Six Questions that Will Help You Manage/Lead Better While Working from Anywhere
Six Questions that Will Help You Manage/Lead Better While Working from Anywhere
By Dirk Schlimm
The world is changing and so must managers and leaders. In fact, the “you must change'' mantra has reached somewhat of a fever pitch as the COVID pandemic is wearing on. But is managing really that different in the “new normal” of working from home?
When it comes to assessing the performance of companies during the COVID crisis it has been noted that companies who were in trouble pre-COVID are in even more trouble now, and companies that were doing well are weathering the crisis much better. I believe that the same goes for managers: Good managers have become even more effective during COVID whereas poor managers have even bigger problems. There are two reasons that support this observation: (1) Good managers are arguably more adaptive to change, and (2) their good management practices continue to be useful in the new operating environment.
It is therefore worth revisiting some of the enduring management and leadership principles that have withstood the test of time. Here are my favorite six:
1. Get the right people on your team
Supervising people remotely is hard; away from the community of the office, your people may feel isolated and subject to a variety of distractions (checking social media is even more tempting at home than it is in the office). To “assist” managers with supervision, software providers have developed remote tools that monitor people’s productivity online - counting everything from video meetings, to chat, email and even keystroke activity. While some of this may be useful it also pushes people to adjust their activity to what’s being measured; depending on what a person does and how they create value this type of monitoring can be more or less useful.
This brings us, however, to the first bedrock management principle: Get the right people on your team. If surrounding yourself with people who take responsibility and drive towards results without constant supervision has always been important it is absolutely critical now. Do they keep track of their priorities and assignments? Do you trust them that important tasks will not fall between the cracks - unintentional or intentional? Do they stick with a problem until it is solved, with a deal until it is done? These are key questions for them and at the same time your people must be sure they trust your leadership. For example, if they become overloaded or lose sight of issues will they call you for help?
So, my first question for you is this: “Do you have people on your team who work well with minimum supervision?”
2. Know your people
During my time as an executive in a global publicly traded company I met quarterly with the external chairman of the board to prepare for board meetings. This was a very busy CEO of a major industrial company. Yet at the start of every meeting he took time to ask how I was doing; and more than that: he actually was looking for an answer that consisted of more than “fine.” His open-ended question invited conversation ranging from personal issues to the work crises of the day to longer term career aspirations and concerns. The point is that the question was genuine and there was real interest. I was reminded of this recently when talking to a person who had been “onboarded” with their company during the COVID crisis. I asked them how they were doing on a scale from 1 to 5 and the answer was 2. Truth be told I had expected a 4, usually a “safe” answer to a question like this; but the 2-answer opened up a whole different conversation and prompted a much-needed course correction. Experienced board members have always paid attention to understanding how people are doing in the broadest sense; as external overseers they need extra insights to get a picture of the company’s cultural and business reality; they need to pick up on hints suggesting strategic misalignment or other trouble in the making. But now we are all “external” in some way, and so understanding how people are doing - personally and professionally - is no longer a luxury; it has become a “hard” requirement for every leader and manager.
Question #2: ”Do you know your people, and do you know how they're doing?
3. Maintain focus
Work is becoming ever more complex. Last year I spoke at a technology sales conference and opened up with the suggestion that “end of selling” had arrived - the provocative title of an HBR article. What is meant, of course, is not the end of selling but the “the end of selling as we know it.” The point is this: Selling technology products and services has become a massively complex endeavor; it is no longer just selling a solution on the basis of its features and value to customers but an exercise in stakeholder management. The actual user must be sold on the capability of the solution (so far no change) and the CFO must be sold on the financial return (still relatively straightforward), but then the IT manager will insist on the broader system compatibility, the legal department on the data privacy compliance, product people may object to “not invented here,” and so forth. The complexity of agendas and number of people with the power to say no introduces a much greater requirement for steadfast focus on the goal and getting the sale “over the line.” Working “smart” in a complex world means working on fewer things while understanding them in broader terms and chasing down more loose ends with persistence. In other words, you and your people must focus, and you must be sure you are focused on the right things.
Question #3: Are you and your people focused and are you getting things done?
4. Have a plan
The requirement of a plan is closely connected to question #3 as only your overall objective will determine whether your focus hits the mark. You need the big picture, the more immediate goals and, most importantly, a plan as to “how” you will achieve them. The question of “how” appears to be deceivingly simple but can lead to profound discussion especially if there is tension between goals - “how do we open up the economy and protect public health” has become the key “how” question for policy makers during COVID. Having a plan is not only critical to stay focused on what adds value, it also is what gives people confidence in your leadership. People want and need to know where the team is going, what the key actions are, whether plans and actions are relevant for the present and the future, and whether or not we are making progress. So, it is worth your time thinking this through as well as getting input from the right people and running it by a trusted person (colleague or advisor) for a sanity check. You also need to make sure you measure progress in the right way. Having a sound plan and confidence that it can be achieved separates a manager from a cowboy who makes things up as they go along.
Question #4: Do you have a plan?
5. Build relationships
In a working from home world relationships have become “virtual.” At the same time relationships are more important as organizations have become more “networked.” You will at different times depend on different people to get things done - and these people may or may not be in organizational boxes that are intuitive. A good start is a stakeholder map - whose input, support, approval do you and your team need to get things done? It is then a good idea to reach out to these people and have a specific meeting on how to best prepare requests, confirm expectations, and - just in general - understand their world. If we contact people only when we have an urgent request and tempers are flaring, relationships are bound to be destroyed before you even get going. You therefore must take responsibility for relationships with key people in your value network and build them proactively. Who are they, how do they work, what do they need to help you? It will then be good to have periodic review - could be one-on-one - and ask for feedback.
Question #5: Are you actively building strong relationships with the people who matter?
6. Get to the next level
A few years back I worked with a group of managers in the Far East on a leadership model. Our goal was to generate a common understanding of leadership and bring the core principles to life. The discussion led to some high-quality reflection of what it means to be a manager and a leader. A revelation that stuck with one of the participants, a manager from China, was that he wanted to add value to his people. He wanted to get to a position where, if asked, his people would say that they were glad they had worked for him because they had learned and accomplished so much under his guidance. This insight and aspiration changed his leadership style and propelled him to become one of the top performers in his organization. And he was right: Helping your people reach the next level is one of the most satisfying outcomes of leadership. It is also closely connected to the previous question: Do you have a plan to get your team to the next level - do you know what that looks like and how to get there?
Question #6: Are you taking your team to the next level?
A final question.
There are plenty of voices who tell us that management has changed; and they are right. My friend Tom Haak’s HR Institute counts no less than 100 leadership models and a couple more were just added as a result of COVID. But equally, some bedrock principles have shown enduring quality and are well worth learning and applying consistently. Management is hard work and getting the basics right will make anyone a better manager and a better leader.
So here is my final question: What are you doing, right now, to become a better manager?
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