• Phil Venables

Management 101 (+ remote working)

I have run organizations, large and small, local and remote, for many years. I have been the beneficiary (and victim) of many management and leadership approaches. From this I have developed a number of techniques I thought I'd share. I suspect you already do some, all or more of these. I’m not going to write down the anti-patterns of good management, they’re pretty obvious and mostly boil down to: if you’re an egotistical, narcissistic, a-hole then no amount of HBR articles or other topics of the day are going to stop you from creating a poor work environment. Instead let's focus on the positive patterns that in my experience have been most effective - some flavors of these seem to work for all organizations, but to work in your context might need adaptation. For simplicity, I’m going to blur the lines between management and leadership - but I do recognize they are different in many contexts. 

1. Communicate a vision - repeatedly, often and with context.  You need to be able to assert, with as little “management-speak” as possible what your team’s mission is, how it is connected to the organization’s mission and how that serves customers and society. Explain your vision (developed with your team) of how to execute and align priorities to deliver that. Connect work activities and incentives to those priorities and endlessly communicate the mission and vision. Just when you think you’ve communicated it enough then do it 10 times more.  In communicating the vision also explain the rules of the road on what behaviors you expect e.g. one global team, openness, run toward problems. Give example behaviors based on real events in your team's history. 

[Remote nuance: this communication can be done over voice/video. It is useful for each individual/team presenting any project or product update to have them contextualize that into the mission/vision. Another useful tactic is to send out communications of customer (internal or external) successes that exemplify the mission/vision]. 2. Have regular 1-1’s with your direct reports - and have them set the agenda.  Regular 1-1’s are a significant time commitment but worth it if done well. Have a structured agenda - set by your direct report. Record actions and make sure they get done as an exercise in commitment setting. For matrix organizations, consider 2-1’s but this really depends on the nature of the matrix reporting (e.g. product vs. project).

[Remote nuance: do these over video as much as possible and, if your direct report is in a wildly different time zone, do the meeting during their work day. I found it useful to group all my big time zone shift meetings into one late evening per week so it didn’t kill the whole week.] 3. Build a library of positive (emblems) and negative (shrines of failure) case studies. Keep a history of the successes and failures of your team (and over your career of managing teams). In each of these record what went well and why or what didn’t go well and why. Use these case studies regularly either verbally or in written materials. It is useful to use these in context such as at the start of a project or during an issue/incident resolution. 

[Remote nuance: for the ones that are particularly important, write them down and keep them on a team web page and encode in your boot camp materials (see later)]. 4. Have regular skip level meetings.   This is a real test of your commitment to your team vs. solely managing up or across an organization. I’d argue this is critical and there are ways to do this that create the effect without excessive time commitment. Some practices I’ve found useful:


  • Periodic, e.g. quarterly, attendance at some of your direct report’s team meetings. It’s useful for this to be structured such as a Q&A, or the team presenting to you, rather than just lurking. 

  • 1-1’s with high potential employees who are in the succession plans of your direct reports or who are running critical projects/products for your overall organization.

  • 1-1’s with significant new lateral hires in their induction process so you can inculcate culture. 

  • Hold a series of small group meetings every year across your whole organization - this can get really tough and I confess in some particularly busy times I’ve had to drop this - but in times of high change, tension or uncertainty I’ve made time to do it. The one I liked the most was what I called 6x6 meetings, that is 6 people selected from a mix of teams, disciplines and experience (so they get to extend their network) where I discuss 6 current topics tied to mission/vision and stimulate a group conversation.

  • Meet with interns in groups twice: when they start their internship and when they finish it. Tell them your career story (people love to hear how lucky most of us have been and what grit we’ve had to develop to get to where they see us - because their usual conception is that our roles were ordained and were the result of textbook career planning) and show a bit of vulnerability/honesty. 

[Remote nuance: in person group settings often yield a natural / group dialog but for remote / video you actually have to call on each person to introduce themselves and have some opening and closing comments. This technique is actually useful in person anyway to ensure participation from quieter people.]


5. Be part of some priority projects.


Another way to stay deeply engaged with your teams at multiple levels is to pick a couple of projects per quarter and be unusually engaged on those. These might not be just new products, they could be projects about improving the workflow of the team, improving diversity, hiring, or even delving into support tickets looking for hidden issues. Just be part of the project in some way - not undermining the project/team lead. When you do this it is important to explain to your whole organization why you are doing this and show your history of doing this across the whole balance of your organization. Otherwise, people will read things into your focus that are not warranted. I’ve probably learnt more about the people and the work of my team by doing this than most other tactics.


