Tuesday, April 26, 2011

The Fine Art of Managing UP!

Is it “managing up” or is it just brown-nosing?

Everybody manages his or her boss to some extent: there’s no way around it. Bosses are human beings too: imperfect and in need of help. At the same time, bosses have power over us, and their feelings and perceptions of us can influence pay, promotion, and even basic job security. Managing our relationships with our bosses is fraught with temptation and danger. At the same time, it’s one of the most important skills you need.

You can find any number of books on working for crummy or difficult bosses (it’s not for nothing that “B-O-S-S” spelled backward is “Double S-O-B”). Bad behavior on the part of people in authority can be hugely damaging. But the truth is that even the best boss can be a challenge at least on occasion. Even the best boss needs managing.

People often think that managing up is something you do to your boss, to get power over him and her, but that’s not the case. “Managing up” is something you do for your boss, and if you’re the boss, it’s something you wish more of your employees knew how to do. Managing, after all, is the art of getting work done through the agency of other people. If you need your boss’ help to succeed, you’re a manager. You need to act like one.

The difference between managing up and brown-nosing is simply this: managers get work done; brown-nosers manipulate people to get what they want. The key difference is in the goals you choose. Are you there to help your boss and your organization succeed, or are you just looking out for Number One?

The two categories aren’t mutually exclusive, of course, nor should they be. But they aren’t necessarily at odds, either. Doing what’s right for your boss and for the organization is very often the best way to get ahead. People who look out only for themselves and don’t care about the organizational consequences sometimes get short-term advantage, but more often suffer long-term consequences.

In our book Managing UP! (AMACOM, 2000), we identified 59 different skills and techniques you can use to build a career-advancing relationship with your boss. They break down into a few categories: self-improvement, working with different styles and temperaments, managing organizational systems and procedures, building teams, and solving problems.

Self-improvement. Do good work, manage your time effectively, and build your skills. Take your job seriously, but take yourself lightly.

Working with styles and temperaments. Pay attention to the styles, preferences and pet peeves of your boss and others. Tolerate some bad moods and imperfect behavior — we’re all guilty. Learn how and when to fight, and when to leave well enough alone.

Managing organizational systems and procedures. Learn the paperwork. Prepare for meetings. Build relationships throughout the organization. Give solid feedback, both positive and negative. Pay attention to the politics of the organization, but avoid getting “political.” Pay attention to the hidden keys of status and the symbolic language of the organization.

Build teams. Teams are all the people you need — regardless of whether they work for you. Think of your boss as a customer. Learn to train others. Improve your skills at delegation. Build your skills in win-win negotiation. Build connections in other departments. Be a “goodmouther.”

Solve problems. Give negative feedback well. Be supportive, not competitive. Accept responsibility. Stand up for what you believe and need. Get organized. Sharpen your decision skills. Work on better communication. Develop a personal intelligence network in your organization.

These skills not only improve your relationship with your boss and higher ups, they also help the group and the organization succeed. Managing up isn’t just the smart thing to do — it’s also the right thing.

— Michael and Deborah Singer Dobson

(This was originally written as a guest post for the AMACOM Books blog.)

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Project Owner, Project Manager

Books on project management talk about the role of the project manager and sometimes the project team. The project owner — the customer — is merely a “stakeholder,” one more thing to be managed.

But project owner is a job, too. And it’s a vital one.

A PMP certification is a project manager qualification, but there's no equivalent for being a project owner. All you need is a desire to something done and the money to pay for it. This inevitably means that project owners find themselves in a quandary. The overarching question they face is: “How much of this can I, and should I, do myself?” In other words, they are fuzzy about how to manage the project manager.

The danger of micromanagement looms large if they feel competent enough to do much of the project themselves ⎯ if only they had the time.

But when the project falls outside of their area of expertise, they are like Blanche DuBois, the Tennessee Williams character who famously said, “I have always depended on the kindness of strangers.” Project owners are all too often at the mercy of project managers and other technical experts.  Their temptation is either to delegate everything, or to insert themselves randomly into the project, that is, to wedge whatever expertise they have into it.

I’ve managed projects for nearly 40 years and written nine books on project management. I’ve been in every role: manager, consultant, subject matter expert, technical specialist, worker, and even gopher.  Well, every role except one. I’d never been the project owner, not until last summer.

Over a period of six months, I oversaw a $150,000 renovation and decorating project to fix decades of deferred maintenance on my house. You see, I don’t have any of the necessary skills to do it myself, or even the knowledge and understanding to oversee it. I am the textbook example of a clueless customer.

A lawyer who represents himself has a fool for a client, and so it often is with project owners. The project management job for this project was significant. My risk analysis (interviews with other people who’d done major renovations) had led me to the conclusion that the key trigger of difficulties was poor management of the ordering process. If the necessary supplies and materials aren’t ready when the contractor is, delay results, and sooner or later, your project overlaps with the contractor’s next one. As soon as you move from first place to second priority, look out.

