Wisdom from The Invisible Spotlight: Discovering your Impact

Question: You talk in the book about how important it is for managers to be aware of their impact on employees. But how do you get reliable information about your impact, especially the negative aspects? From whom should you get it, and how much can you trust it?

Answer: A former mayor of New York City used to walk the streets and call out, “How am I doing?!” to passersby, shopkeepers, and residents looking out from their apartment windows. He’d get some thumbs up and some thumbs down but almost always a smile. His theatrical directness was endearing.

It seems when the mayor wanted to know about his impact, he’d just hit the streets and ask. Sounds like a reasonable enough strategy. At least in politics. But between a boss and a subordinate, it’s unrealistic to expect straight talk. Bosses wield authority and power. And let’s face it: honesty isn’t always the best policy when speaking to power.

Employees tend to keep negative impressions to themselves. Annoyances, anxieties, and disappointments usually remain unspoken or get expressed in the most indirect, disguised ways. It’s safer that way… no risk of offending or antagonizing the boss; no risk of retaliation. In an organizational setting, explicit, upward feedback is inhibited by the danger of retribution.

Even when a manager invites a critique, it’s the rare employee who comes right out and says,  “Your inability to make a decision and stick to it has our entire team paralyzed and on edge.” or “Your condescending attitude is intimidating and infuriating. It has all of us looking for another job.” or “Your endless speeches in our meetings are like chloroform.”

This is exactly why anonymous “feedback instruments” are overused. They implicitly warrant that employees will be protected from management reprisals because their identities remain unknown. Unfortunately, the candor that might be encouraged by anonymity is more than offset by: (1) the hopelessly general questions in an all-purpose feedback survey, (2) the non-specific answers that employees give (especially when they have something uncomplimentary to say), and (3) the understandable tendency of managers to spend more time guessing who wrote what than benefitting from the assessment.

The truth is, employees “speak” to you about your impact, not so much in words as in codes: They make oblique references to your flaws, they reflect your imperfections in their facial expressions, body postures, gestures, actions, and reactions. This is just the way it is when managerial authority is part of the equation. And yet it turns out that foraging for information about your impact isn’t the hard part. It’s being attentive and receptive to the wealth of information that’s already available.

So if you really want to know how you’re doing, ask less and observe more. Open your eyes as much as your mouth and ears. Notice the subtle, fugitive, nonverbal signs of confusion or misunderstanding, of irritation or avoidance, of insecurity, discomfort, or boredom. These are the most reliable indicators of your impact on your management relationships. And they’re often right before your eyes.

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The Invisible Spotlight: A Sweeping Change

A violinist can’t make music without first tuning her strings. A golfer can’t sink a putt without first setting his hands in a proper grip. An actor can’t captivate her audience without learning her lines. And a manager can’t inspire his staff to deliver and innovate to their potential without cultivating a professional relationship.

If you’re in a management role – whether out of desire or duty or fate – you’ll be more successful if you understand that management relationships are at the core of your work. No amount of inspired business savvy, motivational energy, administrative skill, marketing expertise, or technological genius will compensate for an unhealthy relationship. None of these talents will bear the best possible fruit unless your management relationship is well watered.

Several years ago, I was helping a community fire department establish salary parity across its neighboring fire houses. In the course of that work, I had the opportunity to watch the progression of a young officer to the senior ranks. Fire services are paramilitary organizations; their promotional procedures are rigorous. This young officer had applied to fill an open position for lieutenant. He and the other candidates took the various tests and underwent a grueling trial of assessment exercises and individual and panel interviews. At the end of the six-week process, during the weekly station meeting, it was announced that he had been awarded the promotion. Hearty and heartfelt pats on the back followed from co-workers, superiors, and even fellow applicants.

The next morning I was back at the station for the final meeting of my consulting engagement. I took a prolonged lap around the garage, walking among the fire trucks. On many previous visits I would seek out the firefighters, emergency medical technicians, and vehicle maintenance mechanics, barraging them with questions about their assignments and their vehicles, indulging my childhood fascination with the life of a fireman. But what caught my attention on this last morning was the newly appointed lieutenant. He was busily sweeping the floors. I remember distinctly that the announcement the day before made his promotion effective immediately. Yet he was sweeping.

