Re-org!!

Reorganizations are difficult in the best of situations. 

Stand up in your office and yell, “Re-org!”. How many people flinch, grimace or run from the scene? It’s a common reaction; most of us have been through at least one poorly-planned “streamlining” exercise, and that experience sticks with you for the remainder of your career.  

don't let this be you

But it doesn’t have to be that way! Even if you don’t have a lot of time to be 100% thorough (as is the case in most high-growth tech companies), there are some easy wins to make your re-org inspirational and trustworthy, rather than chaotic or, perhaps worse, opaque to the people most affected. 

  1. Have a strategy and stick to it (aka “don’t change for the sake of change”). Choosing to re-factor a team or an organization shouldn’t be taken lightly. As one of my cohorts says, you’re like a general creating a battle plan & marshaling the troops to head into battle. You’re talking about impacting people’s careers, which has a ripple effect on their happiness, the organization’s effectiveness, and even the company’s external reputation if done incorrectly (people talk, it happens). You want to keep your people happy and invested in the success of the transition, and accomplishing that usually means being open and transparent about the reasoning behind it, as well as selling the benefits for each individual involved. Are you making changes in order to better align with other partners in your organization? Shifting focus on specific services or products to better serve the company’s core mission? There are myriad reasons for reorganizing- just make sure everyone involved understands the reason(s) and that you own your message.
  2. Communicate effectively and with conviction (aka “own the message”). Anyone impacted by this type of activity should be able to count on a clearly-communicated plan, how they’re impacted individually, what it means for their own career progression and how it impacts the company. These are pretty daunting questions for most people to ask. Being met with a response that involves passing the buck (“I don’t agree with this, but I didn’t have a choice so you’re stuck with it”) or with a lot of ambiguity won’t inspire confidence. I’m not saying “don’t be honest”, but you’re most likely depending on the people impacted to help with transitions, deprecations, cross-training, etc., and that will be much more difficult to gain if those same people don’t understand the reasoning and don’t have someone with strong conviction leading those efforts.
  3. Control the message (aka “keep your mouth shut”). Seriously. If you’re involved in a re-org, make sure you don’t blab on and on about how “big things are coming” or provide snippets of detail that only provide a fraction of the entire exercise. Having an incomplete picture of something that’s so impacting doesn’t inspire confidence in your leadership, leads to undue worry among people who may or may not be affected, and may even thwart the effort via people throwing up road blocks or sabotaging the exercise. In the absence of clear, consistent information, people will usually believe the worst.
    Involve your HR business partner. Believe it or not, HR folks aren’t just well-versed in handling performance management problems and answering questions about benefits. Most HRBP’s I’ve worked with have some amount of training in organizational development and understand how to approach these efforts in a constructive and structured manner. They should also be involved to help you craft the message and prepare for any potential “fall-out” from the announcement.
  4. Be organized. This should go without saying, but having a tactical plan for rolling out your organizational changes and tracking the various pieces with show that you care enough about the outcome and the well-being of the company & anyone who will be impacted to make sure nothing gets dropped. It also inspires confidence in others if you yourself can confidently say that you’ve been as diligent as possible. You may miss something along the way, and that’s okay. But missing entire swaths of responsibility because you either forget or don’t take the time to think about what you’re doing really is inexcusable.
    Execute. Once you have a plan based on a solid strategy, work quickly to execute on it. Allowing it to languish allows more time for speculation — all those confidential meetings behind closed doors are bound to spawn conjecture, regardless of how well you control the actual message. Executing quickly also conveys your own sense of urgency and commitment to making the right improvements for the good of the organization.
  5. Be flexible. Everyone makes mistakes, and the larger the organizational change, the more likely you’ll be to miscalculate or misunderstand pieces of the situation. That’s okay, as long as you don’t paint yourself into a corner by approaching it as a one-time, non-negotiable exercise. Strike the balance between flexibility and vacillating though. Remember to have conviction and own the message.
  6. Build around functions, not people. People leave companies. One of the worst things you can do is impact multiple people’s livelihoods by catering to one or two people’s wishes, only to have them leave the company or the organization a couple of months later. This should NOT be construed as, “don’t worry about the people”. People are the most important aspect of a company’s success (or failure). If someone expects you to build an organization around them because they’re “important” or might be unhappy, then they probably have some soft skills issues they need to work through. If you do this on your own, what message are you sending to the rest of the organization? “You’re less important. You don’t matter as much, so we’re going to jerk you around. Good luck with that.” That’s pretty bogus leadership.
  7. You can’t please everyone. I’ve been a part of many re-orgs on both ‘sides’ of the coin, and it’s a rare event when everyone involved is “all peaches & cream” at the end. Put some thought into how each individual might react to the news. Have a coherent & considered story for those who challenge the decision or are just plain unhappy with it. And make sure that your fellow leaders are on the same page about that message so you provide a consistent experience, no matter who that unhappy person escalates to. And for cryin’ out loud… if you’ve been diligent and have the best interests of the organization & everyone involved in mind, don’t beat yourself up if someone doesn’t agree with your decision. Be empathetic, but remember to own the message and stick to your strategy.

None of this really takes much time, but it does take effort. As a leader, you owe it to the company, organization, and people to be a mature steward of the company’s resources and mission. Own it.

