Ode to the Micro-Manager

Oh, you over-looker, you shoulder crowder,
You egomaniacal, hovering cloud of tension
How I long to punch you in your disapproving face.

Perhaps, I’ve been unluckier than most but I have occasionally in my long career dreamed of wiping the arrogant grin from someone’s face.  Not typically with my fist – my hands are small and it would likely literally hurt me more than it would hurt them – but I understand the urge.  It’s annoying when your boss is not giving you room to breathe when you’re trying to do your job. And especially annoying when you’re pretty sure you know more than he or she does because, well, that’s why they hired you.

I will say that I’m one of the lucky ones. My recent bosses have given me all the room I need — room to do my job, to grow, to succeed, and even to fail. But I marvel at how many people do not have the same luxury, because in the end its to their benefit.  When you feel watched and judged all the time your self-esteem suffers, your work suffers and you and your colleagues feel like you’re in a military prison.

I know that managers have different styles, and there are those who still believe that micro-managing is an effective way to ensure productivity from staff. I’ve heard managers say, “Well, if you had my people, you’d watch over them too,” and, “If I want it done right, I pretty much have to do it myself.” One manager insists that his staff clock in and out every time they leave their desk because he doesn’t trust that they’ll put in a full day’s work. Twenty people have come and gone over the last two years in an office of eight people.  It’s just a matter of time, I suspect, before his reputation precedes him and only the young or the desperate agree to work for him.

Even if this was an effective approach to management, which I don’t believe it is, I can’t imagine living that way! The stress alone would kill me. What’s the point in hiring people if you can’t trust them to do the job? By not trusting them, you’re raising the stakes that they’ll fail.  Trust is a two-way street, and it needs to be earned by staff and managers.  But trust never develops if it’s not in the right environment to grow.

Take for example a colleague of mine who put together a PowerPoint presentation to deliver to senior management, only to have her manager tell her, “It’s inappropriate for you to give this presentation. I’ll do it myself.”

What message are you sending, other than “I don’t value your work, I don’t trust your judgement, and I’m so full of myself that I need all the credit for everything ever done ever?”

The scary thing is, if this approach continues, staff will never feel valued and will never have the opportunity to develop. They will lose hope, stagnate, and slowly rot at their desk and die lonely and forlorn. It’s amazing, the power of hopelessness.

But, what’s more likely, they’ll just leave you, and you can carry on doing it all yourself.

Long Goodbyes

shutterstock_314909786To say goodbye is to die a little, and long goodbyes just make your death hurt. You suffer through every extra second on the step of the railcar, arms wrapped around the neck of your lover, lingering with that look you can’t break. Oh, but you must! Otherwise the train leaves without you.

Recently, I started a new job. It’s difficult enough — it’s like learning to walk again but now you’ve got loads of baggage on your back. And saying goodbye to my old job has proved an equally daunting task. I still wake in the night worrying about things I can’t control, and feel that magnetic pull of the work I used to do.  It doesn’t help that my old job was “Manager of Issues”. The word “issue” is in the bloody title.

Time to let go.

Leaders often talk about that mental shift that must occur when you step into a leadership or  a new management position. You need to resist the urge to do the job you’re now managing, or more to the point, the job that someone else is now managing. What makes it difficult is that a key to your success in your previous role happens to be the relationships you built with your team. The trust. The reliance. The nurture and development and growth. You feel like you’re walking out on them, leaving them to the wolves.

Well, maybe you’re right! There are wolves out there who can’t wait to fuck up a good thing and undo all the work you put in. But the chances are this is not the case. If you’ve done your job well, your team is going to be just fine.

I know. The real fear isn’t that they’ll fail… it’s that they’re better off without you. They, under the leadership of their new manager, will make improvements where you could not, bring things forward. But you really shouldn’t be afraid of that — because that is a good thing! Every new leader should bring a fresh perspective and lead a team in new directions. Your old team deserves it. Besides, don’t you want to do the same with your new team? Aren’t they the ones that matter?

The only way you’re going to get anywhere is to move forward. That doesn’t mean you can’t drop by or call to say “Hello”. It just means you don’t have to hang off the edge of train as it starts to rumble out of the station.


duarte-leadI’ll follow you to the ends of the earth. Or, at least to the nearest pub. Anywhere there might be whisky, you can count on me to be close behind. Otherwise, you may have to work for it.

Well, you should work for it! Leading people is difficult — but following a leader without vision is the hardest thing in the world. If we can’t see the torch through the fog, we’re not necessarily going to be with you when you arrive.

Last week, I participated in a webinar led by my presentation hero, Nancy Duarte. Her Vision Talk webcast focused on the need for leaders to communicate their organization’s vision with effective persuasion. It can mean the difference between having a team of inspired co-travellers or a bunch of disengaged staff who’d rather follow a lemming off a cliff.

“Where there is no vision, people perish. It’s amazing, the power of hopelessness.”

