Looking Back & Forth

It’s very difficult to routinely switch gears between inward-facing and outward-facing responsibilities in an organization. One minute, you’re hunting outside for growth opportunities. Next, you’re back home taking care of chores and drama. It takes a special kind of person to juggle both simultaneously and not twist his or her head off looking back and forth all the time. One of my mentors in college made a point to hunt outside in the morning and clean up internal messes in the afternoon. By batching his processes, he was able to oversee a very large company and scale it with relative stability. I struggle to build that structure into my day-to-day management, but I see how necessary it is to find focus and routine in your operations.

True Transparency

I hear a lot of companies toss it around – a buzz word like “web 2.0” and “organic.” Think you’re transparent? Call me crazy, but the following things mean “transparent” to me:

  • Total access to numbers and data
  • Public punishment and public reward
  • Open doors (or none at all)
  • No hierarchy, only leadership
  • Forgiveness, not permission
  • Strong communication
  • Free-flowing ideas

While company culture stands to benefit from it, transparency may not work for everyone. Apple is doing just fine without it. If you cannot accept the list above, do not pretend to embrace transparency.

Vision By Numbers

It’s exciting to see the success and growth of an organization through the numbers: sales milestones, unique visitors, engagement statistics and more. It’s very practical and momentous to set metric goals that everyone can reach for and beat. But numbers cannot tell the whole story. And metrics can only inspire a team so far. It takes a portrait of the future painted zealously by leadership to truly inspire. Something greater to work towards. Something to believe in.

The best preachers don’t talk statistics or business. True vision cannot paint by numbers. There are no formulas or metrics for dreams. Speaking abstractly and passionately about a vision for the long-term future can open minds to the possibilities and help your team imagine their way out of the status quo.

Metrics and numbers keep an organization accountable to measurable improvements. Numbers have their place and should be respected. But they only serve to measure movements that already exist. Why not strive to make new movements and invent new metrics? A vision by numbers is not enough. The opportunities are boundless for your organization, but only if the vision you paint for your team allows them to be.

Yes or No Questions

People do not like too many choices and procrastinate making decisions. Even the most opinionated people I know do not always answer your question in a timely fashion.

The easiest way to get a response? Make your question as easy as possible to answer. Don’t bury it with information, encrypt it in an email or forget the question mark. Provide a concise brief upfront and ask a yes or no question. Make it a multiple choice question if you need to. At the very least, provide the recipient with possible answers so he or she does not need to do the research or draft an elaborate answer of his or her own. Take the opportunity to curtail the list of possible answers to meet your own needs. If the recipient comes up with an answer other than the ones provided, whatever. At least you got an answer.

Busy people (like CEOs and celebrities) are notorious for single-line emails. Help them keep that pace and not bog them down with answering your question. The more you help them and consider their time, the easier it will be to get an answer – and the greater chances you will have at getting an answer you like.

Vacations Take Courage

You know what’s terrifying? Abandoning work, teammates, income, bills, children, friends, pets, chores and other obligations for a week or more. Even more so terrifying to do all that and go to a place you’ve never been. Leaving town is easier for people with low-stakes employment, structured vacation time and a shorter list of things to abandon. It’s much more difficult for people entangled in their work or community. An executive responsible for hundreds of employees who depend on him or her may never feel comfortable leaving all that behind. It’s a scary thing. To take a vacation takes courage.

To take a true vacation takes even more courage. By ‘true vacation,’ I mean a designated period of time where you can completely let go. For people in control day-to-day, this can be as terrifying or more so than leaving everything behind. My father planned everything his entire life (he plans cities and suburban spaces for a living). Vacations were no different. When things didn’t go to plan, he’d stress out. Stress breaks the true vacation. As my parents upgraded to an empty nest, things got a little easier. The allure of short spontaneous trips popped up all the time. These days, I’d swear that my mom does more vacation planning than my dad. They are becoming notorious for randomly skipping town. Vegas here, New York there. More power to them.

Like defying your fear of heights by climbing a wall, it gets easier time after time. Overcome the first few trips and you start to overcome your hesitations. Before you know it, you’ll be a vacation master. Like anything else, mental health takes conditioning and practice. Vacations are big wins for your mental health.

