More posts on leadership can be found here.

I'm going to venture an estimate. I'm thinking that I've wasted somewhere around 75% of my employers' time on average during my career. My entry-level jobs were not so bad. Working the phones meant that I was actually doing something, albeit low-value, most of the day. But as I progressed from task-taker, to individual contributor, to positions of influence and leadership, the amount of my time wasted increased to include, well, most of it.

"Matt, you're telling the world that you're a drain on your employers!" No, I'm not. I've always delivered value many times greater than the cost of my employment. What I'm saying is that I've had to do it in about 25% of the time allotted. The other 75% of my time went to things that were not just unproductive, they were disproductive. They were worse than doing nothing because they caused stress, wasted time and money, and impacted worthwhile activities. Here are some of those things that caused disproductivity:

Spinning up disproductive projects. I'd say that, on average, four out of five IT projects that have hit my radar have had no potential to be completed. Some reasons for this are:

  • They were knee-jerk, "Yes" reactions to an executive whim.
  • They were committed to before costs and duration were understood.
  • They were legitimate projects, but they didn't survive subsequent waves of prioritization.
  • They seemed important at the time, but the stakeholders lost interest.

My solution? In recent years I've gained the ability to foresee which projects will actually go to successful completion (with almost 100% accuracy). I've made a practice of killing disproductive projects as quickly as possible. Doing so has reduced my disproductivity a fair amount. When confronted with a new project, I ask qualifying questions like:

  • Who actually wants this project?
  • When they find out the cost, will they still fund it?
  • Will it survive resource reallocation for acquisitions, new sites, new product launches, management swaps, bad earnings reports, etc.?
  • Do we have the support, the funding, and the ability to make the project a win, assuming that we complete it?

If I don't like the answers to these questions, I apply a choke hold, poison, or starvation to the project as aggressively as I can. It works.

Attending disproductive meetings. Everyone knows this, but nobody does anything about it. Disproductive meetings are meetings where (a) too many people are invited, (b) the agenda is weak or null, and (c) the follow-up expectations are unclear.  These meetings are disproductive because:

  • They distract people from otherwise valuable work.
  • They frustrate people.
  • They cost a lot of money and don't provide much benefit.

My solution? I love Tim Ferriss's advice in the 4-Hour Workweek. Among my favorites is asking  the organizer what he needs from you in advance so that you can give it to them via email and skip the meeting. Usually they don't know what they need. They plan to let everyone do their thinking for them in the meeting. If the meeting doesn't have a clear agenda, ask for one or don't attend. Also, don't attend the whole meeting. Ask if you can get your stuff out of the way first and be dismissed because you've got "another commitment."

Disproductive email. I noticed this story about Atos banning email. I don't think that email should be banned, but I agree that people should use the most effective means of communication available. Email is generally ineffective and often disproductive. People use email incorrectly in at least the following ways:

  • They use it like IM.
  • They CC way too many people.
  • They don't drop people from distribution once they're not needed.
  • They use it as a data archive.
  • They turn on the inbox alert to distract them every time they get a new, useless email.
  • They use it to say things that they would not normally say.

I don't have any of these problems when I use LinkedIn, Facebook, Skype, or Blogger. They have rough email capabilities, but they don't get abused. Moreover, they never involve large groups of disinterested parties.

My solution?
  1. Don't send email.
  2. If you do send email, avoid CC.
  3. Turn off your inbox notification.
  4. Create aggressive filters. Filter sources, people, subjects, and anything else that you don't really need to see. Yeah, you might miss something important, but they'll call back, and you'll avoid wasting your time.

Reading management's minds. Leaders are supposed to set direction. In most cases, IT management fails to do this. They flounder, they react, they panic, and they drag everyone else along with them. It's impossible to focus on important or complex work when management is driven by urgency.