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what I’ve learned about “women in tech” this week

The past few days have reaffirmed my decision to stay in this weird cocoon of a world, even after saying, “this is my last tech job” more than a few times since moving back to the bay area. I published a post about “Women in Tech” for the very selfish reason of getting it off my chest to make myself feel better. It worked, and with a very unintended but amazing side benefit: people want to talk about it. Not about how I personally feel, either (thank god. how awkward would that be!). They all want to discuss actual issues and potential solutions. Incredibly unexpected and inspiring.

The main lesson I’ve learned is that I know less about this whole effort than I thought I did. But I’ve gained some valuable insight just by engaging in the discussion & am looking forward to more of the same. In a [very large] nutshell:

Men want to – and should – be involved

I’ve heard from men who didn’t know they were welcome at “womeng” events, who admitted their own guilt at letting others’ bad behavior go unchecked, and who wanted to get involved for a variety of reasons. What’s surprised me most is that the discussions I’ve had with those men have been, on the whole, more productive, more inspiring, and more actionable than those I’ve had with women in the past. It’s helped me connect with people and ideas that have re-shaped my own opinions. It’s also shown me that women aren’t the only people who are thinking about it.

I’ve always been uncomfortable with this women-in-tech issue being labeled as a “female thing”, but struggled to explain why. I suspect most people understand deep down that the behavioral issues I covered in my post affect the community at large, not just women. I’m by no means saying that gender bias doesn’t exist; there are plenty of studies that prove it does. But the interrupting, condescension, taking credit for others’ ideas, etc. affect men in our industry too. Some exclusionary discussions I hear fairly frequently:

  • Men’s behavior toward women needs to change. A few men have approached me to make sure I understand that they, too, are fed up with these same behaviors. Maybe it’s time to stop making this about women and start making this about getting rid of the assholes.
  • Women don’t flock to engineering/ops roles because they want to have families, and being oncall is really tough. Yikes. I work fairly closely with three new fathers, and ALL of them are offended by that type of blanket statement.
  • It’s up to women to drive this effort, because most men just aren’t interested in helping. My recent experience leads me to claim ‘hogwash’ on that.

We’ve unintentionally narrowed the audience by the way we talk about these challenges. Even topics outside of the behavioral issues – pay and career progression, for instance – could use more varying perspectives to generate new & novel ideas about how to combat them. Outside of the past few days, I haven’t heard much from my male counterparts, and even less from male managers.

The ‘company’ needs to play a larger role

Most tech companies live & die by hiring referrals. (this is a good short read of that in action at a company that surely can’t be evil) If a jerk starts the hiring effort and that train leaves the station filled with like-minded people, it’s nigh impossible to get them to disembark so the company can start the journey all over again. The companies I’ve worked in with the worst behavioral issues are those where hiring for technical acumen trumps culture fit almost every time. If an engineer (or manager) is technically strong, they’ll get an offer. It’s only the mediocre candidate who’s culled out of the pipeline if they have soft skills issues. In my current role, I haven’t come across a single jerk, and I attribute that to the importance we place on hiring people who play well with others. Another “todo”: figure out how Dropbox managed this & whether we can codify and share that much more widely than we do now. #competitiveadvantagebedamned

It’s up to managers and leaders across the company to ‘model the way’. I’ve yet to work in a place that makes in-depth diversity training for management compulsory. Amazon’s management training was great back in the day, and Twitter’s TC5 is a fabulous all-around program today. Taking it a step farther and creating meaningful content with brains-on participation would surely help managers both attract and lead more diverse teams, and in a more authentic way. A pass/fail mechanism with actual accountability wouldn’t hurt either. We’re so scared of holding people accountable that we don’t even use the word without apologizing. That’s sad and unfortunate.

The cool kids are the majority

The bulk of people I’ve worked with have treated me with the same level of respect that they have for the men around me. I lay awake last night thinking, perhaps this is just a “few bad apples” scenario and we’re making this more difficult than it needs to be. Maybe we already have critical mass, and it just needs to be directed better. Okay, it takes more than “just a few” people to create such a large-scale outpouring of consternation and gnashing of teeth. But when I think of all the amazing people – men and women – I’ve had discussions with this week, and the incredible people I’ve worked with in my career, this whole problem makes less sense. The assholes in our industry have got to be outnumbered, right? Why do we put up with it then? Is it the role & level that those jerks in the minority hold that makes this so difficult and pervasive? That there aren’t consequences to being a jerk to the people around them? I just don’t get it, and it seems like understanding that piece is one of the first steps toward fixing this ailment.

Other stuff I’ve learned

  • I’m a part of & represent a community, whether I participate in or cultivate it or not.
  • I don’t know much about “diversity” outside of women in technology.
  • Just participating in these discussions, let alone doing something about them, requires a lot of time, energy and dedication.
  • I don’t know what to call this Women in Tech “thing”, which makes it awkward to talk about at length (I’ve said the words effort, initiative and thing approximately a billion times this week).
  • Solid “why” and “how” data behind these issues is just too difficult to find, assuming that it even exists. But there’s a lot of anecdotal evidence. This makes me sad, given the data-driven environment we all work in.
  • Companies really want people to believe they’re role models for the diversity effort and will go to great lengths to preserve that, regardless of whether it’s the truth.

I’m so fortunate to have been a part of the conversations I’ve had with people from different locales and industries this week. I’ve realized that it does indeed ‘take a village’ and that there are many more people in the world who are interested in making a difference. A huge weight is lifted once you realize you’re not alone/stupid/wrong.

