The People Manager

Oftentimes managers have colliding and/or competing priorities – but if you are a manager of people, as well as projects and/or programs, you must recognize that not everything required of you for this position is within your control. It will take more than time management, strategic planning and organization to fulfill the role you have been entrusted with. As a manager of people, you will undoubtedly have a diverse team of individuals who have come together (or been brought together) under a variety of circumstances. Their reasons for being on the team and/or your reasons for choosing them will influence how you communicate with them as individuals.

THIS IS GOLD! Finding what makes each of them unique will be important in helping them to reach their full potential and can make your relationship building efforts that much more purposeful. This discovery will go beyond what makes them valuable to the organization… but will extend to what speaks to them; what fulfills them and causes them to want to continue to excel. Even if their current role is not where they want to spend the rest of their career, your knowledge of their intended next steps can help you to prepare them – while meeting and exceeding the needs of the organization. As they each make strides which bring positive and sustainable results to the organization, this insider knowledge will make it easier to identify meaningful ways to acknowledge them; and provide valuable insight for your communication with them when direction, encouragement, guidance, correction and/or redirection are needed.

Though we may know what has brought our team together, we only know what they tell us about what makes them who they are. Every individual has a story; a set of situations and circumstances that has led us to where we are in life, shaped who we are, continuing to inform who we perceive ourselves to be and what we believe about our potential for success. The details of these incidents or accidents or purposeful engagements create a tapestry of working inferences, thoughts and ideologies which frame our worlds. This working knowledge actively influences our emotions, thoughts, intentions and actions in ways that are not always understood by others. Maya Angelou is one of my favorite authors. In the first book of her autobiography, “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings”, she writes:

“We delight in the beauty of the butterfly, but rarely admit to the changes it has gone through to achieve that beauty.”

~Maya Angelou

We may find that our team members’ stories don’t seem to add up to the actions or attitudes displayed in the workplace. Evidence appears that would suggest that there is more to the story. Although we want to address situations as specifically as possible, it doesn’t mean that we need to get “personal”. Seeking out additional personal information is probably not appropriate – and could potentially backfire as we risk crossing “HR” lines.

The best thing we can do as managers is to continue creating an environment where our team members feel comfortable and safe enough to share the realities of their worlds with us. When that happens, we can make suggestions that will ease the burden so that they are able to manage their personal lives without fear of retaliation in their professional lives. Of course, there are instances in which extreme action is required – but in my experience, that has been the exception and not the rule.

Leading Edge:  Managers are extremely important. Keep your team members in the center of your priorities. They are, in large part, why your role exists… and their health is directly tied to overall organizational well-being.  

Mirror – Mirror

“Mirrors are opportunities… random checkpoints throughout the day”
-Adam Gallari

In my very first post “Meaningful Communication” (, I noted that the main ingredient found in meaningful communication is You. Your willingness to listen… to be confronted with fresh perspectives and to embrace expertise which may differ from your own has the potential to create an environment ripe for productive and meaningful communication to flourish.

There are two distinct perspectives that must be acknowledged to accomplish this goal – each focusing on the value you bring to the mutually productive environment.

Self-awareness (my definition) – intimate knowledge of the personal beliefs which guide your character and your actions– is a quality which can serve us all well. A competency common to many good leaders, self-awareness enhances our reasoning, assisting us in recognizing our strengths and weaknesses; and enabling us to embrace positive change in behavior, improving our interpersonal skills for better relational outcomes.

Look into the first mirror and you’ll see yourself… as you want to be seen.  As a matter of human nature, we see ourselves in the best light possible; taking into consideration our best intentions – even though they are invisible in the reflection. How we see ourselves determines how we see others and the world around us. If we see ourselves as the center of most (if not all) things, we will treat others as though they exist only for our benefit. We will not recognize the value in others unless it directly relates to us and our well-being. Each of us has self-serving tendencies to a degree, but there are some who regard themselves and their needs, wants and desires as being more important more often, than not.       