My solution? Determine the priorities for myself and the people I lead. (See the qualifying questions under "Spinning up disproductive projects" earlier in this post.) When management panics and wants to change priorities, buffer it as much as possible until the questions above are answered. Don't let it impact everyone else until you know whether or not it's important.

Usually management doesn't know why they're panicking. In a few days the dust will settle and they'll be glad that someone held the course.

Things that are not disproductive. Here are just a few examples of things that employers should value over the aforementioned disproductive activities, but don't for some reason:

Chatting with a coworker in the hallway usually is not disproductive. It is a frequent source of innovation and idea generation.

Training is not disproductive. If you are not training your employees because your volume of disproductive work won't permit it, your organization will never be great.

Reading is not disproductive. Reading on the job should be mandatory. Employees should be able to expense any book on the condition that after they read it they share what they have learned with the team.

Brainstorming and whiteboarding sessions are not disproductive. They lead to great ideas and they encourage people to share information that is highly relevant. If you're people are too busy doing disproductive work to think, tinker, and experiment, you will never be great.

Working from home is not disproductive. I did it for a long time. My productivity increased tremendously, as has the productivity of others who have done the same. How?

  • Commute time is recuperated.
  • There are fewer interruptions.
  • There is no need to look busy when between important tasks.
  • Personal needs (laundry, phone calls, etc.) can be intermingled here and there, freeing up time after 5pm for the employee to keep working on important stuff.
  • Sleep and diet improve.

Complaining is not necessarily productive, but it isn't necessarily disproductive, either. It is an indicator that something needs to change, even if it's the complainers. Letting things fester is disproductive.

I would love to see a company wage an aggressive war on sanctioned disproductivity. In a business climate where most companies are still grovelling for marginal efficiency gains, why allow this stuff to continue?

Contact Matt here.
Follow Matt on Twitter.
Connect to Matt on Linkedin.
View Matt's language coaching blog.


Trust--THE Critical Leadership Attribute

Quote: "There’s an expectation that you can work anywhere and be highly productive and engaged."

This is from an article about a new Plantronics office. They designed an office to be just unappealing enough that people would prefer to work from home. Never mind that they'll save some money, or that this is forward-thinking. Consider the implication: their trust level is so high that they enshrine it in architectural plans.

I've written a few articles about leadership traits. (See 9 Reasons Control Is Bad and 5 Great Leadership Tendencies That I've Actually Seen.) One of the common themes is trust. I'm now going to explain why trust is THE leadership attribute.

First, trust is the source of your power as a leader. Leaders derive authority from the people who appoint them, but their power comes from being followed. If people refuse to follow you, you are powerless to lead them. True, you can coerce people. That's a kind of power, but dragging people behind you in chains is not the same as leading them. To the extent that you sew fear you will not harvest inclination, initiative, or ingenuity. If you're bad enough, your subordinates will start plotting either their own exit or your demise.

To lead and be followed, a relationship of trust must exist. Someone has to extend and engender trust first. It must be the leader. (In fact, whoever extends that trust first is the leader, whether it's the boss or not.) Extending and engendering trust involves convincing followers of three things:
  • You can and will do what needs to be done as a leader.
  • Your primary concern is their personal success.
  • You trust them to fulfill the responsibilities that you give them.
If you can't do these three things, you have to fall back on some degree of coercion.

How do locate your position on the leadership-coercion scale? One way is to look at your rules. What is the fundamental function of a rule? To shore up a lack of trust! (I'm not talking about an immutable law, like "Don't touch the stove or you'll get burned." I'm talking about a rule that you make to get the results that you want.)

Rules reflect an assumption that people are not inclined to do what is right or best. When you make a rule, you are implying a lack of trust. Moreover, if you make a rule, there must be penalty, whether implicit or explicit. Otherwise the rule has no effect. Threatening penalties is coercion, not leadership.