Our decorator (and my sister-in-law) Elisa Dobson took over the job, and that made it possible for our contractor Jack Hymiller to do his. If I’d tried to do it myself, we would have been in a world of hurt almost immediately.

But that didn't mean I didn't have a role on the project.

Six Responsibilities of Project Owners

Even though I didn’t do the project management job, that didn’t mean I didn’t have duties on the project. Like all project owners, I had six fundamental responsibilities:

  • Balancing the interplay of time/cost/performance: How much do we need; how much can we afford; and how much time do we have? 
  • Managing stakeholder relations: Agreement among stakeholders, aligning disparate interests toward a common goal.
  • Managing people and organizations that don’t report to you: The bank, the neighborhood architectural committee, neighbors.
  • Managing technology and processes you don’t understand: When the contractor tells us the back of the house (a do-it-yourself initiative of the previous owner) is falling off, how do we evaluate the proposed solution and associated cost?
  • Managing project managers and the project management process: I’m color-blind and thumb-fingered. How do I get my project manager and general contractor to do the right thing when I can’t always say what it is?
  • Managing the project envelope: Financial management, real estate analysis, the logistics of being temporarily homeless.

If you are a project owner, you need to understand the realities of the project-management world. Your job is to figure out how to hire a good project manager, give that person what he or she needs, and make sure the project manager gives you what you need. You need to provide direction without over-steering.

Projects are team efforts. Project leadership is seldom concentrated in any single role — not the project manager, not the contractor, and not the owner. It’s vital for you to figure out what role you play and focus on that, and to help other people play their roles as well.

PS - The house looks beautiful.

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Project Disasters and Career Management

“My project’s going down the tubes. How do I keep them from making me the scapegoat?”
- RN, Washington, DC

There’s an old joke about the stages in a project life cycle. First comes enthusiasm, then disillusionment, followed quickly by panic. Then comes the search for the guilty, resulting in punishment for the innocent, praise for non-participants, and when everyone sees what a disaster it’s been comes the final stage: figuring out what we should have been doing in the first place.

By the time the project’s in trouble, it’s usually too late to do much about it. That’s why project managers know the real secret is to keep your project out of trouble in the first place. It doesn’t matter whether the problems are actually your fault; it matters whether you could possibly have prevented it, fixed it, or managed it. That’s called risk management, a forward-looking approach to project uncertainties. What could go wrong? Why could it go wrong? And what can you do to prevent the problem or deal with it if it occurs?

A risk management plan can be a huge, formal document or it can be comparatively casual, but either way, you need one. Start with risk identification, a list of potential issues. You can brainstorm with your team, you can ask people who’ve done similar projects, and you can review the documentation (requirements, contracts, statements of work). Prioritize the risks by how serious they are, and take some time to dig into the bigger ones.

There are basically five things you can do about a risk, and your job is to pick the best choice. For example, if you’re the owner or captain of RMS Titanic, and you know there are icebergs in the North Atlantic, you can do the following:

  1. Avoid the risk. Change the course far enough to the south, and there are no icebergs. Of course, the trip will take longer.
  2. Transfer the risk. Buy insurance so that someone else will pick up the bill in the event of sinking.
  3. Mitigate the risk. Mitigation reduces a risk without getting rid of it altogether. For example, the British inquiry into the sinking concluded that the Titanic was going too fast. It might have hit an iceberg anyway, but a slower collision might have reduced the damage. 
  4. Have a contingency plan. More lifeboats (the Titanic only had enough for about a third of its passengers and crew) wouldn’t have prevented the sinking, but would have reduced loss of life.
  5. Accept the risk. Some risks you just have to deal with. If you’ve done everything that seems practical and appropriate, risk isn’t exactly zero. The remaining risk is something you simply accept. Save the rich and leave the poor in steerage.

Risk management is something you do in advance. Once the Titanic hits the iceberg, the game changes from risk management to problem solving. There, unfortunately, the options tend to be dramatically reduced.

What if the project appears to be impossible? People say “nothing’s impossible,” but that’s if you have unlimited time, unlimited resources, and really flexible standards. Are the constraints on the project (time, cost, expected performance) too tight? Is that because of a management decision, or are the constraints imposed by external circumstances? Management decisions may change, but if the money isn’t there or the deadline is unstoppable, management may have no more power than you do.

If a project is impossible as contemplated, that doesn’t mean it’s impossible period. Maybe you can do something different, or do it in a different way. Look for flexibility and opportunity wherever it may be found. If you can’t do everything they’re asking for, perhaps there’s a “good enough” level that meets the objective.

In the aftermath of a big project disaster, there may be some kind of investigation, and if you’re in charge, it’s perfectly reasonable that people will look at you. That doesn’t automatically mean that scapegoating is taking place. Yes, there’s usually blame to go around, and it may be appropriate and fair for you to own a piece of it. Sometimes it’s good strategy to accept your share of any blame early. And, to be perfectly fair, if you’re in charge of the project, you normally deserve at least some share of both credit and blame.