#hugs

My title is Enabler

Wanna play ’20 Questions’? 

What if we changed the typical titles in the tech world?

What if instead of a people manager, you were called an Enabler? Because isn’t that what we’re supposed to be doing here? Enabling our people to be as productive, happy and successful as possible? That still encompasses everything we’re asked to do, from project planning & management to removing road blocks to career planning.

What if every engineer was instead called a Leader? “Site Reliability Leader” has a really nice ring to it. Would that make engineers feel more invested in their role in the team and the company? Would it serve as a daily reminder that as they rise up the ranks, they’re expected to lead other people through mentoring and shaping technical direction? Would they feel more empowered to own their space? Or would it be laughed off in typical neckbeard fashion as PHB speak?

What if a Director suddenly became an Facilitator? What if instead of an Architect, you were a Trailblazer? (I hate the title “architect” and think it should be abolished regardless, but that’s a different story.)

Would this make any difference in the way we perceive our roles in tech? The way we’re measured in that role? Would it change our behavior? The direction, velocity and/or performance of the tech sector in general? And if so, how long would it take for those changes to really take root? What would this DO to the type-A personalities and egoists who typically overwhelm the tech ranks? What effect would a simple title change have on the number of successful women in technology? Would the male-dominated tech industry even be able to make the jump? Or would they just scoff at it as a touchy-feely attempt at ‘feminizing’ their sector?  (serious question is serious.)

Just something I’ve been marinating on as an alternative to those who recommend just doing away with titles altogether. I actually don’t mind them- as long as folks aren’t boxed in by them. If I ever have an opportunity to be “in on the ground level” of a company that has legs….

Trust & Delegation of Decision Making

I recently read a blog post by Josh Patrick about passive ownership, which I interpreted as “learn how to trust others to make strong decisions at the right level in your organization”. I agree with everything in the article, but I left myself wondering, how does this look on a tactical level?

I learned the fine art of delegation at Amazon, where I was lucky enough to have a team of trustworthy and knowledgeable leaders reporting to me (most of whom I hired). That made it easier for me to back away and focus on longer-term, broader issues. My managers had more control over their teams, were more invested in the solutions and understood better how to set the same example for their own directs. Those types of virtuous cycles consistently make your team stronger, more active and more comfortable with suggesting and taking calculated risks. I was also fortunate enough to report to an executive who trusted me to make the right level of decisions, and who understood that I could and should own the journey toward hitting our goals.

Mr. Patrick is correct, however, in that it takes mature employees and systems as well as a clear vision and direction to make the jump without endangering the business. Your structure doesn’t have to be perfect in order to start delegating and trusting, however. It’s never too early to begin coaching your directs and showing that you care about organizational trust and growing your employees.

Identify the Correct Decision-Making Level

The goal of the effort should be to let the people who have the relevant amount of information make the right types of judgements. Treat this like a project, complete with scoping exercises, milestones and stakeholders. Create “decision buckets”: categories of decisions you believe you are and aren’t the best person to make. It’s tough to create guidelines, but a basic way to frame the exercise might be:

* If you’re an Engineer: Trust people more junior than yourself or with more expertise than yourself. Chances are, the more senior you become, the more specialized you become as well. That means you’re not qualified to make or even necessarily give input on, every decision in the company.
* Front-line manager: You’re probably slowly (or quickly) moving away from the day-to-day responsibilities of your team. At some point, you won’t have the expertise to decide on the proper way to write a puppet policy or write a tool to manage LB configs. And unless you were hired for & are expected to be a hands-on manager, you shouldn’t be required to have that knowledge. Delegate!
* Senior manager/Exec: You most likely haven’t been on call or hands-on for a few years. There’s very little possibility that you are the correct person to make decisions on technical implementation details. Don’t make it your “hobby”. Your job is to ensure that any requirements or goals are well-defined (and not by you unless you are the primary customer), and that the teams have the right resources to hit those goals.

Guard against over-rotating, and be prepared to explain why you believe some decisions ought to remain with you. For instance, I’m not planning on attempting consensus across my entire organization about career levelling definitions. My managers own the inputs and I own the review. I don’t expect or want our engineers to spend their valuable time grok’ing headcount planning in fine-grained detail. If they did, they’d be managers.

Solicit Constructive Feedback

Once you’ve recognized the need to back away, show the people around you that you’re committed to making the effort to delegate the right level of decisions appropriately. Review your “decision buckets” with a mentor and folks who are familiar with your organization to evaluate your perspective versus those of others in the org. Ask these people for feedback on where you need the most help, and listen to them. Getting defensive at this stage is a sure-fire way to make this process more combative and longer than it could otherwise be. It’s best to do this as early as possible in your soul searching. You may find that you have blind spots that have secretly impacted the well-being of your organization or your business for eons.

Now that you have a solid idea of what you’re trying to accomplish, schedule time with the target decision-maker(s) to review your current approach and your expectations, and to gather feedback from each person on their own decision-making processes to make sure your methods are aligned.

Continually Evaluate Your Involvement

Each time you make a decision, be self-aware enough to ask, “am I the correct person in the team, organization and company to make this call?” Then be honest enough with yourself to answer “no” when warranted, accept it, and do something about it. Sometimes you’re forced to make the decision anyway (people go on holiday, it’s too time-sensitive to wait for the proper person, etc), but recognize that those are one-off decisions, and do what you can to remove the possibility of it happening again in the future.

