Leading Geeks

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Category Archives: general leadership

Useless Feedback

English: Angry cat

English: Angry cat (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

An email ruined my weekend.

(And I’m still mad.)

It was an email filled with extraordinarily useless feedback, including completely false accusations. The person who sent it was so unaware of her own behavior and self-blindness that I’m still bewildered, puzzled, and confused.

My gut response, of course, was to reply with an email that would set her straight! It would point out that SHE was the problem – not me. That I had no fewer than five examples of other people who had experienced insult at her hands. I wanted to make sure that she never – ever – falsely accused me of things that were HER FAULT again.

A far smarter (and less pissed) person  stopped me before I could send this email. This email that would have been filled with feedback just as vitriolic and useless as the email that ruined my weekend.

I’ve decided (based on the advice of this wise person) to wait until I calm down and to respond later to the false accusations. What I did on Saturday was to ignore the email and re-ask the simple question that I asked in the first place. Why? I have to get this project done! Her response, as insulting, juvenile, and horrifying as it might be, is completely immaterial to the project itself.

And now, as usual, I find myself introspective. I wonder how many times I write my own judgement into email exchanges where it will be completely useless, distracting, and unproductive.

In order to not be as much of a PITA as this woman was this weekend, I’ve decided to ask myself the following questions before shooting my mouth off at someone:

  1. Am I just pissed? Do I simply want to make the other person pay? If so, I need to put down the computer and hit the punching bag instead. My words can be really brutal, and I need to be careful about how I use them. If I’m not pissed and will move forward, I can go on to the rest of these questions.
  2. Am I writing an insult? I might think that the other person is being cold and emotionless in her email, but calling ANYONE that is an insult, no matter what. Maybe I think she’s being overly emotional, but actually telling her that will either exacerbate her emotions or just piss her off.
  3. What result do I need? This question was the brilliant one that my friend asked me this weekend. I WANTED to tell this person where to get off. I NEEDED to push the project forward. The interesting thing is that answering this question was what caused me to fork my actions – get the project done first, and deal with her problematic communication style later (after the holidays and after I calm down).
  4. Is my feedback useful? If she can’t take action on what I’m writing, why am I writing it? If she asked me for an example and all I did was restate what I wanted (without giving an example), I gave her useless feedback. Am I using too many sentences? Is what I need from her clear?
  5. Am I being truthful? Am I accusing her of something that’s actually my own fault? Am I telling her that she’s the troublemaker when I know that I’ve had arguments with three other people on the team similar to the one we’re having now? Am I accusing her of something that’s just untrue? Maybe I’m pissed and I’m trying to pull in something bigger so that she understands her actions better. I’m probably better off not doing that – all I’ll do is offend her and make things worse.
  6. How does she think? At my day job, I work with a couple of guys who are my exact Myers-Briggs type. This means that I can communicate with them in my own language, as it were. I can explain my motivations for doing something, and they’ll have similar motivations – my reasons will just make sense. This is NOT the case with this weekend’s offender. In order to get her to change her communication style such that her emails no longer ruin my weekend, I need to understand her better. I need to understand what kind of motivation SHE needs to change her behavior.
  7. Do I just want to hurt her back? Am I just looking for my pound of flesh? Do I just want to hurt her like she hurt me? Yes, this is the same question as #1, but when I’m mad, I need to stop and think more than once, so I put this in here again.

Eventually, I won’t be angry any more (usually my anger lasts less than an hour – this was a horrifying email!). If I’d sent the vitriol-filled hateful email, I’d eventually feel bad about it. I’d also possibly have damaged a relationship that I want to last a long time. As satisfying as it would have been to rip her a new <expletive deleted>, that would only have been momentary satisfaction. I’m really glad that someone talked me off of that ledge, and I have a feeling I should bookmark this post for the future!

Are you killing your managers?

