Archive for the ‘Managing Talent’ Category

If you’ve ever read anything about giving feedback at work, you know that we all should be giving more of it. In particular, we should all be giving more positive feedback. And we should be giving more concrete feedback, to help people really understand what they’re good at and know exactly what they can do to get better.

But if you’re a regular person, while you most likely try to give more and better feedback, you probably don’t always hit the mark. Why is it so much easier to give specific comments when someone has messed up than when they’ve succeeded? I say, ‘the title of this slide doesn’t work for me, it doesn’t capture the main point?’ or, even better, ‘this diagram is confusing because of these three things.’ And when I like someones work, what are they likely to hear? ‘Great job! I love this!’

It’s no wonder our people aren’t growing as fast as we’d like, or aren’t as satisfied in their jobs as they’d like to be.

Yesterday, Monkey #2 gave me some very specific feedback. He was sitting on the potty, deep in thought, when he announced, ‘Mommy, I love it when you take us a bath.’  Tired, responding to the spirit of the comment if not his exact words, I replied, ‘I love you too, honey.’ ‘No, Mommy,’ he insisted, ‘I love it when you take us a bath.’

So there. This was not some general ‘great job’ but a concrete, specific piece of feedback intended, I’m sure, to make sure that I continue giving him his baths. And guess who ‘took’ him a bath tonight?


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Efficiency at what cost?

This morning, I was making lunch, putting dinner in the slow cooker, feeding the monkeys and making a grocery list. I was doing it all at once because I needed to get us out of the house quickly because we were out of coffee. The combination of trying to do too many things and not having my morning cup made me slightly cranky, rather impatient, and not such a great mom. There was no time for play. There was no time for fun. There was only time to keep moving.

This situation reminds me of what’s going on in offices across the country these days. It looks like people are trying to do as much as possible, all the time, while at work. Layoffs, an insecure business environment, and uncertainty about exactly how long this recession will last means that most companies are trying to do more with less, which puts stress on their employees. And just like I had to do without my morning coffee for far too long this morning, many people are working harder than ever while enjoying fewer office perks, smaller bonuses and even reduced salaries.

Just as I’m not as patient at home when I’m trying to do too many things at once, I’ve realized that I’m not as good of a leader and manager when I’m trying to do too many things at work. I don’t have time to just chat with folks and learn about what’s going on in their lives. I forget to make time to inquire about where folks want their careers to go and help train them to accomplish new things. And I’m not as easily reachable when someone wants to talk.

At home, I do have the luxury of deciding not to do something. This morning I should have skipped making dinner. There are other ways to procure food come 6 PM. But at work, I can’t just not make that client call, or attend that presentation. And I shouldn’t. But we all need to remember to carve space into our workdays to pay attention to people, talk to them in focused and non-focused ways, and maintain a fun and playful atmosphere. If we don’t we’ll find ourselves out of the recession having lost our great teams – or having alienated them so much that they jump at the first chance to leave.

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Last week we were living in Whine Country. All week the monkeys were super whiny, and they’d freak out over basic issues.


One day they came home from school bawling. I sat with them on the couch and tried to talk to them about what happened. “Daddy ripped my fig bar,” was all I could get out of them. Later I learned that Mr. Daddy was trying to get them to share the one bar they had left over from lunch. And they didn’t want to share it. So they cried the whole way home from school. Both of them.


By Thursday I’d pretty much had it. After powering through bedtime, I sat down at the computer and Googled ‘whiny tantrum three year olds.’ No surprise, a number of sites had suggestions.


After reading a few, I started to get annoyed. Here I was trying to figure out what was wrong with the monkeys, and all the online resources were about how I could behave differently. This annoyed me. After all, I’m not whiny. Why did I have to change (ok, so maybe I’m a little whiny.) But really, this was about them, not me.


After reading about 100 posts recommending me to just say ‘I can’t hear you when you whine,’ I found one that made sense. Yes, it involved saying ‘I can’t hear you when you whine,’ but it surrounded that tidbit with a bit more context.


Kids don’t whine to be annoying, it said, they whine to get what they want. If you give them what they want, they’ll continue to whine. It reminded me to not get angry or frustrated. To try a tactic for a couple of weeks before giving up on it. And to make sure I’m specific about both the behaviors I want to get rid of and those that I want to encourage. Finally, it reminded me that I need to be constantly praising them when they talk in an appropriate tone of voice.


