Monthly Archives: July 2007

//July

Internet Forums – Should we trust them?

Last week I was having lunch with a colleague, when the conversation turned to internet forums. I was moaning about my Blue Tooth car installation and the misery of trying to integrate a Nokia phone’s address book with a ‘Parrot’ Blue Tooth in-car system. My colleague was waxing lyrical about how amazing the forums are and that he had a similar issue and within minutes of logging onto a Parrot forum, he had a fix and a detailed set of instructions as to how to implement the solution. In fact my colleague appeared to use internet forums a great deal for almost everything, it seemed.

Now obviously, obtaining a fix for an in-car system from an internet forum, is not quite the same as questioning the legal position of a Trade Union dispute or other serious dilemma. But the basic question remains, should we always refer to our ‘trusted’ advisors for assistance or should we search the internet forums first? How do we know what is offered is correct? I am beginning to hear people say ‘it must be true, it comes from Wikipedia!’. Well I have always been led to believe that Wikipedia is a website full of unsubstantiated facts and opinions? Although, if I am being strictly honest, I do find myself referring to it from time to time, but only for mostly trivial, less important, non legally binding issues. But now I know that there is a project to start up a Wikipedia like website that will cover European Law, giving advice on outcomes of specific cases right across Europe. Could this kind of forum eventually replace our Lawyers for the day to day matters for which we turn to them?

As interim managers, even if our contracts are strictly ‘best efforts’, we still are responsible for conveying accurate information.

I thought it might be interesting to compile a list of Internet Forums and information sources that are considered useful for Interim and Project Managers, places where we can turn to for accurate information? If you have any nominations, please send them to me.

Footnote: Many years ago (in my late twenties, I remember receiving some advice, over the phone, from a recommended expert. The advice he gave me sounded so plausible and completely solved my problem that I immediately tried to implement it on one of my projects. The mess I got into took a long time to payback. Because the solution on offer sounded so plausible, and the source was recommended by someone from the BBC, I stupidly did not test it out first! So forgive me, if I sound a little skeptical. ‘Once bitten, twice shy’.

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Getting the right person for the job – Train drivers and chickens

I have known many managers over the years who, despite working with clear guidelines, were unable to work efficiently because they simply did not delegate enough. And when they did, they often distributed their tasks to the wrong people, resulting in their having to step in later on and pick up the pieces. The worst part is that many of these reluctant delelgatory managers had a relatively high level of employee turnover. And that is a crime, especially in times when resources are hard to come by.

This phenomenon is not only traced back to delegation itself but also, too often, to the recruitment process. Presumably at the interview everyone was happy and looking forward to the future. The manager believed that the new hire sitting before them would succeed where his or her predecessors had failed. The new employee may have thought that this was the turning point where their career was really going to take off. So what went wrong?

Anyone who has kept chickens knows that as long as you feed and water them, they will dutifully lay an egg five or six days a week for the first couple of years. At any time they have up to seven eggs at various stages of development inside them, so if you upset a chicken on Wednesday, you’ll have no egg on the following Tuesday!

I keep chickens in my garden. I have the deepest respect for them as indeed I try to have for all God’s creatures (with the possible exception of wasps). But I wouldn’t consider hiring a chicken to solve my customer’s problems. I might, however, appoint a chicken as a train driver to ensure I get to the office on time every morning. With all due respect to train drivers, the point about their profession is that it requires discipline. If they don’t get to work on time , a whole trainload of passengers won’t either. Once on the train, their work environment is rigid; they can’t choose their destination or even their track. But driving the train requires excellent concentration on a task that can be very monotonous, and they have no co-pilot or a friendly stewardess to bring them coffee. Thus a train driver needs a set of skills and personality traits that many people do not have.

In your project or business, if you need a train driver type of person, you have to make sure not to recruit someone who loves to interact with people and prefers to work in a flexible environment. They might keep it up for a time with the necessary level of motivation and commitment, but at some point they will snap, leaving your train stranded miles from the nearest station.

On the other hand, if you need someone who is creative, who can think on their feet, adapt very quickly and is ready to accept change at short notice, then you won’t want a train driver or post office worker.

