How to manage legal, finance, IT, and HR to enable you to move fast

Edited excerpt from Lean Startup’s Eric Ries on How to Make ‘Gatekeepers’ a Source of Power and Speed:

Eric Ries calls functions like Legal, Finance, IT, and HR “gatekeepers”: Gatekeepers are the functional teams whose beneficiary is predominately the company itself, versus the end customer. They often impact the ability of the makers and sellers of the product — Product, Design, Engineering, Marketing and Sales — to reach customers.

The top tip for non-gatekeepers: Avoid the eleventh-hour ask. What they experience is someone calling them with no lead time, pitching a complex plan and asking for a thumbs up or down by end-of-day. From the gatekeeper’s point of view, that’s a lose-lose proposition. Either she has to say yes to something that has more liability than she’s comfortable with, or she has to say no and be the evil one. Instead, employ a cross-functional team from the start.

The top tip for gatekeepers: Revere how others build, be flexible in how you build. The best-performing gatekeepers have entrepreneurial virtues. They’ve got a tolerance — even comfort with — uncertainty and ambiguity and understand why entrepreneurship is challenging. This translates to empathy for what the product teams are going through. That flexibility brings a learning-first mentality. You want a gatekeeper who’s informed, but not always coming in with all the answers. She should be able to synthesize her expertise with what the company is doing.

The top tip for CEOs/founders: Foster an environment where gatekeepers can serve, not just respond. The statement you must be able to make is: The gatekeeping functions serve their customers rather than just respond to them. Keep gatekeeper functional heads accountable according to the cycle time of teams. Create metrics pertaining to how fast you want the team to turn things around.

(1) Thank you Andrew Fine, an outstanding “gatekeeper”, for the tip.
(2) Cf. In your startup, the goals and culture must become a mantra.

Four ways to show you care about your team’s careers

Excerpt from The Front of the Jersey by Doug Weaver:

Call out the elephant in the room. “We both know that you won’t necessarily always work here…” can be the phrase that really opens up your dialogue with your employees and shows that you’re treating them as adults, not assets.

How does today’s action create long term value? Want your team members to get better at something? Frame the discussion around their long term value in the marketplace. Every rep has a stock price and that stock price is either going up or down.

Commit to them. Tell them that you want this to be the best place they’ll ever work, and that you’d like to be remembered as the boss who made them better at their craft. Then do what you say.

Put the relationships in long term context. Will there be a network of people out there who speak well of them in the future, or a network that’s felt slighted, overlooked or abused?

(1) Thank you Brad Westbrook and Alon Zieve for the tip.
(2) Cf. Laszlo Bock’s eight steps to being a good manager
(3) Cf. Build self-confidence — but not your own

Managers’ biggest HR mistake, and how to fix it

I was chatting with someone who ran HR for a Fortune 500 company and is now an HR consultant. “What are managers’ biggest mistakes in HR?”, I asked him. “And what’s your best advice for them?” His answer:

Most companies succeed because of a small number of outstanding employees — the stars. But managers frequently make the mistake of devoting the majority of their time to under-performers. Instead, they should be devoting their time to these stars who truly drive their company’s performance.

So the most impactful advice I give managers is: identify your stars; let them know they are stars; and spend time thinking about how to empower them — how to give them responsibility, how to ensure they’re on challenging and impactful projects, and how to coach them for promotion.

(1) Cf. The best thing you can do for your team.
(2) Cf. Should you hire superstars?

Show up on time every day at 8:30am

Edited excerpt from eShares 101 by Henry Ward:

There are many similarities between eShares and a professional sports team. For starters, our entire company meets everyday at 8:30am to begin the day together. Everyone — engineering, sales, services, office management. Nobody is exempt. In sports, even the goalie, who may have a completely different practice schedule from the rest of the team, still meets at the same time to warm up.

Teams meet to solve problems, brainstorm ideas, share work, or just catch up. On Tuesdays and Thursdays, the whole company meets for an hour-long Show & Tell. This is an opportunity for everyone to share, debate, and participate in the bleeding edge of eShares’s progress and decision making.

Most people think it’s crazy that we make everyone be in the office at 8:30am every morning. We think it is crazy not to. The New England Patriots would never tell players, “Show up for practice when it is convenient.” If you want to be the best in the world at what you do, start every day together.

