Friday, August 2, 2013

Herding Cats

Demystifying how to lead technical folks in the 21st Century.

It has often been said that leading technical folks is like herding cats. As someone who was once an engineer and now manages and leads engineers, I understand both sides of this coin. My experience as a reserve Navy officer and a civilian engineering manager allows me to share my perspective on some things leaders can do to better understand and motivate a workforce made up of highly intelligent and highly skilled professionals. I believe the following are equally applicable in both the military and civilian settings.

  • Understand your workforce: Get to know your team and understand what makes them tick. Highly technical fields (whether private sector or military) tend to attract similar minded types of people. What you will find is that these folks enjoy working late hours, solving problems, playing video games, writing software, and other things. But one common thread seems to be an eagerness to work on things which get used by others to solve problems. Also make sure you know what motivates them in the form of advanced training opportunities, bonuses, flex hours, and other things. And if I have one piece of advice, it is this: highly technical and intelligent folks will be able to see right through you. Don't act like you can walk on water and other nonsense. Let your team know you are human. Never underestimate someone because she is junior. This is a mistake.
  • Be open minded: Be mindful of the fact that no matter your position, rank, education, etc., you may not be the smartest person in the room. I am always amazed at the ideas and solutions that junior people come up with. Of course, to get junior folks (and really anyone) to speak their mind and think outside of the box, your culture has to allow for this sort of behavior. Never, ever discount a person's idea because of their status in the organization. This is a bad habit to get into.
  • Invest in your workforce: Don't underestimate the value of things like professional certifications, advanced degrees, technical conferences, etc. Sending folks to things like this not only shows that you care about their career growth, but it will instill a sense of pride in the individual. This will help them be a more productive member of the team.
  • Have a heart: Don't assume that because someone who is under performing, coming in late, etc., is lazy, checked out, or whatever. Make sure the person doesn't have personal life issues going on which are impacting work. If the person needs help, get them help. If you are doing regular 1x1s (see below) with your folks, there is no reason you should not already have sensed something is going wrong.
  • What's (not) in it for me: While you will always need to manage your own career, if you go through life always scheming about how you can game the system, take advantage of a situation/others, approach decisions from a "what is in it for me?" mindset, then you are going to be a poor leader in the long run. When working with peers, customers, and so on, always try to put yourself in their shoes and understand where they are coming from. A good mindset to remember is that "the enemy is not in the room."
  • Do regular one-on-ones (1x1s): This is a very critical behavior. For every direct report you have, you should be doing 1x1s at least every 2 weeks. And for every manager in your organization, he or she should be doing the same thing, What is is the point of a 1x1? It allows you to get to know your employees on a more personal basis. You can discuss things like how the person is enjoying their work, what things you can do, as a leader, to make work life better, etc. It is even a way for you to understand early if someone is having personal issues outside of work. This will allow you to help the individual take time off if needed, get assistance, etc. While 1x1s can be used to discuss performance of an individual, the better place to do that is during 360-degree feedback sessions.
  • Do 360-degree reviews: A 360 review is quite simple. It is a means whereby you solicit feedback from an "employee's peers, subordinates, supervisors(s), as well as a self-evaluation.  It can also include, in some cases, feedback from external sources, such as customers and suppliers or other interested stakeholders."1 The feedback can be used to understand where a employee might be weak. This then allows for a corrective action plan to be created so he or she can improve upon weaker areas. If you want to take a step further, you should conduct 360-feedback reviews on yourself. Let your subordinates "grade" you. This can be a powerful tool because you can develop an action plan for yourself and share with your team how you plan to improve. This goes a long way to build trust with your team and will ultimately pay dividends down the road.
  • Walk the halls: Periodically walk around and speak with not only your direct reports, but your manager's direct reports. This allows your entire team to know who you are and build a sense of trust in you and the organization.
  • Lead by example: This is very simple. Say what you are going to do and then do it. Don't be the type of leader who is all talk and no action. Hold yourself accountable to your team. If you do what is right by your team and what's right for the organization, rather than playing politics, then your team will see you as genuine and will be willing to do the right things, too.
  • There's a difference between managing and leading: Managing is the act of hiring, firing, dealing with budgets, tracking metrics and other things. Leading is what you do when no one is looking. Much of what is in this post falls under the heading of leadership.

This is not an exhaustive list, but it is a good starting point. I'd also like to throw a shout-out to two resources I use a lot.

  • Navy Commander Sean Heritage's Web site is a great resource for leadership thoughts and other things
  • The Harvard Business Review is a great place to learn about trends in leadership and also how to gain different perspectives on leading and managing people.


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