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Don’t Be the Boss Who Talks Too Much

As head of a startup, I always want to make sure everyone on my team understands the vision for what we’re trying to achieve. I also want to make sure we’re hearing, considering, and incorporating everyone’s ideas, and acting quickly to iron out problems along the way. So we have a lot of group conversations. A lot.

We discuss our mission, goals, and the steps it will take to achieve them. Every time, I look for new ways to say things, in hopes of making the vision crystal clear and discovering even slight differences in how various team members understand our goals.

In short, I over-communicate.

I don’t just do this now, with a relatively small staff. I’ve done the same throughout my career, including when I spent several years as vice president of a large company in Newton, Massachusetts.

So I’ve had to ask myself: At what point am I communicating too much? When should I give it a rest?

The answer isn’t simple. On one hand, HBR has reported on complaints from people about the kind of boss who “over-communicates with everyone on a project,” creating “a huge time suck.” On the other hand some research from Harvard finds that “persistent, redundant communication” from managers helps get projects completed quickly.

To toe the line, I’ve developed rules for myself to follow, aimed at mitigating the downsides (like wasted time and lost productivity) while still using frequent communication to clear any hurdles in our path.

Make it two-way

When you’re trying to communicate your vision and organize the work ahead, it’s easy to start speechifying. You have so much to say, so many thoughts on your mind, that you can get carried away. And since you’re “the boss,” other team members may feel a duty to listen and nod along. You can lose track of time.

So leaders should make sure to listen every bit as much as — if not more than — they talk. “Effective leaders don’t just talk, they listen,” Northeastern University reported. An HBR piece described listening as “an overlooked leadership tool.”

As you hold meetings, keep tabs on how much time you spend talking, and how much listening. And when you get a question, sometimes invite other team members to weigh in as part of the answer. That way everyone is included, and feels that their input is valued.

Never interrupt “the zone”

When your employees are busy designing a solution or banging through tasks, it’s not the right time to strike up a conversation with them. Short of an emergency, you shouldn’t pull them out of “the zone,” in which they’re focused on crucial tasks. You also need to make sure there are sufficient uninterrupted periods of working time to allow people to find that focus. Breaking the work day up into multiple chunks by scheduling meetings is a sure way to kill productivity in any creative work environment.

That’s why, as a rule, the ideal time for conversations is at the beginning of a work session or close to the end of the day  though not when they’re supposed to leave. It’s only worth having these sessions when everyone needed for them is available at the same time.

 

Monthly one-on-ones

To ensure that ideas and concerns are teased out and raised, every team member should have a one-on-one session with a leader once a month. In these meetings, the team members can voice anything.

To be sure they don’t hold back, I ask employees to bring at least one “bad” issue to these meetings. It can be a concern about the product we’re creating or the way our business is running. It can also include an idea for how to improve.

Of course, employees are also welcome to bring positive issues  things they’re excited about and want us to do more of. But addressing problems takes precedence.

Beyond the open-door policy

I expect all leaders and managers to welcome any team member to discuss issues large or small. But as many experts have written, simply announcing that you have an open-door policy isn’t enough. It’s important to empower employees to speak up by showing them that when they bring concerns your way, you act on them.

One way to achieve this is through a “feedback loop.” After a concern is raised, whether in a group meeting or one-on-one, follow up on it. Track progress, identify obstacles, and keep moving the effort forward. The more you do this, the more people will see the practical value of bringing up an issue  and they’ll see what all the communication you’re engaging in can achieve.

In general, avoiding lots of scheduled meetings and instead engaging in ad hoc conversations is better. And when meetings are necessary, bring good food, since meetings on low-blood sugar are an especially bad idea.

As a manager, you want to make sure everyone on your team understands the vision for what you’re trying to achieve. But at what point are you communicating too much? When should you give it a rest? There are rules you can follow to mitigate the downsides of overcommunication (like wasted time and lost productivity). For one, listen as much, if not more, than you talk. And never interrupt “the zone.” When your employees are busy designing a solution or banging through tasks, it’s not the right time to strike up a conversation with them. Encourage your employees to have a one-on-one session with a leader once a month and ask them to bring at least one “bad” issue to these meetings. And finally, empower employees to speak up by showing them that when they bring concerns your way, you act on them. With all these efforts in place, and an atmosphere of psychological safety, it becomes much more likely that you’ll do a good job of communicating frequently without annoying your team.

