irrevocable.  It can take years to recover from this practice and sometimes recovery isn’t even possible.

The reality is that there needs to be a balance.  Given upfront direction from managers about goals, the engineers are the ones equipped to understand and put the work in to deliver the best overall value aligning with those goals.  Their work and judgements should be questioned and checked but the goals shouldn’t be changing at the end of all that effort just because it looks costly.  This is one reason that you should be considering providing your technical employees the opportunity to get operational experience to round out their perspective.  It is also a reason that your employees need to be financially literate.

In the end, the operation must be profitable, or changes need to be made so that it will be.  Maximizing the long-term value, though, is a collaborative effort requiring the right balance of expertise from different decision makers and it isn’t healthy when a single point of view dominates the others.

What do you think? Please leave a comment.

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Be Your Employees’ Advocate

If you won’t, who will?

EmployeesAs managers and supervisors, we all have a lot going on.  We have meetings, emails, phone calls, deadlines and fighting fires.  We have a business to run.  We also have employees that need us, whether they admit it or not.  At the same time, we also need them.  Our employees are how the work gets done and usually, they do it well.  If they didn’t, we would probably find different employees.

Some of your employees stand out to everyone.  We all have a few who are competent, energetic, respected and known.  Your bosses know who they are, that they have few faults, are trustworthy and can be counted on for important work.

Others, though seem to just show up and put their time in.  Their work is okay but they could do better in your eyes and they have a few foibles obvious to both you and senior management.  Unless you have a third type of employee on your team, a train wreck, then these Steady Eddie employees seem to attract unwanted attention because of their lack of relative passion and performance.  Their work and behavior is often criticized or overly scrutinized for the same reasons.

What you need to keep in mind, however, is that teams are made up of all types of personalities.  Not everyone is a standout performer and sometimes otherwise good employees go through a rough patch.  It is your job to set expectations for all of your people, challenge, coach and communicate to ensure everyone is meeting those expectations and either make changes or take action when they don’t.  Some won’t ever do more than meet the minimum expectation.  That’s ok.  Just make sure that the expectations you’ve set are actually ones you mean.

This is what goes on between you and your employee, but you should also ensure that your bosses know how your employees are meeting your expectations – and theirs.  Don’t make excuses for real problems, but if there are perceived issues, make an effort to understand why and address them.  Defend your employee when warranted and correct misconceptions.

Helping your boss understand that all of your employees are valuable and contributing will ensure the focus is on the important things, like the work.  Sometimes managing up is just as important as managing your team.

What are your thoughts?  Please leave a comment.

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Sometimes You Just Need Help

HelpingRecently my team and I needed some help.  We had spent months of effort getting several large projects off the ground and after doing so successfully, were stuck in how to begin the next phase.  A classic case of being too close to the work.  It turns out we needed someone to help us look beyond the past and current status and strategize about the future and what it should look like.

Fortunately, my company has two great resources who we asked to help us out.  After taking them through the status of our projects, they helped us determine the next steps and we are back on track again.  They even helped us do some of the legwork to get refocused and restarted.

Sometimes, you need a kickstart or a fresh set of eyes.  We all tend to develop tunnel vision over time, especially once we’ve invested immense time and effort into a brain child.  Its only natural and happens to everyone eventually.  Being able to recognize that it is happening and then doing something definitive about it is what separates a leader from the masses.  That ability also often makes the difference between your work slipping into anonymity over time or remaining vital and relevant in the long term.

Some can see the way clear to dig themselves out of their rut.  Great, more power to them.  Others need a third party or two to help, such as I did.  That’s okay!  The awareness and the impetus to act are key and those are what will ultimately ensure you are successful.  What are your thoughts?  Do you have a similar story about needing help and refocusing?  Please leave a comment.

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The Importance of Fundamentals

Excel MistakeI just sent a (very nice looking) report back to the engineers for correction.  It wasn’t an obvious mistake, but it wasn’t too difficult to find by taking a different point of view.  Sometimes it pays to look at things in the simplest ways possible in order to understand them better.

Often we try to make things too complicated and don’t focus on what’s important.  Not just engineers, but we are all guilty of it.  Otherwise intelligent people get caught in the trap of overanalyzing, wantonly incorporating cool new technology or spending too much or too little time thinking things through.  In an Excel analogy, we might spend 2 hours on formatting and 2 minutes on checking the actual data.

Instead, if you take a few simple steps you can avoid many mistakes and save yourself some rework:

  1. Think about the end goal. Does your work accomplish what it should?
  2. Think about your audience. Put yourself in their shoes and ask yourself, will they understand what I’m trying to share with them?  Does it have the right tone, format and send the right message?
  3. Double-check your work. Is it complete and correct?  Are there misspellings or poor grammar?
  4. Apply common sense. If you look at it from a different perspective, does it still make sense?

Overall, taking a more fundamental view will ensure that you have a much lower chance of making an obvious mistake or missing the forest for the trees.  After all, no matter how it is presented, 2+2 will always equal 4.  So next time you are looking at a report or table, think about it a little differently than usual.  You’ll be glad you did.

Why I Go To Work Late Every Day

clockMy role involves managing department managers, each of whom have various staff and craft workers reporting to them.  It used to be that I would arrive at work promptly at 6 a.m. just like everyone else.  I was involved in meetings, being consulted and making decisions.  After a while though, I realized that this practice was counter-productive, inefficient and stifled creativity.

It turns out that if I’m there contributing to getting things going first thing in the morning, people have a tendency to focus on what I do rather than on the (possibly more important) things that they would be if I weren’t present.  Its disruptive for getting crews lined out and for supervisors, staff and department heads to plan their day.  In my presence, employees also tend to alter their tone and are less willing to have honest, raw discussion about problems and solutions than when I am absent.  Why?  Because everyone becomes a politician with the boss around.

For example, say we had a production disruption or minor incident the previous night and the results of the initial investigation were just coming out first thing in the morning.  Most initial reports are lacking in detail and often contain inaccuracies that need further investigation and correction once management gets involved.  The problem is that the responsible department head is hearing the details at the same time as me and did not have time to refine his or her followup response before they were answering my questions and deferring to me on how to proceed.  What follows is an inefficient circular communication and a classic case of too many cooks in the kitchen.

So at some point I decided to come in later and stay later and have found that to be more productive for both my employees and myself.  I still get updates on the important things when I arrive.  Often though, they are more composed and more of the facts are known and sorted out so the communication is much more efficient.  I find that I am also more focused on the big picture and strategy than on the day-to-day, as I should be.  I still come in early when I need to but overall I’ve found that it’s a much more productive arrangement than before.  What are your thoughts?  Please leave a comment.