I printed out the page and talked the strategy out with Mr. Daddy. We agreed to try it the next day. On Friday we spent the day together, going out for pancakes, to the zoo, to the park, and to an art show at the preschool. We had a great day. And we were able to keep a handle on the whining, even when the monkeys were tired.


By Saturday night, we’d noticed a big change. Despite a night of throwing up and tummy aches the boys had both been whining less and were starting to be fun to hang out with again.


My reaction to all the parenting advice I’d been reading was not unlike the reaction some managers have when they’re trying to get their people to improve. When your people aren’t performing up to your standards, you start to wonder what’s wrong with them. And you forget that at least in part, their behavior is a reaction to the conditions that you set up with them.


You can’t, as many people recommend online, just say ‘I can’t hear you when you whine’ and expect behavior to change. You have to set the conditions for the behavior to change, and constantly reinforce new behavior.


And even though it’s your people who aren’t performing, not you, the only behaviors that you really have the power to change are your own. As a leader, your role in the situation is similar to that of a parent. If you want a different outcome, you have change the things that you do to set the conditions for that new outcome to occur.

It’s not rocket science. But it can transport you to an entirely new universe.





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I’ve read First, Break All the Rules. I’ve taken the Strengthsfinder test twice, and the only strength I had in common each time was individualization. There are a lot of places where I don’t shine as a manager and a leader, but one thing that I naturally do well is get to know the people I’m working with to understand what they need from me. Armed with that information, I work differently with different people.

So why has it taken me this long to realize that the monkeys need different types of discipline?

Monkey #1 is sensitive and empathic. When he wants to get my attention, he hugs me, tells me that he loves me, or goes really whiny. For the most part, he’ll listen when I just ask him to behave. When he doesn’t, he seems to need second chances.

Monkey #2 is tougher. He’s a boundary pusher. He’s that typical kid in the playground who, when he likes a girl, will pull her pigtails. He needs to be told as soon as possible that what he’s doing is wrong, and get a swift time out. Otherwise he gets too attached to whatever he’s doing to stop. Once his misbehavior escalates,  his response to any discipline is a tantrum.

I guess I’ve always known that different kids need different kinds of discipline. But putting that principle into action is difficult. For one thing, they’re twins. I’m used to the same thing working for both of them. Another issue is that unlike with adults, changing the way I behave with different kids seems unfair. They don’t really get why I’m doing it, and even if I tried, I couldn’t explain it to them. It also seems to fly in the face of conventional wisdom that what kids need most is consistency.

Does it work if you consistently individualize? Guess I’ll find out soon enough.

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Management is “DOING THINGS RIGHT” while leadership is “DOING THE RIGHT THING” from The Six Domains of Leadershipby Sim B. Sitkin and E. Allan Lind.

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We went to Ikea for dinner tonight. (This time, we didn’t go just to get the monkeys to behave, but knowing that I wanted to go check some stuff out gave me a great way to keep those guys in line all day. A nice byproduct.)

After dinner, we went downstairs to get ice cream. We got the cones, but didn’t manage to get the extra cups and spoons we usually give them so they can eat their ice cream and not make a total mess. As they started to eat I realized that at 3 years old, the monkeys are actually old enough to learn how to eat an ice cream cone.

Being old enough to learn how to properly lick an ice cream cone is not a major milestone that’s likely to be found in any parenting book. But it’s another reminder that they’re growing up, and fast. 

Tonight, it was another reminder that we cling to the practices that worked when they were younger because that’s becomes the habit that we’re in. Assisted ice cream eating, sitting in high chairs at the dinner table, swinging in the baby swings at the park, and ‘bumping’ down the stairs are just a few of the things I can think of that we should probably be moving past soon. But they’ve become as much crutches for me as they are assists for the monkeys. The high chairs keep them stuck in their seats. When they bump down the stairs, I don’t have to watch them as closely (and they can carry things!). All these reasons keep me – and them – rooted in what’s comfortable instead of looking for opportunities to grow.

And to be fair, it’s not just me. Although they are getting to be ‘big boys’ the monkeys still love to be cuddled, coddled and carried – mostly by me. They like to play the baby role almost as much as they like playing the big boy role.

But there’s something exciting and fun about teaching your kids the proper technique for maximum enjoyment of ice cream with minimum melting all over your hands. And for them, there’s something exciting about developing new skills and doing things that the big kids can do. Even as we give up some of the positive benefits of old behaviors, we gain something from adopting new ones.