Double Check

It can’t hurt to guarantee that you have all of your ducks in a row. Checking twice or more can help ensure that nothing is out of line. It might feel like nagging to ask the same question more than once, but the annoyance here will hurt much less than the alternative. No matter whose fault it is, you’ll end up feeling like an ass for not making sure. Don’t be that person. Double check instead.

Email Is Not Urgent

Every email I receive presumes to be imminently earth-shattering. Very annoying. Ninety-five percent of emails that hit my inbox are not urgent. I receive around 250 emails per business day – that’s one email every two minutes. It takes me forever to craft thoughtful replies, so I regularly fall behind in trying to keep up. To prevent this constant influx of faux peril from stressing me out, I am paying less and less attention to email these days. In the process, I’ve let a few important notes slip through the cracks. Oh well.

If it’s important or time sensitive, don’t just email me – call or approach me in person. I ignore my phone during meetings for everything except calls (it vibrates a dozen consecutive times when you ring me, so it’s difficult to ignore). Knock if you need to. If the issue at hand is complicated, follow up with details in writing so I have all necessary and accurate info in front of me to address the situation. If you can’t get ahold of me in person or by phone, put ‘URGENT’ in the subject line. Obviously, don’t do that if it’s not urgent.

To get real work done without distraction, I need to ignore my email for a sizable fraction of the day. You should, too. Constantly replying to emails means you’re working reactively instead of proactively. Unless you work in a call center, reactive work only contributes to the status quo of your organization. In a competitive industry, status quo work can be regressive and therefore deadly for a company. Don’t do it.

If I don’t write you back within a few hours (or days), why would you follow up with a second email? That’s silly. Your method failed the first time – why on earth would it succeed any better a second time?

If an email exchange we’re participating in turns critical, please cover all bases and follow up in person with everyone involved. Get our collective heads out of email and into real problem-solving mode. Hear the voices of others repeat back to you their understanding of the situation. Make sure everyone is on the same page – on paper and in dialogue. Then get real work done.

Tell People When They Are Not Meeting Expectations

If someone is failing you in some way, you should not expect them to acknowledge it – they may have no idea. If that person isn’t meeting your expectations, it’s your responsibility to help him or her understand. Overcome your fear of confrontation. Face the person directly and as humbly as possible. Don’t give him or her nasty looks from afar. Don’t talk behind backs. Don’t gossip. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: that passive aggressive crap will get you nowhere. If he or she isn’t taking a hint from all of your side-talking or back-talking, it’s your fault for not communicating pointedly. Pull him aside, sit him down and tell him what’s up. You will be surprised how lightly he will take it – if of course you approach him with a genuine respect and understanding. He will give you excuses and you may believe them, but at least he should understand now what you expect. If he doesn’t listen, if you continue to confront him, and if he continues to fail, then the failure will no longer for yours as a manager.

You Can’t Sprint A Marathon

You will burn your team out if you expect them to hold a breakneck pace all the time. Demanding consistent, consecutive sprints can only get your group so far. Before you know it, you’ll have a death march on your hands. I know some of the hardest working people alive and even they can’t keep it up forever.

As a manager, you need to pick one or the other: train for sprints or train for a marathon. If you want your team to run faster, make room for breathers in between runs. Expect regular half days or days off. Plan retreats. Schedule time for your people to recover. If you want your team to consistently deliver, you must manage a pace that can sustain itself. Steady days. Reasonable expectations. A full night’s sleep.

Neither is right or wrong. Some groups perform better as sprinters, others as marathon runners. It’s important to study your situation, listen to your team and coach accordingly.

There’s a System for That

If you’re having organizational trouble or find yourself doing the same mundane task over and over, chances are pretty high that someone else out there shares your pain. With a little bit of research, you may even find someone who has already conquered your problem. At any rate, it’s worth a look. The internet is a pretty big place these days. There are apps for everything.

As times change, brand new problems crop up all the time that may not yet have structured solutions. Depending on the complexity of your problem and processes, other people’s solutions may not serve your own. If you cannot find a solution, it’s up to you to build one. Given the challenges and material complexity of designing solutions (be they software, logistical or cost), most people opt out and choose to continue suffering. Don’t do that. Don’t settle for the mundane. You should never have to do the same thing more than once – unless you want to.