How not to delegate.

As Christmas approaches and stores fill up with scary amounts of extra stock that they hope will all magically vanish by Christmas Eve, I find myself thinking about the time when I was put in charge of stock ordering for a major business.  They delegated to me too soon, and I nearly brought the operation crashing to its knees.

This was a year or two afterwards.  Still smiling...

This was a year or two afterwards. Still smiling…

We’re going way back here, to my first job in business.  A fresh-faced Oxford graduate with a shiny MA in Music, I elected, not totally logically, to go into Distribution Operations when offered a graduate trainee job with a leading player in the UK drinks business.

3 months into my training programme (in those days such programmes lasted 18 months, would you believe) the stock controller for the wines and spirits side of the business went off long term sick.  Yours truly was seen by the Depot Manager (the top dog in other words) as a bit of a spare part who spent most of his time watching other people do stuff.  He wasn’t far wrong.

So he decided that I would be the best man for the job.  Michael Brown became, overnight, Wines and Spirits stock controller for a distribution operation serving thousands of pubs, clubs and restaurants.

I got told to spend half a day with the office manager, who told me what he knew, and then I was on my own.  How difficult can it be:  use this computer print out showing how much of each line sells per week, and reorder to ensure we hold enough stock to cover 4 weeks.

With little else to go on, I used this printout as my bible.  Intuition and experience didn’t come into it, as I had none.  I took things literally.

So when I read a memo (this was before email) saying all the wines and spirits shops on the patch should order their big selling wines for the Christmas period in October, I assumed they would.  Did the maths, and got it ordered.  Big mistake.  They waited until December, as they too didn’t want to have to clamber over it for 2 months.

Imagine this twice as high and floor to ceiling with boxes

Imagine this twice as high and floor to ceiling with boxes

During the following weeks truckload after truckload of the stuff started to arrive.  Pallets of wine were stacked literally to the roof.  There was so much of it they couldn’t get it into the secure area of the warehouse, and had to shove it in next to the beer barrels.  This meant the stock was no longer covered on insurance, there were health and safety risks, the lot.  I think we even had to take on extra security to guard the stuff!

Eventually when we had to start turning trucks back because we simply did not have any more room, an ashen-faced Depot Manager presented himself at my desk.  Much of his “feedback” would be unprintable, but I could summarise it as along the lines of:

“Mick, what the fecking hell do you think you are doing?”

You can imagine the rest.  The conversation concluded with me being offered further coaching and support, from someone who at last did know what he was talking about, ie the guy on the shop floor who had been there 15 years.

This was an instructive experience.  An object lesson in how not to delegate.  What are the basic errors here?

  1. Delegating too soon, where insufficient coaching had taken place
  2. Failing to establish the level of competence
  3. Not engaging in a dialogue to find out areas of concern, level of motivation etc
  4. Not monitoring and reviewing until it was too late
  5. Not having a regular feedback loop in place
  6. Assumptions
  7. Excessive risk taking

There are probably more.  At the root of this lay what I would characterise as laziness, conflict avoidance and excessive pragmatism on the part of the Depot Manager.  He went for a convenient and quick short term fix, without putting in any compensatory mechanisms.  In a way he hung me out to dry.

Fortunately I didn’t end up carrying the can for this incompetence, and I lived to tell the tale.  I went on to clock up loads more of these experiences, which is why I am such an expert incompetent.

What have been your bad experiences of delegation?

About these ads
Posted in Leadership Skills, Management Skills | Tagged , , , , , | 3 Comments

What about WHY?

I was with a group of senior leaders last week, running a Leadership workshop.  They work for a fast moving entrepreneurial IT company in California, and are going from strength to strength.  Hence the need to build some leadership muscle.

I started the day by asking them to introduce themselves, and to tell us what their PURPOSE is.  I didn’t explain the word, just left them to interpret it for themselves.

In the majority of cases (there was one notable exception), they told us WHAT they are responsible for as a means of explaining their Purpose. They gave us a brief summary of their job description, in other words.  Ask anyone in the room to repeat this on behalf of someone else, and they would all have failed.  In one ear, out of the other.

But there was one exception.  This was the Chief Finance officer:

“My job is to make Finance easy”, he said.

Got it.  Succinct, easy to remember, and most importantly it addresses the question of WHY his job exists.  A memorable and uplifting statement of Purpose, behind which his whole team is able to unite and work towards a common goal.