For example, "No Running!" is a coercive way of saying, "Running is dangerous and may result in injuries." The natural penalty for running is the potential for an injury, but the coercive rule has an arbitrary penalty, namely being kicked out of the pool area. If you tell your people, in effect, "No Running!" you force them all to live under a threat, even if they're disinclined to run in the first place. What might you forego as a result? Creative new ways to make running safe, new surfaces that prevent injuries for people who run, etc.

How do you start to trust more? Begin by questioning your rules. A story will illustrate:

Once I was tasked with creating a Suggestion Box for an IT department. When it was done, we had a stakeholder meeting to review it and to craft a welcome email to all of the IT personnel. The first suggestion made was this: "We need to tell them that the suggestion box is for constructive feedback, not for complaining." Everyone agreed, except me. I asked why we needed that statement. "Do we have reason to believe that people will use it to complain? Will we still get frank feedback if we start with a rule that assumes the worst? Do we want real feedback, or just positive feedback?" We all agreed to forego that statement, as well as several additional rules that, for some reason, seemed intuitively necessary to several people.  (As it turns out, feedback to the Suggestion Box was professional and constructive.)

Another story involved a team that was complaining about senior management frequently. Then something happened. Someone on the team was blamed for a major incident that really wasn't his fault. Everybody knew it, but he was about to take a hard fall for it anyway. The damage to morale would have been irreparable. At that time, a senior director stepped in. He called a meeting with the team and forcefully apologized for what was happening, ascribing all of the accountability to himself, and swearing that this sort of thing would never happen again. He then scheduled a series of meetings to just listen to the team. Almost overnight, the trust that he created increased his power to lead the team several fold. Rather than minimally complying, people were actively trying to support him and going out of their way to praise him behind his back.

He build relationships and harnessed their power. Relationships are based in trust, and thus inspire our best action. They foster respect, admiration, and camaraderie. Rules foster resentment, indifference, and fear.

If you genuinely trust your people and you are sincerely inclined to their welfare, your only limit is the upper bound of their best synergistic output, which you have the power to help improve! If you don't trust them, though, you are restricted to whatever you can force them to produce. This is why, whether your a senior director, a parent, or even an individual contributor, trust is THE critical leadership attribute.


9 Reasons Control Is Bad

"Fifteen calls in the queue holding four minutes!" He would belt that out every ninety seconds or so. He was my manager at my first IT job. My job was helping customers. His job was reminding me. Never mind that my customer service rating was perfect for six months. My average call length was above threshold by a few seconds. Whatever-his-name-was kept reminding me. I left, doubled my salary, and launched my career. He probably hired someone who was better at following directions and wasn't so worked up about "happy customers."

For years I swore I would never get into management. Every new boss I encountered only bolstered my resolve. Management, including senior management, seemed to be about enforcing mediocrity. They did things like:

  • noticing what time people showed up to work
  • pouring over reports looking for potential 0.5% improvements
  • cracking the whip to make sure the hamsters run faster
  • pretending to be SMEs when lecturing actual SMEs

I did what any good engineer learns to do: I got important work done in spite of them. I built valuable relationships with business units. I avoided meetings, ignored pointless forms and procedures, and generally was a prima donna.

Well something happened. I went to work for Dan Case. (I talk more about Dan here.) Working for a leader made many things clear and forever altered the trajectory of my career. I've spent the ensuing time pondering and studying what makes great leaders, and in the process I've learned much about what makes bad managers. The bottom line is control. Leaders lead because they have followers. Managers control because they don't.

Here are seven reasons why control is bad for business:

1. Coercion versus inspiration. When you control your employees, you employ some degree of coercion. Coercion breeds fear. People who are afraid of you will not be inspired by you. They won't even be inspired in spite of you for very long. If you have to coerce people, either you have hired the wrong people or you are the wrong person.

2. Compliance versus excellence. To control your employees, you have to enforce arbitrary standards. Most employees will respond with compliance, not excellence. Excellence involves converting the unique skills, abilities, and passions of your employees into valuable contributions. In many cases these contributions cannot be measured by your standard. Employees who try to excel will either get into trouble or find their way out of your department.