If you’re not the correct person, then include that engineer or manager in the discussion and allow them to make the call. Walk through the decision-making process with them until you’re comfortable with blind delegation, but realize that it doesn’t have to be done your way, as long as all of the requirements are met and the business goals are achieved.

Back Away Slowly

There’s no requirement for going “whole hog” on this exercise. Not only do you need to re-train yourself, but you also need to get your delegates used to the idea that they hold the keys to the kingdom in certain circumstances. Take time to do the following:

* Work with others on decision-making. (aka “teach a man to fish”) Have other people shadow you to make sure they own the right competencies to make the decisions. Continually recognize that even if the person doesn’t make the same decision you would make, it doesn’t mean that it’s the wrong one.
* Continuously revisit and modify your list of “decision buckets” to make sure you’re staying on track with growing your career and the careers of others around you.
* Recognize that you’ll go through withdrawals. Backing away slowly will allow you to take steps to avoid regressing at the slightest hint of churn or what you may believe is a bad decision on someone else’s part.

You need to show progress though, so don’t go too slowly. Since you’ve mapped out your plan, everyone should have the same expectation about the new world order. Just follow the plan. Make it a part of your own career goals and development, and review it in your own 1:1 with your manager.

Don’t Punish the Decision Maker

Sure, if someone makes a rash decision without due consideration, then they should be chastised. But if someone is diligent about gathering the proper information and has a rational argument to stand behind their decision, then practice some empathy. Would you have made a better decision if you were in their shoes? Should the decision have been delegated to them in the first place? Did the person seek and receive the right amount of coaching to make the right determination? You must allow someone to make small mistakes and learn from them. Only step in when the gravity of the decision and the risk to the business warrants it.

Fill Your Time With What You Should Be Doing

Regardless of whether you’re a front-line manager or a CEO, there’s a responsibility for growth & vision that needs to be filled by you. Instead of agonizing over everyone else’s decisions, fill the void with the roles and responsibilities that are commensurate with your position in the company. Work with your manager or mentor to figure out a plan for doing this if you’re unable to do that yourself.

Holding 1:1s

I recently conducted a short management training session on holding 1:1 meetings, and I realized that I really should post that content somewhere. The practice is such an important one for the organization. I touched on this in my post about performance reviews a few months ago, but it definitely deserves its own spotlight.

Purpose

1:1 meetings allow both the employee and their direct manager to prepare for performance reviews all year long. It’s a way of guarding against having to spend an obscene amount of time trying to recall what an employee’s goals were at the beginning of the year, what she has accomplished, and what her hurdles were. There’s less risk of forgetting major milestones when they are consistently discussed and documented. There should be no surprises or last-minute rememberances when the actual formal review is delivered.

There are a few other benefits to holding these meetings, aside from the regular focus on the employee’s career progression:

  • it’s an opportunity to provide her timely feedback, both positive and constructive, outside of her documented goals
  • the meetings provide a regular forum to talk about personal and personnel issues, to the extent that he is comfortable talking about them
  • it’s time set aside to talk about the environment as it relates to the employee, the team, the org, the company, and even the industry
  • it’s a great opportunity to receive feedback on your own performance as a manager

Ensuring the efficacy of 1:1s is a shared responsibility between both participants. If the right level of care is taken in preparing for these discussions, the potential to strengthen your employees and your team can be immeasurable!

Preparation

Preparing for structured 1:1 meetings takes time, effort and attention- especially if it’s a new discipline for your team. It’s time well spent, however, and encouraging the proper habits up front makes the ongoing discussions more focused and productive.

The Initial Meeting

Schedule a long enough time slot for your first meeting to address all of the basics. This ensures that you are both clear on the ground rules and are beginning from the same point of view. An hour or hour-and-a-half should be sufficient. Just be sure to emphasize that subsequent 1:1s don’t necessarily need to take that long.

  • Use the first meeting to set goals, if the employee doesn’t already have them. Employees rarely have time to think about their own career, or they’ve never been taught how to think about it to begin with. One of your main responsibilities is the care & feeding of your directs. What does he want to do in the next one, three and five years? Often, employees don’t actually know where they want to be that far in the future. Start by probing what interests him, what he likes doing, who he admires. At the same time, explore what he likes least about certain roles and why (sometimes a person’s perception of a job doesn’t reflect reality). Then, build a plan around allowing him to explore a few roles within the company that might interest him.
  • Review the 1:1 document you will use to track your discussions together. Send this out prior to the meeting so the employee has time to digest it and prepare clarifying questions if necessary. If you have time, fill out a portion of it with them during the meeting to give them an idea of where to start.
  • Decide on the proper frequency for your meetings with the employee. His level, performance, how autonomous he is, and his length of time in the organization and on the team, and the demands on your own time are all factors that inform how frequently you should meet. If 1:1s are a new phenomenon for the team, I would start everyone on a weekly recurring meeting until both participants are comfortable with the routine. I would never pare a meeting schedule back farther than bi-weekly, however. Even if the meetings last ten or fifteen minutes, you both still need the opportunity to re-focus on his career to make sure everything is going according to plan.
  • Commit to your scheduled time. This is tough, especially if you have a more junior team who needs a weekly cadence or if you have a particularly large team. Interruptions to the calendar are always a risk; do a quick prioritization check before rescheduling a 1:1 to accommodate a late-binding request though. The more frequently you reschedule, the less apt the employee is to believe that you truly care about her performance.
  • Set clear expectations about the regular goals of the meeting, and make sure that your 1:1 doc format supports those goals.