(1) I have mixed feelings about this, perhaps because I’m an introvert. I started every day alone thinking about Seeking Alpha’s goals and the most important tasks for the day, and only after that went to the office. The last thing I wanted to do was start every day with a group meeting — uugh! (I later read about the importance of clearing time for deep thinking, and that starting your day alone, quietly thinking about your goals, leads to greater clarity, motivation, success and happiness.)
(2) But I suspect my absence first thing in the morning had an impact on team discipline and the atmosphere in the Seeking Alpha office. Should I have scheduled my “alone time” early enough to arrive at 8.30am every morning? Should I have swallowed my aversion to group meetings, and done one every Tuesday and Thursday morning, as Henry Ward advocates?
(3) To what extent is how you want to start your day a function of personality, and to what extent are there objective best practices?

Group brainstorming doesn’t lead to creativity; this does

Edited excerpt from Resolving the Paradox of Group Creativity by Andre Walton:

When advertising executive Alex Osborn popularized brainstorming in the 1953 book Applied Imagination, he predicted that it would double the number of ideas that a group of people would generate in response to a problem or challenge. However, it proved not to live up to his expectations. As later research showed, brainstorming actually reduces the number of ideas a group produces when compared with the number of ideas that can be generated by those same individuals on their own.

So if you can’t rely on brainstorming and teamwork to elicit more creative ideas, what can you do? One remedy is to make sure that individuals have plenty of space for individual contemplation and input. In our everyday work environments, this ability to find personal time and space to think is crucial to enabling creative thought.

(1) Thank you Hana Abduljaami for the tip.
(2) Cf. The problem with collaboration, and why goals should have single “owners”.
(3) On how to create time to think, see: (i) How to clear time for deep thinking, (ii) Creating time for reflection, and (iii) If you want to get more done, stop doing these things.
(4) On office design to enable creative thought: Startup office design: Time to reconsider cubicles?

What’s the right framework for one-on-ones?

Edited excerpt from eShares 101 by Henry Ward:

You will do a 1-on-1 walk with your manager every 2–3 weeks, with your manager’s manager every 4–6 weeks, and with me every 4–6 months. Go for a walk for 30-40 minutes. Have fun — this is your time. Talk about what’s on your mind. It doesn’t need to be work related.

We have been doing this since we were three employees. Managers at eShares are required to take a class on how to do 1–on-1s. For managers, the instructions are simple: listen. For you, just talk about whatever you want. It doesn’t have to be work related. It is your opportunity to share what’s on your mind.

Our competitive advantage is the strength of our team. Think of our team as a network of nodes, connected by edges. 1–on-1s are how we strengthen those edges. It is the most important activity you will do here.

(1) Note the purpose of Henry’s one-on-ones: “Think of our team as a network of nodes, connected by edges. 1–on-1s are how we strengthen those edges.” As CEO of Seeking Alpha, I used one-on-ones differently: their purpose was to help my direct reports achieve their goals and hit their metrics.
(2) Your goal for one-on-ones will impact the frequency and number of people you do them with. Because I wanted to help my direct reports to achieve their goals, I did one-one-ones with them every week, and didn’t meet regularly with anyone else. Because Henry’s goal is to “strengthen the edges”, his one-on-ones are with far more people, but are less frequent.
(3) See The right way to do one-on-ones.
(4) Re. “Go for a walk for 30-40 minutes” — see Walking meetings.

Five tips for men who manage women

From 5 Tips for Men Who Manage Women:

In a Wall Street Journal article Women at Work: A Guide for Men, Joanne Lipman says that many men “misunderstand us, they unwittingly belittle us, they do something that they think is nice that instead just makes us mad. And those are the good ones.”

Here are some of the things she says male bosses need to understand about their female employees if they want to have the most productive and efficient workplace possible:

1. Don’t restrain yourself when giving feedback.
2. Actively include them in meetings.
3. Consider them for promotions even if they don’t ask.
4. Cut the cute talk — don’t talk condescendingly to women.
5. Understand that having kids doesn’t mean the end of ambition.

Should team leaders in startups write weekly reports?

Edited excerpt from Tips for Startup CEOs by Evan Schumacher, via David Cancel:

Every Friday have all your direct reports submit a “weekly update” one page or less focusing on progress against metrics, key accomplishments for the past week and summary of what’s on deck for the next week. Then, aggregate/consolidate/summarize those updates, add CEO level stuff, and forward to your board on Sunday night.

Why this approach?