The webinar, which you can see here, outlined the value and benefits of holding an annual “Vision Talk”, where leaders light the flame and show their teams where they’re heading and, more importantly, why they’re going there. She describes leaders as “torchbearers”, and the teams that follow them as “co-travellers”. What I found most interesting was the notion that, as a leader, even if you see clearly the opportunity ahead, your co-travellers will also see the barriers, the hazards, the risks and dangers.

It’s an important lesson, and one I continue to learn. As a leader, I often feel like my team should be right behind me, all the time. After all, I’ve inspired them, right? “Remember that speech, back then, in the boardroom, you were all so excited!” Well, yes, but, that was a long time ago, and the road has gotten much darker since.

Sometimes people get so caught up in their own vision, they just keep going. They don’t look back. Co-travelers need constant engagement, every leg of the journey. Continued communication is key because otherwise all the negative influences, the fear and anxiety, will take hold and cloud the way.

Keep the torch lit and in sight, and whenever someone seems a bit lost, go back and remind them why they’re doing this, and how great it’s going to be a the end.

Otherwise you’ll arrive to find nobody else is there with you, and you’ll sit solemnly at the bar, drinking whisky.


The Empty Space

img_0460Ah, the empty space, how its stillness beckons. Those few precious moments prior the arrival of an audience — so full of promise and anticipation. They are beautifully quiet, wonderfully serene. I cherish them madly.

Yeah, right.

Let’s be honest… these moments are not filled with silent wonder — they are ridden with anxiety, fear and I usually want to puke.

On those rare occasions where it’s possible, I like to arrive early for a presentation to test the technology and hopefully sneak in a rehearsal, acclimatize to the setting, get a feel for the environment. But, like most things in life, it’s the waiting that kills you. My mind races with all the possible scenarios where everything goes wrong.

But, perhaps this is simply a matter of perspective. Recently I found myself in exactly such a situation. Instead of shivering in the corner with my hands over my head, I used the time for some quiet reflection and contemplation.

It occurred to me that the empty space in the auditorium was a bare stage, and on it was nothing but possibility. Very soon, the hall would be filled and every person in attendance would come with an expectation. Some expectations, no doubt, would be loftier than others — but in the world I work in, nobody really expects much from a presentation. We’ve been subject to so many “deadly” works of mind-numbing boredom that our expectations are pretty low.

And yet… there was that possibility. And in possibility, there is hope.

This is going to sound pretentious (actually, that’s because it is pretentious), but I was reminded of my early days as a theatre student. One of the premier voices in dramatic theory is stage director Peter Brook, whose book The Empty Space provided the foundation to my theatrical career. In it, he writes:

I can take an empty space and call it a bare stage. A man walks across this empty space whilst someone else is watching him, and this is all that is needed for an act of theatre to be engaged.

Yeah, I used to quote Brook a lot back then (I was sooo scholarly!). But the application of his theory to presentations is worth, at the very least, some consideration. The empty space is a gift. It’s untarnished, unspoiled. A bare stage in front of a blank screen or the whitespace of a yet-to-be-filled PowerPoint slide… is the opportunity to engage. And all it takes is for someone to walk into that space and suddenly — he or she is a presenter.

We have such a tendency to over-fill this space with information. Like the theatre of the day, too much drama, grandeur and spectacle. Too many damn bullets. Certainly in my business, presenters feel like every inch of whitespace needs to be filled with incomprehensible information. The basic practice is that if something doesn’t fit, change the font size until it does. I’ve actually seen fine print on a slide. FINE PRINT!

This is a travesty. It’s waste — wasted time and wasted opportunity.

If we simply shift our outlook a little, and respect the promise of the empty space, not only will presenting become easier, and far less stressful, but better — because our focus will shift too. Instead of focusing on filling the void, we’ll engage the listener.

All a presenter needs is an empty space, a story to tell, and an audience.

Presenting to Teenagers

Teenagers must be the toughest audience you could ever have. I’ve always had a high regard for teachers, but after presenting to a group of 14-year olds at a “take your hormone-ridden, emotionally charged, and self-image obsessed kids to work day”, I have a full-on admiration for them. Managing to keep the attention of kids who’d rather be anywhere but listening to a government bureaucrat tell them how important they are is no small feat, and if you can pull it off (especially daily in a classroom), you’re a hero. A goddamn hero.

The astonishing truth, though, is that their apathy and lack of focus is mostly an illusion. It’s very possible that they do care, are actually paying attention, and are interested in what you have to say. But they have a code to live by, and that requires them to look aloof, never smile, and for god’s sake — don’t ask a bloody question. Even if they find something funny, they need approval from the class to visibly react. Laughter is an agreed upon response that requires buy-in from the collective.

On the other hand, it can be fun. It’s a challenge, but think of the opportunity. When tasked with presenting to teenagers, you can actually influence the future. You can inspire ideas, incite vision, give hope. These are all great things, and when done with savvy, you can leave the stage feeling like you’ve engaged a generation and have ensured us all a better future.