After my meeting I sought the lieutenant out. He was in his new office reviewing paperwork. I asked him how it felt to be the lieutenant. He told me he was excited, honored by the opportunity, and eager to meet the challenge. He was quick to add that he still had much to learn.

I mentioned I’d seen him sweeping earlier and wondered if that was part of a lieutenant’s job description. He chuckled, “Duty rosters are for a week. I began the week with the assignment, and there’s no excuse not to finish it. I also want these guys to see that nothing I ever ask of them is beneath me.” After a pause he added, “You know they’re watching me now.” I nodded.

He wasn’t finishing his week’s assignment out of duty alone. He was sweeping for all to see. He was creating the foundations of his management relationships. Not with promises or policies, but with a symbolic gesture in the invisible spotlight.

 

This blog was adapted from the new book, The Invisible Spotlight: Why Managers Can’t Hide by Craig Wasserman and Doug Katz. The authors have been consulting to managers and organizations for 35 years. The book is available on amazon.com.  Learn more about Wasserman and Katz at the invisible spotlight.com.

 

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The Invisible Spotlight: Who’s on Stage?

Have you ever noticed how many hundreds of books are written about being an effective manager and how few are written about being an effective employee? Just do a quick scan of Amazon’s pages or the shelves of your neighborhood bookstore. They’re stocked high with the management secrets of Attila the Hun, Machiavelli, Abraham Lincoln, or your favorite winning athletic coach, business executive, political figure, or management consultant. You can read about how to be a one-minute manager, how to lead a high-performing team, how to use consensus management, how to imbue your management style with Zen. You can survey thousands of management styles and tricks. You can learn what academic researchers and consulting firms have discovered about management success.

But you won’t find a lot of books about how to be a good employee. That’s because how-to books for employees don’t have much value.

I learned why when I was starting my career. A client asked me to run a training program called “How to Manage your Supervisor.” I was inexperienced and idealistic. I was also hungry for work. Mostly, I believed in the power of candid, rational communication to offset the damage when management relationships go south.

So I developed the program. The results were abysmal.

The moment the participants began describing their trials and anxieties with inept, unthinking, ornery supervisors, I saw I had the wrong people in the classroom. The managers needed the training, not their employees. The managers were in a position to solve these operational problems and communication ruptures, not their employees.

The only successful aspect of the entire program was the attendance; they were turning people away at the door. It confirmed every suspicion I had that managers exert a powerful influence on their employees and yet are unaware of its extent. Managers are either preoccupied with their own needs and anxieties or they’re depending on their reflexes and “natural style” rather than a deliberate approach to their obligations. They are simply oblivious to how much they matter.

An employee doesn’t set the tone, standards, or direction for the way the two of you work. The foundation of this relationship always falls to you. You’re the architect. You’re the one responsible to create the conditions that promote your employees best work. It all boils down to an inescapable truth: If the foundation of the management relationship is solid, it’s because you’re doing something right. If the foundation falters or fails, it’s because you’re doing something wrong. It’s that simple and that difficult.

This blog was adapted from our new book, The Invisible Spotlight: Why Managers Can’t Hide. The book is available on amazon.com.  Learn more at the invisible spotlight.com.

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The Invisible Spotlight: The Risk of Self-Acceptance

So many managers make the unconscious assumption that “how they are as people” is how they can and should be as managers. Without giving it much thought, they figure that developing professional relationships with employees takes no more forethought and practice than having dinner with friends on a Saturday night.

It’s the “Just Be Yourself” theory. And it’s an example of when self-acceptance can be self-defeating.

Managers spend their days in an invisible spotlight. They are being watched by their employees… being talked about. Their actions exert an enormous influence on the performance and spirit of their staff. To be capable and credible, every manager has to consciously hone the assets that strengthen his impact and find a place to shelve the liabilities that do damage.

It takes a little more than “just being yourself.”