There are two common errors in interviewing and negotiation: Firstly, not asking the right questions, and secondly not listening to the answers. You will be astonished how often interviewers forget to ask even the most obvious questions. For this reason, learning to ask even the basic questions such as ‘ what are your real expectations from this job, and, what are your career hopes for the future’? is extremely important – they can give you an indication as to where the candidate is going and whether that might fit within your plans. I always make a list of the questions that I believe need to be asked, and I use it as a guide if the interview gets stuck.

If you ask the right questions, then you at least stand a chance of obtaining the information you require. I have met many too many people who know how to ask all the right questions, but who only actually listen to the answers they want to hear.

Of course the interviewee is going to say whatever they think you want to hear, but by creating the right environment and with the right kind of questioning, you should be able to find out if your interviewee’s agenda is different from your own. If there is no synergy then say so right away, don’t assume you will be able to pull them around. This advice applies more broadly than just to employees and partners; it covers all aspects of business life, such as negotiating deals and prospecting for new clients. It has become an overused expression, but looking for ‘win win’ situations is the best thing to do. Agendas may differ, but if the goal is shared and the proper synergy is in place to make it happen, then go for it.

The unwanted loss of an employee or team member is one of the biggest ‘avoidable’ issues you can have.

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‘Love Thy Colleagues’ – The Importance of Listening

Listening is obviously an essential part of any debate or negotiation. But listening is much more than simply hearing, it implies understanding – and to understand is to be able to begin to build a strategy. The quicker people agree to ‘listen’, the faster they can progress in any debate.

Young children are the worst listeners. ‘No’ is a word they understand very quickly but simply ignore, when it suits them. If they want something they yell or shout, if they don’t get it, they resort to some form of violence or bullying very quickly. Their frustration control levels are very low. Similarly this kind of behavior is also sometimes found in adults who have somewhere learnt that by being aggressive or over assertive they can get their own way. However these adults are very often blocked in middle management in their careers. This is mainly because they are unable to maintain alliances and to retain the really creative and motivated people who work fort hem. They are unable to listen and to appreciate what is in front of them.

In senior management, assertiveness is simply not enough. Contrary to common belief, successful top managers may appear hard and unyielding but they are in fact often among the best negotiators ever. They have learnt that in order to progress and to maintain their position they need to be accepted not only by their fellow management colleagues but also by their staff. Successful managers are instinctive listeners, trying to gleam useful information from wherever it is available. They know that it is important to understand the real situation, to be compassionate - compromising when necessary. They know how to use all the tricks to get their own way, but not at the expense of the important resources around them.

Martin Luther King once said “You should love your enemy, because love is the only thing powerful enough to turn an enemy into a friend”. He understood that even in the depths of oppression and despair, where those around him were full of hatred, that the only hope for America and to resolving the appalling racial prejudices that it harbored – was to go way beyond the issues in front of him and to try and understand exactly where his ‘opponents’ fears and hatred were coming from. He realized that by ‘understanding’, one could begin to sympathize, and that by sympathizing one could learn to live along side their enemies and from there it would be possible to build relationships, respect and even, in time, love.

Now I am not saying you should ‘love’ all your colleagues in business but when you are confronted by someone who is blocking you, bullying or even simply not listening to you, it is important to go beyond the words and rhetoric, to find the hidden agenda and to try understand exactly where the confronting person is coming from. Even if the message or lack of understanding on their part is very disagreeable. By finding the good qualities in our ‘opponents’, by searching for their positive aspects and strong points, instead of focusing on their bad ones, you can begin to sympathize and to find areas of mutual respect and from there on, build bridges and find a path forward.

No one person is bigger than a business; no one person can be effective on their own. The nature of humans is that we need to build alliances, without them we are weak, with them we have power and the ability to make a difference.

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Promotion Prospects for Project Managers

This week I have been considering the promotion prospects for many of the project managers I know. If you look at it logically, you could imagine that you would start out as a project assistant, then become a project coordinator and then move on to become a project manager, presumably starting on small projects, responsible for a single team and then working up to a full project manager and then on to program manager.