Psycho

Psycho (Photo credit: dpratstur_IBZ)

It’s easier than you may think to ‘kill’ your managers.

I’m personally not the greatest middle manager in the world, but I’m grateful for my time as one, since it helped me understand just how painful middle management can be. And it made me realize just how easy it is to kill them. To make them feel powerless. To demoralize them.

Just remembering that makes me shudder.

At any rate, here are some things to watch for to see whether you’re going to be the cause of death to your middle managers.

Making them feel boxed in

Once, a VP of mine told me that he just wanted me to do this one thing. That’s all. The problem is that this one thing had a lot of issues:

  • It would take 30+ hours of my week
  • It was mind-numbingly boring for me
  • It would make my team feel like I was stalking them
  • It wouldn’t actually improve my team’s performance (in my opinion)

When I tried to reason with him, he told me I didn’t have a choice. I pointed out that I didn’t have 30 hours in my week and that I had the biggest team. He still said I didn’t have a choice.

Finally, I told him that I’d be looking for another job.

He backed down a bit at that point :).

But seriously, putting your managers in a box so strict they have to threaten to quit? Yeah; that’s killing your managers.

Expecting godlike knowledge

If you’ve created a working environment where you expect your middle managers to be able to explain every single little bit of behavior on their team, you’re going to be wanted for murder soon. Expecting them to be on top of every single thing without ever having to go back and check or run numbers is completely ridiculous. It also creates an environment where very little gets done.

Yup. Very little gets done.

Why? Because folks are so busy running numbers to explain every little thing that they do nothing to actually move the needle. Folks are so busy covering their butts that they don’t innovate. And because your middle managers must effectively become micromanagers in order to meet your standards, and that’s Really Not Cool.

Insisting on perfection

Once, my team made two mistakes in one week. Two. Heck, I’m lucky I don’t make two mistakes a day, but they were more perfect than I am :). These two mistakes didn’t have anything to do with each other, and they were the result of overwork (IT sucks sometimes) and bad judgment calls.

I was called into the Managing Partner’s office so that a couple of people could ‘get to the bottom’ of what caused the mistakes, and implement whatever measures were necessary to make sure they didn’t happen again. (For the lucky ones of you who don’t know law firms, this is effectively being called into the CEO’s office.)

After 30 minutes of tense back-and-forth, I said, “Hey – they know these mistakes were wrong, and I don’t think they’ll happen again. If you can find any sort of pattern for me to address, I’m happy to address it, but these were, frankly, just mistakes.

“If my team makes mistakes, it’s usually due to burnout. Burnout can either be at home or at work. If it’s at home, I’ll give them time to deal with it. If it’s at work, then we’ll ask them to do less. But there are no processes or systems that I can put in place in order to make sure that random mistakes will never happen again. If anything, I can only promise that mistakes WILL happen again.”

That shut them up, but almost killed me. So don’t do that to your managers, okay?

Promising false power

One of my favorite moments was when my VP said, “But it’s your choice. You’re the CEO of your team.”

“But <redacted VP>, if I were truly CEO of my team, I would fire three people. May I go ahead and do that?”

Clearly, the answer was no. And we did use the situation to make some massive changes for the good of the three people involved, but beyond whether I would have fired these people or not, I made the comment because I felt powerless in the face of being promised false power.

Other times, I’ve seen this when budget has been promised (and then the project revoked for no given reason) or when folks have been told to go ahead, only to have the project yanked or the game changed randomly by the boss. Don’t promise power or responsibility that you don’t mean. Just don’t.

So… what did I miss? Any other amazing stories of how you killed your managers or were killed by your bosses?

Valuing employees

When RecruitLoop and I were in our final stages of negotiating, we started talking about value. About how my primary concern was feeling valued by a company. Talking about value on both sides honestly is probably what got us to the point where we had an agreeable situation for both sides – we knew where we stood, and both sides could see that we considered each other valuable.

