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Career Decisions Blog

Comment on the choices that we all make in our careers.

Tuesday
Sep022008

Do the interview!

Recently, someone that I mentor informally sent me an IM.  She said, "something curious happened today.  A manager from a another unit came over and asked me to apply for a promotion in his area.  What shall I do?"

On most subjects I would replied by IM, but this time I picked up the phone and almost shouted "do the interview!"  She said, "but I already have a promotion lined up and also, I expect my boss to leave soon and I should get his job".

Let's go through the reasons I was so adamant that she should apply:

  • Neither the promotion nor getting her boss' job were certain
  • Interview practice is always useful
  • An interview gives an opportunity to showcase yourself to more senior people and show them things they may not have seen
  • This other job may be better
  • Not going for the interview could suggest lack of ambition
  • Your own manager may be behind the suggestion

Some years ago, I had a vacancy for a DBA manager in my department.  One of the senior DBAs applied.  I did the interviews with my boss.  When he heard that we were interviewing this guy, he said, "why are we wasting our time, he isn't getting it".  There wasn't time to discuss it so I said, "let's do the interview just as we have done the others and see how he does".

After the interview, my boss said, "he surprised me, he has a lot more to offer than I thought".  Then he added, "shame he has upset some key people, we have to think about how we repair his career".

He already knew that he had little chance and he didn't get the job, but he did get a VP on his side.  So the interview was worth the effort.

Sunday
Jul132008

The Puppet Master

 

There is a guy that I have known for about 12 years. He is going to retire shortly. I have admired him since I met him. Those who know him will recognise this description, if he reads it I hope he takes as it is meant – it is a compliment, and those who don’t, well, just think on this description.

He has never been number one, but as long as I have known him, number two. He has been number two to many number ones. He has survived the passing of many number ones.

I joined him once when he was briefing another number one.  At the end of the meeting, I knew who was in charge.  I knew that the puppet was the star but my friend was pulling the strings.

He has several amazing abilities – he is universally liked but many don’t know why they like him. He listens very well, and keeps a confidence given. He takes care of those who put their trust in him. He advises with clarity and honesty. He can read people, their intentions, their emotions, their motivations, he can anticipate their actions, and very often shape them. He has a huge network of friends, many of them with influence.

He is a patient man. If he wants something, he will get it. He will plan a simple plan and “softly, softly catchy monkey” he will execute and deliver that plan.

But don’t cross him, because you will only cross him once. That network of friends that he has will turn into a monster and devour his enemies.

Friday
Mar072008

Taking over…

Nearly 20 years ago, I took on my first “real” management position with a responsibility to lead a product development department of about 20 people. I didn’t know what leadership was. I had this vague concept that it was about a guy standing in front of a bunch of folk waving everyone forward over a parapet. The group would then charge forward joyfully into battle. Miraculously we would come out with minor cuts and bruises and no casualties ready to fight another day.

Why would they follow me? Perhaps I because I had said some rousing Shakespearian words. Why were there no casualties? I can’t fathom that one.

I had great optimism and incredible naivety. The result of this was a two year nightmare of making mistakes as my team meandered with no direction in some other field.

I eventually left that job to my great relief and probably my team’s. I had been the boss but not the leader. The two are not directly linked. Being boss gives you control over people’s pay and prospects. But they have a much greater level of control – the boss’s success lies in the hands of his team. This is the first great realisation. It doesn’t help directly because it only tells what not to do.

When I joined a software company as head of product development, I spoke to the directors. I learned what they expected of me and how it would benefit the company. Then, on my own, I decided how my team would deliver it. I stood up in front of them and told them what we were going to do. I got blank faces. I got shrugs of indifference. I got folded arms and frowns. There was a growing low hum of chatter in the background. Anyone observing would have realised that I had failed to convince and the team had moved from neutral to being against me.

I struggled on for a year with an ineffective team who just about kept me in a job but no more. Performance was lack lustre. Our year end bonus was pitifully low. I had a member of staff complain about my performance to the CEO and a salesman too. The CEO had appointed me so he called me in. He gave me a simple piece of advice, “ask for help”.

I asked for and followed the advice tentatively and finally left the company without really stepping up to the job. I had three months off before starting a new job. The separation and the break gave me the opportunity to reflect and learn from the experience.

The first lesson was that that being the boss does not make you a leader. The second lesson was that people chose to follow leaders. Leadership is earned over time. It does not come with the position. It is not a result of authority. A job described as a “leadership position” is one where you are expected to earn leadership quickly. I recruited a soldier into a team of mine who brought this home to me, he said, “the officer may be the boss in peacetime, but when we get on the battlefield, he relies on his men to keep him alive, it focuses the mind”.

The third lesson was that in most situations there are already leaders in place. There are people who are followed by the majority of the staff. They may not be in management positions. They may lead in a direction that contradicts the organizations objectives. But they are there. They are a route to establishing your leadership. You need to build relationships with them and get them to bring the rest of the team along. Since that first disastrous management role, I have always looked for these leaders and very quickly told them that I am putting my trust in them to help me make the team more successful.