It’s not just our kids that we get into these patterns with, of course, it’s our colleagues, too.

It’s easy to limit someone’s growth by saying – she’s not ready, we’ll give her training wheels and then, someday she can do it on her own. It even sounds like you’re doing something nice. But you’re not. You’re limiting her growth. Because without trying, she’ll never really learn.

Often growth happens at work by accident. People get pushed into developing or demonstrating new skills and flexing new muscles when they have to – a particularly difficult project or a very busy day means that everyone has to step up and eat their ice cream without a cup. And that’s when you realize that they can. But it’s probably worthwhile to be more proactive about providing these opportunities, not just taking advantage of them when they come up.

But I am going to be so sad to get rid of those high chairs.


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I’m in a sophisticated phase of parenting called bargaining, negotiating and bribery.

I’m not proud, but I’ll do what it takes to ensure that the monkeys not only know that they shouldn’t pull their teacher’s hair in school but that they don’t actually do it.

A couple of weeks ago there was a lot of misbehaving at school. In a single day they were in and out of time out about four times each at school. I was unsure of how to handle it. But I knew that I didn’t really want to be the parent of the worst behaved boys at school. After all, our parent-teacher conference was just around the corner. So I tried a tactic I thought might work: bribery. 

At dinner, I set up the challenge: “If you can get through the day without getting into trouble tomorrow, we’ll go to Ikea for dinner.” By far, the monkey’s favorite place to go out to dinner is Ikea. I guess that’s what happens if you never take your children to McDonald’s. 

The next day I reinforced the bribe with a simple message. “There will be three rules for school today. 1) No crying when mommy drops you off. 2) Listen to your teachers. 3) Have fun. If you follow all the rules we get to go to Ikea for dinner.” For good measure, I let their teacher in on the set up. That way she could invoke the Ikea incentive if she needed to.

It worked like a charm. They were little angels at school and we had a fun dinner at Ikea. Easing my guilt on invoking the Ikea incentive was the fact that I am not the only mom at school that uses that particular motivation tool – we ran into another family eating there, too.

I was quite pleased with the result of the bribe. The problem, of course, is that I don’t really want to eat dinner at Ikea every night. This particular spate of bad behavior subsided without the need for another bribe, though, and we moved on.

Until this Monday, when the monkeys came home from school. “How was school?” I asked innocently. “Monkey #1 stepped on teacher’s toe,” reported Monkey #2. (No, they don’t actually call each other monkey). “On purpose or by accident?” I ask. “By accident and on purpose,” he replied. Turns out Monkey #1 stepped on the teacher’s toe a lot. Four times before he got sent to time out, in fact.

So I tried a new incentive – their favorite brunch place, Morning Glory. “If you behave in school all week, we can go to Morning Glory for lunch on Friday. You can have Monkey French Toast.” (Yes, it’s called Monkey French Toast. It is a delicious sugar bomb with fruit thrown in for good measure.)

I sent them to school with this great promise, only to end up with some very sad monkeys at the end of the day. See, they’re 3. And when Mr. Daddy picked them up from school, they wanted to go to Morning Glory for Monkey French Toast. They’re not really up on the days of the week and they didn’t understand that I didn’t mean tonight, I meant at the end of the week. And the end of the week looks a long way away when it’s Tuesday.

Morning Glory closes at 3, so I couldn’t make good on the promise they thought they’d heard. I talked them down, and explained everything, and they kind of got it, but not really. I had to keep explaining it and re-explaining it all week. They did behave in school, though, and we are going to Morning Glory tomorrow. 

The Ikea success vs. Morning Glory failure taught me something about incentives. The Ikea incentive works because there’s a direct correlation between their behavior and the reward. It’s timely for the way that they perceive time. The Morning Glory incentive might work for an adult, or even an older kid, but a week is too long long for 3 year-olds to wait for their reward.

The folks that I work with  are smart, overachieving people who generally do great work. We try to reward them for their work with salary increases, promotions, and recognition, but we don’t always do a great job. Often, I think, our incentives feel less like the Ikea incentive and more like the Morning Glory incentive. The connection to their particular contributions isn’t always clear. And we don’t always promote people and give them raises in a timely fashion. Of course, they don’t throw tantrums or hit me when I’ve missed the mark, but a lack of good incentives can still be a problem.

Sometimes I teach my kids. And sometimes, I learn from them.

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