The day we got to a verbal agreement, something surprising happened. They asked for my home address (something about lawyers needing it for the docs), and then, a bit later, sent me an email that said:

Ben at the front desk should have something for you (and your husband) tonight  :)

Just to set the stage, it had been a crazy day. It was my husband’s birthday, I had a flat tire that I had to replace, I was talking to someone I knew from high school about working at Amazon, and I had just verbally accepted a job offer. When I got the email, I was sitting at my desk playing stupid computer games in order to take a much-needed mental break. I usually wasn’t home that early, but (thanks to the car) I was this time.  I looked at my computer in confusion a few times, grabbed my keys, and headed down to the front desk of my apartment building.

As I approached the front desk, Ben (our fantastic concierge) pulled out a wine bag and said, “It’s not from me.”

I may or may not have thanked him. I was shocked. Stunned. I looked in the bag and realized that there was a bottle of Oregon Pinot Noir in it. This meant that they had actually listened to some of our social conversation when I mentioned that wine was one of my hobbies, and that Oregon Pinots were my favorite.  And then they had done something that seemed magical – they managed to get a bottle sent to me the very day that I verbally accepted their offer.

To put it mildly, I felt pretty darn valued at that point :).

What they don’t know, however (until now, of course), is that this gesture was beyond perfect for me…

At one of my law firms, the management team would constantly talk about what employees wanted. We wanted to figure this out, since it would help with morale and retention. Could we ask the partners to give out bonuses, or would more salary help, or whatnot. During these conversations, I’d always say this:

It would mean more to me if the partners gave me a bottle of wine than a bonus. In giving me a bottle of wine, they’d show that they knew what I valued and demonstrated that they value me in return.

Interestingly, I never got a bottle of wine from the partners. But I got a bottle of wine – my favorite kind, no less – from RecruitLoop. Demonstrate that they value me? Nailed it.

There’s a big lesson in this for me. It’s that it’s really not that costly to truly show employees that you value them. It takes attention and a little bit of time, but it’s not that hard.  And while it may not be hard, showing value goes a really long way.

Does your staff feel safe?

CSF-Safety Vest & Triangle Kit

CSF-Safety Vest & Triangle Kit (Photo credit: redi-medic)

I was recently reading an article about why Agile implementations are failing (yes, I’m a total geek), and it got me thinking about safety. I haven’t thought much about safety explicitly (beyond being an Amazon Safety Czar for my floor, which is different from emotional safety – I have a bright orange vest :)), but now I realize how important it is for your team to feel emotionally safe at work.

If your staff doesn’t feel safe, things might get pretty rough.

  • They won’t trust you or your company. Everything you ask them or tell them goes under a skeptical magnifying glass and is hyper-analyzed. They may become hyper-critical
  • They’ll probably start looking to leave. Honestly, the moment I stop trusting my company, I brush up my LinkedIn profile and start checking TheLadders for likely postings.
  • They’ll stop telling you things that have gone wrong. They’ll be scared of your reaction and will delay telling you any bad news for as long as possible. For me, this is a nightmare situation, because I sincerely value the opportunity to work through issues WITH my team.

I’ve been thinking of ways to identify when folks don’t feel safe, and I’ve come up with the following:

  • Defensiveness. A few years ago, I found myself getting weirdly defensive whenever I received any feedback. I thought I’d gotten beyond a lot of defensiveness in college, but it was back with a vengeance. In retrospect, I firmly believe it was because I had stopped feeling safe with my boss. Because I expected to be attacked, I responded defensively to everything.
  • Lack of communication. Sure, sometimes folks are just quiet, but if you start not finding out about things that go wrong until MUCH LATER than they knew, guess what’s probably happening?
  • Work ethic nosedive. Heaven knows, I have no issue with Facebook use at work, but if a geek stops producing and never seems to be looking at work stuff, you probably have a problem. It’s most concerning to me when I see a shift and can’t come up with a reason for it (e.g., burnout or home “stuff”), since it could be a safety issue.
  • Crankiness. Do you have a geek who just seems to be a sourpuss? Okay, so they might just have dealt with a cranky user, but ongoing crankiness may be a sign of a safety issue.