— Every team member should spend 30 minutes reflecting on the week. The key is that these updates are shared with other executives who are expected to read them prior to the team Monday morning management meeting (another management tip). That way the meeting is productive, focusing on issues and not “status updates”.

— By sending a report to board members on Sunday nights, you’re on top of their inbox when they are catching up on their weekend emails so there’s a chance they’ll read it. Then they’ll be up to speed on your business during their Monday internal meetings, which makes them look good (and thus, you as CEO look good).

(1) In Seeking Alpha, we standardized on monthly reports. Some team leaders and their team members also chose to write weekly reports, while others found them too onerous. Wonder what the wider experience of this is.
(2) Re. That way the meeting is productive, focusing on issues and not “status updates”: We find that providing written materials before meetings eliminates the need for updates during meetings, and therefore makes the meetings far more effective. We follow Amazon’s practice in allotting time at the beginning of meetings for people to read the written materials.
(3) Cf. How to write a monthly report for your investors or manager.

Laszlo Bock’s eight steps to being a good manager

Edited excerpt from Work Rules!: Insights from Inside Google That Will Transform How You Live and Lead by Laszlo Bock, SVP of People Operations at Google:

1. Be a good coach.
2. Empower the team and do not micromanage.
3. Express interest / concern for team members’ success and personal well-being.
4. Be very productive / results oriented.
5. Be a good communicator — listen and share information.
6. Help the team with career development.
7. Have a clear vision / strategy for the team.
8. Have important technical skills that help advise the team.

(1) There’s nothing explicit here about providing your team with clear goals and metrics — although arguably that’s included in “empower the team and do not micromanage” and “be very… results oriented”.
(2) See (i) Setting clear goals = empowerment and (ii) How LinkedIn manages people using objectives and key results.

When the best thing, as a manager, is to stay away

Edited excerpt from Adam Bryant’s interview of Lew Cirne, chief executive of New Relic:

I can get emotional at work, and there have been times that I’ve said something in a moment of frustration that can ruin someone’s week. I’ll totally underestimate the impact of me saying something that deflates someone.

One of the lessons is that, as a CEO, sometimes you can do a lot more harm than good coming into the office that day. So I try to be aware of where I’m at emotionally, and I ask myself whether I’m really going to be able to contribute energy to the company. If all you can do is criticize without offering solutions, maybe it’s best to just go for a long drive.

You have to be able to resist that feeling that if you’re not at work, then you’re not contributing. You have to remember that sometimes you can be a negative.

(1) Staying away entirely is a fairly extreme option. An alternative is to come to the office and work quietly while limiting your interactions with other people.
(2) Another alternative is push yourself to think positively, for example by going out of your way to give genuine praise.

Why you should push your team to write (and hire people who can write)

Edited excerpt from The Neuroscience of Recruiting: 3 Key Discoveries & Implications by Geoffrey James:

Unlike communications that are clear and precise, business communications that are fuzzy and imprecise generate connections between words that are similarly fuzzy and imprecise. In other words, it’s a feedback looping going on: fuzzy thinking creates fuzzy wording which in turn creates fuzzier thinking. Conversely, clear thinking creates clear wording which in turn creates clearer thinking.

What this means to recruiters: Today, many organizations tolerate the use of fuzzy and imprecise wording, typically in the form of buzzwords and jargon. As those organizations hire people who communicate in a similar way, it increases the amount of fuzzy think, making the overall organization “dumber.” In the future, recruiters must put additional emphasis during the hiring process on a candidate’s ability to write and speak with precision and clarity. As a result, the hiring process will tend to make the overall organization progressively “smarter.”

(1) This is why PowerPoint is such a disaster. Bullet points don’t have the rigor of full sentences and paragraphs. They lure you into thinking that you’ve thought through and articulated an idea, but in fact you haven’t. Bullet points are the poster child of fuzzy wording. And “fuzzy thinking creates fuzzy wording which in turn creates fuzzier thinking”.
(2) Because writing clarifies thinking, it’s often worthwhile to write a document even if nobody else reads it.
(3) I read somewhere that strategy meetings in Amazon start with the participants reading a paper about the topic. Benefits: (i) ensures there’s a clear “owner” for the topic,  (ii) ensures that meetings are properly prepared for, (iii) ensures that people consider everything the “owner” has to say about the topic without interrupting, (iv) allocates time at the beginning of the meeting for everyone to prepare for the discussion.

Are purpose and relationships the key to work happiness?

