Marshall’s Mandates: Difficult Times As A Manager [Part 1]

Posted: Jul 18  |  By: John L. Marshall III

Our President, John L. Marshall III, continues his management rules, this time with a focus on rules to follow during difficult times as a manager.

Rule #1: Embrace chaos!

When my division at AT&T was being sold, I went to my first great boss, Raymond, and sought his advice for how to weather the storm.  He gave me some of the best advice I ever received about dealing with difficult times involving lots of change:

“You should not be worried.  You know what you’re doing and you probably know where all the treasure (and the skeletons) are buried. Embrace the chaos. Enjoy the moment. Others will see you enjoying the moment and look to you for leadership. Offer them reasonable reassurance and encouragement. The new owners will definitely want you to be on their team.” If you find yourself in a situation where your work group or organization is going through lots of change, you have the power to be part of the solution or part of the “chaos.” Even if the future is unclear or your role will likely be changing, try to view the situation from the perspective of your new manager. If she is a good one, she will recognize your value to the organization, appreciate your helpfulness, and seek your counsel in the future.

Rule #2: Don’t push your team from behind — pull them from the front.

How many times have you heard yourself say to your boss the equivalent of, “I’ve told them a thousand times to ….”?

Setting actionable expectations is a critical component of effective management. In good times, setting actionable expectations and then measuring results may be sufficient. In difficult times, it is not. If you feel as though you are spending all of your time pushing your staff to do more, spend less, be more efficient, etc. but are not seeing the results you expected, then you may be pushing too hard and not pulling enough. What is the difference?

Pushing from behind is telling your staff what they should be doing. Pulling from the front means that you are actively engaged in showing them how to do their work more effectively. There are quite a few activities that we measure in our business. Some activities are harder than others and most folks who struggle to complete the less pleasant tasks often have extremely convincing explanations regarding their struggle. You should choose to spend more time doing these harder activities yourself to provide a visible “pull” towards success. The point is that what you choose to spend your time on each day shows your staff what is important. Even if you only have a few minutes to spend on non-administrative tasks, I strongly urge you to find time to spend on clients (particularly new client development) and make that time each day or week a real priority. Your staff will notice and will reset themselves to your priorities.

Rule #3: Fear of failure is not proper motivation.

Fear of failure in a leader results in the organization not trying something new because the leader is overwhelmed with concern that the organization (i) will not be successful in the new endeavor, and (ii) will be too distracted to do what they have always done. Of course, this leads to never thinking that any possible change is worth the risk of failure.

If you are too afraid to try something because someone else is already doing a good job at it, then you leave yourself no opportunities for growth unless you come across them first.  That almost never happens. Most successful companies were not the original innovator.  They are the first to take the innovation to the next level.

Rule #4:  Sometimes the best help you can offer a struggling colleague is to improve their WORST day, not their BEST day.

In our business, we measure both activities and results. Most of the time, there is a solid and unmistakable link between activities and results.  In an effort to help a struggling colleague, we usually coach in terms of improving on each day/week/month’s activities or results. For example, at the end of a week, we look back to measure activities and results and then look to improve the next week. From my experience, if this is repeated week after week, month after month, the message begins to be lost and discouragement can set it.

One of the best bosses I ever worked with (she wasn’t my boss, but she sure was a great one!) told me that her technique was to focus on the worst day of the week and improve that the next week; focus on the worst week and improve the next month, and so on. By changing the focus to improving the worst day/week/month the message wasn’t always about improving on your best day (which can get old really quickly), but on improving your worst day (which everyone realizes is certainly attainable.

Rule #5: It is better to be right than to win.

Following this rule has allowed me to stay relatively stress free for many years in otherwise very stressful situations. One of the primary causes of stress for managers stems from a mistaken belief that they need to win in every situation. Sometimes a client, or one of your staff or even a vendor has made a mistake – maybe even a BIG mistake.  In dealing with these situations, make certain that you are judging both the mistake and the consequences in light of whether you are correcting future behavior (good idea), punishing past behavior (generally not a good idea), or simply seeking vengeance (dreadful idea).   Your position as manager means that you have to put aside your personal desires of “getting even” or punishing past behavior and, instead, focus on what will resolve the situation with the greatest benefit to the organization. Whether or not your feelings have been hurt and any personal affront you perceive you have received is largely irrelevant. You are expected to come to the best decision for the organization regardless of whether you or anyone else has received a pound of flesh.

As the manager, you almost always have all the “hand.” One of the best measures of a manager is their ability not to use their hand, even when they could do so at no risk to themselves.

In my next blog post, I will suggest a few more rules I like to use during difficult times.

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