I haven’t been thinking about this issue for long, so I’m sure I’ve missed things. What other safety warning signs are there?

Managing stupid(ly)

Astronomical Clock

Astronomical Clock (Photo credit: simpologist)

A few years back, I realized I was killing my staff.

I thought I had found the ultimate in productivity. In order to manage my completely ridiculous inbox, I found a system.  Each night, I’d leave the office late and go wait for the bus. While I was waiting, I would use my trusty Blackberry to clear out my inbox. I would merrily send emails as follow-ups, delete things, and set myself up for a pretty darn productive next day. Hey – I’ve always loved the concept of Inbox Zero (even though practicing it in Outlook is pretty much impossible). This made me, well, happy.

I’d go home, make (well, order) dinner, and relax, knowing that I was prepared for the next day.

And then something really annoying would start happening – my Blackberry would start going off. My team, fresh from their own dinners, would start replying to my email. Being a rather Type A personality, I’d then feel the need to read the email, which kind-of messed with my evening, but I got enough email from others that it didn’t mess it up that much. I’d ignore the email until the next day (except for urgent ones), and go to bed.

The next morning, I’d walk into the office, perfectly chipper because I knew what my day entailed. On my way to my office, I’d do my usual check-ins with my team (my office was at the end of the hall, so I did morning drive-bys).

Oddly, I found exhausted people who would immediately ask me if their response was OK, or expect me to have responded to their responses.

Sometimes I can be a bit slow, but after a few weeks (months?), I realized that my team was stressed and becoming less productive.  I eventually even realized it was my fault. When I was replying to email after hours, they assumed I expected them to do the same. Sadly, they were already working enough, and I wasn’t expecting it. But I was the manager, and that’s what I was doing.

So I stopped. It was downright painful to have to come in each morning with a full inbox and deal with things I could have dealt with the night before, but the change in my staff was worth it. Their stress levels went down, they eased into their mornings, and they became more productive because they stopped working stupidly.

Here’s the thing with being a manager – YOU are the mold. You are what your team attempts to replicate. If you work stupidly, they work stupidly. If you work late, they work late. If you answer email at all hours, they answer email at all hours.If you manage stupidly, you’ll eventually kill them with stress. Or at least lose them to your competitors.

It’s easy to manage stupidly. Are you managing stupidly without realizing it?

Making effective business arguments

I know, lame title.  But I recently had an experience that reminded me that it’s not easy to make an effective informal business argument, and I wanted to record some of my take-aways. Note that I’m not going to tell you whether I’m the person who may or may not have made some of the errors below :).

Argument

Argument (Photo credit: andrewmalone)

  1. Think about timing. Running up to someone and saying, “Hey! Here’s this great idea!” may not be the best plan, especially if your proposal is going to turn his world upside-down. If you have a Really Big Idea, ask to grab a cup of coffee or schedule some time on his calendar to run something by him so that he doesn’t lose an hour unexpectedly the day before a big proposal is due.
  2. Watch how you start. “I’m about to tell you about this completely awesome idea because I’m awesome,” (well, or something like that) isn’t a great way to start talking about your idea. “Hey, I think this thing will rock for <something she cares about> and I wanted your thoughts,” is a much better way to come at it. Telling her you’re awesome out front will probably gain you an eye-roll and an unreceptive ear.
  3. Always remember WIIFM. Honestly, your target wants to know “what’s in it for me?” (WIIFM) immediately, if not sooner. If you’re asked, “How does that help my department?”, your answer really shouldn’t be, “It doesn’t.” Because you know what happens next? He’ll say, “No,” and instantly work on finding counter-arguments. (More about that in an old post On Feet.)
  4. LISTEN. That’s in all caps because your target will be much more willing to listen to your thoughts on your proposal if you, in turn listen to hers. She might even have great ideas that build on your proposal or that will massively help you make your argument to others, and not listening means that you’re hurting yourself. You’re running this by her in order to get her opinion, so listen to it. Which leads me to my next point…
  5. Never–ever–be disparaging. You’ve probably worked, “That’s dumb!” out of your vocabulary (okay, fine, I’m still working on that one), but you need to realize that telling your target that something will be easy for his team (when you don’t actually know how his team’s systems work) is equally disparaging and frustrating. Likewise, belittling his arguments (no matter how dumb you think they are) will only tick him off, which will guarantee that you lose him as a listener, partner, and advocate.
  6. Please don’t yell. Yes, your idea is WICKED exciting, and your voice might get loud because you’re excited. But try to remember to breathe and not to yell. Especially if you’ve ignored points 1-5, yelling just makes listening to your argument a miserable experience, and your target will be less likely to listen to your other ideas in the future.