Edited excerpt from 6 Ways to Recover Joy at Work by Lawrence Chong:

In our decade of work in transforming Asian companies, we found that the solutions to bring joy back to work are surprisingly simple and cost-effective:

Create clarity of purpose: Leaders should explain the rationale and the value of doing things on a regular basis and at all levels.

Design teamwork: Design policies and reward systems that recognize the team that made it happen. Identify moments when departments reached out to each other to solve a problem.

Manage differences: Have people trained in mediation and regularly intervene to address frictions in a calm manner with proper facilitation.

Put relationships first: Helping new employees to get to know others when they join the company, or allowing people to share three minutes on how their week went during weekly sessions can go a long way to establishing an environment that is joyful.

Create relationship-based HR: Create a separate HR department focused on relationship management.

(1) This advice seems to be designed for large Asian companies. Most of it can be applied to startups, with caveats: Training people in mediation seems excessive, as you probably don’t want to keep anyone who needs mediation to function.  And creating an HR department to foster relationships seems overly centralized, as relationships should be built within teams.
(2) Cf. Practical advice on how to raise motivation.

Practical advice on how to raise motivation

From It’s Time to Rethink Productivity by Josh Levine and Ciana Wilson, building on Simon Sinek’s insight that we’re motivated by why we do things more than what we do:

1. Write your purpose statement
Ask what one thing you’d like your group to be known for accomplishing.

2. Create a “purpose trajectory”
Encourage each team member to keep in mind purpose when making choices. By having each person connect their everyday responsibility and role with the far-reaching purpose, individuals can create a larger context within which to make decisions.

3. Reinforce with great stories
At weekly staff meetings have one team member share a story of something they or a colleague did that supported the team or organization’s purpose.

How managers can communicate more effectively

From Avoiding the Unintended Consequences of Casual Feedback by Jeff Weiner:

Years ago, a former direct report of mine… observed that oftentimes what I thought was a take-it-or-leave-it remark would create a massively disruptive fire drill. Up until that moment, I had no idea my opinion was being weighted so heavily.

To address the issue and to ensure that the team and I were on the same page with regard to situations like that, we developed three categories to describe any feedback I provided (either in conversation or via email): One person’s opinion (OPO), strong suggestion, mandate.

The system proved to be so helpful, I’ve used it ever since. It has helped me communicate more effectively across all levels of the organization, especially with newer employees who may not be calibrated to my feedback style or frequency.

(1) Sometimes a manager identifies a problem that needs to be solved, without suggesting a solution or expressing an opinion. Being explicit can also help in that case: Is solving this problem important, urgent or both?
(2) Thank you Michael Eisenberg for the tip.

Promote fast

From HR tip – Promote fast by John Gannon:

If you have someone on your team who is consistently overdelivering, requires little supervision, and makes the team around them markedly better, promote them immediately and give them more responsibility along with that promotion.

A promotion is a great way for a CEO or manager to recognize ‘A’ players, to position them as role models within the team or company, and to regain valuable management bandwidth.

If you’re thinking seriously about promoting someone, especially at a startup, then it probably means you should do it. I have managed people who fit into the ‘Promote Fast’ bucket before, and the only regret in my time working with them was that I did not promote them sooner.

(1) Are titles about recognition, or do they reflect levels of responsibility? It’s a debate. In Seeking Alpha, titles are all about levels of responsibility.
(2) Thus, a simple litmus test for promoting someone is: Are there additional, meaningful responsibilities you want to give this person? If so, promote them. If not, don’t. And “promote fast” then means: Don’t be scared to throw extra responsibilities at capable people.

The hardest thing about managing people

From The No-Nonsense Business Advice You Need to Hear, an interview with Jeffrey James:

For bosses, I think the hardest thing is letting people make their own mistakes. Resisting the desire to intervene. It’s the whole question of whether you are controlling people or coaching people. You can’t do both. It’s easy to jump to control. People seek control in their lives and of their destinies. But as a boss you can’t really do that. All you can do is point people toward what you want them to do and try to get them to do it better. That requires a lot of patience and a lot of perceptiveness. It doesn’t come easy to many people in management positions.

Is this the way to celebrate wins?

From Celebrating Small Successes by Sebastian Hooker:

Send out a weekly or bi-weekly email to your team
— Keep it short and to the point.
— Highlight the company’s most recent accomplishments.
— Thank individual members.
— If there have been setbacks, list them here.
— Finally, explain what is next.