When scapegoating actually occurs, it’s normally an attempt to deflect responsibility from someone higher in the management food chain onto a more vulnerable target: you, for example. And again, you normally have ample warning if you’re paying attention. That person’s goal, remember, isn’t to scapegoat you, it’s to avoid getting himself or herself in hot water. If you can keep that person out of trouble without getting yourself hurt, that may be a win/win. (Don’t yield to the temptation to deflect the trouble onto someone still lower on the food chain, unless that’s the person who’s actually responsible. It’s not only immoral, but other people will notice and your reputation will suffer.)

If everything else fails, advance notice gives you one more opportunity. There’s an old management joke about an outgoing project manager who had some words of wisdom for the incoming one. “I’ve left you three envelopes in my desk drawer, and they have the answers to the first three crises you hit,” the outgoing PM said.

The answer to the first problem was “Blame your predecessor.” To the second, it was “Reorganize the team.” And to the third, it was “Prepare three envelopes.”

Sometimes you have to know how to get while the getting is still good.

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

How Do I Fire Someone?

“Everybody tells me that it’s impossible to fire someone at this company, no matter what they do.  How do I fire someone who really, really needs to be fired?”
- MK, Estes Park, Colorado

By the time you decide you need to fire someone, it’s probably too late to do it right. A proper termination takes time and effort. You need to start the process long before the employee situation reaches the point of no return.

First, it’s almost never the case that you get to fire people. They don’t work for you; they work for the company. It’s up to the company to decide to let them go. You may be the agent of the termination or the bearer of the bad news, but to make a firing happen, you normally need the cooperation, support, and approval of your own management chain, which normally includes human resources and may include the legal department as well. If they haven’t been brought on board early, they may be reluctant to back you up when trouble starts. If you even think there’s a real possibility that someone may need to go, talk to your boss and to human resources as soon as possible.

There are two basic reasons to fire someone: performance and discipline. Performance issues are about the amount, quality, and appropriateness of the work the employee does. Discipline issues involve failure to obey rules and policies or behavior that undermines authority and cohesion of the workforce. In both cases, good practice (and in some cases laws and contracts) argues that employees have the right to know that there’s a problem, what the problem is, and reasonable support from the organization to fix it short of termination.

So, what exactly is the problem? What is the difference between the behavior you expect or require, and the behavior you’re getting? Don’t expect to get away with generalities like a “bad attitude.” Describe the issue in behavioral terms: what you can actually see, hear, or otherwise measure.

If the firing offense is blatant and obvious, like stealing or violent behavior, it’s usually pretty straightforward. But if the offenses are more subtle — and especially if it involves personality issues — you need to prepare the ground carefully.

What are you doing and what can you do to improve the situation without firing? To answer that, you need to determine the root cause. There are three basic causes: the employee doesn’t know what the proper standard is, the employee can’t meet the standard, or the employee won’t meet the standard.

If you have a “don’t know” problem, the answer is simple and it’s your fault: you need to provide clear and specific guidance. If that’s enough to fix the problem, clearly you don’t need to fire someone.

“Can’t do” problems may respond to training or coaching, to additional tools or resources, or to a modification in the job environment. Even under the Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA), you can fire someone who can’t perform a job, as long as you’ve made “reasonable accommodations.” Of course, what you think is reasonable and what a court thinks is reasonable may vary, so interpret “reasonable” broadly.

“Won’t do” problems are when an employee knows what is proper, has the ability to do what is proper, and still chooses to do something different. It’s worth the effort to find out why someone won’t perform, but the bottom line is that it’s still a choice.

Don’t assume you know what the problem is until you do your homework. Talk to the person involved. And listen to what he or she says in response. There may be a way to solve the problem to everyone’s satisfaction short of termination.

Find out if there are other issues involved. Is the employee politically connected, or does the employee have skills or access that may be more important than the performance problems? Are there union contracts, regulations, or legal protections that apply? Considerations such as these don’t make an employee invulnerable to firing, but they often require careful management on your part.

Make sure you learn your company’s process for firing, and follow the rules to the letter. Get coaching from human resources. Have everything ready before you call the person in. Get to the point, and get it over with.

If the person you terminate is surprised, you did something wrong. By providing feedback, support, and coaching throughout, it should always be clear to the employee what the current gap is between actions and expectations. If there’s no surprise, the emotions are often not as strong as you might expect.

Above all, don’t drag it out, and don’t let your own fear stand in the way of doing what needs to be done. A lot of firings are botched because of the cowardice of the manager. If you’re not willing to follow through, don’t bluff.

Finally, be prepared to negotiate the terms of separation. What kind of reference will you provide? How much severance pay? Are there timing issues? Because of the ever-present risk of lawsuits, it’s often cheaper to sweeten the pot for the departing employee in exchange for a release of liability.