After all, in that environment they’ll also feel much more comfortable to say: “You know what boss? I really think we’ve got it.”


Hjalmar Gislason is founder and CEO of GRID.

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How to Know If Someone Is Ready to Be a Manager

When you’re hiring a new manager, the stakes are high. You need someone who can effectively lead people, manage a budget, liaise with upper management — and, usually, do it all from day one. But what if a potential hire doesn’t yet have a track record in doing all of the above? Would you hire or promote a star player into a management role if they’ve never managed anyone? To gain some perspective on how to handle this kind of challenge, I reached out to some management experts for their point of view on the skills and personalities to look for.

An important thing to look for in this situation is an awareness of the nature of management. Moving into a management role requires divesting oneself of some individual contributor duties and taking on new duties as a team leader. If the new manager doesn’t fully understand that, they might hold things up by:

 

  • Doing tasks that should be delegated to team members
  • Taking back the tasks that they have delegated because they believe they can do them better
  • Undercommunicating with direct reports, making them unsure of their duties
  • Micromanaging in a way that doesn’t allow team members to expand their own capabilities

A good way to gauge whether a candidate understands the role is to ask what they think management is about, and what specifically they would strive to do in managing this particular team.

It can be helpful to ask what other management experiences they have had outside of work: leading an athletic team, a school literary magazine, a squad of volunteers, a large number of younger siblings? They may have gained a very useful view of effective management in any of these former roles.

For some real-world perspective on becoming a first-time manager, I reached out to my friend Dr. Jim Mitchell, a computer scientist who made the leap into management from an engineering position, eventually retiring as Vice President at Oracle Laboratories. He said that people skills, including empathy and self-knowledge, were the most important characteristics he himself needed to possess when he transitioned to management. Self-awareness, gained from life circumstances or professional experience, is therefore what he subsequently first looked for in a potential new manager. The individual, for example, must understand that his knowledge of the work his team does (one of the basic qualifications that can help him be promoted to manager) can actually lead to inappropriate, ineffective micromanagement of the people who would now work for him.

For a management perspective, I spoke with my friend Martin Brauns, retired chair and CEO of Interwoven Inc., who agrees that emotional intelligence is what he looked for in a new management hire. He also says that hiring managers should observe what he calls horizon, the individual’s ability to look beyond the current task and the immediate situation to the additional considerations that a manager should demonstrate: a vision for the future and the ramifications of that vision as well as an understanding of how to implement big-picture thinking.

It’s also important for both the candidate and the team to understand the critical elements of management in this particular organization. What’s the organizational culture, what kind of professionals work here, and what are the constraints or resources in this kind of work? This sort of information may be better understood by an internal candidate, of course, but an avid, promising outside candidate will have researched these elements of the job, or at least will know the right questions to ask in the interview process.

If you’re considering promoting a member of your organization, you can ask them or their coworkers for examples of the above-mentioned management characteristics and skills. Ask questions such as:

 

  • When have you had to increase your self-awareness in order to assure that you could move something forward?
  • What do you view as the challenges of managing this team at this time?
  • Have you managed a group outside of work that helped you learn something about management?
  • Who among your coworkers has already seen your ability to manage a group and a project?
  • How would you prepare to move from your current role on the team into the role of team manager?
  • How have you developed your people skills?
  • How would you balance your attention to the big-picture goals and your team’s everyday implementation of them?

 

By considering these issues and by listening, observing, questioning, and discussing the potential of this candidate with others, you may conclude that they could be a talented and effective manager. And if that’s the case, you want your decision to hire or promote them to be a successful one.

That’s why you need to discuss the resources you can supply to assure that the new manager will flourish. You can tell them that you or someone else will be available for mentoring, that there will be regular check-in meetings, that they should remember you want them to succeed, and that it’s quite all right to acknowledge the ups and downs of becoming a good manager. After all, every manager had to take the first leap into managing people — and someone had to take a leap of faith with them.

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