(1) Celebrating wins is crucial — Jeff Wiener celebrates wins at every staff meeting.
(2) Is sharing wins the same as celebrating wins? If so, it can be done in a less centralized, top-down way. We use a Google Doc which everyone in the company contributes to and reads.

Why small wins generate motivation

From The Progress Principle: Using Small Wins to Ignite Joy, Engagement, and Creativity at Work by Teresa Amabile:

This pattern is what we call the progress principle: of all the positive events that influence inner work life, the single most powerful is progress in meaningful work; of all the negative events, the single most powerful is the opposite of progress—setbacks in the work.

We consider this to be a fundamental management principle: facilitating progress is the most effective way for managers to influence inner work life. Even when progress happens in small steps, a person’s sense of steady forward movement toward an important goal can make all the difference between a great day and a terrible one.

This pattern became increasingly obvious as the diaries came in from all the teams in our study. People’s inner work lives seemed to lift or drag depending on whether or not their projects moved forward, even by small increments.

Small wins often had a surprisingly strong positive effect, and small losses a surprisingly strong negative one.

Notes: Perhaps this is one of the reasons why celebrating wins is so important — it’s a way of reminding yourself of your progress. And why Jeff Weiner starts staff meetings with wins.

The right way to do one-on-ones

From One on One by Ben Horowitz:

The key to a good one-on-one meeting is the understanding that it is the employee’s meeting rather than the manager’s meeting. This is the free-form meeting for all the pressing issues, brilliant ideas and chronic frustrations that do not fit neatly into status reports, email and other less personal and intimate mechanisms.

If you like structured agendas, then the employee should set the agenda… During the meeting, since it’s the employee’s meeting, the manager should do 10% of the talking and 90% of the listening… While it’s not the manager’s job to set the agenda or do the talking, the manager should try to draw the key issues out of the employee. The more introverted the employee, the more important this becomes.

Some questions that I’ve found to be very effective in one-on-ones: If we could improve in any way, how would we do it? What’s the No. 1 problem with our organization? Why? What’s not fun about working here? Who is really kicking ass in the company? Who do you admire? If you were me, what changes would you make? What don’t you like about the product? What’s the biggest opportunity that we’re missing out on? What are we not doing that we should be doing? Are you happy working here?

(1) Note the open-ended questions Ben asks in his one-on-ones.
(2) Cf. Mark Suster’s advice about how to ask great questions.

Do you have the right people in your team? A litmus test

Excerpts from Let Your Team Help You Manage Your Time by John Beeson:

A few years ago I was asked to coach an executive I’ll call Tom.  I suggested that Tom give thought to four questions:

1. Where could he add the greatest value to the company in his new role?

2. What were the topics and issues he should be intimately involved in — and which could he off-load to staff?

3. How was he spending his time today — and how would he like to be spending his time six months from now in order to devote adequate time to his value-adding role?

4. What changes would he have to make to his team — in terms of its composition and how he managed it— to achieve that goal?

Originally, he had considered his team to be solid and experienced. However, he now realized there were no direct reports to whom he could delegate significant responsibilities… And that was a problem.

How to harness the intelligence of your team

From Working With McKinsey:

If your McKinsey boss knows that you disagree with something, you will be reminded of your “obligation to dissent“. “Dissent” is a strong word, but in this context it simply means speaking up if you disagree with something being done or discussed.

The “obligation” comes from the fact that at McKinsey, voicing your dissent is not optional, it is required.

The Firm believes that every consultant – even the least-tenured, greenest Business Analysts and Associates – is intelligent and has valuable insights to offer. On McKinsey engagement teams and in collaborative problem solving sessions, everyone is supposed to have an equal voice and is expected to contribute to discussions – that includes exercising the obligation to dissent.

How one CEO’s management style changed with more experience

From an interview with Spencer Rascoff:

The mistake I have most commonly made, especially earlier in my career, was not acting quickly enough when I knew in my gut that somebody probably wasn’t the best person for a role. I like to be liked, but sometimes managing people is not a popularity contest. So when a manager realizes that somebody is not right for their job, they need to act quickly — not just for their own success and survival, but also for the overall team.

The biggest change in my management style as I’ve become a more experienced manager has been to become less tolerant of mediocrity and more demanding. Earlier in my career, I was more willing to give people the benefit of the doubt, and look the other way on their imperfections.

