Category: general leadership

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 (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.

How I give negative feedback

emotion icon
emotion icon (Photo credit: Łukasz Strachanowski)

In my previous post, I talked about how to give negative feedback. In this post, I’ll describe the steps that I personally take when I have to give negative feedback to someone.

  1. Do my homework. First I have to make sure that I know what I’m talking about and why I need to give the feedback.  This also gives me a chance to make sure my emotions aren’t leading the conversation. Especially with geeks, I’ve found that facts trump emotion every time, so making sure I have factual arguments rather than emotional ones is key.
  2. Speak privately. Unless I’m giving negative feedback to a group, I always make sure my conversation is private. If I have a regular 1:1 and the feedback can wait until then, great.  Otherwise, I have to find a way to speak privately without interruption. This also means that I’m careful not to blindside my geek on the way to somewhere or in the middle of something – I have to make sure I have  her attention as well. Ideally, I also have Kleenex on hand just in case (although I don’t remember often making my geeks cry).
  3. Say, “I wanted to talk about situation x. Can you tell me what happened?” I never start with my side of the story. I’m a huge believer in the idea that there’s my side of the story, her side of the story, and then the truth. So I need to get the geek’s side of the story in order to even remotely approach the truth (this is especially true when I have to give negative feedback about a situation that I heard about second-hand). Letting the geek go first helps me do the following:
    1. Understand how she saw the situation.
    2. Understand the reason behind why she took the actions she did.
    3. Understand whether she already feels bad about it – does she understand why the situation didn’t go well, or does she think everything is fine? I approach the rest of the conversation VERY differently depending on her current perspective.
    4. Find out whether she has already taken steps to fix the situation.
    5. Find out whether she knows what she should have done instead.
  4. Base my response on where she is. If she doesn’t understand what went wrong, I talk about that so that she understands what was wrong about the situation. If she already knows and is sorry, I talk about how to fix it or move on.
  5. Bring up what she did RIGHT in the situation. Rarely is an event all bad – it’s vital that my geek knows what she did correctly so that she can repeat it!
  6. Make sure she knows how to handle this type of situation in the future. Quite frankly, giving negative feedback is completely useless if there’s no way to draw something positive out of the situation. And the most positive thing is to make sure that it won’t happen the same way next time.
  7. Have a pleasant ending OR come up with action steps. Depending on how my geek assimilates the information, we’ll need to agree on what to do next. Either we move on and talk about pleasant things or we need to come up with next steps (e.g., regular check-ins or how to fix the situation if anything is fixable).

Honestly, I’ve had this blow up in my face once or twice, but trial and error have led me to this overall methodology.  I’d love to hear about what other methods work for you!

Giving Negative Feedback

Block diagram for feedback
Block diagram for feedback (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I have to admit that I hate the word “feedback”.  To me, it’s basically like saying, “I’m about to tell you just how much you suck, but I’m going to put it in business terms so that you can’t get pissed off or cry about it.”  (I may be exaggerating slightly.)

Nonetheless, no matter how I feel, I sometimes have to give negative feedback.  Here are the guidelines that I’ve figured out (mostly by doing things the wrong way):

  • ALWAYS always always get their side of the story.  I can’t tell you the number of times someone reported something “bad” about a geek that looked very different once I had both sides of the story.
  • Keep your emotions out of it. If possible, make sure you’re no longer pissed off before giving the feedback.  Sleep on it, drink on it, kvetch to your spouse about it – whatever you need to do to make sure that you’re not seething when you give the feedback, because, you need to…
  • Make sure it doesn’t get personal.  There’s a big difference between saying, “That came across as harsh,” and, “You’re harsh.” This isn’t about who they ARE, this is about what they did or how they behaved in the situation.
  • Be constructive. It’s not useful to tell them what they do wrong without telling them what they should have done instead. You want to help them learn? Guide them.  For example, one of my geeks once ended up on the floor of his office with a back spasm.  I happened to notice it when I realized all my other geeks were gathered around and making fun of him.  My feedback to them went something like this:

Remember when so-and-so was in his office on the floor with back pain and you were pointing and laughing?  Yeah. So, in the future, please first tell HR, then tell me, THEN point and laugh.  Got it?

  • Make sure they hear you. Especially if you’ve forgotten to leave your emotions at home, it’s easy to say things that wound your geeks and cause them to tune you out or emotionally shut down.  Make sure they’re responding to you normally, but if they’re not…
  • Let them go process it and then get back to you. You don’t NEED them to learn their lessons right away (or feel sorry or whatnot).  You need them, instead, to truly internalize what you’ve said in order for them to do things more correctly in the future. Especially if you’re managing introverts (which many geeks are), you need to give them feedback, tell them how you would have preferred things to go, and then let them go process it so that they can internalize it.  Always leave the conversation open so that they can come back to you with questions or arguments in the future.