[Remote nuance: if you can travel, travel to their locations. If the team is wildly distributed then not only do this by video but also join some of the communications channels the team is using for its regular communications.]


6. Be a customer. 


Periodically put yourself in the seat of your (internal and external) customers and witness what it feels like to be subjected to your processes or tools. When you, inevitably, see things in need of improvement then champion those. I always tried to be an early adopter of products for this reason. 


[Remote nuance: remote working is in your favor here, even if you’re in the same office insist on a remote demo to see how other remote workers or customers will experience this product, tool or process first time round. It always amazed me that the in person demos huddled around a monitor require different coaching/tuition than when remote, that highlight some pretty big gaps in intuitive product design.]


7. Coaching points.


I read a lot: books, articles, blogs, tweets. Every week or so I’d send out a Coaching Points e-mail that would be my thoughts on some content I thought resonated with our mission/vision or some current challenge. Sending these with some explanation and context is important - otherwise you’re just an aggregator - and in doing so you’re also reinforcing the culture you want. 


[Remote nuance: this is inherently an electronic communication, but for remote workers and teams it’s important to occasionally solicit feedback on whether they have any content they’d like to share. Mostly, I’d have a back-log library of content the team(s) wanted to share in the coaching points.]


8. Boot camps.


Some companies do this spectacularly well for all new hires - but it is also important to run a mini-boot camp for your own team. After people have been to corporate boot camp (or extended induction, whatever you call it) it is useful to have a shorter version for your team - this could be hours or days depending on your team - and the goal is to familiarize people with the mission/vision, projects, tools, processes, structure and people so new hires (or new transfers) are more productive in less time.  


[Remote nuance: many companies typically do this over multiple sites anyway, and many new hires may be solely remote. Changing up the boot camp host/presenters to be at the smaller remote (satellite) locations is useful.]


9. Remind people not to follow the 90 day rule.


This might be one that needs most adaptation for your culture. There's a management trope that you need to make a big impact in your first 90 days. I don’t agree with this. Sure, you have to be visible/engaged and make a personal impact in your first few months and ideally chalk up a few quick wins on some significant things - but to aim, especially for senior leaders, to overly focus on a big impact in 90 days leads to knee-jerk projects without the full context of what has been tried before. You also run the risk of new hires simply espousing what they did at their last company. There’s nothing more irritating than someone new constantly harping on about “at AAA Corp. we did this and it’s amazing you guys haven’t done that”, without taking the time to discover that there might be good reasons for that, or a lot of work actually going to remedy that. Yes, bring ideas from outside (that’s why people are hired) but take some time to contextualize. 


[Remote nuance: not just for this but for many other goals, provide sole remote workers, or new hires in remote teams, with a “buddy” or even a mentor at one of the main offices or another more experienced/tenured remote worker].


10. Have “Forums” every year (or ideally every 6 months).


This was an idea I adapted from Paul Dorey. The idea is to get your team together for 1-2 days, or two mornings split over 2 days and hold a mini conference.


First, bring in external speakers either from your own organization or outside. Depending on your size/brand you can often attract some pretty interesting speakers. Asking business unit leaders to come and speak to your teams under the guise of, come and tell us what you want from us, is useful for them and exhilarating for your team.


Second, have the team update each other in short slots on project/product progress and team improvements. This is a good opportunity to have your junior people present in a relatively safe environment to hone their presentation skills. Keep an archive of materials available so new hires can peruse it during boot camp.


[Remote nuance: as with other guidance, make sure you involve other teams on video. In one prior organization in less cost constrained times we’d have a Forum in a different location every 6 months. Use modern video conference technology to accommodate virtual forums with side chat channels to encourage interaction.] 


11. Team communications. 


Have teams send around updates covering their major accomplishments and what isn’t going well and what they are doing about it. Encourage transparency by celebrating / encouraging when teams are transparent about their issues. Coach team leads on how to make these crisp and concise - every communication moment is an opportunity to improve.


[Remote nuance: task some of your remote workers, even less experienced ones, to take turns in generating these updates as a means of ensuring they are connected to the wider team].