Ongoing Prep Work

Most of us don’t have a lot of ‘free’ time nowadays (I can say that word- I’m old). But putting effort into making sure you’re prepared for each discussion will allow you as a manager to get the most out of the meeting and will reinforce the fact that you really do care about the employee. Devoting ten to fifteen minutes to gathering your thoughts prior to the meeting is definitely a worthwhile way to spend your time as a people manager.

  • Read previous 1:1 docs/notes to refresh your memory of what has been covered and what needs to be followed up on. If possible, carve out time in your schedule to do this at least 24 hours prior to your 1:1 to give yourself time to follow up on any actions that may still need attention.
  • Read the updated 1:1 doc from your employee (see below). Make notes where applicable.
  • Read the ‘fuzzy folder’. Most managers keep an email folder for each of their directs that contains communication about deliverables, performance, etc. I call it a ‘warm fuzzy’ folder because I like the thought of it only containing positive messages. 🙂 If there is anything new and noteworthy, add a note to your copy of the 1:1 doc.

The more frequently you prepare for the meeting, the less time this prep work will command. Once you’ve completed your own checklist, you’ll be ready to have a productive conversation.

The Doc

I’ve uploaded a copy of my own 1:1 doc template for reference. I haven’t had to update it much in the past ten years, although I did create a slightly different one for 1:1s with managers, and I’ve moved to using a private google form to make it easier. It isn’t pretty, but it allows us to cover all of the topics mentioned in the first section without wasting real estate.

I believe that the employee should make time to fill this out themselves and send it off to the manager ahead of the meeting. Owning the content forces them to think about their career outside of one recurring discussion, and it gives them the control over where and how to focus the meeting. The responsibility for making the most of the chat is shared between both participants, but that control is a pretty important factor in showing that the meeting is meant to help the employee, not the manager.

  • Progress Against Goals This is a fairly self-explanatory section. Define the frequency of reviewing this based on the length of the goal, level of employee, and the consistency of progress made against them.
  • Opportunities This section is broad by design, and could cover anything in the environment, the team, the org, the company, or the industry. Basically, it’s a chance for the employee to tell you where he believes more effort should be focused. I would rarely let someone get away with saying they have no new ideas for opportunities for improvement within the environment. It’s a challenge to them to keep making their job, team and/or company better.
  • Project Status I use this section more for managers than employees. I get enough project status reports to choke a horse, so unless there is a pressing escalation I need to know about, this is the area I spend the least amount of time on. (no animals were harmed in the writing of that sentence, btw)
  • What Have You Learned? If someone isn’t learning as a part of their job, it might be a sign that they aren’t challenged in their current role or need a fire lit underneath them. Even if their comment is, “I learned I need a day off”, it will give you insight into their mind set and open up a discussion if it’s not already covered elsewhere in the doc.
  • What Do You Need From Me? Get your team used to using you as a resource. Show that you care about making the most of their experience on your team. Ask for ideas on your areas for improvement, blind spots, etc. It’ll only make you better as a manager, and it may provide valuable insight into the dynamics of the team and the employee’s role in it.

You can always add a separate section into your own template to track previous action items or any number of more discrete subsets of the information below. Keep it focused on the employee’s career and the health of the team, rather than tactical project topics if possible.

The Meeting Itself

I only have a few recommendations about the meeting itself. Most of the work is in the preparation and follow-though.

  • Keep the mood and tone consistent with the team’s culture and your relationship with the employee. Introducing formality into an informal environment can hurt the process of gaining the trust necessary to have an open and honest conversation.
  • Create an environment where you can concentrate on the meeting. Close any applications aside from the one you use to take notes in, and set your mobile phone to vibrate (or just turn it off if that’s possible).
  • Keep focused on the agenda. If you run long, make sure to schedule a follow-up meeting to address any important points you haven’t gotten to within the next 24-48 hours if possible. (keep the momentum!)
  • Review your notes together at the end of the session. Canvass the employee for feedback to make sure you leave the meeting with the same understanding.
  • Send your notes to the employee as quickly as possible after the meeting.

That’s it! Short and sweet.

Having Tough Conversations

Constructive feedback helps an employee improve, and should never be called negative. It’s the same reason that performance reviews should cover areas for improvement, rather than weaknesses. This is more than just semantics. It sets the tone for every subsequent conversation you have with the employee. This topic is obviously worthy of many books, but here are some short points I’ve picked up over the years that have helped with having tougher or more critical discussions.

  • Be honest. No one likes to be lied to, and she should appreciate the fact that you’re delivering the message in a straightforward manner like an adult.
  • Be objective. Separate the person from the conversation, and be prepared with concrete examples. Make sure to include the consequences of their actions. (e.g. “failure to deliver your portion of the release caused three of your team mates to work overtime”) Keep the feedback anonymous if possible, though. If you need to bring someone else’s name into it, either represent it as your own feedback (if you’ve noticed it yourself) or consider inviting the other person in for some facilitated discussion. If you’re not trained or experienced, bring in your HR representative to help.
  • Recognize perception issues You should have enough information about your employee’s performance to ascertain whether feedback can be attributed to her performance or someone’s perception of her performance.
  • Deliver the message clearly. Avoid the old “sandwich” message, such as, “You’re doing great! You could work on the timeliness of your code submissions, but overall your performance is solid.” Does he really need to work on timeliness? If so, then be clear about it.
  • Take ownership for delivering the message. Don’t play the “good cop” role and blame someone else for the constructive feedback. If legitimate feedback is given to you by someone else, delivering it is in the best interests of your employee. If you disagree, it may be clear that there is a perception issue that you still need to address. Either way, you are the authority for your team, and you should own the message. Just don’t be a jerk about it.
  • Don’t pressure the employee for a response, especially when broaching a new topic. But don’t let her go away and fester for days or even weeks either. The end goal is to coach her, and you need to give her enough time to participate in a constructive conversation.
  • Give the employee ownership in the actions. Increase his investment in the solution by allowing him to help define the action plan, where relevant.