Here are a few tips that helped me:

  • Don’t even try to be cool by using their lingo. That’s death, because it’ll show. You’re more than likely a decade behind on current language. You’ll look like that awkward uncle who says stuff like, “Dude, that is so sick. You should jam it on the one!”
  • Don’t lecture them. They’re always being told what to do, and face it, you’re not the boss of them. Just speak to them like THEY’RE adults. Respect their intelligence, no matter how lacking it may appear.

  • Give them coffee. Yes, a 14-year old on caffeine is a sight to see. Most of them won’t be used to it, and will come to life in ways they’ve never experienced.
  • Let them turn on their cell-phones. I know! Crazy! But think about it. They’re always being told to turn them off, and it kills them. Take away their phone, and you take away their lifeline — because nothing happens unless they can post it on their social media network.  (If you really want to engage them, give them a Twitter #hashtag they can use to tweet some of your points — you’d be surprised at how focused they can suddenly be).

But the number one rule of presenting to teenagers — don’t be boring.

That’s lit, man.

Tough Crowd

You know that moment when you’re standing alone on stage or giving a presentation, and someone in the audience challenges your ideas or your knowledge or your information, and you want to have security quietly escort that person out of the auditorium and help them (gently) into the trunk of a car…

You’re not alone. It happens. But guess what. It’s your fault, not theirs, and there is nothing that will kill a presentation faster than responding negatively to dissent.

This week I witnessed what has been described as a colossal presentation FAIL… a panel of three experts in the field of digital transformation speaking to a group of developing future leaders. While there is no doubt the panel had nothing but the best of intentions and were rather generous with their time in making the effort to come speak to us, their message was off-point and off-putting. In the end, a few challenging questions and anecdotes from audience members sent them astray. One presenter said he felt “demoralized” by hearing some of the stories from the crowd.

Keep in mind, these people work in IT. Yes, it’s true, IT professionals in every organization are everybody’s favourite enemy. Frankly, we blame IT the way we used to blame the Soviet Union during the cold war– for everything. Hell, I break a pencil and I’m all like, “Bloody IT!”

So, if I’m in IT, and I’m giving a presentation about my “transformation success” to a group of end users… I’m probably going to be prepared for some tough questions. And I’m NOT going to blame them for not understanding what I’m trying to say.

I think what was most concerning was that the panel became fixated on the negative, rather than working to turn it all around. There were several opportunities for them to do so, but they chose to focus on the problem and react defensively instead of 1. empathizing with the audience, and 2. offering some potential solutions.

Remember, when you’re presenting in front of a large group of people from diverse backgrounds, there is a solid chance there may be a challenger or two among them. Be prepared. Know your audience before you present, and when those tough questions or criticisms come up — NEVER get defensive. Never. You’d be better off to to eat a bucket of broken glass.

A simple way to handle it:

“Yes, thank you for raising that. It’s a good question and I understand your frustration completely. In fact, we’ve heard that from others, so you’re not alone. Here are a few things we’re doing to try to fix that problem — and with your help and understanding, I think we can get there. I’d be happy to discuss this with you further if you’d like to chat later.”

Or, just have security escort your new friend to the lobby, and have someone beat them with a bat. Responding negatively or defensively has about the same effect. Either way, your presentation is going to leave a blood stain on the floor.


Perfect Moments

IMG_0045This was a perfect moment. A closed sidewalk, a dog-friendly police officer, and the beginning of a wonderful friendship. All captured in a photo.

I’m not sure when or how but I will use this image in a presentation. Not because it’s cute and it’s full of joy and you can’t help but smile (even the condom in the background is smiling) but because it tells a story.

You get a good idea of who the police officer might be.  Someone engaging, pleasant, who loves dogs and is willing to take the time to connect with people and their pets. She’s one of Toronto Police Service’s finest. The dog – Luna The Tuna – is in her glory. She’s people friendly, cuddly and full of life.

By using this shot in a presentation, it gives my audience some insight into who I am as a person.  My life, my character, my values – including the fact that I’ll exploit a cute puppy so I don’t have to cross the street and use the other sidewalk. By using this image in a presentation, I’m connecting with the audience on a personal level — something many presenters fail to do.

Sure, it’s easier to sift through stock images or to resort to clip art. And it’s often difficult to find that perfect graphic – the one that will enhance what you’re saying and not distract or disengage your audience. But there is a resource that is almost always overlooked – you’re personal photo library.

Some of the most impressive presentations I’ve seen include photos of the presenter’s family, friends and pets. Images of real life, experienced directly, can connect you in ways that a stock photo cannot. They convey value, passion, and humanity. An audience can relate to a thoughtful person with feelings more than an impersonal corporate voice. They will listen closer and be more engaged.

In an age where everyone is walking around with a camera, looking for those moments to capture and share with the world on Instagram and Facebook, it’s surprising that more of those images don’t make their way to boardroom projectors.

The next time you find yourself taking the easy route and slapping a stick figure in your presentation, don’t.  Take a minute to determine what you want to convey and find a personal image that helps you tell your story.  And if you don’t have one, create one.   Because convincing people of your ideas takes time and effort and a little piece of  yourself. The power of persuasion lies in the personal.