12. Worship your goals - OKRs, etc. but don’t make them false gods.


You need to drive to results - visibly, perhaps obsessively, so. But regularly reevaluate whether those goals actually represent customer or organization success. If not then change them. 


[Remote nuance: make sure you have a great on-line process for tracking and collaborating around results as opposed to solely focusing on in person OKR/project review meetings].


13. Invite input - constantly. 


If you ask people for input they might give you it, often they won’t - especially the input or feedback you are likely in need of the most. Doing this in tangential ways is important, for example:


  • What have I not asked that I should have?

  • What are we missing?

  • What has to be true for this plan to succeed?

  • If this is such a great idea why has no one done it before?

  • Assume [pre-mortem] this all fails, what will be the top reasons it failed?


[Remote nuance: make sure on video/calls you are explicitly soliciting input by name or ask a remote team to work locally and be prepared for them to nominate someone to speak to all these points on the next video/call.]


14. Invite other people to your team meetings.


Invite peers, or people in their organization, or other more senior leaders to come and talk to your teams periodically. Make this about something e.g. a current organization priority, product/project as opposed to just a general “hear your thoughts” type of update.


[Remote nuance: mix it up, try and grab leaders that are local to your remote teams or ask them to join remotely even if they could do it locally.]


15. Make your people visible / actively promote them. 


This is way more than just mentioning your key people in updates to your leadership. In my experience this needs to be more active and structured. 


  • Let your team communicate directly with your leadership, but ask they keep you informed or copy you when they do this so you can help with their objective, and ask they seek your guidance on how to go about this if it is a contentious topic.

  • Be supportive of your leaders skip-leveling you and going direct to your team. When this happens it is tempting to feel the natural emotional reaction that you are being bypassed. In my experience this is almost always because your leadership is being respectful of your time: they know who to get the answer from and don’t need to waste your time being a request router. If you want, ask your team, to post you when this happens so you can check in with your leadership whether they thought it was handled well.

  • Some of your team will likely want to interact regularly with your leadership. You should encourage this if there is good reason for the interaction - unless it is solely a career discussion. Help them structure the interaction - if they get premature and unprepared access to senior executives - while it maybe a polite experience (most senior people are in fact quite well mannered) it ultimately reflects poorly on them and you that you didn’t marshal that interaction as an effective use of time. 

  • Over delegate. There’s almost nothing that you can’t delegate and if you have some unique skill that your team depends on you for then that’s a signal of an organization deficiency you have to fix.

  • Help your people find mentors. Ideally ones that match what they need and often what your team might need in terms of allies. 


[Remote nuance : create a bias to do this more for your remote teams than those at hub / larger locations since there are less natural opportunities to do this.]


16. Find ways to work within your personality.


We all have different styles. Some people love standing in front of a room, some people are more comfortable 1-1, some more with written or other communications. The important thing is to be yourself and adjust all these practices to fit that, otherwise it will all seem inauthentic. It might be that you can do the big team events but your preferred style is more to work with the team on specific activities.


[Remote nuance: if you’re a face to face vs. video/voice person then, sorry, you need to either figure out a way of getting comfortable with this, or more likely develop some techniques/acts that can convince others you are at home with this. Sometimes this will just come down to the discipline of making it happen.]


17. Work hard to make social events inclusive.


Not everyone likes parties/drinking. Not everyone likes off-site paint balling or go-carting. Some people are totally overwhelmed by noisy networking gatherings. It is impossible to thread the needle here and get it right for all people. But, you need to try. For example: we used to do team events where we’d have some competition, quiz or other team activity followed by an on-site or off-site gathering with food/drink but in quieter non-party like environments. 


[Remote nuance: it is hard to be inclusive for sole remote workers, except of course to invite them into town for the events, but for remote teams they can have their own local events. It’s useful for you to attend these regularly or organize them around your travel schedule.]


18. Work hard against your diversity blind spots.

Few people claim to have no biases, but of course everyone does. Many studies have shown we subconsciously bias to hire in our own image (actual image and/or personality) unless we correct for that. One way to correct for this is have a process for hiring that involves many people in your organization deliberately chosen to be representative - and to discipline yourself to believe the results; not to confirm your gut feel. Of course, it is critical to make sure the candidate pool is selected to be as diverse as possible.