This simple exercise helped to diagnose the culture of that organisation.  These people are working flat out doing stuff, but have slightly have lost sight of why they do it.  And if senior leaders have lost sight of it, for sure their teams will  be beavering away wondering at times what it’s all about.

One of the key functions of a leader is to articulate a purpose for the team so that they understand where they are heading, and why they do what they do.  People look to their leaders for guidance, inspiration and direction, and to help them make some sense of the madness which is their daily job.

When a leader gets sucked into the detail and doesn’t get round to providing the WHY for people, they can be become disengaged.  Only 30% of the American workforce is Actively Engaged according to Gallup, as I mentioned in my Blog a few weeks ago.  This absence of Purpose will be a major factor, I’d say.

How would you get on giving an impromptu response to the question “What’s your Purpose?”  Might you need to sit down and have a quiet think about that one?  And once you’ve got a coherent answer, who else needs to know about it?

Don’t let yourself be pulled along be events without being very clear on WHY you do it and WHERE you are heading.

This TED talk by Simon Sinek is well worth watching to bring the subject to life.  He nails it.  I hope it gets you thinking.

Posted in Leadership Skills | Tagged , , , | 2 Comments

Coaching. It’s not all about YOU!

Sorry to be the bearer of bad news, guys.  When you coach someone, it’s not all about YOU!

meWhat makes me say that?

I’m fresh back from running another Leadership course, where on the third day I invite folks to coach each other.

I ask them to use the simplest possible coaching framework:

1.  Create rapport

2.  Agree Objectives

3.  Listen and question.

4.  Agree next steps.

As they get into their triads (coach, “coachee”, observer) I float around and listen in.  Last time it was no different to any other.  Give business people who do not coach for a living a chance to coach, and they think that what is required of them is to provide people with answers.

With very few exceptions, they use the same coaching style:  Directing.

It doesn’t help that they also seem to find it virtually impossible to articulate an open question when they need it.

The effect is that it turns an Adult to Adult conversation into a Parent-Child transaction, in which the coachee has little ownership of the result, and ends up politely thanking the coach for their ideas at best.  It’s a missed opportunity for both parties to experience the power of helping other people to find the answers which invariably sit inside, if only someone would shut up long enough for them to be unlocked.

I so rarely hear any other of the other styles:  Enabling, Supporting, Informing, Confronting, Managing Emotions.  Why do you think this is?

I think there could be a number of reasons.  Here’s my list, in no particular order:

  • That’s the way they have been coached, so they know no other way
  • They think coaches are supposed to be experts
  • They confuse Mentoring with Coaching (Mentors are further down the same road as the coachee, Coaches are on a parallel road)
  • They think coaching is on-the-job training
  • Directing is their preferred leadership style, so it feels most comfortable
  • They do not like to not know where the conversation is going, so this helps to control it
  • They are in too much of a hurry.

What’s your experience of this?  And where do you think it might come from?  I’d love to know whether I am alone in this or whether it is a widespread condition.  Please share your thoughts.


Posted in Coaching Skills, Leadership Skills | Tagged , , , , , | 5 Comments

Disengaged or disenchanted at work? Join the crowd.

Here’s a depressing statistic to make your weekend.  According to Gallup research of the American workplace (25 million respondents to date):

“Of the approximately 100 million people in America who hold full-time jobs, 30 million (30%) are engaged and inspired at work, so we can assume they have a great boss.

At the other end of the spectrum are roughly 20 million (20%) employees who are actively disengaged. These employees, who have bosses from hell that make them miserable, roam the halls spreading discontent.

The other 50 million (50%) American workers are not engaged. They’re just kind of present, but not inspired by their work or their managers.”

Jim Clifton, CEO Gallup

Jim Clifton, CEO Gallup

Gallup’s CEO, Jim Clifton, goes on to say:

” ….the top 25% of teams — the best managed — versus the bottom 25% in any workplace — the worst managed — have nearly 50% fewer accidents and have 41% fewer quality defects. What’s more, teams in the top 25% versus the bottom 25% incur far less in healthcare costs. So having too few engaged employees means our workplaces are less safe, employees have more quality defects, and disengagement — which results from terrible managers — is driving up the country’s healthcare costs.”

Gulp.  Does this ring true for you in your workplace?  It’s no better outside the US, by the way:  globally only 13% of employees are actively engaged.

