The Thinker

A Lesson in Leadership

Management is a blessing and a curse. I’ve experienced a lot of the downside of management recently. Perhaps that is why it was such a pleasure to experience the upside this week.

To be fair I shouldn’t have much to complain about. My employees, geographically scattered though they may be, are all terrific. Each gives 150% or more of themselves than most employees, and all but one are civil servants. Most of the time I don’t need to direct them. If something needs doing they just take the initiative and do it. This week for example one of my employees volunteered to sift through a user requirement document, pick out the requirements that were meaningful to my team, work them into something we can use and organize them into a meaningful engineering specification. I didn’t even have a chance to ask if anyone wanted to do this grunt work. She just jumped in there with both feet.

I have another employee, a super geek type, who routinely goes way beyond the call of duty. His job is mostly investigating emerging technologies. I frequently find that he has visited the local Barnes & Noble and returned with some dense computer books on things like web services or current practices in software testing that he bought with his own money. But he digs into the not so interesting stuff too. He’s passionate about high technology but is still disciplined enough not to let the high tech stuff interfere with the routine work that has to get done. And all my employees are this way.

But still management often feels like navigating a minefield with a gauzy bandana tied over my eyes. I expect eventually I will step on fewer mines. But it has been a rough first nine months at times. I don’t feel all that great when I learn that I’ve inadvertently stepped on some toes in the organization. Nor do I like discovering I made a mistake by doing work traditionally done by others. And these are just but a few of the mistakes I have made. There were times when I wondered if I should have stayed working for Health and Human Services. I should take some comfort in knowing that many of these issues predate my arrival. Perceptions about my team, good and bad, formed years ago. It doesn’t help that we are geographically separated and rarely meet in person. Consequently inferences get made based on words heard over speakerphones or in snippets of email. There is no body language to read.

For whatever reason there have been long standing bad feelings between my team and another team. I didn’t quite understand the depth of the animosity until recently. I have been groping for a way forward. But this week when the team leader of the other team came to town I had an opportunity to sit down with her and work through some of these thorny communications issues. It was valuable face time. I learned the history of frustrations from her perspective. I went through some of the issues on my team that contributed to the problem. Simply airing the issues in a business-like manner was enormously helpful. We put a plan in place to get the key people together (via teleconference of course) and resolve these issues. It involves first acknowledging the problems of the past then putting them behind them once they have been vented. Then we hope to move rapidly forward because we have issues that need to be settled soon. Neither side can afford any more bad feelings. As a manager I have the duty to get past them so that we can do our work.

This was also the week that my user group came to town. The group had been formed twice before and had failed both times. All this preceded my arrival. In past groups there had been personality issues and presumptions of empowerment on issues that did not exist. For six months we had been working through tedious but necessary issues of creating a new group charter and getting executive sponsorship. Finally we got around to picking members for the group. Most had never met each other before and I only knew about half of them, and all superficially. I delegated most of that work to the chairman of the group. We spent weeks preparing for the meeting. We worked through agendas several times. The list of issues, many of which needed quick action, was very daunting. To hedge my bets I beat the organization looking for a professional facilitator and finally found one. My chairman and I met with her before the meeting and outlined our needs carefully. Would all this preplanning make a difference this time?

8:30 AM on Wednesday found us all meeting each other for the first time in a conference room. I had packets of material on the table prepared for them, and table tent tags with their names on them. But I had no idea if this combination of a dozen people would actually be able to work together. Would it become yet another toxic team experience? Was it the gods, the good preparation or just blind luck? For whatever reason we all quickly bonded with each other. When I suggested we all go out to dinner that night everyone enthusiastically agreed. I realized that I too was getting this management stuff. Social engineering had become an important part of my job. If I couldn’t relate to these people as people then I figured our team was doomed. Over dinner at an Italian restaurant we relaxed, joked, traded our life stories and basically discovered we enjoyed each other’s company. I had no more worries about my new team. We had jelled. One guy even came over and put his arm around my neck. I was both surprised and flattered.

But could we get through our daunting agenda? Fortunately our facilitator Cheryl was with us every step of the way. It turned out she didn’t have to do that much facilitating, but she let us know when we were getting long winded. I had no one to take notes so I tried to take them myself. This was hard to do when I was doing a lot of the speaking. Cheryl took up the slack. She captured ideas on large pieces of paper that were being continually stuck and restuck to the walls of our conference room. In the evenings she assembled formal notes of the day’s events in electronic form. I was free to do what I needed to do: engage in conversation and lead the team where it needed to go.

Having a terrific facilitator was such a blessing. We had focus, we had organization, and we were liberated to do what we did best. I kept a close watch on the clock and made sure we were meeting our expected outcomes for each segment of the meeting. I led many of the discussions. When I made suggestions they were largely listened to seriously. But it is hard or impossible to effectively lead if the elements are not in place. But this time they were. With our excellent facilitator Cheryl, careful preparation, a good bunch of people and everyone’s commitment to excellence we ended our meeting today on time and with our goals accomplished. We formed the sub-teams we needed, set out agendas for future meetings, made some tentative decisions and worked through thorny issues of how we would work together in the future.

I figure this is about as good as it gets in the leadership business. The days were long, but the people were fun to be with. It was terrific to feel so organized, empowered and to lead a team in the direction I wanted them to go. And I know I led the team because they followed me with great enthusiasm and with a genuine sense of commitment.

I felt pumped and energized. From out of nothing we created something very important to our little universe. I don’t think this team will fail like the other teams have. We will move forward with confident strides and with genuine respect for each other.


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