Ode to the Micro-Manager

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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.

Torchbearers

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.

Alone.

Letting Go

shutterstock_386267536Letting go.  It’s the hardest thing to do.  Whether it’s a person, a thing, an idea or a fear, it takes a lot of effort and often times tears are shed.

Here are a few of the things I can’t let go of:

  • an off-key note in the shower
  • the fact that some people think the world is flat
  • getting dumped for a golfer by a college girlfriend (and he sucked)
  • the Royals beating the Jays in 1985
  • the Royals beating the Jays in 2015
  • getting cutoff while riding my motorbike
  • a grudge
  • a presentation

So, you can imagine my dilemma when, a short while ago, I was forced to abdicate my appearance at a conference and allow someone else to deliver one of my presentations. I developed the slide deck, spent weeks working on the slides, creating what some might call a PowerPoint masterpiece…

Only to let it go.  I had to be out of town and there was no way to reschedule.

It was so difficult. Ridiculously difficult. I say that because there was no decent reason for me to feel that kind of separation anxiety. The person delivering in my place is fully capable and accomplished. I worked with her, coached her and remained in contact with her through the whole process.  (Yah, maybe I didn’t totally let go).

So why did I feel like someone had just kidnapped my child and made it to love her more than me?

It’s called ego.   Something that plagues many people who remain emotionally attached to their work and can’t. let. it. go.

I learned this a long time ago when I was writing plays and getting produced in Montreal. As a playwright, I needed to step away from the stage and allow the director and the actors make my words their own.   And I mean their own.  There was always a moment in a production where the cast knew the play better than I did.  They had transformed into something bigger than me. They owned it. They lived it.  And, for the sake of the play, I had to let them have it.  I no longer mattered.

(Possibly the reason I no longer work in theatre).

It’s the same in the business world. Leaders who are committed (as they should be) on developing staff, nurturing talent, and building a stronger, more vibrant workforce, need to let their team members go. Give them the tools they need to succeed and watch them soar.

Interestingly enough, the result of my letting go of the presentation made it better.  The presenter brought a new, fresh perspective to the piece that connected with the audience.

Here’s a little exercise.   All you need is a piece of paper.

Goal: craft the best paper airplane you can.

Spend a few minutes getting the folds right.   Make it as aerodynamical as possible.

Then hold it up above your head.

Now, I challenge you to not throw it. Not to let it fly.  Instead, just crumple it up.

You can’t do it, can you?

You have to let it go.

A Quantum of Solitude

shutterstock_135427394A “quantum of solitude” can be defined as the precise combination of aloneness,  peace and personal reflection required to maintain our humanity and survive in a noisy world. It is a significant need, especially for an introvert like me.  It provides oxygen during times of increased social interaction and over-stimulation, so you don’t suffocate.

Over the last few days, I’ve learned to seek out solitude and respect my inner hermit.

I spent this past week immersed in learning at the Ivey Spencer Leadership Centre, trapped in a network of 50 or so high-achievers, active-thinkers and hyper-leaders, all burning with the desire to grow and to succeed. Since the program is designed to increase togetherness and incite collaboration, we were all housed in the same facility. Round the clock collaboration, integration, socialization — bordering on molestation — one participant likened it to being in jail.

And — I had a blast. The program is the beginning of a long journey and I’m honoured to be among these wonderful and brilliant people. I was as boisterous and interactive as anyone. But I’m an introvert — so it came at a cost.

For one, I went three days without sleep. An overload of information, intellectual and emotional stimulation — I had difficulty coming down. I needed time to process all that information, to reflect.   And for me, reflection requires time alone.  Time that wasn’t in the schedule.

The constant interaction also made me more emotionally vulnerable.  The program involved dissecting all the things that make us tick – our fears, weaknesses and sensitivities – to make us better leaders.  While it was eye-opening it was also draining.

So, how do we manage all this? For the introvert, who needs some measure of solitude to exist, how do you handle a conference where ‘networking’ is key ? A team-building event, where one is expected to be up-close-and-personal with your cohorts? A learning symposium where you’re barraged with information and endless intellectual discussion?

I learned a few tricks that helped me unfurl from the fetal position and optimize my learning.

1. Take a few coffee breaks alone. Often, as soon as break time comes up, people tend to congregate and discuss what they think about what that guy said or that crazy exercise they did with those tennis balls. Sure, take part in a few of those conversations, but not all. It’s a good time to walk away from everyone. Look out the window, stare at an apple, check out some art… anything but talk to another human.

2. Go on long walks. When the group breaks for the day, before you head to the social cocktail event, go out on your own for a bit. I had a wonderful walk in London (Ontario) this week where I went to see the Thames River, which unlike it’s namesake, is a peaceful, soft-flowing brook, perfect ambience for self-reflection.

3. Find a person to help ground you. Remember, you’re not alone. There is likely someone going through the same thing and you can confide in that person. It helps to have someone who understands.

4. Connect with home. For me, it was my parachute. Your family, your partner, your friends, your dog. Anything that brings you mentally back to your happiest place in the world is worth as many visits as you can fit in.

And again, you’re not alone.  There are plenty of introverts among us.   When you’re feeling overwhelmed and your instinct is to run to your room and barricade the door until the conference is over – – take a breath, tell your colleagues you need a moment and find a place to be alone. They will understand and they will let you go.

You can survive many compromises and interactions, but never the absence of a very human need for self-retreat.  When the Quantum of Solitude stands at zero… you’ve got to get away to save yourself.