I certainly can relate to it.  The more people I meet on leadership training programmes, the more the pattern of attitudes seems to be hardening towards disenchantment, frustration, lethargy, amnesia and boredom.  I thought maybe my perception of this was a function of me getting older and more cynical, but this report has got me thinking again.

The employee engagement pill.  Not to be taken without supervision.

The employee engagement pill. Not to be taken without supervision.

If this research is correct (and personally I would trust Gallup to have validated it pretty well), this presents a massive opportunity.  Sorry if once again I am sounding like a deluded optimist.

If we could create a magic “employee engagement pill”, the results would spill through to the bottom line within minutes.

What would the symptoms be that this pill is working?  Here are a few of the most obvious things we’d notice:

  1. People would understand where their contribution fits and how it makes a difference
  2. They would work towards meaningful and motivating objectives which they had been involved in shaping
  3. They would have regular and authentic dialogue with their manager, on topics other than next week’s to do list
  4. There would be room on meeting agendas for human connections to be made
  5. Taking time to think would be a behaviour which was actively encouraged
  6. Managers would see coaching as a critical part of their role
  7. More questions would be asked, in particular “why?”
  8. Openness and honesty levels would increase, with consequent growth in Trust
  9. Failure would be seen as a part of the innovation process, and become an acceptable norm
  10. Arse-covering email would evaporate.

I could go on.  My list reads like a diagnosis of a dysfunctional work culture, in which you’d expect employee engagement levels to be low.  No wonder so many people that I meet are so exhausted.  They are coasting at best, trying to find the easiest path to the end of the week.

So where’s the massive opportunity I mentioned?  In a change of behaviour of course.  There can’t be too many people over the age of 30 who don’t know the theory of how to manage and engage their staff.  What they may be missing is the belief that it’s ok to do it.  They might need to be given permission in some cultures, and in others they may need to see others applying it before they are willing to take the risk.

As ever, my call to action is to individuals like you to take the lead.  What could possibly go wrong?

My thanks to Greg Giuliano for alerting me to the research.  Greg works with leaders to help them unlock their potential, and feels as passionately about this as I do.   Here’s his take on the research.

How would you assess your engagement level?  What would it take to increase it?  Please share your view, particularly if you feel this research is wide of the mark.


Posted in Leadership Skills, Management Skills | Tagged , , , , | 10 Comments

What to do with poor performers

I’m not a golfer.  I’ve played a few times and never seemed to be able to connect properly.

This one was not my fault.

This one was not my fault.

I once teed off on the first hole and the ball went rocketing sideways and I am told ended up ricocheting around in the clubroom lobby.

We had a golf day at work once, where they paired us up not by ability but by simply who we knew well.  I found myself hacking around the course with an  expert, who took it all very seriously.  He pretended he was relaxed about us playing together, but I could tell he was really playing against himself.  As the morning wore on and I ripped more and more of the course out by its roots I could see him getting visibly frustrated.  Even I could tell he was not playing well, and whilst he was too polite to say so, it was evident that in some way my poor game was dragging his down.

Does poor performance rub off on others, and drag the good performers down?  I happen to think so.  Look at what a dreadful sporting summer we are having in Britain this year.   After the outstanding achievements of the Olympics in 2012, we appear to be having disaster after disaster, in tennis, cricket, football (particularly shameful performance), cycling and much else.

OlympicsAndy Murray said at the time that he felt his game had been lifted by his fellow competitors who were having so much success in the the Olympics, and this enabled him to pull out a Gold performance in the tennis.  It works both ways, this rubbing off thing.

I used to play second clarinet in the Symphony orchestra at University.  I don’t think it’s overstating it to say that I used to make a decent sound and was pretty competent.  When I went to my first rehearsal we started with Elgar’s Enigma Variations, which we played straight through without stopping.  When we did, the first clarinet, who was a virtuoso and went on to play professionally, turned to me and very generously said he thought my sound had lifted his and inspired him to play as well as he ever had.  It was the start of a very fruitful relationship.

So how do you go about placing your stars and your laggards at work?  The laggards are those energy sappers who do just enough not to get fired, but who seem to have a levelling down effect on others.  Do you stick them with the stars, and hope the stars can help them to lift their game?  This is probably the usual approach:  mix them in where they won’t make too much impact.