It will take courage to gaze into the mirror again; this time from another vantage point, to see yourself… as others see you. This isn’t something you can or should do on your own. The results of this should provide you with evidence which can be used to validate and support real change in yourself and in your organization. There are a variety of organizational culture surveys available to measure how employees view you, your leadership and your organization with anonymity. If you are in search of open dialogue among team members, open discussion meetings can be held; assuming there enough trust present to reasonably expect honest and productive feedback. If you have surrounded yourself with people who are more concerned about staying in your good graces than they are about the future of the organization or if you have fostered a culture of uncontested compliance, this approach will likely not provide the most relevant outcomes. Exit interviews are also a valuable tool to employ – specifically when employees in good standing make a choice to leave the company. These individuals can be a wealth of information – as they have nothing to lose by telling you the truth on their way to a new and presumably better opportunity.

Leading Edge: Are the people you’ve surrounded yourself with more likely to tell you what you want to hear rather than what you need to know?  As a leader, the culture you create will determine the quality of input you receive and the levels of collaboration and engagement from your team members, as well as the levels of success you will experience.

Who Are We Kidding?

A small window into diversity and inclusion recruitment efforts…

When we set out to fill a position, we create the detailed description and include everything that we feel would set this role apart, adding value to the organization. In the process, we make sure to list skill requirements, experience preferences and education minimums; which mostly serve to fulfill competitive salary range requirements. Then, we set about reviewing applications and scheduling interviews with interested parties who meet these qualifications.

If we’re fortunate, there are more than enough applicants to choose from. They are well able to perform the responsibilities laid out in the carefully crafted position description, so we should be golden – right? Oftentimes, this is where objectivity is set aside and implicit bias kicks in. All of a sudden, we feel the need to narrow the candidate pool by skimming through the crème de la crème and looking for “the best organizational culture fit”.  We look for clues in writing style or background, in educational institution choices or hobbies. The “best organizational culture fit” could mean different things to different employers… but in general, it ends up being someone who thinks like us and our team members; someone who will most likely act consistently in ways that we deem appropriate. After-all, there’s nothing wrong with seeking out like-minded individuals or surrounding yourself with kindred spirits – right? In the end we are so proud!  We’ve hit all the diverse candidate boxes in our recruitment efforts, and our new hire may even represent a minority group. On-boarding takes place and the first month or two passes before we realize that somehow, we’ve ended up with an employee who fits neatly into the organizational culture box created and maintained by leadership.

So… here’s the question: Where’s the rub? You know, the challenge – the change agency potential? Without differences of thought, we are kidding ourselves to think that these laundered methods for obtaining diverse and inclusive organizations will ever succeed in promoting or developing the positive and sustainable freshness we desire. Maybe we really don’t want change as much as we would like to think. If that’s the case, we shouldn’t wonder why we are stuck in a cycle of insanity – doing the same things repeatedly, while wholeheartedly expecting different results.

In her book, “Educated”, Author Tara Westover shares insights and perceptions on the purpose of education…

Tara Westover

“We think about education as a stepping-stone into a higher socio-economic class, into a better job. And it does do those things. But I don’t think that’s what it really is. I experienced it (education) as getting access to different ideas and perspectives and using them to construct my own mind.”

This is an amazing read – so by all means… take a deep dive. For the purpose of this topic, however, I want to draw your attention to the last part of the quote and focus on the experience of education (being one of many requirements in our position description). Taking on this view, you an see how education plays a role in creating diversity. Paraphrasing, the author states that education is seen as a means of accessing ideas and perspectives not currently held, so that we can make up our own minds. Education in its many forms (to include life’s experiences) provides us the tools needed to think more broadly, to explore possibilities and to make up our own minds. That doesn’t mean we aren’t team players, but it does mean that we shouldn’t be pressured to conform without meaningful conversation.

Leading Edge:  The next time you read an exemplary cover letter outlining what an employee would like to help you accomplish or hear an enlightened plan for project growth and development from a candidate during an interview, don’t be quick to dismiss it because it may challenge existing norms or upset current team members. Candidates are increasingly setting themselves apart; boldly outlining the differences they would bring to the organization if presented with an opportunity to do so. Value lies in having a diverse pool of perspectives; not just a diverse group of people.

When we deprive our organizations of those who may not always agree with the status quo or the latest idea, we are choosing to ignore the potential for adopting value adds – like fresh consumer insight or brand expansion possibilities. In effect we run the risk of forfeiting new levels of success.  

