18 February 2006

Why is people management so difficult?

If you have been a manager of managers, undoubtedly one of the things that would have frustrated you is how so many of your managers who had an otherwise perfect record were woefully lacking in people management. The pattern has repeated like clockwork in my life.

This has prevented numerous ambitious managers from moving forward in their careers and often has frustrated them immensely. (Don’t count on the latter though. Most managers far overestimate their organizational and people skills). I am not talking about managers who “are liked by people”. While this can be a charismatic leader, often people “liking” has little to do with a manager’s effectiveness with their organization.

I am talking of a manager’s ability to get the most out of individuals and the organization in a way that is profitable for both the company and the individual. I am talking about a manager’s ability to keep the organization continuously hungry to scale greater heights. I am talking about a manager’s ability to deliver 5X results compared with similar sized teams. (In the IT industry as well as many others, this is absolutely achievable)

There are various books written on how to become a great people manager and such other topics. Given the number of books written on this subject, I suspect this is not a commonly agreed upon topic!! I shall try not to add to that literature base.

However, what I am going to narrate to you is what I believe is the fundamental reason why so many bright managers who manage just about every aspect of their business very well, find it difficult to get the people management aspect straightened out.

What makes people management so different from other streams of management?

At the core of the difference is standardization versus differentiation.

Pick up your MBA courses or the millions of books written on management – be it production management, development management, sales management whatever. The focus is always to derive higher gains by running it as a well-defined process. The general theme is very simple – look at the processes, standardize the processes, set in the measures and then drive higher goals through those measures and exception management whenever there are variations to those standardized processes.

That is how Ford drove how to manufacture cars. That is how companies like Siebel and salesforce.com have made money – by helping to standardize the sales process. That is how developers have increased product quality – standardized development process.

You don’t make one car fundamentally different from the next on the assembly line. You try not to make every sales deal a Picasso (unique creation). You follow the same steps to write the next line of code as you did for the previous one.

However, this management upbringing falls completely flat while dealing with people. Each person truly is very different from the other. They need and demand very different kind of treatment. They respond to different kind of stimuli. Given two machines, you will roughly follow the same steps to get 30% more productivity. Try that on two employees sitting next to each other and you will quickly realize the futility.

The art of differentiating makes or breaks a good people manager. The method of “standardize-measure-manage” will not work here. Good people management takes far more time. The best people managers try to find the right buttons for different employees and figure out how to challenge each one of them while keeping them focused on the corporate goals.

Any “broad brushing” of people issues usually has a very limited effect. I am sure you are aware of what kind of exciting responses you get from your employees when you talk of HR Policies. I suspect it is this “one-size-will-fit-all” approach that they roll their eyes for. As individuals, they demand individual attention and micro-plans/policies. (I am not saying all of them are justified).

Next time, you are facing a personnel issue or are drafting something of that nature, take a step back and give this a thought.

Rajib Roy

3 February 2006

Perpetual Optimism is a force multiplier

In my experience, organizations have a tendency to dwell on the negatives. How many coffee bar discussions have you run into or have been part of – where the basic theme was “why we are not doing things right” or “why this manager / executive is totally screwed up”? Surely many more than the ones which talk about the company wins or what the organizations are doing right.

As I think back on this, there are three things I believe I have learnt…

1. Negative news travels much faster than positive news: Have you seen how sales “loss” stories are known by more people faster than the “win” stories? How some negative press about your company is on more desktops of your employees than positive press? You would think there is almost a salacious side to all of us that focuses on the “gossipy” side of events for this to happen. Organizations behave as if negative news is more “urgent” than positive news.

2. “My self-worth is tied to how I can prove others are screwed up”: I believe when people – in a work as well as a social environment – engage in pointing out how and why things are screwed up, there is an inherent human psychology working that is trying to portray that “I know better”. I also believe that there is a side of us that is convinced that others will think that we “know more” if we can show the imperfections than if we talk about the perfections.

3. Positive people have a remarkable effect: Although rare, I have indeed come across people who can always see the brighter side of things. Who can focus on the things that are going right. And I am not talking about “spin” marketing. Though such leaders are few and far between, people tend to agree that such people are “better” leaders than your run of the mill ones.

This is probably a great pointer to many of us who aspire to become great leaders some day and leave a mark in this world. I loved it the way Colin Powell put it – “Perpetual optimism is a force multiplier”. My personal experience has been that it takes time to get organizations to share your level of optimism. But you can do that by being sincere, acknowledging that there is work to be done but repeatedly focusing on the wins. Once you do that, organizations grow a natural tendency to follow you as a leader.

In a previous environment that I worked, where we were clearly losing path as a company, it was remarkable to note how the “optimistic” leadership statements, while bought by rank and file initially, was quickly seen to be spin and insincere since that is exactly what they were. Ever since, I am convinced, that as a leader, you first establish your sincerity – then focus on the positives. That is an amazing combination that can energize organizations. The “can do” attitude is very infectious. Once the leader exudes it, the whole organization exudes it.

I would like to end by quoting from Colin Powell again which best articulates my theory on this topic…

The ripple effect of a leader’s enthusiasm and optimism is awesome. So is the impact of cynicism and pessimism. Leaders who whine and blame engender those same behaviors among their colleagues. I am not talking about stoically accepting organizational stupidity and performance incompetence with a “what, me worry?” smile. I am talking about a gung-ho attitude that says “we can change things here, we can achieve awesome goals, we can be the best.” Spare me the grim litany of the “realist,” give me the unrealistic aspirations of the optimist any day.

Please let me know if you have any thoughts on this. Or what your experience has been.