We’ve all known managers who are “naturally” overbearing; glib; emotionally volatile; tightly wound; scattered; over-intellectual; perfectionistic; intolerant of criticism; or fearful of hurting anyone’s feelings. The litany of instinctive but destructive qualities that managers inflict on employees is endless. What’s stunning is how unaware most managers are of their impact in the invisible spotlight. And when this impact is brought to their attention by a boss, a colleague, an employee or a consultant, so many say, “Oh yeah. I’ve been hearing that all my life. That’s just the way I am.”

These are managers who don’t make the connection between their unmeasured, instinctive tendencies and the frustrations they experience in getting the most out of their employees.

They don’t realize that managing is hard work. It requires many organizational skills and many relationship skills. Why would anyone expect to have these skills in their arsenal “naturally”? Why would anyone not expect to have to develop them?

If you’re self-observant and willing to learn, over time you’ll forge far more productive relationships with your employees – relationships in which unspoken anxieties, annoyances, expectations, and disappointments are kept to a minimum. But getting there involves unnatural, uncomfortable behavior which won’t feel like “the real you.” This is because the job of managing takes more than self-acceptance. It takes practice, self-reflection, and discipline.

This blog was adapted from our new book, The Invisible Spotlight: Why Managers Can’t Hide. The book is available on amazon.com.  Learn more about Wasserman and Katz at the invisible spotlight.com

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Wisdom from The Invisible Spotlight: A manager’s dilemma Q&A

Question: Dear Invisible Spotlight,

As a manager dealing with a new employee, how much time do you give a person to “get up to speed”?  I often feel like I struggle with new employees not learning quickly enough. Is it something I am not doing as a manager or is it something they are not doing as an employee?

Please help,

Confused Manager

Answer: Dear Confused Manager,

New employees don’t learn quickly enough! They don’t immediately understand what they’re supposed to do, they make mistakes, they forget, they don’t apply what they learn in one situation to new situations. Typically, this is because they’re new!

My daughter’s earliest grade school experiences with arithmetic were disastrous. No amount of drilling seemed to help. In a spasm of exquisite stupidity and prejudice, her first grade teacher told me not to worry because boys just take more naturally to math than girls.

Then my daughter entered Miss Traum’s second grade class. In one short year, math became her very favorite subject. Miss Traum was not exceptional. She was just patient and innovative. She saw it as her responsibility to give her students a fighting chance to master her curriculum and vanquish their own learning fears.

You’re asking two questions really: How long do I give a new employee to succeed? and Who’s responsible for success or failure?

How long depends on so many factors: How much time you can afford to devote; how critical the duties are to the success of the organization; what “janitorial resources” are available when the new employee makes a mess; whether or not your intuition tells you the new employee has potential. So you can see it’s hard to answer this first question in the abstract.

The most sensible answer – although not one that lends itself to a recipe – is that you’ve given the employee enough time when you’re satisfied you’ve exhausted all means of training, support, and assistance… the ones that come naturally to you, those you’ve used before with success, those that your own colleagues and mentors suggest, and even those that seem entirely unnatural or unnecessary to you. Miss Traum seemed willing to try the unorthodox, not just the familiar.

Who’s responsible? Another question without a nice, neat answer. Managers can’t spin gold out of straw.  For a host of reasons, some employees are not suited to some jobs. Period.

A manager’s responsibility is to explain the level of competence he or she expects over certain periods of time with clarity, patience, and respect. The manager is also obligated to provide all available learning tools and opportunities, and to create an environment that regularly recognizes the employee’s successes and struggles. This isn’t just for the employee’s benefit. It also helps the manager gauge how much time to give the new employee! Providing tools and feedback helps a manager see the employee’s learning trajectory and pace, be it shallow, steep, fast, or slow.

Like so many management tasks, training new employees requires educated guesswork. Not surprisingly, managers who have the most success are also the ones who can discern which employees will make it and which won’t. They’re also best at seeing how long an employee will need to prove him- or herself. These are the managers who use their instincts, but who also reflect on their methods, consult others about the most effective training techniques, and most of all, are determined to get as good at producing success stories as they possibly can. They’re the ones who give their employees a fighting chance to master the curriculum and vanquish their own learning fears.

Best of luck!