I went through a number of transitions in my thinking:

Tell to Listen

I to We

Being above to Being on the level

Arrogance to Humility

Authority to Vulnerability

Being in front of the group to Being with the team

Driving the team to Batting for the team

This is what we are going to do to How can I help you?

Company goals to Individual goals

Boss to Servant

Going through these transitions is simply good management. Practicing good management earns the manager the leadership role. This was the fourth lesson.

The fifth lesson was that you have to defend your team. I have “been into bat” for my team over pay, grades and conditions and won every time. I won because the case for change was good and I followed through. Other managers who had similar situations but who didn’t have the guts to fight were not happy. I have had stand up shouting matches, attempts to discredit me, threats as a result of this. The weak manager is dangerous when cornered – this was the sixth lesson.

I, and the team as a whole, have expectations of each other. We will always aim to be professional. We cover for one another. We deal with problems in the team. We are like a family. What about the organization? This is tied up with being professional which implies delivering the organization’s objectives – this is the only reason for the team to exist. Failing to meet these objectives is the team’s biggest internal threat. The team will not protect a member that threatens its existence. It expects the leader to either change that team member’s behaviour or to remove them. The seventh lesson is that the leader protects the team from internal threats.

There are times when the organization’s existence and the current form of the team are not aligned. This may mean moving people out. In one role had to fire 12 architects because we were restructuring. My approach was to talk to each one and find out their aspirations. They were clever people, they knew what was happening. I eventually placed 11 of them in alternative roles within the organization; every move was a good move. Only one person left and went on to another organization. The eighth lesson is that the leader “bats for the team” even when managing them out.

There is a difficult balance in all of this. With the team on a day to day basis, you are a team member whose responsibility it is to represent the team to the organization. The organization sees you as the boss in control of a set of resources with a set of objectives to achieve. These views will come into conflict and it will be tough. You have to recognise when changes need to be made. You must not be seen as a wrecker who is just protecting his team – if that happens then you will lose all upward influence. This is the ninth lesson.

Friday
Mar072008

Style vs substance

A major source of frustration of enterprise architects and other professionals is the ongoing tragedy of the victory of style over substance. Many of us fail to get our key messages over to those that matter. There are several causes –

We fail to articulate our message in way that others understand

  • Our message is too complex
  • We provide too much depth and detail
  • Our presentation skills are weak
  • We don’t connect to our audience’s “hot buttons”
  • We are blocked by others
  • Our audience “gives up” before we get to the message

It is clear that we often need to work on our presentation skills. However, I want to make an appeal to our intended audience and those that block us from reaching them.

The key point is that we have a lot of important and sometimes business critical things to say. James McGovern discusses this subject in an eloquent manner. By not hearing these messages you are damaging your own organisations in potentially critical ways. For this reason, it is worth hearing us out. It is worth helping us to get to the point. It is worth wading through the detail. It is worth joining the dots from our points to the key issues that you face.

Will we always have a message worth listening to? No! Should you persevere? Yes! Why? The professional mindset is generally apolitical. It is more interested in doing what is right. The underlying motivation will be sound. Compare this to the backstabbing cronies who have climbed the greasy pole by stamping on the backs of others. I would rather make the effort to understand the message from an inarticulate but competent person with the right motivation than try to deconstruct the motivation for giving me information of a slick politician with suspect capability.

 

Saturday
Feb092008

The danger of passion…

Like many enterprise architects, I am extremely passionate about my work. I like to work with and employ passionate people. But the passion that creates drive, which causes them to push through when others would stop, is dangerous. It can override sensitivity to other people’s feelings. It can mean poorly thought through action prevails over a considered plan.

If you are about to employ a passionate person then think it through. Get them to work through tough scenarios. When they miss out on a promotion or pay rise because they upset a key person who doesn’t understand passion, how would they deal with it? When a colleague actively obstructs them, how will they handle it? When the strategy that they have worked on for six months is rejected by the board, what will their reaction be? Can you help them think things through without stifling their power? Can you protect them? How would they avoid the situation? How would they reduce the damage caused to other people and themselves? How will you look? How will you deal with the problems that a passionate person can cause? You need to understand how you will use and direct this passion for positive effect. You need to understand how you will manage the risk to yourself and your passionate employee.

As a passionate person, you need to understand that how ever much your employer talks about wanting people who are passionate, this is usually a myth. The job adverts and person profiles are mostly written by “dry old fish” who wouldn’t recognise passion if it came up and kissed them. They are writing to attract staff, they may be half copying someone else’s work, they are selling. You are buying, you need to make sure it is not a con. Can your new manager cope with you? Will they protect you? Is the political situation one where you will be easily provoked into rash action?

Take a walk around the office – it is easy to spot passion – there should be raised voices, there should be people standing around talking animatedly about work. If there is quiet, if people are huddled in their own cubicles with little interaction then there is no passion. A passionate person communicates and shares. If there is quiet then you will be a misfit. Are you willing to be a pioneer and create some, at least initially, unwelcome noise? Does your new manager really want you to disrupt the current peaceful working environment? Is your new manager prepared to take a risk? Is your new manager prepared to have some fun?