3. Subservience over ownership. When you mandate someone's output in any fine degree, you strip them of ownership. Their job goes from challenging and engaging to perfunctory and uninteresting. You lose their innovative and creative potential as a result.

4. Conformity over spontaneity and intuition. When the "right way" is set in stone, a feedback loop is erected. People will focus on "doing it right." "Aha!" moments will go unharvested because there is no benefit, and perhaps some risk, in pursuing them.

5. Statistics versus value. I once met with a CFO who was unhappy. He had lost money and IT was arguably responsible. We showed him a network SLA report with 4 nines. He said, "Bull. You're lucky if you have 80% uptime." Of course that statement is absurd. So what?. You can't prove to the company that they like you using charts. Attention CIOs: you don't need SLA reports. There is no such thing as statistical happiness. You need one question in a management survey:

"How would you feel if IT management was replaced and why?"

6. More versus better. If you are controlling people and you need improvement, you ask for more. More hours, more tickets closed, more calls handled, more comments written--just more. That is different from better. Better means that people, processes, and output are continuously improving. Try calling USAA sometime to see what I mean.

7. Satisfaction vs delight. The result of controlling always seems to be a satisfaction survey of some kind. Designed by IT, these surveys are rarely as meaningful as water cooler talk. Even more rare is the survey that is interpreted correctly and acted on properly. Try asking questions that use superlatives. Stop giving five options, and switch to yes/no, like this:

"Are you amazed at how easily your iPad works on the company network? [yes] [no]"

8. Tactical versus strategic. Managers use the word "strategy" a lot to describe tactical things. Control is tactical. Control has nothing to do with envisioning the future, setting direction, or getting the very best out of your people. Tactical work is for managers. Leaders focus on strategy and evangelism. Their tactical work consists of clearing hurdles and facilitating the work that their people need to do.

9. Rules versus relationships. People who control make rules. Rules dictate how people will behave. They limit and constrain our interaction, our mutual understanding, and our sharing of knowledge. Relationships, on the other hand, do just the opposite. Even if you're a controlling manager type who has a rule for everything, you still go to conventions in hopes of networking--yes, that's right--building relationships that will help accomplish what you want. You do the same thing in any number of social settings. Why is it that as soon as you're in charge of something you torch relationships and start making rules?

At the end of the day, letting go of control means leveraging trust. You can lead when your people (a) believe that you can and will do what needs to be done, and when (b) they know that you believe the same about them. If those two things are missing, you only have control left.

So, do you simply stop telling people what needs to be done? Not exactly, although if you do they'll figure it out. Setting direction, though, is what people look to leaders for. Thresholds are beneficial for some people. Some people need to learn how to stop being supervised. When such guidance is offered as a means of cultivation it is empowering, unlike the stifling influence of control.

Take a minute to ponder and question. Are you comfortable letting go of control? Do you trust your people to do what needs to be done? Do you believe that they trust you?


Strategic Plan vs. Aggregate Tactical Plan

"Matt, we need your input into the 3-year strategic plan." I was a network security engineer. I configured firewalls and tried to stop intruders. The question didn't make any sense to me. "Could you please tell me what you mean by that?"

"The CIO is putting his 3-year strategic plan together. We need to know what projects you think we'll need to do over the next 3 years."

"What will you do with that?"

"We'll roll it up with everyone else's input and turn it into a strategic plan."

"So let me make sure I understand: you're going to take my ideas about security projects that we might need, add in other peoples ideas about projects for their teams, and then the CIO will use that to make the strategic plan?"

"Yeah. We need it today."

If you aren't laughing yet, you shouldn't be reading this post. Unless you're wincing. That counts.

Well, I began using the term "Aggregate Tactical Plan" on that day. For the rest of the time I worked there, whenever someone mentioned the "Strategic Plan" I would say, "You mean our Aggregate Tactical Plan?" They never liked my name for the plan.