Following Up

It’s not enough to just bring up a performance issue and then assume that the employee will take care of it.

  • Follow up regularly. If you provide constructive feedback to the employee, it is your responsibility to maintain focus and make sure she is making progress toward addressing the issue. Following up shows you are invested in her improvement and that you expect her to hold up her end of the bargain.
  • Solicit ongoing feedback from any affected parties to make sure the plan is working. Provide timely updates to the employee so you can work on correcting his course quickly if possible.
  • Call out positive progress as reinforcement. I don’t know too many people who thrive on a consistently negative message. If she’s doing well, then make sure she hears that. She’ll be more receptive to feedback the next time around if you’ve shown that the process is meant to make her more effective and happy in her role.
  • Recognize when to bring in HR. Use your HR partner liberally, if only for a sounding board prior to having the conversation. If you are uncomfortable at all with driving the discussion on your own, ask him to give you guidance or attend the meeting along with you. A manager should always be present during performance-related conversations, but it doesn’t hurt to have someone more experienced there to help guide the meeting. If you’re unsure about whether HR ought to be involved, just ask. They should be willing and able to guide you through it.

This process does take time, but it’s so much better to have a tough discussion at the first sign of an issue than to wait until it’s out of control or affecting the team or your customers.

Headcount Planning and Management

Headcount planning and management across a team or an organization is a complex process. In a changing environment, current and forecasted headcount should be revisited regularly in light of many factors, including changes in strategy, level and type of work load, the changing work force landscape, and goals & growth plans for individual team members.

This post might be short, but the process itself requires a good deal of time and considered thought. Here are the main factors or questions I tend to ask myself and the team when reviewing current and future states. Additional ones will always pop up during the evaluation exercises, of course. And keep in mind that the process doesn’t just apply to increasing headcount. Like it or not, contraction is also sometimes a necessity if you’re running your organization like a business that wants to succeed. I’ll focus on growing the org here though. It’s a happier thought.

Understand your current work force

In order to evaluate your headcount plans and make any decisions on whether to potentially change course, you need to understand your current state.

  • Do you have a plethora of specialists? Mostly generalists? A combination of both?
  • Is your staff a mix of experience levels? Or are you heavy on seniors or juniors?
  • What are the goals and career path for each member of the staff?
  • Are any key people planning on moving on within the next 12 months?
  • Where are your human single points of failure?
  • If you have a global team, are you balanced across sites appropriately? Does it matter if teams are imbalanced?

This exercise may take considerable effort the first time you complete it. Every time you revisit it, it becomes easier, assuming extensive time hasn’t passed and the organization hasn’t changed drastically. Discuss it with your peers and customers to get their perspectives, then document it so you don’t have to reinvent the wheel down the road.

Analyze your current work load

The second piece of the pie (mmmm… pie…) is to analyze your work load. I’m not talking about knowing what your work load looks like, but actually understanding it. Throw your metrics from projects, tickets and interrupts into a spreadsheet, then use a handy-dandy pivot table to slice and dice the data if that works for you. What’s the profile of the work for your team?

  • If you lead a technical team, is the majority of the work technical? Or are ‘soft’ responsibilities such as planning and project management that are usurping time from actual engineering?
  • Are there any staggering imbalances? For example, do you have 20 senior engineers on your team, but 20 junior engineers’ worth of work?
  • Does a large percentage of your work load fall onto the shoulders of a small portion of your team?
  • Is there “crap work” that should be automated away or just removed? Do you have the right skill set to address those efforts?
  • Does all of the work your team is doing belong in your team? Or should it be distributed to other teams in the organization/company?

Really, you just need to answer the simple question, does your current staff actually serve your current organization well? Depending on the number of surprises you encounter during these first two exercises, you may need to refactor your work load or quickly re-organize the current staff to alleviate immediate concerns. Just make sure that you’re not making changes for the sake of change, and that the moves you make will serve the needs of the organization for a while to come.

Understand your forecasted work load

Now it’s time to force yourself to think longer-term. Where should your team or organization be in 12, 24 or 36 months in terms of headcount and skill set? This requires visibility and foresight into the company’s and industry’s direction. If you don’t have a well-defined 3-year plan, it’s okay. Make solid estimates through the length of the well-codified information you have, then extrapolate from there, keeping an eye on potential changes or demands in the industry regularly.

  • Do you have the requisite skill sets and the proper number of people to cover the major initiatives on the horizon?
  • Do you have redundancy and contingency in technical and leadership skill sets?
  • How many of your current employees are likely to remain in their current roles – or even within your organization – in the next 1-3 years?
  • Will efficiencies or other environmental factors play a role in the required skill level in the future?
  • Are there new developments in the industry which could change the mix of skill sets in the future?