I’m sure I’ve missed some. What are other ineffective ways to make business proposals?

Jumping on the “WTF Yahoo!” bandwagon (re: working remotely)

I realize that pretty much everyone is writing about the Yahoo! work from home debacle (hi Jim!).  Just in case you’re living under a rock, here’s the salient part of the memo:

Image representing Yahoo! as depicted in Crunc...

Image via CrunchBase

To become the absolute best place to work, communication and collaboration will be important, so we need to be working side-by-side. That is why it is critical that we are all present in our offices. Some of the best decisions and insights come from hallway and cafeteria discussions, meeting new people, and impromptu team meetings. Speed and quality are often sacrificed when we work from home. We need to be one Yahoo!, and that starts with physically being together.

Beginning in June, we’re asking all employees with work-from-home arrangements to work in Yahoo! offices. If this impacts you, your management has already been in touch with next steps. And, for the rest of us who occasionally have to stay home for the cable guy, please use your best judgment in the spirit of collaboration. Being a Yahoo isn’t just about your day-to-day job, it is about the interactions and experiences that are only possible in our offices.

I’ve heard lots of good and bad points about this, but several things just boggle my mind. Here’s my list.  In order to attempt to be entertaining, I’ll start each point with my actual knee-jerk thoughts.

  • “Well, there goes your recruiting.” I have to admit that I didn’t quite understand the work from home (WFH) culture while I was at law firms, since most firms have a pretty strict not-working-from-home policy for non-lawyers (we’ll get into the nightmares of that haves vs. have-nots culture some other day). Now that I’ve worked at tech companies (HubSpot and Amazon), I’ve realized that being able to WFH or work remotely is an essential part of recruiting top talent. Your candidate for kick-butt lead engineer needs to take care of his mom in Tuscon? Let him work from there 3 weeks a month. Or permanently. He’ll work better with an easier life, and you don’t miss out on his awesome talent.
  • “Dude, if people aren’t being productive remotely, MANAGE THEM BETTER!” I don’t think Yahoo’s primary problem is with remote workers – I think it’s with craptastic managers.  As Jim points out, “Effectively managing remote workers requires more effort and overhead.” Well, yeah, but that doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t do it. To me, it doesn’t sound like the problem is with remote workers, but with crappy managers. This is an awfully expensive and ham-fisted way to save your bad managers’ jobs.
  • “If you need to lay people off, lay them off. Don’t do this BS that makes you look like you’re managing in the stone ages.” Yeah, so I went to a kick-butt business school that made it really clear to me that remote workforces and the ability to WFH is truly the wave of the future. It doesn’t mean that you have to go to business school to realize that this is a giant leap backwards in modern management practices.  I mean, do we not have videoconferencing, phones, planes, instant messenger, and the ability and money to use these?
  • “Yes, face-to-face has kinda neat value. However, if your employees don’t value that enough to come in more regularly, you have a culture problem.” If your culture lacks the collaborative spirit that makes employees value corporate visits and coming in regularly, you have a larger culture problem. Ticking them off by instating this policy isn’t going to fix your culture.