 

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The Invisible Spotlight: Managers are Architects

When you’re a manager, your employee doesn’t set the tone, standards, or direction for the way the two of you work. The foundation of this relationship always falls to you. You’re the architect. You’re the one responsible to create the conditions that promote your employees best work.

I was not destined to be a great basketball player. At least not compared to the bigger, stronger, naturally gifted kids I played with at our community center. My junior high school coach made sure I knew it. He was chronically disparaging, scornful when I made mistakes in practice, and “forgetful” that I was on the bench each game, eager to play. He gave me no advice on how to get better. He’d decided I couldn’t get better.

Because I loved playing the game so much, I tried out for the high school team anyway. Remarkably, I made the cut. The high school coach included me in every drill. He pushed me to do better, always with just the right amount of pressure. He encouraged me to try new moves more suited to my body type and athletic disposition. Over the course of three years, I became the team’s sixth man. I played a solid role in our winning seasons, averaging seven points and four rebounds per game, shaking off defenders with a hard-earned ability to dribble left, and developing a reputation for jump shot accuracy from the corners.

My coach also pulled no punches about my chances of playing in college. He knew they were remote, and he told me so. But he never humiliated me. He just wanted me to be realistic about my future. He was honoring his commitment to honesty with his players.

Neither of these coaches was responsible for my athletic limitations. But the first created a belittling, adversarial relationship. His indifference drew far less out of me than I had to offer. My high school coach cultivated an alliance. Though my contributions were modest, he got everything I had to give.

Both coaches were in control of the coach/player relationship. Their control was rooted in their authority…the same kind of authority that a parent, teacher, or manager wields. People in these positions are architects. They design the foundation that will enable those in their care to realize their potential.

This blog was adapted from our new book, The Invisible Spotlight: Why Managers Can’t Hide. Preview the book on Wasserman/Katz.com. The book is also available on amazon.com.

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The Invisible Spotlight, part 2

PART 2, continued from yesterday…
Yesterday, we introduced you to the concept of the invisible spotlight. We said that, day in and day out, your employees are scrutinizing your every word and every deed because you wield so much influence over their lives and the livelihoods. We also said the most frequent mistake managers make is to underestimate this personal and professional influence.

This was certainly true about Phil, a manager one of us worked with in Cleveland. Here’s the story as seen through the consultant’s eyes.
A company’s vice president of operations asked me to spend a day on site with Phil, his location manager. Phil was a big man, six foot six, 260 pounds, who managed over 70 employees for his company. His presence and manner were imposing to say the least.

Phil was wrapping up his first year at the helm and by all business measures – revenue, expense control, safety, process improvements, record keeping, customer satisfaction– he was a stunning success. But the VP had detected a few murmurs about Phil’s “management style” during his own trips to the district. Because Phil was so promising, the VP wanted to nip any stylistic problems in the bud.

As was my routine with a new client, I spent an hour with Phil before meeting anyone else. I explained my role, “Phil, my job is to hold up a mirror that reflects the impact you’re having on your organization and to show you where you can make improvements. I’ll share my impressions with you at the end of the day along with my best advice.”

Faced with no alternative, Phil grudgingly accepted my presence and set me loose.

At four o’clock, after a day of interviews and observations, Phil and I reconvened, and I told him what I’d discovered:

In his year, he’d brought order and discipline to his operations. The standards of excellence he had introduced, though initially met with protests, were now a point of obvious and genuine pride.
But Phil also scared the crap out of everyone.

I explained that in his enthusiasm to turn the organization around, he’d taken no prisoners. Just about everyone told some version of the same story: a supervisor was demeaned in midsentence for a scheduling procedure that Phil thought was misguided; a newer supervisor’s safety improvement recommendation was harshly dismissed because Phil declared it too costly; a department head’s plans for the layout of the truck bays was summarily overridden. The word in the hallways was that Phil had no patience, his ideas were the only viable ones, he was callous, thoughtless, intimidating. Several supervisors were actively seeking other jobs. Not surprisingly, these were some of Phil’s best and most promising.
My message should have been tough for Phil to digest. But as I held up the proverbial mirror, Phil simply looked at me. Then, “You’re not telling me anything I don’t already know. My family has been telling me these things for years. That’s just the way I am.”