So now you know what resources you might need in order to address your forecasted work load. Now how are you going to facilitate the potential growth and the ongoing management of it?

Understand the Recruiting Landscape

Say you’ve now figured out that you need to double your work force over the next 12-18 months to hit your mid-term targets. How do you know if that headcount ramp is realistic?

  • What does the recruiting landscape look like? For example, much has been said lately about the ongoing dearth of system administrators. How will that impact your ability to cover the forecasted needs for the team?
  • Do you have the resources to recruit and interview enough candidates to hit your targets?
  • Can you create your own recruiting flywheel? Does it make sense in light of your forecasted work load? If you have the opportunity to hire junior engineers and/or managers and grow them within your organization, it’s a viable option for various reasons: it’s an opportunity for mentoring for your managers and senior engineers, shows the org believes in career progression, gives you a chance to positively influence a new manager prior to them moving into a position of greater authority or influence.
  • Does it make more sense to augment your staff more quickly with contractors or interns for specific roles? If utilizing interns is a viable alternative to bolstering your work force, then great! Give them challenging and meaningful work so that they want to come back and work for you afterward. It’s a great way to kickstart that recruiting flywheel.

There is substantial investment in just getting candidates in the door and through the interviewing process. The same can be said with managing interns or contractors on an ongoing basis. If your org can’t handle that additional work load along with the responsibilities already on your plate, then it might be time to re-think your forecasts.

It’s not just about hiring engineers

Planning for growth isn’t just about how many engineers you need and how many you can realistically hire. There has to be a framework to support the people you bring in.

  • What changes must be made to your leadership staff to accommodate the growth? Do you need more managers? Does your current management staff own the proper knowledge or experience to lead a larger organization, which inherently has different challenges?
  • Do you have sufficient manpower to train your new hires while still making progress against the road map?
  • Do you need to consider creating another level of leadership to accommodate expansion? Perhaps you don’t need more managers, but rather team or technical leads to act as a buffer for more of the day-to-day activities. If there are changes or additions to be made, make sure those are fed back into your headcount estimates. Keep in mind that if you promote a more senior engineer into a lead role, you will lose some or most of their productivity, and they will most likely be replaced by someone either more junior or less familiar with the environment.
  • Will the infrastructure, facilities and HR processes & tools support a significant increase in headcount? If not, who owns making sure those grow along with the organization?
  • If there is an increase in projects along with headcount, do you have sufficient capability and staffing to accommodate the management of those projects?

Once you’ve answered these questions, ask yourself again, is your headcount ramp realistic? If not, what are you going to do about it? It might be time to gather your information into a coherent argument based on the numbers and deliver the tough message to senior management that the forecasted work load just isn’t reasonable. Otherwise, happy hunting!

“Rock Stars”

While this isn’t a post about hiring specifically, I’ll add a word about hiring exceptional people. “Rock stars” don’t just exist at the most senior levels. Juniors who come in with a great fire & attitude are at least as valuable, since they may have a longer life span within the organization, have a fresh perspective, and may be a bit more malleable. Regardless of their skill level, every person in the organization needs to be continually challenged and given growth opportunities. If you can’t cover that, then don’t hire them. There’s too much investment in hiring, training and coaching to make that mistake.

Happy Dance! It’s Performance Review Time!!

I love performance review time. People assume I’m crazy when I say that. Oftentimes, as an Individual Contributor (IC), it’s the one time each year when there’s a focus on what you’ve accomplished over the past year. As a manager, it’s incredibly satisfying to look back and realize just how much your team has delivered.

I completely understand that reviews can be stressful. Typically, I get that knot in my stomach when I don’t exactly know where I stand in terms of my performance. Some people freak out because they aren’t being objective about a flaw and don’t see it as an opportunity for improvement. The combination of those can lead to people assuming they won’t receive a raise, they’ll be demoted, maybe even lose their job. It’s a dangerous and unproductive way to approach something so potentially charged as a performance review.

There are many different ways to lighten the emotional and intellectual load of reviews. Just search for how to write a performance appraisal online and you’ll get so much information back that it’s overwhelming. I stick to a few simple things that don’t require much effort but allow me to really enjoy this time of year.

Prepare All Year

Ongoing preparation makes filling out a performance review so much simpler and less stressful. Otherwise, it’s like cramming for an exam in school, except the stakes are your career progression.

  • Keep a record of what you’ve accomplished. I use a ‘fuzzy folder’ in email, both for myself and for my directs, containing highlights (delivering a project or taking a leadership role in some way) as well as constructive feedback and instances where I or my directs have had… challenges. It gives me a balanced retrospective of performance and it makes it much easier to identify and write feedback on significant events from the past year.
  • Insist on goals. Ideally, IC goals will be built around the goals and values of the company and the organization. But even if those aren’t available or well-defined, it’s possible to create meaningful S.M.A.R.T. goals around making your environment better, saving the company money, growing your skill sets or many other categories. As a manager, identify these categories for the IC and have them create their goals so they have more ownership in the successful completion of them. As an IC, gain your manager’s support for the goals you’ve created and then revisit them frequently so you can make sure your performance stays on track.
  • Use your 1:1s wisely. Whether you’re a manager or an IC, use regular 1:1s throughout the year to ensure that there are no surprises during the discussion portion of the review. I use a regular 1:1 doc so I have a record of the discussions throughout the year, and so I can remember my deliverables. My directs are responsible for filling them out and sending them to me the day before our meeting so I have time to come prepared to make it as beneficial a discussion as possible. It really does help- especially if your 1:1s are infrequent.