I realize that very little of this hasn’t been said already, but I just had to contribute to the discussion.  Am I right? Am I crazier than usual?

Management styles: chutes, shields, and shows

I’m becoming convinced that there are three basic types of managers: chutes, shields, and shows.  Each of these types should be preceded by a certain word that I won’t say on my blog, so let’s call it stuff.

English: Chute spillway of Pando dam

English: Chute spillway of Pando dam (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Stuff Chutes

Especially if you’re a new manager, is is incredibly easy to be a stuff chute. If you’re a chute, you take all the stuff generated above you, concentrate it, and direct it directly at your staff. You’re a chute if you:

  • Always tell your team about any and all stress/upset by the Powers That Be (PTBs)
  • Use implied pressure from the Powers That Be to motivate your staff (note: NOT motivating. NOT. No way, no how.)
  • Ensure that the Powers That Be know exactly who did anything wrong (who wasn’t you)

If you haven’t figured it out, you don’t want to be a chute. Maybe you think you’re doing things right by being transparent about the “hair on fire” attitude of the PTBs, but what you’re really doing is concentrating all of the stuff from them and stressing out your team with it. Unfortunately, chutes tend to have stressed out staff who dislike their employers, which leads to morale and retention problems.

E3 2011 - Captain America's shield from Captai...

E3 2011 – Captain America’s shield from Captain America: the First Avenger (Sega) (Photo credit: Pop Culture Geek)

Stuff Shields

It’s definitely harder to be a stuff shield. You have to walk the tightrope between transparency with your team and shielding them from the stuff from above. You’re a shield if you:

  • Give your team credit for everything that goes right while taking the blame for everything that doesn’t
  • When the PTBs go into panic mode, indicate that there’s stress above, but don’t go into enough detail to pass that stress along
  • Motivate your team positively, rather than with threats

In the battle of the corporate world, shields sometimes fail (as you might), but you can always re-arm.  (Did I push that metaphor too far? Sorry about that…)

Closed red curtain at the Coolidge Corner Thea...

Closed red curtain at the Coolidge Corner Theatre – landscape (Photo credit: brokentrinkets)

Stuff Shows

The most annoying managers create their own stuff, so I call them stuff shows. They might also be chutes – or even (rarely) shields – but they primarily function as shows. You might be a show if you:

  • Regularly lose your temper or show your extreme stress to your team, especially in the context of trying to make them do things
  • Give your staff instructions, only to change them afterwards (possibly multiple times) with no justification or explanation to help them understand why the change is necessary
  • Expect your team to read your mind, and chastise them for not conforming to your (secret) requirements

I can come up with an almost endless list of how to be a show, but I’m hoping you get the idea.

Clearly, you’d rather be a shield than a chute or a show. Unfortunately, I’ve seen very few managers who are shields who haven’t spent significant time and effort on meeting the needs of their team. How to be a shield, however, is a post for another day.

Are you a bottleneck?

Is your staff frustrated? Do you feel like they’re all inefficient? Is there a line every night out your office door and a long queue of email from your team awaiting your reply? If so, I have news for you – the problem probably isn’t your geeks. The problem is mostly likely you.

bottleneck

bottleneck (Photo credit: DailyM = Differentieel + JeeeM)

You have become a bottleneck.

You probably meant well.  Or maybe your team is new.  Or maybe you suck at documentation (heck, I sure do).  You probably have great reasons for it, but it’s still an issue – geeks get incredibly frustrated when their boss becomes a bottleneck.