[Remote nuance: for your remote team/people, make sure you actually balance your time connecting over voice or video, not just electronic messaging. I bet if you track it you’d find there are some members of your team you regularly call/video but others you e-mail or IM. Ask yourself why that is and correct for it.]

19. Get reverse mentored.


You will, especially as you get more senior, become a mentor to people beyond your organization. The mentor/mentee relationship should never be one way - just you giving advise. These relationships are also an opportunity for the people you are mentoring to teach you some things. Sometimes, it is worth selecting specific mentees for exactly this reason. Incidentally, when helping your team get mentors around the organization consider selecting a leader in a part of the organization who needs to learn the most or be convinced about some needed risk mitigation program. Their skin in the game of the mentoring relationship will cross over to other benefits.

[Remote nuance: deliberately pick some mentees in remote offices or who are homeworkers and do this by video. I’ve found remote mentoring is aided by a bit more structure, such as a roadmap of topics/agenda items and conversations triggered around career moments like performance reviews/career development planning or other events.]

20. Hire people better than you - it’s your only way to promotion.

You’ve got to continuously eliminate aspects of your role through delegation to those who are ideally better than you, at least for the activities you are delegating. If you want to get promoted but don’t have a solid successor then you will be stuck in your job. In interviewing, it is useful to involve the internal clients/teams that the new hire will be interacting with, not just so the person can be vetted by them but also if they are hired then there are people already vested in their success.

[Remote nuance: ensure your delegation process fairly allocates work or stretch assignments to all your team. When you are busy and walk the hall handing out activities or assignments you have to deliberately check yourself and think who in other locations could also do this. It also helps to remind your team regularly that you are a flawed human just like them and sometimes will hand out an assignment that should have been allocated differently. Remind the team to challenge you on assignments whether it’s “why give this to me, you could have given it to X” or “why didn’t you give this to me, I have some cycles and it’s in my core area of strength”. When people have done this to me I have tried (usually successfully!) to react positively and either change or better explain my decision.]

21. Automate everything that can be: don’t ask a human to do a job that a computer can do.

Equip people with the right tools and, above all, the tools and approaches to create more tools to automate tasks. But be careful to establish a process that each person is not just automating their specific role and building a personal toolkit - the team needs to work as a team to automate the activities of the team. When budgeting for the time or engineering capability to do this make sure to reserve an amount for small iterative improvements in existing tools (UI, reporting, workflow etc.) so that they don’t get backlogged behind the big strategic projects.

[Remote nuance: creating teams of homeworkers or remote/satellite offices to partner on development with those at the larger sites can improve tooling and teamwork.]

22. Enthuse small wins, to you they might be small but to everyone else they could be huge.

When you are constantly iterating and improving it is easy to forget to celebrate wins. I have always been impressed with Apple WWDC and other keynotes when they enthuse about some seemingly small feature, but then they explain what it took to do, how much thought actually went into it, and what difference it makes to user experience. There’s no reason why you can't do this as well - among your team but especially with your internal and external customers.


[Remote nuance: this is yet another opportunity in team meetings or other venues for remote workers to take the lead on that agenda item.]

23. Don’t forget the human things.

Finally, the golden rule, remember to treat your team how you like to be treated:


  • People are not resources, they’re people. Talk about people and budget instead collectively referring to them as resources.

  • Defend your people against undue criticism - from your own organization, vendors, partners or customers. But don’t defend them as a matter of principle if they were out of line or failed - however, if the criticism is vitriolic or in anyway inappropriate then deal with the manner of the criticism.

  • Be pleasant/nice with your team but don’t avoid hard conversations or hide your displeasure at failure or certain behaviors - just don’t blow up.

  • Recognize success in private (it is more personal) as well as in public (sets an example).

  • Tell the truth.

  • If you have to complain and gripe (assuming for good reason) then only complain up the organization - or deal with issues directly to peers.

  • Learn and watch others, you’re likely working with or for plenty of great managers and leaders.

  • Be stoical

[Remote nuance: working remotely in a crisis [slow or fast] has its own set of techniques ranging from daily 15 min check in calls [even if they’re over in 1 min] to keep everyone connected, periodic check-ins with the team or increased 1-1 frequency, re-check priorities and deadlines and see if the needs of the crisis are changing those priorities and schedules. Finally, look after yourself first. You don’t stand a chance in supporting the team and fulfilling your role if you are not getting enough downtime to be effective.]

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© 2020 Philip Venables.