I know all too well… Hiring within an established comfort level is easy and safe; and can accommodate a certain level of diversity and inclusion. And if you want to hire people who will always agree with you; have at it. Besides, there’s always risk involved in stepping beyond the organizational norm.

We can stop kidding ourselves if we’re ready take the risk and to lead. If you’re still reading, I challenge you to retrain yourself and your recruitment team (since the application screening process may well be out of your hands) – to look for the what you haven’t seen and listen for what you haven’t heard. There’s always something to learn – and learning can be just as invigorating to an organization as it is to the individual. If we aren’t learning, we aren’t growing. And if we aren’t growing… our competitors are winning.

Why Do We Care?

Have you ever been told that you were too emotionally invested at work? Maybe you’ve been chastised, ridiculed or patronized for being too concerned about your team members as individuals…

Good managers understand and appreciate the fact that the needs of the organization are paramount where profitability and customer service are concerned, but the best managers also recognize that without employees, the organization would cease to exist. They are individuals who show up in support of the organizational goal. They come with lives, families, professional aspirations, feelings and thoughts all their own. The positions they hold with the organization and the work they perform may represent one aspect of their lives and being, but certainly not the whole. When we as leaders begin to recognize that we are purposefully positioned to uplift and support them, the workplace may experience a resurrection of the dying culture of loyalty.

The Leading Edge: In 2017 at the MIT Commencement address, CEO of Apple, Tim Cook offers this advice: “People will try to convince you that you should keep empathy out of your career. Don’t accept this false premise.”

Empathy training for managers was on the rise during that time and in a more recent survey of 150 CEOs, empathy was recognized as key to success by over 80%.  This tells me that there is enough evidence to reconsider the importance and dismissal of emotional intelligence in the workplace.

As leaders, how do we shift from a culture defined by aggression and/or competition to a culture of empathy? First, it’s important to admit that it is leadership who has created and continues to endorse the existing social norms and organizational behavior. That said, it must be leadership who recognizes that what was socially acceptable for so long must change for the health and growth of the organization. Keep in mind that with this admission and accompanying decision to upend culture, backlash is inevitable.  Wait! It’s just the reality check phase.

Keep reading… Good news is on the way. New expectations will begin to clash with what had been acceptable behavior, creating confusion, misunderstanding and maybe even a little chaos. Those who had supported and adhered to the previous culture may feel betrayed and subsequently label your new leadership attempts as hypocritical or worse – out of touch.

Is a culture shift worth the drama and pain which will precede progress? Absolutely! Consistently working with existing social norms can change organizational culture.

In his book, The War for Kindness: Building Empathy in a Fractured World”, professor of psychology at Stanford University and author Jamil Zaki notes that just as people conform to bad behavior, they also conform to good behavior. Here are a few ideas for using this priceless insight to your advantage:

Practice! Empathy is “more of a skill than a trait”.  If it doesn’t come naturally, persist with practice. Not only can empathy be learned… it’s contagious.

Promote New Norms! No longer should the loudest voices dominate the conversation, create toxicity and hijack the perceptions of others. Only true leaders can draw attention to the new norm, starving the old of attention and rewarding the new.  

Identify Your New Culture Leaders! It’s important to note that these may not be the most popular or the most powerful people in the organization, but they are the most connected and therefore the most influential. When it comes to disseminating information, ideas and values, others look to and listen to them. Zaki refers to them as the “unsung influencers” and they can usually be found within. Recruit and co-create the new culture model with these individuals; allowing them to help you shape the culture as they champion the common cause. I would take this co-creation relationship a step further and request that these individuals keep you and each other accountable to the new culture norms for lasting positive results.

It will take time and it won’t be easy but, in my opinion, the benefits far outweigh the risks. You may discover that your chosen co-creators of culture are part of the empathetic majority. Wouldn’t that be a pleasant surprise!                            

Wishing you empathy and much success! 


When Finish Lines Blur and Goal Posts Wobble…

Now and then I will provide content for those in positions of leadership to consider entitled: Leading Edge

With the increasing use of technology in organizations, and the changing climate of workplace transience or redefinition in some cases, an interesting interview question has been added to the list for mid-level professionals…

How do you “handle” (process or manage) “ambiguity”?