I hate delivering bad news, especially about people’s performance. It’s one of the hardest things for a manager to do. What’s helped me get better at it is to focus more on the team. When I say to somebody, “You’re not performing up to the level that we need you to perform,” it’s not an indictment of that individual as much as me showing the proper respect to the rest of the team.

Is this the way to make you and your team more creative?

From the Corner Office interview with Hubspot CEO Brian Halligan:

…I’m a huge nap guy, and so we have a nap room at HubSpot. I have this new initiative in my life, and I’m trying to push my colleagues to do it, too, where I want to work less and think more. In a given month, I do a lot of very mediocre stuff, but once in a while I come up with a really good idea. Maybe I’ll come up with two in a month. Those two inevitably happen when I’m either falling into a nap, or coming out of a nap, or waking up slowly on a Saturday morning. I’m trying to engineer more of those in my life. I’m trying to encourage more people to have naps because, hopefully, more people will have these brilliant ideas.

Most earlier discussions about napping, such as the foundational NASA study (thanks Eli Hoffmann for the link), reported improved performance. Brian Halligan, in contrast, reports increased creativity as well. My personal experience echoes Brian’s.

The best thing you can do for your team

From Patty McCord:

One day I was talking with one of our best engineers, an employee I’ll call John. Before the layoffs, he’d managed three engineers, but now he was a one-man department working very long hours. I told John I hoped to hire some help for him soon. His response surprised me. “There’s no rush—I’m happier now,” he said. It turned out that the engineers we’d laid off weren’t spectacular—they were merely adequate. John realized that he’d spent too much time riding herd on them and fixing their mistakes. “I’ve learned that I’d rather work by myself than with subpar performers,” he said.

His words echo in my mind whenever I describe the most basic element of Netflix’s talent philosophy: The best thing you can do for employees—a perk better than foosball or free sushi—is hire only “A” players to work alongside them. Excellent colleagues trump everything else.

A simple litmus test for great managers

From FirstRound Capital:

While there’s no magical advice that can turn you into a stellar founder or CEO, there’s one litmus test Sutton recommends for managers to determine whether they are good at their jobs.

“After people talk to you, do they come away with more or less energy?”
This is something you can ask members of your team, or simply observe in many cases. It’s a simple “yes” or “no.” Management Professor Rob Cross at the University of Virginia has conducted surveys at upward of 50 companies, and he finds over and over again that this question is one of the strongest predictors of whether or not people get promoted or fired.

When micromanagement works

From Tomasz Tunguzblog:

Effective management depends on the situation. At the highest level, there are four basic situations:

Low motivation, low skill: The person hasn’t been placed in the right role or hasn’t been able to understand how to be effective within the company. It’s time for the company and employee to part ways.

High motivation, low skill: the most typical state for an employee to be in after he has been hired or promoted. He is excited and energetic but unfamiliar with the particulars of the job, or the company, or the culture. Somewhat counterintuitively, the best management technique in this situation is micromanagement… The best way to do this is by frequent check-ins, updates, and feedback. Applied this way, micromanagement provides the employee very fast and very short learning cycles. Each day, the employee receives a mini-review of his work. Within a few weeks, the employee have learnt quite a bit and become productive.

Low motivation, high skill: aka burnout… A manager ought to put this employee “out to pasture” for a week or a few weeks, meaning allowing her to work on self-directed projects or projects of passion to recharge her motivation.

High motivation, high skill: The best management advice is to get out of the way.

The risk of micromanagement? You can cause employees to fail through The Set-Up-To-Fail Syndrome, and it drains too much management time to be scalable.

How the “too nice” manager kills your career

Excerpt from Greg McKeown:

I once worked with just such an executive. He spoke with a soft, quiet voice. He never interrupted anyone when they were speaking. When he walked into the meeting he had a “nice” word for everyone. Every time the team became “positively frustrated” and ready to make the change necessary to get to the next level he would stand up and say sweetly, “Oh, I just wanted to remind you all of how far we have come.” And after a few more sentences the spark of aspiration was gone from the room. He unintentionally signaled the status quo was plenty good enough. There was no need to try harder or change how things were going. He reminded me of what Jim Hacker (the fictional politician in the English cult classic “Yes, Minister”) said to his bureaucratic colleague, “You really are a wet blanket, Humphrey, you just go around stirring up apathy.”