This post is getting long, so I’ll leave examples to a future post.  However, what have I missed? What lessons have you learned about giving or receiving feedback?

The burned-out geek leader

I’ve been thinking recently about different types of leaders.  Or at least of different of types of behaviors that leaders might exhibit.  If I keep thinking about it, this may well turn into a series.  If I stop thinking about it, however, I reserve the right to change topics.

2007 Sturgis Motorcycle Rally. Burnout.
Image via Wikipedia

The first one that I thought I’d tackle is the burned-out geek leader.  Some signs your geek leader is burned out include…

  • She can’t remember much.
  • She seems to not pay attention to what’s going on unless it’s right in front of her face – she’s detached and unfocused.
  • She’s behind in email (well, more behind than usual).
  • She becomes obsessed with something that seems relatively insignificant – she has a very one-track mind (seems like a control issue).

I think that pretty much every leadership state has its pros and cons (even this one).


  • If your manager is burned out, you get to pretty much just do your job.  Unless you’re working on that one thing with which she’s obsessed, she’ll just leave you alone.
  • You have a chance to shine by keeping things running while she doesn’t have the mental wherewithal to deal with them.


  • Getting a substantive answer about anything is pretty much next to impossible.
  • If you try to keep things running and fail, you have a very good chance of being thrown under the bus.
  • Finding her is tough; she could be crazy in meetings or off hiding.
  • You have to continuously hound her in order to get anything done (e.g., my vacation begins tomorrow, can you please approve it now?).
  • There’s some chance that she’ll give you short-sighted or distracted answers (“Just do this and leave me alone.”) for which you’ll pay later, either personally or professionally.

I thought I’d give an example of this last point from my life.  As I’ve mentioned before on this blog, I once went through two water disasters in five days (waterfalls in the server room).  We – that is, my team, my boss, and I – were all operating in a state of extreme burn-out.  During a conversation about the damage, my boss told me to get a second replacement Storage Area Network (SAN), and when I questioned the order (saying that I wasn’t sure that insurance would cover it), he snapped at me and told me to just get it.  Fast forward a few months, and it turns out that the insurance company would pay for the first SAN, but not the second.

So what do you do with a burned-out boss? (Full disclosure: this is how I like my team to deal with me when I’m burned out).

  • Keep things running.  She will adore you for that.
  • Do your best to get answers, but make sure you need the answers before hounding her.  Don’t hound her for an answer that could have waited, and don’t waste her attention.
  • If you have a good relationship with her, encourage her to take some time away.  Maybe it seems like working all weekend will make the next week easier, but chances are that working all weekend will only exacerbate the burn-out and make the next week even worse.  Working without a break massively decreases efficiency, especially for folks who are burned out.

What other behaviors characterize a burned out leader?  What are other coping methods that work?

Why does my staff hate me?

English: A housecat named Princess who highly ...
Image via Wikipedia

If you’ve ever managed people and (like me) are somewhat empathic, you’ve had this experience: you walk into the office, and you can feel the waves of disgruntlement radiating from your staff. You’re not sure why or what happened, but they’re grumpy.  If it were just one or two of them, you could easily brush it off.  But instead it seems that the cranky fairy visited your department and liberally sprinkled his gift around.

So you pull someone (in my case, usually one of my managers or senior folks) into your office and ask.  Maybe said someone just glowers and says “nothing,” or maybe the conversation goes something like this:

Me: So what’s up around here?

Someone: I don’t think people are happy.

Me: Do you know why?

Someone: They’re not happy about <something you probably did, said, or asked them to do>.

The first time I had one of these conversations, I was honestly bewildered.  I had no idea why it seemed like my staff suddenly hated me.  Sure, there were some times that I did things to which a grumpy response was inevitable, but what I’m talking about here was boss-hating out of left field.  I’ve developed some theories as to why this happens:

  • You (the boss) represent the establishment. If your firm or company is doing something that they don’t particularly like, you are sometimes perceived as the immediate representative of The Man.  I find this is more common with new direct reports or folks who don’t know you well enough to know your motivations yet.
  • The “heart” of your department feels hurt. This doesn’t happen with every team, but there are often one or two employees who are the “heart” of the team (think Kaylee Frye on Firefly).  However this person feels is how the rest of the team will feel. And something happened to make this person unhappy.
  • You did something wrong. Or at least you did something that made them grumpy and you didn’t realize it at the time you did it.

So how do you deal with these situations?