Ambiguity, by definition, denotes instability, doubtfulness; uncertainty of purpose, meaning or intention. I find the question itself more interesting than the variety of answers it may prompt. In my mind, the question posed by the interviewer begets another question: Why does the “ambiguity” exist in the first place? As one who believes that an interview serves to inform both parties involved (the potential employer and the potential employee), the interviewer’s question makes me wonder how effectively the organization communicates with its team members in general.

Explaining and managing ambiguity in a way that is productive and efficient for team members may require some insight for the existing lack of clarity and is not the same as managing change. In my experience, I’ve found that teams often embrace next steps or change more readily when they understand where we are as an organization and how we got there. Our team members may have questions; the answers to which can set them at ease and even influence forward mobility in the direction of the desired change. Team members may also provide helpful insight into process and procedure implementation; taking ownership of the project and managing the change alongside you. 

Organizational change can often be exciting when communicated properly and is almost always inevitable, assuming that growth is your goal. Though uncertainty can be presented in efforts to meet the needs and exceed the expectations of a growing and changing consumer base, when processes and procedures are not thoroughly identified and when effective communication to all internal stakeholders is lacking, there could be unexpected consequences – which include confusion, miscommunication and undue stress for those tasked with carrying out the change.     

Leading Edge:  7 suggestions to decrease tension related to change and foster cohesion  

  1. Maintain Focus: The vision or mission of the organization should remain squarely in focus as change is considered.
  2. Inclusive and Purposeful Meetings: Strategic planning teams should include all internal stakeholders; any teams or departments affected by or expected to support the change. Surround yourself with people who know their areas better than you ever could.
  3. Set Clear Expectations: Internal stakeholder expectations should be discussed and clearly defined during planning sessions. This is time consuming so patience cannot be forfeited.
  4. Posture for Success: Adequate training should be scheduled for all internal stakeholders, especially those responsible for conveying the message to or providing services for the consumer. The more prepared the frontline individuals are, the more secure your consumer base will be.
  5. Consumer Messaging: Positive, clear, concise and consistent messaging should be disseminated via all messaging platforms. This messaging will not only ease market tensions but will attract new business if your change is unique.
  6. Make Time Your Friend: Timelines should be realistic, allowing for thorough due diligence operationally and as it relates to human and financial resources.
  7. Define Success:How do we know when we’ve arrived? What does it look like – specifically?

Instead of settling for ambiguity (which can result in a waste of resources), we as leaders can establish a plan to reduce the anxiety and stress common to change and empower the people around us by making them integral to the strategic planning process. Team… play from the top – down.

Leaders Communicate

“Leadership is solving problems. The day soldiers stop bringing you their problems is the day you have stopped leading them. They have either lost confidence that you can help or concluded that you don’t care. Either case is a failure of leadership.”
~Colin Powell

Visionaries are considered a rare breed. They have an ability to see a completed project or a successful event when others see an empty whiteboard or a vacant lot in an undesirable part of town. When they attempt to communicate vision, they are trying to bridge a divide; between skill sets, personalities, socioeconomic status or even world view. For this effort, they are admired and often receive a PASS for not being able to effectively and strategically communicate, what they can so easily envision, to the masses. They thoughts and ideas are seen to somehow transcend the rest of humanity; making them unable to illuminate the path for those who willingly carry the torch across the finish line.  

While visionaries are credited for their innovation and inspiration, those who are fully committed to assisting them in meeting these common goals struggle to see their part in the bigger picture. So, the problem seems to be two-fold. Rather than ask questions or raising thoughts or suggestions, managers and team members hear the words of the vision, take it at face value and set about to interpret the strategy, processes, policies, procedures and oversee the people who will make the dream a reality without adequate understanding.

One reason this can happen is that many organizations have nurtured a culture which discourages questions or alternate opinions. Somehow asking a question makes you less of a team player. Another reason managers fail to speak up might be because no one else is asking any questions; therefore, you assume that everyone else must know something that you don’t. Remember 5th grade when the teacher would ask… are there any questions? No one raised their hand, but you discovered the next day when the assignment was due and few students had completed it correctly that you weren’t the only one with a question… and that your question had the same answer that others needed to know but failed to ask.