These nice but somewhat absentee managers can continue to survive, unchecked for decades. At least a controlling boss who yells all the time gets noticed: they create acute pain and people complain. In contrast, the pain these nice “Neutralizers” produce is chronic. The pain is inflicted slowly, drip by drip.

How managers cause employees to fail

Jean-François Manzoni and Jean-Louis Barsoux describe what they call The Set-Up-To-Fail Syndrome:

The syndrome is set in motion when the boss begins to worry that the employee’s performance is not up to par. The boss then takes what seems like the obvious action in light of the subordinate’s perceived shortcomings: he increases the time and attention he focuses on the employee. He requires the employee to get approval before making decisions, asks to see more paperwork documenting those decisions, or watches the employee at meetings more closely and critiques his comments more intensely.

These actions are intended to boost performance and prevent the subordinate from making errors. Unfortunately, however, subordinates often interpret the heightened supervision as a lack of trust and confidence. In time, because of low expectations, they come to doubt their own thinking and ability, and they lose the motivation to make autonomous decisions or to take any action at all.

Ironically, the boss sees the subordinate’s withdrawal as proof that the subordinate is indeed a poor performer. The subordinate, after all, isn’t contributing his ideas or energy to the organization. So what does the boss do? He increases his pressure and supervision again—watching, questioning, and double-checking everything the subordinate does. Eventually, the subordinate gives up on his dreams of making a meaningful contribution.

Perhaps the most daunting aspect of the set-up-to-fail syndrome is that it is self-fulfilling and self-reinforcing—it is the quintessential vicious circle.

The difference between managers and leaders

From Yvon Chouinard’s Let My People Go Surfing: The Education of a Reluctant Businessman (via Farnham Street):

When you look to hire management, it is important to know the difference between leaders and managers. For instance a branch manager of a bank is expected to avoid risk, not make loans without approval from higher up. Managers have short term vision, implement strategic plans, and keep things running as they always have.

Leaders take risks, have long term vision, create the strategic plans, and instigate change.

The best leadership is by example.

How to ensure that things get done using 3 W’s

From Avi Eyal:

In the last business I ran, Cura Software, as our team grew to over 100 employees in four countries and four continents (in 3 years), I quickly realized that with our lean management approach (we had one manager per 40 people), the only way to drive the growth and execute successfully would be to instill my staff with a few simple rules, and let them run themselves within these rules.

So I decided on “3 W’s”:
1. Who (is responsible)
2. What (needs to be done)
3. When (is it due)

Everything you do, when you fly at 100 miles an hour needs order. Who is responsible. What is expected of them, and by When. We had this printed on posters, at the top of meeting templates and internal presentations…

Every meeting, event, and process should be driven by these simple 3W’s.

Which is better: a CEO who tolerates mediocrity or one who throws tantrums?

From The Secrets of Bezos:

Intensity is hardly rare among technology CEOs. Steve Jobs was as famous for his volatility with Apple subordinates as he was for the clarity of his insights about customers. He fired employees in the elevator and screamed at underperforming executives. Bill Gates used to throw epic tantrums at Microsoft; Steve Ballmer, his successor, had a propensity for throwing chairs. Andy Grove, the former CEO of Intel, was so harsh and intimidating that a subordinate once fainted during a performance review.

Bezos fits comfortably into this mold. His drive and boldness trumps other leadership ideals, such as consensus building and promoting civility. While he can be charming and capable of great humor in public, in private he explodes into what some of his underlings call nutters. A colleague failing to meet Bezos’s exacting standards will set off a nutter. If an employee does not have the right answers or tries to bluff, or takes credit for someone else’s work, or exhibits a whiff of internal politics, uncertainty, or frailty in the heat of battle—a blood vessel in Bezos’s forehead bulges and his filter falls away.

If I had to choose between a manager who tolerates mediocrity and a manager who throws “nutters”, I’d go for the manager who throws nutters any day. Why? Because the most successful companies are built by managers who strive for, and demand excellence. They care passionately about their product and company. Passionately enough to throw “nutters”.

Guess what makes people more productive?

From Shawn Achor’s book The Happiness Advantage: The Seven Principles of Positive Psychology That Fuel Success and Performance at Work:

…doctors put in a positive mood before making a diagnosis show almost three times more intelligence and creativity than doctors in a neutral state, and they make accurate diagnoses 19 percent faster. Optimistic salespeople outsell their pessimistic counterparts by 56 percent. Students primed to feel happy before taking math achievement tests far outperform their neutral peers. It turns out that our brains are literally hardwired to perform at their best not when they are negative or even neutral, but when they are positive.