When tactical thinkers get into leadership positions, they don't suddenly start thinking strategically. They start using words associated with strategic thinking, like "3-year Strategic Plan." They say things like, "What's our strategy for getting the phone system upgraded by November?" But they never actually think in terms of, or portray, strategy.

Strategy is the result of deep consideration and pondering. For a tactical person to arrive at strategy is possible, but it involves asking "why" a lot. "Why should we do this or that" can lead to a somewhat bigger view of what needs to be done. Continually pushing one's thoughts up that hierarchy of actions eventually leads to the ability to think about vision and direction. Eventually one can resist the urge to plunge into battle details and focus on the war.

IT might be the worst at this. IT has some deep thinkers (and not all in management) who understand strategy and don't get recognized for it. Then there is the rest of IT who is either incapable of or disinclined toward strategy.

So for those of you who are going be promoted to IT Management and put your engineers in intellectual harm's way, here are some ideas to consider when you have to craft a strategic plan.

Highest-Level Strategy

This is where you define your overall direction or your ultimate desired outcome.

Q: What do we produce?
A: Delighted Clients. [See Steve Denning's article.]
  • Engineers who can turn out good products faster.
  • Salespeople who can sell solutions more easily.
  • Executives who can execute on strategic goals.

By the way, if your focus is on how you're going to report on SLAs so that you can prove that you're doing your job, you are losing. All you have to do is ask the employees a simple question: "Would you be sad to see IT management replaced?" Most SLAs are B.S. and everyone knows it. I've never worked at a company where IT at some level didn't rig the metrics or the reporting.

(Also, notice that I asked a"what" question. You should have already answered "Why?" Visit Simon Sinek for more.)

Mid-Level Strategic Talking Points

Here's where you flesh out at a high level what you're strategy means operationally. Try asking questions.

A: By enabling and facilitating.
  • Clear roadblocks.
  • Mask corporate turmoil.
  • Provide clarity and prioritization.
  • Minimize fire drills.
  • Resolve concerns and be transparent.
  • Focus on relationships over rules.
  • Allow employees to focus on delighting the client.
Q: How will we manage?
A: We will expend 20% effort to get 80% results on things like:
  • Measuring
  • Documenting
  • Policy creation and maintenance
  • Reporting
  • Compliance (with obvious exceptions)
  • Forms
  • Meetings
Q: How will we communicate?
A: We will communicate transparently.
  • Frankly
  • With full disclosure (except where prohibited)
  • Promptly
  • Often
  • Unambiguously
Q: What will we reward?
A: We will overtly reward innovation, creativity, and the extra mile.
  • Rely on our experts; don't dictate to them.
  • Foster cross-team collaboration and synergy.
  • Provide time, incentives, and recognition for valuable behavior
Q: What kind of team will we build?
A: Fully engaged and leveraged.
  • horizontal, cross-discipline integration
  • natural collaboration
  • spontaneous and assigned mentoring
  • constant personnel development and promotion
Q: What will our systems and applications look like?
A: Primary features: elegance and simplicity.
  • Simplify processes and minimize rules.
  • Encourage risk taking and judgment calls within thresholds.
  • Reduce system and configuration complexity.
  • Make things reproducible, intuitive, and intrinsically documented.

If this list makes you want to define forms, meetings, policies, or org charts, you're thinking tactically. If it gives you a vision of a team that functions with enthusiasm an generates high-volume, high-quality output, you're on target.

Of course, questions like these lead to action plans. Action plans bridge the gap between strategic and tactical thinking. The more detailed they are, the more tactical they are. You need action plans.

However, a list of projects that you'll execute on, especially if it was handed to you by the business units, is not a strategic plan. It's a project list. It's the tactical outcome of your strategic goal to delight your clients.

Try to learn to think about the big picture, or at least the medium-sized picture. If your approach to building and running your organization is overly tactical, you will end up spending too much time tweaking minutia and minimizing the ability of your people to do great things for you.