I have had the pleasure of working with many directors and managers who are excellent communicators and who have become quite adept at “managing up”, in efforts to keep the organization’s vision moving forward. Unfortunately, their influence only goes so far. They run out of meaningful answers to their teams’ questions, because process and procedure details are unclear. Once managers receive the vision direction, they need time to digest the information for meaningful dissemination. Motivated to remain productive in their collaborative efforts with the leader, the lack of understanding causes managers to revert to saying something that my generation vowed never say to our children… Because I said so. Those words aren’t used, of course, but the phrases are just as ambiguous.

As much as I would love to see effective and meaningful communication become a grass roots movement or a bottom-up revolution that overtakes the top tiers of leadership… in general, that’s not how organizational change takes place.

Colin Powell, one of our country’s greatest assets (in my opinion) saw his role in the lives of US military members as an important one. Leaders such as he are willing to put forth the same effort that is expected of those they lead; displaying a personal commitment to ensure meaningful, goal-oriented communication organization-wide. There are several ways to begin this growth process as a visionary leader.

One way is to surround yourself with team members who compliment your skills – people who are smarter than you are in their areas of expertise. Let others help you see the vision from a variety of perspectives and articulate it in ways that make it easy to be owned by everyone. This action helps in creating buy-in and developing unity among team members across hierarchical levels of the organization.

Second, make yourself vulnerable by delegating important assignments to these individuals within the scope of their expertise. Be sure to include strategists on the team – people who can provide win-win opportunities during the process. Managers are valuable in moving the vision forward as well as accurately and effectively conveying the mission perspective and purpose to those who are on the front lines (servicing customers directly).

The outcomes of these activities will be evident as purposeful and clear strategy and process align with the vision to produce positive and sustainable results. I’m excited to hear your experience so leave me a comment to let me know how it goes.


Meaningful Communication (Part 2)

“…innovation… requires the ability to collaborate and share ideas with other people… get their feedback and understand their needs.” – Bill Gates

As mentioned in my last post, creating space for meaningful communication starts with YOU; but without participants who share the common goal of resolving an issue, while moving the organization toward positive outcomes, there is little chance for true communication (meaningful or otherwise) to take place. Strategic planning and problem resolution often require innovative thinking; identifying alternate possibilities, understanding the various aspects of a situation and bringing new ideas to the table. Ideas and suggestions are neither right nor wrong; but in daring to be labeled wrong… you run the risk of being right.

Ingredient #2: Strategic Team Building

Choosing team members is an essential aspect in setting the tone for meaningful communication. Decisions made and mandated in a vacuum are often detrimental to the health of an organization; negatively affecting employee morale, consumer confidence and financial viability.

Each team member should represent at least one “touch point” (area of contact with the customer or process) identified in the situation under review. In general, all team members, regardless of their function, should have the common goal of protecting the mission of the organization by aligning processes, procedures and personnel action to meet the stated objectives. With clear objectives in mind, each should freely present theories, ideas, concerns and suggestions in efforts of reaching an optimal solution. But, as an individual member, knowing why you are at the table helps to prepare you for your role in the process.

“Individual commitment to a group effort — that is what makes a team work, a company work, a society work, a civilization work.”  – Vince Lombardi  

Example: If a customer service issue has yielded several online complaints, initial team members may consist of representatives from these touch points: operations, customer care, supervisor/management, and consumer data solutions. After reviewing the situation and hearing from each team members for perspective, it may be concluded that the customer complaints are not the result of process inadequacies. In that case, a new team with a different function may need to convene. This time, representatives may include human resources, supervisory or management presence and the employee(s) implicated in the complaint data.  

Gleaning from a variety of perspectives in a given situation is an important element in making targeted process and/or personnel adjustments and finding sustainable solutions to facilitate optimal outcomes. Partnering with individuals who are not afraid to share their perspectives and who have the organization’s goals and objectives at the forefront of their decision making is often a luxury… but meaningful communication starts one person at a time.

In situations involving widespread organizational change, the “one person” at the helm is ideally the leader of the entire organization. Senior leaders who value what their team members bring to the table are more successful than those who attempt to be expert in every area. Trust in your senior leadership and trust in your management team often starts with a decision; and is a topic for another time. For now, …

“Collaboration is a key part of the success of any organization; executed through a clearly defined vision and mission and based on transparency and constant communication.”  – Dinesh Paliwal