Avoiding mediocrity by showing “tough love”

From Tim O’Reilly:

When someone isn’t right for the job, it’s easy to shrink from the confrontation of telling them so, or to accept 60% or 70% of what you wanted because you think you can’t afford the time and trouble to find a replacement. You aren’t doing anyone any favors. An employee who is not performing at 100% is as aware as you are of that fact, and most likely isn’t happy about it. Having the courage to ask them to move on is an essential management skill. (It doesn’t even have to be firing; it can be coaching them to make the decision on their own.)

Looking back, I wish we’d worked harder early on to build an organization in which human potential isn’t just expected and taken for granted, but is also nurtured — if necessary, with tough love. So many times I knew that someone was doing less than we had a right to expect, but I’d let their manager protect them. I didn’t have the guts to keep working the issue till we understood what to do and took appropriate action. We ended up building a culture where managers too often compensated for the failings of employees by working around them, either working harder themselves, hiring someone else to fill in the gaps, or just letting the organization be less effective.

One quality in a manager trumps all others

From Tony Simons, Cornell University professor and author of The Integrity Dividend: Leading by the Power of Your Word:

Hotels where employees strongly believed their managers followed through on promises and demonstrated the values they preached were substantially more profitable than those whose managers scored average or lower…No other single aspect of manager behavior that we measured had as large an impact on profits.

When management stifles creativity

Via Hard Facts, Dangerous Half-Truths, and Total Nonsense: Profiting from Evidence-based Management:

…when a group does creative work, a large body of research shows that the more that authority figures hang around, the more questions they ask, and especially the more feedback they give their people, the less creative the work will be. Why? Because doing creative work entails constant setbacks and failure, and people want to succeed when the boss is watching–which means doing proven, less creative things that are sure to work.

A better way to manage people?

From First Round Capital’s description of Jason Stirman‘s approach to management at Medium:

He started spending one-on-one meetings talking to his reports about their lives, instead of their tasks, and productivity shot through the roof. “When you sit across a table from someone, ask them ‘What’s going on in your life?’ That will always remove more hurdles than asking them ‘What’s blocking you at work?’” he said. He started taking his reports out to lunch, to drinks, to coffee to see what was up. How was their wife settling into her new job? Did escrow close on their new house? This is the stuff that people bring into work with them but never talk about, Stirman says. As soon as you ask, the pressure starts to dissipate.

This more human approach starting paying off in other, less expected ways too. “I’d hear that someone on my team had a problem with someone on another team that brought everything to a standstill – just because they didn’t like each other. I thought, what if I just got them in a room together and we all talked about everything except the problem at hand? When we did, we got some casual conversation going, they discovered some similarities, and by the end of the hour they were talking about how to solve their issues. This was a conflict that literally kept me up at night, and as soon as there was space for them to connect as people, it was fixed.”

When ambitious workloads become unproductive

Quoted by Eric Barker, in Is being busy the secret to happiness?:

Who among us are the most happy? Newly published research suggests it is those fortunate folks who have little or no excess time, and yet seldom feel rushed…

If managers regularly set impossibly short time-frames or impossibly high workloads, employees become stressed, unhappy, and unmotivated—burned out. Yet, people hate being bored. it was rare for any participant in our study to report a day with very low time pressure, such days—when they did occur—were also not conducive to positive inner work life. In general, then, low-to-moderate time pressure seems optimal for sustaining positive thoughts, feelings, and drives.

How do you (and your manager) know if you’re a good collaborator at work?

According to Seeking Alpha VP Content Eli Hoffmann, if you want to know whether someone is a good collaborator, just ask this question:

Think about your closest one-on-one work relationships: What have they enabled you to achieve?

Eli’s insight is that, like everything else, collaboration should be measured by results, not process. And by focusing on one-on-one relationships, he recognizes that the optimal number of people in a meeting is two.

Sheryl Sandberg on managing people

From an interview with Sheryl Sandberg:

A few years ago, Lori Goler, Facebook’s head of human resources, brought Marcus to meet with our leadership team to help us improve this system. Marcus and his colleagues surveyed employees for 25 years to figure out what factors predict extraordinary performance. They found that the most important predictor of the success of a company or division was how many people answered yes to the question “Do you have the opportunity to do what you do best every day?”