  • It’s tough to be part of “the establishment,” but you can’t get away from that to some extent, since you are your team’s main point of contact for the Powers That Be.  If you realize this is going on, reassure your team that you’ll fight for their best interests, and work on building relationships with them so that they realize that you’re not The Man.
  • It’s pretty easy to deal with your team’s “heart” if you get along well with him or her.  You can take him out for a cup of coffee, find out what’s going on, and address the issue.  If you don’t get along with him, however (and I’ve had both situations when I’ve been a manager), you’ll have to slog through more emotional muck before you can get down to addressing the issue.   It won’t be quick or easy, though, and you might have to just wait for the current situation to blow over before working on building your relationship with him.  I’ll bet you didn’t realize that you’d become part shrink when you became a manager, eh?
  • I have a very simple formula that I follow when I’ve done something wrong or sub-optimal: own up to it, apologize for it, and take steps to make sure it doesn’t happen again.  Trying to shift blame or defend your actions to your already pissed-off team will only exacerbate the crankiness and undermine their trust for you.  Find out what you did wrong, take responsibility, apologize, and fix it.

I realize that I’ve only scratched the surface here; what situations have I missed?  How do you handle it when your team seems to suddenly hate you?

My job as a manager

Thor, the god of Norse mythology. "Thor's...
Image via Wikipedia

When you think about it, management is really a necessary evil.  Oh, sure, I happen to weirdly like it and have been accused of having a talent for it, but it’s really unfortunate that we need as much management as we do.

Just think about it.  When your team or company is small enough, you don’t really need managers.  Each person in the room knows that they need to simply get “stuff” done in order to make the team or company work.  If they’re good enough at that, your company grows, and that’s when you need managers.

Why do you need managers? Coordination and resources.  My job as a manager isn’t to be the almighty powerful lord of my domain (even though sometimes it’s just fun to act like that to see how quickly my team calls me on it.  The best teams take less than 10 seconds.).  My job as a manager is to be a resource and the coordinator  for my team so that they can get the real “stuff” done.  In other words, the power is actually theirs, not mine.

What does this look like (you KNOW I’m going to do a bulleted list, don’t you?)?  So glad you asked! 🙂

  • Understand what they do. It’s pretty darn tough to act as a coordinator and resource when you haven’t the foggiest notion what they do all day.  I’m not saying you need to be a pain and look over their shoulders constantly, but you need to have a grasp of what their day-to-day jobs look like and what short-term (and long-term) goals they’re working towards.
  • Get out of the way. In trying to get things coordinated and achieve your mandates, it’s very easy to get in your own way (and in the way of your team).  When push comes to shove, you have to chat with them and then, well, trust them to do their jobs. Yes, your butt is on the line for their work, but that’s why you get paid the big bucks, right?  If you put yourself in the way by demanding constant meetings, updates, etc. (basically, being a micromanage-y PITA), “stuff” just won’t get done.
  • Give them what they need. One of your most important jobs as a manager is to give your team the resources that they need.  Basically, your job is to smooth the path in order to make their jobs as easy as possible.  Sometimes that takes the form of covering for one of them during a family emergency, or dealing with political BS, or bringing in caffeine or a V8 after a late night. Basically, you’re never, ever “too good” to do something that helps one of them get their job done.
    • “But Jenn,” you whine, “I’m not a secretary.”  No, you’re not.  And if you’re blessed enough to have the god or goddess that an admin is, maybe your job will look less “menial” because you don’t have to do as much detailed coordination. But if you don’t have one, suck it up and do the work.
  • Show appreciation publicly.  If you want to make sure your team is demoralized, go ahead and do a private, “Good girl, now get back in your box,” when one of them truly goes above and beyond.  Send an email to your VP, or announce it on the wiki, or use a formal feedback channel to let your company know just how amazing she was.  She might act embarrassed (and there are those employees who don’t want public kudos, so get to know her or check with her first before your stand on the rooftops and shout, but note that “Oh no, you don’t have to do that,” isn’t a refusal), but there is a very wide chasm between public appreciation and private, and employees are aware of that.
  • Show appreciation and disappointment privately. Standing on the rooftops isn’t appropriate for every employee action, so giving a constant stream of feedback is incredibly important.  Don’t ever wait for review time to tell him that he has done well or poorly.  Each day is an opportunity to say, “Nice one with the foo case,” or “In the future, can you make sure that you say goodbye before you hang up the phone?”

I’m sure I’ve missed what a lot of you do, but this is how I see my job?  What have I missed?  What can you add that will make me (and others) a better manager?