Providing Written Feedback on Yourself

  • Be as objective and balanced as possible. Remember that no one is perfect, and include both strengths and areas for improvement, even if it isn’t requested. Your manager ought to be gathering feedback from your partners, customers and peers, not all of whom will have purely positive things to say. It’s a pretty uncomfortable discussion when an IC’s review is completely glowing; everyone has blind spots or holes they need to fill. Your forward-looking goals and development plan also won’t support and drive your growth as much as it should if your ego gets in the way.
  • Don’t short-change yourself. Providing balanced feedback also means that you should cover the positive aspects of your year. Major deliverables, times when you showed leadership, went above-and-beyond… they should all make it into your review. I strive for a 60/40 split between positive and constructive points, both when I’m reviewing myself and my directs. It’s always nice to look back at your review and read about what you’ve done right every now and again.
  • Be quantitative in support of subjective topics. Any time you address a ‘soft’ skill (communication, organization, etc), make sure you include examples in support of your claims. Metrics are the best (can’t argue with numbers!), but if that’s not possible it’s still better to give slightly anecdotal evidence that can at least be followed up on.
  • Take your time. Provide as much feedback about your performance as you feel necessary. You’re selling yourself through your review, and the amount of time and thought you put into it directly reflects on the ownership you have in your career. Or at least that’s how I feel about it. 🙂 Even with the ongoing preparation above, I typically spend about 6 hours writing my self review- about an hour per page.
  • Stay focused. Agree on the message you would like to convey in each paragraph, section, etc. and then stick to it. It makes it easier to give feedback as a manager, and it helps guide the discussion of the review itself.

Providing Written Feedback on Your Directs

  • Avoid matching length. As a manager, receiving a self review that’s just a few sentences long is depressing. We all want our people to show that they’re invested in their careers, of course. If an IC submits a short review, take the opportunity to set an example by providing more feedback. If you have the opportunity, pass the review back to the person and ask them to put a bit more thought into it and re-submit it.
  • Avoid matching tone. Be objective to ward off being emotional in reviews. Most people invest a lot of themselves into their careers, and people who have had a challenging year can become fairly defensive, or even offensive. Keep the tone of your responses consistent and non-confrontational so you can focus on improvement. Use facts and anonymous quotes from peer and customer feedback to support your message.
  • Minimize the surprises. You should be using regular 1:1s to ensure that there are no surprises come review time. Sometimes, however, you may receive new constructive feedback from someone from out of the blue. If that’s the case, make sure you state that in your write-up so that it’s on record.
  • Be firm and direct. Make decisive statements, and stand behind your them. As a manager, you’re responsible for making decisions every day, and your credibility hinges on not being wishy-washy. Treat performance reviews the same way you treat the rest of your job. If you have the proper supporting feedback, this should be fairly easy. (also, see below, “Avoid mixed messages”)
  • Solicit balanced feedback. Choose peers/partners who will give a well-rounded view of the IC. Managers don’t see everything that goes on day-to-day, and supporting evidence from external parties helps round out feedback. Even short five-minute ‘interviews’ with people around the office are a great way to gather this input. Just be sure to send your write-up to the interviewee for approval prior to using an anonymous version in a review.

Discussing the Review

First off, I hate it when managers approach this as “delivering” a review. It automatically puts the manager in the driver’s seat and doesn’t breed collaboration or offer the IC the opportunity to own their own career. Running through a performance review ought to be a discussion. The points below apply to both ICs and managers and can promote a dialogue, rather than one person’s stream of consciousness.

  • Be open-minded. Be open to admitting you may have missed something and to changing your mind. You should still be prepared to ‘agree to disagree’ on one or two points, but make sure that you’re really listening during the conversation and that you’re being objective about the issue before accepting an impasse.
  • Be rational. Take your time and think before you speak. Don’t let the discussion devolve into an emotional match. Feel free to just say, “I feel like this is getting rather [defensive/heated/etc]. Do you mind if we come back to this part once we’ve both had time to cool down and consider it?” Just make sure that you take the time to revisit the discussion, rather than leaving it unresolved.
  • Discuss the facts. Focus on actual events whenever possible. This goes hand-in-hand with being rational. There are times when this isn’t feasible, such as reviewing 3rd-party constructive feedback or evaluating performance around the softer skills (“plays well with others”). If you can isolate those instances that could be touchy, the chat will be much less stressful. Supporting evidence for those discussions will help attenuate the situation too.
  • Avoid mixed messages. It’s a common management failing to deliver criticism wrapped in happy thoughts. We’ve all done it. As a manager, concentrate on delivering constructive feedback in a straightforward manner so everyone is on the same page. Avoid the ol’ “You’re doing great! You could really improve your communication skills, but you’ve definitely delivered some great stuff.” Either as an IC or a manager, ask clarifying questions if you’re unsure about the message being conveyed so you can reach a common understanding.
  • Allow time to digest the feedback. Just as a manager expects an IC’s review to be submitted well before the 1:1 discussion, an IC should expect to have some time to view and digest their manager’s feedback prior to accepting it. If you run into contentious places during the discussion, it may make sense to schedule another follow-up conversation a day or two later just to ensure that both people are ready to move on and focus on the year ahead. If you’re an IC, you should request this if it’s not volunteered and you feel that it’s warranted.