What about a different approach:  stick the laggards in with each other.  Ring fence them, so their negative energy is directed inwardly on themselves, and they can’t get at the top performers.  Very non politically correct, I know, and of course we will try other strategies like coaching etc. so they have a chance to lift their performance.  I’m just suggesting keeping your stars away from them a wee bit, so they can breathe the oxygen of success without any other noxious gasses to inhibit their performance.

What’s your experience of this been?  Do you agree we should keep them apart?  As ever, your comments are always welcome.

Posted in Management Skills | Tagged , , , , , , | 4 Comments

What to do with Energy Sappers

When I was 15 I was told by my house captain of games (the school was made up of 26 houses of 50 boys: yes, it was a big school) that  I was to represent the house in the school Steeplechase.  This required us to run 15 miles or so over a cross country course, most of which as I recall involved  running over recently ploughed fields.  As someone who preferred sprinting to long distance, and who tended to throw up after any distance race over 200m, I knew this would be a gruelling run, and I was dreading it somewhat. However, I wanted to do my bit as the sole representative of the slightly unsporty house I was in, so I grudgingly donned my running kit and headed out on a wet June afternoon.

Runners racetrackWhen I turned up at the start line, I found myself standing next to a boy I knew of the same age, mainly from being in the school orchestra with him and being in the same class for French lessons.

He came from a very wealthy and well known family of bankers, so today let’s just call him Richard.

Richard:  “Have you been told to turn up, like I have?”

Me:  “Yes.”

Richard:  “Do you hate them for it?”

Me: “Kind of.”

Richard:  “Stick with me, I have a plan.”

Me:  “Righto.”

Little did I know that he effectively he was about to undermine my performance that day.  Right from the start.

As the starting gun fired, he literally held me back.  “You’re not going to win, what’s the point in rushing?  Let the others rush ahead, they’ll soon drop back.”

3 miles later, running at little more than a jog, we found ourselves I imagine at the back of the pack (of maybe 75 runners).  Suddenly Richard stopped.  He looked behind to check no one could see us.

“Right, through this hedge, it’s a shortcut.  It’ll knock 6 miles off it.”

He had found my bottom line.  Without a word I sprinted off, and did my best to try and clamber back up to a respectable position.  Which I think by then was well nigh impossible.

Richard was an Energy Sapper.  I partnered with him because I was looking for a comrade in adversity, and I didn’t know him well enough to give him a wide berth.

The older I get the less I want to be near Energy Sappers.  I want to be with people who fuel me, and reciprocate energy.  They can do this in all sorts of ways.  It might be from their attitude, their inner energy, their lack of mental limits, their ability to improvise in the moment.  It doesn’t really matter how they do it, but as long as being with them leaves me higher than when we first meet, I want to be with them.

The people I definitely DON’T want to be with these fall into these broad energy-sapping categories:

The needy one.  The person who just wants to unload their problems onto you and thus share the load, without caring about what your load might be.

The lazy one.  The person who can’t be bothered to get up early enough or get off their arse enough to find out stuff for themselves.  The one who expects it to be a one way street in which they get the information they want without giving any back.  Mentally and physically lazy.

The “poor me” one.  The colleague (true story) who will willingly let you drive for 6 hours, during which she tells you the detail of all her woes, and when she has finished winds her seat back and goes to sleep.  And when we get to the hotel (eventually after getting lost for 30 mins because she couldn’t be arsed to map read) the first thing she wants to do before checking in so we can get some food is have a fag.

The fake.  The one who promises commitment and then under delivers.  At the last minute, so your options to plug the gap are severely reduced,  Rather than be straight and up front, fakes support until it’s too late.  Passive aggressive, basically.

Boss threatening employeeThe talker.  The one who sees himself as at the centre of the Cosmos, and thinks the most interesting subject on the planet is himself.  Exhausting to be with, and actually extremely boring.

Then there are the liars, cheats, frauds, fakes, none of whom you should spend time with if you can avoid it.

These people need to be given a wide berth.  Life is too short, why wouldn’t you surround yourself with the opposite, the ones who inspire, uplift, reciprocate, engage, create, stimulate you?  Make a list for yourself, how many fall into the toxic energy sapping variety?  When are you going to ditch them?

There are more types of Energy Sappers than I have listed, loads more.  Which variety do you dislike most?


Posted in Life Skills, Personal Development | Tagged , , , , , | 5 Comments