Dear Job Applicant: Your résumé is driving me insane

Un-suckify your resumeDear Job Applicants:

Your résumés are driving me nuts.  So nuts that I’ve created a list:

  • You don’t tailor your résumé to my job posting.  If my job posting says you have to know marketing and be able to teach, the word “marketing” should actually SHOW UP on your résumé.  If I specify that you have to know how to administer Compellent SANs, guess what I want to see on your résumé ?
  • For the love of everything, get someone to proofread your résumé.  I read one today that said, “References can be refurbished upon request.”  Seriously?  Seriously!?!?!?!?!
  • I really don’t care about your job responsibilities that much.  Your accomplishments, sure.  Your responsibilities, not really.  I want to know what you did.  Did you manage a network?  Did you manage humans?  Did you manage a budget?  How many?  How much?  How big?  I’m reading to see if you have what it takes to manage my network, humans, and budget.
  • Please tell me why you want to do this job.  Especially if it’s an unusual job.  For example, we hire for a role at HubSpot known as “Inbound Marketing Consultant.”  And, honestly, it’s not a job like any other job.  As a result, if I can’t figure out from your résumé or cover letter WHY you want this job, I have to waste time in the interview figuring out two things (below), and I HATE wasting time.
    1. Do you have any idea what this job is?
    2. Given your understanding of the job, why do you want it?
  • Please have some clue what’s on your résumé.  Seriously, people, if you don’t know what’s there and I’ve only spent 30 seconds skimming it, we’re in a world of hurt.
  • Please put complete information on your résumé.  I can’t tell you how many interviews I’ve had where people say, “It’s not on my résumé, but…”  Well, then, your résumé isn’t complete, now, is it?
I’m sure there are more, but I have to go back to skimming résumés.  Can someone please have mercy on me?

Image courtesy of CharlotWest

I Can’t Keep You Fixed

I can't keep you fixedYeah, I know. Your job sucks sometimes. Servers crash, users complain, you are looking to your next job but haven’t quite gotten there yet, etc. Or maybe you’re having some troubles at home, not sleeping, etc.

I promise you that I will do my best, as your manager/leader/director/chief whatsit officer, to make your job better.

I will shift your workload, give you plum projects, take you out for beer, approve tons of personal time, etc.  I will do everything in my power to make you happy and productive, because I know that happy workers are better at their jobs (except lawyers.  No, really–I don’t have the citation on hand, but I read a study in business school that said so.).

But, honestly, I can’t keep you fixed.

I will protect you from politics, and defend you like a mother bear defending her cubs.  I will fight for your requests even if I don’t necessarily completely agree (but do see the merit).  I will joke with you, cry with you, and get angry alongside you.

But, still, I can’t keep you fixed.

As adults in the workplace, sometimes we need to take responsibility for our own happiness.  Should we fight for what we want? Absolutely.  Should we go to our managers with our complaints/problems? Yes.

But it’s not their job to keep us fixed.  It’s our job to fix ourselves.  If I’m going to my manager with a problem, I should also have some ideas of solutions.  Maybe they’re not tenable solutions, but “I’m not going to do that” isn’t a solution–it’s creation of even more problems.

So yeah, jobs suck sometimes. And as a manager, I do my best to keep my team happy.  But as a team member myself, I need to be cognizant that there is mutual responsibility for the fixing.  I can’t keep you fixed, just like my manager can’t keep me fixed.  But together, I think, we can probably do a decent job of getting through the day.

**Note to fellow grammar geeks: I know I switched personal pronouns, but it sounded really cranky when I didn’t…

Photo Courtesy of DaveOnFlickr.

When You Shouldn’t Hire “The Best”

“We always hire the best.”

“The people who work here are the best people in the world.”

“We never use the phrase ‘good enough’ in our hiring.”

I’ve seen countless companies completely mess themselves up by sticking to some sort of resolve to “hire the best” without thinking it through.  They hire the coolest, brightest, smartest, and quickest people and then have morale and retention problem that they just can’t figure out.  They leave out one essential piece of hiring “the best”–they forget that they need the best for the job.  So they end up with…

  • Brilliant technologists who are miserable working a Help Desk phone
  • Great managers who are lousy consultants
  • Great user support folks who are cranky systems administrators (this one is hard to tell, since systems administrators tend to be cranky anyhow)
  • Great applications people who are bored trainers

I’ve found that behavioral interviewing can really separate the best (in general) from the best for the job.  Here are my favorite questions:

  • In job x, you’ll often experience situation y.  Can you tell me about a time when you were in a similar situation and how you reacted?
  • How do you handle it when you feel like you’re at the end of your rope, and what sorts of situations make you feel like that?
  • I’ve made mistakes that could turn your hair grey to hear them.  Tell me about how you handled one of the worst mistakes you’ve ever made (I don’t make them tell me the details of the mistake).
  • How would you handle <some situation they’ll experience on the job>?
  • What is the coolest thing you’ve ever done in work or in life?  What made it so cool?

Their answers to behavioral questions will help you rapidly see that sometimes a completely awesome candidate just isn’t the best for the job.  And honestly, one of the biggest mistakes you can make as a hiring manager is to let someone’s degrees/qualifications/personality blind you to a bad fit.

So how about you?  How do you distinguish between to “the best” and “the best for the job”?

Photo courtesy of Rachael Voorhees