For the uninitiated the difference between a project manager and a program manager is that a project manager is responsible for a single project (or indeed for a number of individual projects) and a program manager is responsible for a very large project or ‘program’ consisting of multiple projects that are inextricably linked together, combining to form an overall result. For example: if a large company decides to move its corporate head quarters, it is conceivable that they would employ a program manager to ensure that all the sub projects associated with the move are covered: i.e. ICT, HR, Marketing and Communications, legal, Architecture and floor planning, etc. etc. The Program Manager would be responsible for controlling the entire budget and the coordination of all the projects under one corporate banner. (Moving a corporate head office, might seem a simple project, but you may be surprised how difficult it is, largely because not everyone will find the move a good idea). If you have ever had to re-arrange just the floor plan and seating arrangements of a single office, you might be surprised how much of a complex and thankless task it is, so imagine a complete corporate head office!

Back to career prospects, you might assume that after being a program manager you could move onto being an Interim Manager, but here comes the problem. A good project manager needs to be a naturally good organizer. A person with experience in managing and motivating people, and with a thorough grounding in methodology and efficent procedures. A clear thinking person who is able to make decisions and to seize on opportunities. However, a really good Interim Manager needs to have all these qualities but also have a broad range of experience. Not just in managing people, but also in life and business in general.

If you are considering to become an interim manager, turning around small to medium sized companies, it’s no use only having experience in large corporations. On the other hand, if you have only worked for companies of less than 25 people, it seems impossible to take on a significant interim management role for a large corporation, especially if it is on a global level and not a departmental one.

An interim manager needs to have a very broad background of working in, or for, all types of organizations of differing size, industries and sectors. There are some exceptions, for example Banking and retail. However, if you want a varied career as an interim manager taking on all kinds of exciting challenges and not simply standing in for senior managers that have either left or suddenly died, then you need to ensure that you think and act like a CEO. To do that you really need to have been one, at some time or other.

Thus if you are an experienced project manager and want to become an interim manager, then you must ensure that you have the right qualifications and background. You need to try and move away from ‘delivery’ projects to change projects. To projects where the key objective is to change a way of thinking or established behavior. As an interim manager it is you who is giving the advice, it is you who deciding the direction to take. Therefore you are more often than not going to take on accountability on a big scale, so you better be sure, you know what your doing and have a big insurance policy to back you up!

An Interim Manager can become a Project Manager, but the other way round, is very difficult without a great deal of entrepreneurial and broad experience. In the Bayard Partnership we try and create environments where our Associates can grow and see career paths forward, even when it may seem rather unrealistic.

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Planning For the Inevitable – Part 2

I am writing this sequel to last week's topic on the flight back from my motor cycle trip around SW Spain.

A number of the 'inevitables' happened as predicted, getting lost, tired, irritable. I immediately recognised the symptoms as 'inevitable' and brought in my predefined strategies. Of course being overheated, lost and tired in a foreign land, where you do not speak the language, is an issue but the remedy is naturally not that difficult. My contingency for such matters, is to recognise the cause (driving too long, a lack of water and an over optimistic ambition to arrive at the pre-defined destination an hour earlier). So all I do is suggest that we pull our bikes over to the side of the road and have a short break. Sitting under a tree to cool off for a while. Taking even a 60 seconds timeout with eyes closed and all thoughts of being lost etc removed form one's consciousness, helps tremendously. A fresh look at the map and a re-confirmation as to the position of the sun, versus the time of day, and very quickly, the correct location can be identified and a new plan made. It's all a question of recognising the symptoms early and reminding yourself of what your pre-defined strategy is for any such predicted event.

In my professional life, I try to do the same. Any experienced manager should anticipate that 'unplanned variances' can (and probably will) occur. This is not to excuse them. Sloppy scope analysis and preparation will always result in an increased amount of 'unforeseens'. But here we are talking more about the 'foreseeable'. The trick is to keep the team focused and together, when they arrive (during the period of uncertainty, and to ensure that your sponsors are only briefed once you have identified the cause and at least two possible remedy plans.

So back to the holiday... Did it achieve it's objectives? Were it's goals accomplished? The answer is an unequivocal 'yes'! ;-)

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