Honestly, it’s going to take significant effort to stop being a bottleneck.  However, it’s entirely worth it – your team will be happier, your stress will be lower, and everyone will get a heck of a lot more done.  Here’s what you need to work on:

  • Trust. Look, you have to trust your geeks.  You have to trust that they’ll do their jobs, and you have to communicate that trust to them.  Yes, this means you have to accept that they might not do things exactly the same way you will, but if you don’t trust, well, get used to having to hire replacements. :)
  • Communicate. Your geeks must be clear about your expectations, or they’ll constantly double-check things with you.  Proactively communicate about what you expect to see from their work.
  • Establish Patterns. If each project has a different reporting mechanism, you’ll get stuck telling everyone how to report on each new task.  You’ll also get stuck double-checking their work, since they’ll never know what constitutes acceptable results and reporting.
  • Teach. Giving someone step-by-step instructions differs from truly teaching someone. Spending extra time making sure your geeks understand why they’re doing what they’re doing, how you think about problems like the ones they’re trying to solve, and what success looks like means that they can pattern-match for subsequent tasks. And that means that they won’t queue outside your office as much.

Investing this time will certainly help with frustration, stress, and constant questions.  You should note, however, that you’ll still need a good way to keep tabs on projects and problems once your geeks no longer ask you about everything. The best advice I’ve ever read on how to do that is in The One Minute Manager Meets the Monkey. It’s a quick read, and totally worth it (even if it’s not on Kindle yet.  Grrrrr.)!

Making people successful

Perhaps I’m a bit optimistic, but I am inherently convinced that anyone can be successful given the right attitude and circumstances.

Two small test tubes held in spring clamps

Photo credit: Wikipedia

I think I came to this conclusion in college.  During my junior and senior years, I was a lab TA for the intro biology lab at MIT (7.02). This class had four major experiments (that I’ll call units), and the TAs would rotate between groups of students for each unit.  During my junior year’s class, one group of students had a 3-person team (all others were 2) that was known as being a complete disaster.  They had no idea what they were doing, and the other TAs would be constantly frustrated by getting them to work successfully on their experiments.

I’ve always been a bit rebellious, so when I rotated to this group on the third rotation, I decided that I wasn’t going to let the other TAs’ frustrations influence me.  I spent the first day of that rotation watching and listening to them.  I discovered that they were struggling to take the protocols designed for two people and expand them to three without being confused.  I started working with them to try to more effectively divide and conquer each day’s tasks (and I had the advantage of having the best teacher for this myself – my lab partner the previous year had been SO GOOD at strategizing in the lab that I had learned some amazing ways to do it).  At the end of that unit, when it came time to grade them, I was able to grade each of them a full letter grade higher than anyone had been able to during the first two units.

My experience with the “disaster” team convinced me that setting up the right circumstances could help pretty much anyone be successful. It (along with my experiences later) taught me that, to make people successful, I needed to:

  1. Watch and learn. Had I not taken the time to watch the “disaster” team to find out what was going wrong, I never would have been able to figure out how to fix it.
  2. Identify the real problem or challenge. And I don’t mean identify the problem that I thought existed before going into the situation . With the “disaster” team, we honestly just assumed they weren’t very good at biology lab. It turned out that their real problem was struggling with logistics.
  3. Communicate. Quite frankly, the “disaster” team knew that they were pretty disastrous.  By talking to them about what I’d observed and the problems I’d identified, I got their buy-in to try to fix the problem together.
  4. Change the circumstances. Once we decided to try to fix the problem together , the “disaster” team and I talked every day about ways to solve it. As time went by, they felt more comfortable proposing their own solutions and asking me questions.

I’m not saying that my “disaster” team all pulled their grades up to As.  But they definitely improved because we were working together to create successful circumstances for them.

In the business world, I’ve learned that successful circumstances don’t always include the current role for someone. The strategies I’ve used to address that (after I’ve exhausted the above) include giving negative feedback and, eventually, terminating the person. Luckily, however, I’ve found that more often I can (with the help of the person) create an environment that helps make him or her successful.

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