This self-acceptance was self-destructive. “Phil, we’ve just come to the reason your VP sent me here. He didn’t give you this job so you could be the way you ‘am.’ He didn’t give you this job so you could be a bastard. He gave it to you with the expectation that you would be a professional leader. Those are far from the same thing.

“You can’t simply rely on your ‘natural ways.’ You’re the guy responsible for making these relationships work, not driving them into the turf. You’re the guy who has to develop these supervisors into confident captains, not shadows of themselves, limping away for safe harbor. You’re the guy who has to establish an atmosphere that encourages best efforts, not one that exposes vulnerabilities and insecurities. Being an effective manager is your job. It’s a set of skills that needs to be mastered. In this regard, you’re failing.”

No doubt at that moment Phil wanted to dismiss me as he had his own staff too many times. To his credit, he didn’t take a single swipe. Not then, nor in the months following as we worked together at his request on his management approach. He learned to create those pivotal moments that are the foundation of the management relationship, rather than relying on his own reflexes.

Phil worked hard at catching himself. He began to allow others to succeed and err more on their own and to learn from both. He began to insist on the critical things, recognizing that not everything is critical. He learned that his natural impatience was a virtue so long as it served to energize, not humiliate. And most important for Phil, he came to appreciate that his employees wanted to please him; he needed to master the art of making that possible for them.

MANAGEMENT IS WORK
Phil’s puzzle is your puzzle: how to piece together your personal virtues and flaws with the job of leading. The first pieces come together only when you stop assuming that “how you are” is how you should manage. Every manager has to use his strengths and shelve his shortcomings.
Management is hard work. It requires many organizational skills and many relationship skills. Why would anyone expect to have them “naturally”? The work involves mastering unfamiliar, uncomfortable behavior that may not feel like the “real you.” If you long to express the real you – to give free rein to your instincts – go on vacation. Management takes practice, self-reflection, and discipline.

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The Invisible Spotlight, part 1

PART 1 of 2
Your employees talk about you every night at dinner. The meal is placed on the table and your employee’s significant other asks the fateful question, “How was work today dear?” The next words are about you. Sometimes directly, sometimes indirectly. Either way they’re about you.

“It was great today, my boss never showed up at the worksite.” Or “It was really aggravating, the boss never stopped by the worksite and left no one in charge.” Or “It was aggravating, the boss never showed, but he left Larry in charge.” Or “Excellent day, I finished ahead of schedule, and my boss was all over me with praise.”

When you come, where you go, and what you do in between are of the utmost importance to your employees. They’ve been conditioned since childhood to please authority: parents, teachers, clergy, coaches, police officers… and now their manager.

This is what we mean by “the invisible spotlight.” Day in and day out, your employees are scrutinizing your every word and every deed. It’s because you wield so much power and influence over their lives and the livelihoods. It comes with the management territory.

Yet the most frequent and fundamental mistake managers make is to underestimate this influence. And make no mistake: the influence is as personal as it is professional.

In particular managers fail to realize that so much of their relationship with employees is forged in brief, unscripted moments. Sometimes the moments are dramatic, sometimes quiet and fleeting. We spend so much time talking with managers about “understanding their management style“ and “developing a consistent management style,” but real management actually happens in the moments: a passing conversation with an employee, a glance of approval or disapproval, a gesture of encouragement when an employee’s confidence flags. These are the flashes of interaction that can make or break your relationship with anyone who works for you.

Tomorrow, we’ll show you exactly what we mean by the invisible spotlight. We’ll walk you through a real life example. An example that’s not at all uncommon. So until tomorrow…

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New Book – The Invisible Spotlight

With four decades as management consultants under their belts, Craig Wasserman and Doug Katz tell illuminating stories from the management trenches about successes and misadventures in the invisible spotlight. Readers will discover the secrets of building a solid foundation for their management relationships. The authors’ case is made with abiding respect for the challenges of exercising authority in an organizational setting. This is a hard look at the soft side of managing.

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